I had an unexpected surprise when Greg Porter himself responded to my post about scaling in GURPS and EABA. His comments and the back-and-forth he had with David Pulver are not to be missed.

What? You missed them? Hie thee to the comments section of that thread. Read. I’ll wait. Good? OK, we continue.

But his original reply deserves more than to be buried in a comment section, so I pulled it out and replied point-by-point. There are places where we agree, and places where we don’t. My posts are indented (because I’m responding). His are in purple/bold, in the main text.

The concept [logarithmic scaling] is not new, even if not fully chart-ified in the past. Hero System is a “doubling every +3” system for things like Strength, and I think Bill Willingham’s Underground (Mayfair Games) also had a progression-based chart.

Definitely not new, but also definitely one of the best, I think, ways to approach a universal scaling for a generic system. I had wondered if setting the “number of divisions per x10” equal to the sides on the dice while rolling 3d6 would work out as generic (I was hoping that 3d10 would work out well with a 10-step per x10 scaling), but it didn’t. At least, it didn’t with the elegance of the GURPS 3d6 and 6-steps-per-x10.

There’s good/bad, optimum/non-optimum to all of these, and it often depends on what you are looking for and what the system is trying to do. DC Hero’s “doubling per +1” is indeed brutal, but probably necessary if you are going to put Batman and Superman in the same scene and not have to fill Superman’s sheet with 12-digit Strength values.

Superman is always tough, because his powers fluctuate with the writers’ needs. Being able to push planets around is going to challenge pretty much any quantifiable system. Even description-based games such as Fate will probably have some issue with that, though “as strong as the scene needs him to be” is much more tractable with a game like Fate than GURPS, with its bias towards the quantifiable.

GURPS works pretty good at the human level, but is human-oriented enough that going to superheroic levels is often a problem.

I think the log scaling that I am trying to wrap my head around (and that +Sean Punch looked at in the most recent Pyramid) fixes that somewhat – actually, I think it has the potential to fix it entirely. EABA with it’s inherently log-based chart also scales from fleas to kaiju. I haven’t internalized the system yet – still reading through it – but I have gathered that already.

And EABA has its quirks, too. It doubles every +3 for Strength and every +2 for everything else (and as designer I can tell you that took a -lot- of tweaking). And you don’t have to memorize 20 levels. If you know that each +2 is x2 and each +1 is x1.4 (or for most purposes, x1.5), then if you know a particular value it is pretty easy to scale up or down. For instance, 25 meters is a ranged difficulty of 12. What’s the difficulty at 50 meters (x2 distance), 100 meters (x4 distance) or 12 meters (x1/2 distance)? You didn’t have to memorize 20 levels or even look at the table to figure it out. The same could be said for -any- of the other games with regular progressions.

Where I think that this runs into issues is what if you approach it as “the range is 2900m?” In GURPS, for example, if I know that 20m is +6, then 30m is +7 and x100 for that is 12 more, making it +19. For EABA, each +20 is x1000, so that makes it harder. Though if I happen to know what 3m is, then I can just put that and add 20 to it. I’m sure it gets easier with practice, but “oh, it doubles each time” isn’t easy at the table, but adding or taking away zeros is, since we’re used to base10 placeholders.

GURPS’ scale is very nearly the same as yours, of course. You have +20 per 1000x, repeating, while GURPS is +6 per 10x.

It’s a small point, but I’ll stick to it: a smaller number of values until a progression repeats exactly makes it easier to play without resorting the The Chart, A Chart, or Any Chart. This is true enough for the fan base for which I write that it pretty much gets pounded into my style. And you’re talking to the guy who put transcentental equations into GURPS for the purposes of bow design, and whips out any convienient math function at the drop of a hat – since I love systems with underlying mathematical rigor because they scale well and can be tested for extremes easily.

All of that is trumped by the players and GM being able to instantly get to the “roll the dice” part. If you as designer didn’t feel that the x1000 per +20 wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have put it in – so people (and the game rules) are making differentiations based on that progression, and a lot of things seem to happen at breakpoints. You have to know that 25 is one of the points on the chart.

Actually, looking, it’s not on the chart. 23 is on the chart, which is sensible (it’s 2^4.5 power, rounded to no digits). But you need to know that it’s 23, and whether you round up, down, or nearest (EABA is not unique here) and that 23 is a unique level, but 230 is not – that’s 250. 500 is on the chart exactly, but 50 isn’t. So I’ll stick to my point here and say that people are going to want to memorize the progression, and that 6 or 7 levels per x10 is a more natural fit than 20 levels per x1000. It’s not a game-making point, but I think it’s a legitimate one.

I will disagree and say you can’t actually set x1.0 to zero and have things work out if you want to do “table math” -and- have the values be useful in game terms in relation to things like Strength rolls and the particular game’s dice conventions.

This may well be true. It really depends on how often one will do manipulation with the log of the actual value and have it matter, as opposed to just working with modifiers. If is all you ever need to know is the ratio of two lifting forces (200 lbs force is fighting 150 lbs force, that’s always 1 step away on The Chart or the GURPS progression. That will be a +/-1 bonus or penalty in either system.

If you’re going to be asking for the actual force (or distance, time, or whatever) values frequently, then setting the zero to 1.0 is going to be more important. As a game designer, one will have to pick. It should be relatively straight-forward to do one or the other.

I -think- that values are usually set to minimize the number range and math for the normal expectation of play. So, a GURPS default target size of +0 means no math operation is needed for the default target size. Which happens to be a unit of measure that is not 1.0. Setting default human size to “1” (for a +0 modifier) would means the game’s measurement scale has to go from being in yards to being in “person heights”.

As David noted, the basic scale for GURPS probably should have been 1 yard, which is the unit of hexes used (so attacking at 1-yard adjacency – melee combat – is at no penalty naturally), and a human torso is roughly one yard tall. That would probably have avoided some gymnastics. But you’ll always run into this, since (for example) the default amount of lifting power for Joe Average is not 1 lb., or even 10 lbs. It’s 20 lbs (for the basic increment of lift for ST 10), and from there, it’s ratios – where a lot scaling would work rather perfectly!

One of the reasons I’m so interested in the log scale for GURPS and ST is that so many of the quantities that GURPS relates to the ST score have ratios as the most important point. Multiples of Basic Lift define encumbrance, and HP are derived from ST, and thresholds for wounding are defined as things like HP/3, HP/2, -2xHP, and -5xHP. All of those are easily picked from a logarithmic list.

Thanks again for your considered reply. Having you, +David Pulver, and +Sean Punch discuss this stuff on my blog is ridiculous fun for me!

I love the Size and Speed/Range Table in GURPS. EABA has one too. I think both games get things right and wrong here, and since I have an idle moment, I want to say why.

What’s Right?

Where do these kinds of charts succeed? While there’s lots of small things, here are the big ones that occur to me:


Both charts (the SSR can be found on p. B550; “The Chart” is on p. 2.8 of EABA v2.01) cover the entire possible range of scaling and are logarithmic in nature. My personal experience is that this is nearly mandatory, since both gaming and real life happen on widely different scales.

This need not be frost giants and mortals, either. An aircraft carrier might well be the target of a light antitank weapon. A man might stomp on a bug. An industrial press might have hundreds – or thousands – of times the applied force capability of a human.

So something that accounts for scale is necessary.
Continue reading “Getting the Size/Speed Range Table Right and Wrong”

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +Benjamin Loomes, lead developer of Syrinscape, a program that enables playing thematic background sounds and music to enhance the tabletop roleplaying experience. We spoke for a bit less than an hour, and he gave me a pretty detailed walk-through of the program. We spoke about Pathfinder-native content, as well as more generic sounds.

In any case, here’s the interview!
Text Transcript
Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. This evening we welcome Benjamin Loomes – who is from Syrinscape – which
was designed to create background sound and music for in-person tabletop
That being said, this is
part of a continuing series of interviews for the March Roleplaying Game Blog
Association Blog Carnival. Whose topic is virtual tabletops, online gaming, or
computer enhanced role-playing.
So Benjamin thanks for
joining us this evening.
Benjamin Loomes (Syrinscape Creator): It’s a pleasure. It’s fun. It’s the middle of the day
in sunny Sydney here.
Doug: And
coming on 10 o’clock PM here in Minnesota, where it freaking snowed again here
today! Come on, really?! This is just uncalled for, even for Minnesota.
So just broadly, before we
get deeply into Syrinscape, talk a little bit about how you got into
role-playing. Clearly your interest in music stuff for the game comes from love
of the game.
What got you into
role-playing and what current games do you play?

Yes. Cool. So in about 1980 or something – it must have been a bit later than
that – when I was about 10, yeah it must have been later than that. It’s back
in the distant past.
I was 10 years old on a
camping holiday on Smith’s lake, which is above Sydney, and my parents gave me
the red box, the original red box, with the crayon that colored in the numbers
on the dice (and you wiped it off).  And
you went on a little self adventure with the cleric, who you got friends with,
and she healed you, and she died and all that stuff.
So I read that red box and
it totally blew my mind. I just really fell in love with the whole fantasy
genre obviously. I read lots of stuff, I read lord of the rings when I was
young. I’m still a bit of a sci-fi and fantasy tragic: Star Trek or Lord of the
Rings or Star Wars obviously, anything, just give it to me!
So I started playing when
I was about ten, I played as teenager, not a lot of incredibly immerse
role-playing when I was a teenager, lots of dice rolling and collecting massive
amounts of gold pieces off dragons and stuff.
And then I probably took a
bit of a break from role-playing while life took over, and Uni and all that
stuff. Maybe from 16 or 17.
Late 20s I got back into
it, just when 3.5 starting coming out – which is really great, and I fell in
love with that.
Since then we built up my
gaming group with a bunch of really creative people. I’m a composer and
classical singer and musician, so I’m surrounded by actors and directors and
writers – so we got a fantastic gaming group.
Now we play incredibly
emotional and story-driven epic role-playing games, whether it be Star Wars or
Pathfinder – we play lots of Pathfinder – Call of Cthulhu, all that stuff.
Amazing activity.
I love role-playing
because of the social aspects, sitting around the table, looking at each other,
laughing at each other, being stupid, telling those big epic stories.
Does that answer your
Doug: It
It’s funny you mention. .
. I had forgotten about the crayon – because I have a similar role-playing
history to you. I started with Dungeons and Dragons, actually, technically it
was probably Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, because I played with a friend.
Again, it was 1980 or 1981,
I was ten, I asked for it for Christmas. I think my parents got me the red box
and the blue box, the basic and expert set.
I remember sitting down
with my father, the one time he ever
played. “Here’s all the characters you can do and you got this. . . ” and he
goes “I want to be elf.” And I didn’t know that he was fairly voracious
consumer of the Tolkien books. I think that they got thrown away, but I had a really early edition of Hobbit and Lord
of the Rings paperback. Probably you know one of the first couple with the very
odd sketchy cover that was really interesting.
From what I read I remember a brownie cover which was very cool.
Doug: yes.
Exactly. So I played and whatever, but it sounds like you got a interesting
game going.
I also heard of this thing
called “The Dicestormers” to bring role-playing games to anyone who wants to
watch. Tell me a little bit about Dicestormers.
Yeah, so about 18 months ago, our gaming group – who are pretty much stagey
people whether we are salesmen or composers or directors or whatever. We just
grabbed a couple of cameras for a lark and filmed our games.
The first one we filmed was
Star Wars d6 and put it up on YouTube. It just got heaps of views, and then
straight away they started commenting and demanding more content.
And we’ve just stick the
cameras up whenever we play now, we got more cool stuff, we have four cameras
generally and a really good audio recorder, and we edit the games after.
I have a fantastic set up
at home where I have a projector that projects – a normal theater projector –
but we stick a mirror up on the roof, and it bounces the maps back on the
table. And we’ve now got 3D maps, because we have little white blocks built up
on the table, because it actually projects the cover on the top of this 3D
Doug: Oh,
And yes, we’ve been videoing. . . and it’s just gone bananas there are so many
people watching, there is about 10x people watching as minutes that go past.
For every minute that goes past this interview, 10 people are watching a minute’s
worth of video.
And we’re getting about
30,000 views a month now, and what’s fantastic about the game community is real
connectedness right across the world, people are always commenting on a videos,
and encouraging us, and picking up rules violations, and asking for more stuff.
This incredible community
has grown around us. Dicestormers, all one word if you search on YouTube, you
can’t miss us.
We’re coming up really
high: if you search for Pathfinder RPG, I think we’re like the second hit from
the top or something.
As you said it’s. . . we
almost feel like you’re modeling one of the ways you can role-play. Quite
cinematic. Quite epic. Really storytelling focused. Lots of dice and all that
stuff. Lots of stuff happens, and lots big successes and epic fails.
I feel like a lot of young
players are looking at us and saying “Wow, I’m really learning from you. Which
is really cool, and quite humbling as well. It’s such an amazing hobby,
anything we can do to make it stronger and better is good for us.
Doug: I
agree. It’s not just good for the hobby, and the more people that play and more
immersive and – popular is the wrong word – but the more people play, the more
easier it’s going to be to have the market base to have innovation within it.
If there s enough market
out there so that someone can try something, and do well enough to encourage
them to try again, you can get enough failures to get the real successes out
there. You got to try stuff: very few people are going to walk into the first game
mastering experience – sometimes even their first roleplaying experience – and
are going to go “I am a natural game master and everything I do is soaked in
awesome, all the time.”
[Benjamin laughs] You have
to have the epic fail out there as the game master, where you have six people out
there looking at you like this [mimes disbelieving look]. “What just happened?
You really want us to do that? No?”
Benjamin: We
get those on our channel, people get to see us making actual genuine mistakes.
There is a classic moment
in one of our games recently – where we actually played four games in a row on
the international tabletop roleplaying game day theme and I was GMing at like 12:30 am in the middle of the night – and
I had this remorhaz miniature, and I was like “You come over the hill, and
there’s a remorhaz there . . . and it attacks you.”
And I’m like “Oh, that
wasn’t very a. . . maybe it wasn’t there . . . can I take it off the table?”
Everyone was laughing and
laughing, it was the worst set-up for a non-dramatic battle that you could have
possibly have wanted.
So people get to see us
play, warts and all which is really cool as well.
Doug: Tell
me a little bit about. . . so you’ve got your projector, and you flash it up,
and you got this really cool set up, and that’s neat for a face to face game – but
to what extent do you use computer aids to enhance your tabletop games?
Obviously, you’re
broadcasting over the Internet, so there is something going around there with
computers – even if it’s just a proxy for a pair of eyeballs, or a audience.
What. . . do you think
that’s going to be core to the future gaming experience or do you think it’s just
kind of temporary?
Benjamin: I
think. . . apart from Syrinscape, which we’ll talk about, with the whole audio
thing which is totally computer-based.
For me, sitting at the
table, the ability to search rules and . . .  let’s go back a step actually.
In preparation I’m using a
computer lots. I’m brewing up an individual description of a monster, or had a
template applied to it. I can print out individual sheets of all my counters
all ready to go from the computer. I can bring up a rule clarification really
really fast, and that makes a big difference.
One of the things that filming
our games for the public has done is those dead spots, flat spots. I’ll look
through the book a while, and try and find the rule – no one is going to want
to watch that. The ability to do text searches on games is really fantastic,
and that’s totally computer-based, Internet-based.
The sharing of ideas
across a social media community helps us. People are pushing for what they
think might be cool, or they’re suggesting things, and it’s actually – our
gaming group has become a worldwide interaction, with everyone out there
contributing in their own way, which is really cool, and that’s totally
dependent on computers as well.
Doug: More
broadly, what do you think that that means for the roleplaying game industry –
the content creators, the marketing, or dice manufacturers? I don’t know.
As far as an industry, you
got the game guys, but do you think there is a lot of room for a healthy cloud
– to use an overused word – or peripheral support pieces, as a part of the
gaming industry?
From the very top, for a starter, it was Paizo who really got into the whole
beta test online, actually directly starting a conversation with users, rather
than delivering what the user was supposed to like, and it would be the next
thing for them to take.
Paizo really asked the
users, and extended beta test on that Pathfinder game, and developed a
community around themselves – and they basically do that every time they
release a book. They’re not just doing a pretend beta test – it certainly
appears genuine, and the ideas of the users and the community get incorporated
into their new books.
Then going to the actual
question, the thing with PDF you can publish a book or gaming content
incredibly cheaply. I’ve bought and paid for cards, printed out, of all the
monsters you can summon.
Which is fantastic,
because I barely used to summon things because it’s a pain in the butt.
Especially if you’re playing a celestial template, or augmented template, or
whatever, and I can support a tiny little publisher who went and set all of
that out correctly using the OGL – and I can give them money for the work
they’ve done.
Then you’ve got publishers
publishing physical gaming aids, like spell cards, which are fantastic, and I
used for a long time . . . plus you got apps. Most of my guys, now, when they
are casters, they got a little app on their phone that brings up all the spell
Yeah, there is a whole big
set of companies that now can survive. From the very top ones, who are using
all those online things, and smaller and smaller companies who are able to do
it on a hobby basis to support it on the costs they got.
And I think that’s really
exciting and it gives us more great stuff to play with.
Doug: It
does seem a little bit that the key to that is some kind of – whether its open
gaming or a system resource dictionary – it’s some amount of content that’s out
there for anybody to use, reuse, repackage and make some money of off it in a
unique way, without bringing the holy wrath of Paizo or Wizards of the Coast,
or someone, down on them.
Benjamin: And
that was the genius of the d20 system and that whole open gaming license, which
just happened to be when I came back to gaming, and I think that’s lucky for me
and wonderful – and that’s what Paizo, obviously forced into the situation, had
to then develop a game within that system.
There is obviously a big
crossover from people who had the concept of the OGL originally, and those
people who were in Paizo when they lost the magazines and all that stuff, so
it’s a logical continuum for them, and a gaming industry philosophy for them.
But I think it really is
the way of the future, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with D&D
Next. They’ve tried to do public trials of their rules and everything, and got
some big decisions from what they do then release-wise. That’ll be really
interesting to watch and how they sort of structure their business.
Doug: Yeah,
I was impressed. I’ve obviously been playtest leader for a couple of GURPS
books, and those playtests are like . . . my book was I think twelve people.
Tactical Shooting was twelve or fifteen. High-Tech was maybe a few more. I’ve
been participating in other Steve Jackson Games playtests where you got about a
dozen or maybe two dozen in the past playtests, but not many, and I guess that D&D
Next or 5th edition – which is “Dungeons and Dragons” I guess is
what they’ll call it – had a quarter million people or something like that.
I’d be very interested to
hear their impressions, afterwards, of the signal-to-noise ratio for a playtest
that was that broad.
[laughs] Yeah. We say on our website that Syrinscape is developed as part of a
community, the only reason it exists is because people demanded it, and
demonstrated a desire for it to go from the next level as the little thing that
it was that I had – that was a homebrew kind of thing.
The market created its own
market research, and its own clear stats about how many people were probably
interested in using it, and that helped me get the funding and financial
backing to develop Syrinscape to the next level.
It really is a user-demanded
system, and because people are so engaged in this community, they will
criticize, or complain, or write, or encourage – especially encourage. I’ve
found 95% of incredibly positive, encouraging, thankful, and grateful comments.
Every single day I’m waking up to more people thanking me for making Syrinscape,
and what it does and what I’m adding to people’s table, and it basically
Doug: I was
going to say that’s a perfect segue: what is Syrinscape? What’s it do, and why
would you write it?
That’s right, as I said earlier, I’m a musician and composer, and I love
computer games with their big thundering scores, and all their roars and sounds
like that.
We all know that if you to
a movie and turn off the sound, then the noodle kind of drains out of the
I’ve seen things where you
put different soundtracks behind the same footage, and you can completely
change the interpretation. Someone is cutting up carrots in the kitchen, and
there is nice happy music, then you think “It’s nice happy carrot cutting
music” or if you put a spooky sound behind you, the imagination immediately
paints this monster creeping up behind them, or stab them, or eat their ankles,
or something like that.
I was playing this tabletop
roleplaying game, sitting at the table, and there is no soundtrack at all,
obviously. And lots of people have done what I did, which was to start to use
computer game soundtracks that I was stealing, ripping off the games I own, or
using movie soundtracks.
And they’re pretty good,
but a lot of these soundtracks have really strong associations with particular
plot points, and I was finding the wrong music coming at the wrong time, or it
was evoking. . .  You can’t be putting on
Lord of the Rings soundtracks without being there in Hobbiton with the actual
hobbits. Are we Aragorn or are we something else?
Movie soundtracks are
written specifically, and they have rises and falls. That was working
reasonably well, so what I started doing was making 10 minute audio tracks,
which actually a lot of people are doing on Kickstarter now, where you got ten
minutes of environmental noise sort of going on, maybe with a wind loop behind
it or maybe a music track.
We found really quickly,
because you might spend an hour in a particular environment discussing the way
you’re going to skin the goblin you just killed, or whatever. You start to
notice patterns really quickly, and I was actually surprised, but if you get a
sort of [mimes bird and monster noises]. Once you’ve heard that five times in a
row you start to notice it and it starts to pull away from the table.
That’s what we are
designed to do. Human beings are designed to notice patterns. That’s really
important for our survival, and we’re really good at it.
So I sort of extended the
passages, and I was mixing them out on a sequencer, Q-bass, so I made them 20
minutes. But that becomes a lot of work, and then you still notice the patterns
pretty much.
So I started looking
around for something that would do generative sound playback of samples. There
were a few products, some of them written in the past, but a lot of them were
abandoned, or weren’t flexible enough, the sound was dodgy, a lot of them were
too dense.
You put in a wolf and it
pretty much goes “Woof! [pause] Woof! [pause] Woof!” and you’re like “Ah!
Not being able to find
anything else, I’d done a bit of programming in the past, and I found a
programming language that seemed appropriate, and programmed my dodgy, home
version that would do something like what it did.
So of course, because it
was an online world, and I lived in a community, I just shared it. And the
reaction was just amazing, and so strong, and people really really liked it.
I haven’t really explained
how it works. The reason why Syrinscape works well is, what it does . . . take an
element, okay. In fact, should I show you this on the actual interface?
Doug: Sure!
Go ahead. Yeah.
Benjamin: This
is Syrinscape in a bar fight, and I need to turn the volume up so I can hear

A lot of the way this
works is that things are subtle: I’ll use this one, [the sound of breaking
glass can be heard].
What it will do, this
smashing glass element, will just play a sound every now and then, it picks up.
I’ve got a whole lot of samples in there of various different smashes, you need
kind of about 10 or 20 [laughs, more smashing noises], and as it plays back
it’ll actually pick up one of those sounds, it’ll pick up one of those sounds,
put it out in the 3D spectrum in surround sound, at a randomized distance that
I can set up, and it will play that sound.
That little element will
sit there playing, and you can turn on grunts and shouts as well, and it will
just sit there playing. All of these elements add up, eventually, to what you’d
have in a movie as sound design.
If there is a bar fight
going on: You might have someone whimpering under a table, you might have the
sound of people chatting, so that’s all the elements of the sound design. They
are all completely dynamic. All completely randomized, you’ll never hear the
same sound twice and it will just keep going and going and going.
Now you don’t have to turn
those on and set all those. So over here, on the second panel, are presets, and
it will set up this mixer where sliders are moving.
The music will start in a
certain place, and it will just play the fantastic sound of a bar fight in the
background, until you are satisfied.
On the right hand side
you’ve got one shot sounds, which sounds you can actually set off on a sound
board, like this sound [makes a dull thump], which are all punches sounds. Or
this one, which I like of course: The Wilhelm Scream, which every game
absolutely needs.
There are a lot of spells
here. But the main point of Syrinscape is. . . let’s say you’re in the
Witchwood . . . you just click that,
that’s all the clicking you have to do. Syrinscape will just slowly transition
though, and everyone can try this. It’s free to download and everyone can play
with the top two sound sets.
It’ll just sit there and
keep playing, and every now and then a distant roar or growl or whatever. It
won’t fill up the whole room with lots and lots of sounds, but just be really
really subtle.
So we’re about to have a
bugbear battle, so we click on the bugbear battle sound set. And then suddenly
we’re in a battle and the music will play, there we go, that’s a bit louder.
It’ll just sit there as well, you don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to
touch it. I really don’t want to take any attention away from the games or the
Let’s say we’re in a
spaceship, we’re bringing out [space lasers and ships can be heard in the
background]. That’s cool. I don’t know how that’s coming through the speakers,
but it’s coming through over here.
Doug: It
sounds vaguely Star Wars-y.
You can have thunderstorms, all sorts of stuff like that. Does that make sense?
Doug: It
does. It’s something where you’ll do a couple of presets, or pick some presets
that someone has done for you, and it creates some background ambiance to help
set the mood.
That’s right. It just runs in the background, and is putting on that movie
The music that you get,
which plays every now and then, and all the background wind, which is kind of a
continuous bed of sound, and also those individual events that occur every now
and again like distant roars, or wolf howls, or crash of thunder, or goblins in
the distance, smashing stuff up, or whatever you need.
So that’s it. That’s
Syrinscape, it’s available on PC, Mac, and Android tablets and iPads as well,
so people can try it out on all those devices.
Doug: That’s
pretty cool. So I was wondering, in terms of the overall theme of what we’re
talking about this month, do you see a web-based or client-based version of
this in the future?
Benjamin: So
yes, we built it in the unity engine – it can work in a whole lot of different
contexts, there is a web-browser version, we’ve had a lot of people telling us
lately that we should be integrating it with the online gaming systems, because
there are some solutions. . . Roll20 for instance you can play tracks off Soundcloud
and stuff like that.
They’ve sort of got a free
player kind of thing, with integration of premium content in their business
model. This is the same sort of thing.
You download the player
for free to run within a few games, and if you want to buy more stuff on top of
that, you can do that. Integration into one of these devices makes a lot of
sense in the future.
At the moment it is built
primarily for my tabletop game, but it makes absolute sense online. You have it
on a tablet and you can feed it through a mixer.
Doug: Sure.
It just seems like it would be almost a perfect – and we’re talking in Google
Hangouts on Air, and Roll20 integrates perfectly with Google Hangouts, and it
seems like this would be a fairly straight forward inclusion into a Hangout
Yeah, definitely. That’s something we need to get on to.
What we’re working on at
the moment with Syrinscape is we’ve got the Fantasy player – all that content
is all set up and being built. At the moment we’re concentrating on getting our
Sci-Fi player out, which has some of those sounds that you heard there that I
And we’re looking at
getting an editor, because in my original version of Syrinscape, everyone could
build their own stuff. It’s very important on getting the community involved,
and building stuff again in this version.
That’s. . . hopefully
we’ve got a beta of that in April. Once again, we can get that whole community.
. . they can build what they want, and be contributing, and they can make it
grow as a community.
Doug: Are
you going to publish a set of Syrinscape standards? Your noise level has to be
this. You have to have this clean.
I’m just trying to figure
out how you can make sure the sound quality. . . for example, you were talking
about. . . let me finish that sentence actually.
I have a tendency to go
from one thought to another, and it makes the transcriptions really odd.
You want to make sure that
the content that is being community provided is at least at certain standard of
quality, because otherwise – fair or not – Syrinscape gets the knock for not
providing an immersive environment because somebody is doing something with
sound effects and flushes the toilet in the background or something.
Do you envision some sort
of standards set?
Yeah, totally, yeah. I think what we’ll do is we’ll greenlight.
The current concept is –
and this is open to discussion and argument amongst us – that we would probably
let you build anything you want, and that automatically syncs with your server
home online, and that means you can have it on all your devices when you log in
as you.
Then probably what we’ll
do is to be able to propose the addition of what they built to the community,
and then I think we would have people vetting them.
We also have copyright
concerns as well you know. We need to make sure people don’t just go in and . .
. people can use community commons sounds, as long as they credit them correctly
if there is an attribution license, and that’s so great to be able to pass on
that credit.
So as long as all the
sounds are edited, as you say, if the quality is good enough as you said. I
think that’s really important.
Doug: Yeah,
because otherwise I could see where:
“Doesn’t that sound a lot
like the Avengers soundtrack?”
“Yes. . . yes it does. Yes.
. . that’s going to be a problem.”
The safeguarding of IP in
digitally distributed world is difficult; especially . . . Some people don’t
get too exercised when a fifty billion dollar corporation has a song go public.
It’s a different story when having that song go public is one of 15 songs in an
artist’s repertoire, and “Oh, I’ve downloaded this great song!” Well
congratulations, that person is now eating twice a day instead of three times a
As a writer of a book that
has maybe sold 300 or 400 copies, having a few free downloads done at a couple
bucks a pop is a –  relatively speaking –
a big deal.
Technical Grappling
will never
have me quitting my day job, but for those who might wish to make a career out
of the gaming industry – although I think many gaming industry professionals
will give a word of advice, which is: “DON’T.”
It’s like joint ventures:
just don’t. You still want to? DON’T. You still want to? It’s like converting
to Judaism – you have to be convinced three times. [Benjamin laughs].
Once you get into that you
want to make sure that, yes, you want people to enjoy your product, but you
also want to make sure the artists are getting compensated both intellectually
and monetarily for the work that they put in.
Benjamin: Absolutely.
The thing is, the community on the whole is really really keen to support
innovation and things that are going to make the game better, and they want to
have a mechanism to do it.
And that’s what
Kickstarters have shown if nothing else. Once there is an idea that catches the
imagination, this community is really keen to put their money behind it. Which
is great.
I think what we’re going
to do is build a subscription model, where they become a supporter and they get
access to absolutely everything that they can possibly get access to. And we
get to have a steady stream, and know how big our base is, and adjust our
business model on the basis of that.
I think that makes sense,
and people are asking for that. People don’t want to have to go to a shop and
buy all the different bits and that sort of stuff. They just want to go “Yep. I
believe in that product and I want to make sure it still exists and we can all
keep using it.”
Doug: Right.
I see where that would go, and it’s somewhere between Kickstarter and . . . Patreon
is the other one where you’re just basically funneling money. . . it’s like
buying a subscription to a content creator.
It’s. . . .instead of
saying I’m going to buy Pyramid magazine, and I’ll buy that issue or this issue,
or that issue or Dungeon Magazine or Dragon.
I’m going to throw $10 a
month to Bob the Game Designer, and if enough people do that he’s got a secure
living doing good content. And if that content starts to be not-good, then the
subscriptions go away, and it’s a very active . . .  “Yay Capitalism! Yay!”
(If you’re an Austin
Powers fan. “Oh, we won. Yay! Hey comrades.” I need to rewatch that movie. The
first time I saw that I nearly busted a gut. I was a huge Ian Fleming James
Bond fan, and he [Mike Meyers] did such a great job of doing a homage to both
the books and the movies that . . . the first one was wonderful to watch from
that perspective. Anyways, I digress; see I told you I digress.)
So you’ve mentioned Paizo
a little bit, you’ve got some great fantasy bar fight going on. I hear that
there is something in the works, and I hear that because you sent me an email
saying “something is in the works.”
So why don’t you tell me
about that?
Yeah, so I’m a really strong believer in the Paizo model, the community base,
and the OGL concept and everything like that. I really love what’s been done
with Pathfinder, and I love the game world, and love the quality of their art.
Some sort of licensing relationship
with some of the big companies has always been obvious for Syrinscape, the big
one for us was Pathfinder and Paizo, because we feel a real connection with
their business model and philosophies.
We just approached them
and said “We have this fantastic product, we think that people need to have it
on the table and we’d really love to be able to build content for your game and
directly support Golarion, or just directly support all the monsters in the OGL
which is the Dungeons and Dragons-cum-Pathfinder monsters.”
They liked the product – any
digital product that actually turns up
and is done is a bit of a massive
achievement in this industry. There have been many attempts to produce physical
products some of which have never emerged and yeah, I basically went to PaizoCon
and asked for a meeting. Give me 10 or 15 minutes of your time.
And we set down with the
guys and said “Look at this” and they were like “Oh! That’s so cool.” They were
pushing the buttons, and making the roars, and we entered into a conversation
with them, and have agreed to build licensed content for Paizo – and that’s all
official and signed up.
So the last couple of
months have been building whole other content – which I can’t mention what it
is – but once we’re ready for release, we’re doing the final polishing for all
that stuff. Then it’ll start rolling out, and as I said, it’ll be a
subscription base, you’ll be able to get to the ever widening support for every
tabletop experience you want to get going.
Doug: I can
easily see – you can smile mysteriously, because I know you’re probably under
nondisclosure – but I can easily see areas of Golarion each having their own
theme song.
I can see starting with
the most popular monsters, whether it’s a beholder, or a remorhaz, or a dragon,
or a troll, or goblins, those guys have a certain theme song or certain noises:
the goblins getting angsty or getting angry would have a certain background
noise. You can have a troll thump thump thump.
You could really easily
see where something like a . . . you’d load in. . . I just did an interview
with the gentleman from Fantasy Grounds – Doug Davison – you could see, for
example, when you load in these monsters: a bear, 3 dire bats, and a troll, that
it brings in the bear, dire bats, and the troll sounds. And starts playing some
background music.
Yeah, integration with some of these products is really good.
Syrinscape is running as an
API at the moment. We’re just building the native interfaces, so the skin that
you saw before is just a surface controller, and there is no reason that any
other program or web device or whatever can’t control that API. Yeah.
That’s something certainly
that . . .  there have been a few chats
with a few people about it about that sort of stuff and once we find the right
match then I think that’s definitely something that should happen for sure. And
it’s really easy to do as well. The elements are there; you just need any
device that turns on the element that’s the goblin noises, and any sort of player
interacting with clicks, or automatically attached to an icon you put down on
the table, are all possibilities for the programming.
Doug: Another
fun thing that would leverage the power of automatic searching as well as some
of the speech-to-text capabilities that are found on iPhones or whatever would
be something where you’re actually at a tabletop (or online) and it’s listening
to what you’re saying. “Yes, and there are three trolls” and it hears the word
trolls and goes out to the database, comes back with crunching sounds or [makes
growling noises] or something.
Benjamin: These
are the “stupid” ideas that people come up with, and people say “oh, it’ll
probably go wrong and play the wrong thing at the wrong time” and somebody
makes the thing, and it works, and it’s like “Way cool, why didn’t I think of
Lots of people thought of
it, but only one idiot went and did
Doug: Right.
So with that in mind, let me ask: For your tabletop-enhancement environment,
what are you satisfied that exists that enhances your tabletop experience? Can
be Syrinscape, can be anything, but just as someone who is creating content to
make a better tabletop experience and by extension, a better online experience.
What’s good that you like
that’s out there already? What needs to be out there to enhance the experience,
and how do you see that evolving over time?
Mmmm. So I think I’m satisfied audio-wise because I built exactly what I
wanted. I really want Syrinscape to be a community with shared content, so we
get really great content instead of relying on one central team building stuff,
though as long as you control the quality that’s going to work really well.
What’s still lacking for
me at my table is a really useful, easy way to control the maps at the table. A
lot of the mapping programs are focused for online play which is cool. . . but
if people go and check out the Dicestormers on YouTube you’ll see that what
we’re doing at the moment with maps – and I’ve actually been using PowerPoint
to do my maps to control position and the scale, to apply grids and un-apply
grids, and then to be able to show and hide various different areas in an
effective way.
I was using MapTool, which
is amazingly, fantastically powerful, and to be able to move your digital
miniatures around so that it automatically does lighting and all that sort of stuff,
it’s really cool.
But when you’re using
physical miniatures, that doesn’t really work very well, because you’ve got to
move the digital miniature to match the physical miniature.
It takes a really long
time to do all the walls and everything in it in a program like MapTools. So
there is a lot of prep time, so whether there is a better way of sharing maps once
their built – getting excited now.
So also, when I’m taking a
map from a digital product that I own, say a module and then wanting to import
it into any program projector, the resolution is always a problem.
I absolutely love what Paizo
has done recently, where you can turn off the room numbers and hide the secret
doors. So you have a player version of the map, which I can easily project on
the table, but the resolution is nowhere near what it needs to be, it’s just
because they put in a PDF and they want to keep the PDF size down, so they lack
a higher resolution.
But the really big thing
for me, that I haven’t been able to find online at all, is animated elements to
put on my maps.
I would love to be able to
place down easily on my digital map, on my table, a fire element and just draw
an area and have it sort of burning. That’d be so coo-ool! And also a flowing
river just to designate. . . just draw right across the map and automatically
flow, that would be fantastic. Or to be able to have it snowing and wind.
I’m sort of doing things
like that at the moment, just cobbling together things, but I’d love that to be
there in the future, hopefully I’ll get fed up enough and do it.
Doug: So I
was taking a look at the Battlegrounds demo, and it has some of that. It has dynamic
lighting where you have a fire, and it flickers, and you actually see a flickering
light in two zones. The bright zone and the dim zone.
I’m fairly sure it’s got a
robust dynamic lighting module to it, it seems to be a little bit ahead of some
of the other dynamic lightning introductions.
I do know that Roll20 – I’m
not experienced with it yet – but I think it’s part of their rugged reroll
upgrade, they’ve done some neat things with dynamic lightning.
They’ve been talking about animated icons for a while. The last time I looked
was maybe a month ago and everyone saying “Well, yes, we don’t do it yet, and
it’s difficult for this reason.”
I totally understand that,
it can take a lot. . . sometimes when you have to reengineer the whole way the
graphic system works in order to incorporate something like a animated gif or
whatever, it can be really major.
I just want one of these
people to do it, and soon as they do, they’re going to go off, if I can just
chuck down fire and burns my players are going to salivate all over the table.
Doug: The
other thing that would be kind of neat, just thinking out loud: They have these
things all over the place in malls, and in our Minnesota Zoo. It’s a projector
that not just projects, it senses, so if you go [mimes a hand swipe] like this
over a projector screen, and it interacts with the images.
It would be interesting to
have such, if you’re doing it on the surface, or if you put an actual miniature
on there it can sense that. . . there is a barcode on there or something, and
if you move it, it moves the map or scales to the map.
You could have an
interactive system, you’re moving your miniatures on the table, the projector
receiver is finding out where they are, and giving it back to the GM’s screen,
so you can have hidden things or put a river here and you actually draw on the
computer screen touch screen and it shows on the map.
The Microsoft Table Surface thing did that really well, didn’t it? But there
like $20,000 or something. I want that, to take an icon or miniature with a barcode
and draw on a table and say “That’s a shadowed area or whatever.” That would be
so cool.
Doug: It
seems that the capability to not drive it. . . you’d need that special
projector. . .
Maybe you wouldn’t need a [special]
projector, you’d need a webcam, you’d need a [dumb] projector, and you’d need a
tablet that you could receive it to. You’d probably want a full computer with a
touchscreen like some of the new Dell’s. What was it? A 27” touch screen, the
Dell XPS or whatever, and you can do all that and interact with it, viscerally,
and have that experience.
I think we’re coming down
to the end – if nothing else because of the conference call I have in the
Unfortunately I can’t keep
chatting, although you’re really fun to talk to, but I always give my guests
the last word, so I’m giving you the last word:
What do you want to leave
anyone who’s watching this about Syrinscape or the future or the community or .
. . what do you want to let them know?
Benjamin: Yeah,
look: Just get involved in the community. “Make your voice heard.” It is what
drives us I think, and if any of the stuff we’ve been talking about catches
your imagination, talking about it will make it happen. Workshopping these
ideas online.
So go download Syrinscape,
it’s free, you can try it out, so jump on Facebook or Twitter and hammer me
until you get it looking the way you want it to. And we can enter a discussion
and we can argue about things.
Definitely check out the
Dicestormers, people are always saying “You guys should be known more, because
you’re heaps funny and embarrassing.” Just go on Dicestormers on YouTube and
search that out. Then yeah, make comments and pick up all our rule errors and
make jokes about us. We had someone make a special cut of one of our
Dicestormer videos the other day, because Murray’s character was chopping ears
off things and giggling in a slightly maniacal way. They made a video of just
that one slightly scary moment and we totally love that stuff. Community,
community, community.
Most of all: just game!
Get out there and game more! Because it’s good stuff, and it’s fun, that’s me.
[laughs] Fair enough.
Alright, I want to thank
you for your time.
This, just so you know, we’ll
be transcribing this and will show up in a couple of days. I want it to come
out before the end of March, so it’s in time for the Blog Carnival.
Everyone who is watching,
get out there and write posts about this stuff, because it’s part of the “community”
piece: The more people talk, and the more it’s shared, and all the different
videos. . .  You yourself should stop by
the firing squad if you haven’t already, because some of the features you’ve
just talked about, John Lammers talk about some of the things Epic Table can do
and Doug Davison walked me through Fantasy Grounds.
If you’re really into
immersive, deep, epic storytelling, Liz Theis walked me through Realm Works
which is by the same company, Lone Wolf Development, that did Hero Lab. Realm Works
is this huge, scripting, story-driven, mind-map, relationship web. You can do
mapping, you got all this stuff you click on it to share with players. It’s
really neat and for people who do big stories, it’s actually technology that –
and I said this in my post about it – I expected to be unimpressed. It totally
impressed me. When I do my campaigns, I want to do it in this so it’s there and
easy and don’t have to do your prep twice. It was really kind of neat.
Syrinscape is another
capability that you’ve developed to add to the immersion experience for either
people at a table, and hopefully, eventually, people online as well. Thank you
for your time!
Thank you for having me!

There are five days remaining in the RPGBA Blog Carnival for March 2014!

The topic is VTTs, Online Gaming, and (by extension), computer gaming aids.

There’s lots to talk about here. My post from earlier this week, where I actually discuss my experiences with Fantasy Grounds, formed after interviewing +Doug Davison , was quite widely read.

So: do you have personal experiences with VTTs and gaming online? What do you like? What do you NOT like? What features are the bare bones inclusion of what you feel are a minimum feature set for a VTT? What is a nice-to-have that content creators fuss over but really, in the end, doesn’t help boost the experience?

Inquiring minds want to know. So write it, post it, and share!

If you need grist for your mill, check out the comments in the original post, as well as the Firing Squad interviews carried out on this topic.

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +Doug Davison , President of SmiteWorks, the company that owns and develops Fantasy Grounds.  We spoke for a bit more than an hour, and he gave me a pretty detailed walk-through of the program. We spoke a lot about Pathfinder, which seems darn near fully implemented in Fantasy Grounds, but talked a lot about GURPS support – and in between this interview and its publication, I received and accepted an invite to play with a group for six hours, using Fantasy Grounds to play a GURPS Banestorm campaign.

In any case, here’s the interview!

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening, and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s
Firing Squad. This is a continuation of a series of interviews that we are
doing for the Roleplaying Game Blog Association March Blog Carnival. The topic for
this month is virtual tabletops and online gaming, and I am pleased to welcome
to the firing squad Doug Davison from Fantasy Grounds. Thank you for joining us
this evening.
Doug Davison (Content Creator of Fantasy Grounds): Thanks for having me, Doug.
Douglas Cole:
So what is your position and role in Fantasy Grounds? You’re the Lead Developer I believe?
Doug Davison:
I’m actually the President, we’re a two-person company, basically. We both do a
little bit of development, John Gregor is the other developer, and he’s been
kind  of taking over the lead development
role lately, and I’ve been managing the contracting – getting new contracts in
and taking over the web. And some development. Whenever time permits.

Douglas Cole:
Excellent. So how long has Fantasy Grounds been a thing? When did it first go
Doug Davison:
It first went live in 2005, if I remember correctly. It was developed
originally by three gentlemen out in Finland. We purchased the company from
them in 2009. I acquired the company, and then brought John in, and we were
both community members at that point in time.
We were users of the
software in a sense, and we were both developers of software by trade, so we
found how easy it was to extend the product, and to make it customized and we
saw what it needed to be. And John had actually written a Dungeons and Dragons
4th edition rule set for it and I had written some Star Wars Saga
edition rules set for it.
We just kind of on a whim
made a offer to them, and acquired the company and we’ve had it sense.
Douglas Cole:
Excellent. The question that I was going to sort of ask was what lead you to
developing VTT, but since it was already sort of extent, what was so compelling
about it that you wanted to form a company and acquire it yourself?
Doug Davison:
I think it was the extensibility of it. To see how powerful the setup was, to
get in and make our own content.
John had come in and he
had done a lot of work from other virtual tabletops. There is one called
Kludgeworks, I think it’s still out there. We had both looked at Maptools and
the other tools that were out there, and just from a user perspective we both
gravitated towards Fantasy Grounds at some time. I think it was the look and
feel, it was very well polished, I think it was well-designed, and well-planned
from a architecture point of view. As a software developer it just fit very
well for me.
Douglas Cole:
It’s the extension of the rules, you mentioned that your partner had done
Dungeons and Dragons, and you had done Star Wars. Is this something that you
really have to be a coder to extend, or can Joe Blow get in there and make a
rules set?
Doug Davison:
To make a rule set you absolutely do have to be a coder to do much substantial.
If you’re going to take a basic rule set that basically only needs a few tweaks
here and there and add some extra functionality or customize one aspect, you
can kind of go out there and see how those things were done in the past. Lots
of trial and error basically.
I would say to do one from
scratch you would absolutely have to be a coder. XML is kind of used to lay out
the graphics. So a lot of times people will reskin it and they won’t have any
coding background. They’re just able to open up the XML files, see how things
are laid out – we have a lot of documentation and a lot of support for other developers
and artists to go in and modify it.
Douglas Cole:
Okay. Talking broadly about virtual tabletops and gaming aids, what do you
think that the most important features are in
general for
…so what are the best and worst features of a virtual tabletops?
Doug Davison:
I think different people look for different things in virtual tabletops. We
even see that from one rule set to the next rule set.
Some systems really focus
heavily on movement on a tactical grid or combat, it’s all about the automation
or knowing where your character is in relation to the other characters,
monsters, NPCs, and so forth. Some systems, like Call of Cthulhu, are more
story driven, so you want a better focus on being able to do handouts for the players
to set the mood, see the tone with them within the game so that kind of drives.
So that’s one of the
things I really like about Fantasy Grounds. I saw it had the capability to do
most of those things for a each player.
Setup is really important,
you have to be able to setup and run quickly. Ideally you should be able to run
it from the seat of your pants if you want to.
Or, if you are the type of
GM that prepares long things in advance you should be able to prepare those
I think it kind of caters
to Fantasy Grounds specifically because it caters to lots of those different
audiences. There are other virtual tabletops that do one or more of those
aspects and it may be better than Fantasy Grounds. But I think collectively,
that Fantasy Grounds brings a lot of those functions to the table.
Douglas Cole:
So why don’t we take the opportunity to bring up a view of Fantasy Grounds, so
you can walk us through some of the coolest features.
Doug Davison:
I’m going to start off with a view of the players’ screen, from there we can
expand out.
If we were to look from
the…so this is what a player would see within the Pathfinder-compatible rule
set. So the D&D ones will look very similar, even GURPS has the kind of
same basic feel, though with different attributes and skills, maybe the
automation is different depending on what it is.
In a sense, almost every
game system you’re going to play it’s going to have a form of a character
sheet. That’s one of the things that Fantasy Grounds does very well,
especially in rules designs. There are about 25 or so rule sets out there that
are supported.
Here’s an example of where
you got your Strength, and stats or whatever and you can kind of just come in
and fill out your character values. You’ll see that it does have a little bit
of automation with the modifiers. Your modifiers change and you can kind of
change those on the fly.
You see this little dice
box here, you can actually pick it up and when you roll that dice into the chat
window this shares that dice roll with every other connected player. So here it
has the portrait of the player who rolled it, the d20 with the modifier and the
total results and you can kind of double-click on those as well and they will
roll and share it.
There are a couple of
things going on here. One is the chat window which is shared, so as multiple
players are logging in they can say things like “Let’s go” and attack and so
forth. So I think this kind of gives you a running log.
One of our community
members built a chat log scrubber.  So
this is saved to disc after each session and you can post it up at the
conclusion of their games so if someone had to bail out of the game early they
can see what happened. You can edit that out and determine if you want to share
the dice rolls so you only get the story portion is there.
Douglas Cole:
Huh. That’s really neat. One of the things that I like to do, I’ve played
Pathfinder, Swords and Wizardry, some GURPS, even some Trail of Cthulhu once or
twice, while I’m not running the game I like to transcribe. I’ll actually frequently
throw up a blog post almost within minutes of the game being over, and one of
the things that I’ll do is pull from the chat logs because sometimes people put
things in chats that are just cool, or hysterical, or whatever. That ability to
do the chat is pretty cool.
Is there a capability for
multiple chat windows?
Doug Davison:
There is not. But there is some basic support. Like if I was to go through…we
have some general kind of help commands, there is some generic commands.
You can whisper to each
other, to another character, to the GM, to both. You can do a vote, for
instance: The GM can launch and say “Are we ready to continue on?” then it
would basically prop that to each player. So if you had four or five players connected,
you could check and say “We’re all ready to proceed” after your bathroom breaks
and that sort of thing.
You can do those basic
functions that you would see in a MMO or something like that.
Then you also have a chat
window, an action window, depending on what you do you can hold a key – a shift
or alt key – and change the mode. Are you going to emote something or be out of
character and say “I need a break” then you can hold down and go out of
character as it colors it differently.
Douglas Cole:
So effectively, you’ve got multiple chat windows within the same window.
Doug Davison:
Exactly. They all go under the same window.
There is also all of your
dice rolls drop in there.
You can also see a dice
tower here in the corner. Let’s say you got some combat and some skills, if the
GM were to whisper to you and say “I want you to…” you’re trying to sneak past
a goblin, maybe you have to roll a Stealth roll, but he doesn’t want you to
know if you’re successful or not.
Let me give him some
actual ability here. So he’s got a +2 Stealth, he would drop that in the box.
It’ll say I’ve rolled a hidden roll, and I had a +2 to that and then the GM
will see he actually got a seven and he can choose to share that later on if he
wants, or let the story unfold and play out accordingly.
So as the player sneaks
past the goblin or thinks he successful at the last second the goblin swings
out with his hammer and hits him on the toe, or whatever the case may be.
Douglas Cole:
Neat. So you mentioned that it’s got multiple support: Pathfinder is a good one
to support, and you could end there, but it sounds like you have 20 or 25
systems that you could also do.
You sent me a link to a
neat demo on how to export from GURPS character sheet to Fantasy Grounds and I
will link that later. I haven’t seen the full capability of the GURPS rules
support, but it exists, so from my perspective it’s one up on many sets, which
is kind of neat.
Doug Davison:
The installs on these custom rules sets . . . whenever we’ve had a rules set that’s
been out in the community and it’s been vetted to a certain extent, doesn’t
have…it obviously can’t have any propriety content owned by publishers.
We kind of review that
before we post it up on our system. We do have a wiki linked directly on our
webpage with a list of every rule set we have supported. You click through to
that and each entry will have directions to install it and it’s seriously like
a five minute install. You download the files, put it in the right folder, and
click new campaign and you have the option to create a GURPS campaign or D&D
4th edition campaign or whatever.
Douglas Cole:
So as you do campaign creation as a game master, I happen to be working up a
campaign right now “GURPS Alien Menace,” which is going to be a mash-up of X-COM,
Monster Hunters, little bit of the second Aliens movie, kind of Dungeon Fantasy
in space: go to the alien planet, kill them, and take their stuff.
As I’m working the
campaign up, let’s say I import the GURPS rule set, as a game master how do I
do maps or NPCs or bring in…or lets going to pretend I’m going to do all of
that in Pathfinder, because you’ve got that up and it’s easy.
So how do I walk through
campaign locations or maps or whatever?
Doug Davison:
Let me switch right back to the screen share real quick, this time I’m going to
show you the GM’s view, basically.
So this one…if I can
follow that. I don’t know…I think I’m showing you the player one.
Douglas Cole:
Do you have multiple instances of the program open?
Doug Davison:
I do, actually, and that’s one of the things that’s nice for budding GMs or
people who are new to Fantasy Guards. Sometimes it takes a little bit to see what
is a player going to see when I do this operation of the game?
So here, as a example, you
can pull up any of the characters that are logged in. The players…I can see all
sort of stuff that they can. If they have a question about their character I
can see their skills and abilities and here’s examples of having content linked
that is clickable. It pulls up more information about what that skill or feat
I can create my own
character, say I want to play a playable character for a while. I would just go
in and create a new character here. Add a character. Fill out a new character sheet
and when a new player logs in, or an existing player, they can take control of
this character and then run that character.
The nice thing that you
can do from building your campaigns you can build a set of stories. I’m going
to show you a example of one of our stories which is actually a product you can
We try to support a lot of
different content publishers. Here is a example of a OGL product – Crypt of the
Sun Lord – this one is actually by the Adventure a Week folks. I don’t know if
you’ve talked to them in the past.
Douglas Cole:
I haven’t talked to them, but Liz Theis from Realm Works (from Lone Wolf Development)
mentioned them several times as really cool content creators.
Doug Davison:
They just did a Kickstarter for Rise of the Drow, and they’re working on
converting that to Fantasy Grounds as well.
But all of these screens
here are really just text. You can type whatever you want. I can come through
and edit this kind of like you would a word documents. You can add document and
say “This is a tomb” so if you’re a big prepper of if you wanted to share this
adventure later, or if you’re a content creator, you can come in and say…you
can make it look professional.
Someone else can come in
later and read all the content. You can organize your GMs notes…let’s see if
there is a adventure hub, all of these are linked to other sections of the…let
me see if I can get to…okay, here is a example of some boxed text.
So they could if they were
on Skype or Google Hangout they could read this when they got to that part – or
a combination where they click this little button and share it with the window.
It writes it out in the chat window so all the logged in players will see that.
And then you can branching
scripts and that sort of thing. If the PCs make a successful Sense Motive roll,
I’ll share this information or that information, and then with your images you
can click and pull up a image…let me shrink this down.
So here you could just
right click and share that image, and now the players will see that. I’m only
showing the one screen on my share…but that basically pops up instantly on the
players’ window. Then you can also choose to share with just individual players
by dragging the image to that player’s portrait.
For instance, if the part
was to split up and go multiple directions and the one guy walks in on a
beholder you can just share that with him.
Douglas Cole:
Surely, no one would ever split the party…
Doug Davison:
No one ever does that, but we support it if they do.
So here’s some examples,
this one is really nicely organized. If you wanted to add more content after
this section, say a image after this image, you can just type and say “I want a
new image.” Image two or whatever, give it a probably nicer name, then you go
to a list of all your images, and here is a link to the folder, so you could
just store a image you downloaded from the internet. I guess the screen share
is not going to show that one. It just pops up in there. The image instantly
becomes available. Then you just drag it, and it makes that linkable.
Douglas Cole:
Very cool.
Doug Davison:
Then when you’re ready to launch that image, you just click it, and it shows
up. And that one is…I guess it’s just a big burlap sack. I don’t know what that
particular image is.
Douglas Cole:
The inside of a bag of holding.
Doug Davison:
So here is a example, you
have a GM map. The other nice thing is you can link story entries to the map.
So here is area 6 for
instance, if you were to link area 6 to where it says six you could just hold
down the shift key and it’ll make a pushpin. I’ve got that. I’ve got seven.
I’ve got five.
Very quickly, if you
develop all your content in advance when you develop your map you can say “I’m
going to go down this hallway.” You click on it, and this is your room
description and any combats that might occur in that room. Here is an encounter
with a black bear, so in this case if you were developing this, you would
create a new encounter – a blank one – and enter in any monsters you might
You could pull that from
like a library. Here’s the list of d20 monsters that are available. It comes
with a bestiary of d20 SRD content available.
So maybe I want to do a
dire bat, so you drag that into your encounter. If your encounter is not tough
enough by default and you just assign a token…let me show you where…if I can
find a bat. This will work. That will probably look like a bat.
Drop it in there, and say
I’ve got three of those for instance, and you’re ready to have your combat
encounter. Here’s all of your stats for your NPCs, and again you can just
unlock this and type in some new…this is read-only. I’m in a module right now,
but these are clickable so your bite attack adds your modifier with a bite.
You can actually roll this
on the player directly as well. So the combat tab is where a lot of the
times…once you have your NPCs…I’m sorry, I’m hopping around a lot here. Let’s
say they had this encounter with a black bear…
Douglas Cole:
And three bats…
Doug Davison:
Then you just…when you’re ready to run that encounter you click on this button
that says “Add to Combat Tracker” it adds them in, rolls their initiative, if
you have prep and set and then you’re off and ready to go.
On the maps…let me see if
I have a map here too. I need an encounter map. Let’s see. The same thing. You
would basically position them where they are on the map…part this. And then you
could say this … he’s big.
Douglas Cole:
[laughs] This is one of those cases where it’s “How did the dragon get into a
20×20 ft room?”
Doug Davison:
Exactly. Then you’ll see here it’s kind of greyed out – that’s because he’s
invisible. As soon as he becomes visible to the players you can make him as
The same sort of thing if
you mask it, and as they move in and out of your masked area, you can reveal
parts of the map as you explore. That’s kind of the guys moving around on a
Let me put the player so I
can show you what we consider some of the coolest features. So you’ve got your
player here and here. And then when you’re ready to do this bat’s attack…I
think it’s actually…I’m going to throw out some of these goblins since we don’t
have goblins in this particular encounter.
Douglas Cole:
I love the little dead guy icon.
Doug Davison:
Yeah [laughs]. So we have basically…we’ve scaled it down a bit: there is one
Yeah. So it’s this guys
turn. Jonah’s turn. As a player I’ll show you in a second. As the GM when it
becomes the bats turn…here is a quick list of the most common things you might
do. He’s really only got a bite attack. If I wanted to see his full stats I go
here. Did he have a perception? Does he success noticing the guy in the
background. Normally I have my screen a little bit larger…
Douglas Cole:
Yeah, he rolled a 29, I think he saw people.
Doug Davison:
He saw them I guess. If you want to share that with players they can see that
in the chat window. When you’re ready to do your attack you just drag your bite
attack, drop it on the target and it’ll come back and tell you you missed or
your hit or whatever.
Let me expand this a
little more. Hopefully it’s viewable for you guys.
Douglas Cole:
Yeah, you’ve got a couple more inches on either side of my screen.
Doug Davison:
Let me make it larger than this. I’m not quite using as much real estate as I
normally do. I normally run it across two monitors is what I traditionally do.
I find that gives me lots of room.
You’ll see that the attack
was just a 12 and it automatically rolled against his Dexterity. In something
like fourth edition, this thing is a God-send for combat. Because they have all
sorts of attacks and sometimes they affect your Reflex or your AC, and the
attack is actually coded for what it’s rolling against on the target. So again
in this situation, you missed and you move on. Had you hit…let me get rid of
some more screens here.
Had you hit you hover over
the damage portion…a 1d8+4, you drop it on the character, see it increased the
damage and now he’s got 18 points of damage on him. It added 11 and I guess he
had 7 before. It allows you to automate combat very quickly.
Let me just move this guy,
I assume he can make it all that movement. As the bear moves down to this guy,
you got your claw attack or a bite attack. You can see as a hover over each one
I can pick up and roll it separately. That can be your one claw attack for
instance, or your bite attack and it’s really as you type it in.
So if I wanted to give him
a new attack, let’s say he’s got a tail attack maybe some spell that gives him
a tentacle tail or whatever. Say tentacle and use the same format – so it’s
1d6+8 and it’s actually tentacle +9.
Now as I hover over I got
a tentacle attack. I can drop that and it shares that I got a tentacle attack.
Another thing that is nice
from a GM perspective is you got your modifiers. So if for some reason it’s a
+2 modifier on the next roll for whatever reason, that same attack it’ll roll
it and share I got a tentacle attack +2, if gave me a total of +11.
Those things will add up
and it’ll give a whole series of different things you might add on for
different things. Especially like 4th edition D&D and Pathfinder
there are all kinds of things…say I’m Power Attacking and let’s say give him
another modifier or combat advantage or whatever.
It’ll give a +2 to that,
so as I add these things in he’s got a -1 from that, but a +2 from flanking so
he has a net +1. So let’s say he’s also blessed, so I’m going to add a bless in
there. Because typically you’ve got wizards in the party throwing…
Douglas Cole:
Oh sure…[crosstalk]
Doug Davison:
[crosstalk] Buffs and debuffs and all those things add up so this kind of gives
you a running total of all the modifiers on your next attack roll.
Douglas Cole:
And it looks like each little dot is an individual modifier you can look at.
Doug Davison:
And you can remove them the same way too. I load all of these up, and the GM is
looking at the same screen and he’s saying “You got all these things, you need
to take off your flank attack” or whatever and I remove it and now I have
blessed offset by my Power Attack which is a -1. So if you want to add it back
in you add your flank and when you roll your attack it should demonstrate…so
here is the attack roll. It’s basically a Power Attack, you have a -1 from
Power Attack…
Douglas Cole:
Oh, it labels it all. That’s neat.
Doug Davison:
So everybody knows how you got to your magic number. Sometimes we all
know..we’ve gamed with players who’s math doesn’t quite add up to the same
result you have.
So that kind of alleviates
that and it does it all on the fly.
The other thing that’s
nice, it looks for the keyword “And” so here is the full attack option for this
character. So it has 2 claw attacks and a bite each with a modifier and stuff
going on there.
So as you can see it’ll
pick up 3 dice and as it roll them it’ll tell me which ones hit or miss. In
this case it was a critical hit. It rolled automatically. I don’t have my
critical hit table turned on. That’s a table you can customize. It
automatically  roll on that and tell you
what the result is.
Douglas Cole:
I wonder if the GURPS rules set automated the critical hit table or not.
Doug Davison:
They do actually, I saw that there is a extension for that. So if you go to our
wiki and go to our GURPS page there is a extension with a table.
So what that will
typically look like will…to activate a module. These are the various modules I
have loaded already. You just come in and this will show you all the things
that you have installed that are compatible with this rules set.
One of the things about
Fantasy Grounds is that we had several hundred add-ons that are various
products. Some of them are supplements or settings, some of them are different
monsters, it might be a adventure that is pre-done like from Adventure a Week. Or
expedition free press has one of these in here – I think I have a default
critical hit tables I’m going to load that in.
Now you will see it added
a new little section basically within my table list. So now I got my critical
hit. Here if they roll a one through four it’ll say “Yes it is a critical hit”
or a 5 or 6 will make you roll on subsequent tables. You can have like change
tables…let me see if I can get a 5 or 6 it should roll automatically on my next
one…it’s rolling lots of ones.
Okay, here we go. I
finally got a five or six and it rolled on the subsequent table and it told me
the critical effect was a parry which occurred. You get an automatically parry
on the next attack. Here you can customize that the same way. You can make your
own list basically, any kind of table you want.
Here’s a example where I
put in Dungeon Low Level CR2 creatures, if you’re just trying to figure out
here is a random encounter table. You can just put in that you want to roll
d100, and if you roll one to six makes it 1d6 dire rats so you can make all the
tables in your game of choice, that’s functionality that’s built into every
rules set.
Douglas Cole:
So if I wanted to do that is that something that’s more graphical or something
you’ll have to code XML yourself?
Doug Davison:
No, thankfully this is something you can do directly from in the system. So if
I wanted to add a new table you just come in and “Add” and here I can say “How
many rows do you want?” I want a four row table for instance. I want a
By default it says d8, so
you can come through and say “It’s windy outside” or “It’s raining” or
“Snowing” whatever the case may be. And when you’re ready you can just say
“Roll it.” You can put in a name and call it “Weather, Randomized” a
description or whatever you want to make. This determines if you want the
result to be hidden, so as a GM if you want to roll things and not share the
result with the players. Then the GM will see it in the chat window. All the
other players won’t see that in the share window. And it’ll let you share it
out which you can always do.
Douglas Cole:
How can you change the dice? So let’s say that for example, just
hypothetically, wanted 3d6.
Doug Davison:
That’s a good question actually, 3d6…now you’re testing my ability to remember
If you keep adding
rows…let’s make this a 12. I think this is a single dice roll unfortunately. To
do a 3d6 you could do your regular 3d6, by just picking up the dice and rolling
them here. AS far as having a nice look up table that’s something that this one
is really just focusing on a single dice roll. Yeah, I think that is. That is a
good extension, I’m sure that there would be…there are a lot of game systems
now that I think about it there are a lot of game systems where you are rolling
2d6 or 3d6 or whatever.
I know we have some rule sets where you roll dice and drag it to a table lookup so that would be fairly easy for us to do as well.
Note: After the interview, Doug Davison sent me an email:

I’ve been filling out a bunch of tables for a Castle & Crusades add-on today and one of the tables is a 2D12 with a lookup instead of a straight d8, d10, d20, etc. This is actually supported in our table roller and I just didn’t realize it during our presentation. You simply add the lookup for values 3 through 18 and then include a description or note to drop 3d6 onto the dice icon. It will write the lookup result to chat log.

Here is a screenshot of dropping a 2d12 roll onto the table I referenced.

Douglas Cole:
Right. For example, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the d30 Sandbox
Companion. That is something by New Big Dragon games where you could
create…it’s almost like you can automate a entire hex crawl with d30 rolls.
I actually, automated in
Excel, very very quickly, an adventure generator. There are I think ten columns
or something like that. What’s the key NPC, what’s the trigger, what’s the plot
line, blah blah blah, it’s something like five hundred trillion combinations at
the touch of a F9 key, so it seems like maybe this would be something where,
depending on how sophisticated the die-rolling could get, you could have an
encounter generator which is a series of…it just seems like especially for on
the fly stuff, it would be possible to automate something like that. “Generate
me a encounter” and bam it would go through a series of die rolls and give you
want you need.
Could it even do that and
then automatically populate in the combat tracker the creatures that it rolls
Doug Davison:
It could. It’s really just how much automation you want to put in ultimately.
One of the things I’ve
been recently coding on is with Green Ronin has an advanced bestiary and they
just had there Kickstarter on as well. One of the things is really cool about
it is that it has templates. You have a NPC or series of NPCs and a series of
template you might want to apply to them. Like a skeletal version of a goblin
or a lich dog or whatever the case may be.
So that’s something that
there is a need for. You ‘re going to have to go through this series of rules
and steps to modify the base creature to a new creature, the way I coded up in
my own mindset, was to have one section where you drag and drop your templates
on one side, and drag and drop your NPCs in the other, and hit this button and
it spits out the new version on the bottom. So it’s creating new characters,
new NPCs, and all of that stuff on the fly.
Here you have your
encounters, here is your NPCs, here is an encounter, so the same thing, there
is a list of all these encounters.
This is something that at
one point in time we wanted to be able to have a list of this type of object
stored in here and when we hit this button, it’s going to do all of these
automatically. I’m just going to drop them all into the combat tracker.
All of these things could
be combined into one, the code is probably there it’s just calling the code.
From a programmer’s
prospective, you just create a extension in a certain format, and stick it in
the right folder, and it will load that extension in addition to the base rule
set, and you can have multiple extensions loaded too.
Douglas Cole:
One more GURPS question, do your program support hexes, or just squares?
Doug Davison:
It does, it supports hexes and squares.
Let me see if I have any
other maps here. So I’m going to pull up…this one is obviously…this is a GM
map. Let me grab a higher resolution. So this one is a higher resolution.
This is obviously square
grids, so first I’ll show you really quickly the square grids, you come into a
map you download from the internet: it obviously has a grid, but our program
doesn’t know anything about what size the square grid is, so you apply a layer
on top and there is a set grid layer.
So typically you go from
the top of one corner down to the bottom of another one, and it rolls our grid
over top of it. It’s really that simple, and then when you have your NPCs
moving around, then they scale and fit just perfectly.
The other thing you can do
too, if you want to make them larger or bigger on a curved token…
Douglas Cole:
That’s what those numbers are. One point seven grid squares.
Doug Davison:
Yeah, exactly. So can do all that sort of function pretty easily.
And then you can also
clear that grid off and you can set a different type of grid. Change grid to
hex grid. And this is going to look a little silly, so set the hex grid, maybe
it’s still 75 pixels if you can get to there. And then it rolls out and now you
got hex grids so as you’re moving around you’re inside the hex system.
Douglas Cole:
I think I saw you set facing on the bear earlier.
Doug Davison:
Yeah, I did actually. It comes with a lot of tokens built in. Like our
character tokens. If I were to use a top down token instead…let me get rid of
Jonah and replace him with the top down version of him, Jonah is going to be a
human female spellcaster all of a sudden.
Douglas Cole:
She got hit with with a polymorph.
Doug Davison:
So now, Jonah will…I drag Jonah to the map, as I mouse wheel, Jonah moves. And
you can zoom in our out. She’ll scale with it, now that I zoom in and out.
That’s called a locking token scale, and you can zoom in and out, and as I
zoom, if I want her to fit perfectly in one of those hex grids I can make her
bigger or smaller, and once I lock it, then all tokens of that size will shrink
or grow in relation to the map. So that makes it real easy to move around.
Douglas Cole:
So one thing that’s with GURPS at least, because it’s typically a one-yard hex
– and this is not all GURPS all the time. It just happens to be the system that
I think in. One of the deals though, is I wrote a book about grappling, I take
Jonah and throw him down, all of a sudden he’s two hexes long.
Is there a facility for
multiple tokens depending on posture or anything like that? Without going
through all the different choices that you just did.
Doug Davison:
I’m not familiar with one, other than you could shrink them or grow them a
little bit. So you could switch out the token, if you had two versions of the
token, and had one of them with him prone.
Douglas Cole:
Exactly! I was wondering if you could have Jonah with your top down token, your
prone token, your kneeling token, and you could just toggle between them
without having to do click drag, switch, whatever. That would be kind of
Doug Davison:
Yeah. Definitely, from a programmer’s perspective, what you would probably do
is you would make – instead of just having one token spot where Jonah is. You
see he has a single token option?
I would imagine you could
probably add a tab with all the different lists of tokens and you’d link that
to a script. You can do various things, I want the main option, to go prone,
stand, kneel, all that sort of thing. You could play around with those and link
that code up. And say, go back to the base character that token is used, switch
what graphic is rendered.
Douglas Cole:
Okay, so that would be something where if you wanted to have a table of four or
five different . . . you’d have the top down token that’s standing, got a prone
one with blood in the background or something, which would be unconscious or
dead, right click the token, pull up the token menu and boom, click click done.
Doug Davison:
Douglas Cole:
You’d obviously need to script it. That’s really neat. Honestly, this has
been…Fog of War or vision blocking or illumination or any of the classic…
Doug Davison:
What we typically have is…
Douglas Cole:
You mentioned masking earlier.
Doug Davison:
Here you go in and you’ve got your layers, it’s a layer on top. You see where
it says ‘enable mask.’ From a GM’s perspective you drop a map on it, then mask
on it, the GM can see where everything is. It’s kind of like a fogged-out
version of it. The player won’t see anything until you cut it away. As you cut
away portions, it’ll expose that part for the player.
They don’t see the same
level of detail, in the background that’s the GM’s version. In the background
they have a bit more information.
As I expose more…that was
the wrong idea to do. It takes just a second and it cuts away that part of the
map. You can also free-form cut too. We figured most of the time you’re going
to be drawing nice kind of squares, but you can hold down your shift key and do
circles or whatever the case may be, and you can expand out that way.
One of the features that
is one wish list, I know that some other virtual tabletops have, is the
lightning linked to the specific characters. So if they’re carrying torches, or
maybe they rely on knowledge about if the character has dark vision or whatever
and locked sight on doors.
We’ve opted for…what we
think is a simpler set up, you just load a map, the same as if you were playing
tabletop. There is a wall there, you character from where they are located
can’t see through that wall.
Douglas Cole:
Right. So there is a certain amount of player agency to it.
But you could also probably
link an unmasking 20 ft circle that was linked to a token.
And that would be a
cheesy, but effective way of doing a circle of light.
Cheesy is the wrong word,
it would be simplistic, but effective. You’ve got good vision up to this point,
and that would be kind of neat. Another thing that you could probably wind up
doing because I see that you got a opacity feature built into the GM map, is if
you had perfect vision for 10 or 20 ft and decent vision for 30 or 40 ft you
could probably scale down the opacity to represent penalties and stuff.
Doug Davison:
Absolutely. Let me show you real quick this is another one of the GM features
that is pretty nice.
As an example if you’re
going to set up a encounter in advance…let’s shrink this a little bit more.
Let’s say as they enter this room you want to have that famous encounter with a
dire bat and two black bears this time.
You can see on the fly I
change how many tokens there are. I’m going to preplace these in advance. Here
is where the dire bat would start in that combat encounter, and maybe in the
next room I’m picking up and dragging the token to start. So that would allow
me to load them, and preload them in, and when I come back out and delete all
my foes.
Again, when you enter that
room, it knows that this is pre-linked with that map, and that will save
between sessions. So I close off, I’ve done it the day before or whatever, I
just hit this add to the combat tracker and it automatically places them for me
where they start out on the map.
Douglas Cole:
And they are invisible.
Doug Davison:
They are invisible. What I can do in the background, again, he’s in the same
room, I can share them out and make them visible on a per-…let me see if I can
make both screens work, I’m going to make the dire bat visible so you just
click on that and it shares it. Zoom out a little bit.
Douglas Cole:
I just realized how big that dire bat was…that is a ginormous bat.
Doug Davison:
You can do it individually by turning them on or off. You can make everything
visible, or invisible.
Then the player, the nice
thing about that. Sorry, it’s a little bit more toggling when your showing the
player and GM view. The thing that the player can do is say “I want to do a
cone attack” so they’re going to do a cone…
Douglas Cole:
Ahh, built-in cone attack.
Doug Davison:
Yeah. You do that sort of stuff. You’ve got…
Douglas Cole:
Can you do different angles, I’m sorry I didn’t see.
Doug Davison:
So to start over you, say corners, you can do a cone, a circle, or a square, there
is definitely one of the cooler features, but it does it in your dice color. I
have a character with blue dice so if you had three or four players connected
it, it’ll do their effects it in their own colors.
Douglas Cole:
Cool. That is a 90 degree cone, can you do a 45 degree cone?
Doug Davison:
Right now, this is a Pathfinder one and the cones are always set…
Douglas Cole:
Always quarters. Okay.
Doug Davison:
If you have, like in Savage Worlds it has different shapes of cones in
different format. That would have to be something built into that specific rule
set to support it.
This one here, you got
those, and squares, if you’ve got something that emanates, you can set it, pick
it up and move it around where it is on the map. So if it’s a fog that drifts
or whatever, you can move it as time goes on. It’ll tell you the size in that
game system.
So the nice things, are
that you got this character, which let’s see if I have someone who has a attack
here, normally you’d use a spell, but I’ve got a fighter loaded unfortunately.
So let say they wanted to
target these three creatures. So I’m holding down control and then just
clicking on the target. Let’s say I do an acid arrow against each of those. So
it rolled an attack against each target that I had targeted, and tell me which
ones hit or missed or whatever.
When I roll my damage it
does the same thing and applies it.
If I were to look on the
GMs perspective now, there should be some damage applied. The black bear was
damaged for 6 and the dire bat was damaged for 6. But the other black bear was
missed, so no damage was applied.
So when you’re doing your
fireballs or that sort of thing, it’s very easy to target everything that
you’re going to shot at. It’ll automatically deselect the ones you missed and
you’ll just roll your damage.
The spell functionality is
something we invested a decent amount of time to. Again, to go back to your
player, Jonah, I think, is a wizard, so here you got a fireball attack, so you
do that same thing, but it’s going to do 5d6 damage and it’s a reflex save of
DC 17. I’ll do it one more time here, if I target each of those three
characters. The first thing is to make sure you’ll hit ‘em all, then you target
them – let me move those out of the way – when you roll your attack, it rolled
the dice, and it’s behind the window, but that middle bear is no longer
targeted, it made its reflex save. As I roll my 5d6 damage, it’s going to be
fire damage, so it’ll also check resistances. So if the creature had resistance
to fire, it’ll automatically deduct that for you. It takes a lot of those
minutiae out of the game and allows you to play faster. The characters are at a
different level.
Douglas Cole:
I see that your little power bar has dropped to half and the color coding.
Doug Davison:
That is an option you can turn on or off, and if you want to share it with your
players. As an option, you can come in your preferences and you can say what
level of detail do you want.
Here’s the tokens for the
GM. Do you want to show effects (you can turn them on or off)? That’s another
thing, if a spell has a sleep or dazed effect or whatever, it’ll automatically
place that as an indicator telling you that the creature is dazed or whatever.
You want to share that
with the players, you want to share the health.
Here is a tool tip, now it
will only show the health when I however over it. Here is a example, you can
just show a dot, it’ll change colors to orange or red or whatever and then off
or a tool tip. As you hover over it it’ll say “I’m healthy.” This person is an
enemy, you can change it to a bar or dot or tool tip. Heavy damage, light
damage, moderate damage.
Douglas Cole:
Cool. That’s certainly neat. I guess that’s…is there anything else kicking
around on the game that you really want to show us?
Doug Davison:
One other thing that’s really pretty neat. That gives you the basics, there is
a ton of functionally that I can talk about for hours and hours and bore
everybody to death.
But the library is one of
the things that we really think is critical.
As your building
characters – let close down a bunch of stuff here to make our screen a little
One of the things that’s
really nice is when you are building your encounters in advance, or one of your
characters gets a new level, and you want to add a new ability for instance.
I came come over here, is
it a feat? Yeah, it’s a feat. I can right-click and say “Create Item” and I can
say “Fancy Dance Move” that I just learned and describe what Fancy Dance Move
there. You can put the game description there or your notes there.
If there isn’t support in
the system already within Fantasy Grounds, that’s not a limitation, you can key
in stuff as needed, drag and drop from outside sources.
But . . . if it’s
something that’s in from the Pathfinder SRD you go to your basic rules section
and pull up your feats. There is a list of various feats, you can scroll
through, and each one of these has got the description from the SRD, what that
specific feat does and what it means when you have or don’t have it.
But you can also search,
“I’ve got a power something” as you type the first couple of characters it
narrows the list down so now I’ve got Empower Spell. Now the character has it
so in game time if they want to use it they just click on it.
That’s your basically
functionality. On equipment, it’s the same sort of thing, if you have a inventory
item and you use it.
I want to pull up a new
weapon I just bought here you can look and see different types of weapons, or I
can pull up a search and say it’s a spear so type the first couple of
characters and now…is it a long spear, short spear, or whatever. You drag it
over, it’s a lot of drag and drop functionality.
Here it has your
encumbrance, it’ll update your encumbrance for you automatically. Your basic
stats and critical modifier.
When you’re ready, if you
look on the actions, he now has two versions of a spear attack that they can
use. They can do a generic attack where it just uses there melee modifiers, or
they can do a thrown version, so you can toggle it so it’ll determine what
it’ll use. It’ll use the DEX modifier or Strength modifier.
Spells are the same thing,
you can drag and drop spells over from the library. You’ve got some of the
nicer things I think are the bestiaries, which I think help. All of your
demons. All of your dragons, giants, whatever. You have them kind of at your
fingertips with all their attacks preloaded.
Whenever you have an
encounter, like Adventure a Week guys, what they did on theirs, it’ll put a new
tab. This is my custom campaign, there are the monsters I’m running, but if I
want to see the monsters in this module, here is all the monsters that are pre-statted
out when they bought that module.
It’s the same thing if you
were to buy the PDF, they’re all pre-keyed in and this has all the same content
and save you the time for entry of having to go in and do those. Here you got
extra descriptions, here they have a strategy of what that creature is going to
do when you fight it. That’s a skeletal wolf for instances and the token,
they’ve linked it in with our tokens.
Douglas Cole:
Neat. That ties into…before I go to that last kind of question . . . so what
are you working on right now that you think is something that is future feature
(as opposed to a creature feature or maybe they are the same thing). That your
program is going to be implementing when you successfully code it?
Doug Davison:
We’ve got few things in the works and the biggest thing right now…we just made
it through a really big push that put in a ton of new features to manage your
entire party at a glance, party inventory funds, sharing experience, that sort
of automation for running a entire party of characters, in addition to the
individual character awards and so forth.
We’ve reached a good
stopping point, we’ve done a lot of consolidation of our older rule sets. We
have what we call a core RPG that’s a very basic vanilla system that you can
use to roll dice, share maps, images, tokens, that sort of thing. It’s kind of
in a game agnostic fashion, but the nice thing about it is we’ve also recoded a
number of the rule sets to build off of that one, so now we can look at adding
a special feature or function, we can add to that core rule set and it’ll
automatically roll out to each of those other game systems whenever that makes
So we don’t have to recode
it and say “What does that look like in Castles and Crusades, or what do that
look like in Pathfinder, or GURPS, or whatever.
If GURPS – and I believe
GURPS was built off of the core RPG, it was rebuilt basically to use the same
features – so if we add a town manager feature or a shop builder, or something
like that – and there are actually extensions that do that that a user has
As we add those it’ll roll
out to everything all at once.
The other thing that we’re
doing right now is we’re trying to get this all packaged up and ready to go on
Steam. So we think that…it took us about a year to go through their greenlight
process, and to get the necessary traction for them to approve it, so now it’s
been approved and greenlit.
We need to take a break from
doing enhancements just for a little while, and rack this up with Steam so we
can expand it out to the six million or so users that are always active on
Steam any time of day. Hopefully that will explode us from our user base now
that’s in the 20,000s – I think we have 27,000 thousand users – to really get
it in the living room. That’s what I’m really excited about. The Steam machines
have the option of running on your TV, and using consoles type remotes and wireless
mouse and keyboard, then people could really seriously be playing dungeons and
dragons around there living room with their old college buddies or whatever the
case may be.
Douglas Cole:
That’s actually a good point in a way, is one of the things that I really do
like about…for example, Roll20 on Hangouts, which is a system that you know we
play a lot, or Hangouts in general, is the video. You got people on the bottom
of the screen talking like you and I are talking. Is that a feature that is or
will be enabled on fantasy Grounds?
Doug Davison:
It’s one of the things that…we actually use Google Hangouts or Skype – Normally
I use Skype;  I think John uses Google
We use those same
features, it’s not integrated with the app it’s not a web application, but we
run it side by side.
I think for running
anything in virtual tabletop, any virtual tabletop you can look at, I highly
recommend getting just another monitor, if you’re running on your laptop, plug
a monitor in your laptop, so you got the extra screen real estate. I like to
keep Skype or something running on the side, and you can choose if you want
video, or don’t want video and keep Fantasy Grounds focused on the game
We felt like it would pull
us away from the automation and some of the other functions and features we
could be adding. To do something that frankly, it would come out worse than
what the professionals could do from Skype and Google. So we don’t want to
compete with them and those things are always going to be getting better, and
we don’t want to limit ourselves.
For example, let’s say we
want Google+, it’s really good right now, but who’s to say that another service
won’t come out a year later that’s better and faster and has more functions and
features and whatever else.
Right now, by having it
separate it allows people to choose what they are comfortable with.
Douglas Cole:
Sure. So you mentioned it exists on computers and is going to be available
through Steam, I assume it’s not going to be free, if I have myself and six
players, how much is it going to run me and them?
Doug Davison:
There are a couple of
different options, typically our older model was everyone needed a license, so
you would have GM licenses and Player licenses. The difference between those
two licenses were could you do content creation other than your character sheet?
If you only wanted to do
your character sheet, run your character in some combat, with some general
notes and track items that you have then the player version was your choice.
That today we have on sale
for $24, there is one license, there is no subscription. Every version that
we’ve come out with all the way to Fantasy Grounds 1 and even before John and I
took over the company, has free upgrades to the latest version that we have
available. We’ve done that since 2005, every edition, thousands and thousands of
hours of code have gone out to people who have bought it at any point in time.
The GM license allows you
to host a game, and have players connect to it. You get all the campaign
management functionality, you get the ability to create your own stories and NPCs,
pull in your own images and maps, build your own library of content. Those run
$39 right now and each person would buy one.
We do have some GMs who
have players who don’t…they don’t think their players would spring for a
service like this, or they choose to take the burden on themselves, they buy
something called an ultimate license and it’s $150, but then the players
connect for free and that way if they have…some people will do that if they
have multiple groups of players they’ll run or if they’re always inviting new
players to the game, they don’t have to worry about cost being a barrier entry
to their games.
But I will say that
regardless of whether you could talk your gaming group into playing on a VTT .
. . one of the things that when I first came to it, I couldn’t talk my local
group into playing, because I was moving from Champagne-Urbana (in Illinios)
back to Kentucky, where I grew up, and I had a fantastic gaming group in
Illinois’, but some of them just don’t have computers or they didn’t want to
play it online, so I bought Fantasy Grounds as a GM license myself, and I
connected and played with people I’ve never ever met in person – even to this
day I’ve never met them in person – and I’ll say I made the same lasting,
bonding friendships that I’ve made with people at the local gaming store.
There are a ton of users
out there, and a bunch of other players who have gamed at different times, and
all throughout the world. I’ve got people in the United Kingdom that are
playing, and Brazil, all over the world. I see people every once and a while
people from Timbuktu, that’s really a…there really is a Timbuktu, and people
really do game there.
It’s interesting to see,
and there’s tons of games out there, and Fantasy Grounds is one option, but any
virtual tabletop would be surprised to see to what degree you can really play
the game and have the same sort of experience and what better experience you’d
have in person.
Douglas Cole:
I think that brings us to the…I think you summarized it well, the future of
virtual tabletops and online gaming in general, is you’ve characterized it as
just broader. There are tons of people that are gaming. Lots of availability.
Link up to almost any game as long as you obey some basic social contract
And in a way I guess the
Fantasy Grounds has started it, but do you ever think that the publishing of
games and the gaming software will be more closely linked?
Obviously the Adventure a
Week module, where you can buy a digital adventure, and just pop right into
Fantasy Grounds, is the closest I’ve seen to that. It’s a fully implemented
Doug Davison:
That’s definitely something we see a lot of opportunity in the future.
We’ve had conversations
with the guys at Paizo and Wizards of the Coast as well. Adventures and
modulses. We’ve built a lot of those libraries of stuff ourselves. So it’s
definitely something we do with other publishers.
We’ve got 16 o 17
different publishers we do that with. So they could be something from a
adventure module or library modules are really nice. Call of Cthulhu have tons
of splatbooks type of thing, you can go through and read all about a specific
setting, maybe it’s a time or era or whatever and put it directly in the tools.
So people don’t have to have a PDF version and key it all in, or whatever,
because really keying in the data can become a barrier to playing online because
it takes a whole lot of time.
Douglas Cole:
That’s actually the next question, before I give you the last word.
It seems to me the real
barrier to entry for people who are not XML coders, would be some kind of
automated scripting tool or tools that would enable Joe User, like myself.
I’m 42 years old, I can do
some coding. I used to. But I don’t know XML. I think the last real coding
experience I had might have been visual basic.
I’m sure I could do
coding, learn how to do it, but I’ve got a little girl, and I’ve got other
things to do other than write programs.
I would love to be able to
go “Boom, Boom, Boom” and do monsters or do characters and upload maps, or have
some customized rules or I really like the new firearms rules that Hans-Christian
Vortisch published in Pyramid and wouldn’t it be nice to go “Click, click,
click, drag, go,” and remove that barrier to entry for the casual gamer.
Doug Davison:
Absolutely. That’s really got to be key, that’s where I think that Fantasy
Grounds really stands shoulders above a lot of the competition.
Especially in the areas
where we have game systems that are supported, either in the official rule sets
that we’ve developed, or with one that the community members have developed.
You get so much out of the box, where it has all that functionality. It might
not have every single feature of a game system implemented. But it will get you
up and running in no time.
If you look at that and
you look at what is it like to play that same game around a table, you don’t
need everything to be automated, and I would caution against that – especially
in the very beginning. You just need to be able to roll the dice. Even if you
were to game on a system there was no system to support for whatsoever, just
load up the core RPG and share your images and your maps and your stories, and
then the dice is still going to be..you’re going to roll the dice just like you
would around the table.
That shouldn’t really
limit you from doing that. I wouldn’t 
encourage people to look at this and say “Well, it can do all these
things in Fantasy Grounds” and the very first thing they try to do is code?
No, that’s not the right
approach, and in fact I would recommend you get a system, you look at all the
ones out there, is there a system supported that I do want to play.
I would encourage you to
play in the game system for a while or play in that sandbox because that will
also show you how things are implemented. You don’t want to start developing
your own version until you see OK, well, this works really really well in this
system. Let’s see how they did it in Pathfinder and I can see how it would make
sense here. You don’t want to jump in the deep end from the very beginning, you
want to get your feet under you to begin with and using the features that are
there, and then look and see what do I really need to expand and ask yourself
those questions as you go forward.
Douglas Cole:
As I’m contemplating my
own campaign, what I’m going to want to be able to do is, either within Fantasy
Grounds, or some other program, I’m going to want to map.
And very clearly I can
bring in a map, I can darken it up with masking, I can put a hex grid on it.
Then I’ll have to import
characters, and I know that there is a GURPS Character Assistant to Fantasy
Grounds tool which I saw online, which is kind of awesome.
Doug Davison:
That other thing is it’ll give you a blank character sheet for a GURPS
character, and you just fill in your own stats, all of those are typeable
areas. And it looks like they coded them up so you could do your 3d6 dice rolls
Douglas Cole:
Yeah. I saw that. I actually got a note – that someone logged into the YouTube
feed and left a comment – saying that an upgrade for all the different features
that you and I have been discussing are in the works for the latest GURPS
Doug Davison:
Sometimes, you’ll be amazed – and I’m always amazed at what the community
members do today, a lot of them are professional programmers, or graphic
artists, or both. This is their hobby, the development of these automated
sophisticated systems, they get as much joy out of these as they do playing the
game sometimes.
Sometimes just getting on to
the forums and saying “Hey, this would be really cool if you did that.” If they
have a audience for it, it’s amazing what people will put together.
I’ve seen people write…one
guy wrote a extension which was very very clever, someone made a suggestion on
the forum and said “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could speak in the chat window
in different languages, and all the people that knew that language on their
character sheet could read it.”
So he made something so
you could speak in Elvish or Dwarven or whatever, and you change which language
you’re talking and it writes out Elvish-looking script into the chat window if
you don’t know Elvish. And if you do
know Elvish it puts a little tag so that you know that you’re speaking in
Elvish, but you can read the text clear.
How cool is that? My mind
is always boggled seeing what people do and how creative and how talented
members of our community are. And a lot of it comes into the tool.
A lot of times…one of our
users made all sorts of stuff, he actually skinned out our 4th
edition rules set and a lot of our graphics. He’s actually created stuff and
said “Hey, this is what I’ve done for my own personal use. If you guys like it,
feel free to use it.” And so we’ve said, “Okay” and we’ve integrated it with
our system and shared it out with all of our users and now it’s a option. They
can say I want the “stone” version with its skin.
That sort of thing gets rolled
up a lot, especially if they are going to invest time developing something like
that, they just want to see it used.
Douglas Cole:
Right. The amount of money I’ll get from any one Pyramid article or my
Technical Grappling book is fairly miniscule relative to the satisfaction of
getting a good play report.
Doug Davison:
Absolutely. We do have the option, if people want to sell something. We had one
player that built…we didn’t have templates implemented, so he wanted to have
all the summon monsters in the table, so he went through and entered all the
NPCs and statted them all out. “Hey, you guys, I use this for my game, do you
think that the users would like it.”
So I said “Yeah, sure.”
And helped him get it loaded up to our store and he sells and every quarter I
send him royalties on that. So we have that option if people choose to go that
route, or if people want to share them for free they can do that too. I think
we try to cater to both audiences.
Douglas Cole:
That’s really cool. So I always give my guest the last word, and I think it’s
about wrap-up time, we’ve been chatted for a bit and I’m very interested in the
Fantasy Grounds and I’m going to have to figure out which VTT I’m going to be
using, and I know I’m going to be using one because I don’t have a gaming group
As we wrap up here, what’s
the last word that you want to give people who are interested in Fantasy
Grounds or VTTing or if you want to talk about anything gaming related (just
not religion or politics).
Doug Davison:
[laughs] I’ll avoid the religion or politics, although sometimes gaming get’s just
as heated I suppose.
Douglas Cole:
I was thinking about the same thing, yeah.
Doug Davison:
I would ultimately say that a lot of the systems you can go in and download and
try them. I would urge people to try out Fantasy Grounds, I hope that they
would. Our demo is free, they can download it and run two instances of it and
connect to each other. It’ll give them a taste of if the application is good
for them.
We also have a ton of
YouTube videos, where they can go and follow along.
I would just encourage
people to . . . if they haven’t tried virtual tabletop gaming yet to give it a
And try multiple things.
Don’t just try one game system or one virtual tabletop and say “It’s not for
me” because the experience is significantly different from us or Roll20 or d20
Pro or MapTools, each one of those environments caters to a slightly
differently audience I think. Some of them are easier to get off the ground and
running, but others have more features and you need to find the one that fits
for you and I think it’s worth doing the investment if you take a week or two
and try all the different ones before you make a decision.
But if you do join Fantasy
Grounds you’ll find that there is a very friendly community and we would be
happy to have you.
Douglas Cole:
Okay, I want to thank you for your time and joining us and the detailed
walkthrough of Fantasy Grounds. I enjoyed it.
It was good to see the
GURPS support that’s out there, and I’ll link to that to both the wiki and to
the video that you showed me where the GCA export, because honestly for GURPS
making a character is a very front-loaded expedience.
Swords and Wizardry or the
old d6 Star Wars – 5 minutes and you’ve got a character and you’re ready to
With GURPS – you can do that, but often you’re buying,
and optimizing, and then you’ve got a pretty good character ready to go, and
then you can just play.
But to go through and do
GURPS character assistant and BOOM here is a import, and you can drag and roll
dice and all that stuff is very exciting capability for front-loaded systems.
Doug Davison:
Douglas Cole:
So it’s something that I certainly learned about Fantasy Grounds, and thank you
for walking me through it, but again, thank you for your time, and as new
features or anything come out, then the Firing Squad always has a spot on the
Doug Davison:

Douglas Cole:
Thanks a lot.

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +John Lammers, creator of Epic Table, and we spoke for just shy of an hour.

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming

Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. Today we are
joined by John Lammers, the primary content creator for the virtual tabletop
EpicTable. John , thanks for joining me this evening.
John Lammers (EpicTable

Yeah, thanks for having me.
Doug: Great. This is part of a
bit of a continuing series of interviews regarding virtual tabletops and online
gaming for the Role-Playing Game Blog Association March Blog Carnival (and that
needs a much shorter name) which is involved, oddly enough, in virtual
tabletops and online gaming. I wanted to start by asking you a couple of
questions, since this is a interview it would not make sense for me to just
talk. So what led you to develop a new virtual tabletop?

John: Well actually it started
back when my friends and I were having a reunion game. It was a face to face
group that I had gamed with for many years and we’d all kind of drifted apart
and gone to live in different states.
this was a while ago, so at the time I wasn’t aware of other virtual tabletops
out there, there may have been some. I became aware of them shortly after I had
started the effort, but really I was just looking for a way to play. We had
tried playing over Skype and we just didn’t really have the toolset that we
I started to develop EpicTable and I started to see some of the other virtual
tabletops pop up. There were just things I wanted to do differently. Things I
wanted to focus on with EpicTable that weren’t really the focus of things I was
seeing out there in the market place.
Doug: So with that in mind, so sort
of two questions. One sort of personal and one more directed at your
development efforts. What led you to say…are you a software developer, did you
become a software developer or is that something you’ve been doing?
John: I had been a software
developer for years, that’s what I do professionally. I had always worked on
little side projects and things like that. It was the kind of thing where any
project, I would get going on for a weekend or two, and then it would dawn on
me “Gee, I can’t really do something like this in my spare time.” It’s not
something that just takes a couple of weekends.
I had all these series of failed personal projects due to lack of time, because
I had a day job that I liked. Then one day I was missing around with the
EpicTable idea and I found that I had been playing World of Warcraft at the
time, and I was like “I have proof that I have time to do something else” [both
I canceled my World of Warcraft account and started EpicTable.
Doug: Nothing says “I have time
like either X-Com: Enemy Unknown” or one of the innumerable MMOs out there.
quick: EpicTable, how did you come up with the name?
John: So EpicTable started out as
this horribly named thing “VXP Roleplay” which was, like, “Virtual Experience
Roleplay” and it was almost embarrassed to say when I talked to my friends
about it.
I was looking for something that was better, so I had started to look along the
lines of terminology from the games that I was playing and right about that
time, I think that the 3.5 set was coming out with their Epic Rulebook. And I
was like “Yeah, that kind of works.”
Doug: Okay. Going right into the
game part of it. So, in general, what are the best and worst features of a VTT.
if you’re designing a virtual tabletop, what are the things you want to avoid?
What are the things you want to provide?
John: It’s hard to say in a way
because the VTTs that are out there, they all have different focuses, and
obviously there are things that I see as important, and things that I’ve
consciously stayed away from.
doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something you must stay away from, or
something that isn’t good for some of the people out there.
favorite example is rules automation. EpicTable doesn’t do rules automation.
are dice rolls that you can define and there is a dice-roll builder, but that’s
about as far as it goes. It doesn’t try to automate the rules for you, and
depending on who you are that’s a strength or weakness.
me it’s a strength, because I play a lot of different games, and even the games
that are really mainstream like Pathfinder or D&D we use a lot of
houserules, my players are kind of always going off the rules [Doug chuckles].
Doug: What rails? Surely there
aren’t “rails” in a roleplaying game. [joking]
John: I had found I had started
out wanting to do rules-automation in experimenting on this thing called co-GM.
It was all based on rules automation.
I found was it was just…I didn’t have a lot of time to prep. When I wasn’t
prepped, or even if I had prepped, and my players went and did something else,
the rules-automation kept getting in my way.
need to stat up this thing, and I can’t quite do that on the fly because I
haven’t quite had the time to develop a custom feat for this thing that I want
to use, or can’t get him in the tool without defining some minimum set of
things. It made it just really hard to wing it.
one of the core values of EpicTable is that its completely prepless. You can do
stuff ahead of time, but the presumption is your going to be pulling things in
dynamically, and you’re going to be
the guy running the rules. So it’s not trying to replace the GM, it’s trying to
replace the table and the stuff off
on the table.
Doug: Right. I think it’s funny,
because I was just looking off to my second monitor.
was looking for a 90-some-odd message thread that I had. I am trying to start
my own game and that shouldn’t necessarily be hard, but you got to set the
ground rules. I’ve got some core players that are going to join me.
have written some rules: in Pyramid magazine and I have a grappling book out.
okay I want to play this game. My god, I just spent the last five years
rewriting GURPS in various ways. So which of this huge list, well not huge –
Sean Punch has a huge list of contributions. A small list, a handful.
almost everything I’ve written has been rules. Here’s a grappling rule. Here’s
a rule for breaking swords. Here’s a new rule for aiming differently. Here’s a
different rule for doing dodging. I did a whole rewrite of a fatigue system.
And I was like “Wow, I have so many of these I’m no longer playing the game as
written and I really need to do less.”
I’ve started eliminating some of my own stuff. Not because any one of them is a
bad idea, but all of them together….Dear God in heaven. [John laughs].
not necessarily a story about me, it’s more like okay let’s say someone wanted
to come up with GURPS rules support, or Pathfinder support: Say I don’t like the
way that Dexterity is only to ranged weapons. I want Dexterity to apply to all
hits and I want Strength to apply to all damage.
you have coding to do so I hope you are a scripter, or it’s easy or the
developer, yourself in this case, anticipated your rules needs.
John: I’m a developer, and I don’t want to spend my time doing
that kind of stuff. And my group is almost always playing off the books to some
extent. There is always some custom weirdness going on.
Doug: Right. In a way I suppose,
if I understand it at all, the less rules-support you build into a virtual
tabletop the better you support the Old School Renaissance.
John: Yeah, I think that that’s
true to a certain extent. Basically, if you can do it at the table, you can do
it in the virtual environment, if it’s one that has that philosophy.
Doug: So tell me a little bit
about your mission statement mentally (or if you ever wrote it down. . . I
don’t care). What was your mission statement was for EpicTable. Just tell me
what you were trying to do, tell me what you were trying to do with your
tabletop experience on the computer. You probably had a list of features you
really wanted to have. So what drove you?
John: Basically I wanted to be
the Apple of virtual tabletops, or the iPad of virtual tabletops.
wanted something that anybody could use, that was polished and easy.
there are a lot of things in EpicTable that aren’t features because they’re not
ready to be exposed to people yet. Occassionally, I get asked about chat logs.
All the text chat is actually saved in a log, but it’s not ready for
publication to the user. It’s not a done feature and one of the core values of
EpicTable is it is not a hacker’s platform. It’s not a DIY kind of thing. It’s
a finished tool. That means that that feature’s not available yet, it will be
at some point, but it’s not yet.
what you get in return for that reticence to release stuff, it’s really core to
me that you never write XML, you never write scripts, and have to place files
in certain directories; that kind of thing.
should be able to sit down with this who’s not a developer and doesn’t want to
be a developer, and doesn’t want to spend a lot of time learning the tool and
just work with it.
Doug: Sounds like you’ve written
it for the over 40 set.
John: [John laughs]Yeah, maybe.
Doug: I’m being self-referential.
I’m 42 years old. I have a kid. My time is incredibly limited and a lot of it
is spent on transpacific conference calls for work. So, when I’m going to do
gaming I want to sit down, I want to boot something up, I want it to work, I
want it to not mess with it. If I pull in a map, great. I want to go “Click,
click, click, here is a bunch of characters or whatever, and rock it.”
I don’t have time for the rest of it.
John: Right. I just didn’t want
any conversations like “How do I configure my router?” “Oh, what’s a router” or
“Take these files and put them here and restart.” That kind of stuff.
wanted to make sure that wasn’t part of the experience.
was part of it, and initially, fog of war was a huge thing for me . . . I
thought. I thought fog of war was going to be a huge huge deal and I spent a
lot of time back in 2006 writing this Ray Trace based fog of war and part of my
mission was: part one was to be the iPod of VTTs, but part two was and have the
best fog of war out there.
what I found in the course of developing fog of war was two things. There were
a lot of things I had to have before fog of war to make the environment really
part two was in the course of doing it, I didn’t really want fog of war in the
same way  that I thought I did.
thought that I wanted something kind of hyper realistic and what I found was
doing that put a certain tax on the machine itself in terms of horsepower, but
it also took a lot of my time. I had to prep the maps.
one point I remember I spent a lot of time trying to optimize the process for
marking up a map, and even planned a series of videos where I was going to have
a timer in the corner, and show how quick it was to mark up a given map.
Doug: So you realized you’d
become your own worst enemy.
John: Yeah, it dawned on me that
this wasn’t what I wanted to do as a guy running a game, and so that’s where
just most recently in EpicTable 1.2 I released my sort of revamped concept of
fog of war that’s based around this concept of zones.
really really ultra-simple, almost embarrassingly so. You basically just draw
zones on the map and hide and reveal them.
in some ways it almost harkens back to the way you used to throw a piece of
construction paper over part of the map at your table or throw a cloth over
part of the map at the table.
has the advantage of the zones sticking in place and you can flip them on and
off like a light switch. The nice thing is that when my players do the
inevitable off the wall thing like blast a hole through the wall I don’t have
to worry that they just screwed up my lighting model – I just draw a zone that
represents the area that they blasted.
Doug: I’ll give you an
opportunity to walk you through the features of EpicTable.
went to your website and walked through the quick tutorial, and to your credit,
I think you accurately described (at least what’s on the website), you click,
you click and it’s very visually straightforward piece in a user experience it
looks like.
couple of more…I did get a question, actually, from one of the people watching
sent a question to ask about cross platform support.
this something that’s straightforward to run on different platforms or PC only
or how does it work?
John: It’s Windows only. Which is
a question I get all the time at GenCon. The cheat answer is that you can run
it on Parallels. One of my guys in my gaming group is a Mac-guy, swears it runs
better on Parallels than it does Windows. Which I think is…[laughs] I think
that’s a Mac thing.
Windows only, there is no way around it. But the guys that are used to dealing
with Windows-only on Mac tend to just run it under Parallels.
Doug: Parallels is a specific emulator
John: Parallels is a like a
virtual machine for the Mac.
Doug: Okay. I’m a GURPS guy and I
was wondering if it were possible for you to do 3d6 roll under in a fairly
straight manner. I want to do this in a visual way: Can share your screen and
walk us through the program and maybe let’s do a attack defense structure. Is
that something that’s quick and easy?
John: Sure. Yeah. Let me switch
over. I think this is what you want? [shares screen]. A few things about this
so if you just want a real quick 3d6 you can click on the d6 down here at the
bottom and hit 3. You get the 3d6, sorry, I hit a 2d6 there too. Fat-fingered
can get a quick roll that way, but if you are looking for something more
interesting though, there is this dice-rolls tab and we can really quickly
build the dice roll. So if I want 3d6 I just hit that 3 times and I can name
these things so if I want this to be…
Doug: Kind of like “attack roll”
or something.
John: I can do that.
can do things like say that I want to reroll ones I just throw that in there.
Say that I want to explode on 6s I can do that. With no scripting and very
little effort I can put together a roll like that.
Doug: Is it possible to do a roll
against a target, or I guess in Dungeons and Dragons, it would be roll against
X greater than whatever… or really it’s the greater than whatever rules that
you don’t want to code?
John: Exactly. It’s…yeah. I don’t
do “hit determination” the closest thing to that is some games do “success
counting” so I can throw like…what is it. Mouseguard? Burning Wheel?
Doug: Shadowrun.
John: So you can do that kind of
thing where you do success counting and it’ll do the eval for that kind of
thing for you.
Doug: Okay. What about characters
and stuff? Is that something that…or is this literally the character sheet is
something you’d put on the table top and therefore the game doesn’t really
drive to that?
John: I can show what the
characters look like today.
the basic info that you need within this environment. His map size, the name,
you can have a separate map token and portrait. So behind here you got the
portrait bar. A lot of times what I’ll do in a role-play heavy game is I’ll
have a sort of face up portrait, and then top down map token.
 And then you have notes here you can, like in
a old school game, in that kind of thing. Keep track of your stats here that
sort of thing.
Doug: So it’s basically a word
processor, sort of an online version of a wiki.
John: Yeah. And then you can come
in here, so maybe I create myself a tab for gear, and a tab for stats and that
kind of stuff.
you get sort of a quick easy, ability to manage your character here within the
Doug: Okay, you got your tabs,
you got . . . every time I talk you lose the screen. [both laugh] Every time I
talk you lose the screen and I’m looking at myself.
you got tabs that you can create on the fly. Can you import pictures into those
tabs if you wanted to?
John: You can. One thing I’ve
cautioned people about, and I guess a feature-in-waiting here, that when you do
inline pictures I found this out the hard way, RTF (Rich-Text Format) doesn’t
compress pictures, so these end up being enormous.
for small things – if I want to throw in…not that small…throw in a little pic
like that, that kind of stuff is fine.
I found was someone right off the bat backed up one of these tabs with a full
8×11 character sheet – which is a awesome idea, but it’s just that that blows
up to a enormous size in a RTF file.
I plan to do is to strip the images out, and manage them myself, rather than
let RTF manage them.
the meantime I went in and put some things in here to help you out. If you select
a huge image it’ll warn you “Hey, this is a huge image, this may be a problem
for you, if you have a lot of players.” At a certain point it’ll say “You can’t
pull in an image that large it’ll wreck your game.”
Doug: So you just alluded to the
player thing. Every player has to have a copy of this running on their PC?
John: They do, the deal is,
though, they don’t have to have a license.
So it’s what I’ve been calling “Kitchen Table Licensing.”
you own the table it’s yours, other people can come over, sit down, play. They
don’t have to bring their own table with them. You don’t have to tell me who
they are. You don’t have to buy a certain number of players’ licenses or swap
them out or anything like that. It covers your whole group.
makes things a lot easier. It avoids the whole conversation of “Hey, do we all
want to chip in and get a bunch of licenses?” or get some license pack or
Doug: So really if I purchased
the EpicTable, downloaded it onto my computer, and I got five players I can
invite them to the game somehow?
John: Yup. Essentially…
Doug: Could you invite me to this
game? You’ve got a game running there you could send me a email or something?
John: Yeah. You go to this invite
button, and it generates a passphrase that I then mail you. There is a
copy/close thing, it’ll copy the passphrase and I can put it into the G+ window
or mail it to you or whatever and then from your end you just do “Accept
invitation,” paste in that phrase, and from then on that’s the only time that
handshake is done.
in my list, it’s in your list, and you don’t have to bother with that.
Doug: But you have to have a copy
of the game, and I have to have a copy of the game, and the networking, so to
speak, is just odne by invite?
John: Yep. All the networking in
EpicTable, all the communication goes through the cloud, so no one is the
client. You might host the game, but it’s in the sense of “host a party,”
you’re not running the server. The servers are all central, that way everyone
only has outbound connections, and the beauty of that is that you don’t have
firewall issues, router issues, that kind of stuff.
Doug: Cool. And once you buy it
do you just download free upgrades…some programs are pay by the month, some are
kind of buy it once and you’re done. So if you buy EpicTable v1.0, EpicTable
v2.0…how does that work for this one?
John: So it’s you buy it and you
own EpicTable v1.0, someday there’ll be EpicTable v2.0 when I feel like there
is enough new content to warrant that and EpicTable v2.0 will be an upgrade that
 existing owners of EpicTable v1.0 will
have some sort of deal.
Doug: So speaking of EpicTable
v2.0, which gets into a couple of questions on the present and future of
virtual tabletops and playing online, what sort of upgrades would you say would
merit a version two. What is it that you got in your mind, your works, or your
vision that says “At this point, this is EpicTable v2.0” It’s cool enough that
it’s new. It merits a new version.
John: Yeah, the kinds of things
I’ve been thinking about…the heuristic that I’ve been using for the line
between one and two:
that are EpicTable v1.0 are things that make the current feature set better. So
fog of war was something that was part of the initial EpicTable vision for quite
some time. Fog of War had to be a v1.XX feature.
of the things I’m doing surrounding the…I have this feature coming up called
“Cloud Caching” where I’m going to be taking some of the load off of the host’s
machine, with respect to image distribution. EpicTable doesn’t pass out things
head of time, everything is on the fly, it’s cached, but it means – especially
if you’re the GM – it means you’re introducing a lot of images, sometimes big
ones. Everyone’s hitting your machine, and it’s kind of a drag if you’ve got a
slow connection.
there is this feature coming up called “cloud caching” where I’ll automatically
take care of posting that up through Amazon S3 or something, so that you don’t
have that drag on your machine for distributing those resources.
a example of making EpicTable better. That’s v1.XX kind of stuff.
features are making EpicTable different
or broadening what EpicTable is, so for instance, you saw that in EpicTable
v1.0 a way to simply manage characters.
v2.0…and dice rolls are…you have a very capable builder, but you have no
ability to bring in character variables.
EpicTable v2.0, one of the things on the slate is allowing you to build dice
rolls that incorporate live character data and to manage that live character
data, probably both through a fairly general and simple EpicTable character
data manager.
also I’ve been talking to the guys at HeroLab about some sort of integration
there, so if you’re using HeroLab anyway, then why not manage your characters there and yet have all the dice rolls
appear here.
Doug: Would it be an impossible
or IP-illegal task to say: you have a user-fillable character sheet, like a
PDF, you can bring it in or…? If you have something with names and spaces and
spaces associated with the names, it may not be pretty, but you can access that
John: Yes. I think that that’s
totally reasonable.
know the . . . one of the philosophies with EpicTable is “you can use what you
instance if you’re a Pathfinder AP subscriber, it’s easy to pull in your map
images, your character portraits, that kind of stuff. It’s easy to get them
shared with your players, and naturally though the users need to think about
what constitutes fair use and that kind of thing.
keeping with the sort of ease of use kind of thing, what I would envision is
maybe you pull in a PDF of the character sheet and tell EpicTable where are the
fields. Then it takes it from there.
Doug: Right. I want to bring up
one screenshot from your website, if you don’t mind. Here, I believe, we have
the fog of war delineation of hallways and rooms. Can you see that okay?
John: Yeah.
Doug: Okay, great.
question I’m going to ask you, and I’m 
going to ask this of everybody, and this is the hard part for me, in
terms of time management.
say I have a picture or whatever and I want to bring it in and I want to use.
box delineation you’ve done here has some clear advantages in time. Do you ever think it would be
possible to pull in an image and ask it to find the open spaces, so it does
this kind of thing for you.
John: I think that that is a
possibility, to tell you the truth that is one of the things I was looking at
when I had the Ray Trace approach, is that I was looking for tell EpicTable
where are the walls. Or at least where are not the walls, so I had these tools
for doing kind of a flood-fill kind of approach to let you designate walls and
is not real trivial to do that. It gets time consuming for both of us. I’m not
sure whether that’s a route I would go.
cardinally worth considering. Let me flip over to my map a second, which is
interestingly the same map that you were showing.
you look at these are pretty clearly defined. This was done on the Campaign
Cartographer, my both was next to the ProFantasy guys that do Campaign
Cartographer one year at GenCon.
had a little bit about how they represented walls in their world, and it was
remarkably close to my internal format for designating walls back when I was
doing the Ray Trace thing. Clearly there is some opportunity there.
don’t know – I’d have to think about what do those mean, what’s the EpicTable thing to do with that
information. Is it automatically define the zones. Is it to do something else
with it?
had dawned on me that you know that the zones in EpicTable. Let me show you one
of these really quick since you’re looking at my screen anyways.
I flip over and enable fog, it looks like that. If I go to the fog layer, these
zones are like this. I can delete some of these just to show you how easy they
are to deal with. Let me turn this guy on.
Doug: How are you doing that?
You’re just clicking?
John: I can either right click
and select it from this menu, or I can control right click. Toggles it on and
off. I can resize this, everything.
me get rid of some stuff. Hide the chat. Hide the dice tray, and give us some
more room. And I can even zoom out so I can see more of the map.
the characters are here talking about whether they should listen at the door, I
can drag in a new zone and flip it on. So it’s real quick to do. Which makes me
think twice about anything that’s real automatic. The one thing I have thought
about. Are you familiar with the game Tanhouser?
Doug: No I’m not.
John: Tanhouser is a Fantasy
Flight boardgame, and it has this really cool mechanic that is for handling
line of sight that really was the inspiration for zones.
color the board different colors and if you’re on the same color as someone
else, then you two have line of sight, you can shoot each other.
are overlapping things. So if I go down here and grab this, notice it stops at
the door. If it didn’t, if it came all the way up here, then you’ve got this
notation of if this guys standing here…
Doug: … he can see everything in
that box.
John: He should be able to see
everything in this box, but also in this box, and everything in this box. Once
you start to think about these zones as potentially line of sight zones, then
it’s not a stretch to say “What if we want to limit his ability to see by the
radius of the light source he’s carrying with him.” Then it becomes another
level of complexity here . . .
Doug: That would just be a zone
that moves with the token.
John: Yeah. Exactly. Suddenly you
have lighting added to this model in a way that’s very in-keeping with the rest
of the simple no-prep philosophy, but I think would work pretty well. You know,
so that’s another thing that I’ll be experimenting with.
Doug: What I would look at doing
(in terms of my “copious” software experience) because I really do like the
zone model that you have there is if I brought in a map what I would probably
ask to do is to see what rectangles, ovals, and certain size shapes…First, I’m
going to look all over for rectangles, and you set these up, then I’ll look all
over for pattern matching ovals. So this one on the center here would turn into
a oval, everything else would have squares.
it would even say, “Okay, I’m going to highlight everywhere where two zones
intersect and I’m going to ask you if there is a door or space at each one.”
And then you say “Yes, yes, no, no.” you do a Boolean thing and then boom,
instant map from an EpicTable perspective.
John: And I like that sort of
machine-augmented-human approach, where you’re not trying to make the machine
autonomous. Make it perfect. You’re trying to take some of the load off the
Doug: Exactly.
instead of putting every box in, making me
do every box, there is some obvious box-like shapes. I’m not going to try and
find the table and the shield and the items and say “Oh! Do you think this is a
small dagger?” No. I just want the
big outline.
what you can do is if you’re bringing in something for example like fractal
terrains. A hex-crawl map. Maybe it’ll do…that one you could probably do by color, but that’s the kind of thing. You
have Campaign Cartographer, you have Fractal Terrains you can import in a
certain format. You’re not going to say “Anything Fractal Terrains can do, I
can handle.” But if you export it in this
way, I can help.
John: Yeah.
Doug: Cool!
John: I think that kind of stuff
is pretty cool.
Doug: And that sounds like
version two stuff, maybe version three [chuckles].
John: Certainly. There are other
things that to me…there is the HeroLab integration that I want to look at. I
want to look at some sort of conflict management.
say conflict management instead of initiative tracker, because a lot of the
games that I play, initiative isn’t really a thing.
for instance, if you’re playing Primetime Adventures, you don’t really
have…it’s not a thing. But you still have this notion of wanting to designate
who’s in the conflict, who’s not, what side they’re on.
I’ve been thinking about conflict from a general perspective and how do you let
somebody…so EpicTable is not just maps. You have tabletops too.
how do you let someone throw up a tabletop and designate it as an encounter
workspace and visually move stuff around. These guys are in this faction, those
guys are in that faction. Deal cards out on the table – EpicTable doesn’t
support cards yet, but that’s certainly a v2.0 thing.
Doug: That would be interesting,
because then you could almost structure out . . . the game master of the game I
played in only briefly because I had sound problems.
couldn’t get my sound to work with Hangouts and Roll20. I was having a problem,
as it turns out it’s a conflict between Skype, Hangouts, and multiple windows.
If I have Roll20 in one and a Hangout in the other, my computer just freaks
that was a problem and I wound up having to not play.
he would do is have this cool social construct thing. You got the king who has
these goals, this faction who has these goals, it was almost like a mind-map,
if you’re familiar with those.
you could move people along the mind-map, and that’s a conflict space that has
almost nothing to do with dice, doesn’t have to do with armor class, it
definitely has something to do with
GURPS reaction rolls and Social Engineering by William Stoddard.
it’s not hit, defend, parry, damage, grapple, throw, bite, whatever. I had Jazz
Hands going on there, I have to stop that [John laughs].
was a very much different kind of thing, a facilitated roleplaying discussion.
John: Right. That’s…if I show for
a second, the EpicTable, just Tabletop. Here is a tabletop, here is the kind of
thing I’ve been thinking.
can do things like dragging index cards around on here, so I’ve got a example
where I do a Fiasco set up, with index cards and dice and things like that.
thinking a conflict manager that’s based around this kind of thing, and then if
I pop the dice tray back in here a second, you can throw dice on the tabletop
as well and roll them here.
games like Dogs in the Vineyard, where it does have a tabletop mechanic for
conflict resolution, where you are bidding essentially. Pushing dice forward
against your opponent and that kind of thing. I think you could add cards to
this and you give GM an ability to set up a pretty interesting conflict area.
And a way to manage conflict for a lot of different kinds of games.
said I get asked every single year GenCon about initiative trackers. So yeah, I
think part of whatever live character data solution I think there has to be a
initiative tracker at that point. There are too many people interested in it.
I’m thinking of that, I want to be thinking about it in more general terms. The
ability to handle different games is really important to me personally because
I play a lot of different kinds of games.
I think it helps for things …the Hero system folks visit me every year at GenCon and their
initiative is different, right? They may appear at several places in
initiative, it’s not just my guy first or third, he might be first and third.
the ability to have some more general space where you can manage the conflict
in a way that doesn’t presume that everything is happening in a grid is
Doug: Right. That’s neat.
of the things that GURPS does do right now, is there is a advantage called
Altered Time Rate that allows you to take multiple maneuvers on your turn. And
a maneuver is a 1-second action declaration.
it doesn’t do is space the maneuvers out. Because…you go in descending order of
Basic Speed, fastest to slowest. And if you have altered time rate, then when
it’s your turn you go twice and you can do some pretty cool things.
what you don’t do is go at your Basic Speed slot of 7 and 3.5, where you take a
turn and then you can do it again at 3.5, which is what Hero does, or it did
when I played it. It’s gone through a couple of editions since I played it in 1988.
pretty neat.
me ask you a couple of questions and then I’ll give you the floor for the
famous parting shot. I always give my guests that last word so they can close
on the topic of their choice.
do you think of the importance, if any, of video? Obviously we’re talking on
video and social gaming is a social medium and I think that the face-to-face
interaction, even if it’s digital face-to-face is important. Is that something
you’re thinking about or is it “Run Hangouts offline.”
John: I think for me at least for
the foreseeable future it’s always going to be run Hangouts or Skype.
don’t want to try to compete with those, because first of all those are pretty
established environments. In my games, we’ve been using both. We’ll have Google
Hangouts or Skype and we’ll also have EpicTable.
the interesting thing that I’ve found, is it really depends a lot on the group,
as to how much time they spend with video vs. how much time they spend with the
one game that I was in where we were using video a lot and we were using
EpicTable a lot, it was kind of nice because I’m in another game where we were
using Hangouts and we weren’t using EpicTable. When you have this ability to do
drawings and stuff like that in Hangout, but when you do the video is gone.
like when I was flipping to screenshare, my video was gone.
really like having them both there. The video is kind of omnipresent and then
you have your tabletop surface that’s separate, and so far I’m not seeing a
problem with that model, except for it would be really nice if some of the G+
folks would not have to install a separate thing. Even though that separate
thing has some advantages, I think it’s that initial hurdle of “Oh, gee, it’s a
separate thing I have to install” which can be a stopping point for somebody.
Doug: Which begs the question, do
you ever foresee a time if you’re going to ask Google to integrate EpicTable as
a app?
can do that with Roll20, I can just go to the left side of my window, and click
on it and boom, here is Roll20 and Hangouts. Is that something that…is that
exclusivity there or is that something you can do.
John: No they don’t. It’s
something that I’ve been looking at, and experimenting with different ways of
bringing EpicTable functionality into G+.
Doug: Right. The next question
is: Do you ever foresee multiple window or monitor support to avoid that
problem, so you have your index cards or your dice pools on the right hand
monitor and your map and characters on the left or multiple windows or anything
like that?
John: It’s actually supposed to
be in v1.2 and fellout to basically to get fog of war out there, but in v1.3
which is setting on my machine upstairs, you can drag these tabs off the sheet
and drag them to another monitor which is great for the guys who use it for the
face-to-face games where they want the player view off on the big monitor and
keep the GM view on their own laptop or whatever.
Doug: That’s a great segue into
the last couple of questions I think. You got online gaming, you’re playing
with someone in Australia, Hong Kong, and Minneapolis and those crazy guys in
New York City or whatever. You’ve also got facilitated face-to-face gaming and
it sounds like EpicTable is useful for both.
John: Yeah. A couple of EpicTable
customers at least use it exclusively for face-to-face games. One has a
projector-based set up and another has a big screen and they run it that way,
right now because you can’t tear these tabs off, what they are doing is running
a separate instance. They run one instance for the basically headless player,
and another instance that is their GM box.
yeah, it’s nice way to basically share handouts especially. I used to always
print out handouts on a inkjet so I could throw them out on the table and say
“Haha! This is the thing you see.” It’s really nice not to have do that [laughs] the night before the game. And instead
just have the images sitting there and throw them up as handouts or throw them
on the tabletop.
Doug: Sure. Sort of last thing,
and then the parting shot for you. So what’s the future of virtual tabletops
and tabletop role-playing. Project five or ten years into the future and tell
me what you see.
John: Wow. [sighs]
know, increasingly, I think that the notion of being able to play when you are
not necessarily face-to-face is going to be a durable one. It’s almost the only
way I play anymore, and it’s not that I don’t like to play face-to-face, but
finding the time is really difficult.
with some people that are local to me I end up playing online more than I do
face-to-face, but especially as I’ve gotten into the indie game community.
There are a lot of games that I just don’t have anyone around here to play
with, so online gaming has been really important and I think will continue to
be really important.
think the augmented realty kind of stuff, or augmented physical gaming will
continue to be important.
I do think will change is over the
next five years, is that there will be a lot more variability in terms of
devices. I think that the big, big LED displays are getting cheaper, so you’ll
see more people that can afford to have a game on a big screen, or even lay a
big screen down on a tabletop.
Doug: A true virtual tabletop!
John: I think there will be a lot
more hybrid games, where you might have the big screen, but you’ll have your
character sheet in a tablet.
think that’s going to be a challenge for me with EpicTable because it is
Windows-based, what is the future for EpicTable, given that I believe that the
future is lots of different kinds of devices and the game isn’t in on one PC,
but is spread out across a number of devices. Different parts of the game run
on different devices. What does that mean?
it mean that it’s all HTML5 and Java script?
kind of hope not, because I’m not that guy today, so there is a lot of ramp up
for me to put it into that kind of environment. That’s a possibility.
is also the Windows Surface devices and Windows 8 devices that are not
Microsoft that are actually in a lot of cases pretty nice.
I don’t know. I’m not sure that the future is Microsoft, but I’m sure that the
future is heterogeneous devices and some online component.
Doug: You kind of had this thing.
This is a metronome, not a phone. You bring up your little dice thingy and you
shake it and throw it at the screen and three six-sided dice roll across the
screen because it knows where you are[John laughs]. You got that kinematic
thing going on.
want to think you for your time, but I also want to give you the last word. So
what do you want to leave anyone who watches this with?
John: Wow.
think mainly if there is one thing, it would be that if you haven’t tried
online gaming, find a way to.
I found – in particular the indie game community – there is a lot of really,
really interesting stuff going on there. It’s a very inclusive community. Lot
of very cool people.
can be kind of intimidating, to think about going out and getting involved in
games you’re not familiar with, people you’re not familiar with, but it’s
really a worthwhile thing.
think the one thing the online gaming really opens up is: certainly use it to
get your game back together. Game again, if you haven’t been gaming because of
geography, but also think about some of these games that maybe you’re group at
home doesn’t play.
are people out there that do play them, and there is a lot of cool stuff out
there to try, that really virtual tabletops open up a great avenue for
broadening your gaming experience.
Doug: Alright. Thank you for your
time and I’m glad you came onboard the Firing Squad for the March Blog
John: Thanks for having me, it
was a lot of fun.
Doug: Absolutely.

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +Keith Athey of RPTools, and we spoke for just shy of a half-hour.

Unlike the usual Firing Squad interviews, this one, and hopefully others to follow, is only posted when I have a complete transcript up. This will occur, but I’m posting it right away.

With that: enjoy the interview!

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. This evening we are joined by Keith Athey from RPTools. This particular
interview is a sort of an extra bonus interview. I’m trying to conduct
interviews about virtual tabletops and online gaming as part of the RPG Blog
Association Blog Carnival for March.
I suggested the topic and
I’m trying to support the event by bringing in content creators and innovators
and people who are actually running, using, and developing online systems for
role-playing games.
So Keith thank you for
joining us tonight.
Keith Athey (Content Creator for RPTools): You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
Doug: So
tell me a little bit about RPTools. I’ve personally used MapTool as part of a
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy campaign, where we were actually playing the Jade Regent
adventure path, but we played using Dungeon Fantasy. So I’ve had some
experience with the system.
But for those who don’t,
or for those who have never had a virtual tabletop experience at all why don’t
you tell us a let bit about what RPTools does, and tell us a little bit about
what VTTing is about.

Keith: Well
virtual tabletops I guess I got involved in them when I was no longer able to
game with my friends, so I was looking at something that would allow me to
connect over a large distances.
So I stumbled onto MapTools,
and at that time it was still in its early phases of development. There was
Trevor Croft who did most of the coding, and the Rice brothers, David and Mike,
who participated as well.
It started out as three
tools that turned into four which then started coalescing into this central
program called MapTool.
What it does is it’s a
virtual tabletop, it allows dice rolling, maps, map creation, asset management,
and later on they added on the ability to develop custom frameworks in
something called MT script. Which is a language that is a entity into itself.
Although MapTool is on the
surface is basically a place you put your tokens to move around and it has a
lot of map functionality. The real strength, I think, comes from the MT script
of the user community and what they’ve developed in the way of frameworks for
different systems.
Doug: One of
the players in our particular game. She is, I think we have several who are
really good at the scripting, but she is a script-wizard
and has coded the GURPS critical hit tables, and the dice rolling, and it
automatically gives you Deceptive Attacks, which is a rule mechanic in GURPS
that if you have a surfeit of skill, you can take a penalty to skill to give a
penalty to your attack. It’s all in there.
So if you have a really
good skill, and you take some penalties and your skill is still 20, it’ll
automatically give you a -4 to Deceptive Attack. So you don’t waste your extra
skill, because you can always fail on a 17 or 18.
I know that the code tools
are really powerful. And honestly, one of the reasons that I’m interested in
VTT is exactly why you got into them. I don’t have a face to face gaming group.
I have kids, and a busy life, and I can’t get 6 to 8 to 10 to 12 people in the
same room on a regular basis or any basis for that matter. I can hardly arrange
to go to dinner.
Do you think online gaming
is a kind of flash in the pan or do you think it’s going to be replaced by
going back to face to face gaming, or do you think this is a new way for doing
Keith: I
think that they’ll always been room for both from this point forward.
I think what you’ve seen
from traditional tabletop gaming, where you have the paper, pencil, and dice –
I think you’re going to begin to see that move more and more to virtual tabletops,
even if those tabletops are inside the same room where the players are
gathered. The tools are just to powerful to ignore.
I think as – now I just
turned 50 so I’m past the half century mark, right? I’ve been gaming for 35
years. I think the younger generations of folks are going to demand what
they’ve seen in their X-Box. You’re going to see your tabletop move towards
your X-Box. Just like you’ve seen your X-Box move towards your tabletop.
I mean today’s gamers on
the X-Box demand a much more story rich environment then back when saw back
when I was first story-gaming with Doom and things like that. You know it’s a
first person shooter. They want a story. They want something they can immerse
themselves in.
That’s something that RPGs
have given folks forever. The reason we started playing was we needed this
creative outlet to have fun, and we wanted to recreate things we’d read, or
things we’d thought of. And the RPGs were a natural place for that.
So when you have the
online games they’re going to be…you’re playing the game that the game creators
made in the X-Box on the tabletop, you can’t get a experience like that because
it’s based on the imagination of your gamemaster as well as the imaginations of
that table or virtual tabletop, You co-create a story.
And I just think that’s
going to become…I don’t see that going away, but I do think that people are
going to move more towards virtual tabletops than tabletops.
I’ll be honest with you, I
don’t really roll dice anymore. I have – I use the virtual tabletops for that
because a) it takes into account all the modifiers. I’ve developed several
frameworks, the most complex has been Savage Worlds, which doesn’t have the
same game mechanics as other game systems like the d20s. I had to code a lot of
the initiative stuff myself as well as some of the modifiers you’re speaking
of. They’re handled different in Savage Worlds then they are in other game
So the MapTool allowed me
to do all of that.
Yeah, I can buy…there are
venders out there that are selling Savage Worlds virtual tabletops and some
that are selling generic virtual tabletops.
I think the main thing
about MapTools is that it’s free and runs on anything. It runs on Linux. It
runs on Mac. It runs on Windows. Which is very important for my gaming group.
So for all those reasons I think MapTools are a natural choice for me, and
virtual tabletops are the natural choice for me based on my situation which is
like yours. I’ve got children and a family.
Instead of driving a few
hours to get to a gaming group, you get up from the dinner table, you have
family time, and then you walk into your office and go online and begin gaming.
It cuts out some of the
pizza, but other than that it’s still a great experience.
Doug: I
remember that when I was gaming, I think it was at Rice, the pizza outlets were
Mr. Gatti’s, which was edible, and Dominos which we claimed could fax from
point to point with no change in taste, so [both laugh] that would be a case
where the digital pizza is of higher quality than the actual pizza. I know that
they’ve improved since then, but boy was it awful then.
Some of the things that
you’ve mentioned in terms of the power of the virtual table top . . . One of
the things…GURPS get a good knock for occasionally being  so front-end loaded. You have to do a lot of
work to get characters or a story. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that is
the perception.
VTTs are a bit the same,
in that to get the maximum utility out of it you have to have at least one
person in your group who is kind of a script wizard. Do you think…
Keith: I
would say MapTools is a little heavier than most in that regard, because it
runs a client side tool – meaning every PC has its own version of MapTool
running, vs. some of the stuff like roll20 and others which are all web-based.
It is a little higher end on
the technical scale for people to get it up and running.  But I’ve had complete novices get set right up
and running with no problem.
I’ve also had the complete
opposite, folks really struggle getting Java set up right, or their network set
up right. You don’t run into that with some of the web-based systems, but by
their nature a web-browser based system cannot be as functional as a
client-side system. It’s just apples and oranges there.
But there is a lot to be
said for a web-based front end for an ease of getting into kind of thing.
But that said, there is
nothing simpler than sitting at a table next to somebody and saying you got to
add these two together and don’t forget to add the die to this. That’s your
lowest common system.
I will say that however
with the scripting ability of MapTool and some of the others I find that game
speed increases dramatically, because you’re letting the framework do a lot of
the things for you that you used to have to dig through and argue over. At
least for me, my gaming actually sped up, I can get more done in two hours than
I used to get in four or six in the old days.
Doug: What I
have found in my experience, is that has been true for video-based VTTs, where in roll20 or MapTool, you’ve actually got
people talking – whether it’s a offline window or you run a Hangout or a video
tool – in a different window. I find that game speed is much faster.
When we’ve played MapTool
with chat only, because that group is not found of video, it crawled. So there
is a certain amount…the tool was not the rate-limiting step. That was not
MapTool’s fault. There is a certain amount of human interaction to go smoothly
and well to get the most out of a VTT.
Keith: I
agree. There is nothing like … I say as a GM I like to hear my gamers scream
[both laugh]. I find that still to be true even though a player…the voice chat
goes much quicker than just the chat.
I’ve run many chat-only
sessions of VTT, and like you say they are slower. But the nice thing is
everything is in the chat. And what I like about chat only is you can save that
chat and let people read it later. And that’s a nice feature of most of the
VTTs out there.
Doug: What
I’ve done. I like to transcribe – [laughs] as you’ll find out, I’m big into
transcriptions and I like the reading of things.
What I’ll often do is take
screenshots of whatever we’re playing and put them into the transcript of the
game I’ll do as we’re gaming, It does make for a wonderful session log.
I caught a little bit of
well-deserved humor after I was doing that with Erik Tenkar’s Swords and
Wizardry group.  Within 5 minutes of the
end of the game I had posted up a fairly substantial transcript with pictures
and all kinds of stuff. We were actually playing through Tim Short’s Gothridge
Manor #3 little adventures on the Virtual Tabletop. I had screenshots and they
were all they’re and they were like “You got this up already?!” and I was like
“It’s easy. It’s all there.”
It’s not like you’re
uploading camera pics and as things happen you’ve got your battlemap and you
just capture a screenshot.
And I’ve seen that done
very effectively, not just with my stuff. Lots of people will say “Here is a
cool thing that happened” and they’ll show a shot of the screen from a VTT, and
you can see the four hundred icons that are all coming in, and you know that
the end is nigh.
Keith: You
know a side effect of that is that recently we started a play-by-post game with
my old-old gaming group. And it’s based off a novella I published called “World
of Grey” – a futuristic sci-fi.
We wanted to do this and I
decided to go ahead and use MapTool for the map creation and to create those screenshots
you’re talking about.
I don’t know if this is
true of other tabletops, I assume it is, but MapTool also makes a great
play-by-post as well.
Doug: Yes.
Keith: It’s
not a virtual tabletop per say, but it’s a awesome tool for just playing by
post or doing email games like that. Especially with MapTools drawing
And the number of huge
image libraries out there in places like RPGNetShare. Devin Night makes some
great tokens as well. There are a large number of top-down tokens out there for
the virtual tabletops and I will say, for me who is artistically challenged
it’s been a great boon for my gaming. I can make good-looking maps, I can just
take work that others have freely given on the communities and putting them in
my games that way which is another big strong selling point in my opinion on
It is a open source
project. There is nobody making (at this point) any money off it. All the
donations of art, code, and everything that people have given was given because
they wanted to give it to the gaming community.
And see that as well with
other virtual tabletops as well, I think. It’s an amazing thing and it’s one of
the things that attracted me to MapTools from the beginning. The community
behind it, and I’ll say the same thing for Savage Worlds, Clint Black, and the
I’m attracted to nice
communities, communities that want to help you – and MapTools is one of those
and Savage Worlds is one as well.
I’d gather other gaming
communities are the same way. I think Fate has a good backbone of the community
going. Because as RPGers, what we’re attracted to is not just the game. If it
were just the game we’d be playing Skyrim or other things like that.
It’s getting together with
people and interacting and MapTool and other VTTs as well as game systems as
well have that same camaraderie going on.
Doug: So
what do think the future…I just had a chat with Stacy Dellorfano, who founded
and has run ConTessa, an online gaming convention, twice now. GenCon 2025 –
project ten years and what do you think is there going to be a online virtual
tabletop section of that? Do you think it’s going to be something where you can
easily have of your seven or ten gamers, five of them are there in front of you,
and the other five are in Australia, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, or Montreal at the
same time. So you have this sort of worldwide fusion of both face to face and
online PCs. Do you think that’s eventually where we are going to get?
Keith: Yes I
do. However.
I will say the thing about
conventions in general is that the gaming is part of it, and it’s a important
part of it, but much of that experience is just meeting your heroes and people
you think highly of in the gaming industry as well as your fellow gamers that
you may have met on forums or VTTs or whatever.
I have a group of friends,
I haven’t made GenCon yet, it’s still on my bucket list, I had four of my
friends who met and gamed at GenCon . . . and you know that that’s a different
And when you’re with that
many people you can sit around and get ten people on a screen and that’s fun.
But it’s nothing like actually outside of the game socializing, going to eat,
going for a drink or two, or just chatting about games outside of the QWERTY
My problem with the
internet is that many people are anonymous and they feel powerful behind that
anonymity. Face to face is much harder to do that. There is just a different
interaction and different social level you get by actually meeting people face
to face. That’s not to say I don’t have great online friends – I do. People
like Matt Jackson and a few of us like that, that are all over the internet,
and you interact with them often – even over videochat.
I suspect if he and I were
in a room together it would be a little bit different experience with thousands
and thousands of other gamers. It’s just a different thing. It’s more like a
happening versus a event if that makes sense.
Doug: No,
and I agree. I had the fortune of hitting GenCon when I was in grad school and
I happened to met Timothy Zahn there, and that was when his Thrawn trilogy was
busting out all over,  and I got to
interact a little with the West End Games guys which was a awful lot of fun
because I was running a Star Wars game and I still have very fond memories of that system.
And it was really cool,
and I can’t remember who I met at the Steve Jackson Games booth and I know I
met a couple of them, and I’m sure I didn’t make a impression at all at the
time [laughs]. It’s a lot easier to say “Oh yeah, I wrote one of your books”
then it is to say “Yeah, I play your game.” Oh, yes, nice to meet you, that’s
Keith: Steve
Jackson person knows that that’s a different thing then reading something he’s
written on line [laughs].
Doug: Yes.
So taking MapTool into the
future a little bit, where do you think it’s going to go?
And I’ll make a little
wishlist for myself too.
For someone who doesn’t
have time to write code or learn it, do you think that there’s room for some
kind of more . . . almost like a GUI or powerful script thing? Where you can
get some of the scripting down more through menu selection or graphicals. “Oh,
I want to build a events table” and you populate it, add rows and it sort of
codes it for you.
Do you think that there
are going to be scripting aids to make the power a little more accessible?
Keith: Well,
it’s like I said, the strength of MapTools is community, and there are so many
frameworks developed by different people who either wanted to see things done a
bit differently in their framework, or for game systems that did not have
frameworks put together in the past.
I think what you’ll see is
a strong look at the common elements in all of those. Some of the folks like Covered_in_Fish
and Wolf_42 is another one – I could list a bunch of them, but I know I’d
forget at least half, but I’ll put those two because they have been two of the
most prolific.
There are a number of
folks who have developed all these tools for the MT script language. I think
you’ll see a lot of these fold into the main product as time goes on.
Some of the common things
like character sheets. Just about every framework put together has a way to
display your character information, and I think you’ll see a expansion of the
initiative system beyond the sort of DnD(ish) initiative that you have now.
I think you’ll see more
potential expansion in the area of sound as well as animated artwork. Some of
the animated GIFs, I think you’ll see that rolling in.
What’s on the top for the
future is a reworking of the GUI, which is a little dated I think, which most
people would admit.
Some of that is waiting
for Java FX to get worn and more mature and cross platform. Java FX has been
out for a while, but getting it for Mac and Linux, getting all those stable and
ready to go has been a little bit of a waiting game.
Part of that is because
the industry players don’t necessary want to play well together [laughs]. They
don’t want cross platform tools. What they would tell you is go to the web.
And that’s nice. HTML5 is
getting much better. I think it will continue to get better, but there will
always be browser incompatibilities. You got to code for Chrome. Code for I.E.,
Safari, and all the rest.
Each platform has its own
issues. The problem with Java is that they had a few GUIs. One was Swing,
another was SWT. They settled on Swing. Then around the time Oracle took over
Java they sort of shelved Swing, which is what MapTools is written in.
So now the next great GUI
is going to be Java FX we believe and they’re making great strides and getting
that thing ready to go. But it will mean a rewrite of the MapTool GUI and none
of that will happen quickly. And so . . .
Doug: So I
guess that’s the hard part about a user-supported piece, is there is no CEO who
can say “Your priorities are now different, and you 15 coders are going to make
this happen and it’s going to be on this deadline.” Getting software guys to do
anything on a deadline is hard, getting them to do it free has got to be . . .
slightly more difficult.
Keith: Well
it is. There is a guy named Rhys and he really kicked up the whole MT script
thing – and it’s going to sound kind of funny – with an IF statement.
If you’ve ever coded a
spreadsheet and you’ve put a three-parameter IF:  “if this, then this, if not that, then this.”
And that started everything [both laugh].
And I think Trevor who was
the original coder, wasn’t a big fan of user build frameworks, user built code
and I showed him what I’d done one time and said “What do you think?” and he
said “You. Scare. Me.” [laughs].
Because it was outside of
Java, it was beyond his ability to control the performance or anything else.
But that said, that’s the
power of it as well, once MT script got in there and started getting different
developers adding more functionality it took off. There is almost nothing you
can’t do with MapTool at this point inside MT script.
It’s like any other thing,
it’s got its strengths and weaknesses. But by and large the guys that went in
there and started working with that thing made it into an incredibly powerful
Doug: Do you
think there is ever going to come a time when a Steve Jackson Games, Paizo, or
a Wizards of the Coast, or a Evil Hat is going to come one or more virtual
tabletops and say “I’ve got GURPS 6th edition”(we’ll just skip right
over fifth). I’ve got DnD 6th edition, or whatever and it’s going to
launch inside a co-developed virtual
experience that can either be done at the tabletop with tablets (or whatever)
to assist, or online with the power of a Google Hangouts video mated with a
fairly robust random number rule support, a character sheet, and by the way you
can pull in maps.
I got one other wish list
I’ll cover wholly separate later because I think it would be awesome.
Do you ever think they’re
going to be a partnership that way where the next editions of games are almost
going to be required to be supported
on a VTT?
Keith: [emphatically]
Doug: [laughs]
Moving on then…
Keith: And I
say that someone who’s 50 and in the software industry. What I’ve seen happen
in the gaming industry is that people that develop games do not know how to run
software projects, and people that know how to run software projects do not
know how to run games.
It’s not that the two
cultures are perpendicular to each other or anything, it’s just whoever the
management is is going to favor one or the other. So you’re either going to
have a strong RPG and a weak VTT or the other way around. It would take someone
that is strong in both communities to do it right.
Doug: Okay. Then
the last part of it is I guess my wish list – and this may be something like
“And this is what I’d really like to have” and you’re like “Yeah, that’s
already in there.”
Obviously, a lot of these
VTTs have a fairly powerful capability to bring in a map, a image, or jpeg, or
Is there a utility, or
could there be a utility that takes that map and then says “Okay, wherever
there is a light/dark boundary I’m going to put a wall.”
So you can not just bring
it in, but powerful features like lighting or sound or I’m going to set off a
fireball in this thing and it’s going to blossom into how many cubic feet.
Do you think there is a
capability there for taking a flat file, so to speak, a flat picture and
integrating it into some of the more powerful “Here’s where the walls are and
here is the door and here is the properties of said file.” Is that something
that is possible? Or a next step?
Keith: Yes.
In fact it’s partially solved now…
Doug: Okay.
Keith: …in MT
script. There have been some people that have created tokens or a vision blocking
layer and recorded it in a macro so that whenever you plop that token it’s
going to recreate that as you go.
I know that in the future
as people who don’t use MapTools won’t know this pain. The tokens are stored in
a special file folder with the .RPTok extension, and that will be a future hold
for animated file pieces, these virtual vision blocking layer inside the tokens
so that when you drag in these .RPTok it brings this stuff with it. Including a
animated .GIF, if you have an animated GIF of a fireball. It’s going to explode
out like a fireball, on a time schedule. I’m sure all that is not too far away.
Doug: Right.
And the maps themselves, as opposed to the moveable tokens, you think that’s
something where the walls will auto-populate. Essentially something like a cave
complex: here’s a map and I’m going to call this the open spot and it’s going
to follow a contour around and say “Okay, that’s the open spot. Do you want to
make all this the wall?”
Keith: I
think..you’re making me put my software developer hat on now. The way I would
handle that is through textures. You would have vision blocking texture that
you would lay down, and you’d leave the open spots as visible areas. And
wherever you drew that light-blocking texture would always be blocked.
Doug: I
guess what I’m looking for is something like “Oh! I saw a great map that
somebody uploaded!” And rather than having to sit down and spending hours
recoding it in your tool the package would say “I’m going to help. I’m going to
guess and hopefully that’s going to help in a good way rather than a Microsoft
way.” [both laugh]
“Really we’re going to
help you by doing everything you don’t want.”
If you’ve ever written for
Steve Jackson Games the first thing you do is turn the Microsoft Autoformatting
OFF, because if you really want to make Steven Marsh even more long-suffering,
send him something with the autocorrect on, because it wrecks the layout. Absolutely wrecks their ability to import it
into a file they use.
But anyways, that at least
for me, timestrapped and 40 some odd years old. If I drew a map or grabbed a
map and it says “I’m going to take my best guess into making this into
something that can be used.” Within the power of the machine, the code, would
be a real help for a novice user.
Keith: I
think that’s all doable via a colorpicker tool. I think the same thing we’re
talking about doing the light blocking layer via texture, you could do it
through a color-picking tool.
Doug: Okay.
Well I always give my guest the last word so if there is anything you want to
add or amplify or chat about. Have at it.
Keith: My
son is here. His name is Chaos Lord Zack [a child’s voice can be heard off
Zack Athey:
Hey! [garbled audio] [Doug and Keith laugh]. What are you talking about?
Keith: So
he’s often on my video chats, but he’s usually more vocal so thanks for helping
me out there bud.
Zack: That
just makes it a lot worse.
Keith: Other
than that I’ll say that from a MapTools standpoint, and RPTools standpoint it’s
the community that makes this really work.
I’m part of the RPTools
staff, but it’s really everybody that contributes to the forums every day and
everybody that submits artwork, everybody that develops new macros for folks,
all that stuff. That’s what makes MapTools great and will continue to make it
great going forward.
Doug: Well I
wanted to thank you for your time and thank Zack for being a gentlemen in the
Keith: You
bet [laughs].
Doug: Alright,
thank you very much.
Keith: Thank
you, sir.
Doug: Bye,

+Erik Tenkar and +Tim Shorts have both rendered their opinions on the d30 Sandbox Companion. They loved it.

(Erik’s review at Tenkar’s Tavern here)

Now, I do play in Erik’s Swords and Wizardry campaign with +Peter V. Dell’Orto (whom I know well) and others (whom I’ve really only met once). But I wanted to take a different tack on this.

The book is 56 printed pages, including 7-8 pages of bookends (art, table of contents, index).

The rest of the book is page after page of random tables. Wilderness locations, temples, cults, castles and strongholds . . . even two pages on randomly determining the weather. Detailed tables on generating settlements. What services (all kinds of services!) the local inns offer.

Two full, and fully awesome, pages on heraldry. He claims something like 27,000 combinations.

Fifteen pages on various NPCs.

Sure, sure. But it’s all for old school gaming, right? If you’re not playing a D&D clone, or maybe stretch it to Pathfinder, maybe, you’re screwed.


Not even close. I’d say about 36 pages are entirely generic. Basically strings of imaginative words, cleverly laid out to provide descriptions of towns, inns, people, sages . . . hell, even whole adventures.

Don’t believe me: Here’s a sample adventure in 10 die rolls, using Excel (because I don’t have a d30):

Trigger reconnaisance
Major goal Prevent invasion
Obstacle to goal Beat time limitation
Location Hamlet
Location Feature Fountain
Phenomena Charm
Villian Goal/Reason Mischief
Artifact/Relic bowl/brazier/censer
Theme Power
Key NPC Magic User

OK, we have a magic user as the key NPC; let’s make him the villain. Let’s say that when the water from the water from a natural, blessed fountain is placed into a certain artifact, a holy bowl from which a saint or other holy personage was said to have drunk, it causes the drinker to be able to become nearly irresistible. Were talking Hitler-levels of charisma.
So, our magic user wants to cause a stir. He needs a diversion to allow him to get into some other location to obtain, say, a grimoire or geniza. So he leaks the information to a power-hungry (there’s power again) noble (or several nobles), all of whom will journey to this remote hamlet to seize the bowl. The drinker will be able to use his magically awesome charisma to cause several normally-fractious neighbors to join forces to invade, and perhaps conquer, a stronger but otherwise peaceful kingdom. The PCs need to get to the hamlet and find the location of the bowl, perhaps uncover the secret of bowl+fountain = charisma, before the rival nobles can.
Will the PCs drink from the bowl? Perhaps . . . but all gifts come with a price, of course.
See? It’s gold. 

So, what about the other 10-13 pages of “not-generic” stuff? Well, some of that has descriptors like “fighter” or “cleric” that can absolutely be swapped out for any Dungeon Fantasy template of appropriate strength. Low-level fighter needed? Go buy DF15: Henchmen and poof! Instant conversion of a D&D-type character to GURPS. Magic items can be converted or translated. Yes, it’s some work, but a hell of a lot less than you’d wind up doing inventing it whole cloth.
If you don’t have a handy megadungeon, you can certainly have years of fun simply by rolling some dice.
Oh, and bonus: If you don’t want to roll, you can rather easily get these descriptors and die rolls into your favorite spreadsheet program and generate instant random adventure seeds (or anything else in the table).
Good stuff, and not just for OSR fans. Nice work by Richard J. Leblanc of New Big Dragon!

Thursday is GURPS-Day, and release day! We get more goodness today with Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor.

I had a hand in this one, as you cans see – I was listed as Lead Playtester. Interestingly enough, this title, so to speak, came last.

I was approached by +Steven Marsh a while back to see if I could potentially check up on the loadouts. Sure, I thought.

Then I got the manuscript. Holy. Crap.

Over twenty different historical warrior-types, each with anywhere from just a few to nearly two dozen individual pieces of armor, each written up, sometimes a bit cryptically, using +Dan Howard‘s Instant Armor style. All in all I think I calculated that there were something like four hundred individual pieces to validate. A lot of work went into this.

Yow. I needed help, and I knew it. I solicited the help of the six people who joined me in this task – mostly from the Technical Grappling playtesters, who’d been so very helpful to me during my own project. Then I divided up the loadouts into piles, each with an approximately equal number of pieces. I played manager, and when the first round of commentary was done, finished up all unvalidated pieces.

I then, just to be sure, scrambled the piles again, and a new person double-checked the loadouts.

Many comments were made, but that wasn’t really our job. We had plenty of time, since the Ogre was in the way, but we checked nearly 400 pieces of armor – twice each – in about three months.

I hope you guys all run out and buy the book, and if you like it, I’m sure there could be more. Loadout lists are like +Hans-Christian Vortisch infamous Big Lists of Guns. They might get a bit of eyebrow-raising here and there (‘did you really just publish 300 guns whose stats are nearly indistinguishable?’) but when the very next moment there’s a post on the forums saying “Hey, I have this gun here, which is a 5.56x45mm gun with a 20” barrel, but has a different name, what are it’s stats?” rather than just using the darn listing for the M16, you can see how players (or maybe just GURPS players) eat this stuff up.

With that, here’s the juice from the product page:

GURPS Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor
Available as an e-book on e23!

Written by Dan Howard * Edited by Jason “PK” Levine
Illustrated by David DayDan Howard, and Shane L. Johnson

GURPS Line Editor: Sean Punch
49 pages. PDF. * Price $9.99 * Stock number 37-1581
Always Available – Click here to buy!

Gird for Battle in Any Era

For as long as mankind has engaged in violence, we have sought ways to make the sticks, stones, and swords hurt just a little less. GURPS Low-Tech and GURPS Low-Tech: Instant Armor provide the bits and pieces needed to customize your defenses . . . but when you care about historical accuracy, want a provencombination of defensive gear, or are simply short on time, GURPS Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor has you covered.

  • Equip your warrior with any of 40 ready-to-use loadouts, each with precalculated statistics (including total cost, weight, and don time) and collected notes on variable DR (partial coverage, damage type, etc.).
  • Take advantage of new gear, including rhinoceros-hide armor, pectorals, Roman “scale mail,” Japanese face protection, padded jacks, and a wide range of shields and horse barding.
  • Add detail to your battles with expanded hit location tables for the face and abdomen, rules for the restrictive effects of rigid leg and neck armor, new options for arming doublets, and more.
  • Learn how the cultures discussed actually fought: the attacks they expected to face, the types of warriors on the field of battle, and the intent behind their choice of protection.

Whether you’re playing a historical game or one of pure fantasy, GURPS Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor makes equipping your hero a snap – and helps the GM quickly armor hordes of nameless NPC warriors – all in a realistic and believable way. Spend less time poring over equipment lists and more time using that gear to prove your mettle on the battlefield!

“Escrima uses smallsword.”

It’s interesting. This active and civil thread on the SJG GURPS forums started with a few questions about grappling, but since has narrowed its focus – the bulk of the questions being answered – to the difference between Smallsword and Shortsword.

The basic set is pretty clear – Smallsword is for light, thrusting weapons, while Shortsword is for swung and thrust. The Basic Set entry explicitly calls out escrima sticks as using Smallsword, too.

Martial Arts is pretty clear: Escrima, a style practiced, I believe, by +Peter V. Dell’Orto, is all about smallsword.

And yet GURPS High Tech, for which I was Lead Playtester, calls out batons using Shortsword. Largely because the way batons are usually employed doesn’t have the subtleties and intricacies of Escrima.

You can use smallsword to swing, though – that’s right there in the Basic Set, with the short staff, called out as doing sw and thr cr damage using Smallsword.

Shortsword also calls out police batons.

Both are . . . identical. Reach 1, 1 lb. They do sw and thr cr damage. Same cost and ST.

So clearly, this is just a skill choice. If you use Shortsword, you don’t take encumbrance penalties but don’t get the +2 boost to defenses when you retreat. If you use Smallsword, you are penalized for encumbrance on your parries (p. B208). So at Light Encumbrance, you’re at -1, and Medium is at -2, counteracting completely the extra goodies you get from using this weapon like an escrima stick. Which it is.

Both skills are DX/Average, which means that the encumbrance penalties cancel out the fencing benefits.

Other Skills

Let’s look at other swords.

Rapier is for blades longer than 1 yard, based on length, and thrust-only. Saber is for lightweight cut-and-thrust swords, so it’s based on weight, it would seem. Shortsword is 1-2 feet, Broadsword is 2-4 feet, and Two-Handed Sword if for blades greater than 4 feet in length.

Let’s look at the weapons themselves, and we’re going to use the High-Tech assumption that the weapon weight in Basic is 2/3 weapon, 1/3 scabbard.

The Rapier is thus about a 1.9-lb. sword and Min ST 9; the Saber about 1.3 lbs and ST 8. Most of the broadswords are 2-lbs (and ST 10), while some of the hand-and-a-half swords like the bastard sword or katanas are ST 11 and 3.3 lbs (that’s very high for a real battle sword, by the way).

What does that look like?

Skill ST BL Weight % of BL Weapons
Broadsword 10 20 2 10% Broadsword, Light
Club, Cavalry Sabre
Shortsword 8 12.8 1.3 10% Shortsword, Cutlass
Smallsword 8 12.8 1.35 11% Saber
Rapier 9 16.2 1.9 12% Rapier
Broadsword 11 24.2 3.33 14% Katana, Bastard Sword
12 28.8 4.7 16% Greatsword

Well. there’s no real distinction between the one-handed swords, and the two-handers aren’t much better. What if we employ the same conceit as Technical Grappling, and assume that one-handed swords are employed with half the ST score (so a quarter of the basic lift)?

Skill ST BL Weight % of BL Weapons
Two-Handed Sword 12 28.8 4.7 16% Greatsword
Broadsword 5 5 2 40% Broadsword, Light Club, Cavalry Sabre
Shortsword 4 3.2 1.3 41% Shortsword, Cutlass
Smallsword 4 3.2 1.35 42% Saber
Rapier 4.5 4.05 1.9 47% Rapier
Broadsword 5.5 6.05 3.33 55% Katana, Bastard Sword

OK, so interestingly enough, the Fencing weapons are actually heavier (barely) in terms of percentage of the ST required to use them.

So, can you fence with a broadsword? Honestly, it would appear that the answer is simply “yes.” How about the Bastard Sword? Again, probably yes, with ST 12 instead of ST 9.

There might seem to be a way to recast the ability to use a skill with a weapon as a fraction of Basic Lift. Fencing weapons would be allowed if they were of the appropriate reach and weight, otherwise, not.