RPG Players: Listen to your GM !

     “You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
      “Why, what did she tell you?”
      “I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”
      — The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

 

Most of the time, as a GM (Game master) the information I give my players is important. The degree of importance varies.

If I tell someone that a Giant is watching them – that’s relevant information. How important it actually is depends on context. If the player is flying rapidly across the sky it’s a lot less important to the player than if their character has just killed a few other giants and is currently looting the giant’s treasure chest. If I say the giant is seventeen feet tall with black skin and a lot of tattoos – that’s interesting. If a player wants to know the Giant’s name and what he had for breakfast, well… that’s up to the player to ask! (If you have players who want lots of detail, then you need to be prepared or able to make a lot of stuff up on the spur of the moment.)

Much of what we can and do provide is of interest and some is very important. Of course, I’m not going to tell them what is very important and what isn’t… often figuring that out for themselves is part of the adventure.

Fighting a “spiderleg horror” in the Demonweb (represented by half a Drider)

My 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons group got together on Saturday to continue their “Expedition to the Demonweb Pits”. Since it had been nearly six months since we’d gotten together I gave a general summary of what had happened during the last gaming session:

The party had travelled to the city of Zelatar (capital of the Demon prince Graz’zt) in the Abyss to meet an agent of Orcus who had information for them concerning what Lolth was planning. They had obtained a merchant charter to enter the city safely – as the law of the city states that even mortal merchants are protected from violence while in the city unless they commit a crime such as assault, fraud, etc. I reminded them that they had been taunted a number of times, and stopped by guards, but the charter (and their behaviour) had kept them out of trouble. They had eventually met the agent, gained what they expected and were seeking a way out of the Abyss and back to the city of Sigil (on another plane), so they had paid for an augury (or foretelling) to guide them.

I’d prepared a printed sheet for the players that stated why they’d gone to Zelatar, what they’d obtained and a copy of the augury. I handed these out. They started to talk about the detail of the foretelling and what to do next.

I had also previously decided to start with an unscripted encounter that could be amusing to most of the group and would then link to something planned later. I didn’t get the reaction I’d expected…

I told them that a huge giant was watching them. The giant pointed at the Barbarian in the group and asked if he “could give him a hand”…

Barbarian: “Maybe…”

“I think I’d like the right hand” The giant drew a knife with a blade about five feet long. “Will you cut it off or shall I?”

Barbarian Player: “I rage!”

I called for initiative, and thankfully for the Barbarian (and probably everyone else – one dwarf, three humans and two elves – in a city of 18,000 demons), two of the other players thought quickly and reacted before anything else happened…

“I throw myself at him and try and hold him down!”

“I cast web on him!”

They both beat the Barbarian on initiative and successfully pinned him down and talked sense into him.

Then we had a bit of “didn’t you pay attention?”, “what were you thinking?” from the players and myself.

We got past this, they fought a few creatures and eventually got a ferry on the river Styx that took them back to Sigil. They reported to the different people that they had been dealing with, rested and after a few days of game time, they re-entered Lolth’s demonweb with the aim of disrupting the planned council of demon lords. Overall, we got through quite a bit of the adventure, and we only have one or two more sessions to finish the whole thing.

I need a very large sheet of cardboard now, so I can draw up the floor plan (for miniatures) of one the final encounter chambers!

I updated my “Campaign Diary” on Sunday (which I’ve been meaning to do for months), and updated the one on the blog to bring it completely up to date.

Advertisements

HERO LAB for D&D – Part 3

For years I’ve produced a campaign summary sheet that lists all the characters, and important information such as AC, saves, alignment, height and weight, speed, initiative and some skills. It both saves me from asking players the same questions over and over again, and means I can make a roll, or ask a player to make a roll, without them knowing what save or skill they are rolling for.

Character Summary and an old “combat tracking” sheet (for a different group)

Each time combat starts, I ask all the players for their initiative and list them in order with the monsters initiative values. I list all the monsters HP’s and the combat progresses. Unfortunately, with six players and multiple creatures +/or NPC’s, occasionally someone misses their action. It also becomes easy to forget how many rounds the combat has been going for which may be important for certain spell’s or effects.

The Hero Lab Tactical Console:

The tactical console (TC) assists with all of this. I still refer to my character summary occasionally, but I have access to more info through the laptop. I certainly don’t need the scraps of paper tracking initiative and HP’s. The standard screen has all the detail you could want on a character out of combat. (With a hovering cursor, or click you have access to everything on each character.) Once combat begins, the console sorts everyone participant by initiative and you press a button when they take their action – dropping them to the bottom of the list. You can also apply damage/healing and a activate/deactivate anything that appeared on the “In Play” and “Condition” tabs for each character/creature. It even can cope with people who ready an action, or delay – keeping the Hero “paused” at the top of the screen, but separate from the rest of the group.

Tactical Console with Allies and Enemies

TC1: For this example of how the Tactical Console works, I loaded three opponents into the Portfolio through the Encounter Builder – one Annis (Hag) and two constructs (Graven Guardians). The first screen shows the layout of the TC window – which appears over the standard portfolio display and covers about half the screen. The buttons that appear here have the same functions as those in the standard HL display. Allies appear named in black text with an image on the left. Enemies are named in red text, with an image on the right. As you can see, each creatures name, class, HP, AC, Saves, Speed and a summary of Skills are show. More detailed information is available by pop-up from the side buttons. I have taken photo’s of the miniatures used by players and put those into Hero Lab. “Grolf”, an Animal Companion of the Ranger/Scout has not been assigned an image in HL, so appears with the default “empty” image. At any time here, you can switch screens just by clicking on the screen you want, or the “make active Hero” button.

Beginning a new combat

TC2: having pressed the button “New Combat” the TC rolls initiative for each creature and places them in initiative order. (There’s a dice roller built into HL too!) I tend to let the enemies INIT rolls stand, and replace the assigned INIT for the Players with their actual rolls, then re-sort the list. (A “resort” button appears if you change any of the INIT results.) The little arrow buttons on the far right side of the screen allow moving a creature up or down one place in the Init order, or to the top or bottom of the list. The “End Combat” button discards initiative and takes you back to the non-combat screen. “Next Round” jumps to the next round of combat without going through each creatures actions. The “active” combatant in boxed at the top of the screen. Note that skills have been replaced with equipped weapon details. Flat-footed Ac is bold for those that haven’t yet acted. The hourglass symbol reminds you of those that haven’t yet acted this round – it’s replaced by a tick as they do. As combatants act (marked by pressing the “play” button), they move to the bottom of the list.

Combat in progress & adjustment screen

TC3: Halfway through Round 1. Farstrike has been placed at the top of the list because for his action I chose “delay”. A reminder in green text appears, and he can act any time by clicking on his “play” button. The Graven Guardian #2 currently is taking it’s action and next to the TC screen I’ve opened the tracking screen. This shows where HP damage or healing is assigned, any abilities/resources available to the creature, and the other options normally on the In-Play and Conditions tabs. A box for “Tactical Notes” appears at the bottom – anything entered here is shown in Green text under saving throws on the TC.

End of the first combat round

TC4: “Grolf” has been removed from the combat (assuming that having taken damage, he has withdrawn). He could be put back into combat by clicking on the sword button to the right. To continue combat into a second round, it is necessary to click on the “next round” button. If I “end combat” or close the TC, any damage done to creatures and any conditions activated, will remain – and be shown on the relevant part of the HL screen.

Once combat has been completely resolved, it’s necessary to “delete” the enemies from the portfolio regardless of whether or not you keep the TC open. Then you are ready to load another group of creatures for another encounter.

All the images above are from HL Pathfinder. The 3.5 D&D version is identical, except that the background is blue in colour!

The Hero Lab editor:

The editor has a very good manual and set of tutorials. It’s quite easy to follow the steps given to add simple feats, spells and items into Hero Lab – especially if you “copy” an existing item that has the same or similar powers/details and just change a few details. For example: Making a wondrous item (gauntlets) that grant a Strength bonus is really just a case of copying a “Belt of Strength”, renaming it, and changing the body location to hands. Looking at existing things (and how they have been created) really helps when it comes to editing your own stuff. The forums are quite good for advice and assistance – there are lots of people doing editing, and happy to help.

So far I’ve used the editor to add 50 “Greyhawk” Deities and 4 languages, 9 Feats, 1 Skill, 3 Classes (complete with class abilities), and 68 Wondrous Items, 6 Rings, 1 Rod, and 2 Wands to HL Pathfinder.

I’ve mostly been adding monsters to 3.5 D&D, because the “Community Content” available has pretty much given me all the Classes, Feats and Spells that my group uses.

I’m still working out how to implement a few feats/abilities, particularly because I’m transferring 3.5 content to Pathfinder.

Conclusion:

Hero Lab is the best D&D tool I’ve ever seen and used. I’ve been using it now for nearly 3 years and almost every update adds a little bit to make it smoother or add a bit more functionality.

As a player – the standard part of the program makes character creation and maintenance much easier. Every time any of the characters level up (in both the groups I’m part of), I update the Heroes in HL and compare the two. It’s very easy to incorrectly add up bonuses, forget to allocate a skill point, or when improving Ability Scores miss updating a skill. I’d say that every time a group levels, I’ve found an error by checking with Hero Lab that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

As a DM – I know that the players have everything on their character sheet correct. Using the tactical console (especially now that I’ve streamlined a laptop just for gaming use) makes combat smoother to run and much less likely that someone will miss taking their turn. Having monster detail available immediately, for EVERY creature in the encounter – without having to flip through multiple rule books – is fantastic. This also means that I can access a description for every feat, spell, class ability and magical item through my main screen too.

I’ve never seen Hero Lab itself make any errors! The only mistake I’ve ever seen was once, in the 3.5 D&D community data set – but that error was reported on the forums and fixed in the next update. User support (through the forums and data files) for the program is fantastic!

The only downside I see to Hero Lab is the output – the printed Character Sheets. I’d like some of the sections on the sheet to be positioned as the player wants them (like weapons and gear), not being broken up over the pages. I know there are some customised outputs available, but they aren’t what I’m looking for, and I think I’d be in the majority of users when I say I’m not familiar with XML and so unable to make my own custom output/sheet.

I give Hero Lab a 9 out of 10. If you play or DM Dungeons and Dragons, give it a try!

HERO LAB for D&D Pathfinder – Part 2

I’m assuming that readers know how Dungeons and Dragon’s works – I won’t be talking about races, classes, skills, etc – only about how Hero Lab handles or shows different aspects of a Hero (Player character, NPC, or monster).

In the examples below, I’m using “Tarmor’s Party” – a saved Portfolio that holds five 9th level adventurers that are “advanced” characters from an actual party I have. (They are really only 4th level at this time.) One of the classes (Scout) is not Pathfinder – this is taken from 3.5 D&D (Complete Adventurer), but I’ve entered the class (and some Feats) into Hero Lab for Pathfinder with the editor.

It’s easier to show how things are done than just write about it. My images are actual screenshots from Hero Lab (Pathfinder) – green lines and text are my edits and explanations. The d20 System (3.5 D&D) package is extremely similar – with almost the same tabs – Classes & Abilities are combined to one “Basics” tab (there’s no Conditions tab) – and layout has much the same style and columns.

HeroLab1 Class1. The main screen & Classes.

Hero Lab lays everything out in columns. The left-hand side of the screen has the main panel, which changes according to which tab you select across the top. The Classes tab allows you to add class levels (and templates) and assign HP’s, favoured classes, and ability score increases.

Some tabs (e.g. Class, Spells) are only added if and when you add a level in a relevant class. The other columns give a summary of pretty much everything about your Hero – each can be turned off, or its position rearranged. The “Dashboard” lists every Hero in the portfolio, and is a fast way of changing the active Hero, as well as seeing detail of other Heroes without having to switch.

“Help” on the Menu bar offers a Manual, Tutorial and FAQ for Hero Lab. Clicking on the “?” buttons also gives either more information, or a full rulebook description/definition of the item it’s located next to. In addition, you can hover the cursor on nearly any “item” on screen – AC, Skill, Skill bonus, weapon attack bonus, gear, feat, ability, etc and get a pop-up help that tells you how the final bonus/total was calculated and/or a rulebook description/definition. Any change to a Ability Score, addition of a weapon, magical item, feat, etc results in an immediate recalculation and display of changes. Anything selected or added at any stage or on any tab can be removed/cancelled/deleted.

Nearly every menu from which you can add/select something is displayed in alphabetical order, with a search field, and the choice to display “everything” or only “valid” choices. Hero Lab will let you add/change/select things that it considers to be invalid – but it will give you a message telling you what is “wrong” and why.

Note the “Feats” tab in images: it’s printed in red because HL believes I’ve picked a feat the character doesn’t have the prerequisite for. According to its rules (based on the way I correctly defined the “Improved Skirmish” Feat in the data files) the character doesn’t. The problem is not Hero Lab, it’s just that I haven’t got the “code” correct for another feat which would fix everything up. [If I have the physical rulebook for something that a character has chosen/used, then I also try to add it to the data files that HL accesses.]

2. Background.

This is for Race, Alignment, Deity, racial abilities, and languages. This is the ‘page’ where you would assign a Racial stat bonus if there is one, or something like a ½ Elves Skill Focus. If you are making a monster NPC you would select it by race here, then go back to the Classes tab to add character levels or extra HD to it.

HeroLab2 BackAbil3. Abilities.

Like the previous tab, it’s self-explanatory. Stat’s are all initially set at “10” and you can type in the Stat value, or click on the arrow buttons to raise/lower by a point. All the other attack, defence, saving throws, etc are also displayed here.

HeroLab3 ClassGear4. Classes.

The Class tab is where you choose bonus feats, abilities, spells, etc for a particular class. Animal Companions and Familiars can also be chosen or switched to from here. Like on most tabs – if you haven’t chosen something then there will be a message saying what and how many to choose. If you select too many of something, the text will change to red, and you’ll get a validation message on the bottom line of the screen too.

5. Assorted Items.

I’ve jumped ahead to “Gear”, because the panel can fit in the same image as a Class tab! The Weapons, Armor, Magic and Gear tabs all work the same way. New Heroes are all given 150gp. When you select any item to add to one of these tabs you can pay for it normally, buy it free, chose a custom cost, or “craft” it at half price. I don’t use HL to track funds, so usually just click the “Buy for Free” box. Items can be placed into containers and HL counts the value of every item and it’s weight for encumbrance. If you hover the cursor over the “bag” symbol it will show you the entire contents, and over the “in container” symbol will show you what container that item is in.

There are “house rules” and options that you can choose to configure when making a new Hero (or later), that tell HL to ignore encumbrance, or the weight of coins, etc. You can assign more money in the journal tab.

HeroLab4 Skills6. Skills.

Back to skills. Blue text are Class skills, greyed text are “trained” skills that require skill ranks to use. The “shield” symbol means that armour check penalties apply to that skill. A red “hammer” indicates that you have a –2 penalty for not having the required tool(s), a blue hammer means that you have the tools. Craft, Knowledge, Perform and Professions aren’t initially displayed on the skill list and have to be added individually.

Placing the cursor over the “?”, or the total ranks gives you a pop-up like the grey box in the image. I’ve edited this image because the actual help box is much larger (full skill description) and actually appears where you have the cursor. Pressing the “?” button means the box appears and stays there until you click somewhere else.

7. Feats.

Feats are selected here. Any feats gained as Class bonuses are repeated on this list also.

HeroLab5 Weapons

 8. Weapons.

This tab is used to give you Hero weapons, and you can click a box to show what is readied for use, by main and off-hand. For this image, I’ve switched to a fighter who has Two-Weapon Fighting. The checked boxes show that she has a longsword in both main hand and off-hand. HL has already deducted a –2 penalty for wielding two weapons. If I “ticked” both the 1st and 2nd box on the same longsword, HL would set the Melee attack bonus back to +19/+14 and increase the damage for fighting 2-handed. (One and a half times STR bonus) This Hero carries a shield which was not “readied”. If I selected the shield as being used (on the Armor tab), without un-marking the second sword, all three items will change to red text as HL complains “can’t have off-hand weapon with shield”.

 9. Other/Personal.

The “Other” tab is used for Mounts and Hirelings. The “Personal” tab records sex, age, height, weight, hair, eyes, skin and background details. You can also include an image here of the Hero – either chosen from Hero Lab’s large set of images or you can include you own. There is an option in config to allow this image to appear on a printed character sheet. An image here will also be used in the Tatical Console. (Next Blog post!) Permanent adjustments to the Hero (refer “Adjust tab”) can be selected here – changes to AC, Ability Scores, HP’s, size, etc… usually relating to effects not covered by something in you data set for HL, or because of something out of the ordinary happened in your campaign. [ Your character speaks an additional language because of his background, a magical fountain made him a Large creature, et al. ]

HeroLab6 Journal

10. Journal.

The journal tab can assign experience and money to each Hero. You have the option to “title” an event/adventure that gives experience and enter a game date. HL automatically assigns the real world date to the record. A “notes” button opens a window where you can record a few simple notes or a complete adventure summary. Entering negative values removes XP and/or funds.

11. Special.

The special tabs is just a list of all Special Abilities – primarily Class and Feat related – and a summary of what they do. A “?” button can give a complete rulebook definition/explanation. Abilities or powers granted by magical items will also usually appear on this list.

HeroLab7 InPlay

 12. In-Play.

This tab is used for tracking damage inflicted on the Hero, and Healing received. It also allows you to note whether you have used that throwing axe, dose of poison, potion of cure light wounds, or how many charges are left on that wand of magic missiles. Activated abilities give you a box that can be clicked for things like charge, power attack, raging, smite evil, etc and modify all bonuses accordingly.

This is probably only going to be used by someone with their Hero on a tablet or iPad during a game session, but it’s also mirrored by the Tactical Console, where a DM might find it quite useful for the same sorts of things with monsters attacking the party. (Again, more on that in the next blog post.)

HeroLab8 Adjust

13. Adjust.

I touched on adjustments in the Personal tab. This tab covers temporary adjustments, most notably those provided by spells, magical items, class abilities, etc. [ While writing all this tonight I have realised that the language adjustment that my characters have should actually be under the Personal tab! ]

HeroLab9 Condn

14. Conditions.

This tab should be self-explanatory. All the Pathfinder “conditions” can be selected and any bonus or penalty that relates will be applied to the Hero. A duration can also be entered here for tracking. The “?” button gives more detail on the effects and description/rules of the condition.

That’s about it! The menu bar gives you options to configure/copy a Hero, import or export a Hero from/to a portfolio and save/load portfolios. Heroes (and/or whole portfolios) can be saved or printed as a PDF (if you have a licence). Print/save options can be: standard character sheet, a Ability/Gear description, Journal contents, Spell Summary or Spell full description.

A PDF of my Ranger/Scout follows – a standard character sheet. My only problem with the printed character sheet is that it has particular places it always puts certain “categories” (like Exp on the top right of page 2), and that sometimes breaks another category into two parts. It also places weapons in the same order as they appear on the “Weapons” tab, which can mean that your primary weapon may be on the second page, unless you get sneaky and “rename” your weapons to arrange them in a way you prefer.

Karadas (200kb Download)

Any questions? I’m happy to answer them to the best of my knowledge (or go looking for an answer). I’m also happy to share my self-created portfolio’s (or PDFs of them) and data files for 3.5 D&D and Pathfinder. The next blog post will be concerned mostly with the Tactical Console for DM’s using Hero Lab during a game session. I’ll also touch on the editor.

Software Review – HERO LAB for D&D – Part 1

Hero Lab by Lone Wolf Development is a program designed to assist both RPG players and Game-masters in a number of ways, the least of which is creating and maintaining characters. It can run under MS Windows, on Macs, and there’s even a version for iPads.

RPG SYSTEMS:

I’ve got my Hero Lab set-up for D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, 4th edition Shadowrun, and a very basic 2nd Edition Star Wars (d6, created by a HL user) which I plan to expand on by adding the complete species list from the SW Galaxy Guide 4 (Alien Races) and a lot more equipment. Hero Lab also supports D&D 4th edition, Fate Core, Mutants & Masterminds, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun 5th Edn, Spirit of the Century and World of Darkness.

I mostly use Hero Lab for Pathfinder at this time, so my review will focus on that. The way Hero Lab for 3.5 D&D looks and works is extremely similar. I’ve always enjoyed making up D&D characters (and NPC’s) and HL makes it much faster as well as ensuring I’m not missing anything – especially when converting monsters and NPC’s from 2nd edition adventures to d20 system.

Choosing an installed Game system…

 

GETTING STARTED:

The full Windows HL program is just under 11MB and can be downloaded FREE. The individual system packages vary in size from about 10MB for D&D 3.5 and Shadowrun 4th, to close to 100MB for Pathfinder. Without a license, you can only run a particular system in Demonstration Mode. Demo mode allows you to create characters and play around with the different features, but you can’t print or save those characters.

The US$30 license comes with the core data for one game system that you choose on activation. [Paizo sells the program & license code on CD slightly cheaper.] Additional system licenses are $20. Most systems then have add-on packages for $10 (generally the content released in other books) but there are bundles and discounts to help lower the prices. Hero Lab requires at least Windows XP, or Mac OS X 10.5 – it only requires internet access for initial activation or to update data files. Once you have a license, you can activate a free secondary license too – I’m using this on a laptop for some gaming – whereas I do most of my work with HL on my desktop PC.

There is a heap of “community content” – files put together using the HL editor by users – that are available at no cost either through the Hero Lab forums or other web sites. You can access this through both Demo and licensed use, once you have downloaded and installed it.

I’ve got a licence for both 3.5 D&D and Pathfinder, and I additionally bought a “Bestiary Bundle” at a “sale” (content of all three Bestiary books from Pathfinder) to be able to access all those creatures. I have access to most of the 3.5 Books (Such as the varied Monster Manuals, Spell Compendium and Magic Item Compendium) through community content. I’ve also added a heap of stuff myself to both systems using the editor.

 

THE BASICS:

The simplest or main use of Hero Lab is to create characters. It can also do the same with monsters/creatures (adding character levels or more HD) and aid in constructing encounters. Its database (depending on RPG system and how much support that system has received from the game company and users) generally holds all the basic equipment, skills, feats, magical items, monsters, spells, etc that are available in the core rulebooks, and possibly quite a lot of what has been printed in other books too.

Preparing to load a Portfolio or create a new character

Hero Lab does all calculations in the background, so when you add armour/weapons, a skill, or feat – any change to the character is shown immediately on the screen. HL has validation – so you will get a message/reminder if you haven’t done something yet (like not choosing an alignment, or spending all your skill points) or broke a rule (too many feats). It’s easy to remove/delete things that you’ve added – so you can see how something will work on your character. It’s very good for considering your options when your character goes up a level or has money to spend on equipment.

Characters (or groups of characters/creatures) are saved as a “portfolio”. Output can be saved as PDF, HTML Statblock, or XML file, by individual character or a whole portfolio. HL also produces output for d20Pro and Fantasy grounds VTT (Virtual Table-top). I print-out NPC character sheets (for two PC henchmen/cohorts) every time they go up a level for the game I’m playing in now… they aren’t complicated characters and it’s much easier and faster than writing one up. I often email a PDF copy to the other players to remind them of what the character “looks” like. I can send them a whole portfolio file if they have even a Demo version of Hero Lab on their computer! (They can look at it, modify it, etc – but not save changes.)

 

My next post will look at how the system works with a created character.

My third post will look at GM functions such as the Tactical Console and the editor.