Archive for March 2010

New pictures of D&D Surface

Microsoft’s Surface platform looks ready to revolutionize tabletop gaming. Here are some exclusive new pictures of Dungeons and Dragons being played on Surface at PAX East. I’m getting pretty excited to try this out myself. Hopefully, there will be a Surface installation at PAX Prime…

Photos courtesy of Greg Bilsland of Wizards of the Coast.

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Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics #50 – Thrones of Punjar

When 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was about to be released, Wizards of the Coast completely dropped the ball on getting information about the game to third party publishers. The result was a dearth of quality, unofficial supporting material for the new edition at launch. Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games was the only game publisher with the foresight to recognize several things. Wizards of the Coast has a track record of putting out great rule books, but mediocre adventures. Also, due to the aforementioned lack of support and licensing information, no other third party publishers would have products in their development pipelines. Joseph spoke with his attorneys and figured out how to release his products using the existing open gaming licensing until the new third party licensing information was available. This strategic move gave Goodman Games a several month lead over its competitors and gave the gaming public some of the best adventures yet for the fourth edition.

Leveraging the star power of the Dungeon Crawl Classics line of products, Goodman Games launched their 4th edition line of adventures with DCC #53: Sellswords of Punjar under the OGL. They continued operating under this license  through DCC #61: Citadel of the Corruptor with the advice of legal counsel and I suspect some back room chats – are you going to sue me, Hasbro? Goodman then switched to using the released and revised GSL with DCC #62: Shrine of the Fallen Lama.

Of the adventures released thus far by any publisher, DCC #60: Thrones of Punjar by Rick Maffei stands out as one of the best adventure released for D&D 4th edition. Though released last year, I was shocked to not find a single review of this adventure on the internet. Be you a follower of the Old School or the New Generation, every gamemaster owes it to themself to seek out and study this work of art. Maffei fleshes out the interests of several competing factions and weaves them together into a cohesive narrative. If you take the time to read through the adventure module and study the characters motivations, you will be able to extemporaneously move your players through the module regardless of the path they take.

The foundation of any great adventure is to have an interesting and memorable villain. Thrones of Punjar has this in spades. One of the major villains is an albino aboleth called Churlydtyrch. An outcast of abolethic society, Churlydtrych has taken up residence in the sewers of below the Devil’s Thumb district of Punjar. Punjar is a gritty port town in Goodman Game’s campaign world of Aereth, but can easily be recast into any campaign setting. The aboleth has comfortably encircled itself with servitors lured from the city streets above. Churlydtyrch has thrived for some time while operating below the radar, but people have been disappearing and the citizens of the Devil’s Thumb have grown suspicious and fearful.

Several lower noble houses vie for control of  the Devil’s Thumb. House Rohamari has been running a succesful gambling establishment for some time, but House Malhaven recently opened a competing operation that is growing in popularity. House Rohamari’s profits are suffering and they seek to do away with their chief competitor. Beluth of House Rohamari, a cunning, former adventurer, has uncovered the existence of the aboleth and forges an alliance. Beluth agrees to help hide Churlydtyrch and provide new servitors in exchange for use of the aboleth’s thralls. Beluth sets up a secret cult based in a chamber below the House Rohamri casino to recruit unsuspecting victims.

The nobles of Punjar often share the responsibilty of hosting high-ranking visitors of neighboring cities. House Malhaven has been tasked with hosting the daughter of a prominent ambassador named Ardwen Toldara. Beluth sees his opportunity to discredit his enemy. Working through Churlydtyrch, he ambushes and captures Ardwen. The players are tasked with finding Ardwen before his arrival.

Maffei imbues the story with a sense of urgency that propels the player characters forward. The ambassador is rushing toward Punjar while the guards frantically search for his daughter. If the players do not find Ardwen before the evening of the third day, she is slain – a fact that is held back from the players.

The adventure plays out like a mystery novel. Along the way, the players find clues that lead them closer to Ardwen. As the party makes its way through the city, they constantly run into competing interests. A gang of street toughs attempts to hold them up on the docks. A band of doppelganger assassins are hired by Beluth to ambush the heroes launching an interesting battle. The doppelgangers attempt to split the party up and mirror the player appearance to confuse them.

Maffei makes extensive use of scripted events throughout the book. Different events are triggered depending on the previous actions of the players. The story can get slightly confusing, but a flowchart with several branches is given at the end of the book to make it easier. This adventure is squarely in the new school of gaming. The adventure is story-driven, detailed and internally consistent.

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this module, I can see how some people would object to this type of story-based adventure. What if my players happen to go right to the end of the story and the flowchart says I should kick off a particular event? Don’t feel constricted to slavishly following the flowchart. Maffei devotes several paragraphs to each non-player character’s personality and motivations making it easy to riff the story in any direction your player’s choose to run.

I wholeheartedly recommend Thrones of Punjar. The best complement I can give this book is I actually want to run my players through it in its entirety. When I read a module, I usually rip out a few encounters or ideas and work them into my campaign. After reading Thrones of Punjar, I really want to re-skin and run the entire module from start to finish. The story is well written and the villians are memorable. Every gamemaster should add this new school gem to their bookshelf.

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SceneSound version 1.6.309 released

SceneSound has released a new version. I had a chance to poke around with it and the new features look interesting. Each sound can now have special effects: echo, flanger, tempo, and pitch. A new gain option has been introduced to boost the volume of audio files that were recorded too low. The random feature has been fine tuned to give you more control over which random bank files play. A universal sound bank has been added as well. Sounds in this panel are always loaded no matter what scene you have loaded.

Download the new version here.

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Build the best multimedia D&D rig ever – Part 1

I’m finally ready to unveil my latest project: a video and sound effects processing machine mounted in a portable case. The project is geared toward use with tabletop RPGs. The kit will contain a video projector to display initiative and effects during combat, images and video  to illustrate the plot and a speaker system for music and sound effects. A wireless network access point will be installed to allow remote control from a laptop or iPhone.

While this project is primarily for use by dungeon masters, the final product could easily be adapted for use as a VJ rig or a mobile theater. I’ll be posting my progress over the next several weeks with instructions and pictures. This will be more of a HOWIDIDIT than a HOWTO. I won’t be providing exact part lists because I’m scrounging half of the parts from my junk drawers. Hopefully others will find it useful in assembling their own DIY kits.

If you have been following the site, you already know I am a laptop DM. I use a laptop, sound effects and a LCD projector in my weekly D&D game. I pack all my electronics, dice bag and minis into a plastic suitcase and lug it to work on game days. I’ve been using the setup for a little over three months with great success, but I do notice some problems now.

My biggest issue with my current rig is configuration time. It takes me at least 15 minutes to get everything ready and 10 minutes to break down at the end of the gaming session. I’d like to build a more versatile rig that can be assembled in under 3 minutes so I can kickback and chat with my friends. Because I live in Seattle, my second biggest problem is the weather. I currently store all my game materials in a watertight case because I never know when I’ll end up in a torrential downpour. The case modification must remain waterproof.

Step 1: Pick a case

The first step is to find a case. Look for something light, not too bulky. We want to keep it easy to transport, right? The local army surplus store is a good place to start rummaging. Carefully inspect the casing for damage. For my purposes, I was also looking to make sure the weatherstripping was still in place. Make sure all the fasteners are in working order. You want a container with sufficient space to hold your gear and have room to grow. You may want to print out the dimensions of your equipment before heading to the store.

Eventually you will find the perfect case. Mine was made of rugged plastic and big enough to hold my projector with room left over for a computer, speakers and storage. The cases I found came in two varieties: hinged lid or removable lid. I decided to go with a hinged lid. My idea was to mount the projector and computer upside down in the lid. Then I could prop the lid open partially to beam my visuals. Depending on where the projector is mounted, you might be able to angle the beam by mounting it near the front of the lid.

Step 2: Get a projector and mount

Bring your case home and clean it up a bit, peel off any packing labels and wipe out the dust. I already had a projector, an Epson EMP-1705c. After googling around a bit, I determined a ceiling mount was the best way to mount my projector in my case.

Find a ceiling mount. Luckily, I found an inexpensive ceiling mount for my projector on ebay. The mount was low profile – only adding four inches to the height. It arrived a few days later and even had standoffs so I didn’t have to remove the projector feet.

Secure the ceiling mount to the projector following the instructions included.

Step 3: Determine mount point

Figure out where you are going to attach your projector. Flip over the lid and balance the mounted projector inside. Try to find a sweet spot in the case where the projector mount can swivel while leaving space for mounting other components later.

Once you find the spot, open and close the lid several times to make sure it won’t rub against the projector.

Mark the mount point with a marker.

Step 4: Drill holes

Now, it’s time to drill mounting holes. My mount only required 2 holes.

After puncturing the lid, slide a screwdriver into the hole. Work it gently in a circle to widen the opening.

I used a plastic washer on top of a metal washer and fastened the wing nuts very tightly to keep water from leaking into the case.

Next, screw in the bolts. The holes should be large enough to get the bolts started but small enough to keep a good grip on the bolt threads.

Step 6: Attach projector

With the mounting bolts secure, flip over the case. In the photo below, you can see the dry erase marks from when I marked the edge of my mount.

Disconnect the base of the ceiling mount and fish a couple wingnuts and washers out of your tool box.

Handtighten the wingnuts.

Here’s a shot of the other end of my projector mount joint. Reach under the projector and screw it into the mount base.

Here’s a shot of the project after I secured it to the mount base.

Double check that your case can still close.

Flip the case over to make sure the projector is secure.

Step 7: Add shock absorbers

Tape or glue some padding into your case to protect your components. I was afraid the mount would shake loose and my projector would be damaged. Put foam in various places to immobilize your projector. I cut a chunk from a block of soft foam I salvaged from a shipment to the office.

I used double-sided mounting tape to mount the padding, but you could glue it if you’re not concerned about repurposing the case later.

Step 8: Take a break

Break time. I suggest some IPA and pierogies.

Step 9: Check your work

Did you fry the projector? Power up your projector, plug in your laptop and verify everything is working. I’m using a drumstick from my Rockband drums to prop open the case until I can get something better. In the shot below you can see the inititive tracker I created in processing. Here is a short demo if you are interested.

Be sure to check back soon. In future installments, I will be mounting my Acer Revo in the lid, installing a 2.1 sound system, hooking up the wireless access point and automating my sound and video effects.

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Larry Elmore interview

Alessandro Sacco posted a brand new interview with Larry Elmore over on the Acaeum forums. He’s looking for someone to publish it. I guess I better tell him American publishers generally don’t care to publish articles that have already been posted to the internet.

Larry Elmore is purely and simply one of the best fantasy artists ever and surely one of my favourites. Many, many gamers remember him for the great covers and artwork done for TSR Inc and, especially in Italy, for his amazing work on the Classic Dungeons & Dragons game (from Basic to Immortal boxed sets): his appearances in our country are always packed events and there is a very long line of fans of every age asking for an autograph or a drawing. I discovered Larry Elmore’s wonderful talent when, in 1986, I bought my very first copy of the Classic Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (the famous ‘red box’) and became a great fan of his work. It’s a great honour and privilege being able to interview one of the Masters of Fantasy Art.

Read the full interview here.

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Programming puzzles and other RPG tools with perl

Gamers love puzzles. Even better – gamers like challenging puzzles. In my far out alternate modern world of cyberpunk, the gaming PCs became engrossed in their first “real” puzzle of the campaign. The best thing about it was that not only was it a “real” challenge – but it used real modern technology.

My game system is GURPS. In the current campaign NPC D@rkSt4R has inconspicuously contacted each member of the team (PCs) and arranged an in person secret rendezvous. His prestigous reputation within the community lends him all the juice needed to pull these private tech junkies out of hiding. After arousing interest in a high paying opportunity – D@rkSt4R gets commitment from each colleague to begin work the next morning in the arranged location (his current abode). When the players arrive – they wait a painstakenly long time before they decide to break in the complex. Just after busting the entry bio scanner, an alarm cuts the air and the blues arrive in seconds (fast eh? strange). The officers arrest the group on suspicion of illegal activities. Hours later, exhausted and hungry – the team is interrogated over D@rkSt4R’s murder. Successful roleplaying convinced the investigators that the crew was innocent and, in exchange for liberty, secured their services for no less than 10 hours of work each. They were tasked with discovering the contents of a high-security military grade microchip (prop was a micro-sd card).”

The microchip contains an encrypted file using a centuries old Vigenere cipher. The team needed to figure out the cipher type, and the “secret key” – or password. I chose this cipher because this family of ciphers are relatively well known. They are also breakable without the need for complex computer analysis.

The challenge was straightforward enough:

  • clue/prop: a military grade microchip (this was really just a microSD card)
  • challenge: why did Darkstar have this in his possession at the time of his death? What was on it?

There’s that old adage that says if the only tool in your belt is a hammer – every problem looks like a nail. Well, I happen to possess quite the hammer in my belt, a Throngden Battle Hammer+2, it’s called Perl. The language of the Gods.. yes, BELIEVE IT! To your gaming delight I can show you why having this skill has taken my gamemastery to the next level (which is level 56).

The team took a while to figure out the cipher – and eventually elected to roll for the answer; I did, however, make them work for it by requesting they formulate their queries intelligently. For example: “what’s the cypher?” didn’t work – accepted form was: “is this a ROT13 cipher?…” and so on [INT or COMPUTER skill].

The password was a bit on the ridiculously tough side; and I suggest you figure out your own clever and simpler method instead. I copied system files from my computer onto the sd card – with the exception of any files that began with the password sequence (benqy). All other letters were represented in the file list. It was tough and the team spent a lot of time running this one down as well. Bad puzzle?

message comparison

Once the team figured out the cipher – Google found them all the vigenere transformation tools they could ever use. If you’re wondering why I didn’t use an online tool to encrypt my message to begin with – it’s because my brain is wired the other way; I found it easier to implement the library in Perl!

With this in my back pocket – I can now reuse this program whenever I need to create an in game password challenge. Sweet!

So, now you’re wondering – “how do I get this to work for me?” – “is it easy to get it working on my computer?”. You tell me. Follow these steps to encrypt your own document in Vigenere using Perl.

  1. Install Perl – Activestate has a good Windows version that has a package manager
  2. lib YAML for Perl – windows users, use the PPM repository tool; others use sudo cpan -i YAML
  3. download this file bundle; it contains the crypt script and a config file
  4. extract bundle into a directory
  5. open a command prompt (or terminal)
  6. change to the directory that you unpacked the zip into
  7. write your plain text message in a file
  8. run the program with the filename of your plain text file as an argument
  9. the output is directed to the screen by default; you can force it into a file with the redirect command line operator: >

In the next article I will demonstrate how I created a WebDAV HTTP file server with Perl on my home computer – and how the team used modern day hacking techniques to sniff out this file server over the Internet!

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Review: RPG Atmosphere

RPG Atmosphere is the most intriguing RPG sound utility I have reviewed to date. The program comes with a large number of preconfigured sound scenarios you can drop into your game without having to spend hours preparing. Once you are ready to create your own scenarios, the  interface is easy to understand. RPG Atmosphere also has a number of features not seen in other RPG sound mixers such as integrated music playlists, changing background images, audio recording, evolving soundscapes and a scenario importer/exporter.

Version Reviewed: Beta
Website: http://www.rpgatmosphere.com/
Price: $28.95

Pros

– Large number of preset sound scenarios
– Includes many high quality sound effects
– Unique features

Cons

– Not enough customization
– Keyboard triggers need work
– Some glitches

 

The biggest draw of this program is the large number of preconfigured soundscapes. As gamemasters, we already spend hours preparing for a game. We don’t have a great deal of time to spend collecting sound effects and tinkering with loops. RPG Atmosphere removes much of this headache. Without having to fiddle with any controls, you can bring your game to a country farm, a festive medieval fair, a dragon’s lair or even a large cavern complete with dripping sounds reverberating throughout the chamber. Just launch the program and click one of the 32 included scenarios. You will be able to bring amazing sounds to the table even if you have never used sound in your game before.

Once you have grown tired of the preconfigured sounds, you may want to delve into the interface. You create new scenarios starting in the main window. Save one of the existing scenarios with a new name and start experimenting. There are three types of sounds you can configure: background, random and soundboard.

Background sounds are the foundation of your sound scenario. These sounds play in an endless loop. An example of a background sound would be the sound of rain or the murmur of tavern patrons. Two of the background sound panels, Back1 and back2, are preloaded. You can load any sound loops you desire in the ‘Cust B’ panel. Each background sound has a number of configuration options you can control. Independent volume control is a staple of every sound. The volume range can also be set which lets you set a minimum and maximum volume. The ‘Rate of Change’ slider will let you control the speed at which the volume bounces back and forth within the volume range. There is also a left/right stereo balance that allows you to position sounds in stereo. The sounds default to center balanced playback, but I’ve found alternately adjusting your sounds slightly to the left and right of center really adds depth to the sound scenario.

Sounds on the random panel play at — you guessed it — random intervals over your background. This might be the crack and boom of lightning during a rain storm or a lost sheep bleating in a meadow. Random sounds break up the monotony of your background loops and bring the scene to life. The random panel has four preset panels and one customizable panel. The random sound configuration parameters are limited to volume and pitch. Unfortunately, there are no stereo controls here.

The soundboard is for manually triggering individual sounds. Use this panel when you want to trigger sounds that you do not want to loop, like the clang of a sword when one or your players makes an attack or the beating of wings as a dragon takes flight. The soundboard comes with 4 preconfigured banks: Feet and doors, Monsters, Weapons and Atmospherics. There are an additional two empty banks, but you can make changes to any soundboard bank. The included soundboard sounds cover a wide array of roleplaying situations. Overall, the sounds are of very good quality. I got a kick out of the ominous sounds on the Atmospherics panel. You can also map keys to triggers sounds in this panel though the beta version I reviewed had this feature disabled.

RPG Atmosphere also adds a great deal of features I’ve never seen in other RPG sound mixers. While not completely innovative, my favorite feature is the integrated mp3 player with playlist support. You can create playlists of music to match the action in your game. Most importantly, the player features an independent volume control so you can adjust it on the fly.

Another feature I like is being able to use background images. You can attach an image file to a scenario and it will show up in the background when you play it. You can even configure it to display on a second monitor. I use an LCD projector when running my games so this is a really neat feature.

RPG Atmosphere also allows you to create audio recordings of the output. I can see it being very useful if you wanted to prerecord a soundscape and save it to an mp3 player. Then you can play back great sounding audio without having to haul around a laptop.

The evolve feature is completely unique. It allows you to change the scenario based on a timer. Click the evolve button in the main controller window to enable weather conditions and nighttime transitions. You can configure your scenario to morph over time without any input whatsoever ever.

Finally, there are the sharing features. Vectorsoft Media has gone out of their way to create a community around this application. The RPG Atmosphere forums are a great place to share scenarios that you save with the importer/exporter. I look forward to pulling down some user generated scenarios.

Unlike some other gaming sound programs, RPG Atmosphere is supported under Windows 7 and Windows Vista. It even runs on 64bit versions of the OS. No Mac or Linux support, but that’s par for the course.

Overall, I love this program. I’m going to start converting my sounds over and use this as my primary sound application, but there are some shortcomings. I’d like to see more customization. Why can’t there be more customizable banks? Is there a technical reason for not being able to adjust the L/R balance of random sounds? The default keyboard triggers are strangely mapped. In the beta version available on the website right now, I believe that control key is still mapped as the ‘next scenario’ shortcut. If you want to put this program in the background, you may run into some frustration if you need to use your control key. The programmer insisted via email he is changing this behavior so it may be fixed by the time this article is published. Lastly, there is some glitchy behavior in the program. Interface options that don’t work and slow redrawing of some control windows. Since this software is still in beta, it’s to be expected.

You can download the application and use it completely free for 21 days. The program is a commercial application and I hope the kinks are worked out before the trial period expires. The price is a little higher than other commercial RPG sound mixers, but I think this program will be worth it once it’s out of beta. I highly recommend grabbing the trial version and trying to use it in your game – even if you’ve never used sound in your game before.

RPG Atmosphere
OS Supportwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Supports 32 and 64bit Windows Operating Systems only.
Programabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Offers a large number of sliders and options to control your soundscapes.
Usabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Overall, the program is very easy to use. The interface still has a few inconsistencies. The developer is very active so I expect this will change in the near future.
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
RPG Atmosphere is on the verge of becoming the top dog in the arena of RPG sound mixers. If you are in the market for an easy to use sound mixer with hidden depth, check this one out.
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