10 Aug 2015

I am on the verge of my first time being GamesMaster, with a group of four friends (most of us have played together in an adventure before). I’ll be leading them though the first Pathfinder adventure path: Rise of the Runelords.

Last week we went through the Beginner Box content “Black Fang’s Dungeon”. It went well, although we were a bit rushed at the end, and the dramatics suffered somewhat. This week we worked on PCs. Believe me, there are some interesting ones. They’re working on background stories and fleshing out details now and I plan to introduce them shortly.


I was a classic fantasy/sci-fi geek/nerd from as early as I can remember. Star Trek TOS reruns on Saturday were the highlight of my week. I watched TNG from the first episode to the last, as they aired. In fact, my daughter was named after Lt. Natasha Yar. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read and watched The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Actually, I’m due for a reread (actually, I mostly listen to the audiobook version these days).

So, you might think that I would have grown up playing D&D. Although my group of friends in high school and were avid players, due to my parent’s strongly (and wrongly in my opinion) held religious beliefs, that was out of the question for me. Even so, I was rabidly interested. Then there was university, and building a successful career in software development, and I got away from gaming. Over the last 10 years or so I gradually have been gaming more & more. Some Warhammer Fantasy, Diablo 2, an assortment of GameBoys and DSes, and so forth. Then, as they sometimes do, worlds collided and I found myself as Lead Software Engineer (now Director of Innovation) at SteelSeries, a company making gaming peripherals. In short, a gaming heavy environment.

GenCon 2014

I had heard of GenCon for a long time and always wanted to attend. Now I found myself living in Chicago (a short bus trip away) and working for a company that was amenable to me taking time to attend. So I made the pilgrimage to Indy for GenCon 2014 where I discovered Pathfinder by Paizo. And that, as they say, was the beginning of the end (or the beginning of the beginning, if you will).

The Software

I’m a techie myself, and all of my players are tech-savvy to various degrees. So, naturally, one of my goals is to leverage technology as much as is reasonably possible. I discovered a wealth of software at GenCon 2014, and promptly bought licenses when I returned home.

For PC (that’s Player Character in this context) development and management, I use Hero Lab from Lone Wolf Development. Several of my players use Hero Lab as well so after PC creation they simple had to email me their PC portfolio. For players that aren’t using Hero Lab (and I wonder why they aren’t) I’ll enter their PC manually for my uses. This lets me have all the stats on my PCs always at hand. The thing I really like about Hero Lab is that you can add on source material that you need based on what you are allowing your players to use. If you are running Rise of the Runelords as I am, the associated encounter library gives you statsheets on all the monsters you need for the entire adventure. This is great if you can simply import them into your virtual tabletop.

Speaking of virtual tabletops, there are several alternatives. I decided to go with d20Pro from Mesa Mundi, as they were just about to kick off a [Kickstarter][d20prokickstarter] to fuel their next version when I met them at GenCon. Disclosure: I ended up backing it. Since my PCs are in Hero Lab, I can always import an up to date version directly into d20Pro before each session. d20Pro gives me fog of war capability which is invaluable in keeping players in the dark and unaware of what’s around the next corner. It manages initiative, combat math, damage and status tracking, etc.

I’m using Syrinscape for ambient and situational sound. They’ve had sound packs for Rise of the Runelords for some time and they’ve just come out with soundboards for some of the Pathfinder iconics.

For campaign management, I chose Realm Works (also from Lone Wolf). It’s a bit overwhelming, but once I got the hang of the UI, things went along nicely. Pasting from the Paizo PDFs (specifically Rise of the Runelords) is a pain at times due to weirdness with formatting in the PDF, but at least it’s somewhat consistent. Realm Works is basically a table top RPG-centric database. It lets you manage NPCs, monsters, locations, maps etc, etc. … any and all information that makes up your adventure. Everything can be automatically hyperlinked and cross referenced, allowing you to easily navigate a vast amount of information. Where this really comes into it’s own is with the player version. My syncing with the Lone Wolf cloud, you can share all this information (well, all that you’ve entered into Realm Works) with your players. This would not be such a great thing except for the ability to selectively make information visible to the players. Lone Wolf calls this “Fog of World”. So, not only do you have a navigable, searchable database of your adventure, players can have access to the subset of it that you’ve made visible to them.

Unlike Hero Lab, Syrinscape, and d20Pro, Realm Works is Windows only. Ugh. The promise of a web version is compelling enough to put up with running it in windows via a VM for now.

The Hardware

So that’s the software. As I mentioned above, I’m running the adventure from my MacBookPro. Hero Lab doesn’t get too much use during sessions, but that still leaves d20Pro, Realm Works, and Syrinscape. d20Pro is front & center during combat. Realm Works is running full screen on a second screen which I can flip to as required. Syrinscape is used in two modes. First there’s ambient sound during roleplaying parts of the session. That’s low impact. Choose a “mood” and let it play. That’s the real joy and utility of Syrinscape. The other mode is during combat when there’s more call for action based one-off sounds. That leads to a contention between it and d20pro during the action. At first I was using switching between apps, each on their own OXS “screen”. That didn’t work as well as I wanted so now I’ll be using my iPad as an external screen for the MacBookPro (using a snazzy app called Duet) and running Syrinscape on the iPad display (not running the iPad version of Synrinscape, but the OSX Syrinscape app, displayed on the iPad).

I also have our large screen TV and sound system connected via HDMI to the MacBookPro for playing the sound (in 5.1 surround) from Synrinscape as well as using the TV as an external display for showing things like area maps or other images to the players.

The player version of d20Pro runs on my old 24” iMac. I took the stand off so that I could lie it on it’s back on our coffee table that the players are sitting around. This let’s them be in full control of their characters when we’re playing on a map (typically when they’re in combat or other tactical situation). My laptop and the iMac communicate using our home wifi which has been perfectly adequate. Just look at those happy faces. One player is missing in this photo as he is sitting off to the side at that moment.

At GenCon last year, and again at PaizoCon this spring, I spent some time hanging and chatting with (and going to seminars by) the folks from Lone Wolf, Mesa Mundi, and Syrinscape. They’re all great companies and people and I’m very happy to support them and their products.