Combat Trackers Part 2: Virtual Tabletops / Face-to-Face Games

Posted in EpicTable Blog on December 30, 2007 at 12:23 am

Laptop PC superimposed on knights' combatIn my last post, I discussed combat trackers, particularly the GameMastery Combat Pad . In this post, I’ll look at combat tracking for virtual tabletops. I’m not going to be reviewing them, however. As the developer of EpicTable, a virtual tabletop to be released in 2008, there’s a conflict of interest inherent in any review I would do in the area of virtual tabletops. Instead, I’ll focus on the capabilities common to virtual tabletop combat trackers and will discuss the use of these tools in both online and face-to-face situations.

Combat Tracking Features

Round and Turn Tracking

Common to all these combat trackers is the notion of putting the combatants in initiative order and automatically advancing from combatant to combatant and round to round. While this is analogous to physical combat trackers, it’s different in a couple key ways. First, the ones that are initiative-aware will automatically roll initiative for you and place the combatants in initiative order. True, that’s a simple thing, but once you’ve gotten accustomed to it, it’s tough to go back to the break in the action caused by collecting initiative from all your players and rolling initiative for NPCs and monsters. Second, these tools automatically advance the round count. Again, a simple thing, but on my Combat Pad, I start forgetting to move the round count somewhere around round two or three.

Timers / Duration Tracking

Another common feature is the ability to set a timer to track spell durations and other effects. In a mid-level party, the number of buff or de-buff spells in play can quickly turn a physical combat tracker into an unintelligible mess. Combined with the auto incrementing round counter, this feature goes quite a long way towards offloading bookkeeping from the GM, letting him concentrate on the less mechanical aspects of running an encounter.

Health and Condition Tracking

Some of the virtual tabletops’ combat trackers allow you to “easily” apply damage and other conditions to combatants. Which of these mechanisms are truly easy is probably a matter of taste and your particular way of working with the tool. Try them out and see what works for you.

Virtual Trackers in a Physical World

Okay, I’m an unabashed fan of the virtual combat trackers (though I’ll confess to a bias towards the one I’ve implemented for EpicTable . I’m a software engineer by trade. I have ready access to a laptop and a wireless network connection where I game. I have what is arguably the perfect virtual combat tracker for me personally in EpicTable, because its developer (me) wrote it to my exacting specifications. … And I’m still using a physical combat tracker for my face-to-face game. Why is that?

As motivated as I am to use EpicTable in my face-to-face game, I find that I really like to get up and walk around to the table. I like to interact with the physical miniatures, when we’re using them. I like being on the same side of the screen as my players. I also find that there’s something different about interacting with your players and referring to / taking notes vs. interacting with your players and with a laptop. I feel like my players are secretly wondering if I’m checking my email or surfing the web. There’s something distancing about the act of using a computer while engaged with someone else. It immediately breaks the connection with your players—or at least that’s been my experience. Contrast the image of sitting behind a computer screen, typing and clicking, with the image of standing over the battlemat, combat tracker in hand, occasionally
making a quick note. Obviously, in a game run over the internet via a virtual tabletop, this isn’t an issue at all. You’re every bit as present (or not) whether you’re using a physical or virtual tracker, and the benefits of the latter clearly outweigh the former. In a face-to-face game, it’s different though.

So have I given up on using virtual tabletops’ combat trackers in face-to-face games? No. The benefits are just too great. The trick will be to somehow do away with the distance that the computer places between the players and the GM. Perhaps a tablet PC would do the trick. Maybe once my players and I are more used to the presence of the computer during a battle, it will cease to be an issue. I’m almost afraid of the latter, though, because I suspect that this is a very real problem, and one that I’d really like to try to address with EpicTable. I feel like I may have a relatively small window in which I’m sensitive enough to the issue to have an intuitive grasp for it. Or will everyone’s use of a computer at the table transition from awkward to unnoticed in a short amount of time? If so–if it’s a short path that everyone takes once and forgets–then it’s perhaps not a problem.

What do you think?

What do you readers think? Have you used the combat tracking capabilities of virtual tabletops in your face-to-face games? Are they distracting, or do their benefits allow you to run a better encounter? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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