Oct 30

Speeding Up D&D 4e Combat

I’ve been running 4e for a while now, and here’s what I’ve learned about speeding up combat:

1) Each player has more options in each round.  If each player looks over each and every option as it comes to their turn, and not before, slowness ensues.

2) Having cards for each power (there are many nice ones available to print out) saves a lot of time, because you can turn over your daily and encounter powers as they get used, thus reducing the number of options you have to choose from.

3) Monsters have more hit points – the idea is that each PC will get a chance to do something to them before they go down.  So if you plan to have more than 2-3 enemies for the PCs to fight, consider using minions to pad out the rest, since they go down much quicker, but allow you to retain the tactical interest of a mob.

4) Dice matter a lot more, so if someone is having an off night, things will go longer.  One way to help with this is to make sure your enemies have a reasonable AC.  Even though the XP totals might work out, monsters that are 2-3 levels higher than the PCs are often quite hard to hit, which can slow things down.  Save those for special occasions.

5) Keeping track of conditions is better in 4e in that they typically only last one round, rather than dX.  That said, there are often more conditions to keep track of.  I’ve been using the little Alea Tools magnets to keep track of conditions, but condition cards that can be flipped over once someone saves might work even better.

6) I agree with Jonathon’s comment in that if your group isn’t used to working as a team, and considering how their actions affect everyone else, it can slow things down.  After 3-4 sessions, my group really got into the groove, and started really laying the hammer down.  So, one suggestion might be to run the encounters toward the bottom of the
XP range until your group gets in sync with their character set.

7) In general, they removed a lot of the aspects of combat that were slow and didn’t add tactical/RP interest.  However, they added a lot of tactical options, and powers that convey more of the spirit of each class.  But it’s still your job as DM to keep an eye on your group, and to present them a mix of encounters that they enjoy.  If they aren’t as interested in the complex tactical aspects, then send them simpler monsters, and/or ignore what’s not working for them.  I’ve often found that you can use say, a poison attack once or twice to get people the flavor, and then let it go for the rest of the battle to speed things up.

8) For newer players, I often will only give them one power card per level to worry about.  Some players will be happy with that forever. Others might want to branch out into more options as time goes on.

9) Mixing in the RP with the combat is another way to make things more interesting.  You might have three groups of enemies, and they are chasing the PCs around, rather than just having a slugfest in a room.

10) If you are running a published scenario, don’t be afraid to scale back the encounters in terms of numbers of enemies to speed things up…

Oct 27

Return to Northmoor Late This Week – Line 6 POD X3 Problems

So, it’s no secret that Line 6’s POD X3 has had a number of serious problems with it’s USB interface.  There is even a sticky thread in the support forums that basically says “yep, it’s broke, we’re working on how to fix it”…that’s been up for months.

That said, I’ve always been able to record just fine with my X3, even though playback would only work for about 10 minutes before dropping out and requiring a reboot of the device.
So, I went ahead and recorded the last episode of Return to Northmoor with the X3, since it has drivers for Vista 64, and my M-Audio MobilePre USB does not.  (The MobilePre works in ‘class compliant’ mode, which means that it has one mic input instead of two, which doesn’t cut it for a two-person show).
Everything *looked* fine while recording, in terms of the waveforms that I could see in REAPER.  Of course, halfway through recording the playback cut out, so I couldn’t go back and listen.
When I later went back to edit the show, I found that the X3 had dropped out every 5th word or so of the 2nd half of the show.  To say I was ready to throw the X3 in the toilet would’ve been an understatement.
I had a POD 2.0 and a PODxt Live that never gave me a lick of trouble.  They were some of the best audio product’s I’ve every owned. But he X3Live is just evil.  It works just well enough to make you want to use it, and then…wham!
So anyway, I’m now using an M-Audio ProFire 610 that seems to be working well…so far.
But we’re going to have to re-record part 2, so it could be a while before the next episode is out…

UPDATE:  Looks like Line6 has finally found the source of this problem to be a hardware issue, and has set up their warranty repair centers to perform the fix.  I was able to get mine in and get it fixed, but it took 8 weeks (!) and it still drops out from time to time. 🙁

Here’s Line 6’s info on the fix:

It has come to our attention that some POD X3 Live units exhibit audio drop outs when streaming audio while connected via USB. Line 6 has investigated the issue, discovered the root cause and released a verified hardware fix.

The USB audio drop out issue has a very specific symptom: audio output
while recording or streaming abruptly stops and will not return while
your X3 Live is connected to your computer via USB.

IMPORTANT: This issue has been seen in some POD X3 Live units only.

It does not affect all POD X3 Live units or any POD X3 or POD X3 Pro units.

If you are experiencing the USB audio drop out issue and live in the U.S., we can help you in one of two ways:

· You can call us at 818-575-3600 M-F 8a-5p west coast time and arrange to send the unit to Line 6 for warranty repair

· You can visit http://line6.com/support/serviceCenters/
to locate your nearest service center and arrange a warranty repair.
You will need to furnish the service center with a copy of your proof
of purchase for this repair to be made under warranty.

Please keep in mind that sending your unit into Line 6 or bringing it to a
local service center for this fix will mean you will be without your
POD X3 Live for at least two weeks, depending upon the turn-around time of the shop – so plan accordingly.

If you live outside of the U.S. please contact your local distributor,
also found on our service centers page, for warranty repair information

Oct 27

DVI Audio Noise – High Pitched Whine

So, while working on Return to Northmoor (northmoor.spookyouthouse.com) this week, I’ve been troubleshooting a very annoying high-pitched whine that has found it’s way into my audio stream.

It sounds a lot like high-speed Morse code.
I was able to determine that it was only present in the output from my computer and not while recording, which was good, but it was still driving me mad.
Eventually, by plugging and unplugging every component of my PC, I was able to determine that the noise was coming from my video card.  When I unplugged the cable to my LCD monitor, the noise about doubled.  I swapped out my high-end eVGA video card for a cheap one, and voila, no noise.  Still, I didn’t want to give up my good card, so I did some more research.  I’m not sure if what was going on was a ground loop, or DVI noise being directly conducted into my USB/FireWire stream by the video card (which sits right above one of the USB sockets on the motherboard), but switching to balanced audio cables killed off the noise.
The noise was getting in between the audio interface (an M-Audio Profire 610), and my powered monitor mixer.  I had been using nice (Monster Cable) unbalanced cables to connect them, but for whatever reason (conduction or ground loop), they were susceptible to the noise from the video card.
Even though the ProFire only has 1/4″ outputs, they can accept a balanced Tip-Ring-Sleeve (TRS) plug.
A balanced cable uses two wires + ground to carry the audio signal instead of one + ground.  Equipment that can work with balanced cables can detect if there is identical eletromagnetic interference on the two wires, and reject it.
Here’s a picture of one of the cables I am using now:
You can tell that it’s a balanced cable because the 1/4″ plug has two bands on it, hence tip, ring (between the white bands) and sleeve (the rest of the plug and the connector housing).
You may have seen connectors like this for stereo audio cables.  If you use them for two channels of audio (stereo), then it’s two unbalanced channels in one cable.  Whereas I’m using two cables like this, one for the Left channel, and one for the Right.  So I have to use two cables, but each one is balanced, and this less-susceptible to interference and noise.
The other end is an XLR connector that plugs into my mixer.  XLR connectors are a hallmark of balanced cables, they are almost always present in a situation where you are going from a mic to a mixer or pre-amp, because mics have very low signal levels, and thus noise and interference can entirely swamp a signal.  Not to mention that by the time you amplify the signal a great deal, the noise gets amplified as well.
So lesson learned, used balanced cables where ever you can around computer equipment!
Oct 04

Return to Northmoor

Kim and I have been working a lot lately on our new podcast, Return to Northmoor, which is a new idea for podcasting.  Much like audiobooks let you read while you commute, Return to Northmoor presents a D&D module for you to learn while you commute.

In addition to being able to reclaim time from your commute to prepare to run your D&D game, Return to Northmoor also gives you very specific gaming advice on the material being presented.  So in addition to presenting the adventure material in audio format, it’s enhanced with helpful ideas on how to run it, as well as lessons learned from when we ran it ourselves.

To add an entertainment factor to the instruction, we intersperse the “here’s this session’s adventure” episodes with episodes that go over actual play of a session that has already been presented.

In this way, by the time you sit down to run Return to Northmoor for your own group, you’ve had a chance to not only hear the material as it is intended to be run, but also how it actually ran for our group.  So hopefully, it will help someone who wants to run the adventure feel more confident than simply reading a standalone presentation.

Check us out!