More on the DDI Virtual Table, Breaking the Encounter Format

What are they calling this thing? The WOTC Virtual Table? The DDI Virtual Table? If you happen to be a beta tester (which I am) I think it’s just called the “Virtual Table”

Anyhow, Monday evening I wrapped up my 9th game via the DDI Virtual Table and I’m actually very impressed with it, in general. One thing that occurred to me is that there’s a mode of play in the virtual table that is not that possible in real life.

Allow me to explain: You can have a lot of room in the table for multiple battle maps.. and an unlimited amount of dungeon tiles. The battle maps themselves are quite large– much larger than the area covered on a typical real life battle mat. Also , the battle mat is persistent- I can import and export maps however I like, and save them from session to session. And I can annotate them with secrets and public notes.

The “delve format” that became popular in 3rd edition is the one where you have sort of a miniature section of a dungeon mapped out, and the encounter and tactics are sort of combined into a package. “Grells are going to appear near this waterfall and attempt to drag their victims underwater..” (and there’s helpful diagrams). Which is all very tactical.

But here’s this new thing: On the virtual table, you can lay out an entire dungeon level- a large one- I’m talking 50+ rooms all at once– and then shroud the map so that the players can only see the area they are immediately in.

Wait, why is that, cool? you may ask. So Now I got 50+ rooms. All at once. All laid out, with staircases and rooms and interconnecting passages and so on. Whatever!

What this means is: now you can break the encounter format. You can break it in interesting ways. And I’m about to tell you this totally counter-intuitive thing that you are going to disagree with in a second, so get your +2 scornful-face of derision ready.

With all due respect to most of my fellow 4th edition DMs, the idea of making every single encounter this package deal that is tailor-made to leave the group bloodied but alive and victorious after a grueling yet satisfying combat… is a short sighted way to manage a D&D game. There’s no music to it. There’s no dynamism. Living Forgotten Realms works this way and whenever anyone tries to address it, the admins (of which I am also one, at least as a point of contact) think “aha, we’ll fix this by making the encounters even harder” (Which accomplishes nothing). No- make them smaller and easier. And include more of them, and make them ALL optional and avoidable if the players are smart or sneaky enough. There’s no way to do that in Organized Play because we have to serve up tons of adventures to tons of DMs all at once, but YOU, you talented individual DM.. you can handle this.

If you want to make encounters interesting, make most of them easier. Use the appropriate level of monsters, but use half as many. Then create twice as many encounter areas.

Laying out the entire dungeon is a way to accomplish this, and I discovered it by accident. See, when you lay the whole dungeon out, you can sort of put the monster areas together, and say “ok, these hobgoblins live over here, and that’s where the hobgoblin chaplain is with his pet dire wolf, and those living statues are over in the alcove on that side…” and it all makes sense. But players are also free to aggro or not aggro (depending on their abilities- are they sneaky? can they bluff? can they scout ahead?) however they like. And of course, sometimes it makes sense to isolate an area where it only has a few monsters that are not technically a “tough, challenging encounter”. Players can use their smarts to divide and conquer. They can lead the hobgoblins into the pit trap area they discovered, or create ambushes. Often the players (if they are smart, and the best ones obviously are) will figure out a way to fight encounters about half the size of a normal one.

So some of you are shaking your heads in disbelief and derision because that’s not challenging at all.

And I’m telling you this: You get encounters that last 20-30 minutes, and you get 4-6 (or more) in a night. And now you have to really manage your healing surges, because by the end of the delve, you will all be running low.

Also, in order to not be predictable, I think it’s ok to throw some over the top stuff in there. Because once the agency of whether to fight and how is back in the players hands? It’s ok to place monsters that are somewhat higher level back in the mix. So toss a pair of wyverns in a cavern on that 1st level dungeon. Let the players come up with a way to fight or avoid those guys on their own.

Here’s the second thing I learned: If the dungeon is persistent (which means– I save my dungeon battle-map layout from week to week): and the players continue to level up, eventually they are able to clear dungeon areas, even when the encounters are lower level. And they seem to like doing that.

Third thing: The fog of war- I have this gigantic battle map dungeon layout thingy, but the table only shows the areas that have been explored. This makes players curious whats around the next corner, trying to guess where passages link together.. what’s in the unexplored areas? It’s a top down map, so players only get to see the overhead layout (the rest is shrouded in the ‘fog of war’). One bit of metagaming that I have kinda winked at is when players say.. “hey guys.. there’s a big blank space in here.. let’s check for secret doors..”

With each session they expose a little more until they uncover the whole thing. And then they have “beat” that dungeon.

Pro Tip: Make that “beating the dungeon” thing a quest reward. In fact make a minor quest reward for each subsection of the dungeon – the crypts could be a quest, the hobgoblins could be a quest, and the wyvern cave could be a quest. Also random dungeon features like “wreck the demon arch on level 2” could be a quest. Throw tons of quests at PCs. I’ll explain why in a future post.

This single thing about mapping out an entire level seems to move the focus of encounters from tactical back to strategic: I’ve reintroduced hallways traps and eerie messages and clues to the “seemingly empty” parts of the dungeon, and that in turn has driven a renewed interest in using rituals (like Comprehend Language and Last Sight Vision to figure out clues, Detect Secret Doors and Comrades Succor since the PCs know they aren’t doing just a 3 encounter run and then done..). If PCs want to take an extended rest, they have to find a room and spike it shut. If PCs run from one area into another, they aggro all of the monsters they encounter. This returns players to a state of acting like adventurers and gives them agency.. They have options. They are physically reminded each time they reach a T intersection that it’s up to them.

I have a dungeon on Monday 6PM EST campaign (Tanglemire if anyone wants to get in on it.. it’s usually full up, but I have a slot open from week to week) that is actually detailed with full maps down 3 levels. In concept it goes down 10 levels. There is also at least one sub-level (a vampire’s nest – which is about 12 rooms) that sits in between level 1 and 2. Pcs are just now hitting 4th level. Drop ins are welcome if there’s room. Feel free to check it out if you happen to have beta access!

But seriously, I want to advise you try out this lay out an entire dungeon and use smaller encounters throughout thing. Just try it. You don’t need the Virtual Table for that.

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Nunya!

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21 Responses

  1. So they’re still playing catch up with the myriad cross platform free virtual tables out there… ?

    • I’ve used Fantasy Grounds 1 and 2, ScreenMonkey, WebRPG and OpenRPG and the WOTC one is so far the best if they can get over the memory limit. I’ve had too many games fail due to router or IP issues to think otherwise.

  2. To be fair, all of that could be done with any virtual table top software that has fog of war ability.

    When I ran Thunderspire for one of my groups using MapTool ( I built each of the sections (Horned Hold, Well of Demons, etc) at once, and modified encounters so neighboring ‘encounters’ could be triggered, and runners would come back during a rest.

    • This was my thought when I read this article, too – this isn’t new if you’ve ever tried any virtual tabletop software before.

      But then I realized something that’s quite promising about Virtual Table – this might be more successful than I thought in getting D&D players to try playing online. Lots of them might not even know that MapTool and its brethren exist.

      Here’s hoping that the Virtual Table ends up being a big success and drives new players to D&D by making it more obviously easy to play a game online, avoiding the challenges of having to line up the schedules of five or more people in one location for hours at a time.

      • The advantage that this has over MapTools (and FG2 for that matter…) is that you don’t ever have to log into your router or tinker with any settings. The server is hosted at the website, not on an individual machine.

  3. How often did your players get a Short Rest?

  4. I let them do short rests whenever they wanted one and weren’t interrupted for 5 minutes. ie, on a whim I might roll for a wandering encounter (importing monsters in the table is fairly simple now, so I could improvise them), are they being quiet? Are they hiding in an unoccupied area? Did they set off explosions in the last encounter?

  5. Great post! I love the idea of mapping out the entire dungeon then shrouding the details. It sounds like it would be much more realistic. Plus the element of surprise wouldn’t be lost as soon as the players see the map. I can’t wait to try out the Virtual Table.

  6. I was reading this going wow, yeah, wow. This is insightful. Then I had flashbacks to the predigital days. Before the battlegrid.

    I wish I could say that this was new but it just reminded me of how my friends and I used to design dungeons. This is a good thing mind you, because in all the hyperbole of the new editions it is something I think is missing now.

    Back in the day before the nifty map making programs (which I love) we used graph paper and if that was not available notebook or even a sketchbook.

    We would fill those suckers with encounters galore and challenge the party. It was how a lot of the old AD&D modules were built as well. Before battle maps and dungeon tiles we had just paper and Plexiglas covers to draw the maps.

    Chessex battlemaps for the wet erase people. I am not belittling your post because I found it rekindling my desire to go back to those days. Skip the dungeon tiles or integrate them back into using my chessex battlemaps.

    I think in the simplicity that is the current editions encounter building, it has come down to a science of building it to match the players skills and abilities and it becomes a slugfest which takes time to complete. Smaller encounters and more of them does the same thing but breaks up the balanced encounters.

    If the DM uses their own maps and lets players discover the dungeon like in the old days then just like you said they can use traps to their advantage, use rooms to already fought in to make strategic decisions.

    I like this article a lot because of the ideas it is building in my head right now. Coupled with my ideas of the random encounters from the AD&D days it will go great with them. Thanks for making me think again.

  7. Not possible in organized play? 🙂 Check out Ashes of Athas for some examples of this. You can have table-top (not VTT) games with many short battles. The key is to devise a short rest system that kicks in based on the desired challenge level. No short rests, get just one thing back, get two things back… use the short rest mechanic but place limits based on how much challenge you need. This way, they aren’t spamming the encounter powers room after room and there are more resource constraints than just surges.

    In my home campaign I am experimenting with this in various ways (again, all on a real table-top). What worked well last night was a series of short skill challenges where many surges were drained. This is a nice set up for a series of battles.

    A lot of my inspiration came from reading RJ Schwalb’s topics on this and SRM’s follow-up. I wrote about that here and will be writing about it again in the future.

    • I played the first Ashes of Athas adventure, and in general I liked it (I have a pregnant goliath- I guess half-giant fighter..) who chose to become a preserver because she wanted to create a better world for her child. It was a fun adventure, even if it was just a bit on rails. Looking forward to playing in Athas again at GenCon!

  8. Well just to start, I don’t like running games with virtual tables, mainly because I always run live, not through Internet. But also I like this idea you expose here. I like to draw my own maps in paper with al the details and everything, since I don’t use Oficial Tiles, maybe sometimes NewbieDM’s ones, but its ok, I like drawing.

    But, how would you do to make this you’re proposing here in that? Cause I really want to give it a try, but maybe drawing a 50×50 map its… a lot, more when you think and your players maybe won’t explore it entire, so you’ll waste some time doing it.

    Great post 😉

    • If I were to do this in RL.. I’d use one of those Gaming Paper butcher rolls.. you could literally draw 8-10 feet of dungeon that way.

  9. As others have noted I don’t think there is anything new here, but hopefully it will bring more players to try VTT software.

    I moved my group over from dry-erase to MapTool a few years ago, first using a projector and later just hooking a laptop to a 46″ TV. This brought huge benefits in a couple of areas:

    – Better use of time, as the DM was no longer wasting time drawing stuff on dry-erase boards with 5 people waiting for him to complete some complex layout

    – No more minis being knocked over by flying dice or clumsy players

    – Far better battlefield overview, buff/debuff tracking and target selection as everybody can see at a glance who needs a heal, which monster is badly hurt etc

    – Fog of war and line of sight tools making it really easy to determine what players can see or target

    – Much better spell effect tracking (using overlays for Wall of Fire, Clouds etc)

    – Previously it was very inconvenient to use tactics like a fighting withdrawal if it meant going outside what was currently drawn on a dry erase board, this limited players to whatever was drawn at the moment. Now the entire game area is always there, allowing much more dynamic movement options.

    – Built in ‘reminders’ that are only visible for the DM (terrain effects, trap difficulty etc) cutting down on mistakes (DM forgets an effect) or referencing (having to pick up some notes or printed material to check details)

  10. Sounds like a rediscovery of old school adventure design to me.


    • Maybe not a rediscovery. I’m from that era. Well, anyhow- this is a bit like map and matrix yes, but I don’t really use a matrix- there’s a hybrid of encounter groups I just have on hand. I’m not sure there is any single standard definition of “old school” in any case.

  11. This is definitely bringing the old-school feel back to 4E. The 4E DMG tells us to build encounters to certain parameters, and maybe that’s the problem people are having. Everyone complaining that “combat takes soooo long” and pining for the old days. Love it love it love it, will start implementing it immediately.

  12. Wizards of the Coast has ended the support of this and the VT developers GameTable Online are hosting an unbranded version at

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