Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Portal Under The Stars - Battlemap Review

Review copy courtesy of Black Scroll Games.

  • The great looking style of map Black Scroll Games does. When looking at their previous work I felt that lighting was one of their big strengths and this map shows it off again. The stone floors are also very detailed looking as are the other little touches and details.
  • 15 pages and 17 pieces worth of map (not counting the one statue counter)
  • Made for the 1 inch is 5 feet standard scale
  • Isometric visual aid provided (as Black Scroll Games often does)
  • VTT jpgs provided
  • Both broken into pages and single poster versions are provided for easy printing.
  • Layers are present to allow the option of grid lines and no grid lines.
  • Shortened area descriptions from the adventure are present.

Could Go Either Way
  • Again, this map is also done in the same 3D style that other Black Scroll Games maps and tiles are done. If you like it as I do, then it's a plus, but if you don't it'll obviously be a drawback.
  • A majority of the map uses the shapes of the stones in to denote squares for movement. This looks great and work well but it doesn't fully carry through the entire map. Though this is the exception and not the rule (and only present on the second level), this may be a con if you don't like grid lines on maps.
  • Unlike the modular inn set I covered and many of their other sets, this one is obviously meant for a particular adventure. This makes it perfect if you want all the bells and whistles for running that adventure, but does hamper the reusability compared to a tile set. That said, you could quite easily use the maps to suit your own purposes.
  • There are some places where the grid lines seem to extend a tiny bit too far on the second level of the map. It's not obvious but I wish it wasn't an issue at all.


This week has been a good week for Black Scroll Games. Though they had a total of 3 releases this week, I'll be looking at the map for the Goodman Games adventure The Portal Under the Stars first. I've given my opinion on their maps before and it should come to no surprise that I like their work. However, every map is something new to look at and has areas of strength and weakness. So with no further delay, let's take a look at this new map. With this kind of thing, seeing proof of work really helps to get a good understand of the product. If you are at all curious, I'd recommend taking a look at their free map as well. You'll need to enter your email to receive it though. Otherwise, their page has quite a few images of the map. 

The Tiles

This map is really 2 maps connected via staircase. It's made up of 8 rooms, an entrance area and multiple connecting hallways. The end result is a map made up of 17 tiles, not including the one counter used for a statue. Seeing it assembled really helps bring the scale into perspective. It's not a small map. In particular, the starting area to the dungeon, the ending room and the gazing pool are standouts. The rooms I find myself liking the best are the ones with extra details such as lighting or special items. The final room in particular really looks great. Human shapes can be among the hardest to get right in that kind of situation and I think it nailed it.

Of course, the purpose of this map is to bring to life the Goodman Games adventure. In that regard, it does a very good job. The original adventure provided a drawn map but I really like the way it is brought to life here. Since the adventure is being sold, the addition of descriptions for each room are appreciated. That way the map has a life outside the adventure as well.

Typically Black Scroll Games maps come as a complete map set. Here it's no different. There are VTT files ready to go. There are poster and broken up versions of the map. There is an isometric view (I always liked this addition). There is a tactical map. There are also filters in the PDF to enable and disable grid lines. This last area is where I find an issue. There are a few cases where I think the grid line extends a bit too far, particularly on the gazing pool. It's not that noticeable but I really wish it wasn't the case. There many areas that don't use the lines at all because the stonework design makes them redundant as well. It's just a little thing that doesn't need to be there. Some areas really benefit from the grid lines so turning them off isn't a perfect solution either.


You can still get some mileage out of the map without the adventure. The second level could easily be reused as the resting place for an evil undead. And given how often that situation comes up in games I'm a part of or generally in the near vicinity of, I reckon that it makes it quite useful. The entrance is also easily reusable as is the gazing room. Really, almost all of the rooms can find a new home. The way the map is broken up means that there will often be pieces from other sections include in a tile. However, using the magic of scissors, this problem is easily ratified and allows for some clever reuse for your own games. Being that it has a few different paths and some very nice rooms, you can make use of what's here. It seems clear to me, however, that it wasn't the intention and more of a happy accident. The focus is still on bringing the original adventure to life.

The Art

I have a soft spot for the art style of Black Scroll Games tiles and the same style is applied here as their earlier work. The perspective gives a nice depth to the tiles and remind me of 3D printed tiles. There is also special attention paid to lighting, which enhances the effect. Together they give a good impression of depth. However, there is an astounding amount of extras that further show off the art. The isometric view is a nice addition and looks really good. It hits me right in the old CRPG nostalgia. The tactical map is also very nice to see. Really, I feel every map should have one of these. It makes planning things for the Dungeon Master so much easier. I could try describing it further but I really do think seeing some of the images( or their previous map( is the best way to understand.

Other Considerations

Of course, to make full use of the map you'll need the adventure or the core rulebook which also includes the adventure. That's assuming you don't have the adventure from a Free RPG Day gone by. I'd recommend the full RPG book since it's a better value between the 2 and it also has a kind of important part: the rule system.

Black Scroll Games has quite a few other tile sets and maps at this point. Choosing this one over the will probably mean you want to run the deluxe version of the The Portal Under the Stars adventure. However, you may be tempted to buy a different one of their sets. In a way, you can reuse parts of the map for your own adventure. In another, it isn't as versatile as their Modular-Inn set which allows you to buy many different sets using their tiles. They are also the same price.

What I felt was Missing

They've included basically everything I could ask from them for this kind of product. The wide number of options is really impressive. VTT? Battlemap? Poster form? Cut up for 8.5”x11” paper? With grid lines and without? All are here. This is what I want to see in a map. That said, there is still one thing I would have liked to have added. One of the maps is full of statues but there is no marker or token for them like their is for a different statue in the encounter.


The digital map is available here for $7.95 USD. It costs $19.99 USD to get both the digital and printed map from the same link.


I'm beginning to feel that this is my standard response to Black Scroll Games maps and tiles, but they really are nice. Overall, I would say the set isn't as versatile as same other sets such as the Modular-Inn set I reviewed earlier but that's also not the point. This time the point is to create a beautiful map specifically for the adventure The Portal Under the Stars. In that goal I would say it succeeds, though with the blemish of grid lines that are slightly off in a few places. If you are after a nice map to run the adventure, this is for you. If you won't be getting this map I think it's because there are other maps that you want instead, and not because this isn't a good map. It also has to be noted that you will need to get the adventure separately.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Haunts Review

A quick look at and miniature review of the free product Haunts from the Dungeon Masters Guild.

  • Some nice and creepy hauntings to add to your games
  • Simple application that uses already existing rules
  • Just plain free!

Could Go Either Way
  • Not much in the way of artwork
  • Method for scaling haunts for higher levels could provide uneven results
  • 6 pages including leading cover, advertisement and FAQ
  • A few grammar and spelling errors despite its small size, though they don't detract from understanding


As someone who includes undead and horror elements often in their games, I couldn't resist grabbing Haunts when I was browsing through the Dungeon Masters Guild. It's a nice small collection of haunts with clear and simple guidelines to make your own. Having read it over quickly, I decided I'd talk about it a little bit since despite having some typos, it has good ideas for adding that paranormal element to your undead campaigns. It's quite short, simple, and provides pre-made options to drop into your games. I'd also be lying if I said it didn't give me some ideas. 

The Overview

The rules that are used are simple and rely on the already published rules. What it really does is provide an easy framework that you can use to decide what triggers the activity, what result is created, as well as what can be used to dispel it. The thing I really like is that it doesn't really add new rules. It uses the existing rules to model the situation. Since it's the spell section of the rules, many effects are at our disposal. It's really quite nice. Each section is short and it makes it a quick read. I'd say treat it as a starting point. If you've never run a game before but want an undead and paranormal themed adventure, this is a great place to start.

There are 10 hauntings contained inside and the guidelines are really simple. They fit into half a page (it takes up exactly one column in the document). It really is perfect for new Dungeon Masters wanting to add some creepy to their adventures in an organized way. In general I also like the system used. The hauntings presented are a mixture of beneficial, no effect beyond being creepy, and malicious. I'd have liked a little more that are just plain creepy, but I've got no problem thinking of those on my own.

What To Add?

The document does a good job of outlining the mechanical elements of a haunting. However, you will still need to think carefully about what kind of character who want your haunting to be, if any, as well as the exact circumstances of the trigger. These guidelines make for good starting points. However, as the adventure or exploration of the area commences, you may want to evolve the haunting and make it a bit more complicated.


I will say, though, that using spells like this can make it a bit hard to estimate damage and produces quite a bit of variability compared to the rules for traps in the Dungeon Master's Guide. A table is provided to help scale the haunts based on level. However, due to the inherent nature of spells, I think this can result in uneven results. A haunt based around magic missile will be far more of a threat for a lower level party, even when scaled using the advice provided. Of course, the level of the spell also has a large effect on its effect. Even with a lower DC, this can result in uneven results. The scaling advice also isn't the clearest I've ever read. For this reason I'd recommend a sanity check before running them and to only treat what's provided as guidelines. What's provided may require fine-tuning.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Dungeon Master: Restricting Movement

Movement is an important part of combat. It can keep you out of harms way, it can allow you to take on massive odds otherwise not possible, or it can doom you to be ripped apart by a group of zombies. It's also one of the major decisions, along with your action, that you can make in a round of combat in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. However, keeping it interesting can be a bit of a challenge. Often players will come up with a formation and stick to it. For that reason, I hope to share some of my thoughts and twists for making movement play a bigger role. In retrospect, I really should have done this topic before confined spaces and many enemies. Alas, here we are.

Reason to Move

From the start, there needs to be a good reason to move. Standing still can be the right choice in some cases. As a fighter, you might want to protect your wizard from arrows. However, in these cases movement options still need to look attractive or there really isn't a choice being made. What often tends to happen, from my experience, is that combat will start and something will happen. Maybe the enemy is primarily melee based and they will try to charge forward. However, after that the fight locks in place and stays static until something dies. Again, fights can go this way, but I think it should be a choice made by the players instead of simply the default and best option.


A classic reason to need to move is that something will happen if you don't. Maybe you'll get charged at by a giant creature. Maybe you need to duck down and move so that the wizard's fireball has a chance of missing you. In these cases, there is often a need for cover to hide behind or something special about the creature in question that can be avoided through movement but not by standing still.


A goal can force different kinds of movement and formations. If the players are chasing after someone who has something they need, they will be forced out of a static formation. Likewise, if they need to get something in the hands of one particular bad guy, it gives an incentive to break formation and go after the objective. When being used, I find it's better when breaking formation is a tempting option but not the only option. Perhaps they can go from rooftop to rooftop trying to shoot them down with an arrow. Perhaps they can chase after them on the streets. They can also try to get into formation and throw insults at the bad guy, hoping it'll force them to move. In this last case, they'll still be in formation but other options will probably at least be thought of. It also still something the players thought of and tried to do.


There are plenty of things you can throw into the environment in order to make movement look tempting. Adding some form of verticality to the encounter can give new tactical options. However, to employ them the character needs to get into position first. You can also have your encounter take place in a collapsing tunnel, forcing a weird encounter where both sides are running away while still trying to off each other. Another option is to have cover that might get destroyed if it takes too much damage. One of my favourites is to include environmental hazards or traps. Things such as drops, holes in the floor, or actual traps that might be noticed in combat and exploited all setup interesting encounters. Maybe the players will fake a retreat in order to get their pursuers to trigger a trap they noticed when fighting. Maybe the enemy will.


A common reason for a static formation is that the enemies always come from one direction. This means that the players can just set up their formation, block the tunnel and slog through the rest. When multiple directions are used, things tend to get more interesting. Even in the worst case scenario, the formation will need to turn to face the new threat. This can still be a tense moment due to the order things happen (initiative order can make things tense in such situations), unnoticed threats or simply being unable to respond completely perfectly in time.

Why Standing Still Is Bad

If you want to have elements of combat that prevent movement, then it should be a real loss. If you prevent a character from moving when they'd just rather stay in formation anyway, they haven't really lost anything. For this reason I like to consider why I'm adding an encounter feature that prevents movement. If I can't think of one, I don't put it in. If players are moving to areas of light and getting caught by a shadow hand coming from the ground will allow the shadows to catch them, there is a reason to move. Of course players can attack the hands and set each other free. However, when they know they have to in order to survive and need to consider giving up their important action to regain their ability to go to safety, both options can look tempting.

Forcing Movement

Built into D&D 5th edition are multiple things that force movement for players. I've seen far too many times when a Dungeon Master forgot about the ability to shove creatures or grab them and drag them out of the way. This is especially true where zombies are concerned. However, there are other such effects too. From feats to spells such as Thunderwave, there are many ways that movement might be forced on players or creatures alike. However, we can also do it in other ways. I'd call falling a method of forced movement. However, being on a ship as it's tilting can also end up forcing movement when the angle is too steep. Flying in a storm can do so as well. However, when I do so I don't want to just take away the players ability to move. I find that it works better to force players to trade something in order to move, or still allow them to move but shift it a little. If the player tried to fly 15 feet to the left, the wind might shift their movement path but they still moved. This means moving and dodging things can still be done, but there is a risk associated with it. For this reason I thing being careful not to take the option away completely, particularly when often holding formation is the go to choice, is important.

Enhancing Movement

You can also create special effects or conditions to increase movement. Getting double the movement speed or being in a special location where they can fly gives them new tactical options. Having these options lost to you makes the impact bigger.


Many of the things I mentioned earlier will come off as novelties. However, it can depend heavily on your type of campaign. If your campaign is more horror oriented and players will often need to avoid contact with things or flee, it can be a reoccurring feature of your combat encounters. The big ones that apply most of the time is the direction the players are being attack, stealth, goals, cover, and environmental hazards. The other cases are nice and make combat memorable but don't feature as often unless your campaign is based around them from my experience.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Dungeon Master: Many Enemies

A Dungeon Master has many options and many decisions to make when designing combat encounters. One such decision is about how many enemies to include in an encounter. Large groups of enemies can give a feeling of tension while also making the players feel powerful. However, there are some possible issues with the approach. Rolling can take a while, and it's possible to end up with a combat encounter that isn't all that different than fighting one enemy with many attacks, among other things. Having seen many such situations, I hope to get my thoughts on the manner recorded. It helps me think through the topic for my own benefit and hopefully someone, somewhere, finds it useful.

One Enemy

We could approximate some large groups of enemies by using one that has multiple attacks. As it takes damage, it gets fewer and fewer attacks until it finally dies. Now, that can make for an interesting single creature encounter. The issue I see, however, is that in these cases there often isn't much of a difference. It would be best if when we use one or the other, there is a marked difference. The one difference that does exist is mobility. Many enemies allow you to restrict movement and also to position them in ways that threaten multiple people. One enemy fighting a party is the opposite situation. It is your single enemy that is or can be restricted.


There is a lot of potential for enemy movement and clever use of positions when many enemies are encountered. Some could try to go into tactical positions, block access to certain routes and force players to hack their way through, or go around and flank. They don't all need to move in the same way either. Some can attack at range, some close up, some could be flying, as well as many other options. This is one of the major differences from using one enemy. It also means that multiple people can be engaged while also avoiding opportunity attacks. If it was one creature attacking everyone in the party, it would need to move between them and possibly trigger an attack from every one of them if using melee. It's a bit different with ranged attacks but we could still get into such a situation when cover is used. It would also tend to go after one goal, where a large group lets you go after 2, 3 or even more. I find that a static encounter is what we want to avoid here. For more on that topic, you can check my other post here. That one was about confined spaces but the central issue is being locked down in an encounter in both cases.

Carving a Path

When surrounded and forced to move, not every creature necessarily needs to be killed. Also, not every goal needs to be chased. The players could pick one and pursue it fully. They could also choose to escape. In this kind of case, hacking their way through to escape is a valid option that isn't otherwise available. A crowd of weaker enemies, however, makes this a tactical option. Where this can get a bit tricky is when movement is included. How does it interact with their attempt to hack through? It's also worth noting that moving through like this triggers opportunity attacks as well. And with a large crowd, it would be quite a lot of them. This makes it a rather risky tactic, though in such a situation risky may be better than certain death. It's part of the reason why them being weaker is necessary. It tends to work best with creatures that fall from a single attack or at least have a good chance to. Player multi-attack, area of effect spells, or other means to attack more than one creature allow the players to go through more than one square at a time this way.

There is another issue when trying to do this. When they break an opening, initiative order and movement rules can result in a case where the crowd just catches up to them and tries to swallow them again. There isn't much of an easy solution in these cases beyond moving away from combat at that point and handling it as a chase. However, it can sometimes work out anyway. It partially depends on initiative order. If it happened just right, the enemies could end up blocking their own from moving and allow the party to get a good lead on most of their pursuers. This was a rather cool situation in a game I was a player in. However, it was probably largely due to luck on our part and also because zombies don't get as much movement. In our case the party outpaced the entire group of zombies except one or two. The other thing to keep in mind is that it would take the enemies more movement to move around the front of your players. Of course, it also takes the players some of their movement to escape too. The deciding factor then comes down to terrain features. A choke point after they break out can ensure they no longer get surrounded.

Too Many Layers

If we have too many layers of enemies, it's theoretically possible to create an encounter where everyone is stuck. It is sort of like the stalemate situation in the Carving a Path section above. The difference, however, is that in this case escaping may not be the goal of the players. However, this can still be a problem because it restricts movement and therefore tactical choices. You probably don't want to lock down all your players in a large crowd of enemies that they can't ever break out of. For this reason just keep in mind how many layers of enemies you'll be throwing at your players. There is such a thing as too many at once and I believe this is when it happens. To avoid this but still throw large groups at your players, you'll probably need to break them up somehow.

Break Em Up

Having many enemies allows you incredible freedom in deciding how many will arrive and when. They all don't have to arrive in a massive crowd. The encounter can be in multiple waves, or at least what seems like multiple waves due to initiative order. This allows a turn or two for players to strategize, get better positions, pick off a few at range, maybe have a couple rounds of skirmishing, and do whatever else they need to do.They might still be able to see all the enemies at once. It just might take some of them 3 turns to arrive as opposed to 1.


Of course, having more enemies means you have a chance to give each one their own identity and character. This may make some of them more obvious targets. It also gives things more personality and allows some of them to get killed in combat while others retreat. The impact of this won't be combat related or tactical but it's important all the same. Some could even turn on each other mid-combat if things aren't going well. 

Rolling A Lot

Many enemies tend to mean a lot of rolling on the Dungeon Master side. It also isn't as easy to handle as other situations. Rolling many dice at once is a common way to speed things up but we'd need to think of ways of assigning the dice to players. If you have 4 or less, having different colour dice ready to go works well. Each colour corresponds to a player so after you roll, you don't need to decide which dice corresponds to who. This way you aren't playing favourites. Of course, you'd need to plan and prepare the dice ahead of time to make sure you have enough. Otherwise, you'll be taking quite a bit of time rolling. Rolling a lot of dice in these cases is unavoidable, just like with enemies that have many attacks. However, how we actually roll them can help save time.