Monday, August 13, 2018

Old News: Valley of the Lords Exploration Dashboard

There are no dinosaurs in the valley.
Another week, another session of Valley of the Lords. We actually had two this week because the players wanted to go ransack an orc camp. What's this? Player-initiated session planning? Am I a real DM now? Is this West Marches?

Anyway, it was a lot of fun going through two sessions in a week. We had harrowing encounters, clever strategies, and lots of Firbolgs. Or as I call them, convenient wilderness NPCs. I'd definitely do it again, though running games on a weeknight can be difficult to schedule.

So, for this week, I thought I'd go into my setup for actually running exploration in the system I created.

Valley of the Lords: Exploration Dashboard

Dashboards aren't just the thing you have in your car to tell you your speed and mileage. That idea has been co-opted by businesses to describe any data layout that allows you to get a broad picture in a single, simple view.

This idea has carried over to D&D in the form of the DM's Screen. It's a handy place where the DM can keep notes on obscure rules, initiative, quest and character information, and common issues. My problem is that after a while, it's easy to memorize the information that comes on the DM's Screen, and it's much better to have a dashboard that relates to the specific adventure you are running.

So, when it comes to building a dashboard, I like using Excel (of course) to bring all of the data I need into one sheet for my convenience. It saves loads of time at the table, when you don't have to dig through a book for everything.

Here's an example from the sheet I put together for the end of Dragonborn Quest.

As you can see, I have the area map, a list of locations, a description of the visual appearance and contents of the room (including the passages elsewhere), and sidebars for the goals of my antagonists.

This makes it incredibly easy to run anything in the area. All I have to do is copy-paste the room's name, and simple formulas call up the data for me. The map also adjusts to center on the area of the room, which is a neat trick involving vlookups and conditional formatting.

For Valley of the Lords, I don't need individual mapped rooms or long descriptions. Instead, when the players are exploring, I need to know what creatures are living in an area, the properties of that specific hex, and what discoveries are going to be found there. So, I made this dashboard:

With this setup, I can use the map of the valley to ask the players where they want to go, and input the hex number into the upper-left-most box. When I do, the sheet grabs the properties of the hex from a data sheet elsewhere in the document. That includes things like the supply cost and hex status, but also the full list of discoveries and encounters in that hex. It also grabs the short description of each adventuring site from another list.

Separate from that data is the date tracker. I simply have to input the number of the month and year, and a calendar table gives me a listing of any events and weather happening on that day. The weather is somewhat randomly generated, as in I generate it randomly but then assign it to a particular day. That way, I have an almanac of when the weather was good or bad, and if we set up a game where two expeditions run concurrently (as was the case this week), the weather is consistent between the two.

The date tracker also lists the beginning and end of any expeditions the players have gone on. I tend to name them after the ranger or leader character of the group, or some acronym otherwise. This also allows me to somewhat track who was in what hex when, so groups might bump into tracks of other expeditions.

Finally, I have a list of things I need to remind myself when I get new players. It's handy to have the list so I don't have to memorize the things I need to say to fresh faces. Obviously, this is the most similar thing to a DM screen you'll see on this page. It never changes, but that's fine by me. A good dashboard can contain some reference materials.

When it comes to exploring the valley, I use this dashboard to call up all the information in a hex when the players enter it. I can then give them the HP and gold cost of the hex, describe any monsters they see, and determine if they locate any adventuring sites. It's been a fun challenge to make up the signs or tracks of particular monsters without the PCs actually fighting them.

There might possibly be were-troll-ogre-beasts in the valley.
This technique has definitely made my games easy to run, and I highly recommend it to DMs everywhere. Now I just need to set up macro links to turn on certain soundtrack files when certain scenes happen... perhaps someday!

Thanks for reading!

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