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VTTs: Beyond the Battlemap

Toasty

Member
Platinum WoA
Silver WoA
Wizard of Story
When people think of Virtual Table Tops (VTTs, such as Roll20, Foundry VTT, or others) they often think of battlemaps. These allow groups of players to coordinate the actions of their characters with respect to either the environment or other characters. This can be useful in some relatively static situations, and obviously in battles where you need to know how your character is oriented vs. your opponents, but there are lots of times (at least for me) where my characters are not in a simple two-dimensional grid.

For instance, the characters may be making their way through a town, visiting a local tavern, or meeting up with a remote oracle. Although you could certainly create battlemaps for all of these situations, the battlemap really doesn't add anything. In a real sit-down game, you would be simply narrating the action, known as "Theatre of the Mind". You can certainly do this with a VTT too, by stopping the use of the battlemap and just narrating the location. But there are other approaches avaialble.

VTTs provide a great mechanism for immersion that are difficult to get with pen-and-paper games. You can display a video or a picture, along with appropriate background music or sound, to set the scene while you narrate what is going on. I do this often with tavern scenes, where I have a set of tavern pictures I display, along with sounds of crackling fire and a crowd in the background, while the characters interact with the barkeep or another NPC. I have a different set of pictures I use for a crowded village, or a city, or a marketplace, that helps set the scene in those areas, along with appropriate music or sounds.

A picture or video of a haunted forest, with haunted forest sounds in the background, does an amazing job of setting the scene for such a situation.

I personally have found the use of VTTs to be so much more engaging when you go beyond the use of them as just a battlemap mechanism, but using them to provide a multimedia platform to help you tell your stories.
 

ExileInParadise

RPG Therapist
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
I personally have found the use of VTTs to be so much more engaging when you go beyond the use of them as just a battlemap mechanism, but using them to provide a multimedia platform to help you tell your stories.
There are a number of suggestions like this in Faster Combat lesson 5.07:
https://campaign-community.com/inde...5-07-just-add-atmosphere-props-media-more.51/

I also wrote up some of my own thoughts and such around that in a Faster Combat forum thread related to that lesson here:
https://campaign-community.com/index.php?threads/fc05-07-props-preparing-to-dazzle.1245/

Good idea starting this as global thread as well because there are a number of really great tricks you can play with VTT software.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
This is a great thread start, Toasty!

Here is an extract of my summary on how I went about VTT since the pandemic start:
I didn't use maps anymore. I insisted on videos by my players.
By insisting on videos of my players (and of course myself) it is more like when we met at a table. By this, I increase the immersion and people get unspoken cues which they normally wouldn't and it is more of a community thing than just another online game. It changed our games drastically.

Just a short side note: Often I put the PC's icons with their health and status bars in one corner, because it reminded the players of the current condition of other PCs. Also, they were linked to the character sheets and there was a small icon with a summary of what happened before. Sometimes I used a background picture to set the mood, sometimes I used it as a rough 3D map, but mostly I didn't bother anymore and concentrated on the important things.
More aspects in the above thread.
But anyway, I totally agree with you. battlemaps are nice for a specific type of tactical game, but I prefer theater of mind to increase the immersion. Thus, I either solely use videos and narrate, describe or paint a scene, or I show them via a first person view picture. I find, that it is basically this birds' view perspective that destroys immersion, and that a tone-rich picture from the PCs' point of view might actually increase the immersion. Thus, I used the picture itself two times as the backdrop, i.e. as the battlemap. I shrunk NPCs that were farther away and I hid another part of the foes partly behind objects. To my surprise, it didn't break the immersion as an overview map from above would have done.

I like your idea of a video. I haven't tried it. Music and sounds works also well.

But anyways, here are some examples of how I organized my VTT:

System: Shadowrun | Location: ChromeUnder, Redmond | Music: Alien Machine Shop
Scene: PCs trying to rescue Jeremy Days from getting abducted by weird guys in hazmet suits.

Roll20 ChromeUnder.png
Evaluation: This picture and the music really helped the immersion. It was my first time using a 3D picture as a map and it was well accepted. Also, I could hide enemies and only show it to some players, while creating tension through location and relationship of positions. Assistance farther away or on commlinks (headphones basically) could be presented at the lower right corner and each player could easily see how wounded the other PCs or NPCs were.


System: Shadowrun | Location: Highway Tunnel, Redmond | Music: Cyberpunk City
Scene: Having failed to rescue JD, the PCs have chased the abductors and finally rescued him, only to realize that the abductors are half-human, half-ants and very powerful.
Roll20 Highway.png
Evaluation:
The picture for the highway encounter, while thrilling, did not help the immersion, as it was not from first person perspective. It was very helpful in the chase and gradual crash though. Also, I could tinker a little bit with special effects.


System: Shadowrun | Location: Smugglers' Den, Redmond | Music: Shadowrun Returns
Scene: Wounded and exhausted the PCs hide out in a smugglers' den below an old train station to make their plans and question JD.
Roll20 Smugglers' Den.png
Evaluation:
As the Smugglers' Den encounter was solely planning, questioninig and roleplay at first, the pictures in the background helped a lot. I would have easily been able to use them for combat and prepared as such, but they were great in conveying a mood. I prepared some more pictures which could have been shown to the players in case they went outside for what they had planned, but it never came to that.


System: Shadowrun | Location: Squatters Mall, Redmond | Music: Dark City
Scene: The PCs confirm to meet with their client. But as they expect him to work with the ant spirits, half of them lays in ambush.

Roll20 Hide & Kill.png
Evaluation: The PCs lay in wait for the client to turn up. The PCs decided for the location and prepared it for a great ambush. The sniper lay in wait in an appartement (right), the escape route was secured in a parallel street (left), the magician was invisible in a side street (middle-right), while the
rest of the party waited for the client to show up (middle-left). It was a great way of presenting different locations simultaneously knowing that it would come to a fight at both ends. When the sniper jumped out of the window to escape the appartement filling with ant spirits, he jumped right into the second picture and into the middle of the negotiations / fire fight there. It was a nice use of that medium!


System: Shadowrun | Location: Lake Sammamish, Redmond | Music: Sounds of water
Scene: Meanwhile, another party of PCs breaks into a research facility in Lake Sammamish only to find horrible experiments made on Merrows, which has an unforeseen twist.
Roll20 Genesis.png
Evaluation:
As the other group of PCs had planned a break in, they had maps and I used the maps with markers and PC icons, while simultaneously presenting mood pictures. This didn't work out so well. The planning phase was great with these maps, but using icons, it soon became un-immersive. It became a tactical game of positioning, while simultaneously exploring rooms and narrating them. Some mood pictures (below) helped to paint a vivid moment, but mostly it was confusing for the players, I must admit.
Some things were helpful though: Status bars on who was how wounded, the count of how many tasks elementals and sprites had left, how much damage their submarines have sustained, who was where, where the mana barriers had been located, from where PCs heard foot steps, where the explosion should be placed to break from level 1 to level 2, and how big the smoke plume has already gotten, to name a few.


To sum it up: Although it had many advantages to play via a VTT, all of this is much prep work for me and I'd rather play with a good story and no music and pictures than the other way around. Thus, I enforced the video variant for our group. The facial cues are so much more important to me and I feel that I can enthrall them better via mimics and gesticulation than with some pictures. With my players I need to stress that it is not an online video game, but an interactive storytelling experience.
 

Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Wow, I'm super impressed by what you created for your players for this game Stephan! I must admit, seeing this makes me feel like my whining in the other thread about spending too much time trying to create better maps is without cause after seeing what you did here. I also greatly appreciate your self-evaluation and critique about what worked well and what didn't, that is extremely helpful. Clearly your team is comfortable working without top view grid maps, if I am viewing these correctly, which is something I hope to encourage further with my players. Thanks for sharing!
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
You are most welcome! I'm just wondering WHY you want to change them? Do they not have fun? Do you not have fun? What I'm trying to say: if you are all having fun, there is no reason to change this. 1st person Theater of Mind is not better than 3rd person Battlemaps. It just depends on you and your players and what you like more. Theater of Mind is just a more modern trend, I guess, and people (including me) sometimes drift off towards a high-horse approach about gaming styles. My above "maps" are really just pictures I found on pinterest and found them fitting for specific areas of my world, I saved them and when the players were about to go there, I just launched them. The last picture shows a R&D facility, but I did not create it! I just copy and pasted it from one of the many adventure books I own to use for that scenario (the original story and place was very much different).
Why don't you show us one of your maps and how you approach creating a map? Then I may be able to understand better how to help you out and assist you in creating them faster.
 

Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
So I like to find actual places on Google Maps to use as the target locations. Here is the actual view from Google Maps (terrain view):
Screenshot 2021-03-19 131301.jpg
 
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Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
And here is the mission map that I created by mashing together multiple other images in GIMP (scaled it and added Roll20 gridlines after)MergeForRoll20-UkraineMap-v1.jpg:
 
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Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Not sure why that appeared 3 times, sorry. EDIT: I've fixed it, think I know what I did wrong.
 
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Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Took me many hours to find the location and then find the images I wanted to use to create map and put them together. I enjoy this process, or at least the research part, less the GIMP image manipulation part, but it is very time-consuming. That's because I'm a bit particular that the overall map looks similar to the Google Map terrain image, that the scales match, and so forth.
 

Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Include the time to create the Dynamic Lighting stuff in Roll20 (the agents of course infiltrated at night), plus a map of the interior of that building in the lower left corner, and it starts to add up.
 

Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Here's a Roll20 screenshot of the last mission, which was on a luxury Trans-Siberian train:

Screenshot 2021-03-19 161133.jpg
 

Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Again, adding all of the Dynamic Lighting layer details to appropriately restrict line of sight and movement was a lot of work.
 

Hiruma Chico

New member
Gold WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Also, they were going to be on the train for 3-5 days, so it was important to populate the train with a full cast of NPCs -- crew, other passengers, and their eventual opposition who would board later. The agents' mission was to get a pair of Chinese defectors out of Russia.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Sorry for the late reply.
It seems like quite a lot of work you did there with the train. A friend of mine once let us play in a train. He did much less work there and it was totally ok for us - rather, it didn't seem so comlicated.

First of all, this is how the train looked like and below how it was organized into different cars and top to bottom.

Train.jpg

1 UCAS
Locomotive
2 UCAS
Baggage Car
3 UCAS Passenger Car4 UCAS Passenger Car5 UCAS Passenger Car6 UCAS Dining Car7 UCAS Passenger Car8 UCAS Passenger Car9 UCAS Passenger Car10 UCAS Sec Personnel
LocomotiveAdditional SpaceSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsLarge CabinsSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsUCAS
Border Gate
11 NAN Sec Personnel12 NAN
Passenger Car
13 NAN
Passenger Car
14 NAN Passenger Car15 NAN
Dining Car
16 NAN
Passenger Car
17 NAN
Passenger Car
18 NAN
Passenger Car
19 NAN
Baggage Car
20 NAN
Locomotive
NAN
Border Gate
Sleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsLarge CabinsSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsSleeping CabinsAdditional SpaceLocomotive

In addition, he had one car drawing only in detail (in which the PCs and 14 major NPCs were) and just said that every other car looked similar. This was enough. But yours is great too. Just wanted to let you know.

Edit: This is how it actually looked. That GM likes to use Lego for miniatures.

F40E7621-9BBC-440C-A538-551EE3011AC8.jpeg
 
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
More than half a year has passed since my latest evaluation on vtts in this thread...

A lot has happened since then.

I have left Roll20 and shifted to Foundry, for no other reason than other people did so also.

I don't want to compare Roll20 with Foundry here. There are a lot of posts about this in the www. I want to update some of my impressions of vtts (now under Foundry) in relation to the feel of the game.

1636362521486.png

The above picture is from one of my players' perspective (Cael) at the end of the session.

Setting
Travelling with two NPCs and a wagon, our three adventurers arrive at Thistle Bush, a small settlement that they believed had been attacked by orcs and their inhabitants killed or imprisoned. They arrived at night and have never been to the village on the hills before. When they saw the first body hanging from a post in the darkness, they implored their NPC companions (non-fighters) to wait at the entrance ready to flee. They didn't want the good-hearted people to see what the orcs might have done to the people and they feared that there might still be some orcs left and waiting to ambush any travellers.

Story
This evening's session was intended as a horror / investigation experience. Slowly approaching the first buildings, the players already showed a tenseness that was juicy. Their PCs noticed early on so called marble mushrooms that they knew could be used as stinking bombs. They were careful not to step on those, but were simultaneously aware that they could become an option for later, against the pack of dire wolves e.g. that was following them. Behind sweet fragrances of tulip flowers in a summer's evening, the rancid stench of feces, urine, sweat and blood got stronger with every step. It was not long that they found the first two bodies, gruesomely treated as could be read from the way they must have died. Vivid descriptions at that point shifted the feel of the adventure from uneasiness to pending danger and fear. They all did not dare to touch the bodies. Orcs might notice when they come back, they argued.

While the human bard Edwyn, who grew up in luxury in the capital was now facing his first dead bodies and had a hard time coping with this, the battle-hardened human musketeer Cael noticed that although crows are flying overhead and are sitting on the roof just above the corpses, none of them were picked at or showing any post mortem beak wounds. When he voiced his irritation, the elven warrior-druid Rhea addressed the crows and had a short chat with one of the crows. She learned that there are still beasts in the village that kill crows whenever they try to get to the dead bodies, hard to detect green-bodied creatures the size of her human companions and with big teeth, she learned. And the crows keep silent not to attract them. So the party reasoned that there are still orcs in hiding.

The party left their torch behind and split ways. The elf sneaked around a building, while the other two approached the barricade on the picture above via the main road. She noticed that there is someone or something still in the building to the left, while the bard was shot at as soon as he came out of cover to investigate the open door. A moment later, a goblin came out of the building, carrying dresses, hats, shoes, rings, amulets, earrings, and many bundles of purses, only to look into the astonished face of the bard only inches away. He screamed and ran away while possibly another goblin tried to prevent the bard from following by shooting arrows at him and force him into cover.

As the goblin ran around a corner and was instantly impaled at his hand by a thrown spear coming out of the dark followed by the elven druid, the bard reasoned that the goblin still somewhere yonder in the shadows would have to reload his bow and that if he rushed at him with his rapier, he could skew him before the goblin had the chance for another shot. Alas, he assumed wrong and got hit by an arrow flat into the chest and he staggered. A moment later he noticed a burning sensation in his throat and cold sweat pouring from his pores. Poison. He fell with reciding consciousness. Crawling to an imagined safety while his sight was dimming and the pain grew, he realized that he was on the verge of dying. Meanwhile the goblin just around the corner had ripped his impaled hand away from the spear and was now giggling in horror looking at his hand spewing blood everywhere, aghast and fascinated at the same time, while crying in pain, but too shocked to run away. The druid didn't need to, but in that moment she became remorseless with that scrawny creature and impaled it deep into his chest, bringing his cries of pain to a new level, as the crows above began to cry out and fled the roofs. Our human musketeer meanwhile moved from cover to cover not daring to shoot with his loud pistols and because of his bad sight hardly aware of what was happening all around him. His senses were tense and so he noticed the slight vibration in his back as he leaned against the building for cover of any unknown enemies still in waiting. Feeling that vibration though, his combat reflexes cought on and in a twirl of movement he turned around and looked up. Not a moment to late: A black-green hunting spider 6 feet in diameter crawled down the side of the building above him and jumped at him with huge open fangs ready for a killing bite.
The crows had never talked about orcs.

And with that I ended the evening with a cliffhanger.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
System
The party began the session exhausted from their travels. Also, the bard was still moderately wounded from the last day's attack by dire wolves. They were down on provisions, so they had hoped to find provisions in Thistle Bush. During their travel they found a mysterious waystone that they had been looking for, and took quite a while to investigate it. That way, it had become way past the setting of the sun, when they finally reached the village. The party had one small glowing stone for some light and a torch, so they had to borrow two more torches from the wine merchant they were travelling with. Although the musketeer had still enough bullets to last for weeks, the player is fearful that they will run out in the wilderness. Also, if his blackpowder gets wet, it gets worthless. You notice a pattern? The party was limited in resources and in sight. That set the right mood.

Stat-wise, I limited the vision for the humans to a bare minimum. It was just a slither of moon in the sky, but the PCs didn't dare to use torches too much in case there were still orcs there that could ambush the little party. In contrast, I gave Rhea as an elf a much wider vision radius, but only dim darkvision. I made the difference clear to the players so that they soon noticed that their elf moved about much more freely than the rest. And then I made some comments about a blocked alley where she could fit through but the bard would surely not. That peaked her interest. I gave the party a choice to stay together or split up. The elf was much more efficient if she did not stay in the illuminated ring of torch light, the party noticed. A hint later regarding a noise that only the elf's player received and she indeed split from the group.

Just a side note for new players: I did not push her to it. I had no grant plan here. I just give options and see how the players react. Earlier e.g. the party noticed that a door hang ajar on one of its hinges, and I suggested that it should be possible for them to squeeze or force their way in or to remove the door completely to get in, and although the players thought about it a moment, they were interested, they did not dare get into a building with no escape while there might be orcs about. This did not prevent their PCs always looking over their back for fear that there might be coming something out of the building... I loved it!

Speaking of escape, not long after the session started they inspected the squeaking bridge to the village. They feared that it might collapse if the wagon was going over it. The players began the adventure with investigation. That was not my making and I was suprised how long they really searched for something there. They assumed that the orcs might have sabotaged the bridge. But this time, I did not pick up on it. There was no reason for the orcs to do so. Instead, they found out that the bridge was holding but was in need of slight repairs. I began the session thus not with a peak of danger, but with a silent accomplishment, something to reassure them. They never made the connection that the bridge might be squeaking only when the fat bard was moving over it, but that is fine.

Speaking of further opportunities, with the above depicted trees, broken wagon and boxes, I gave the players opportunities to get behind cover, although the tree was not enough cover for the fat bard. And they used it. As the goblin came out of the building laden with loot and then fled, I wasn't sure whether the players would think of rolling the barrel towards him to stop him in his tracks. They did not, but saw the option later when we talked about it. And that made them rethink surroundings.

Speaking of vision ranges above, I said that Rhea had darkvision in contrast to her human companions. This was also the reason the goblins spotted the party earlier than the humans knew what they were up against. They too had darkvision. Edwyn rushed at a proposed goblin in the dark, but he didn't know what was there. After firing the shot, the goblin fled, but what if it had been orcs? Or even 4 goblins? The bard would never had stood a chance. I should mention that we are playing under the rules of GURPS, so it is quite a deadly system.

In the end, the wild warrior-druid could show her combat finesse, the learned musketeer his combat tactics, and the fat bard his surprising courage. The bard made a dumb mistake (as was fitting for his character) and even rolled a glitch. The player paid by ending the session unsure whether his character would survive. Poisoned and down to 3hp leaning against a building in the wilderness surrounded by darkness but glowing himself by this glowing stone around his neck making him a great target in the darkness. On the other hand, the musketeer had seen no combat action this session. Luckily - or even if not, I would have done it that way - he sneaked just to the hiding place of one of those huge spiders, so he will get action at the beginning of the next session.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
My reflections on Foundry after this session
Vision & Fog of War

At first I gave the human PCs a very limited range of their vision (2 yds dim vision) due to the fact that they had the torch light to help them. Only after a couple of minutes after they left the torch behind, I increased their vision to 5 yds dim vision to make up for their attunement to the surroundings. Still that was way below their elven companion. A little bit tricky to find the right distances here. But the fog of war exploration was working great.

Things in the dark
One thing though to keep in mind, players will not see the same things that you do as a GM. So I might mention that here and there they seem to see some building or such in the dark distance, but that will not give the players a real assumption on what is where. Only after the session as a player brought this up, we came up with illuminating the top of the biggest buildings (and other!) that might be visible in the distance, like I prepped for mountains later. That was a good call.

Pacing
Usually I'm not very used to battlemap-based sessions. All the more reason, I strongly noticed that this medium prevented me at several points from having the usual easy grip on pacing and emotional twists. As the medium changed, so did the game. I feel I need to let the players explore on their own, luring them with information, letting them find and move on. I refrained from just moving to the next scene, from moving their tokens to the next interesting point. I was dependend on their actions and so was more of the pacing than I was accustomed to. It is not something bad, but it is something you should keep in mind as a GM. Also, the investigative part seemed to stretch much longer than I had anticipated and was only partly interjected with small roleplaying scenes. The party held aloft the mood of horror and fear, much longer than I would have done.
Although I had planned on having small intermezzos of another kind to refresh my players (read about it in RPT #1,176 | 3 Quick Horror Tips for Your Halloween Game), it became harder to fill this in and I felt I had to depend on an NPC at the site (which I had in the form of the small will'o'wisp they are trying to help) or to wait for the party to move on, or to let something unexpected happen suddenly.

Emotional Clarity
In case you play with Fog of War, be prepared that you do not experience the same story as do your players. Although you can make Foundry show what your players are supposed to see, as a GM you still see the rest of the map although dimmer and you know what is going to be there. As a player, you see blackness and you have to guess a lot. As a GM you might not notice frustration in your players when the area they can see is actually very small. Also, at least I couldn't quite grasp in the situation what my players were experiencing at this moment tension-wise and whether they needed a tension break. I believe this is to a great degree due to the online platform and due to the fog of war battlemap. My lesson: Be much more aware of the emotional state of your players than you usually would.

Starting Points
Our game started off with Rhea having better elven vision and thus, the player had a much more extensive freedom to explore the map.
Edwyn was given the first light in the form of the emanating light of the will'o'wisp imprisoned in the amulet he wears around his neck. Shortly after, he took a torch for himself and increased the light's radius.
But Cael had nothing. He chose not to use a torch and didn't have elven darkvision.
He was a pace behind the other characters, and I don't mean physically. He was at a disadvantage and it was very obvious for me by just these little light issues. Later he wasn't shot at for that reason, sure, but it is a very important aspect at the beginning of the game. Does this player feel under-appreciated due to the fact that his character hasn't something special? This one didn't luckily, but please keep that in mind as a GM.

Early Boons
I took the following roleplaying tip to heart: RPT #581 | The First 15 Minutes - How to Kickoff Great Game Sessions. Thus, I had the PCs find out / succeed at something / or give them a boon early on.
First, I gave a quick summary of their mission and last accomplishments, their questions and goals. I sprinkled that with a lot of limelight for individual character accomplishments or funny glitches, tried to revive last sessions mood swings with a couple of sentences.
Then, when all of them were ready to dive back in, I showed them this session's starting point, in our case the end of the bridge leading to the village, their wagon with a light source to their back. And at this point I did not really begin the fog of war exploration part, but had the problem (vision) and mystery (sqeaking bridge) right then and there. They were at the light's border and I asked them quickly what they saw to check if the Foundry lighting was working correctly, but also to make them aware of the great difference in vision between the elf and the human with light and the human without. This way, it took not so long for the party to dive right into the session, they quickly looked with a torch under the bridge while holding onto grass bushels to prevent themselves from falling into the river. They had the chance to plan their procedure and to take precautions. All in all, they accomplished the first step on their route to this adventure easily. And their march into the village became more confident and quickly.
 
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