Thursday, December 30, 2010

D&D BattleMap Using the UDK - The Setup

So, if you've seen this video you know we do actually use this to play D&D:

But how do we get that UDK map onto the table?  First, it starts with an Optoma Pro350W projector. 

My wife had one requirement when we started this project: I had to be able to completely break down the entire setup and put her dining room back to a presentable state.  That meant no permanent fixtures.  We explored various ways of positioning the projector on top of cabinets, building an overhanging stand for it or (gasp!) hanging it from the chandelier.  Then, one of our brilliant players came up with the idea of the mirror -- that way we wouldn't be restricted to aiming the projector at the table.  That's a cheap $5 Wal-mart kids' room mirror that I removed the framing and backing from.  It's plastic, very light weight, and hung with binder clips and picture wire from white hooks.  (My wife's first compromise about "no permanent fixtures".)

The projector itself sits on a heavy duty Redmond Laptop Stand, so that we could adjust the angle if necessary.  That sits on a decorative shelf.  (My patient wife's second compromise.)

And those are the only two modifications we made to the room.  After D&D night, I can remove every trace of the battlemap setup, save for the decorative shelf and the camouflaged hooks.

Ok, I said "only two" and you're probably thinking, "what is that huge statue looming over the room?!"  Yes, well, that's a statue from the old Wizards of the Coast brick-and-mortar stores that used to be in the malls in our area.  When the stores were closing, I bought a set.  That was very early in our marriage.  (My advice to young lovers: buy all your mid-life crisis toys early, cause you're not getting them later when you want them...)  So, that's been "grandfathered" in, and doesn't count.

Makes a great conversation piece, though.  And scares the pizza delivery guys.  :)

Anyway, where we used to have a battlemat or paper maps, we now use a sheet of bright white vinyl from a fabric store to project the map onto.

No grid marks, so we can position the map anyway/anywhere we want to.  And it's tough as leather, so we don't worry about drink stains or die rolls on the table.

Ok, so we now have the projector setup but what's it connected to?  You may notice that our DM's laptop is running Excel, not the UDK...

It's prohibitively more expensive to buy a gaming capable laptop than a productivity laptop.  That is an inexpensive HP G56 laptop.  It runs the UDK at a laughable 2 fps.  But even if it could run it, it's not practical: we use an Excel based combat tracker.  Flipping projected screens between the UDK and Excel would kill the immersion and probably cause seizures in at least one of us.  So, what's driving the projector?

My monster of a gaming rig sporting dual GTX-285s sits in the very next room.  All it took was:
  • 50 feet of VGA extension cables
  • Input Director, to remotely control my rig from the DM's laptop
(Just a side note about Input Director: this is one of the most useful applications I have ever downloaded.  If you have more than one computer turned on at any one time time, it'll save you time, desk space, and body strain.  I love this thing.  I used to think dual-boxing gamers were ambidextrous, ADD, narcissistic, power gamers.  I've tried it using Input Director and it's shockingly easy.)

The last thing we did was replace the light switch in the room with a dimmer.  When building a map, it can be difficult to determine how bright to light it.  Using a dimmer, we could adjust the light in the room without having to rebuild the map on the fly.  (And it didn't count against my "no permanent fixtures" limitation, since it benefited the room during normal use.)

And that's all the hardware we needed.  The room can be completely returned to normal after all the monsters have been slain.  The next blog will start explaining the UDK code itself.

D&D BattleMap Using the UDK

If you've come here from the YouTube videos, then you know what this is about.  If not, let me give you some background.  I'm sure many D&D DMs reach the same conclusion we did: battlemaps are difficult to make interesting.
  • Wet erase vinyl maps require some time and artistic talent to be more than just room-defining walls.  Plus, you can't really prepare them beforehand if the evening's adventure will be in more than one location.
  • Scanning maps from a module, scaling, printing, cutting and taping uses up a lot of material that gets thrown away at the end of the evening.
  • Dungeon tiles are great if the adventure you are running used them.  Otherwise, they can be clunky to try to fit together to match your design.
Which left us with various digital map tools.  But if we're sitting around the table with laptops staring at a networked map, we loose the immersion of using the miniatures.  (More on that later.)

It was during this period of battlemap exploration that we came across the UDK.  We're a group of IT industry professionals who play D&D.  Surely, we could spend some of our gaming time creating our own game, right?  But what game to make?  Soon afterward, Alien Swarm entered the picture and we had our epiphany: if we made a top-down game, why couldn't we just overlay that with a grid and have a fully animated, realistic, 3D battlemap?

Well, we did.  And came up with this:

The next blog will talk about our setup and how we actually use it to play.  Then we'll explain the code we wrote to build it.  Until then, check out some of the other videos.  We're kinda proud of them.  :)

D&D BattleMap Using the UDK - The Setup