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Friday’s 4e Freebie: Virtual Combat Cards by Ex Nebula

Shall we play a game?” ~ Joshua (Wargames, 1983)

I think I’ve mentioned this before in a previous blog, but I’ll say it again:

I freakin’ love using my laptop to play D&D 4e!

For years, I hand-wrote my adventures, and dragged piles of paper with me to each game session, along with my myriad D&D books. Later, a desktop computer let me type out all my games notes on MS-Word, but I still had to print everything out and drag it along with me to the game. Admittedly, it certainly beat writing down everything by hand, but was still cumbersome.

Then about a year ago, I got a laptop with my tax refund, and started using it in my D&D campaign. At first, I’d just word-process all my notes, and run the game from that, which definitely saved on printer paper. But then I got my subscription to D&D Insider, and all it took was a wireless connection, and suddenly I got to start leaving more and more books at home.

Between the D&D Insider Compendium, monsters from Adventure Tools, and Microsoft Office Suite, I had all the tools and references I needed to prepare, notate, and run a D&D 4e campaign. The only thing I was doing by hand anymore was mapping on graph paper! And I’m hoping to do away with that soon, as I’ve been working on learning how to whip together a decent map in Photoshop. It still takes me too long in the map department, but all the other pieces of Dungeon Master game preparation was clean, efficient, and paper-free.

Except for combats…

Not the preparation of combats mind you, but the actual playing them out. I was still using a notepad to keep notes of hit points, combat conditions, and all the other little things you need to track, round by round, during a combat.

At first it didn’t bother me that much, but then it got on my nerves. I mean I had this laptop and all these amazing tools for preparing my game notes, but nothing to aide me running the combat itself. I toyed around with a few spreadsheet style tools, like Initiator, but they had one central flaw: Microsoft Office Suite.

Don’t get me wrong, I generally like MS-Office, and I use it all the time. Heck, right now I am using Word to write this blog before I post it. But it’s not stable. The more tricks you ask it to do, the greater chance that it will seize up and crash, taking your work with it. In this case, using multiple spreadsheet tools was too much for ole’ Excel, and I’d end up with a crash to desktop halfway through a combat from time to time. And frankly, it’s way beyond irritating to lose your combat notes halfway through a fight.

So I started looking around online, in various forums, to see what other DMs were using as a stand-alone D&D 4e combat tool. In my searches, I found several posts recommending Virtual Combat Cards (VCC for short) by Ex Nebula. And about 2 months ago, I decided to give it a try.

I freakin’ love using VCC to play D&D 4e!

Virtual Combat Cards (VCC)
  • Designer: Ex Nebula
  • Publisher:
  • Year: 2009
  • Media: Scala program (Java runtime)
  • Price: FREE

Essentially, Virtual Combat Cards (VCC) is a Dungeons & Dragons 4e combat tracker, and you can use it during any combat to track hit points, initiative, conditions, and effects on both Player-Characters and on Monsters. It has an easy to use interface, and runs very stable. Of course, it does require that you have Java Runtime Environment going, but I’ve never had it crash yet after dozens of game sessions – which is more than I can say about my Excel spreadsheet tools.
vcc-1.1.0 screen shot
Preparing for combats is fairly easy, by simply adding the monsters you want into the VCC database, called the Compendium, and then adding them into an encounter group called a Party. You can make and save parties ahead of time, so that when the encounter occurs, it takes only a second to load up a monster group. Your Player-Characters are also loaded and saved the same way, and you can edit the Adventurers’ group at any time to keep up with leveling up. Although the monsters’ stats are entered by hand, you only really need a handful of fields filled out in order to run a combat. Or if you are willing to go with FireFox as your browser, VCC has a plugin that you can use to download data directly from the D&D Insider Compendium. You just look up a monster with your D&D Insider account, “capture it” by hitting a button, then import it to the database to then be used in an encounter party.

Combats themselves run much more smoothly with VCC, as it can compute initiatives at the start of a battle in seconds. Of course, some gamers might balk at that, so you can enter in specific rolls if your Players demand it. Mine did, until they realized that VCC is just as random as their dice was, and it was a lot faster to just let the program sort out initiatives. Initiative order can also be changed at any point in the combat to account for delayed actions and triggers.

Hit point tracking is very slick, as it keeps a track of remaining hit points, max hit points, and temp hit points separately. Temporary hit points (or as the shaman in my campaign calls them, ‘pre-heals’) are even displayed differently to for easy accounting. For instance, if a Character had 35 hit points remaining and 5 temporary hit points, it shows up as ‘35 + 5’ so there is no confusion. Damage, healing, and temp hit points can be applied with simply typing in the amount and hitting the appropriate button. By the way, the value you enter remains in the hit point field until you change it, which makes it easy to apply the same damage to multiple targets as a result of a burst or blast attack. And finally, bloodied, dying, and death states are all set to color code the hit point window to make it very simple to know how the battle is going for every combatant.

But the real treat in VCC is condition tracking. Conditions can be set quickly and easily using drop down menus, and the program will track and remove effects automatically. If you set up the “-2 attack roll penalty” for a Bard’s Vicious Mockery, which expires at the end of the Bard’s next turn, you can select that duration quickly from a dropdown menu – and VCC automatically removes the effect from the victim at the right time and you don’t have to do a thing! Other conditions, including those pesky marks and challenges are also easily applied and removed, which saves considerable time and confusion over the conventional paper notes.

Obviously, this program is not for everyone, but if you do have a laptop, or a desktop computer at your gaming table, Virtual Combat Cards is a fantastic resource for speeding combats. It alleviates confusing scribbled note-taking, and keeps the combats rolling, so you can finish more fights in a game session, and hopefully more enjoyably as well. And it’s all open source and free to download a full version, so you can’t say the price isn’t perfect!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


3 Responses to “Friday’s 4e Freebie: Virtual Combat Cards by Ex Nebula”

  1. Yoo-Hoo Tom says:

    Excellent Post. If you have a minute, I wrote a brief review of a Freeware Program on my blog. It’s called The Dungeon Master’s Battle Screen. I was told at the D&D experience that some of the Wizards guys use this program. It has allowed me to finally enjoy DM’ing 4th Ed.
    .-= Yoo-Hoo Tom´s last blog ..4th Ed. Dungeon Masters’ Best Friend =-.

  2. anarkeith says:

    Pretty nifty, and for the price, hard to beat. The documentation doesn’t really tell you much about how to use it specifically. And I’d want to mess with it a bit before using it in a session. It might add a layer of pointing and clicking (where I’m looking at my computer instead of the game) that could be intrusive, but it’s worth a test to see.

    I love the platform-independence of it. Universal software is always a plus in my book. I use both Mac and Win-platforms, but having Win-limited software hobbles it, IMO.
    .-= anarkeith´s last blog ..Campaign Notes: Talking to your DM =-.

  3. @ Yoo-hoo Tom – Hmmm… that Battle Screen has some pretty spiff features as well…
    Gosh darn it, now I’m gonna have to download it and take it for a test drive! Thanks for commenting, I didn’t even know about that one!
    @Anarkeith – Good point – but I found that once you get used to it, you don’t take your eyes off the players much more than you do if you were scribbling notes and jotting down damage on a piece of paper. I can’t deny though that for the first couple sessions it felt more like a distraction than a helper – but that passes with familiarity.

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