A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


The Cavern of the Damned

[Preliminary Intro - Subject to change!]

As you slowly open your eyes the world seems out of focus. The room dips and sways sharply as you raise yourself up off the ground, your arms shaking under the weight of your own body. As the blur twists and bends in reaction to your ear-splitting headache, you sense the taste of dried blood and dirt on your lips.

The chamber comes in to better focus as you stagger to your feet, and you frantically spin around to see your possessions scattered about you, discarded as if they had no meaning. You are bathed in a light from above that burns brighter than the sun, causing you great pain as you look towards it.

You struggle to clear your mind and try to remember how you came to be here, but that's just the problem: your mind is already completely clear, blank even, and you have no memory of what brought you to this strange place.

As you look past the circle of light in which you stand and into the darkness that surrounds you, as the ringing in your ear subsides, one thing is certain.

You are not alone.

Cavern of the Damned is an adventure that I've been working on for a while, or at least something I've wanted to do. It originally started as a 13th Age adventure, but I was actually having a hard time working the icons into the adventure (which, depending on who you ask, is sometimes considered a requirement for anything 13th Age). Since then I've also tinkered with it in Pathfinder, but have finally decided to do it in D&D 5th Edition, with the expectation that the eventual licensing will allow me to do so.

At first I had a problem: the adventure is supposed to really start with the party finding themselves cut off from the rest of the world in a dungeon without an apparent exit. This involved finding a way to have the entire party either fall unconscious or get captured or something, but I quickly realized that that's something rather hard to do because players have a tendency to not go quietly into that goodnight. Instead I have decided to start the adventure kind of in media res, with the players regaining consciousness while lying on the floor of the dungeon, without any memory of events in the past few days. Over time, those memories will return.

I have also decided to fully embrace the 5th Edition spirit while making it a challenging dungeon, using some of the design principles seen in Fourthcore (although I admit 4C is much more bleak than I could ever be) or even my own Seyvoth Manor. It will not be a walk in the part to day the least.


I had created a map for the original incarnation of Cavern of the Damned, but I lost the composite PNG file due to a drive failure. Since then I had a new vision of the adventure which requires a complete map redesign, which means that the map that I did is completely deprecated and will not be used. Therefore, I figure if I can't use it someone else out there could. So here is the arguably incomplete map in its 100DPI, 6+Mb JPEG glory for anyone to use. If you do use it, I'd love to know about it.


In the meantime stay tuned for Cavern of the Damned, which will be released once 5th Edition licensing is settled.


Math Makes Brain Hurt



Over the weekend I acquired the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual... which I desperately needed for my conversion of "The Coming Dark, Chapter One" to 5th Edition.

I have to say, even if you aren't a DM, I highly recommend you get your hands on it. It's a beautiful book and is chock full of lore and other tidbits of information on all your favorite monsters. You may not be analyzing each stat block in vivid detail, but you can enjoy it nonetheless.

Needless to say, converting TCD has been... difficult. The campaign has existed in one way or another for four years and has had treatments in four different editions: 4E, Pathfinder, 13th Age and now 5E. In every edition before 5E it was pretty easy to put what I wanted into a given encounter; create your monster, and all the related math works itself out and balances everything for you. In 4E you can have a monster that's a mage with ten different types of spells, but since the damage from those spells is balanced and HP was predictable it wasn't a big deal.

5E is quite different, though: the players are fragile. At 1st level, it's actually pretty easy to kill a player, sometimes with a single blow. I find myself unable to create combats of the same scale as I did in 4E because the PCs aren't indomitable wrecking balls of destruction that just won't die. I have to scale things back, and sometimes that hurts.

For example, at a pivotal point at the end of Act II the party encounters two mages. These mages are supposed to be powerful but still defeatable by a party working collectively and tactically.

First off, let's assume I want to make a slightly difficult encounter for a 2nd level party... My XP budget would be about 750 XP. Two opponents gives a 1.5x multiplier, so that makes each opponent 250 XP. That means, assuming there's nothing else in the encounter, two CR 1 mages.

But what does CR 1 mean? I'm hoping more explanation on how to calculate this magic number is provided in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but in the mean time it's a bit of a crap shoot to figure out. In Pathfinder it was sort of easy - the CR could be calculated from class levels - but it feels like CRs are all over the place in 5E. According to the NPC lists, a 4th level spellcaster is a CR 2... and that's the "cult fanatic", which isn't even worthy of being a named villain. If I make both mages a CR 2, the encounter difficulty would rocket up to 1,200 XP (400 XP each, 1.5x multiplier), which is far beyond the "deadly" 1,000 XP budget for a five man, 2nd level party.

So, if I keep them at a CR 1, what level of a spellcaster is that? 2nd level? 3rd? That's hardly a menace... that's weaker than a "fanatic" for god's sake, and hardly worthy of a named villain. It feels like the math cheapens the encounter.

Now I know what you're thinking... "the hell with XP budgets; put whatever you want." If I were the DM I could handle that, deal with the situation accordingly and manage the by-the-numbers impossible encounter so it's not as overwhelming as the math shows. But I'm not the DM here... I'm a publisher. Those numbers are there for a reason: to assist those fledgling DMs that don't know how to control the game. A seasoned DM would not have much a problem throwing a CR 5 at a 1st level party... He would know how to give the party a fighting chance and how to control the situation. You give that CR 5 to an inexperienced DM that only knows how to make attacks and roll dice, it'll be a slaughter. So as a publisher I have to respect them, whether I agree with them or not.

And this scene isn't my only scene with such a problem. I hve a giant skeleton (CR 2) as literally the second encounter for a 1st level party. I have a scene with a pair of doppelgangers (CR 3s) against a 1st-2nd level party. I have a drow mage (CR 3, for now) summon a drider, which is a soul crushing CR 6 by MM standards, against a 2nd level party.

I guess what I'm getting at is that things are way different and I must adapt. In 4E, all I had to do to "fix" the encounter is look at the numbers and scale things. You could just *make* a level 1 drider that's balanced! In 5E you have to look past the numbers, search for new creative ways to make an encounter much more meaningful, and much less deadly, than it would be if it were based on numbers alone.

For example, in my examples above:

  • The party has help against the giant skeleton in the form of village guards. I've added the option that the giant skeleton, rather than target the party directly, might decide to go wail on some expendable NPCs instead.
  • Even though the doppelgangers are working together, they're normally not in the same room. So they can deal with one at a time unless the party brings them together, but then it's their own damn problem.
  • The drider is a "summoned drider", where I purposely reduced the stats to about a CR 3; it's still a threat given the other enemies in the encounter (and related multiplier) but not as overwhelming. And I added the possibility that the drider might be a little ticked at being summoned in the first place and take its rage out on the mage that made it appear, allowing the PCs to react accordingly.

Still not sure what to make about my "two wizards" encounter... need to think about that some more.


Just to recap my current projects:

  • The Atomic Age RPG is, short of a better way of putting it, in "development hell" right now because of personal situations I find myself having to deal with (if you follow me on Twitter, you probably know). Eventually this will appear on Kickstarter.
  • The Cavern of the Damned was in progress, but do to a drive failure I lost the map. It's about half done, and although it was intended for 13th Age I'm debating what system it will ultimately be for.
  • The Coming Dark, Chapter One is about 90% complete, at least as a first draft. It's been rewritten for 5th Edition, so it's contingent on licensing options of course. I'm optimistic. This may or may not be on Kickstarter; don't know yet.
  • Have one other pet project that I don't want to mention, but it could be really fun and I wish I had the time for it.
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The 11th Skeleton

With the release of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit and Player's Handbook, I have decided to convert my long languishing adventure "The Coming Dark" to 5E. But, unlike other publishers who will remain nameless, I am not going to rush it out there, and no one's going to see a thing about it until (1) the licensing options are given, and (2) the Dungeon Master's Guide is released.

That being said, I have started to try and figure out how 5th Edition works in terms of creating adventures. In 4E, creating balanced encounters was rather simple because everything was equally balanced - given an equal level, five monsters were an even match to five PCs - but that's not exactly the case any more. Now it's more like 3.5E and earlier versions, where a monster's difficulty is reflected in an obscure "Challenge Level" which is extremely hard to calculate. I mean, after you stat up a monster how do you know what CR Challenge Level to give it?

That led me to wonder about balance in general, specifically how balance is determined. 5th Edition had an unprecedented amount of playtesters, so they had access to a variety of groups that could test and retest things in the hopes that they could determine what is balanced and what is unbalanced. But there's an inherent problem with that: not every group is the same, and not every player is the same. If an exploit exists, it will take a small handful of "high end" players to find it... so if something is taken advantage of by so few, is it really a balance issue? Can the game be unbalanced by something you're not even aware of?

So I thought about how some things could be experimented with... and the programmer in me realized that this is no different than load testing an application. When you do that, you don't run it a few times and see what happens. You run it a LOT of times and get the average results.

So I decided to create a simulator.

Combat Simulator


In the first scene of "The Coming Dark", the players are set upon by a large group of skeletons. But how many is enough? At what point does the encounter go from being a cake walk to a crushing defeat?

So I wrote a program to simulate 50,000 combats between two groups: the five pre-generated characters that are included in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit versus an indeterminate amount of skeletons. How many skeletons does it take before the players are likely to be on the losing end of the battle?

The small little program I wrote takes a few considerations:

  • All the attacks are basic attacks. Every class uses its preferred melee attack except the rogue (which uses his shortbow) and the wizard (which uses the cantrip ray of frost).
  • The noble fighter and cleric are the "preferred" enemies of the attacking skeletons. These are the front line defenders, and likely the ones that stand between the skeleton and the wizards. Only when they both fall is the rest of the party at risk.
  • No high end magic of any kind. Needless to say this would quickly sway the encounter in the player's favor.
  • No healing. No action surge, no cleric healing, no potions, etc... again, this is something the players have that the skeleton's don't. This also means that the players will not use any limited resources during the combat.
  • No one gets advantage or disadvantage on any roll. For that reason, the rogue never deals additional sneak attack damage.
  • A natural 20 deals double the normal damage. I know this isn't precise, but it's easier to code.
  • All the damage is rolled; no averages are used.
  • The skeletons have an AC of 12 and 6 hit points each. They have a shortsword as a weapon, which gives them a +3 to the attack roll and deals 1d6+1 damage on a hit.
  • The PCs are the five defined in the starter kit: Noble Fighter (greatsword), Folk Hero Fighter (bow), Cleric (morningstar), Rogue (shortbow), and Wizard (ray of frost).
  • Since he deals bludgeoning damage and the skeletons are vulnerable to it, the cleric deals an additional die of damage on a hit. Again, not precise... but easier to code.


I ran 50,000 iterations of each combat, adjusting the number of skeletons from 6 to 12. The simulations yielded the following.

# of Skeletons PC Wins PC Losses
6 49258 742
7 47238 2762
8 42606 7394
9 35178 14822
10  26024  23976
11  17060 32940
12  9388 40612

So, in a nutshell, the 11th skeleton is quite the badass. Players could more or less handle ten of them, but when that 11th one steps in things go to crap pretty quickly.

So what did we learn from this exercise?

  • It's very possible for PCs to trash a modest amount of low end minions without having to fire their big guns.
  • The above doesn't use healing at all, which means that even if the PCs get dinged about a bit they are still able to recover. PCs can win an encounter with 8 skeletons over 80% of the time and immediately go into the next encounter.
  • Dailies, spells, healing potions and other consumables - things that the monsters generally don't have - tip the scales considerably in favor of the PCs.
  • If you walk into a room with 6 skeletons in it, you can probably dispatch them fairly easily. As glorious as it might be, you don't have to nuke the whole room.

Until more concrete guidelines for monster creation and encounter balancing come about, I'll keep using this simulator and try to get a feel for how things should be. Over time, I might improve the simulator more and more so that it's more representative of each PCs actions in an encounter. Who knows? Maybe this will end up being a full on AI framework?

I can't help but wonder if WotC does this sort of analysis. Like I said above, sure they have tens of thousands of playtesters but it's such a diverse group with so many different situations that it may be hard to quantify. Not to mention that, if you present a specific combat situation to two separate groups, 99% of the time you'll get two different approaches and two different outcomes.

Can't wait to try this out on goblins and kobolds...


If you're curious, you can view the C# source code for the simulator HERE.


To Crunch or Not To Crunch

Development has continued on the Atomic Age RPG... Granted, not as fast I would like due to personal and "real life" issues (how awesome would gaming be if we didn't have to do things like, you know, pay rent and eat food!) but it's moving along.

This past week I've been focusing on two things:

  1. Rewriting the rules so that they have more fluff. Right now, except for entirely new material, it's 90% text from the SRD which... let's be honest... reads like the owner's manual to a 747. It's presentation of the rules is as raw as it gets, and it isn't exactly as fun a read as the 13th Age book is. I'm hoping to fix that.
  2. Seriously reconsidering some of the new implementations I'm doing. Besides the all new classes, races, monsters and content, there are a few major things I'm creating exclusively for The Atomic Age:
  • Radiation sickness
  • Disease and toxins
  • Gun mechanics
  • Vehicles and driving mechanics
  • Hacking

#2 above is the one I have the biggest issue with right now. You see, I'm a crunch guy... As a mathematics/computer science major, I love crunch and can't get enough of it. But 13th Age isn't exactly designed that way... it's meant to be "rules light", comparatively speaking. So it's hard to do certain things without becoming what 13th Age isn't.

Some things could be unavoidably complex... Yes, I could make vehicle rules be no more than one paragraph, but do I really want to? I'm not the kind of person that would make it a single paragraph and expect the DM to figure out what to do with that. I want to write rules, but is doing so a direct violation of everything 13th Age and the Archmage SRD stands for?

Let's take the firs example above: radiation sickness. Or let's put it in terms I'm actually using: the distinction between radiation damage and radiation exposure.

Radiation damage is just that: raw damage, no different than any other. Radiation exposure is how much radiation your body soaks up; it may not be immediately lethal, but it probably won't be god for you. But how do I quantify that? At what point do I decide "OK, you've had enough exposure... time to start feeling icky."

So I conceived the concept of a "radiation tolerance", which is half your maximum hit points. Once you get exposed to an amount of radiation that exceeds your tolerance, your sickness level increases one stage. And it keeps stacking... For example, you start at Stage 0 but if your tolerance is 20 and you take 50 exposure your stage is now Stage 2 (with 10 points to spare).

So what are the stages? Here's the list I currently have...

Stage 0: No adverse effect.

Stage 1: Your Constitution score is reduced by 1d4.

Stage 2: Your Constitution and Intelligence scores are further reduced by 1d4. When you use a recovery, you only recover half the hit points you normally would. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may start to experience one small, cosmetic mutation that may not fully develop until your exposure increases or until you go a long time without treatment.

Stage 3: Your Constitution, Intelligence and Strength scores are all further reduced by 1d4. You cannot use any recoveries until your radiation level is reduced. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may experience one significant mutation (see Advanced Mutations on page XXX).

Stage 4: All your attributes are further reduced by 1d4. During each full heal-up, you must succeed in a hard Constitution skill check (see Environmental DCs for Skill Checks on page XXX) or die.

Stage 5: Death.

The problem with this is that now I'm introducing another mechanic: ability drain. Every time this happens you'll have to recompute everything: armor class, defenses, max hit points, attack rolls, etc... etc... etc... Do I really want that? This feels very... 3.5E/Pathfinder-ish.

So I thought of an alternate list:

Stage 0: No adverse effect.

Stage 1: You take a -2 penalty to all attack rolls and skill checks.

Stage 2: You take a -2 penalty to all defenses, and when you use a recovery you only recover half the hit points you normally would. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may start to experience one small, cosmetic mutation that may not fully develop until your exposure increases or until you go a long time without treatment.

Stage 3: You are vulnerable to all attacks against you, and you cannot use any recoveries until your radiation level is reduced. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may experience one significant mutation (see Advanced Mutations on page XXX).

Stage 4: Death.

It's one stage less because I'm honestly running out of things to penalize.

So all of the above, with the addition of details on how to reduce your exposure and whatnot, takes up two pages of a Word document, which would translate to about a page and a half (sans art) in the final format. For a game whose rules on invisibility take up three small paragraphs, that feels like a lot doesn't it?

Again, is that such a bad thing? If I had to simplify it, I'm not sure how I would... any more and I might not as well include it at all.

This happens with all the other sections I mention above as well. Vehicle rules are like six pages right now, and that might sound absurdly long but, to me anyway, it feels right. So I have to force myself to adjust my way of thinking and create new rules that have the same design ethic as the rest of the document. Well that or create the entire damn game from scratch, which is not something I think I can do in any reasonable amount of time.

Anyway, I'll revisit these rules some of the day I suppose. I still got a lot of text to write for my icons in the meantime.

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A Developer’s Hell

Gosh, it's been a while... To say my life has been hectic, or difficult, is somewhat of an understatement. So much so that I have had to effectively cancel my trip to GenCon this year because I see no way whatsoever that it can be logistically or financially possible. So, to those of you that are going, I will have no choice but to experience it vicariously through you.

Meanwhile, my little pet project - the Atomic Age RPG - has been languishing in something I can only describe as "development hell". Or maybe "launch a Kickstarter hell", if such a thing exists.

Here are my concerns with the project:

1) I have no art

Right now, at this very moment, I can probably launch a Kickstarter, distribute or sell the product... but I can't bring myself to do that. You see, right now at it stands it's nothing more than a text dump, an almost identical copy of the Archmage Engine SRD with some words and numbers changed. That does not make for a successful RPG by any means, and I feel that if I were to do that the product wouldn't last a day before disappearing into obscurity.

If I'm going to do this I'm going to do this right, which means that I need some sort of art. And there are many levels that need to be covered by art...

  • I don't even have a LOGO yet
  • The Kickstarter listing alone needs some sort of art
  • The core book needs art. A LOT of art, quite frankly
  • Everything else (stretch goals, backer rewards, etc...) needs art

Now I know a handful of artists I want to approach with this project, and I have even had business-like discussions with them, but with all of them there is a cost to get this off the ground. Maybe some will do it free, I don't know... I didn't ask and I don't want to ask. Like I said, I want to do this right: I do not want contributions or charity. I'm going to treat this like a business, which means I will pay my artists what the market bears.

That being said, although the cost of prettying up the core book and supplementals will be covered by the Kickstarter itself, the logo and Kickstart art will not and has to be paid first. The financial turmoils I've already mentioned make that rather difficult to do, and I can't bring myself to take the next steps without knowing - without a doubt - that I can afford my artists.

2) It hasn't been officially announced

I've mentioned the project in passing, and have even posted images of some of the content I've been working on, but it hasn't really been officially announced. There's a website, and a Facebook page, and a Twitter account... but few people know about it.

Why not? I don't have a logo, and for personal pride reasons I feel I can't start officially directing people to the social media venues without having a product identity.

So, until I can do that, they stay clouded in obscurity and amidst the whispers of a select few.

3) It hasn't been playtested

Because it hasn't been launched, few people know about it. Even fewer have actually seen it. Actually, I can only think of two people that have, and even those two have probably only glanced over it, figuring I wasn't quite serious about this whole thing because I haven't done everything I mention above.

For that reason, I have no idea if what I'm doing is "right" or "broken". I don't know if I properly grasp the concepts and game style people expect or look forward to, or if I've created any single element that needs radical changing before it gets abused all to hell.

Granted, the playtesting could theoretically happen during or after the Kickstarter, but as a long time game designer it's a serious concern for me. I've had issues before with games that weren't properly tested... Sure, this isn't a video game, but I feel it needs an equal level of analysis and testing before getting anywhere near production.

4) It hasn't been edited

I'll be honest: I'm a lousy writer. And if you're a writer reading this, I bet you can admit (to yourself, at least) that in the early stages of your writing career you were a lousy writer too. Heck, there are probably several dozen grammatical errors and misspellings in this post alone (yes, I know they're there... No, don't point them out).

If I want to do this right, the game has to be the best that it can be, and for that an editor is absolutely necessary. Yes, I know that the editor can do his job pretty much at any time before the product reaches the final stages, but that would mean that the early "alpha" or playtest releases might end up looking like they were written by a child who can't speak English. Once again, personal pride steps in... You can be the creator of the best RPG the world has ever seen, but if you give it to the world using text that looks like it was written by a monkey with a typewriter it doesn't matter how good the game is.

5) It's not done

In the video game industry, there was a time when if you asked pretty much any video game developer when they were going to release their product they would answer without hesitation "when it's done" (I guess we can thank 3D Realms for that one). But the thing is, if it were entirely up to me and my creative flow, what exactly defines "done"? Honestly, I could keep writing content until the core manual is 3,000 pages. Who decides "OK, you can stop now and publish this"?

Furthermore, as many authors will probably attest to, it's hard to be satisfied with what you've written. When you think you're done, you look at it and think "you know, I didn't like [X]... let me fix that"... And six months and 400 pages of rewrites later you keep thinking the same thing. It's very hard for a writer to stop themselves because, in their eyes, it's never done... it's never perfect... and there's always room to do something better.

Let's look at the classic example of someone taking forever to write something: George R. R. Martin. Do you honestly think he sits down and starts writing page one, then as soon as he writes the last word of page 1,200 sends it off to the publisher and never thinks about it again? Heck no. Let's be realistic here, there probably is at least one version of The Winds of Winter that is already written cover to cover... He's knows it's terrible,  he's probably been writing and rewriting and rewording and fixing it for the last four years, and will probably keep doing that for another four years because that's the way he works. If he had someone that made him publish the books when they were ready, we'd have fifteen books in the series by now. They may not be as awesome as the five books we've seen (they'd probably suck, to be honest), but they'd be out there.

So unless you're George R. R. Freakin' Martin, eventually you have to put your foot down and say "OK, I might have spent five years rewriting this thing eighteen times, and I know it's probably the worst thing I've ever written, but I can't keep doing this until the end of time", send it to your publisher and hope that you're the only one that thinks it sucks.

I know a lot of things in my product are deficient, or "broken", or nothing more than a "// TODO" tag. It's personal pride again, preventing me from having anyone besides myself see how bad or lacking this product is. Every day I write something, even if it's a sentence or a paragraph or changing monster #135's Mental Defense stat... But I know that at some point I'm going to have to force myself to stop and let other people look at this mess.

Anyway, besides the personal issues I will not elaborate on here, I have a lot of things to do and a lot of battles with my own pride to overcome. This product will get done, sooner than later, and I just have to get my crap together to do it.

Until the Kickstarter launches, "ever forward..."