DISCLAIMER: Company names and external links on all external communications have been omitted from this article. Proper names of individuals have been changed to protect them.
That title might sound completely unlike anything I've ever written on this site... and you're right, because I didn't write it.
Several weeks ago I got contacted by a company that was willing to pay me to post articles on my site.
Here's the first email:
I hope you're having a great day! My name is Samantha and I'd like to submit an editorial piece for your website, rpg.brainclouds.net.
We have a team of writers ready to prepare a post written according to your site's topic, whilst adding references to our client. We are also able to pay an administration fee of $100 for your efforts in publishing the article.
Our aim is to contribute an article that adds value to your website and something that you and your readers may find useful and entertaining.
Please email me back if this is something that might interest you, David.
I look forward to working with you.
*NOTE*: "Samantha Smith" is not their real name.
A subsequent email explains how this would work...
I sent you an email about providing an article for your site. Have you read it and had time to think about it?
To repeat, we can send over a well-written content created specifically for your site. The post would also contain references to our client.
You will also receive an annual payment for your effort, paid promptly through PayPal.
Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you.
"Yours"?!? Man, they're trying to sell me their body already?
So here's how it works: they send me an article, I post it in its unmodified form and leave it on my site for 12 months, and after 12 months they PayPal me $100. Sounds easy, don't it?
I, like pretty much anyone who's ever owned a meaningful blog, has probably gotten a fair share of requests like this. But has anyone ever done anything besides instantly hit the DELETE key and carry on with their lives?
So, for the sake of journalism and because I haven't posted an article here in millennia, I will take that challenge!
Now, if you're reading this you know what this site's content is about... but I couldn't help but wonder if they knew that. Furthermore, their article will contain links to their clients, so I can't help but wonder (1) whether they even can write an article about D&D, and (2) how they would railroad their existing clients into said article.
So, for curiosity's sake... or perhaps for amusement's sake... I decided to play along. I had some questions of my own before I proceeded.
This is my email to them, complete with shameless shilling of my fan base and my lack of time to post anything productive:
Well this is an interesting offer, I admit. I haven't had much a chance to post a lot recently, so really could use some articles to maintain my fan base (over 2,000 followers on Twitter!).
I do have some questions, though:
1) I currently do not have an active PayPal account due to collection problems with PayPal. Is there any other payment option?
2) Is it $100 per article or per year? If the latter, how many articles does that $100 include?
3) Do I have any right of refusal for articles you submit that I may deem inappropriate to post?
4) What kind of clients do you represent?
5) Do you have a company website, or somewhere where I can see examples of articles you have written?
6) Do you even know what my site's topic is?
Thank you for your interest. Maybe we can work something out after all.
Now, just to be clear, I could care less about the answer to questions #1-5... I wanted to hear their answer to #6.
And they did not disappoint...
Thanks for getting back to me and I'm more than happy to answer your queries.
1. We make our payments only with Paypal and Skrill/Moneybookers. We find these two channels as the most safe and efficient. If you don't have a Paypal account, you may also sign up with Skrill/Moneybookers, or we can transfer the payment to a friend or colleague of yours that has Paypal and we'll just cover the Paypal fees.
2. The fee is for just a single article which we would ask for you to keep on your website for 1 year.
3. The article is subject to your review and approval prior to publication.
4. The article will include a few references to our client, a digital entertainment company offering online games. You are free to review the article first to see if it suits your site and readership.
5. Yes, you can find more information about us here: http://letsgetwise.com/about-us/
6. The article we aim to contribute is written according to your site's topic - Game Design and /or D&D (video games)
Please let me know if you wish to see the article and I'll ask our writers to prepare the copy. You may also specify topics that you prefer so that I can pass them on.
I await your response.
Now there's two things to note in the above.
- Their client is a "digital entertainment company offering online games". Remember that description later...
- I'm a "game design and/or D&D (video games)" blog. Well, asctually, that's closer than I expected them to be so I'll allow it.
So far, there's no risk to me. They write me an article, and I get to choose whether to post it or not, and it doesn't cost me time or money. If anything, it costs me personal pride and ethics... but that's worth the $100 I'll make a year from now, right?
I, of course, had more questions before I commit to this...
I'm still considering it, and I am interested... One final set of questions, along with the request to see a sample of what they would intend to post:
1) Is there any sort of contract that would be involved in this?
2) Are there any restrictions - legal or otherwise - as to what I can and can't do outside of this one article (which I assume I can't alter) on my own site?
Beyond that, I would love to see the type of article I should expect from this sort of thing. If it really works out, I'd be more than happy to do this setup more than once; my site could use the content.
The reason for question #2 is, if I do decide to post it, whether I'm allowed to bash it mercilessly in a blog post the next day. I could care less about the $100 in a year... this has comedic value now!
I hope you are well and my apologies on the delayed response. We don't have a set of terms and conditions or contract. All we would ask from you is to keep the article on your website for at least 12 months. Again, you are also free to review the article and make necessary adjustments to match the tone and style of your writing, however, we would ask you to keep the hypertext and links originally included when the article is sent.
I should be able to send the draft for your review within the next couple of days. If you have any editorial guidelines or specific topics in mind that you wish for us to write or avoid, please let me know so I can pass them on.
At this point, I couldn't wait for the monstrosity of an article they were going to send me!
Today I received the article. After looking at the post and the supporting links (we'll get to that later), I told them that I would not continue with our arrangement... but, of course, I'm going to post their jewel anyway. For free, 'cause I'm such a nice guy.
Here it is, in its entirety but with the links removed.
Title: Did you know that there's a Dungeons and Dragons slot machine?
Yeah, totally sounds like something I'd write. Oh boy... this is going to be good...
In May 2014, legendary game developer Konami launched two slot machines themed after Dungeons and Dragons namely "Conquests and Treasures" and "Enchanted Riches." (link removed) According to the games’ description, both have a 4-level progressive feature, free spins, and Xtra Reward.
To those who aren't familiar with slot machines, 4-level progressive is a fancy term used by game developers for bonus rounds, which can be triggered after playing a slot machine for a certain period of time. Bonus rounds usually yield bigger winnings than the payouts given by regular spins.
Free spins is pretty much self-explanatory. They award free games, and can be unlocked when a player hits 3 specific icons from a single spin. Xtra Reward, on the other hand, is Konami’s original slot feature that is offered to players who bet big.
Now, who would’ve thought that a lot of casino-goers are fans of the world's leader in tabletop role-playing game? According to G3 Newswire (link removed), guests actually waited in line when the game was launched at the Valley View Casino and Hotel in San Diego. Apart from cool prizes from the event organizers, each guest was given an official action figure patterned after the slot machines’ fire-breathing dragon model.
“The players we see this day and age are out looking for entertainment, and there’s a lot of entertainment value in the new Dungeons & Dragons slot machines,” said Randy Reedy, the Vice President of Valley View’s slot operations. “They really enjoy the experience. Just watching them, they get excited about additional bonuses within the free spin feature, which takes them to the progressive functionality. It’s very fun and interactive."
Today's young adults are usually the target of slot makers. This is evident on An Online Casino (link AND name removed), the world's first online casino that opened in the late 90s, having games that carry with them the commercial license of DC Comics and several other movie franchises. Perhaps there are already enough slot machines tailored for the more mature audience so slot developers are now trying to expand their market by attracting the younger demographic.
Check out the DnD Enchanted Riches game in action on this YouTube video. (link below)
So the "digital entertainment company offering online games" is an online casino... I mean, I expected something like that, which is why I was curious how they were going to railroad that kind of client into an article about D&D, but thanks to Konami they had a reason.
And, you know, I actually considered complying with their request, posting it as-is, and bashing it tomorrow... but something really rubbed me the wrong way and forced me to tell them "no" immediately and make this post.
What was it? Well, here's a video of the machine being demoed:
Let's face it, we can't expect a SLOT MACHINE to capture the feel that is D&D (what's with the playing card letters and numbers?!?). And I have to wonder if Wizards of the Coast is actually aware that this is what was going to be done with their brand and signed off on this.
But about 0:30 in we get this jewel:
"...but it's not really hardcore Dungeons and Dragons. It actually, what we found, is it appeals to both men and women..."
*headdesk!* ... *headdesk!* ... *headdesk!*
You know, I just can't accept that.
So I immediately said goodbye to the $100 I couldn't wait to spend next year, and sent them an email that I "would not proceed with our arrangement".
Well, at least I got a blog post out of this...
In case you're not aware, the project formerly known as DungeonScape has re-launched on Kickstarter as "Codename: Morningstar". Now I haven't talked a whole lot about the product, and in the past I admit I have been a little critical of it at times, but I wanted to put in a few words about it in the hopes that some of you out there will help support it.
First of all, I have to admit something: as a gamer, I question how much I'll actually use Morningstar myself. I'm generally not a fan of digital devices at the table, mainly because they're usually too "fun" and distract from the play experience. But you can't really look at this product as something that can *only* be used at the table... it's much more than that.
Filling the Digital Void
Whether I personally use Morningstar or not is not as important as my feeling that I think a product like Morningstar needs to exist in this day and age.
Since I'm a designer more than I am a player, I see a major benefit to something like Morningstar: it's not only another avenue by which to distribute my product, but the product ends up being significantly more useful within the application. Hardcopy adventures and PDFs are one thing, but Morningstar promises to make anything you create interactive, far more than the traditional e-book is. It allows the DM to actually use the adventure and its content in a much more interactive fashion.
Also, and I think most of us can admit to this: we kind of need digital tools. As D&D grows and its content base expands, it becomes virtually impossible to maintain and reference. Pathfinder suffers from that now: there are a dozen core books with supplemental material, so do you wheel out an ox cart full of books every time you need to look something up? Probbaly not. Instead, you go to the Pathfinder SRD and everything is there.
Now, arguably, a D&D SRD would be enough for most... but this is the 21st century. You'd think in this day and age we would be able to get the tools needed to shape the content in ways we need, from players designing characters the way they want them to DMs tweaking monsters and building combat encounters the way he wants them. We criticize Wizards of the Coast for living in the stone age, but we don't embrace digital tools ourselves. We need these tools, in one way or another, to pave the way for a brighter future.
Barrier of Entry
One common problem with any version of D&D is how easily newcomers can pick it up. And creating a character has not always been such an easy thing... Heck, I'm not sure if I can create a character from scratch using just the book, and I've been doing this for a while.
A digital tool, either online or offline, allows a player to not worry about the math. It allows them to click a few buttons to get the character they want and run with it, without having to worry if they calculated their AC correctly or not. It allows them to get right down to the game without having to worry about any changes.
For example, one of your attributes goes up by two... Do you know all the other properties that need to be changed because of that? How easy would it be to miss one? With a digital product maintaining all the math, one click and everything's in sync. Any idiot can maintain their character, freeing their mind to focus on what is important: playing the actual game.
I have this vision that Morningstar could potentially be the Steam of tabletop roleplaying: a means to distribute content much more intuitively than now. For example, right now if you buy a product on DriveThruRPG you get the product as it stands the moment you buy it. If that product goes through changes or updates, sure you can get it from DTRPG but there's no notification of it. Not to mention that you have to download another PDF and make sure the one you use is the right one.
Also, it allows for free content to be distributed much more readily and allows for immediate availability. You don't have to advertise it, you don't have to click a dozen links in order to get it, it's just... there.
The Sour Taste of Beta
I know what some of you are thinking... "Why should I back this when the beta was horrible?"
Yes, let's be honest... The DungeonScape web beta was abysmal. We know that. Heck, I'm sure *they* know that. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
First, let's get one thing straight: EVERY beta is horrible. They just are. I've done my fair share of beta testing, going as far back as Ultima Online (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Quake III: Arena (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Half-Life 2 (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Neverwinter (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Elder Scrolls Online (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful)... You sense a pattern here? And every time it's left a bad taste in my mouth, leaving me disillusioned about what the final product would end up being. Sometimes, rarely actually, my worries were right and the final product was a train wreck. Most of the time - as was the case with Half-Life 2, for example - the final product was fantastic.
That's the nature of a beta; it's an unfinished product that needs to be testing, and that testing goes on while development continues. It's not perfect... actually, it's way lower than perfect... but understand something about it: alpha or beta testing is not necessarily done to know what needs to be worked on, but how things need to be worked on. It's not done with the expectation of someone saying "XXX is broken", but rather with the expectation that someone will say "XXX is broken, but here's how it should be."
The DungeonScape web beta, quite honestly, should have not seen the light of day until months later... but I have a sense that it really wasn't Trapdoor's decision there. Wizards of the Coast is very traditional in their ways, and they had a certain timeline of when things were supposed to happen. They kept talking about these wonderful digital tools, building up the hype themselves, so they had a little bit of a problem in that they didn't exactly have anything to show for it yet. And Trapdoor was doing what they could, as fast as they could, with the resources they had...
...which brings up another issue: how do you build product "A", which is based on product "B", when you don't even know what product "B" is?
You see, at the time DungeonScape was being developed, the three core books didn't exist. OK, maybe the Player's Handbook existed in some capacity, but we all know the Dungeon Master's Guide didn't exist because that was the reason it was delayed: so they could work on it some more. So Trapdoor was tasked to create a product that would contain the functionality that was in a book that Wizards of the Coast didn't even finish writing yet.
Considering the limited time they probably had from the time they received content to the time it was available in the beta, I think Trapdoor did amazingly well. Especially considering that I doubt Wizards of the Coast did anything to make that transition easy for them.
The Elephant In the Room
The other concern many have is that they won't back Morningstar since it doesn't support D&D 5th Edition.
First of all, let me clear up a misconception that was circulating early in the Kickstarter's launch: it's not that Codename: Morningstar *won't* support 5th Edition. Wizards of the Coast has not told Trapdoor "no, you can't include 5E ever"... or at least I hope not, because if they did it would be one of the stupidest things WotC has ever said (and, let's face it, they've said some really stupid things in the past).
The truth of the matter is that we simply don't know: there is no 5th Edition license yet. Nobody knows what WotC is going to do, and only when the license is released will anyone have any idea whether 5th Edition will be available in Morningstar. If they go the OGL route it will most definitely be in Morningstar (and given that Trapdoor already has a lot of code sitting around already written, it should be an easy thing to do), but if they do something like they did with the 4E GSL - which explicitly prohibits software of any kind - then Trapdoor is up the creek. And, if WotC does do the latter, that will be yet another stupid thing they do, so I'm remaining optimistic.
Only time will tell whether Morningstar will support 5th Edition. I doubt we'll see a license before the end of the Kickstarter, but we could only hope.
In the meantime, Morningstar will support Pathfinder and - quite possibly - 13th Age. Many argue that this means they'll never use it because they don't run that game system... but I ask you to consider funding it not because of whether you'll use it or not, but rather fund the hope that the product will exist with a feature set that will make other game system publishers consider using it. Imagine a day where there would be a Morningstar for FATE... for Savage Worlds... for Star Wars... for Numerena... and, ultimately, for D&D 5th Edition.
Whether you think you'll use it or not, I ask you to consider backing Codename: Morningstar at some level. It's a product that, in my personal opinion, needs to exist and will hopefully pave the way for the future of digital tools in RPGs. They have a pretty lofty goal to reach, but their heart's in the right place.
Since I posted this on Twitter, I thought I would expand on it.
As a publisher, one of the things I always have to keep in mind is that my product's design and layout should be reasonably close to the official products while being very clear that it's not actually an official product. Although my data layout is fairly similar, I have ultimately chosen a different set of fonts and whatnot so that I have my own unique look... but there are still a lot of people out there that want whatever they do to look like D&D in terms of layout.
So I took the D&D Basic Rules free PDF, opened it up inside of Adobe Acrobat X Pro (part of the Adobe CS6 Master Suite), and looked at what fonts and colors they used. And this is the result...
All these fonts aren't exactly cheap, it seems. At first I thought they were free because I had them already, and I'm not exactly sure why I do but I do have upwards of 6,000 fonts on my system (they come with the job) after all... I have one of my many clients to thank I suppose. If you don't have a client to thank, going out and buying these will cost you like a grand total.
If you look around you can find some pretty close alternatives. For example, this font has been suggested (through the WotC forum thread here) as a stand-in for Bookmania. And ufonts has a wide assortment of ScalaSans fonts although they don't explicitly have ScalaScans Offc or ScalsSans Sc Offc.
So, although this information is here, I have to put a disclaimer: it is not the best of ideas to make your product look exactly like WotC's... Arguably, that's one of the reasons I got a C&D from them in the first place. You simply can't pretend to be an official product by making yourself look like an official product throughout. So you might be OK using this style for fan created, free content... but please do not use these fonts and colors for a retail product. OK?
[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.
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.