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

14Feb/1870

Ken Whitman Responds to KODTLAS Release

This may seem like an odd thing to appear here, so I think it requires a bit of an explanation...

If you're a reader of this blog or a follower of mine, odds are you know who Ken Whitman is. Let's just say that he is one of the most talked about people in the industry, and the news coverage of him hasn't been exactly balanced.

Let me be clear before I proceed: I have no stake in this game. I barely know who Ken is myself, I have never backed or even followed any of his projects, and have not followed the details on how he has acquired the reputation he apparently has. I'm am as impartial as they come on this topic.

Suffice to say, Ken's been talked about on numerous websites and blogs, some of which are dedicated almost entirely to him, and the general narrative has been - I must admit - overwhelmingly one-sided. As a result, he admittedly hasn't had a much a chance to respond himself on a venue that isn't against him in every possible way. One reasonably well known blog offered him the opportunity to post his side of the story over all this, to which Ken declined because he didn't want to drive traffic towards that site.

My offer to Ken, as posted on another blog

So that's where I came in... I offered my site as a sort of "neutral ground". Like I said above, I have no opinion of this matter, and as such agreed to post anything Ken wishes to say without commentary or counterpoint, just to get his side of the story out without any bias. And, if possible (I'm not sure how; I've never done it before), I will prevent comments from being posted because I don't want to be a full time moderator and I want to let his statement stand as it is.

So, hopefully, this will be the first of many responses... I have no idea how this is going to go, but here goes.

-=O=-

Before we continue, a little background. Yesterday, the Knights of the Dinner Table: The Live Action Series - one of the Kickstarters that Ken was involved with a while back - was apparently released to backers without Ken's involvement. The post detailing that release can be found on Jolly Blackburn's Facebook feed. As is stated in that post, "D20 Entertainment did not participate or help in this development".

I'll say again: I know little about this project. I was not a backer, and barely even know what the project is or what has been involved in it. And, in an effort to remain impartial, I have not gone out looking for such information because, as I've stated above, the information that's out there is apparently very one-sided.

In any event, Later in the day yesterday Ken contacted me through Facebook Messenger to post his response to that.

Here it is, as I received it and edited for grammar (it's the least I could do)...

About 2 years ago, I turned over the KODTLAS footage to Z.O.E. and today, both ZOE and Jolly Blackburn, announced are releasing all three Episodes of KODTLAS.

Now matter how much I may not enjoys Jolly's company personally, I can not belittle his amazing talent. Jolly is a true genius when it comes to storytelling and everyone at Kenzer was top notch to work with.

It was never my intention to take this long for people to see all three episodes, but due to a turn of events in my life, it did not allow me to financially keep working on the project. I messed up ran out of funds, and had a hard time paying for the project to continue out of my own pocket.

I could talk about the online slander/libel posed many times over the past two years about never turning over the footage, but why open old wounds, they fact is I did turn it over to ZOE.

I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I enjoyed directing them. I will continue to work on this project in my free time, hopefully finishing up the project in the near future.

To Jolly, Kenzer, the actors, the crew. It was an honor working with you.

- Ken Whitman

ETA: After confirming with Ken, he has agreed to let me turn on comments for today only, and he has agreed to respond to them through this site (whether he'll do that in the comments or post separately, I don't know yet). I am not going to be moderating the comments until late in the day (I don't have time for that during working hours), so please be civil.

-=O=-

ADDENDUM 2/14/18 @ 1:22PM:

Ben Dobyns of Zombie Orpheus Entertainment has provided a response to this. To keep everything together, I'm adding it here.

Hi, this is Ben from ZOE with a few facts regarding the KODT situation.

Several years ago Ken mailed me a hard drive that included a) all of the raw footage from Episode 1, b) some raw footage from episode 2, and c) ZERO raw footage from episode 3, along with a Final Cut X file of his work on the edit. The plan was to complete post-production for him and return the completed project for distribution to backers.

Despite repeated requests over several years, Ken did not provide the remaining footage. His reasons (on the record) have changed several times.

Ken's rights to the KODT IP and the live action series footage contractually expired on December 31st of 2017. Following that date, by mutual agreement with Kenzer ZOE set out to release the "rescued" edition to the original Kickstarter backers.

What was released to backers yesterday was cobbled together from the hard drive that Ken originally sent, SD assembly cuts from Jolly's dropbox, and so on. It is a "rescued" edition in every sense of the word.

Unfortunately, I've lost thousands and thousands of dollars to this mess. But because my name and reputation were used by Ken in order to secure the KODT film rights (yes, I have the paper trail to prove this claim), I felt a personal responsibility to get this project released: for Kenzer, Jolly, and all of the KODT fans who pledged to support the original project.

I wish Ken the best, but my efforts to rescue this project are now complete.

27Jan/180

Zoinks!

"A Night in Seyvoth Manor" for 5E

In case you are not aware, we're running a Kickstarter for the 5th Edition conversion of our ENnie-nominated adventure A Night in Seyvoth Manor that is already 300% funded!

We continue to be overwhelmed... Over 300% funded?!? Never imagined we would get that far, and we're eternally grateful for that!

The only stretch goal we've had so far is the creation of pre-generated characters, and we had a bit of a crazy idea with that that we're wondering if we can make it work: create two groups of characters...

  1. The original Scooby Gang - Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby
  2. The "new" Scooby Gang from Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles and Cordelia

This of course brought up some questions... like what would the races and classes be? So far this is what we've come up with:

ORIGINAL Scooby Gang:

Fred: Human Paladin

Daphne: Elven rogue

Velma: Lore-heavy mage, either a halfling or a gnome

Shaggy and Scooby: ... Oh boy... Let me come back to this one later.

NEW Scooby Gang:

Buffy: Human monk

Willow: Half-elf warlock

Xander: Halfling bard

Giles: Elf or maybe human... and I'm debating either a cleric or a lore-heavy mage

Cordelia: Human or elf, sorceress (wild magic), heavy on Charisma

Now, let's get back to Shaggy and Scooby... Neither of these are "characters" in the D&D sense of the world, so we'll have to take some liberties. I've asked this question on Twitter and I've come up with two possibilities:

Shaggy and Scooby are the SAME CHARACTER: As above, Shaggy is a Druid with wild-shape that can only convert to one type of animal... a Great Dane (we can go with the Mastiff stat block).

Scooby is the main character, and Shaggy is the animal companion: Let's face it... Shaggy is not worthy of being a PC, and if anything he's Scooby's sidekick. So make Scooby a class capable of either an animal companion (ranger?) or a familiar (mage?), and make Shaggy that semi-useless familiar.

Personally I'm leaning towards the first option, but that introduces another problem: there are only four characters, when we kinda need five. So who should the fifth character be? None other than Scrappy as, you guessed it, a gnome barbarian!

So, since we've gotten this far without mentioning stretch goals, I'm going to see about stylizing these character sheets as best I can and including a portrait for each character by the lovely and talented Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg! We're also going to see about working them in to a cover in such a way that doesn't get us sued by Hanna-Barbara.

We've considered creating other types of characters, some that are more down to Earth and fitting the theme like Van Helsing, Blade, etc... but the above somehow feels most appropriate.

Anwyay... We keep trudging foward! Five days left! Tell your friends!

20Mar/17Off

D&D Beyond – First Impressions

fvD4bT9FSo the day has come... D&D Beyond open beta has begun, so I decided to take a look.

First off, I'm looking at this strictly as (1) a software developer and architect, and as (2) someone who would actually use this thing. Without any mention of possible pricing, I can't say yet whether it's worth it or not, so I'll treat it for now as if it was free.

Some general comments...

  • The website is hosted on CloudFlare, which is a pretty decent hosting service that is designed to handle excessive load and usage. Let me put it in simple terms: the D&D Beyond site can likely handle more users, more bandwidth and more activity than WotC's own website.
  • The core of the site is built around Cobalt, which is a framework designed to support "hybrid" apps (both native and HTML-based app), which not only answers the question about support on multiple devices... but it does seem to hint how this whole thing will work offline. On devices, the HTML and Javascript pages that drive the app are physically on the device, not on a webserver, so it doesn't have to be online to function as a website would. Where the data physically is is another matter... I would venture to guess that the compendium wouldn't be available offline, but character creation and character content can be saved on the local device through Cobalt's integration between the HTML app and native services.
  • The server runs the website using "nginx", which is a web service similar to Apache. Although I can't confirm it, my going theory is that the server side is written in Python (which would have been my personal choice), although PHP and other languages is surely possible. Whatever it may be, it's safe to say that they're officially a Linux shop... a big departure from WotC's history of being obsessively Microsoft-centric.
  • Looking at the client-side code that I can see (and I admit there isn't a lot of it since only the Compendium is available), it looks well put together and fairly clean. In layman terms, it seems to suggest that the developer that wrote it knows what they're doing and isn't a total idiot. But, like I said, there isn't much there... we should have a better impression of their abilities once the next beta phases go live.
  • The app works really well, better than I expected actually. This goes along with my opinion that a company like Curse has done this sort of thing before and isn't making stuff up as they go along.
  • The app is visually appealing. Although it only contains SRD content right now, everything looks good. It even has pictures for all the monsters (well, most of them anyway... didn't go through all of them). The bugs I have seen are trivial and don't prevent you from using it (if you remember Dungeonscape/Morningstar, the bugs there made it unusable).
  • The app works out of the box on desktop and mobile, which was as could be expected with the Cobalt framework.

All in all, I'm fairly impressed. It's better than I expected, and it shows that there's a serious company with experience doing this sort of thing behind it.

The Unexpected Reveal

The D&D Beyond beta did reveal something interesting... and I'm guessing it wasn't intentional.

If you look at the beta site, the logo on the top left doesn't go to dndbeyond.com... it goes to the domain tabletophero.com, which in turn redirects to dndbeyond.com.

So what is tabletophero.com? We don't know, but doing a WHOIS on the domains reveals something even more interesting: tabletophero.com existed OVER SIX MONTHS BEFORE dndbeyond.com did.

 

dndbeyond.com ... Registered Feb 2017

dndbeyond.com ... Registered Feb 2017

 

tabletophero.com ... Registered July 2016

tabletophero.com ... Registered July 2016

So... that being said... I have a new theory.

At first I thought that WotC likely asked Curse to create the app, but I don't think that any more. I think that Curse was already creating an app of this nature, called tabletophero.com at the time, and only after was it pitched to WotC. WotC saw the working app and went with it, rebranding it to be dndbeyond.com.

This approach differs wildly from what Trapdoor tried to do with WotC; when they pitched to WotC, Trapdoor didn't have an actual working app to show... at least not on three platforms (Android, iOS and desktop). They had what they thought it would look like, but I'm guessing that Curse was much farther along in their development, and the fact they can show a working app on every target platform was likely a big plus. This would also explain how Curse can take D&D Beyond from announcement to open beta in like a week; they've been working on it for a long time now.

This is all wild speculation, but if you think about it... it sure does look probable. We will likely never know the truth, though.

The Elephant In the Room

All the above is based on me looking at the app as a developer and as a user... but there's going to be one big problem with it and everyone knows it's coming: pricing.

As has been mentioned many a time, WotC has a tendency to price these sort of things at an absurd amount, making them impractical to afford or making people unwilling to pay for. Many are hesitant to pay for books they already own, but many indicators seem so show that will likely be the case here (see Fantasy Grounds).

We can only hope that WotC will snap out of their archaic mindset and get with modern times, but that's a big thing to ask.

More to Come

All in all, the app does show promise... But there isn't much to the Compendium, to be honest. What will make or break the application, at least from an application perspective, are the next two phases: Phase Two being character creation, and Phase Three being homebrew support and campaign management. Personally, I'm particularly curious about Phase Three.

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13Mar/17Off

WotC Announces Digital Tools… AGAIN.

***SHAMELESS PLUG***
Cavern of the Damned is now available for Pathfinder (through DriveThruRPG) and for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (through the DM's Guild)!

God, has it been *that* long since I posted anything here?

fvD4bT9FMy year has been kind of chaotic, to say the least... but leave it to Wizards of the Coast to announce something that might just bring this blog back from the dead: at PAX, WotC announced D&D Beyond, a new suite of digital tools being created by Curse to support D&D 5th Edition.

Wait, what? You mean you've heard this story before? Well... about that... Time for a history lesson.

Background: The History of D&D Licensing

In the days of 3rd Edition and 3.5E, WotC created the Open Gaming License (OGL, for short) so that publishers can create D&D content. Soon the market was saturated with content, and everyone was reasonably happy.

But the OGL created something that blindsided WotC: Paizo went through the OGL with a magnifying glass and, soon enough, Pathfinder was born. Suddenly there was a new player in town that directly threatened WotC's crown as the king of fantasy RPGs. WotC was terrified, and from that point forward they became more protective of their content than ever before.

When 4th Edition (4E, for short) came around, WotC decided to close the door on the possibility of such a thing ever happening again, so they discarded the OGL in favor of the Game System License (GSL, for short). The GSL did allow some publishers to release material, but it was heavily restricted and had several limitations as to what you can actively publish. Yes, you could continue to publish things using the OGL, but besides certain things you could not include legally (creatures that were part of WotC's "intellectual property") you could make no mention of WotC or D&D at all. Many were forced to do silly things like say their product was "compatible with the 4th edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game" (a claim that itself was in doubt due to the rise of Pathfinder).

Then there's the whole situation regarding the digital world... At the beginning of 4th Edition some of the core books were available in PDF format, but WotC quickly realized that they had no control over their distribution and weren't making as much money off them as they could. They were, in their eyes, losing money. So they yanked all the PDFs, took a step back in to the dark ages and pretended PDF technology didn't exist at all (some argue that this is the same reason why Dragon and Dungeon magazines were terminated; there was no way to make reliable money off them). Only recently, with the appearance of the DM's Guild, did PDFs return... and with such an absence of PDFs that was fostered over so many years, the demand for PDFs exploded and it was a rousing success.

For 5th Edition, WotC decided to go back to the OGL, but there's still an air of uncertainty as far as digital tools. It's not that people can't create the tools... it's that people are afraid to. WotC legal is a nasty foe to have (trust me on that), and many that have tried to create online tools before were violently shut down. There's such a cloud of uncertainty around digital tools that no one dares to do them for fear of WotC's wrath.

The Beginning of Digital Tools: 4th Edition

Prior to 4th Edition, in what you can arguably call the early days of the internet, WotC didn't have many digital tools to speak of to support 3rd Edition and 3.5E. Creation of such tools was in the hands of third parties, who could freely create these tools under the conditions of the OGL.

When 4th Edition's GSL came around, the GSL had a specific clause added that never appeared before: third parties were explicitly denied creating any digital tools or applications using the 4th Edition ruleset. WotC seized on the opportunity to create the tools themselves, and DDI (D&D Insider) was born, where WotC would charge a monthly fee for users to access their digital tools.

There's just one problem with that: WotC is not in the business of creating software (with the growth of Magic the Gathering Online, that has recently changed... but, even so, MtG's their golden goose). It never was, nor should it ever be. Yet they tried, and the results were disastrous.

At first they created a standalone application to create your characters, but WotC quickly realized there was no way they can charge a monthly fee for something that can be used offline. So they abandoned the standalone application in favor for an application hosted on their website. And to give you an idea of how much of a mess that was, do an experiment: go find any experienced software developer you know and see how they recoil in horror when you say the word "Silverlight".

Almost as soon as 5th Edition was announced (to be honest, I don't remember the exact timeline here), WotC announced that the 4th Edition tools would no longer be supported and would eventually be abandoned entirely. This went along with the new mindset WotC had: basically pretend that 4th Edition never happened.

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Chapter One

DISCLAIMER: The following is based on discussions I had with someone who, for now, asked to remain anonymous. Since WotC legal has me on speed dial, I cannot elaborate on where they got this information, but I personally trust it.

Trapdoor Technologies was a modest company that had an interesting product: a way to get content online and hyperlink the ever loving crap out of it. Admittedly, not a lot of people were using their app in the first place, but it was a nice idea at least.

But there's one thing that made them different: they were gamers. Basically the entire upper level staff at Trapdoor were heavily in to RPGs (they were the first group to ever playtest a product of mine, Cavern of the Damned for Pathfinder). And they saw that their tool would be a really cool idea to use for RPG content.

So they took a shot and pitched their idea to someone (I don't know who) at WotC, and that person at WotC loved the idea. At first Trapdoor only suggested the product they had - hyperlinking D&D content - but WotC is the one who asked Trapdoor if they can do that *and* create a character generator to boot. Trapdoor, a company with not much of a development team to speak of, agreed to do just that without having any real idea what they were getting in to. Contracts were signed, Trapdoor got some funding to begin development on what would end up bring Morningstar/Dungeonscape, and spent six months developing the product before its announcement at Origins.

Thing is, Trapdoor seemed as much of a developer "shop" as WotC was in the 4E days. They seemingly had no idea what they got themselves in to, and had nowhere near the infrastructure and resources to deliver a product of such scope. Prior to this they hadn't even created an Android app at all ever, so they immediately had to run around and find the developers to actually do that (I have to admit, I offered my services to them to do that). When someone brought up desktop support, they were equally flustered.

During this time, Trapdoor was in constant conflict with WotC over pricing. Trapdoor wanted to price the tools themselves cheap, preferring the users to spend the money on the actual books. WotC, for who knows what reason, wanted to go the other way: they wanted to add micro transactions *everywhere*. For example, they wanted to charge $1.99 for each class and each race you wanted. But, so long as the funding continued and the fans seem so like what they were doing, Trapdoor pressed on because, after all, they did have WotC's blessing to continue... right?

After GenCon of that year, in an act that should come as a surprise to no one that has dealt with WotC before, everything changed.

Apparently, the person at WotC that was dealing with Trapdoor was working autonomously, and had not even bothered to run it up the chain of command. In other words, 600K and six months were spent developing Morningstar while the upper echelon of WotC management - and, specifically, WotC's branding and legal departments - had no idea it was happening.

As soon as the "powers that be" found out, chaos ensued. WotC immediately demanded that they remove the books from Morningstar, which was the whole reason the project was green-lit in the first place. Without the book content, Trapdoor lost the only thing that WotC had apparently agreed upon, and they were left with not much of a product after that.

Trapdoor panicked and tried to renegotiate a new pricing deal with WotC, but WotC didn't see the future in the same way. Not only did WotC immediately terminate the contract, but they effectively threw Trapdoor under the bus and chastised them for "not meeting WotC's expectations." Trapdoor was thrown like a discarded bone at the fans, and they mercilessly tore into them.

Trapdoor tried to stay afloat, but there was no wind in their sails. In the eyes of the public, they failed. As a company, they didn't last long before their investors pulled the plug and shut them down.

Trapdoor still owes me $14.10 for Cavern of the Damned, but I'm not bitter...

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Part Deux

And here we are...

Trapdoor was effectively an indie startup that was barely staying in the black, but Curse is an established software development company with over ten times the staff (141 employees, at least according to their company profile). Curse is also owned by Twitch and has multi-platform products out there in the marked that are used by tens of thousands of gamers, so they've arguably done this before.

But Curse is that and only that: they actually are a programmer "shop". I have no doubt they can create a good product that would be easy to use, but they are only creating a front end for WotC's content. WotC has absolute say in how much access to that content costs, and as we've described above: when it comes to the digital realm, WotC is still in the dark ages.

Based on a Reddit post by the product lead at Curse, it looks like WotC is leaning towards the micro-transaction route that they tried to ram down Trapdoor's throat. So expect to pay as much for a 5th Edition character class as you would for a handful of hearts in Candy Crush.

Conclusion

I have confidence in Curse being able to make a decent app, but this project might be doomed from the start because of WotC's pricing model. I remain cautiously optimistic that WotC will see the light some day and change their ways. We can only hope.

29Apr/16Off

The Reality of the DM’s Guild

In case you're not aware, our first Kickstarter for The Coming Dark, Chapter One: Into the Light has finally launched on Kickstarter.

Initially, based on the information we had from the past, we intended to release it through the DM's Guild. That reasoning is based on WotC's (Mike Mearls, specifically) response to my question in the Reddit AMA with Mike Mearls and Chris Lindsay from January 15th:

ChNV_SWXEAAmVEE

You would think that would be cut and dry. Well, that's not the case.

Yesterday I was contacted by the Director of Publishing and Marketing at OneBookShelf. His email contained the following:

Someone linked us to your Kickstarter and I wanted to touch base about a few things. DMsGuild creators cannot release titles on both DMsGuild and DriveThruRPG and they cannot use Kickstarter to "sell" their DMsGuild publications.

The wording on your Kickstarter makes me think this is more of an OGL type product, which is great because we have a ton of awesome 5e OGL content on DriveThruRPG and you are already set up to sell there.

You would only need to remove the DMsGuild elements (logos and text) from your Kickstarter page and continue on with your plans to sell on and fulfill your project via DriveThruRPG.com.

(Emphasis mine)

At first I thought it was simply semantics... My original listing made references to Drive Thru RPG even though I mean the DM's Guild; the reasoning is that, let's face it, both websites are one in the same and differ only in branding. So, in response to that email, I removed all references to Drive Thru RPG and stuck to my plan of releasing for the DM's Guild.

I just received the following email, from the same person at OBS:

The issue is you are in violation of the license on DMsGuild with your Kickstarter. All DMsGuild creations must remain exclusive to that storefront. They cannot be sold on DriveThruRPG, other storefronts, nor via Kickstarter tiers.

While it is true someone could run a Kickstarter to fund artwork or development of a DMsGuild title, they cannot offer tiers that provide backers copies of the title product. So, I imagine tiers would have to be "special thanks" or "game with the designer at Gen Con" or "your likeness used as one of the NPCs" all backers would still have to buy the book on DMsGuild once it launched as the publisher wouldn't be able to sell them a copy via crowdfunding.

(Emphasis mine)

Now think about that for a second... I can use Kickstarter to fund art for a project, but I can't actually provide that product as a reward to my backers once it's done. Backers are REQUIRED to purchase it through the DM's Guild, even though they already provided funds via backer rewards.

What I don't get is that I, at my discretion, do a few things to circumvent this:

  • Provide my product on DM's Guild FOR FREE or "pay what you want" (which could also be zero). Backers pay what they paid for it; anyone else gets it at whatever price or free. Not exactly the best solution from a business sense, but that's an option.
  • Provide my product on DM's Guild at whatever price I choose, but give a discount coupon to all my backers for them to acquire it at no cost to them. Based on the above, not exactly sure I can do this either.
  • Provide my product on DM's Guild, but require all backers to pay more than they've already paid to get it there. This feels unethical.
  • Provide my product on DM's Guild, but buy copies myself and send them to my backers. This feels... well... stupid.

But, in light of my  past legal issues with D&D publishing, I really don't have much a choice here... Until I get further clarification from Wizards of the Coast (with which I'm trying to communicate, but they don't exactly have an easy way of doing that), I will likely switch my product to go OGL. I'm not happy about doing that, but this goofball licensing agreement doesn't give me a lot of choice.

I will continue to try and get additional information, and will update this accordingly when I do.

Update 4/29/16: Yet another response from OBS...

The DMsGuild license specifically agreed to by content creators states that all DMG titles are exclusive to the DMsGuild.com storefront. Putting the PDF on Kickstarter violates that exclusivity. You are specifically listing your title (understanding that it isn't officially released yet) on another site and not on DMsGuild. It wouldn't be available on DMsGuild until after you've collected funds and finished the project.

DMsGuild creators do not currently have the tool set to upload PoD files themselves.

It does sound like making adjustments and releasing this title on DriveThruRPG as a 5e OGL product would work better for your overall setup.

(Emphasis mine)

First off, since the point of the Kickstarter is to fund editing and art, that it won't be available until after - well after, actually - the project ends is kind of a given.

Secondly, that poses an interesting problem... if I go the DM's Guild route, I can't offer hardcover discounts to my backers because there's no way for them to actually get a hardcover through the DM's Guild anyway. It *must* be done through DTRPG's default site, so the OGL is the only way to get a hardcover for any 5E product.

Update #2, 4/39/16: Mike Mearls has responded to my inquiries...

Well that settles that I suppose.