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

7Dec/142

In Defense of Morningstar

MorningstarIn 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.

Electronic Distribution

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.

At least Tiamat didn't suddenly drop dead... yet...

At least Tiamat didn't suddenly drop dead... yet...

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...

Educated Guesses

...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.

Conclusion

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.

24Nov/140

The Fonts of D&D 5th Edition

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?

Filed under: 5E, Design, DnD, Publication No Comments
3Oct/14Off

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.

-=O=-

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.

CavernOfTheDamned_V1

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

22Sep/14Off

Math Makes Brain Hurt

RUN!!!

RUN!!!

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.

-=O=-

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.
Filed under: Uncategorized 1 Comment
9Aug/14Off

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

Objective

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.

Results

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...

*EDIT*

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