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


25Aug/19Off

Atomic Age – Dice Mechanic

This is the FIRST article in my series on the design aspects of my new RPG in-the-making... Atomic Age!

In thinking about what Atomic Age is going to be, one has to start at the thing that is the basis for the entire system: what dice to use. There are so many different systems out there that it's not as easy a decision as one would think, and it all depends on what you want to get out of the system.

Expectations

So, first of all, let's define what we want to get out of the system:

  • Do not overcomplicate the math. I don't want a system that will involve adding eight different numbers before I can determine if the roll was successful or not. So, basically, I want something along the lines of [die roll]+[modifier] >= [target number] to determine success or failure.
  • Make it flexible, so that the die rolls can be improved or hindered in a variety of ways.
  • Make it easy for people to understand and relate to.

Let's get one thing out of the way: although I appreciate and acknowledge all the many d6-based systems out there, I want Atomic Age to be based on the d20. But there's more to it than that.

I also like to have a mechanism by which, the more of an advantage you have, the more dice you roll. Mainly because it makes the advantage feel more tangible, and players do like rolling dice after all. But I also don't want a system where the players end up dumping a Shadowrun-sized vat full of d6s on the table and then have to calculate up all the dice.

Probability Analysis

For all the probability analysis that will follow, I'm going to use AnyDice to generate charts and probability math.

As for what we will use as a basis for the math, let's assume that you're making an attack with a base +5 attack bonus against an AC of 15.

D&D 5E

The concept of "roll two d20s and pick the better one" is not a new thing... it's been around for some time, and there are several systems that use it. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition gave the mechanic a name: "advantage" and "disadvantage".

In past editions, figuring out a roll involved adding a lot of numbers. Attribute bonus, proficiency bonus, attack modifiers, target DC modifiers, etc... The notion of "advantage" was reflected by simply adding more modifiers to your roll so that your end result is more likely to be higher than the target DC.

The 5th Edition mechanic of advantage/disadvantage simplified all that. Your modifiers generally don't ever change due to circumstances (there are some exceptions, like adjusting AC due to cover, but still), and if you're in an advantageous position, rather than add more numbers to your roll, you simply roll two dice. It's easy to resolve!

It has one drawback, however: "roll two dice" is the ONLY thing you can do. "Rules As Written" you can't roll three or four if your situation is even more advantageous. For example, consider these possible attack rolls:

  1. Attacking a target that you are flanking with an ally.
  2. Attacking a target that is paralyzed.
  3. Attacking a target that is unconscious.

In all those situations, "advantage" is pretty much all you get, although attacks #2 and #3 should clearly be significantly more advantageous in terms of your ability to hit. Attack #3 has the added benefit of being an automatic crit or "coup de grace", but the chance of hitting is the same; it's an advantage attack roll against the target's AC.

"Rules as Written" there is no mega-advantage mechanic. There is nothing documented where you would roll three d20s. Except for spell modifiers (we'll talk about that later), it's always two and only two d20s.

Probability

So take our probability example... A standard die roll of 1d20+5>=15 has a 55% chance of succeeding.

With advantage, that probability rockets up to almost 80%...

...and with disadvantage it plummets to 30%.

Disadvantage is brutal in 5E; when rolling disadvantage, the probability of success plummets dramatically.

And, as mentioned above, that's it. If you have a superior advantage, it won't be more than 80%. It is what it is, pretty much always.

Shadow of the Demon Lord

Rather than use the "advantage" mechanic of 5E, I looked to another system for inspiration... Shadow of the Demon Lord.

SotDL uses a system where you still roll a d20 and add modifiers, but you can also add a "boon" or a "bane". A "boon" is adding a d6 to the d20 result, while a "bane" is subtracting a d6 from the d20 result, and they cancel each other out. If you have more than one boon or bane, you roll multiple dice and choose the higher result.

Personally, I like this mechanic for a variety of reasons...

  1. It physically acknowledges a superior advantage. If you have a high advantage, you'll be rolling a fistful of d6s.
  2. Even with a fistful of d6s, the probability does not increase linearly.
  3. It allows the boon/bane dice to be modified using external abilities.

Probability

So the base probability remains the same... 55% success.

... but, instead of advantage, we add a "boon" d6. That increases the probability to a little over 72%, which is comparable to the 80% of advantage.

...and let's say you have two boons. It increases slightly, to 77%.

On the other side of the card, one bane isn't as painful as disadvantage; 37% chance instead of disadvantage's sharp drop to 30%.

...and two banes is still at 32%.

I kinda like this... The probabilities work out the same, albeit it might be a little more swingy, and the advantage or disadvantage is both visual and tangible.

How would this work? Well, take D&D spells like Bless for example... it normally adds a d4 to rolls. Using this mechanic, Bless will simply add one boon. You flanking someone? Add a boon. The target paralyzed? Add a boon. Flanking a paralyzed target? That's two boons total... make him pay!

13th Age

One mechanic I liked from 13th Age is the notion of increasing or decreasing a die roll one or more "steps". For example, if the base die of your attack is a d6 and a feat allows you to increase it one step, the base die becomes a d8.

The way I see it, this can be worked in to this system a little easier. For example, there may be a spell or class ability that will allow you to make your first boon die a d8 instead of a d6, or turn your first bane die into a d4 instead of a d6.

Conclusion

So taking all that into consideration, here's my plan for Atomic Age:

Bonus and Penalty Dice

I don't want to call them "boon" or "bane" for obvious reasons, so for now let's call them "bonus" and "penalty" dice. Standard die is a d6, and it may increase or decrease steps depending on abilities.

"Bonus" and "penalty" dice cancel each other out, and if rolling multiple dice you choose the highest result in the pool.

Attack Rolls

[1d20]+[ability score]+[proficiency modifier*] vs target AC

(NOTE: I'm debating keeping the notion of "proficiency"; more on that at another time)

Skill/Ability Checks

Untrained: [1d20]+[ability score] vs Target DC.

Trained: [1d20]+[ability score]+[trained bonus (TBD)] vs Target DC.

Modifiers

Have some sort of advantage (like Bless, for example)? Add one or more "bonus" d6s.

Have some sort of hindrance (like Bane, for example)? Add one or more "penalty" d6s.

Stuff To Be Determined

What I need to figure out still is what defines the modifier. I'd like to avoid the notion of a proficiency bonus or the linear escalation of numbers (which was absurd in 4E). In the best of all possible worlds, I'd like an average DC to always be DC 15 regardless of whether you're level 1 or level 10, although it would be more likely you'll succeed the higher level you are.

13Aug/19Off

A New Beginning

It's been eight months since I post here... better now than never.

Over the past week I've been thinking a lot, specifically about Atomic Age.

In case you don't know, Atomic Age is my post-apocalyptic treatment of the Archmage Engine, which powers 13th Age. It came to be because I wanted Gamma World, and I wasn't allowed to create Gamma World content for fear that WotC would sue me into non-existence (they had threatened to do so already). But, during its development, it became something different... It's still post-apocalyptic, but not as zany and off the wall as Gamma World is known to be. I think of it as somewhat of a cross between Gamma World, Mad Max and what the future would be like in a Terminator film that didn't time travel.

But here's the thing... when you choose a system to develop your campaign setting around, most of the time you're stuck with the nuances of that system. The Archmage Engine is a great system, don't get me wrong, but there are some aspects of it that didn't feel right or I couldn't get to work with what I wanted to do. For example, how would mutations work in a 13th Age system? What about radiation poisoning? And there are some thing that came with it that I didn't want at all... like magic item "quirks", which are good by design in a fantasy game like 13th Age but just don't fit in my campaign setting.

Since I wrote most of Atomic Age, Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition made its appearance and the landscape changed. As is the case with the Archmage Engine, I have some issued with 5E in that, although it does some things really well, other things not so much. For example, creating monsters and encounters in 13th Age is stupid easy... in 5E, not so much. And 5E doesn't even come close to the background/icon system that Archmage provides.

So I had a crazy idea... why bind myself to a single system? DMs do it all the time... cherry pick bits and pieces from multiple systems, campaign settings, and other source material and create a virtual Frankenstein's Monster of an RPG system to use in their homebrew campaigns. Only I want to take that Monster and publish it.

So I decided to try and write my own RPG system, picking and choosing the features that I want from multiple systems and melding it all into one amorphous blob that will power Atomic Age.

I'm insane, aren't I? Seriously, I have no idea how this is going to go... mainly because it's a daunting task and I'm not exactly sure I know what I'm doing in this regard.

But I can't do it alone.

So I've done something crazy: I've reworked my Patreon to be aimed specifically towards the creation of this new engine. And I'm going to do something even crazier: try to stick to a regular schedule in which I dicuss what this engine is going to be, which means this blog will hopefully see activity it hasn't seen in ages.

Will this become a reality? Who knows... but I have to try. A lot of work has been done for the Archmage Engine version of Atomic Age, but I don't see that ever being cobbled together in such a way that I will be happy with all aspects of it. Hopefully, this way I will actually be happy with it because it'll be wrapped around something I myself put together for the specific purpose of powering the campaign setting.

I hope you all will join me on this crazy ride. My Patreon is open to your support! If you sign up now, you will get my latest published adventure, Witness Protection, absolutely free!

Ever forward...

1Jan/19Off

A New Year

Holy hell, has it really been ten months since I've posted on this site? I gotta start remembering this thing exists.

BIG EXPLOSIONS!!!

Well it has finally come and gone... 2018 has been the longest decade in my life, and I think I can say the same for many of you out there.

Looking Back

There have been a few people posting about what their highlights for the past year were. Well, here are mine:

  • Published Festival of Magic on the DM's Guild, which - in comparison to everything I've published - is one of my personal favorites.
  • Funded the Kickstarter for the 5th Edition conversion of A Night in Seyvoth Manor, and delivered the product before Halloween. It has since become my one and only "Copper seller" on DriveThruRPG.
  • Had my craptastic Bahamut, The Platinum Dragon - which is literally nothing but a stat block, a shoddy one at that, and contains no lore or art - become a "Copper seller" on the DM's Guild. I mention this only because, so far, it is the only Copper product I've done on my own in the DMG.
  • Collaborated on Storm King's Barrows: Tombs and Crypts of the North, which has since become a "Silver seller" on the DM's Guild. Not my best work, but arguably my most revenue-producing thing all year.
  • Released The Absent-Minded Alchemist, which was a bit of a "meh" product to start but was easy to convert from 4E.
  • Funded another Kickstarter for my social adventure Uninvited Guests, which has since been renamed to Party Crashers. This Kickstarter was a "proof of concept" - to see if I can do quick and dirty one-offs with a low funding goal - and it worked, so expect me to do more of this in the coming year.
  • Launched a Patreon! And the TWO backers I have so far are getting lonely, so...

That's pretty much it. It's not a lot... At a personal level, 2018 has been somewhat difficult in terms of my home life and my financial situation, and those situations are, by nature, not conducive to creativity, so I've been in a bit of a rut. But, all in all, it went better than 2017 in some regards, so there's that.

Looking Forward

So what does 2019 have in store? Honestly, I don't know yet... But here are some goals.

  • Finish Uninvited Guests Party Crashers in the near future.
  • Do several more Kickstarters like
    Uninvited Guests Party Crashers over the course of the year.
  • See what the hell I'm finally going to do with the complete The Coming Dark campaign as well as Atomic Age. There's a lot to be done on those, and I question whether the effort is worth it right now.
  • Cater to my Patreon backers more, in that I'll be creating more "behind the scenes" posts and videos (maybe). In the meantime, hope to get more than... well... two... Patreon backers.
  • Hopefully set up a regular game with... somebody...
  • Maybe go to GenCon. I don't know yet... I need to see if the expense really is worth it.
  • Sort out my personal and financial situations so that I can do this kind of stuff more readily and with less guilt.

If you're reading this, you're one of the reasons I press on. Thank you for your support, and I hope to show you a lot more cool things in 2019.

Ever forward.

14Feb/18Off

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/18Off

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!