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

28Mar/11Off

Robot Zombies and Exploding Mushrooms

No, I'm not talking about a Roger Corman film... This blog is about RPGs, so it has to be none other than Gamma World.

It's been a long, long time since I look at Gamma World, but I have to admit that I've been familiar with it all the way back to the first version. It didn't quite captivate me as much then, and when I did flip through the books that were available I couldn't help but think "I'm not wasted enough to handle this." Let's face it, James Ward must have been on something epic when he came up with the first few versions... Then again, looking through the original Monster Manual and Fiend Folio, maybe that was par for the course...

If you want to get a better understanding of the history of Gamma World, I suggest you read Angry DM's post "Taking the Game Seriously" and an analysis that he links to from there: "Gamma World: Over 30 Years of I Have No Idea What Is Going On". It's a great read!

Recently I picked up the latest version of Gamma World (the 2010 version), and I gotta say it is pretty wild. I look through these pages and can't help but think how much of this is lost on the youth of today. Some of this stuff is straight out of the science fiction/horror/post-apocalyptic movies I would watch religiously on cable at 3am in the morning. They just don't make this kind of cheese any more, do they? These are things that I would present to my son and he'd get a quick chuckle over, then move on; he'd much rather be bashing dragons with swords... that's much more realistic than a machine gun toting chickens and a cockroach the size of a Buick!

The thing is that, although the system is based on the 4e mechanic, it's much more simplified. It's not the content overload of D&D 4e: you don't have twenty different powers to consider, you don't have to worry about healing surges (you auto-heal at every short rest) and second wind is a minor action, there isn't an overly complex equipment system (except for Omega cards, which feels more like Magic: the Gathering than anything else. You even have to "tap" the cards when you use them) and several other things are much more easy to get started on. Strictly from a mechanics sense, I'd consider it a very good introduction to D&D 4e.

One thing I also found interesting is that, due to the nature of the environment and that nobody's supposed to be in control of mutations anyhow, character generation is completely random. If you don't like your character, take it out back, shoot him dead and re-roll another one.

To give you an idea of what this could create, using an online Javascript tool for Gamma World, I wound up with two characters:

  1. An Android Reanimated with a dexterity of 5, making him the clumsiest robot EVER. He carries a pair of binoculars and a canoe... 'cause, hey, in this world you never know when you'll need a canoe.
  2. An Exploding Fungoid that also has a canoe, but instead of the binoculars he was smart enough to bring a beer. Well maybe not *that* smart... hit Intelligence is 7. What can you expect from a sentient mushroom that just can't hold itself together?

Reading through the core manual and one of the add-ons (I have Famine at Far-Go. Still need to get Legion of Gold), it almost reads like the most off-the-wall comic book you can think of. Chickens with artillery, super-sentient badgers, sharks that tunnel through solid rock, little green men, cockroaches the size of RVs, the "yexil" (see below), etc... I may never play a game in my life but it's definitely worth it at least for amusement's sake.

Reading through all this must have affected my subconscious, because a few days ago I had an oddball idea for a short module. Well, it's either going to be a Gamma World module or a late night Cinemax movie, and I don't have the budget to do the latter. So I began to develop the story line in to a series of encounters.

But I realize I have a problem: I think I'm making it too serious. The first two encounters I created were pretty straight up, in the same style as several of my other encounters in the D&D world. But this isn't D&D we're talking about, this is Gamma World: the encounters just didn't feel weird enough. The two encounters could have been ported to D&D and they might actually fit.

I found myself out of my element for a bit, realizing that what I was doing simply wasn't in the style that Gamma World intends. To give you an idea of what that style is, look at what the sample campaign in the core rulebook has:

  • Heavily armored badgers with crossbows.
  • Pigs on motorcycles.
  • A "yexil", which is a giant, orange-colored lion with wings of a bat, mandibles of a spider and shoots laser beams from its eyes.
  • Gypsy moths that fire beams of radiation.
  • Radioactive birds.
  • Killer robots. Lots of killer robots.
  • A giant rabbit with a katana.

I mean, God, what were these people on when they came up with this stuff?

So I decided to try something for my third encounter that didn't already exist but seemed appropriate. No gimmicks or special circumstances to it, just the PCs walking along until they come up with... wait, seriously? Is that what I think it is?

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the module when it's done. It's technically the right length to be a Dragon/Dungeon submission, but I don't know if they're taking that sort of thing. I might resort to alternate means of distribution. I might give it away for free. Who knows? We'll see once I'm done.

In the mean time, let's see what character I get now: A Hawkoid Felinoid. I'm a bird cat... I'm my own worst enemy!

25Mar/11Off

Crazy People Need Love Too

Ever since I saw someone post the question on Twitter I've been thinking about it: how would you treat insanity in D&D 4e?

In order to consider this concept, I of course had to go to the one true source of all things insane... Call of Cthulhu. If you're not familiar, in CoC you have a pool of "Sanity Points", and depending on what you experience during the adventure (by "encountering the unimaginable") you will periodically lose points here and there. When you drop to zero, you are temporarily insane. When you drop to -10 or lower, you become "incurably insane" and you get a nice rubber room at the Arkham Sanitarium.

Before we start to consider what "going insane" might be, there's the need to point something out: not being in control of one's own faculties - even in real life - is not fun. In D&D, besides death the two most annoying and boring effects are "dominated" and "stunned" because they prevent you from doing anything. You can't even roleplay them well most of the time because there isn't anything you can do about the condition. This problem could also be said of a number of effects in previous versions, but at least in those you can kind of play it out for theatric's sake; if your group's meat shield freaks out over a fear effect and begins to run away at full speed, that player has the option of playing it out so long as he's aware of the things he's not allowed to do while suffering the effect. When you're "stunned", you can't do anything besides make a saving throw at the end of your turn. Whee...

So I thought of creating a 4e insanity system that will impose some guidelines on the player, detailing what he's going to do in a given turn in the most general of sense, but it will still allow the player to stylize it in any way he sees fit. Because, let's be honest, it's kind of fun to play a complete wacko every now and then.

Becoming Certifiably Insane

I considered using something like the aforementioned "Sanity Points", but let's face it: this is not Call of Cthulhu... We're not dealing with John Q. Public here, but seasoned adventurers that have seen their share of bad things. Imagine how D&D would be if every adventurer freaked out and ran away at the first sight of a skeleton walking towards them.

Exposure to this could be in any way that a disease could be spread: creature's attack, trap, exposure to something in the environment, etc... It could even come from drugs or poisons that occur naturally.

Levels of Insanity

When I use the word "insane" I'm talking about potentially long term effect. A "dominated" effect may not last more than a handful of seconds (six seconds between each save if you go by the general guideline on how long a turn is). I'm thinking of something more dramatic, more long term, and something that could both be be remedied or get progressively worse. That sounds like a disease, doesn't it?

And there are multiple levels of insanity. Having an argument with oneself or laughing uncontrollably is one thing, while smashing an ally with a broadsword or taking off all your clothes is something else. One doesn't go from mild mannered adventure to "bat-s%@! crazy" that easily.

So I have come up with two separate lists: "minor side effects" and "major effects". Minors are superficial things that affect the target's ability to function like a normal person. Major effects are things that directly affect everyone around him with disastrous results.

Insanity - Disease, Variable level

Stage 0: The target is cured of all effects.

Stage 1 (Initial Effect): The target takes a -2 penalty to Will defense and has one Minor Side Effect (see table below).

Stage 2: The target takes a -2 penalty to all defenses and has one more Minor Side Effect.

Stage 3: The target takes a -4 penalty to all defenses, has one more Minor Side Effects and has one Major Effect (see table below).

Special: Every time the target fails to improve from Stage 3, it gains one more Minor Side Effect and re-roll the Major Effect.

So by the time the target reaches Stage 3, assuming they didn't do any secondary rolls on the tables, they will potentially have three minors and one major. In other words, they're really messed up.

Every time the target improves take away one effect, starting with the Major Effects.

Minor Side Effects

Note: If the result is an effect the target already has, do not re-roll.

Roll a d20:

  1. Target has uncontrolled laughter, takes a -5 penalty to all Stealth checks.
  2. Target has a nervous facial tick, takes a -2 penalty to all Charisma-based skill checks except Intimidate.
  3. Target talks to himself, takes a -2 penalty to all Stealth checks.
  4. Target has a normal conversation with someone who is imaginary, takes a -2 penalty to all Stealth checks.
  5. Target argues loudly with himself, takes a -4 penalty to all Stealth checks. Gains +1 to all Intimidate checks.
  6. Target has an argument with someone who is imaginary, takes a -4 penalty to all Stealth checks. Gains +1 to all Intimidate checks.
  7. Target periodically repeats out loud what someone else within hearing distance has said, even if the original speaker whispered it. Whenever the target does, it takes a -4 penalty to Stealth checks until the start of its next turn.
  8. Target has periodic outbursts (crying, anger, hysterics, incessant ranting, mumbling, etc...). The effects of these outbursts is up to the GM's discretion.
  9. Target begins to have delusions or sees an altered reality, takes a -4 penalty to Perception and Insight checks.
  10. Target has an unnatural fear of germs. Will refuse to touch anything that isn't his until it has been cleaned thoroughly.
  11. Target acquires a major physical tick or mannerism,. Takes a -2 penalty to Fortitude defense, +1 bonus to Reflex defense, and -2 penalty to all attacks that do not target Will defense.
  12. Target has acquired a moderate phobia of any single object or creature within sight. The player can choose the item at his discretion with GM's approval.
  13. Target periodically shouts at the top of his lungs. At the start of each turn roll a d20; on a roll of 1-5, the target screams loudly and takes a -5 penalty to Stealth checks until the start of its next turn.
  14. Target is somewhat unsure of himself and hesitates before doing anything, takes a -5 penalty to all Initiative rolls. At the start of an encounter, if there is a surprise round the character will always be surprised.
  15. Target periodically drops his weapon. Roll a d10 at the start of each of the target's turn; on a 1, the target will drop whatever he is holding in his main or off hand (in that order).
  16. Target zones out periodically. Roll a d12 at the start of each of the target's turn; on a 1, the target is effectively stunned until the start of its next turn.
  17. Target has an obsessive infatuation with another party member (even a party member of the same gender), will do anything to stay near them and win their affection. If the target is more than 5 squares away from the other party member at the start of their turn, they must take at least one move action that moves them closer. If any creature attacks the other party member, the target gains a +2 to the attack roll against the creature until the start of the target's next turn.
  18. Target has an intense hatred of another party member, will go against any actions or decisions that player makes. If any creature attacks the other party member, the target takes a -2 penalty to attacks against that creature until the start of its next turn.
  19. Target has an obsessive attachment to an item within sight will be unable to function properly without holding it or having it on his person. While the target does not have the item in his possession, it takes a -5 penalty to all d20 rolls. The player can choose the item at his discretion with GM's approval.
  20. Roll on the "Major Effects" table below instead.

Major Effects

Note: If the result is an effect the target already has, do not re-roll.

Roll a d20:

  1. Each time the target is bloodied in an encounter, it falls unconscious (save ends) and prone. An adjacent creature can use a Standard Action to shake them awake, and the target will wake up automatically as soon as it takes any damage.
  2. Target has psychosomatic deafness. Every time a noise that he should be able to hear is made, roll a d6; on a roll of 1-5, the target doesn't hear the sound at all. The volume of the sound has no impact on the roll.
  3. Target develops an obsessive eating disorder. Will immediately consume any and all food available in a given area, including any food in his own backpack. If it does not eat every ten minutes, the target is slowed (move speed of 2) until it does.
  4. Target has terrifying fear of danger, at the start of the encounter will flee hysterically in a random direction until it is more than 20 squares from danger. Can not take any actions besides a double run: two move actions, each with move speed +2, grants combat advantage, and can be targeted with opportunity attacks.
  5. Target has acquired an intense phobia of any single object or creature within sight, as determined by the GM. Target will refuse to come within 10 squares of the object in question, and if he is unable to move more than 10 squares away in a given turn he is stunned until the start of his next turn.
  6. Target has extreme paranoia, is afraid that even his allies are going to turn on him. If an ally uses a power that would allow the target to make an attack, the target ignores the action.
  7. Target drops all weapons and removes all equipment, refusing to wear any of it until cured.
  8. Target loses the ability to communicate through speech or writing. Anyone attempting to communicate telepathically with the target must make an Intelligence vs Will attack roll against the target in order to get through.
  9. Target cannot take any actions of his own and will preform melee basic attacks on themselves until they are subdued or unconscious. If they do not have a weapon, they will make unarmed attacks with their fists.
  10. Every turn the target does not make an attack roll, it risks falling asleep while standing. Make a saving throw at the end of the turn; if the save fails, the target falls asleep (save ends) while standing in an upright position. An adjacent creature can use a Standard Action to shake them awake, and the target will wake up automatically as soon as it takes any damage.
  11. Target cannot take any actions of his own and will attack any and all creatures at random within 10 squares with basic attacks until subdued. Each attack takes a -2 penalty to the attack roll, and each melee attack gains a +2 bonus to the damage roll.
  12. Target has selective amnesia. When the target attempts to use a daily or encounter power, make a saving throw before casting; on a failure, the target forgets how to do the action and the power is spent.
  13. Target cannot take any actions of his own and will attack the single nearest creature repeatedly until that creature is dead or the target is subdued. Each attack takes a -2 penalty to the attack roll, and each melee attack gains a +2 bonus to the damage roll. If he does not have a weapon, he will make unarmed attacks with his bare hands.
  14. Target has psychosomatic blindness, is treated as being completely blind until cured.
  15. Target has "Alien Hand Syndrome". The GM rolls a d20 to determine which hand; on a roll of 1-10 it's the main hand, on a roll of 11-20 it's the off-hand. The target can not take any actions of his own with that hand, and the hand's actions are completely dictated by the GM. Target cannot benefit from any bonuses related to having something in both hands (AC bonus for having a shield, Two Weapon Defense, powers that require a weapon in each hand, etc...).
  16. Target becomes a cannibal, electing to eat the flesh of any dead bodies the party encounters. At the GM's discretion this may expose the target to any number of different diseases.
  17. Target crawls in to a fetal position and begins to cry or mumble. Target is aware of their surroundings and can talk to others but is prone, helpless and cannot take any actions of their own until cured.
  18. Target is catatonic. Is awake but is helpless, cannot take any actions of their own until cured.
  19. Roll twice on the "Minor Side Effect" table.
  20. Roll once on the "Minor Side Effect" table and re-roll on the "Major Effect" table.

The above list is moderately inspired by the "Sanity" variant rules in the D20 SRD.

In addition to the obvious effects listed above, this gives the player some artistic liberty in terms of roleplaying. I myself have played a character with an intense phobia of something (cats) in the past, and that led to some rather interesting situations in game; the character might not have been the most tactically sound person when it came to having an encounter with a tiger, but it sure was entertaining.

It was actually quite difficult to come up with two lists of 20 items, and I'm sure some of the above are flawed and I missed quite a few things. I admit I didn't give it that much thought because I wanted this to be posted and start getting feedback.

So what do you all think?

3: Target has a nervous facial tick, takes a -1 penalty to all Charisma-based skill checks.

Filed under: 4e, Design, DnD, Mechanics, RPG 1 Comment
23Mar/11Off

Utility: New Monster Builder

I'm probably going to be a little critical of Wizards of the Coast here... I'm sure they have their reasons for releasing what they did, but I'm seeing it as an impartial observer, a paying customer and a software developer.

Most of this post was conceived when it first went Beta, but I didn't have a place to post it back then.

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast released the new Silverlight powered Adventure Tools, which includes the new version of the Monster Builder. I'm going to analyze it from two viewpoints: as a user and as a programmer.

AS A USER

To be honest, the old version of the Monster Builder is one of the most frustrating applications I've ever had to use. I understand the need to make the application "pretty" and pleasing to the eye, but that should not be at the expense of usability. It had numerous bugs, it was slow, and some things just didn't quite work right; with some patience, you could learn to accept it.

But it had one thing going for it: it was useful, and it served a necessary purpose for almost any DM out there. It might take you half a day, but you are able to create brand new monsters, edit existing ones, print stat blocks, etc...

The new Monster Builder has none of that... Yet...

Several months ago this new MB went in to beta for an elite few. At the time I thought it was simply a "proof of concept", to show people what it would look like and what it would be capable of, in addition to being what a beta is intended to be: test the integration between the application and the back end framework that supports it. At the time the app did little, but I kind of accepted that because I assumed they would add features over time during the beta cycle and allow their testers to try things out.

Now, several months later, they released the Monster Builder to the public... and it's apparently the same as when I first saw it.

Here's what the new Monster Builder can and cannot do:

  • The only power detail you can edit for each monster is the NAME of each power. Can't change the flavor text, range and area of effect, the attack information, the type of action, etc...
  • Beyond that, you can only edit the creature's name and level. Can't change defenses, hit points, abilities, skills, equipment, etc...
  • You can level an existing creature up or down from level 1 to level 55. Unless WotC is considering doing what MMORPGs often do and somehow increasing the level cap (because of how 4e is designed, I can't even begin to consider what this would involve), I can't imagine the need to level anything past level 30. Heck, Orcus is *only* level 33... I can upgrade up a kobold to level 55 that would pound him in to the ground like a railroad spike.
  • No means of exporting the creature. You can't even print to a PDF friendly format (the Character Builder has this same flaw... Considering the criticism there, you would think they would have considered it).

And that's it. Several months of development... to release the same product in "beta" form? A product that is literally missing 90% of the functionality that exists in the product it is replacing?

And while we're on the topic of the "beta" label...

AS A PROGRAMMER

I don't quite know when the term "beta" lost its meaning, but Wizards of the Coast isn't the first company to forget what the term truly means.

The official definition, as posted on Wikipedia, is:

Beta is the software development phase following alpha (beta is the second letter of the ancient Greek alphabet, used as the number 2. It is not nowadays usual to speak of a later gamma test). It generally begins when the software is feature complete. The focus of beta testing is reducing impacts to users, often incorporating usability testing. The process of delivering a beta version to the users is called beta release and this is typically the first time that the software is available outside of the organization that developed it.

(Emphasis mine.)

A lot of companies, however, follow the concept of a "perpetual beta"... GMail, for example, was in "beta" for close to three years, but at least GMail was reasonably "feature complete" before it ever saw the light of day; it had enough features that people could use.

The Adventure Tools are labeled "beta" even though they are not: they are nowhere near being "feature complete", and one could argue that they aren't even testing potential new features currently in active development. The Character Builder, however, *is* "beta" even though I don't believe it is labeled as such. It's even kind of amusing when you realize that the version number on the Monster Builder (1.3.23.0 at the time of this post)  is remarkably similar to the Character Builder (1.3.207.0 at the time of this post), despite the CB being actually usable and has a boatload more features.

Addendum: In retrospect, The third part of the version number is most probably an integer, which means that the CB is in fact higher. But it is the third part of the version number, which designates the actual build number rather than the release number. In other words, the CB has simply been compiled more often.

Their reason for releasing it in its current state? WotC_Trevor speaks...

Main reasons, short and sweet -  we wanted to give all the DDI members a chance to check out what we're working on, and we wanted to make sure that all DDI members had the chance to use the MB to import monsters into their VT games during the next step of the VT beta.

This would be acceptable if the product was described like that from the start. I may be crazy, but I somehow expected a Monster Builder to allow me to build monsters.

Also, you can't tell me to look at this application I and realize what they are "working on". The application hasn't changed at all in three months of Beta.

TECHNICAL ANALYSIS

As both a programmer and an engineer, I'm curious. I'm the type that as a child would dismantle toys just to see what made them tick. So, to get a better idea of the technical aspects, I decided to analyze this new Monster Builder a little further.

In case you are not aware, Silverlight applications with the ".xap" extension are actually ZIP files; you can simply rename the extension to ".zip" and extract all the content, which includes the binaries and the reference data. Once you do that, it's quite enlightening.

Let me go through the technical discoveries:

Prettiness Versus Usability

I am one of the worst UI designers I know... I'm not "artsy", and much rather prefer to focus on core functionality than how an application looks. I like to think that my applications run remarkably well, even though they might look like they were visually designed by a caveman.

The new MB suffers from the same problem the old one did: the effort put in to making it look aesthetically pleasing causes the performance to suffer. Personally I would rather have an application that reacts immediately and looks like something IBM would make ("let's make it big, black and weighing several tons!"), rather than have a gorgeous application that I have to wait for every time I move my mouse.

The problem is that people like things that are "pretty". Of all the complains floating around on the 'net, I'm probably the only person that is bothered that it looks good. I don't care how it looks in the end... I want it to work!

Embedded Content

Included in the archive is a file called "Monster.data", which is a serialized data set of a considerable amount of monster information. This level of data - header information, if you will - is arguably necessary for the filters to work, but this is something that could have been more easily offloaded to the server. Basically, be a "dumb client" and do what the Compendium currently does: every time you look for something, ask the server to find it.

Instead, this file - let's call it the "monster index" - is loaded in to memory as one large data stream, so you have some general information for every one of the 3,700+ monsters floating around in memory even if you may not need it. Even if you load up the MB to make a quick change to a single monster, it has to load up that entire list.

This is what makes the Javascript-driven Compendium so nice to use: it's dumb. When it first loads, it knows very little about the information it is designed to retrieve (it only knows the categories of data), and every time the user asks for data it has to query the server through a .NET Service call and returns an XML response containing the results. Using this method of design the client never has to change, and any data updates could be done transparently at the server level at any time.

In the end, it ends up being a toss up between bandwidth and hardware. There was a time when bandwidth was scarce, so developers would try to bring as much information to the client as possible. Nowadays it's the opposite in some cases... I personally would prefer to use a lot of bandwidth if it meant not overwhelming the memory on my local PC or causing Silverlight and Internet Explorer to implode.

Web Application Ethic

Because the monster index is part of the Silverlight application itself, every time a monster is added or changed the entire Silverlight application needs to be recompiled, repackaged and redistributed. That means that your browser will never cache the monster data separate from the application. Even if they add one monster, you have to take the hit of downloading the entire Silverlight archive (3Mb compressed) and the system has to expand it out in to a temporary folder for execution (expands to 12+Mb), even if they didn't make any changes to the code base.

Again, the data should either come from a web service in the same manner as the Compendium or loaded as a separate archive from the server. Part of the reason they chose to move to Silverlight is that it was easier to make updates. What's easier: repackaging and distributing a new Silverlight application to everyone or changing a data record at the database server level?

Security Measures

One thing that bothered me about the original Monster Builder was the way the data was stored in the client.

First of all, the data was highly encrypted using government-level DES encryption, which is absurdly slow when it comes to handling a large amount of data. Secondly, the data was stored in a non-native XML format, which might be good for readability but is slower to process than if it were in native binary. Both of these issues are what made the offline MB so painfully slow when it initialized or did anything data related.

In the new version both of these issues are no more: the monster index is unencrypted and stored in a serialized binary format, while the data that isn't in the index is returned by the server in a very simple XML format (which would automatically be converted to a native binary format through .NET Service call management and the serialization engine).

Future Catalogs

The main screen of the Adventure Tools shows all the available catalogs. Currently there's only one - "Monsters" - but looking through the design it is clear they intend to have many more offerings. There are class libraries in the Silverlight code base for things like traps and encounters. I would not be surprised if there are future plans for a Trap Builder, Encounter Builder, Skill Challenge Builder, etc...

As good as this might sound, my fear is that this will ultimately replace the Compendium. Sometimes I just want to look something up and don't need the overhead of this Silverlight application loading up and offering me editing functionality I have no intention of using. The Compendium is up and active instantly; sometimes, that's all I need.

CONCLUSION

The product is obviously incomplete, and WotC themselves has said that countless times, but the product should have been released when it reached a point where it can not only be useful but be on par with the deprecated product it is replacing. Now that they no longer support the old Monster Builder (it can be downloaded but they're not updating it), users are left out in the cold with nothing they can use.

AN ALTERNATIVE

When I started to use the original Monster Builder for myself, I hated it. So much so that I began to look for an alternative, and ran across the Monster Maker by Asmor. It was the perfect little app, and did everything I wanted the original Monster Builder to do with less flair and "prettiness". It worked beautifully!

I had some crashing issues with it, so I sent an email to Asmor himself asking about it. He essentially said "I'm not supporting this any more... You want it?" Shortly thereafter, I had in my hands the complete .NET source code to Asmor's Monster Maker.

At this time I had a crazy idea: I sent an email to everyone I can think of at Wizards of the Coast telling them that their current MB is lousy and that I would be willing to create a Monster Builder for them for free. I even offered to make a web version (using Javascript, AJAX and other technologies significantly simpler and more portable than Silverlight or Flash). My only concern was access to the existing creature catalog, which I was capable of generating on my own but wanted their permission to do so before they tried to sue me.

I sent this email before anyone outside of Seattle knew where they were going with these Silverlight applications. Needless to say, they never answered me.

I have since tinkered a bit with Asmor's Monster Maker, and I think I could make a viable application that would compare in functionality with the MB but maybe not be as pretty (maybe if someone out there would help me with the "artsy" stuff that might not be the case). The only thing that has prevented me from going full bore on this little project is because the application would have to be devoid of any actual monster data: because of WotC's SRD guidelines, I can't contain any monster information from the core rulebooks in it. I can't include the 3,700+ monsters. How useful would it be for everyone to have to recreate the monsters from scratch?

But I remain optimistic... I'm hoping that WotC will do what is should be expected of them and make the Monster Builder what it is meant to be. Give the people what they need, what they are paying for, what they want from a company to which they are paying membership fees.

In the meantime, I'll be here if you need anything.

21Mar/11Off

Bioware Read My Mind

I've been designing my campaign for quite some time now. Officially, the campaign's been built in the D&D 4e mechanic for about nine months, and before that some of the underlying concepts have existed as part of an alternate reality game that I've been designing for almost two years. A lot of the ideas came to me in the same manner most of my good ideas come: in the middle of the night, while driving, in the shower, etc...

A week ago I purchased Dragon Age: Origins "Ultimate" Edition ($40 on Steam, I think). Everyone I know who's played it loved it, and it's a game that I've been looking forward to playing myself for quite some time, but didn't have the necessary hardware to run it adequately until recently. I've been playing it since, logging close to 40 hours of play time, and it's kind of awkward for me to see several of my ideas - ideas that I had thought were original creations of mine - in the game.

Some of the things are slightly different but the similarity exists at the core. And some things are almost direct copies... For example, DA:O has a village called Haven. My campaign has a village named Haven as well (to be honest, I was inspired by the Haven in Everquest 2), and it's eerily similar in terms of what it contains (I don't want to elaborate for spoiler reasons, as it relates to DA:O as well as my own campaign).

And it doesn't end there. Even the first two encounters are remarkably similar to the assault on Ostagar. They have "darkspawn", I have "shadowtouched" and "darktouched". Two companions are remarkably similar to NPCs I created for my campaign, and one of them even shares a similar name. I also found at least three world NPCs that are similar to NPCs in my world as well. Even my main antagonist makes an appearance (he is an older person in DA:O, but still). And there are several quests and even some items that are similar to what I had created on my own.

Similarities in any design process are inevitable. Someone once said that there's no such thing as an "original" idea any more (which is why Hollywood insists on remaking anything they can think of). And I admit that I probably share some background to those that created this content for Bioware: game designers/D&D player. "Great minds think alike," if you will.

But in the back of my mind I have a problem. During my campaign design I knew nothing about DA:O, and little did I know I was creating something that many might think is a mirror image of it. People might look at my creation and think "he took this from Dragon Age", even if I know for a fact that wasn't the case.

So here I am, seriously considering if I should rename my version of the village of Haven. Part of me doesn't want to change it because its design came out of my mind and, although inspired by loads of reference materials, is not "ripped" from a popular game. But another part of me can't help but think how many people out there would read my campaign and think just that.

Maybe I'll call it "Kirkwall"... That's original, right?

Filed under: Campaign, Design, RPG 4 Comments
18Mar/11Off

Ever Forward

Before I continue with this blog, I thought I'd clarify a little about myself. I am a "gamer" in the traditional sense, and have been involved with game design and game development for close to 25 years. But, as far as D&D goes, I'm somewhat inexperienced when it comes to running a campaign in person... I'm currently DM-ing four different campaigns and playing in around six or seven, all of which are "play by post" (mostly on the Wizards of the Coast forums). The last time I played a live session of D&D - with other humans - was around 1988.

A lot of my ramblings will seem to most as the trivial, nonsensical banter from someone who may not know what he's talking about and is not experienced in this sort of thing. I freely admit that, when it comes to running a campaign that isn't exclusively online, I don't have the level of experience in this genre that most of my readers do. I will make mistakes, say things that are incorrect, talk about things that have been talked to death... Simply because I'm clueless.

As it turns out, Critical Hits had an article today called "So You Want to Write RPGs", which talks about what it takes to be an RPG designer... And it got me thinking a bit. Of the seven things listed, I fail miserably at a couple of them, and the ones that I do fail at might not be that easy to remedy because of personal situations and available means (full time job, family, geography, etc...). So if I do want to make a run of this sort of thing, I have a lot of work to do. Will that stop me from doing what I want to do? Probably not. If I don't follow those suggestions and continue on the way I have been, I might end up with a product that sucks.

Honestly, I don't care if it does.

Ten years ago I was the lead programmer of a group called "The Redeemed Assassins", and we were developing The Opera: an add-on for the original Half-Life from Valve Software. Development of TO was a brutal, painstaking process that took several years, and during that time we suffered in ways I can't even begin to describe. But we did it anyway. When asked why we would go through so much trouble to create something that would be disliked by anyone who saw it, and would probably not last a week (we released at the same time that CounterStrike came on to the scene; 99% of all Half-Life servers were running CS at the time, and there simply wasn't an audience for anything else) we had a simple answer: "If one person found our product enjoyable, that will make us happy."

After over two years of development, we finally released it... And it lasted about three weeks before it was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of CounterStrike servers. But, to our surprise and happiness, there was actually more than one person out there that really liked what we did. That made it all worthwhile, and despite appeasing only a handful of people it reassured us that the past two years weren't a total waste.

As nice as it would be, I'm certainly not doing this for fame or fortune. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've been a game designer for almost twenty-five years and during that time I don't think I've ever been paid to do anything game related (Valve flew me for a day to Seattle to meet the HL2 development team... Does that count?). This isn't a career, and at this point in my life I'm not expecting to make a living doing this sort of thing. But I do it anyway because I do this for myself and the hope that there's someone out there that might actually enjoy my creations.

So I press on, pouring hours upon hours in to something that has no other apparent reward beyond being a part of it. I will continue development of this campaign in the way that I think it should be, even if some of my designs might be awkward and not for everyone. The campaign might end up being such a train wreck that that nobody will ever run it in a table top game, or it might be so campy and flawed that nobody cares for it.

But in the back of my mind I'll remain hopeful that one person out there might like it, or might benefit in some way from that which I do.

Until I find out who that one person is... "Ever forward."