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

17Apr/11Off

The Coming Dark, Chapter One

After somewhat of a sleepless night last night (if you follow me on Twitter, you know why. If not, don't ask...), I have decided to buckle down and compile "Chapter One: Homecoming", the first of about eight chapters in my campaign, "The Coming Dark".

There's one section to be completed - the conclusion, which would transition in to the next chapter (that doesn't even have a name) - but beyond that it clocks in at 43 pages. That might sound like a lot, but I admit I'm somewhat thorough; it includes detailed tactical maps, a reprint of some of the new monsters in the appendix, and a lot of talk. In addition - again, due to a noisy, sleepless night - I created a supplement containing all the tactical maps in a usable format (1" squares, no monster or zone markings) that weighs in at 53 pages.

The module consists of five tactical encounters (including one "boss"), two skill challenges and several other ways to gain XP here and there. It's intended for five first party characters, and by the end of the chapter they will be dangerously close to level 2 (about 100xp shy, by my count).

I intend to publish this campaign through my DriveThruRPG publisher page and through other venues. In the meantime, I am looking for a handful of people (3-5, I imagine) that would be willing to review my module for errors (everything from grammar to mechanics) and to see how I did in terms of story, execution and overall "fun-ness" of the campaign. Plus, quite honestly, my biggest concern is how this campaign would translate to the table top; since it was originally designed for "play by post", I have attempted to make several changes in it to try to make it more table friendly.

If you would be willing to review this for free, please let me know via email to dflor@brainclouds.net and I'll provide a pre-release copy.

WARNING: If you are currently playing my campaign, this chapter contains a fair amount of spoilers, so I'd be very hesitant in letting you see it in the first place. Be warned!

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, Design, DnD, RPG No Comments
15Apr/11Off

DnD-opoly a Possibility?

Sometimes even the most nonsensical of conversations grows in to something quite unexpected.

A few days ago, and I don't even remember how the conversation started, we began to joke about a Dungeons and Dragons themed version of Monopoly. After all, both Monopoly and Wizards of the Coast are owned by the same company - Hasbro - so it doesn't seem all that far fetched.

On a whim, I decided to try something ludicrous, and I send a message to Hasbro through their site:

This might seem like an odd question... I am part of a rather strong community of followers of Dungeons and Dragons, which we know is indirectly another Hasbro property (through Wizards of the Coast).

Recently, on Twitter, they brought up the question about why there wasn't a D&D themed Monopoly game, using some of the locations and themes from D&D laid out on the board game, in the same style as Star Wars and numerous other properties.

First question is, obviously, why not?

Secondly, and here is where I'm taking a bold step, I and several other associates (who have DECADES of experience with D&D) would be very interested in creating such a game ourselves, and have both the technical and artistic talent to do so, but we fear any potential legal repercussions from Hasbro when we try to do that. We are aware of the legal guidelines with Wizards of the Coast and D&D properties (we are very familiar with the 4e Game System License and what we can and cannot do), but we're not quite sure about how Hasbro itself feels about us using the Monopoly theme, mechanic and elements (board layout, cards, dice, tokens, etc...).

So who would I be able to contact about the possibility of getting authorization to do that as an independent project?

Thank you for any assistance you can provide.

David Flor
President, Darklight Interactive
"Omne ignotum pro magnifico"

Sounds insane, doesn't it? I never expected to be taken seriously, but sometimes you have to try something crazy.

Today I got the following response:

Hi David,

Thank you for contacting Hasbro, Inc.

We would love to try and help with your request. Please submit your request via fax on company letterhead to 1-401-XXX-XXXX, attention: [Name Omitted]. Make sure you include in your fax, you are requesting permission to use Monopoly and Dungeons and Dragons and details on how it will be used.

Thank you for your understanding. We look forward to hearing from you.

Wait... What? Seriously?

First off, in the past I joked about having to send a letter by mail to the Wizards of the Coast legal department. Now they're asking me to FAX something... I haven't faxed anything in five years. I guess using archaic technologies is commonplace in an "old school" company like Hasbro.

Secondly, what exactly am I getting myself in to here? If I sit down I'm sure I can come up with a full blown design, and I'm sure I can get the artists and designers I need in order to make this both aesthetically pleasing and fun for everyone. But is this something that I can really do?

So I now have to formulate a pitch to Hasbro, one that would be convincing enough. I'm considering tying this in to a Kickstarter project of some sort, where the public can fun the physical creation of it (I can get people to create it virtually, but that's very different than creating the board, cards, tokens and box).

If anyone out there has suggestions on this, please speak up. I think I'm going to get in way over my head right quick on this one.

Filed under: Design, DnD, RPG 1 Comment
14Apr/11Off

Underwhelming Odds

When I first picked up the D&D 4e rulebooks and began designing my campaign, my DMG was opened several times to the "Encounter Level" chart in order to determine what my XP budget was, and I was using that as a basis for all the encounters I put together. After all, this was the sort of thing severely lacking in previous editions, and Wizards of the Coast must have gone through the motions of balancing both sides to a conflict... They must know what they're doing to come up with these numbers... right?

As the first group in the campaign I'm currently running approaches their fourth level and the end of the first act, I look at MasterPlan and see every other box is in bright red, as if MasterPlan is telling me "are you insane?!? This encounter will crush the party in to gibs! TPK! TPK! For god's sake, man... TPK!!!"

Why is that? Because the current party, when presented an encounter equal or even one level higher than their own, plows through them as if they weren't even there. An army of minions? No problem! A dozen or more kobolds/goblins/small nuisances? Piece of cake! A solo monster two levels higher than the rest of them? Child's play! It was brutal, but not for the players. Even the "hard" encounters didn't last more than two or three rounds, and it usually ended up with only one player or two injured. It feels like they're never bloodied.

I thought something was wrong... this wasn't the way it was supposed to be, right? Granted, some of the problems were actual design issues (my solo "boss" wasn't properly designed, for example), but that couldn't have been the case always. "Maybe it was the dice's fault... Yeah, that's it..." (admittedly, there were some really bad die rolls on behalf of the monsters), but to compensate I found myself adding monsters, traps, or something more to the mix to make it feel like more of a challenge. For example, going on the mathematics alone, at least one non-boss encounter ended up being five levels higher than the party.

The second group to run the campaign had a little more difficulty. The encounters were virtually the same, but they weren't getting off so easily. We recently finished an encounter that would qualify as "hard" (in terms of the XP allowance) and almost every party member (even two NPC allies) got bloodied. I fear that if I throw the same Level+5 encounter at them, it will be a soul crushing defeat.

At the table you can adapt to this; if the party is having it easy, throw some more at them. If the party is having trouble, you can throw some allies in to the mix, or take some monsters away, or even fudge the dice in the player's favor. But I'm designing a campaign for physical distribution... I don't have that luxury, do I?

So I'm forced to create my encounters using the formula the DMG provides because those numbers theoretically define what the expected difficulty should be for an "average" party. In the back of my mind I can't help but think the encounter is too easy, but I can't beef the encounter up at will because I have no idea the ability of the party facing it. An encounter I consider "easy" could be devastating when thrown against a party with a different makeup or a different level of experience.

I can't blame the dice. To me, dice in a DM's hand are sometimes optional... the DM can ultimately overrule them anyway, so he could technically decide hits and misses based on what best fits the story (NOTE: Whenever I have overruled my own dice rolls, it has always been in favor of the party; I don't make it worse for the players just because I feel like it). If the DM wants the party to squeak out of the encounter by their fingernails, he could easily do that without rolling a single die. Sure the players get to roll on their own, and the DM has no say over those results, but he could most certainly compensate by downgrading a monster attack roll or two.

I realize now that one of the important aspects in module design isn't necessarily difficulty but entertainment. Unless I'm making something "fourthcore", I kind of have to go by the recommendations because they are the norm. If the end result is a pushover for the party, or if the party is getting hammered to the brink of death, I have to have a certain degree of trust in the DM running the campaign to make up for that.

As part of my campaign, I've considered adding a section to each encounter or scene describing how to make it "harder" or "easier". I've seen some modules describe how to adjust the difficulty in cases where there are more or less players ("if four players, do this..." "If six, do this..."), but the ones I've seen have provided very general recommendations at the beginning of the module, not on a per encounter basis. And most modules don't discuss the topic at all, expecting the DM to figure that sort of thing out as he goes. The way I see it, I either have faith in the DMs to compensate or release two versions: a seemingly wimpy (at least to me), by-the-book module and a Fourthcore "no, seriously, everyone's gonna die" version.

I guess it all boils down to playtesting. I'm currently running the campaign in three groups, but I do admit they are all "play by post"; I have not tried any part of my campaign with a live audience. One of these days I should run it in person, but I haven't DM-ed a live game in almost two decades.

Also, before I DM one of my own, I feel I need to play a lot more. A lot of people find that somewhat puzzling... It was the same problem when I was doing video game design, writing The Opera (total conversion for Half-Life). When I told people "I don't have time to play games, I'm too busy writing them!" they thought I was joking, but it's the honest truth. Hopefully I'll remedy this concern soon.

Time will tell.

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Encounters, Mechanics, RPG 1 Comment
11Apr/11Off

Contest Winner: Goblins go BOOM!

It's no secret that I love minions. They are an easy answer to making an encounter seem like more than it really is. Sometimes just a handful of monsters is dull... I want droves upon droves of enemies coming at them from all sides! And when I don't want them to die so easily I toughen them up, but sometimes I want them to die in an unnaturally glorious way.

Recently Wastex Games had a contest called Minions Encountered, where the objective was to create an encounter where the boss used his minions in an "interesting way." I decided to submit one encounter that was inspired by my campaign.

To be quite honest, besides what you seen on this blog I've never actually submitted anything to a contest of this nature. Heck, I even failed miserably at NaNoWriMo and the NYC Midnight Short Story competition (I never even got close to finishing a submission for either one). So I looked at this competition a different way: to see if I can physically put something together in a format that others could actually use.

You see, there's a big difference in designing a campaign that you will run and designing a campaign that someone else will run. If you're doing it for yourself, you can fill in the blanks as you go, adjusting the encounter based on the how the players react to it. But when designing it for use by the general public, you either tell them very little (and hope they can fill in the blanks themselves) or explain every little detail so that there's no room for doubt. The former is meaningless for the competition, so I decided to build the encounter in the traditional format that Wizards of the Coast has used on multiple occasions.

And it allowed me to get a little more practice with Adobe InDesign CS5, for that matter. I'm not a graphic designer, so this too was somewhat of a new experience.

Now, about the encounter itself... The encounter is relatively low level, so I chose to use a concept that I'm surprised isn't used very often: the "Goblin Suicide Bomber", which is loosely based on the "Goblin Grenade" from Magic: The Gathering. Whereas most goblins are rather cowardly and flee at the first sign of trouble, these little buggers race forward to protect their leader and their sacred temple, light their fuse, then jump on the backs of unsuspecting PCs while laughing maniacally and waiting for their fuse to burn down.

But that wasn't enough! These guys would die almost immediately and they would have little effect; a poor initiative roll combined with a well placed burst attack can take them out of the equation almost instantly. What we needed is LOTS of goblins. Like... oh, I don't know... dozens of these little guys! I needed something that would keep creating wave after unrelenting wave of happy-go-lucky suicide bombers. So I turned to Save Versus Death and their "Endless Hordes"... Now things really come together! Four suicide bombers per turn, ad infinitum, should get fun quick!

But that still wasn't enough! Players could simply step aside, push them out of the way, or simply move faster than the bombers. What I needed is something to funnel the bombers so the players would have no choice but to charge in themselves, taking a boatload of damage in the process. So I chose to put the entire encounter atop narrow stone bridges over a river of lava.

Apparently that was enough.

I would like to thank Wastex Games for choosing me as the winner! I'm honored, guys! I'm sorry I can't take photos of the prize (I don't have a working digital camera; will try to get one soon), but I really do appreciate the Beholder Eye Tyrant and other minis!

Here, for your enjoyment, is my winning entry on the Wastex Games site:

The "Chamber of Fire"... or, as I like to call it, "Goblin Go BOOM!" (PDF)

6Apr/11Off

Contest: Win “Heroes of Shadow”!

Having recently won a contest myself, I'm in a charitable mood. So I thought I'd try a little experiment and run a contest of my own.

If you're wondering whether you can afford to buy upcoming Wizards of the Coast books like Heroes of Shadow or The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond, well here's your chance to win one of them!

 

DISCLAIMER: You will not get any manual before the dates listed below. We're giving it to you for free; we're not magicians and do not hold any power over Wizards of the Coast that allows us to get these books early.

 

The following information can be found on the official Contest page...

 

Entry Deadline: 12:00am Eastern Time on April 25th, 2011.

 

We'd like to see what you can come up with for a "solo" encounter... but asking for a simple encounter is just not enough. So we elected to choose a random element that the encounter or area must contain.

The element, randomly selected using the "Chamber Features" table (Dungeon Master's Guide, pg 192): 10(1d20) = "Pool, fountain or basin".

 

So here are the guidelines:

  • Encounter must be compatible with the Dungeons and Dragons 4e mechanic. This includes fourthcore, if you are so inclined.
  • The minimum requirement must be a single, actual encounter with a SOLO creature. You can add anything you want in and around the encounter - skill challenge, trap, hazard, special terrain, magic effects, other monsters, etc... - but the main adversary must be a solo monster and it must be an actual tactical encounter in which the solo monster must be defeated (Note: "defeated" need not mean "dead").
  • You must create your own solo creature, complete with monster stat block. You can base it of an existing creature from any official source, but it must be sufficiently altered to be unique.
  • The area must contain some sort of "pool, fountain or basin", and it must have some meaning to the encounter beyond being set decoration. We will leave the interpretation of that to you.
  • Encounter could be of any level, but must be designed for no less than five PCs.
  • Encounter must include a tactical map. Map could be dungeon tiles, digitally generated or drawn by hand, so long as it has a tactical grid of 5'x5' squares.
  • Encounter must stand on its own in that it cannot assume any previous actions by the party besides showing up.
  • You need not define monetary or item reward, but that is up to you.
  • It doesn't necessarily have to be in the traditional format that Wizards of the Coast likes to use, but it has to be put together in such a way that any DM can understand it.
  • Resulting document must be either PDF or a format compatible with Microsoft Word (any version).
  • For legal reasons, do not include any artwork that is not yours. For example, do not use copyrighted images from any Wizards of the Coast publication. Official WotC dungeon tiles are acceptable; we mean things like drawings of actual monsters.
  • We reserve the right to publish your submission on our site, regardless of whether it wins or not. You will of course be given full credit and, if applicable, we will direct link to your website or Twitter account.

 

Entry Submission: All entries must be emailed to contest@brainclouds.net before 12:00am Eastern Time on April 25th. You can either attach the entry to the email or link to it. Please include your contact information (name, address, email address, Twitter account, website, etc...). If you do not wish to be referred to by your real name, tell is what you want us to call you.

Entry Deadline: 12:00am Eastern Time on April 25th, 2011.

Judging: Honestly, I'm not sure who will be doing the judging yet. Worst case, it will be me... But we'll see who we can recruit.

 

GRAND PRIZE: ONE (and only one) of the following...

Heroes of Shadow (available April 19th, 2011) - Should be immediately available at contest end.

The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond (available May 17th, 2011)

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale (available June 21, 2011)

Neverwinter Campaign Setting (available August 16th, 2011)

NOTE: If you wish for any alternate Wizards of the Coast manual (core manuals, Essentials guides, Monster Vault, etc... Even official modules) , we may be able to make that arrangement so long as said book is available on Amazon. You are welcome to ask, and we'll see what we could do.

Prize will be ordered through Amazon and delivered once they become available for shipping. Subject to availability.

Prize includes shipping within the United States and Canada. Can ship abroad, but that all depends on the cost of shipping the item.

 

So let's see what you can do!