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


Why We Do What We Do

Over ten years ago (god, has it really been that long?!?) I was part of a team called the Redeemed Assassins, creating a "total conversion" for Half-Life called "The Opera". It wasn't an easy time for anyone involved in the group; there was a lot of personal turmoils that made the completion of the game an impossible goal. And yet we persevered, making an intense sacrifice to finish the game we loved creating and after two years it was finally released. And, when it was released, some would argue that it wasn't well received (we released at the same time that the 800lb gorilla that was CounterStrike was taking over all the servers) and the game died a quick death.

On or about the same time I attended a convention where another individual was showing his game to the world, a game that he created because he wanted to, a game that he created in the manner that he himself wanted and not caring about what others thought about it. A game that took him several years to develop, all the time dealing with his own personal ordeals and internal strife in the company he founded. And when he released it, everyone hated it... But at the time he didn't care. He created the game he wanted to create, damn all the critics. And he had the personal satisfaction that he accomplished his own personal goal; he didn't give a damn what people thought.

That person was John Romero, and the game was Daikatana. Even if you weren't born eleven years ago (Daikatana was released eleven years and two days ago, on May 23rd, 2000), you've probably heard the story.

Before and after the development of "The Opera" I got asked the same question a lot, sometimes even by my own family: "Why?" Why suffer such a hard time creating something that gives us no financial gain? Why create something that only a handful of people would play?

Every time I was asked that question I provided the same response: if, through all my efforts and painstaking work, I create a product that ONE person in the world really enjoys, that's all it took. One person, that's all. Granted, I didn't have a bright yellow Ferrari Testarossa and almost Playboy model Stevie "KillCreek" Case to fall back on... but that didn't matter. I wasn't in it for personal profit. If I could make one person out - just one - there like what I've created, that was enough to make the whole ordeal worthwhile. Sure, I got more bad press and user backlash than you can possibly imagine, and some of it was quite painful to hear (nothing's worse than hearing "your game sucks" over and over again, especially on your own forums or through hundreds of emails), but in that festering cloud of hate I managed to find a few people that liked it. To me, "The Opera" was a success and a memory I will never forget.

A lot of independent game designers have lost that mindset. They have dollar signs in their eyes, hoping to create the game that everyone wants even if it means selling their own soul. I've met some game designers that have created products played my millions, and some of them are downright miserable because they're doing something they don't like to do (few will admit it, but you can tell). Everyone's looking for revenue these days, and they end up struggling to create what the fans want even if they themselves hate it because it's not what they enjoy. Heck, I know a few game designers that don't even play their own games because they dislike them so much.

Why am I talking about all of this? First of all, I am about 90% complete with The Coming Dark's first chapter (tentatively titled Into the Light), and even though I'm not done it clocks in at a staggering 138 pages (including handouts). It's a behemoth, a virtual phone book of a campaign that takes the players from level 1 all the way to just shy of level 5. And that's just the first part of a three part series!

Looking at what I've created, I can't help but think "nobody's ever going to play this." It's simply too unwieldy, something that has such a broad scope that many would consider it impractical to run because of how long it will actually take to complete.

You know what? That's fine by me. I created the campaign I wanted to create, damn the critics, and I feel happy that I accomplished what I did. Even if I shelve it or bury it in my hard drive for all eternity, I'm still going to spend just as many months on the next chapter because I want to. Not because I have to in order to survive, not because I expect to make a living doing this, but because I want to. It makes me happy, and if I'm lucky maybe one person out there... just one... will be happy too, and that is all I need to know.

There's another reason why I write this... Recently the folks over at Save Versus Death released the Fourthcore Armory: A Compendium of Treasures Mythic and Deadly. In terms of what it represents and how it was intended to be used, it's a brilliant collection that captures the essence of that which is known as "fourthcore" (4C for short).

But the style of play that is 4C isn't for everyone, and I see the 4C creators getting their fair share of flak from would-be haters and people who think that 4C is a bastardization of the game that is D&D. I've been in that same boat... I've had people hate every fiber of my being for creating something that wasn't what they wanted, as if I was their own personal software engineer and game designer creating something that they alone will play. Getting yelled at for your creation is something I consider a rite of passage, a sign that you're doing something right, a sign that you are one of the elite few. I mean, after all, you've created something that's worth complaining about (nowadays everyone complains about everything on the Internet, but in 2001 the art of the Internet argument was just getting started)!

I have no doubt that the creators of the Fourthcore Armory poured their heart and soul in to a product that they really enjoyed making, probably not thinking at the time what the world will think about it. I admire the time and effort they have put in to creating something that a fraction of the massive D&D community may ever actually play because it's simply not their style. They didn't do it for the people that won't ever play it; they created the armory for the few people that do.

Rest assured... There are people out there who love what you've done and the efforts you are going through to make 4C a modern day reality. I'm only aiming for one person in what I do, but you have many more that are ecstatic and overjoyed for that which you have created. You're beating me already! 🙂

Be proud, enjoy the praise, and to hell with all the critics that bash that which you take so much personal pleasure in.


Coming Soon: The Fortress of Dr. Neb

I may not have a single encounter written down on paper, but I figured I'd try to make the cover art. So here it is!

I've been debating what level to make it, so I figured I'd take it to the next level and start at level 2. That may change, though.

This module will be different than the last:

  • It's longer, spanning at least one level and possibly a bit of the next one.
  • It will have certain areas that don't follow the encounter-after-encounter style. Large areas with multiple wandering monsters that the players could take out selectively or accidentally get everything's attention all at once.
  • Possible use of vehicles. Don't know if I can work it in to the story yet.
  • A single "big evil overlord" - the fiendish and diabolical Dr. Neb - that's scheming, smart and wants you dead!
  • More zaniness than the last campaign!

During the development of the campaign I might be providing some teasers... Flex my advertising experience a bit. 🙂

And while I'm making this module, I've already considered my next encounter: a higher level (level 8-10) encounter centered around where it all started: the LHC. That one will probably be a big undertaking.

Stay tuned everybody!


Fear of Change

Not long ago The Id DM posted a great write-up about errata in general - Et tu, Errata? - that discusses the nature of errata without going in to a line by line analysis of the Templar/Cleric changes by Wizards of the Coast.

I was going to chime in with an analysis, but I figured I'd take a similar angle and speak as a developer and game designer. In his post he discusses how errata is similar to software patches, and I've decided to elaborate on that a little further and use an example that he says he's never played: MMORPGs.

I've never played World of Warcraft, but for a time I was a rather heavy player in Everquest 2, and it has had its share of updates over the years. In addition to the times new add-ons were pushed (there have been five so far, I think), on several occasions they have introduced major changes in order to "fix" things. Although a majority of changes were in fact fixes to stop things such as exploits, some of those changes were quite radical: common items changed stats, mitigation (the equivalent of damage resistance in D&D) changed drastically, damage-per-second rates changed radically, some powers got "nerfed" or a got a serious boost, new items were made available that made the old ones obsolete, etc... Since it was an online game and a living, breathing server, you didn't have a choice in the matter. Changes went live on a fixed date and you had to either accept them or not play the game.

A lot of changes of this kind might not make sense to some players, but as a designer I know what it takes to even consider these changes. The developers didn't make a change just because they felt like it or because they were bored one day; each change had a reason or intention, and a painstaking amount of testing - internal developer testing, validation testing to ensure the feature was implemented correctly, internal QA testing for several weeks to ensure the change doesn't unbalance the game, public beta testing (or "user acceptance" testing, if you will) for several months, etc... - went in to every update to ensure that it did not change the game for the worse.

Every single update has a reason for being, and at the time SOE (Sony Online Entertainment, which owns and operates the EQ2 servers) was very good about providing a detailed explanation of why the changes were made.

But compared to WotC's errata, there are two major differences with how they do things:

  1. They announced the intended changes months before they went live. "Hey, these changes are coming... Get ready!" When the changes went to production, players weren't surprised and adapted quickly.
  2. They listened to player commentary, from the public beta testers actually using the changes to players that can only imagine how their game will change, well before the changes made it to production. In some cases that feedback allowed the developers to make further modifications before the change went live, pushing them to their test servers for even more feedback. And I can recall several planned changes that were ultimately scrapped because of user outcry.

Regardless, the changes eventually came and in some cases altered the game dramatically. I had several characters in EQ2, and on more than one occasion I found that the patches they made changed my style of play and how the group worked together. But I considered it a challenge and adapted, and it wasn't long before I learned the "new" way of playing and forgot everything about the old one.

As a customer of Wizards of the Coast, I have a certain degree of faith in the company to do some research and planning before making such radical changes. I may be personally bitter about how they ravaged my favorite character class, but in the back of my mind I understand that they must have done it for a reason. The original design was probably flawed and I simply accepted it because I didn't know of any other way to go. Put simply, I was using it wrong and didn't know it.

In seeing the recent backlash over the changes, I noticed something: almost all of the people complaining are complaining because of the nature of change itself.  It doesn't matter what the cleric was before or what it is now... It's a problem because it's different, and extremely different if you count the changes compared to other treatments (such as the fighter weaponmaster). They're not complaining that Turn Undead only does 3d8 damage now; they're complaining because it use to do 6d10 damage.

Let's think about that for a second and go back to the above example: if you walked in to a GameStop today and purchased Everquest 2 (or World of Warcraft; I assume it has had the same issue when Cataclysm was released), went home to install it... would you be aware of all the changes that have occurred since the game first hit the shelf? Would you care how the game was originally?

I haven't done this myself - primarily because I've never played a cleric - but I ask some of you out there to try this: when the changes are live in the online Character Builder (they weren't last time I checked), go and try to create a cleric. But, before you do, clear your mind of everything that the cleric once was. Look at it as if it were a new class and weigh its pros and cons not on what it no longer is but rather how it compares to other classes. Play test it as if you've never been a cleric in your life. Consider yourself a newcomer to D&D 4e, oblivious to the history of changes the game has experienced as of late... Would the Templar bother you so much then?

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Mechanics, RPG 4 Comments

Cornering the Gamma World Market

I realized something today: I'm a published author! And it wasn't even planned!

For the past several months, I've been working on my own personal Citizen Kane (or Waterworld... Time can only tell): a massive Heroic tier campaign for Dungeons and Dragons 4e called The Coming Dark. And when I say "massive", I kind of mean it: part one of three is about 80% complete and already clocks in at a staggering 116 pages. It's so epic that nobody may ever play it, but it's something I want to do for my own personal gratification.

I've been working on it for months, doing all the maps, designing and redesigning each scene, creating each stat block, laying it all out in Adobe InDesign, playtesting it with at least three different "play by post" groups. It's been quite an undertaking, and the focus of most of my development efforts.

But about a month ago I decided to take a little diversion. Every now and then I get an idea that pops in to my head and I just can't get rid of, and have to actually create it in order to satisfy my subconscious. Usually this has taken many forms, but this was very specific: it was a Gamma World campaign.

NOTE: To avoid spoilers, I have chosen to make no reference to the module's contents.

So one week I decided to take a break from TCD and write a short delve for Gamma World called Fire From the Sky. It honestly didn't take much time to put together - probably no more than a few days for mechanic design, then several more days for map generation and layout - and was somewhat of an entertaining experience.

At the time of its writing, I didn't quite know what to do with it. I had read the 4e GSL but didn't know how it applied to publishing Gamma World content, so I sent a letter to Wizards of the Coast legal department hoping for clarification; I have yet to receive a response. At the same time, I submitted my Gamma World "pitch" to the Wizards of the Coast submission email address, and I got three responses back saying "we don't want Gamma World content." Well OK then.

So be it. One day I decided "what the hell, I've got nothing to lose" and published a free preview of the first two encounters on Drive Thru RPG while I prettied up the module for publication.

The free preview has over 300 downloads so far. Who knew there'd be that many?

At the same time I was preparing to post my module, I noticed something: Drive Thru RPG didn't really have a Gamma World category, so it lumped it together with the 4e/GSL content. Looking through the product list... I was virtually the only person creating Gamma World content!

I wasn't sure if Gamma World even had an audience; I could very well be creating something that nobody will ever use. But the module was done, and there was no reason to hold it back at this point.

When the module went up for sale, I immediately started receiving emails from would-be customers. Since Wizards of the Coast seems to have virtually abandoned Gamma World, fans of GW were excited to see actual content from someone. They began to praise my efforts before even seeing the module. They asked for tactical maps with 1" squares. They offered suggestions on how to continue it. And, today, I saw at least two people on Twitter mention that they were going to use my module with their gaming group. It's kind of a surreal experience. People like it, I think! 🙂

Almost everyone that communicated with me in one way or another had the same question "are you making another one?" A few even said they would buy it "regardless of price", which is flattering.

Making more Gamma World modules hadn't occurred to me until then, but I see now that there are many Gamma World fans out there that are desperate for new adventures and need someone to fill the void. I had found what is apparently an untapped market, a market long forgotten by Wizards of the Coast, a market that is just dying for someone to step up and create more stuff.

Well, if anyone's going to fill the void, might as well be me.

I have officially begun development on my next Gamma World module. I don't have a title for it, but here is a brief synopsis:

The town of Wildwood has taken some time to recover from the recent chaos, but it is finally back to its "normal" self... For one whole day. Then the swarms began: millions of rats, birds and insects poured over the nearby hill and assaulted the town, forcing everyone to seek shelter as they harried anyone and anything left in the open. Granted, one could argue that swarms of creatures were pretty common in Gamma Terra, but when a swarm of monkeys arrived in Wildwood handing out hand written death threats from someone called "Dr. Neb", it wasn't hard to see that this was far from ordinary.

[Name Pending] is a Gamma World campaign for five 2nd level characters, who must brave the swarms and other oddities to find this "Dr. Neb" and stop his nefarious plans!

As you can hopefully tell, this campaign will be a little more "off the wall" than my last one. It will also be longer; I'm debating whether to make it span one or two levels.

Maybe that's my calling in this crazy world: to be the authority on Gamma World. Well, we'll just have to see how things go, won't we?

Stay tuned for more information!


Hazard/Monster: The Black Obelisk

WARNING: Possible campaign spoilers.

I've recently been having a bit of a mental dilemma with certain traps in my campaign.

My previous post talked about a specific hazard that has both positive and detrimental effects, and issues that come up as it relates to forced movement. Now I'm dealing with a solo trap that... well... I'm not sure if it should be a "trap" in the first place, at least in terms of how a "trap" is defined by the 4e rulebooks.

NOTE: In order to avoid spoilers, I will be talking in a general sense and have created a radically different object that has the same issues: the Black Obelisk.

You see, there's this object that is extremely powerful. One could argue that it's also intelligent, in the same manner that artifacts are but at a much more powerful scale. And it has friends, creatures that want to protect it and the area ahead.

One could argue that that's a trap or hazard, but I have some issues with that:

  • The object's mechanics are beyond the scope of the traditional trap's statistic block. Most traps have a single attack or action they take; this object would have more options.
  • The object provides an aura that protects its allies, so it technically functions as a controller. If it were to have healing or regenerative properties, it could also be considered a "leader".
  • The object has multiple attack types, and some of those attacks or actions are not as intense as its bigger hits, so it has Minor and Standard actions. It could also conceivably have interrupt actions and make opportunity attacks.
  • The object is powerful enough that it can't simply be dispelled by a few rolls (such as the traditional Arcana-/Religion/Thievery-based skill challenge, for example), and there's no chance of it being defeated by a single Thievery roll. It should take significantly more work to disable it, so much so that it's probably easier to destroy than to disable.

With that in mind, a thought occurred to me: what if this was a creature? That also has some issues:

  • It is an object, and as such falls under certain guidelines in terms of defenses and durability (see "Object Properties" in the Dungeon Master's Guide). Granted, those defenses will probably be boosted because of the nature of the object, but it's still an object nonetheless.
  • It has no brain or mind of its own (one could argue its attacks are by design or due to some sort of programming), so it doesn't have a Will defense. It would also be immune to other mind-affecting keywords and specific attack types: disease, poison, gaze, psychic, charm, fear and so on.
  • It's anchored to the ground, which means it can't be force moved and probably cannot fall prone.
  • It doesn't provoke opportunity attacks because its physical state never changes; it cannot "let its guard down" (see the definition of "Opportunity Actions" in the Player's Handbook) because it really doesn't have a dynamic guard like a living creature would. It also doesn't have eyes, so it qualifies as having "all around vision" and blindsight.
  • Unless one of the creatures in the encounter is a mason, it can't heal. For that matter, it doesn't know what it is to be "bloodied" either. When it drops to 0 hit points, it is destroyed.

So I decided to make my object a "object monster", treating it as an Elite monster with a somewhat modified stat block.

As an example, I have created the Black Obelisk "creature" below. I admit I threw this one together rather quickly (I even had to make post-production changes to the image in Photoshop to remove spoilers) and only made it for this blog post to give you an idea of the sort of thing I had in mind.

The Black Obelisk

As you may notice, the important differences are in the top section (hit points) and in the "Traits" section, where the obvious differences between a monster and a common trap are. Beyond that, it's a monster. I hesitated including the attributes at the bottom since they don't apply and are hardly used, but whatever.

Now this "creature" is not meant to be alone; it comes with any number of other guys. Those guys in turn draw power from the obelisk, regenerating their wounds and gaining protection from the obelisk's own attacks.

Now that I've decided on this hybrid, I might end up using it in multiple places. I don't know... I somehow prefer creature mechanics compared to trap mechanics, at least for the simpler non-deathtrap traps.