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


The Coming Dark, Chapter One – Campaign Preview

***WARNING*** If you are one of my players from the Wizard of the Coast forums, this could be some major spoilerage. I trust you to use your judgment when reading this, and if you do I hope you know to put it out of your mind come game time.

I've been kicking around the idea of providing a "preview" of my campaign, but the hardest part in doing such a thing is deciding what content to include that isn't horrifically spoilerish. Besides the introductory material, I'm hesitant to include any information in the individual scenes that might shed light on to what is going on in the campaign.

In any event, I have put together the attached "Campaign Preview." It doesn't show much, but it includes:

  • The campaign introduction and character creation guidelines.
  • The detailed description of Solis and the surrounding area, including maps of Solis itself and its surrounding area.
  • What is pretty much a "random" encounter just outside the village of Solis.
  • An encounter with a new type of enemy in my campaign: the "shadowtouched".
  • Another small, non-critical encounter which is actually based on the "Hall of Spiders" encounter I had originally planned for the campaign.
  • Appendix A, which contains most of the stat blocks for all the important NPCs in Solis.
  • One sample piece of artwork and writing: the first page of the Book of Light.
  • An explanation as to why I made this campaign in the first place.

It's not much, but it's something. Anyway... Here it is:

The Coming Dark, Chapter One - Campaign Sampler

I considered at one point giving Solis and the surrounding area the full "campaign setting" treatment, but I decided not to because it gives Solis too much scale. I *want* Solis to be small and helpless, surrounded in mystery, unaware of what evils lurk beyond its walls.

I am putting the finishing touches on TCD1, which for the most part involves editing it for the umpteenth time and creating the graphics for a few more handouts. Mechanically, it's definitely done and is actually in the hands of an "elite few" who have been curious about what the hell I'm up to.

It will be released in the very near future, and we'll see what happens then.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, Design, DnD, RPG No Comments

The Ubiquitous Sunrod

Many posts have been written about the single most common magic item in D&D 4e: the sunrod. Now it's my turn.

I was recently writing up the last area in Chapter One of my campaign The Coming Dark, and it involved rain. The atmospheric effects were somewhat inspired by the conditions in and around the setting in the Last Breath of Ashenport published in Dungeon #156, July 2008.

In that module there are very specific conditions in every outdoor encounter:

Rain (within Ashenport): Rain reduces visibility. All creatures more than 1 square distant have concealment (-2 to attack rolls). Perception checks take a -2 penalty. The rain automatically extinguishes any unprotected flames. At the end of every full minute (1o rounds), characters carrying protected flames, such as lanterns, should roll a saving throw. If they fail, those flames are extinguished as well.

Thunderstorms (outside Ashenport): The combined effects of precipitation and wind reduce visibility dramatically. Adjacent creatures have concealment, while creatures more than 1 square distant have total concealment (-5 to attack rolls). Perception checks take a -5 penalty. The storm automatically extinguishes any unprotected flames. At the end of every round, characters carrying protected flames, such as lanterns, should roll a saving throw. If they fail, those flames are extinguished as well.

The important issue above is the concept of "unprotected flame". First of all, it doesn't make a distinction between natural flame and magical flame. But is a sunrod a "flame"?

I assumed that it wasn't, as do most others on Twitter... but I have a tendency to be thorough, so I decided to look it up and see for myself.

For an item that every character has (two of them are included in every Adventurer's Kit), there isn't a whole lot of information about it. I couldn't find it physically described anywhere within the D&D 4e core manuals.

It's first appearance in 4e is in the Player's Handbook, under the section "Adventuring Gear" on page 221:

Sunrod: This minor magic item sheds bright light to a radius of 20 squares for 4 hours before burning out.

That's it?!? The single most common magic item in the entire game and it only gets a non-descriptive, one line blurb?  You don't know if it looks like a torch, a glowstick, a candelabra, a human bone... Nothing. The only thing we know is that it's a "rod" that sheds light. For the record, the Compendium entry says the same thing, adding that you buy them in sets of two for 4 gp.

The only other mention in the core manuals that I know of is in the Dungeon Master's Guide under the "Fantastic Terrain" entry of Ember Moss (page 67):

Ember Moss
This strange Underdark moss is a useful ingredient in creating everburning torches and sunrods. It is highly flammable and burns bright. A character in a square with ember moss takes an extra 5 damage from all fire attacks and takes a -4 penalty to saving throws to end ongoing fire damage.

By that description alone, one would think that sunrods are fire-based, but again: nowhere is it mentioned that sunrods are actual flame.

So I decided to try and go a little farther back. In the D&D 3.5e Player's Handbook, it appears under the "Special Substances and Items" section (page 128):

Sunrod: This 1-foot-long, gold-tipped, iron rod glows brightly when struck. It clearly illuminates a 30-foot radius and provides shadowy illumination in a 60-foot radius. It glows for 6 hours, after which the gold tip is burned out and worthless.

It also appears, described as such, in the d20 SRD and in the "Goods and Services" and "Exploration" sections.

That description is significantly better - it sounds like a road flare - and one has to wonder why that text was left out of 4e. Also, it is worth noting that not only is the 4e description open for interpretation in many ways, but it is also arguably much more powerful: it illuminates an area 200' wide - over six times the width of the 3.5e sunrod - with bright light for four hours.

I'm having a hard time thinking of a modern day equivalent that could illuminate that much. To put it in perspective, here are other light sources listed in the 4e Dungeon Master's Guide on page 67:

Candle: Dim light in a Radius 2 (10'), 1 hour duration
Torch: Bright light in a Radius 5 (25'), 1 hour duration
Fireplace: Bright light in a Radius 5 (25'), 8 hour duration per load of fuel
Lantern: Bright light in a Radius 10 (50'), 8 hour duration per pint
Campfire or Sacrificial Brazier: Bright light in a Radius 10 (50'), 8 hour duration
Small fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 5 (25')
Medium fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 10 (50')
Large fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 20 (100')
Sunrod: Bright light in a Radius 20 (100')
Bright light in a Radius 40 (200')
Huge/Gargantuan fire creature: Bright light in a Radius 40 (200')

So in comparison, the common torch only illuminates an area 50' wide for one hour and a campfire only illuminates an area 100'. There are only two things listed in the DMG that outshine a sunrod: a volcano and "large/huge/gargantuan fire creature".

A sunrod must be like a signal flare; an area 200' wide is over half a football field. That's a lot!

Also, theoretically, sunrods cannot be extinguished by normal means; although I cannot find any place where it is discussed, many of the people I've asked online have stated that sunrods could conceivably work in high winds, pouring rain and even underwater.

With all that, why would anyone ever use a torch? You don't even need it to light things on fire: the Adventurer's Kit comes with flint and steel. And, if that doesn't work, there's always things like the wizard's Prestidigitation power (which explicitly states it can be used to light torches) or any other spell with the word "fire" in it that the resident sorcerer is just dying to cast.

Furthermore, even the Everburning Torch seems like a waste at this point. For the price of one Everburning Torch (50gp), you can buy twenty-five sunrods and get 100 hours of uninterrupted illumination in an area four times as wide as the torch. Does the torch seem practical at this point, especially considering you have to carry it around with a free hand?

So there's this magic item that is dirt cheap and far superior to all the other items that have similar function within the same price range. And from the moment every PC straps on their armor and weapon they already have two of them in their possession. And... There's no description? It's existance is glazed over as if these things would never be used by anyone. What happened?

When I brought up the subject of sunrods online, the DMs of the world pretty much agreed on the same opinion: they hate sunrods. And, when you think about it, you do have to agree with them; sunrods subvert pretty much everything:

  • There is no need to worry about having one hand free to hold them. You can fasten them to your shield or tape them to your own body if you like. You can put one in your hair for all we know; without any guidelines on how they work, there's no way to determine what risk they may have (after reading the "Dangers" section on glow sticks in Wikipedia, it sure is tempting to come up with something).
  • There is nothing you can do to plunge the party in to darkness. Lighting of the area becomes a null issue (although it might upset the drow in the party).
  • With such a massive area of illumination, there's little chance of a monster hiding in some shadowy corner. Then again, some will argue that using a sunrod is telegraphing the party's position, as if to say "Hey, monsters! Yoo hoo! We're OVER HERE!!!"

As a result, I've heard many DMs effectively ban the use of sunrods, or at least make them extremely rare.

Me personally? I don't give lighting much consideration. Sure, if a room is dark I'll let the drow in the party have his fun and sneak around, but once the encounter begins I don't concern myself on whether the humans can see well in dim light or not. I have enough things to keep track of in combat.

But back to the issue at hand... Nothing indicates that sunrods are fire, so rather than have a very heated debate with the players I have no choice but to exclude them from the effects of the weather. I'll have to find some other way to make them miserable.

I have decided I really don't like sunrods in the manner they are presented (or lack thereof). I am tempted to take the advice of the people on Twitter and make sunrods extremely rare in my campaign setting.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, DnD, Mechanics, RPG 9 Comments

The Architectually Unsound Fortress of Evil

While I was attending college at the University of Miami I worked as a lab tech on the School of Architecture's computer lab. While there I had access to all sorts of neat things, such as AutoCAD 10 (it was 1990... Humor me, OK?).

Let me clarify that I am not an architect: I'm a computer programmer. While some students were creating thirty story buildings with enough digital detail to impress Frank Lloyd Wright, I was thrilled creating empty 10'x20' rooms with extremely blocky furniture. Students around me were designing the Chrysler Building while I was designing a residence that looks like a shipping container. I spent four days designing a desk.

But even then I assumed certain things about designing a building: leave no space unused.

Bartoneus over at Critical Hits wrote an article called "The Architect DM: Negative Space in Dungeons", which mostly talks about dungeons... But what if it's not a "dungeon", at least in the classical sense?

One area of my campaign is a residence of sorts, a rather large keep or castle in a remote location. I began to design it as a normal residence would be designed: bedroom here, laboratory of death there... All with thin walls, almost as if the entire building was drywall on the inside. Then I went to look at other similar modules for research, and saw that quite a few modules had walls at least five feet thick, even if they were outdoor ruins (I do have to admit, the official Wizards of the Coast modules I looked at are pretty proper in this regard; the walls on their single story buildings were actually thin). Granted, quite a few structures were still "dungeons" in that they were carved out of solid rock, but why would a free standing building - a hovel, for example - have such an absurdly thick outer wall?

In a way, it makes sense in large structures and fortifications: you're designing a building that is meant to last and would have been built in a time similar to the Middle Ages. They didn't make buildings out of reinforced cinderblock, concrete and steel. There was no such thing as "drywall". Walls were solid stone, meant to support the massive building above them. Outer walls that were five feet thick were probably conservative (note: The moathouse near the village of Hommlet  has an 8' thick outer wall I believe, at least according to map scale), and anything smaller and without some serious internal support would collapse under the weight of the giant fortress of evil built on top of it.

I looked blankly at the structure I designed, trying to imagine how a four story building of solid stone with paper thin walls would hold up. It did not bode well.

There's also some other things I noticed... Think about what you have in your own home. The "home" I was designing had no kitchen, which is just as well because it had no food storage, or a dining room for that matter. It also had five residents in it... but no bathrooms (when I posed this concern to someone else, their simple solution was "add a chamber pot in each room". Ew!). And, in what is apparently typical in D&D lair design, it had an easily activated death trap where pretty much anyone can trigger it.

The residents wouldn't last a week. They'll either die - painfully - or resort to cannibalism and eat each other. And, if they do survive, they'll be quite... uncouth.

But if I add a kitchen, I encounter the other problem prevalent in D&D campaigns: every room has a purpose, right? A kitchen can't just be a kitchen; there has to be a monster in it, or a trap, or treasure, or a major plot element... something! No? It's Chekov's Room, right? (WARNING: That's a TV Tropes link! Click at your own peril!) It must be important eventually!

All you DMs out there... Try to think of how many times you'd have to repeat to your players "it's just a kitchen" before they'll move on somewhere else (if you say "only once", you're lying). No matter how many times you tell them there's nothing in it, I bet you still had to roll at least one Perception check because the PCs requested it (or, in some cases, they rolled it themselves... "31! So what's really in this... 'kitchen', hmm?"). If they insist, I'm tempted to put a Sphere of Annihilation inside the stove just to "reward" their persistence.

The other option is to either make the walls out of unobtanium or infuse the structure with arcane power. "What prevents the building from collapsing under it's own weight?" "Uh... Magic!"

I haven't modified the area yet - it still has paper thin walls - but I'm seriously considering it.

And now I know why ProFantasy's Campaign Cartographer has about fifteen different clip art elements for a chamber pot.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, Design, DnD, Maps, RPG 2 Comments