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


Writer’s Block

I've been having a troubling couple of days as of late, but find it necessary to post *something* on here...

In the past two or three weeks:

  • I just came off a rather exhausting 10 day vacation, during which we drove from Miami to New York City.
  • As many of you know, I was hit with a somewhat scary "cease and desist" during that time for Fire From the Sky, so I have been somewhat disillusioned with game development. I was hoping to clarify what I can or cannot do, but many of you have pointed out that I shouldn't expect robust communication with Wizards of the Coast's legal team. So I haven't been doing module desgin because I don't want to be spending time on something that might never see the light of day.
  • Next week I'll be in Indianapolis, and there is extensive preparation involved for that.
  • My car seriously broke down last Sunday, to the tune of $1800 to repair. My mechanic - whom I will refer to as MacGyver - bypassed the A/C system so I can get it running for only $350, but you can imagine that driving around Miami without A/C is making me even more tired than I am normally.
  • Lots of other things, mostly work-related.
  • Because of all of the above, I haven't been sleeping particularly well.

Fire From the Sky: Contraband Edition

As a result, I've not only been at a loss for what to write, but I've been having a hard time getting myself to even think about it. I've been extremely tired and somewhat unwilling to do any design as of late, and it's rubbing off on everything I'm involved in. The three games that I'm actively DM-ing are suffering as a result... Running those campaigns in light of everything else that's going on in my life makes them feel like work and not enjoyment. And, as I've mentioned before on this very blog, work isn't very fun.

So, to try to get my mind off everything, I'm thinking forward to Indianapolis. I have created a special cover for Fire From the Sky (with the Gamma World logo removed, which was one of their points of contention) and will have it with me, and I intend to print several versions nicely bound. 

Whether I will run it or not is yet to be determined: I still have to build up the personal courage to do so, and want to experience some other people DM-ing at GenCon before I take that step. If it happens, it'll probably be either late Saturday or early Sunday. We'll see how it goes.

This blog will probably go dark while I'm away, but hopefully I'll be able to clear my mind and think of something to write about before then. I will definitely post my show schedule if I remember to do so, and look forward to seeing some of you there.

Stay tuned!


Legal Limbo

I'm in somewhat of an awkward situation.

Last week, while I was out of town on vacation, I was hit with a "cease and desist" order preventing me from distributing the Fire From the Sky Gamma World module to anyone. Note that I say "distributing" and not "selling"... As per the C&D, I'm restricted from giving the module to anyone, even for free. FFTS is now a controlled substance.

NOTE: I have asked for authorization to publish the C&D letter verbatim as I received it, but have not gotten approval to do so. Just to be safe, I will not publish its contents until cleared to do so.

Since then I have attempted to contact the legal entity that sent the C&D for clarification on what the issue is, but there's a problem: the legal firm that sent the C&D is a law firm in New York City - Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP (hereinafter refered to as "PBWT") - and not Wizards of the Coast's legal team in Renton, Washington (who are the people I originally contacted). PBWT apparently cannot speak on behalf of Wizards of the Coast without contacting WotC first (they make no decisions on their own), so if I ask PBWT any question they must send it to WotC Legal in Renton, wait for a response, then respond to me. I'm dealing with a third party, not WotC directly.

I'm at one end of a legal grapevine, having to wait for my message to bounce all the way to Washington and back.

So I made an effort to contact someone in Wizards of the Coast, be they legal or not, in the hopes that someone could talk to me directly. I received the following response from Wizards Customer Support:

Unfortunately, our Legal Department is only available via mail. To contact them, please use the following address:

Wizards of the Coast
Attn: Legal
PO Box 707
Renton, WA 98057-0707

Seriously?!? What century are we in again?

It's been about three days since I sent my first volley of questions, and I have yet to hear anything. At this rate, it may be months before I have any idea what the issue is or what I am allowed to do in future products.

In the meantime, all my other projects...

  • The Fortress of Dr. Neb, Gamma World module. This campaign may be pretty much dead at this point.
  • A planned "GammaCore" module based on the LHC
  • My big campaign, The Coming Dark, which is normal D&D 4e and not Gamma World.

...are on hold. I don't know what to do with them at this point. I'm afraid to work on anything, unsure whether I'll be wasting my time on a project that may never see the light of day.

I'm kind of hoping that there will be some sort of WotC legal representation at GenCon, so maybe I can sort out these issues in person.

In the meantime, I do have some news: a third party has contacted me and expressed interest in converting both Fire From the Sky and The Fortress of Dr. Neb for use in Pathfinder and the upcoming Warlords of the Apocalypse supplement, even though nobody seems to be sure when that supplement will actually be released (it's seem to have had quite a turbulent development history). So stay tuned for that!

On another note, I am seriously considering running Fire From the Sky at GenCon; although I'm restricted from distributing it, I'm not restricted from using it myself. The only problem: I haven't DM-ed an in person game in well over a decade, so I'm not sure if I can handle it. So I'll hang out and watch others DM for the first few days just to make sure I can be on par with everyone else, and if it does happen might be Saturday. Don't bank on it, but we'll see if I can muster the courage before I'm on the flight back.

I might even make a special "THE MODULE THEY DO NOT WANT YOU TO SEE!!!" cover for it.

In the meantime, if you have an "in" with someone at Wizards of the Coast I would appreciate some insight as to the issue with Fire From the Sky. I would be willing to provide you a copy of the module if you work for Wizards of the Coast; I don't think I can legally give you one if you're not.

Until then... I wait patiently, hoping for some clarification...


Cease and Desist

I'm on vacation right now, so I really didn't need this...

I just received a "cease and desist" letter from Wizards of the Coast's legal department that states that my Fire From the Sky Gamma World module "...infringes on Wizards' intellectual property rights..." and "...is an illegal derivative work of Wizards' copyrighted D&D GAMMA WORLD property and constitutes wilful copyright infringement..."

I have been instructed to pull the Drive Thru RPG listing (which I already have) and cease distribution of the module. It is now contraband!

Well *that's* a kicker, isn't it?

So as it stands now, there will be no more Gamma World content... that's for sure. Dr. Neb will have to stay silent and my planned GammaCore module will die a slow painful death.

Furthermore, now *everything* that I may publish under the 4e GSL is in jeopardy, including my non-Gamma World content.

As I said, I'm on vacation right now and can't really focus on this until Monday the 18th, but there you go. Discuss at your discretion.

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Gamma World, RPG 20 Comments

Excess Houseruling

I don't mind houserules most of the time because there are certain things in the core mechanic that, to me, make no sense, are not covered or may not translate well to the format I normally participate in ("play by post"). I personally have houseruled things like critical hits, tough minions and skill challenge handling (DC 10 + 1/2 level for an assist... at high levels, work for it guys!), just to make it a little more interesting.

But recently I've been exposed to what I call "excessive houseruling". In other words, the DM has elected to lay down so many new rules that you have to wonder if you're playing D&D at all.

For example, in ONE recent game there are the following houserules:

  • New rules for swimming: you move slower, or even sink to the bottom, depending on the armor you are wearing. If you're wearing scale or plate, you sink pretty much no matter what; you get a save after which you can shift two squares and become dazed, but if you fail you start to drown.
  • If you get pushed over the side of a dock in to the water, you get TWO rolls: a "safety roll" (Athletics/Acrobatics, fixed DC) and a saving throw. Now don't ask me what happens if you fail one or both, but as far as I could tell there is no way to avoid being dazed, even if you succeed on both rolls. When it happened to me I somehow wound up dazed, prone and hanging off the side of the dock.
  • Complete redefinition of the surprise round #1: No opposed check to see if the other group is surprised. Post surprise round and first round actions right out of the gate, regardless of whether the enemy can act or not. There is no initiative order, so act at your discretion (and the enemy acts or moves at will as well). You can take full round actions until you "make contact" with the enemy, after which the surprise round ends immediately and the initiative order takes over.
  • Complete redefinition of the surprise round #2: In the surprise round, you get a full set of actions and every time someone attacks the enemy makes an opposed Initiative roll. If their Initiative roll beats yours, the attack does not take place. Note that this is a complete subversion of the initiative and surprise round mechanic in the first place... This rule was so confusing that it nearly wiped half the party on the first round, despite us already standing there, literally two squares from the enemy, weapons drawn an sensing danger. Most of us posted initiative rolls and nothing else (as is normally the case in PbP, so we know what order we attack in and can coordinate. Not to mention a warlord in the party makes things more complicated), and the DM assumed that was all we were going to do in the first round, so we stood there like idiots while the enemy proceeded to smash our brains in with a barrage of attacks (four Thunderwave attacks at least, not to mention several melee hits). The result was half the party dead (my character - the warlord leader - took a total of 74 points of damage at level ONE. For those keeping score, that's 2.5x my actual HP) and the rest bloodied in the first round before any of us even made a single attack roll. It caused such an uproar that the whole scene was retconned by the DM.
  • You can now use an action point as a free action at any time, even if it's not your turn. And forget about milestones and need to keep track of APs; you get one per encounter no matter what.
  • New rules for invisible targets: Cannot attack an invisible target with a "lucky" melee attack EVER, and the houserule has been worded in such a way that I currently have no idea if it can be hit with a ranged attack. Note that none of this has anything to do with whether a character is "hidden" or not; I could roll a natural 20 on a Perception check and pat the invisible gnome on the head, but so long as he's invisible I can't smack him with the warhammer that's bigger than he is.
  • Skill challenge rules that I know I can't explain (I posted the link to the thread on Twitter once; three people read it and only reacted by saying "my head hurts"). Basically we're walking through a city and we need directions, so we ask people. So each character has to pick a race we want to target, then make an opposed skill check of some sort. There's also a bunch of modifiers or something that I don't understand or know how they apply. And the end result is that I have to do 9 successes before 5 failures. Or something. Who knows.

There came a point when I didn't know what game I was playing anymore; I spent more time trying to make sense out of the rules than I did anything else. The story elements became lost in the mess, and every other post was asking for a rules clarification. There came a point when I stopped roleplaying and posted actions because I could not intelligently roleplay when I had no idea what was going on. It was no longer fun... it was work!

So I withdrew from the game.

Until that point, I don't think I'd ever withdrawn from a game in my life (well, except for games in which DMs disappear off the face of the Earth... Hey, it happens in PbP). It was a play by post game that was supposed to be all about roleplaying, but I read the thread a dozen times and didn't know what was going on. I had sensory overload, being hammered with so many rules that I couldn't focus on being the character I wanted to be. And I liked my character, too (one was a dwarven warlord, other was a shardmind psion).

I play PbP a lot, and I use it to tell a story and roleplay with the players. The rules are sometimes secondary, and if the players want to do something dramatic that bends the rules so be it. I have a monk in one game I DM that bounces all over the place, jumping over enemies and the like... Is that allowed in the rulebook? Probably not "as written", but I have him make a skill check and life goes on. I don't completely redefine what it means to take a move action.

D&D 4e has the potential issue of not being specific on certain rules, but that's by design. It's not like earlier versions, where you have five pages of grappling rules or six different ways to cast the same spell. In some ways it's simplistic and I think that's a good thing, but when a veteran player who is use to having a phone book of rules to go by starts playing it, they find themselves filling the apparent gaps.

So I'm curious...

  1. Have you ever been a player in a game where some houserules were absurd, or there were too many to keep track of?
  2. Any special houserules you've put in to effect as a DM?


On an unrelated note, I am taking a brief hiatus while I leave town on business, so this blog will be silent until the 19th of July. How I'm going to handle this trip and GenCon shortly thereafter is beyond me, but I'll figure things out as I go along.