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


Welcome To the Wayside Inn

I have been working on getting my Wayside Inn map ready for publication as a map pack. For most people, this is kind of an easy thing, but I'm a bloody perfectionist sometimes... So I completely re-did the map for the third time, this time in 200 DPI so it doesn't look bad in full scale.

The first floor of the Wayside Inn clocks in at 26" x 28", which makes for a huge map (5200 x 5600, 197Mb) that Fireworks has a really hard time handling. On more than one occasion I've had Fireworks balk and say "screw you, I can't do this."

I've asked around what it would cost to put this on a glossy poster that allows for dry erase and I've gotten prices between $10 and $100 a copy, so I'm not sure about the possibility of printing this full scale on a single sheet. So for now, thanks to Newbie DM's suggestion, I'm using PosteRazor, which is a wonderful little tool that takes any image and cuts it up so you can print it and composite it yourself. That was something I was doing before, but this little app makes it so much easier!

The first floor includes:

  • The lobby, a massive room complete with nine tables, a fireplace, a 50' long bar and even a place for the Ethereal Bard!
  • Full kitchen with storage room.
  • Six double rooms.
  • The owner's sleeping quarters.
  • Staircase to second floor.
  • Numerous windows through which you can make a dramatic entrance or a quick exit.

The second floor includes:

  • Eleven double rooms.
  • One "deluxe" room with three beds.
  • A storage room.
  • A few windows through which you can jump out and fall to your death.

It's my favorite map from The Coming Dark, Chapter One: Into the Light, and also contains one of my favorite scenes.

But I do not want to publish just the map... I want to publish something that can be useful above and beyond that, something that DMs could drop in to a campaign with nominal effort. So I want to include detailed descriptions of everything, and possibly include several encounters, skill challenges, etc... that are not linked to a specific campaign and can be used by anyone.

Although my intention is to create a lot of generic descriptions, the content that is edition specific will not be limited to D&D 4e. I want Pathfinder, D&D 3.5e... even some older or alternate systems that I haven't thought of. I want it to be useful to anyone that needs an inn.

And let's face it... everyone needs an inn in their campaign at some point!

I'm curious to hear what some of you would make of such a place. I was tempted to ask for submissions or create a contest, but since this is going to be a retail product the financials of that could get somewhat complicated. But I'll tell you what... If you are eager enough to create a scene - be it an encounter, skill challenge, roleplaying situation, etc... - I would be more than happy to see it, and if it's cool enough I might ask you to include it in the final product.

Until I can work more on the internal content, I'll spend my time trying to come up with a cover page that doesn't look like crap.

Stay tuned!

Filed under: Design, DnD, Maps, Pathfinder, RPG 1 Comment

Is Surrender Always an Option?

In the movies, I don't recall many times where the protagonist asks the "big evil" to surrender and the BBEG says "You have a point. I surrender!" You didn't see Oddjob throw his hands up and capitulate when Bond threatened him with his hat. You didn't see the alien queen assume the fetal position and begin trembling just because Ripley called her a bitch. The Witch King didn't look blankly at Eowyn, suddenly realize that there was a little loophole to his immortality, and ran away screaming. It just doesn't happen in fiction, at least not as often as it would in real life.

Not much has been written about the possibility of surrender in D&D, especially in 4e. The only reference I can find is in the entry for the Intimidate skill (Player's Handbook, page 186 or the Rules Compendium, page 147):

Opposed Check: Against a monster’s Will. (Adventurers can also try to intimidate DM-controlled characters.) The monster gains a +5 bonus to Will against the check if it is unfriendly to the adventurer, or a +10 bonus if it is hostile.


Success: The adventurer forces a bloodied monster to surrender, gets a monster to reveal a secret, or cows a monster into taking some other action.

The above does not take in to consideration a variety of factors, such as morale. If the party has slaughtered fifty goblins as they plow through their lair, the rest of the lesser goblins would be much more receptive to "surrender or die." But, if you're a "by the book" DM, using the above numbers would still make it somewhat unlikely, or at least infrequent, that even the most lowly goblin would surrender.

Run Away! Run Away!

Every time I look at the first encounters in Keep of the Shadowfell, I can't help but think "why are these monsters still hanging around?!? Screw Irontooth, he could handle himself... I would have dropped my blade and run the hell out of there in a heartbeat!"

Let's do the math for a second: a Goblin Cutter (Monster Manual, page 136) has a Will defense of 11. For argument's sake, let's downgrade it from "hostile" to "unfriendly" - rather than charge at you with its sword, the goblin will be more likely to shout insults and really dislike your presence - so that's a +5 bonus, making the Intimidate check a DC 16. At first level, that's pretty close to a "Hard" DC (a truly "hard" DC at level 1 is DC 19). I have a level 2 warden that has an Intimidate bonus of +0, so he'd have to roll a 16 or higher to coax a goblin to surrender. That's a pretty tall order, even though he's the lead defender killing things left and right with a big honkin' battleaxe.

Let me sidestep for a minute and point out that Intimidate is Charisma based, which in my opinion is somewhat absurd. Your beefiest, burliest, most violently intimidating defender usually can't Intimidate themselves out of anything unless they take training in it (I've always wondered what "intimidation training" is like). If anything, it should be Strength based, I think. But I digress.

Someone trained in Intimidate and that uses Charisma as their primary attribute could get a +10 bonus if they really try. So even against a lowly, visibly shaken goblin they need a 6 or greater, which means there's still a 25% chance that the goblin will laugh in their face. And if the goblin was truly hostile (DC 21), that percentage rises to 50%. Somehow that doesn't seem likely enough.

I also need to point out the consequence of trying to intimidate anything. Under the block quoted above:

Target Becomes Hostile: Whether or not the check succeeds, using this skill against a monster usually makes it unfriendly or hostile toward the adventurer.

So if you happen to roll a failure, this lone goblin is going to come charging at you? Really? I also don't think I need to point out the inconsistency... Even if one rolls a success and the creature surrenders, as per the above it is still unfriendly or hostile. So what's the point of intimidating?

D&D does not have a "morale" stat; the closest it gets is a "circumstance bonus" to die rolls, but that's somewhat of a gray area and I don't think it's documented anywhere. If the party has been killing goblins wholesale, the remaining goblins would be terrified in no time at all. There is no way to quantify that, so DMs must use their own creative license, using what they may or may not know about how goblins act and try to make an intelligent decision of what exactly would happen in this situation.

Taking On the Alien Queen

But what if the target is your "big evil"?

"Gosh Ripley, you're right... I never meant to be such a bitch... I'm sorry. I should go."

The whole reason this conversation came up is because my primary party is going up against the "big evil" and the assassin/rogue decides to intimiate it. The BBEG has a base Will defense of 19, +10 for being hostile (no doubt about that here), so that's a DC of 29 (way beyonsd being "hard"). The assassin has a +11 intimidate, which means he'll have to roll an 18 or greater; that's a 15% chance of success. Another tall order, but at least it's fairly realistic.

But what exactly *is* success here? Many say that this shouldn't work at all, that there are creatures that are so fanatical that they are beyond intimidation ("fight to the death", as some official modules put it), but then I become one of those DMs that says "no". So if I allow the roll, and for argument's sake let's say the player rolls a natural 20, what exactly happens then? Would you still tell them that their intimidation had no effect, even though it was (1) a natural 20, and (2) higher than the BBEG's Will defense +10? Does the BBEG simply see the error of his ways and give up, no questions asked?!?

From a story standpoint, that's obviously not going to happen, but part of me still wants to reward the roll in the unlikely event that it is successful. I've asked this on Twitter and I've gotten suggestions such as granting an attack or damage bonus, decreasing his defenses, adding a temporary condition like dazed or weakened, etc... I actually like a lot of those ideas.

But what about failure? It is a big risk, but the player is making the check as a Standard Action so he's paying a certain price (especially considering he's the team striker). Besides a witty retort and back talk, should the BBEG gain some benefit? Some have suggested increased defenses, giving him one more action point, making an attack as an immediate reaction, etc... I'm still torn about this one, but for now will probably do no more than than laugh in the player's face and try to kill them again.

I do not want failure to be too extreme, because if it's something too over the top the player may not want to try it again. I do not want to put the "fear of God" in a player and prevent them from trying a creative solution to a problem using the resources they have available. I mean, if this will never work, again... what's the point of training Intimidate in the first place?

Others have suggested that it be a complex skill challenge, not leaving the unlikely surrender to a single lucky die roll and reflecting the inherent difficulty in trying to convince the BBEG to give up. This is another idea I'm considering.


I haven't rolled that d20 yet, but will do so later today. I still have the day to determine how it's going to be handled, but I'm wondering how many of you out there have dealt with similar situations. Does your BBEG end up being a big weenie and dropping to his knees, terrified that the rogue in the party really means business? How have your players used Intimidate, and what have you allowed them to get away with?

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Encounters, Monsters, RPG 4 Comments

Complying With the GSL

Since I can't even mention the words Gamma World without having to slice off a pound of flesh and mail it to Wizards of the Coast (darn it! I did it again!!! *STAB!!!*), I've decided to focus on my conventional D&D 4e campaign, The Coming Dark.

In order to do that, I have to go through my existing 150 page campaign with a magnifying glass and ensure that it is GSL compliant, and it's not as easy as it sounds. It's one thing to create a module while being compliant, but it's another thing to take an existing product and retcon most of it.

That compounded with the fact that I am "on notice" - It's on my permanent record now!!! Now I'll never get in to college!!! - means I have to be extra-careful.

Now I know what you're thinking: I agreed to the GSL before I even started writing TCD... Why isn't it compliant since I knew full well what had to be done? Simple: I wrote the module I wanted to write, not the module that the lawyers wanted me to. The contents of The Coming Dark, Chapter One are what I wanted to create, damn the restrictions, and I'm quite happy about that. I compare the situation I'm in to that of a writer writing a book; there comes a time in every writer's career (or so I've heard; don't quote me on this) that their publisher might suggest, hint or even insist that something be changed in order to make the product more marketable. And, for a professional writer that loves their work and loves that which they've created, that's a stab in the heart.

Nonetheless, I decided to begin the exercise of systematically going through my campaign, page by page, and changing what needs to be changed. Just to give you an idea of what this actually involves, here are some examples:

  • I can't refer to classes or races in the Player's Handbook 3 because that's not part of the SRD. In other words, my psion isn't a "psion" but simply a "telepath".
  • Thankfully, my psion didn't have a full stat block, so I don't have to worry about referring to powers like Mind Thrust and Dishearten, but other classes - fighters, mages, rogues, etc... - may be an issue. Originally, some of their powers came from sources not covered in the SRD; my mages may not be able to use Grease or Grasping Shadows, because they are in Arcane Power. So if the power was relevant to the campaign (such as the Grease spell) I reworded it and called it something different, and in the other cases I chose powers that are covered by the SRD and are thematically similar to the power they are replacing. Same goes for rogues that want to use Clever Strike or Handspring Assault, or barbarians that want to use Thunder Hooves Rage, or fighters that want to use Knee Breaker... I have to think of something else that retains the flavor of the original character.
  • The changing of powers above causes several problems when it comes to my BBEG: a warlock. Using only the original Player's Handbook as a reference, my warlock has been nerfed dramatically. In theory, powers like Cursebite (from the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide) are no longer available. The easiest way around this is to make up brand new powers that are nothing like anything published, but I have to ensure that those powers are in tune with the character. I admit I haven't thought much of this one yet because he's at the end of the chapter, but I'll get to him eventually.
  • I cannot include stat blocks copied straight out of Monster Manual or Monster Manual 2. For example, I cannot reproduce Kobold Skirmishers, and can only say something to the effect of "see D&D 4e Monster Manual for stats". The only way I would be able to include them is if I make enough modifications to the creature that makes it unique; for example, I converted the standard Monster Manual Skeleton in to a "Shadowtouched Skeleton" that has an additional power. Thankfully, this only happens in two encounters... but one of them has five different types of kobolds that I now need to think about.
  • According to the GSL, there are certain creatures you cannot include in your campaign... EVER: Balhannoth, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Displacer Beast, Gauth, Githyanki, Githzerai, Kuo-Toa, Mind Flayer, Illithid, Slaad, Umber-Hulk and Yuan-Ti. These creatures are an integral part of the D&D branding, and as such are not allowed to be used anywhere under any circumstances. They are completely absent from the SRD, and are listed in the GSL's "Imagery" section (section 5.7). Thankfully, this does not affect me right now because I didn't include them, but it does change a few things for the next chapter in the campaign.
  • In the original design of the campaign, I provided specific magic items as treasures because I felt they make sense; as much as I agree that the concept of treasure parcels is for the benefit of the players, I'm against ramming in a specific item in to an area just because a player needs it. Let's face it, a band of lowly kobolds isn't going to be conveniently dragging around a +1 Greatsword that the fighter has been dying to find since the adventure started; that's just unrealistic. But since only the Dungeon Master's Guide and Adventurer's Vault (partially; see below) is covered in the SRD I'm limited as to the items I can give out. For example, I can't have a Tethercord (from the Eberron Player's Guide), or the local inn can't have a Cask of Liquid Gold (from Adventurer's Vault 2). So I have to either change these items to something usable or describe what they do without copying running text word for word and actually referring to the magic item (such as the cask).
  • The Adventurer's Vault is an interesting problem as well: it's partially in the SRD, and there are apparently some items that are not listed in the SRD. For example, the Blinding Bomb and Tanglefoot Bag are in the SRD, but plain old Armor of Resistance is not. At least not explicitly that is... One could argue that the name is in the SRD due to its component parts - "armor" and "resistance" - but do I really want to take that chance? So one of my characters had to switch to a different type of armor that is more acceptable.
  • I am going to have some issues describing the Ethereal Bard because I can't include the running text from the bard powers; in other words, I can't describe the song, or at least not in the same manner that the Player's Handbook 2 does. I'll probably have to leave that to the DM's imagination.
  • I wanted to include the characters in my playtests as pre-generated characters, but since 80% of their make-up is non-SRD material I don't think I can do that. I'll have to think about whether I'll include any and what characters they may be.
  • If I do include pre-generated characters, when I detail their powers I can only state the damage. If they have any secondary effects, I apparently can only refer to that as "special". For example, a rogue's Dazing Strike power causes "1d6 +5 damage + Special (Rogue Attack 1)" on a hit. If the players want to know what "Special" means, they have to look it up themselves.
  • My biggest problem: there are two scenes that includes creatures from a race in the Monster Manual 3, so they may be right out. I need to think about what race to use instead, whether to make them a new race with a different name, or use an existing race from the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual.

All in all, it hasn't been as painful as I would have thought, but then again I've only gone through Act One.

Regarding the issue of treasure I mention above: one thing I've noticed in many modules is that they don't bother to list magic items at all and do things like tell the DM to "generate a treasure", so there's no concern of what they can mention in terms of magic items. I'm kind of indifferent about that, but talking about that is beyond the scope of this post and probably merits another post.

Many have suggested to not use the GSL at all and use the Open License; the problem with this is that, at least in my interpretation of it, I would be allowed to refer to even less of the elements in D&D. In a small campaign that's easy enough, but in a bigger campaign pretending that D&D doesn't exist and making no reference to its content is somewhat difficult to do, at least in my opinion. Maybe I'm interpreting the use of the Open License wrong, but it seems like going that route will create a lot more doubts; the GSL may be more restrictive, but at least the restrictions are well defined.

For someone creating small campaigns of a few encounters, complying with the GSL really isn't that troubling. But when you start dealing with "super-modules" and epic campaigns, it could be potentially frustrating. So I highly recommend you read the GSL top to bottom and keep it open while you're writing, ensuring that you remain compliant as you go. Don't do what I did unless your a masochist. 😉

I will keep making the changes, knowing full well that there will come a point where I will have to make a change and won't want to. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, DnD, GSL, RPG 12 Comments

The Death of Gamma World Content

I finally got a response from Wizards of the Coast's legal representation, and it's not the response I or anyone else wanted to hear.

The important information is provided below:

Dear Mr. Flor,

Thank you for your patience and persistence in this matter. Our letter of July 13, 2011 clearly lays out Wizards' position regarding your unauthorized and infringing "Fire from the Sky: A Gamma World 4e Adventure" module.  Your follow up questions appear to stem from your misreading of Wizards' D&D 4E Game System License ("GSL"), System Reference Document ("SRD") and other supporting documents, and also some incorrect information that you received from customer service, for which Wizards apologizes. 

The above apology is in response to my initial inquiries through the Wizards of the Coast customer service site, because at the time there was no other means of asking the questions in the first place. The customer service representative answered "Gamma World is covered by the 4e GSL", but now it's clear that he was mistaken. I accept that... A customer service representative is no place to go to for legal advice.

As you know, the GSL documents are available at http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=d20/welcome. In a nutshell, the GSL permits you to use the game system (rules) underlying the D&D game to create your own original content, provided that you first file a Statement of Acceptance (www.wizards.com/d20/files/SOA.pdf) that Wizards accepts before you publish your work.  The GSL does not permit you, however, to copy or use the D&D content, such as any Gamma World trademark, copyrighted artwork, themes, settings or characters.  Under the GSL, only materials listed in the SRD (rules, tables, terms, and templates) are available for you to use after the Statement of Acceptance is accepted.  Gamma World is not included in the materials offered in the SRD. 

We hope this clarifies the situation for you.  Once you have submitted a Statement of Acceptance that is accepted by Wizards, you may use the game system rules under the GSL to create and publish your own original content.  Under no circumstances, however, may you use Gamma World, or other D&D content, as part of your module.  If you have any further questions, you should consult the comprehensive SRD  (http://www.wizards.com/d20/files/4E_SRD.pdf) and/or your own attorney and proceed on her or his advice. 

For the record, I have filed the Statement of Acceptance. I'm tempted to file it again, to be honest...

What is not clear is how WotC "accepts" the Statement of Acceptance. Has anyone out there who's filed an SOA received written confirmation that WotC accepts your submission?

While Wizards' appreciates your enthusiasm for the game, it cannot expend any further time or resources on your queries and will not respond to any further communications by you whether they are made to sales personnel, r&d, PR, legal, brand or anyone else at Wizards.  You are on notice by Wizards and its attorneys that what you are doing and propose to do violates the terms of the limited GSL license and infringes Wizards' copyrights and trademarks.  To proceed further in the face of this makes your infringement willful.  We strongly encourage you to consult your own attorney for advice before proceeding further.

OK, so they say "leave us alone" in a nice way. Maybe they didn't like the GenCon cover I made... No matter. I get the message.

So here is my response...

For the record, I have filed a statement of acceptance as far back as March of this year. I am considering re-filing it just in case the original did not get through.

As per your request, I will discontinue any further use of Gamma World material, and will abide by the guidelines set forth in the 4e GSL and the SRD for my future products.

On a related note, I really do wish your client would consider amending the SRD; the last time it was updated was February 2009, and there has been a significant amount of content since then.

I appreciate your attention on this matter.

...and let's call that the end of the conversation.

Note that none of the above makes reference to my actually selling the module. Whether I tried to make a profit is irrelevant; based on their statements, I'm not allowed to create it at all in the first place. Using Gamma World in any way, shape or form is right out.

So based on the above, at least until Wizards of the Coast decides to amend the 4e SRD to include Gamma World and newer content, I am not going to create any further content for Gamma World 4e. I'm sure there are ways around the above restrictions, but I am now in a situation ("on notice", as they call it) where I cannot honestly risk doing anything inappropriate or risky.

So my Gamma World development ends here and now, at least until something dramatic happens. I might create stuff privately, or continue to submit Gamma World content to Dragon/Dungeon in the hope that a miracle might happen and they accept it, but don't be expecting Gamma World modules on Drive Thru RPG from me or anyone else.

Furthermore, I hope I've been a good enough example for any of you out there who are considering making Gamma World content. Put simply... Don't.

I'm hoping that the Warriors Warlords of the Apocalypse (thank you for correcting me, Jeff K.!) supplemental for Pathfinder comes out soon; that may be a viable alternative, and Paizo seems to be a lot more forgiving than Wizards of the Coast is.

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Gamma World, RPG 22 Comments

An Alternative to Player Death

I've run my share of campaigns and, as far as I can remember, I have never had a PC die.

Having a PC die is actually a problem for me, because the plot line in my primary campaign kind of demands that the original five players survive (at least until Chapter Three, that is). So if one of them dies it's somewhat of an inconvenience and "breaks" the story.

So I thought of a special way to handle it: give the dead player a chance to come back, perhaps even as a servant of the BBEG.

The following is a skill challenge concept I put together only a day or two ago, and probably still needs a little tweaking. I'm open to suggestions as to how to make it better. Anyone?

The Dark Offering

If a player dies after a certain point in the campaign, he is transported to something similar to a dream sequence where the "big evil" attempts to persuade the player to join its side. As DM, you are welcome to roleplay this in any way you see fit. The primary thing to remember is that the voice will attempt to recruit the player to go against the other players and the enemies of the BBEG in the local village. The voice may not be particularly sincere of its offer, though.

Skill Challenge: Complexity 1 (4 successes before 2 failures)

Primary Skills: Arcana, Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and see below

Victory: The player is restored to life as if the Raise Dead ritual was used, but the penalties persist only until the first milestone is reached.

Failure: The player dies. If the player is later revived with a Raise Dead ritual, all the penalties are -2 (instead of the usual -1) and he gains vulnerable 5 necrotic for the next two milestones.

Arcana, Moderate DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You focus your mind and resist the voice’s influence.
Bluff, Hard DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You manage to convince the voice that you will his bidding if your life is restored, knowing full well you don't mean it.
Diplomacy, Moderate DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You speak with the voice and try to talk your way out of the difficult situation.
Intimidate, Moderate DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You rebel against the voice in the darkness, stating you are not one to die so easily.
Attack (1 success, maximum 3 successes): You retaliate at the voice with violence. All attacks are made against a defense of 10+Level, and it could be any form of attack (melee, ranged or burst) and target any defense.
Surrender (automatic failure): You would rather die than become a servant of the dark.
Embracing the Darkness (2 successes, maximum 4 successes, with special conditions): You accept the darkness, realizing that the voice’s offer is quite enticing. Using this method at any point grants the player additional bonuses if the skill challenge ends up a success.

Note: The player that died must do this skill challenge alone; he cannot get any assistance from other players.

Upon a victory, if at any point during the skill challenge the player agrees to accept the voice’s offer and embrace the powers of darkness, the player gains the following conditions:

  • Player gains the "shadowtouched" keyword.
  • Resist 5 necrotic.
  • Vulnerable 5 radiant.
  • The player will be able to identify any and all creatures that have the "shadowtouched" keyword.
  • +1 to attack and damage rolls against creatures that do not have the "shadowtouched" keyword.
  • +2 to attack and damage rolls against other players or creatures that would normally be considered allies, or at least are enemies of the BBEG.
  • If the player makes any burst attacks, all other players and allies in the area of effect are treated as enemies.
  • The player gains a special "shadowtouched" power (which I will not elaborate on here for spoiler reasons).
  • No creature with the "shadowtouched" keyword will willingly attack the player in any way.

These bonuses remain until:

  • The BBEG is defeated.
  • The player makes an attack or threatening gesture against a creature with the "shadowtouched" keyword. The attack does not have to hit the target; the mere act of rolling the attack is sufficient.

Once the effect ends, the player must make an immediate saving throw with a -5 penalty; on a failure, the player loses two healing surges. If the player does not have any surges, he takes damage equal to his surge value for each surge that he is missing. If the player drops to 0 HP or lower as a result of this attack, the player dies and the BBEG will make no further effort to recruit him.

If the player embraces the darkness, at any time the player can turn against the BBEG as a free action. If they do, the player loses the conditions and two healing surges as described above without a saving throw.

As far as skill challenges go, I don't think it's that difficult, and it at least gives the players an opportunity to come back.

So anyone out there have alternatives for handling player death?