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


Items of Legend

Items of Legend (4E)

About a month ago I was busy working on my next module, Heart of Fire, when I decided to take a minor diversion and do something different.

I chanced across the D&D 3.5e book Weapons of Legacy by Bruce Cordell, Kolja Raven Liquette and Travis Stout... and realized that such a thing didn't exist in 4E. The closest thing was using inherent bonuses, but beyond that players were limited as to how their weapons could be upgraded without being replaced. If you have a +3 sword you had it until you found a +4 sword, at which point you would toss the old one aside as if it was garbage or melt it down in to slag. Selling it was pointless - considering the two items are at least six levels apart the resale value would be inconsequential - so the players just threw it in a corner of the dungeon and forgot about it.

I originally set out to create a system by which a weapon could increase in power along with the player, and not just by increasing its attack bonus by one. I wanted legendary items that had a whole slew of powers that the player can use as they became "attuned" to the item over time.

But I did not want an artifact... These items aren't made to be sentient or intelligent. They do not have mood swings, have desires or get emotional. They just get more powerful, that's all.

Thus Items of Legend was born. This supplement provides basic rules for items that grow in level through exposure to the player that wields them. Included in the document are six items, some of which honestly have been influenced by video games of my past (Ultima VII, Everquest II, even a certain LucasArts game). And it's not limited to weapons; this mechanic can work for anything.

I hope this is useful to some of you. Eventually I might create more items that follow this mechanic, and I don't know if I'll post them here or make a sequel. We'll see.

For now, you can pick up Items of Legend on Drive Thru RPG! At the same time, while you're at it, all of our other products are on sale for the low price of $1.99 for today only!


I'd like to take this opportunity and thank Stephen Newton of Thick Skull Adventures (http://www.thickskulladventures.com/) for editing this document. As I've said many a time before, fluff and extended writing isn't my specialty, so my grammar and way of expressing myself has its share of issues. I appreciate his services, and he helped make this product much better than it would have been doing it myself. Thanks!


Gamma World Remnants: Gammacore Reactor Control

I've been wanting to release this for quite some time, just haven't gotten around to it.

This was one of the planned areas in my cancelled Gamma World "fourthcore" (or "gammacore", as some have called it) project When Worlds Collide. The whole campaign was meant for a party of about 5th level.

In similar style to previous fourthcore releases, this is one of four possible areas the players must traverse in order to reach a computer system at the North end. It's a combination encounter and pseudo-puzzle involving prisms and very painful particle beams.

Hope you enjoy!

When Worlds Collide - Reactor Control (PDF, 448K)


Avoiding the Rails

NOTE: The following post may contain spoilers for the first chapter of my campaign, The Coming Dark.

As I've mentioned to a few people recently, I've been somewhat disillusioned with the fist full length campaign I'd created, The Coming Dark.

For a while, I wasn't sure why... I thought it was simply "DM burnout", or spending too much time in its design, general writer's block, aversion to interacting with the WotC forums, or something else I haven't quite laid my finger on yet. But since that first module I've published two others (The Endless Winter and The Dragon's Master) and am about to publish a third (The Heart of Fire), and during that process I have learned quite a lot about campaign design. And interacting with the Twitter and blogging community has helped me immensely to see the type of game people want or don't want.

I've come to the realization the TCD was, in essense, a campaign on rails. Everything occured in a linear progression, without any opportunity for deviation. Just to give you an idea, here is the chain of events for the first chapter of TCD:

  • Part 1: The Village of Solis.
    • Playes arrive in the village of Solis.
    • Two unavoidable encounters.
    • Extended rest and plot exposition.
    • Two unavoidable encounters.
    • Boss fight. Not the best of bosses, in my opinion.
  • Part 2: Heading Out
    • Leave Solis.
    • Three to four optional encounter areas that are along the way to the destination. The path to the destination is a road, a predetermined path through which there is no other way to get around.
    • Boss fight. Probably my favorite, even though it's gone through at least four different iterations.
  • Part 3: The Tower of Light
    • There is a direct path to the final encounter, which consists of 5 different areas (not counting the final room with the boss). Three of those areas are full on encounters.
    • A lot of secondary rooms that are either completely optional or contain something that the party needs to advance. There is no obvious indication that that is the case. Several of the rooms expand on plot elements integral to the story, and if the players don't go through the effort to inspect these rooms now, they'll never get the chance again and they won't have any idea what's going on in the future.
    • Final boss fight. Once the fight is over you are effectively ejected from the tower and do not have the option to revisit areas you didn't get the chance to.

In looking at all the above, it almost sounds like a season of D&D Encounters... The encounters are not avoidable, come sequentially and there's no way around it all. Just plow through as if you were "on rails".

With The Heart of Fire, I decided to attempt doing something different. I created multiple paths to reach the final destination, some of which are either full on roleplaying or "kill anything that moves" if you are so inclined. There are over thirty distinct encounters and situations, yet you only need to experience a fourth of those to reach the boss. The rest is just filler that the party can explore at their discretion; there is no pressing need for the party to rush to meet the boss (in TCD, there is most definitely a need to reach the boss quickly before he does something "really bad", so much so that one of the groups I'm DM-ing the campaign for is at the end of Part 3 and hasn't taken an extended rest since Part 1), so the players can explore at their discretion.

Also, the main setting of HoF is an island and you know where you have to go on it but you're welcome to work your way there any way you want. There isn't a long, clearly defined road that you must travel and not deviate from. Heck, I even included a random encounter list for the wilderness if the DM and party are so inclined. The party could wander the island, exploring every nook and cranny of it, for *days* if they want to.

In retrospect, I somehow like this system more. It gives the players freedom, and makes them feel like they're not being dragged around by a DM that positively, absolutely, has to get them to the next encounter or else he simply doesn't know what to do.

And even though TCD has less encounters and smaller maps than HoF, it's a good 30 pages longer. I think I wrote too damn much.

So, once I'm done with The Heart of Fire (for which I'm actively creating both D&D 4e and Pathfinder versions!), I'm going to revisit TCD and rework a great deal of it. This includes probably throwing out most of the Tower of Light, and maybe even reworking the continent and the storyline to allow for more diversity and to remove that sense that the campaign is on rails. I don't know how I'm going to do that yet, but I think it's necessary.

Now some of you reading this are part of my current campaigns, and maybe the above will provide a little explanation as to why I haven't been pushing those campaigns along for several months now. It's that simple: in light of what I've learned I've grown to not like my initial design, so soon I intend to rework the whole thing and make it a better experience for everyone, something I can be happy about and something I trust you will enjoy. If anything, you as players have helped me see that, so I ask that you be patient... It'll be for the best in the end, and the game will go on as soon as I feel it is ready.

Until that time, development on The Heart of Fire continues. The 4e version is complete save for two sections (one of which is waiting on me being able to commission a map of the volcano island of Pyrias, which I cannot get until my financial situation improves... Thank the holidays for that), and I've started to create the monsters for the Pathfinder version (which is a heckuva lot of work!). If all goes well, the module should be completed and published by the end of the year.

Be patient and stay tuned.


Contest: Design a Treasure Vault

I am currently developing another module titled The Heart of Fire. In a style that seems to be somewhat typical of me, it's another big one - 116 pages at current count - but I think this module might actually be more usable because of the way it's designed. It's not a linear path... It's effectively a dungeon crawl where the players can take multiple paths to their primary objective, or deviate to do something that has nothing to do with the primary objective, or just wander around and kill stuff. There are several roleplaying options, lots of traps and lots of monsters. Should be fun!

The module is about 90% done, and all that remains is the design of three different rooms and for me to write a whole lot of fluff for the rest of the module (as I've said many a time before, I'm no good at fluff).

Recently, as part of the "RPG chat" that occurs every Thursday, the discussion came up about how one goes about creating a campaign. A lot of people mentioned how they have a hard time with the "nitty gritty", putting together the mechanics on how things work, and have a much better time just coming up with stories or descriptions of things. I am the complete opposite: I guess it's because I've been a computer programmer for thirty years, but I have a tendency to do all the mechanics first and foremost, and then fill in the blanks and make the story around that.

Case in point: in The Heart of Fire, the first thing I designed was the full stat block and tactical encounter map for the endgame boss. I had no idea what his motivations were, or why he was a "boss" in the first place for that matter. I had no clue what environment he would be in, or what would be involved along the way in order to get to where he is at. In the module there is currently a group of zealots known as the Blackfire Order that worship said boss, but at the time I created the boss' stat block that cult didn't even exist; I hadn't thought of it at all. I had a fully documented Level 12 Solo Controller with an arsenal of traps and devices around his lair, but I didn't quite know what to do with it. Everything leading up that didn't exist, and at the time I had no clue what it would be.

Over time I built a world around it, but I built it one stone at a time. Whereas some people may have a vision of the story from beginning to end in their head, I didn't have the faintest idea where it would go. Eventually I created the Blackfire Order (the aforementioned zealots), and another group of antagonists that get in the way, and the maze of tunnels inside the volcano that the boss calls home, and the island on which the volcano stands, and the small fishing village at the opposite end of the island where the encounter starts. Actually, I didn't even get that far yet: the page on which I am meant to describe Serpent's Cove - the village where the party begins their adventure - is completely blank. I haven't written a thing about it.

But every creature, trap and hazard has a stat block. I know exactly how much XP every room has, and I know exactly what level the PCs will be if they take certain paths. I have 36 encounter areas with detailed mechanics, ranging from every unique monster's stat block to the hit points and defenses of the average temple door... but every single one of them has a "read aloud" section that currently blank.

That's just the way I am, I guess. I'll deal with it sooner or later...


In the meantime, I thought I'd try an experiment and see if anyone out there will bite. After I created the boss and his lair, I created the following map:

At the time I didn't know what to do with it, or where it was going to go, or what's in it. Now I have a vague idea, but still nothing concrete. But like I said above, I know every mechanical detail about the encounter that's just outside the door to the North (7 monsters, EL 11, 2,950 XP) and the specifics on the trap that secures the door... but that's it.

I made the map using the "OK, let's see what looks cool here" school of design. A massive pile of coins lying in wait underwater? Let me mess with the transparency and color contrast to make the water look weird... Lit braziers? Let me see how putting an aura around the flame looks...

All in all, a neat little map... That's devoid of content.

So I leave this to you: using the map above, design what the contents of the room will be. Put in as many death traps as you want, pile it full of enough monsters so that they can't move, devise some sinister puzzle or contraption that makes it difficult to get so much as a coin out of this place. The room could be a real treasure vault, or a place of watery doom. Use your imagination!

Conditions: The only condition is that you do not alter the structural content of the room. You can add all the creatures you want, but you must not change the appearance of the room by adding objects. At least not initially, that is - objects might appear after the room is interacted with, such as things popping out from the walls, rising out of the ground, or simply appearing out of thin air - but when the players enter the room must be as it appears above. Again, monsters are the exception: put whatever you want.

Game System: The design could be of any level, and preferably for D&D 4e although I will accept other game systems with D&D mechanics (from 1st Ed D&D to Pathfinder). You can even "fourthcore" it, if you're so inclined.

Judging: Depending on how many entries we get, I will either judge them myself or find judges to take a look. We'll see.

Prize: These days I cannot guarantee retail prizes like I've done before as I don't have the resources to buy them, but I could guarantee prizes I myself have created since they're free to me.

So the winner - or winners, if there is a tie - will get a voucher from Drive Thru RPG for all the products I have listed there (CC1: The Complete Collection, retail value $13.96):

And, to be honest, if your design knocks my socks off maybe we can work something out to include part of all of it in The Heart of Fire. Of course, you will get credit for the creation in every way possible. No guarantees, but I like to keep my options open.

Deadline: All entries must be in by midnight December 18th, 2011.

So if you're up to it, show the world what you can do!



I guess it would help to add the email: send it to contest@brainclouds.net!