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


Compass Rose

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to try and create a custom compass rose for my maps. I have a few available in the clip art I yanked from Campaign Cartographer 3, but I still wanted to have one of my own.

Also, it was sort of a challenge to myself. I repeat over and over again that I can't draw, and do all my maps solely through the creative manipulation of existing art. When it comes to create an object from scratch, freehand if you will, I cave.

So while I was in the process of putting stuff on my new DeviantArt page, I went exploring and found this tutorial that describes the basics on how to make a neat little compass rose. I figured I'd give it a go.

The result is the image you see to the right, which I am now making available to anyone who wants to use it.

The worse part of the whole thing that, unbeknownst to me, Cartographer's Guild was having a "mini" challenge that was exactly this: create a compass rose. I decided to create mine on the very last day of the contest, a mere three hours after the contest closed and all submissions were locked. Since that dismayed me a little, I'm giving it away for free instead.

There are two files provided below: one is the flattened, raster image and the native vector PNG created in Adobe Fireworks CS5. You would think that the raster image would be a thousand times larger than the vector one, but for some reason the vector one is a behemoth at about 1Mb in size compared to the 250K raster file (don't ask me why). Both image have a transparent background.

In any event, if you use these things anywhere or have any suggestions I'd love to hear about it.

Here ya go!

Download: Original Adobe Fireworks CS5 vector file (approx. 1Mb)

Download: "Flattened" raster PNG file (approx 254K):

Filed under: Art, Maps, RPG No Comments

Disorganized Play

D&D Lair Assault: Attack of the Tyrantclaw

Image courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

Today I went by my "friendly local gaming store" to see if they'd received the materials for the upcoming D&D Encounters and D&D Lair Assault seasons. They didn't, but that's not the reason for this post.

The owner of the store told me that Wizards of the Coast is apparently cracking down on stores. Apparently there's a problem with people sanctioning events and not actually running them, and since the creation of the materials actually costs them money with no direct return they need to somehow control it better. the owner of the store said that they will be required to sanction events and have people actually sign up and play, or else future materials might not come and the store's standing in the grand scheme of things might suffer.

Think about that for a second... If you don't get players, you don't get future materials. If you don't get materials, how are you supposed to get players? It's a textbook example of a catch-22.

I don't know how it is in the rest of the country, but Miami is not a hot bed of gaming aficionados. Sure there are a few D&D games going on at the store on Wednesday and Thursday, but these are small close knit groups that have known each other for quite a long time. A newcomer - like myself, at one point - has a hard time joining these games. In addition, these groups decided they didn't want to play Encounters or Lair Assault for whatever reason... So what does someone do to participate?

I remember a long time ago when I volunteered to DM a game of Lair Assault at the store; I sat there all day and had only two players show up. We couldn't run it with so few people, so the entire day was a wash.

One of the big problems is that, according to Wizards of the Coast anyway, D&D Encounters *must* happen on Wednesdays. There's no way around it; the date is such a requirement that, last I checked, you can't even try to schedule the event on any other day of the week through the Wizards Event Reporter or the WPN website. Wednesday, quite frankly, is a terrible day to do anything... Those of us that don't have 9-5 jobs most likely have school that day and the next. As a parent I would have a hard time letting my son spend four hours or more at a game store in the middle of the week.

And now Wizards is seemingly threatening stores: I don't care how you do it, but get some players playing or else we won't send you the good stuff.

I thought about this a bit, and have a few suggestions:

  • Allow the sanctioning of any event: I think this can be done already, but WPN doesn't talk about it much. They continue to push the products they publish, and just don't have a framework for anyone who decides to play their own campaign. If WPN encouraged this sort of play with some sort of reward, players may participate more without being restricted to either the Encounters season or the Lair Assault Of the Month.
  • Allow the availability of Encounters and Lair Assault materials to anyone, even at a price if necessary: If I want to start running Lair Assault, I have to prepare for it: register as a WPN Event Coordinator, wait for WotC to call the store and verify information, get approved, sanction the Lair Assault event, wait for the materials, and then run it at the store. That took me upwards of several weeks, which is not practical for a spur of the moment game I may want to run (like if I just showed up at the store). There is no framework for someone who wants to play it whenever, wherever. I would be willing to even buy the Lair Assault set from Wizards themselves (instead of paying $100+ for it on eBay).
  • Allow anyone to be an "independent" event coordinator: Right now it's not possible to register as an event coordinator without being associated with a store, so if I am registered in store "A" it's not possible for me to report events in store "B". Let people who want to run your games do so, and give them the support they need without tying them to a store.
  • Allow events to be run on any day: I have yet to hear a valid reason as to why Encounters must be on Wednesday. Magic the Gathering has "Friday Night Magic", which is a prime date and probably one of the reasons MtG is so hot. At my FLGS, they get 100+ people on each Friday easily. If I was able to run Encounters on Saturday without WPN calling me a heretic, I would; for now I have to report the Saturday players on Wednesday's entry - which appears as "Delinquent" in the Wizards Event Reporter until I d0 - and that just doesn't feel right.
  • Let the store, not the event coordinator, get the materials: Right now Encounters and Lair Assault materials get sent to an individual on behalf of the store. If that person goes in to the store, picks up the materials and disappears, the store no longer has the tools needed to run the session even if someone volunteers. I've lost count as to how many times I've walked in there willing to run a session but not having the tools to do so. If the stores themselves can get the materials, they can hand them off to anyone that walks in the store ready to DM.
  • Do not threaten to cut off your customer: Telling a store that you will not send them materials if they don't have the customer base is a really bad idea; they need the materials in order to get the customer base in the first place. If trust is an issue, have the store or the event coordinator pay for the materials until the store has sufficient players to merit getting them for free. Do not tell them you won't give them materials; the more you do that, the less they'll actually be able to do what you want them to.

In the meantime, I'm hoping the next season's materials come soon... But I admit I will probably not run it at the store myself. It's virtally impossible on Wednesday, and on Saturday it's hard to fill seats (especially with the 800lb gorilla that is Magic the Gathering taking up most of the play area).

Filed under: 4e, DnD, RPG 3 Comments

Fear of Birds

DISCLAIMER: The below talks a lot about the mechanics in D&D 3.5e. I, as I say below, am not as familiar with 3.5e as most of you so I'm sure I' probably making several errors and incorrect assumptions. I'd really like to know what I'm doing wrong.

Recently I had the opportunity to play in a Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 play-by-post running of A Dark and Stormy Knight (level 1). We have a few other players that were relative newcomers, so I chose to fall back on what could be considered the harder of all the classes to play: the wizard.

First, two things about me:

  1. I have not played D&D 3.5e in decades years, so I'm a bit rusty.
  2. I don't ever play mages. My specialty is rogues, with rangers being a close second.

So I went through the motions of creating my first level character, a half-elf named Zedric with a neurotic raven familiar named Quoth. Due to personal time constraints I didn't have much the opportunity to flesh out a back story, so I tried to focus on the character sheet.

After creating my character, I came to a somewhat shocking conclusion: if you're a 3.5e wizard and survived long enough to make it to level two, it must be a bloody miracle. Wizards must be dropping like flies everywhere.

I'd heard jokes about how mages can be killed by house cats, but I never had the math to back it up because I never bothered to stat up a wizard and have him go toe to toe with a cat. Now that I have the opportunity, I decided to crunch the numbers and analyze something... What if Zedric the wizard had to fight his own raven?

Logically, it might seem like no contest; the wizard could incinerate the bird in a flash with any number of spells. But let's assume he's already fired off his six spells for the day (three at level 0, three at level 1), so all he has is his trusty quarterstaff to bash the bird's brains in.

Let's analyze our two competitors:

Zedric: AC 11 (AC 10 flat footed), 5 HP, Quarterstaff attack is at a -1 attack bonus for 1d6-1 damage (minimum 1).

Quoth: AC 14 (AC 12 flat footed), 2 HP, Claw attack is +4 for 1d2-5 damage (minimum 1).

So let's look at the two attacks. In order to knock the bird out, Zedric has roughly a 30% chance of hitting (-1 atk vs AC 14, needs a 15 or higher). And if he does hit has a 67% chance of causing enough damage (3 or higher on the d6) to drop it to zero. 33% of the time, it'll require two hits.

On the other hand, the bird hits the wizard 70% of the time (+4 atk vs AC 11, needs a 7 or higher) and does 1 point of damage, so he has to hit him 5 times.

I'm genuinely afraid of my bird turning on me. This thing can eviscerate me!!!

A cat is similar - same AC, same hit points, same attack modifier - but gets two claw attacks as a full round action, so he can drop the wizard in 3 turns. OK, so cats *are* much more dangerous. Who knew?

All the above assumes the wizard runs out of spells and has to resort to his actual weapon. Although a 1st level wizard's spell repertoire would be enough to deal with a stupid bird, anything larger than that and you may have to resort to running like hell. Let's look at the spells I chose:

Level 0:

Ray of Frost: 1d3 cold damage in a 25' range. It's a ranged touch attack, so I'd be a +1 attack aiming at the bird's AC 14.

Flare: Ooooooo...

Presitidigitation: The single most unappreciated cantrip in D&D 4e. How is this not an at will?

Light: Hey, I gotta see where I'm going.

Level 1:

Burning Hands: 15' cone, which isn't very big (similar to a Close Blast 3; let the record show that Burning Hands in 4E is a Close Blast 5). 1d4 fire damage, DC 15 Reflex save (raven gets a +4 to Reflex save, so he has a 45% chance of saving) for half damage, which might still be  enough to drop it 25% of the time.

Magic Missile: Automatic 1d4+1 damage. Bird doesn't stand a chance.

Mage Armor: A wizard's only decent protection against birds and cats; grants +4 to AC, so the bird's hit chance drops from 70% to 50%.

That's it. That's all I got. Seven spells, with 3-4 of them specificlly for combat. Given enough enemies and bad rolls from the rest of the party, I could conceivably burn them all in one combat and be forced to whacking things with a stick soon.

So unless the party takes extended rests every encounter or two, the wizard is going to get annoyingly useless right quick.

Am I missing something here? Is there some design aspect I've missed that makes wizards more durable and not such paper tigers?


I'm very familiar with D&D 4th Edition, and this scenario is unthinkable; wizards are comparatively beefy and have on average 25 or so hit points. It is highly unlikely for a standard monster to "one shot kill" any PC (in player-versus-player situations, it's definitely possible... See Fourthcore Deathmatch). In 3.5e I have to stand near, and preferably behind, one or more "meat shields" to avoid getting dusted by even the slightest threat... but in 4E I can go crazy and not worry about the occasional hit. In 4E I can fall head first in to a 10' pit and not even get bloodied, but in 3.5e I'd be leaving quite an impressive blood red stain on the pit's bottom.

I've heard many say that that's by design, that a wizard is such a weakling at low levels to compensate for being an arcane god of destruction at higher levels. Really? That's balance? What good is the hope of being an uber-wizard if you're going to get killed by the first pack of rats you come across?

As people discuss the upcoming D&D "Next" (DDN, as I call it), there's been talk about bringing back the Vancian magic system, which is arguably the direct cause of the above problem. But apparently they are considering at-will options so the mage doesn't have to humiliate himself beating at rats with a stick.

Filed under: 3.5e, 5E, DnD, RPG 2 Comments

Appeasing the Ones Who Matter

If you're like me and not yet part of the "D&D Next" (referred to as "DDN" from here on) playtest, in the past week or two you've probably been curious for some information on it. And when you went looking for it, you hopefully found a source of good information (EN World's "D&D 4E Info" page, Critical Hits, even Sarah Darkmagic's Joining the Party articles on the WotC site, etc.) and did not fall in to the abyss of despair that is the Wizards of the Coast online forums.

As you've come across information regarding DDN, you've probably formulated your opinions on whether you like or dislike what you hear. Most of you may have withheld your opinions, and some of you may have expressed joy or concern through some of the comparatively discrete venues (Twitter, for example). But some of you - especially those that disliked something they heard - took it to the extreme and began writing with an intense, seething hatred of all things DDN.

Wizards of the Coast has a seemingly ambitious goal: create something that appeals to everyone. But if you have ever been on the Internet (if you're reading this, I imagine you have) you know that it's virtually impossible. No matter what the topic is, there will always be someone who hates it and will be very vocal about it. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Wizards of the Coast forums; there's actually a thread there that lists individual topics in their most generic fashion ("ability scores", for example) followed by a long list of how many forum goers thing it's "good" or "bad" as described  in DDN. Everything has multiple people that disagree with it, no matter what the topic may be.

WotC needs to make a choice: for each and every element of DDN they have to decide one way or the other how it's going to be implemented. And no matter what they choose, they're going to upset somebody. So how they decide how to implement things? Majority vote? Board meetings with marketing folk? Dart board? D100? How do they decide who to appease?

The answer is simpler than you think... The group they must appease first and foremost is themselves.

I'm going to sidestep for a second and ask a general question to everyone that is reading this: if you currently have a job, do you enjoy it?

Some of you, like me, might actually enjoy their job. And, as a result, you are constantly doing whatever you can in order to make the job experience better. You show a level of enthusiasm in what you do that is unparalleled, and you love walking in to the office in the morning. Needless to say, you're a rare breed.

Now many of you hate your job, and only work for the sole reason of getting a paycheck on a regular basis. While working you can't think of anything beyond when the next break or the end of the shift is. Some of you have given up to the point that you make no effort to improve the situation, so you slog through one work day after the next without trying to better what you see is a hopeless cause.

Picture yourself as a Wizards of the Coast employee, working on the design and development of DDN. How would you feel if you're forced to create a game you dislike? Wouldn't you prefer a game that you enjoyed enough to want to contribute to its growth?

I myself have been a game developer creating a game I disliked, and it was a miserable depressing experience. As soon as the game was done, I honestly didn't want to have anything to do with it, and moved on to my next project without looking back. This is exactly the sort of the thing we don't want from WotC; we want them to create a product that they themselves are enthusiastic about so that they continue to support it enthusiastically. The more the creators enjoy the project, the more it shows in the end result and in subsequent product releases.

So what am I saying with all this? You all are welcome to voice your opinions on the good and bad parts of DDN, but please do not forcibly insist that they do things a certain way just because you want it that way. If WotC capitulates to every request and ends up creating a product that they are internally not big fans of just to make everyone happy (which, as I said, is impossible), future support for it will suffer. Since the design team at Wizards of the Coast knows more about game design than pretty much any of us, I'm pretty sure they already have the tools needed to finish DDN in its entirety. Let them do what they enjoy, and through that enjoyment let them put every ounce of enthusiasm they can muster in to the final product.

And, when that's done, thank them for it. Only then will you see DDN grow in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

Filed under: 5E, Design, DnD, RPG 2 Comments

Cartographer’s Guild Mapping Challenge

A few weeks ago I decided "this was the month I was going to do it," and by "it" I meant participate in the monthly Mapping Challenge posted by Cartographer's Guild. Kind of thankful I didn't think that way last month; it involved making an actual, physical diorama.

So today this month's challenge was posted:

This months challenge is to take an existing board game and give it an update and maybe a cool twist as well. Battle Ludo, Orkish Chess, Steam Punk Monopoly, Lizards and Stairs - what ever fun idea you can come up with - just remember to use an existing game as "base".

In the beginning, there was concrete...

I was worried for a bit, but I decided to roll with it... And have decided to use the game "Clue" (or "Cluedo" to you non-Americans) as the basis for my version of "Dungeon Clue". I assumed it existed - actually, while I was writing this very post someone pointed out the existence of Clue: Dungeons and Dragons - but that's not stopping me.

My goal is to try and document the process in some sort of tutorial format as the map progresses. It will not be easy since I do not have any drawing ability, so the map will have to be created entirely through the use of ProFantasy Campaign Cartographer 3 clip art and whatever visual effects I can pull off inside of the Adobe CS5 Master Suite (Fireworks, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc...).

I will of course have to make some adjustments. For example, I don't know of many dungeon lairs that will have a "Billiard Room" (then again, I'm sure one of you out there has had one at least once), so I will be choosing rooms to fit the theme and decorating them accordingly. I don't know what they will be yet.

Whether I go as far as making actual game mechanics I cannot say, but if I do I will try to make said rules game neutral: they won't be D&D, Pathfinder, etc... I don't want to start a whole new wave of Edition Wars for a board game.

Now, in and around all the other crap I have going on these days, let's see if I can pull this one off...

Filed under: Design, Maps, RPG No Comments