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


The Mathematics of Fixed Damage

Ever since I conceived the idea for creating A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I've been debating whether to use fixed damage values for the monsters and traps or not.

The general consensus is that using fixed damage values speeds up the encounter, primarily because mathematics becomes simpler. You don't have to read a handful of dice, add the modifier and figure out the total; it's one nice round number. No more fistfuls of dice!

The problem with using that premise in 4E is that the number is pretty much always the same. First off, when converting a monster's damage roll to a fixed number you kind of have to use the average of the damage; using anything other than the average wouldn't make sense (this is not taking "difficulty" in to consideration... we'll get to that later). But an inherent aspect of 4E is that, for any given level, all the monsters average the same amount of damage. That's by design in 4th Edition.

Damage, By the Numbers

As a point of reference, here are the average die values as presented in my 4E Dice Roller and in Sly Flourish's Die Roller:

Minion: 7 damage
Low: 10 damage
Medium: 14 damage
High: 17 damage
Limited High: 21 damage
Hardcore: 28 damage

Based on that, the first problem I have with using fixed damage would be that every monster would cause 14 damage, so for argument's sake let's make it a nice round number like 15.

Everything becomes 15 damage. Again, that's by design in 4th Edition; doing anything contrary to that risks unbalancing things. Sure there might be some exceptions to the rule - some things might do 10, some things might do 20 - but all in all it's the same average damage, over and over again. While creating my monsters for A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I actually got sick of writing "15 damage" in almost every stat block.

Critical Hits

One issue is how to handle critical hits. Gone are the days of the "ghetto crit" that could happen now; statistically speaking, a player is over three times more likely to roll maximum damage on a d6 (16.7%) than rolling a natural 20 (5%), so at low levels and players who may not have magical items a critical hit borders on being meaningless. So what do you do with critical hits and fixed damage? Double it? Add a die?

I thought about doubling the damage, but is that really "special"? With fixed damage, that's not much different than hitting twice. I tried to mitigate it by adding critical hit effects to monster powers, but sometimes  it feels like a lot of excess work.

Characters, By the Numbers

To figure out the effectiveness of fixed damage I decided to compare the above values to two different characters that would be playing such an adventure. Considering that it's a 6th level adventure, I created the weakest character I could think of (level 6 human wizard w/ 12 Constitution = 42 HP) and the toughest I could muster (level 6 dwarf battlemind w/ 21 Constitution and Toughness feat = 71 HP).

Using 15 as the base damage, it would take three shots to knock the wizard unconscious and five hits to drop the dwarf. That's arguably acceptable, but the problem becomes apparent when you realize that the wizard doesn't need a 12 Constitution... He could have a ONE as his Constitution (31 HP) and it would have the very same effect: he'd be at 1 HP after the 2nd attack and drop on the 3rd.

This means that the Constitution value - unless it's your primary stat - isn't as important. In the above case, if I knew the end result would be the same I'd consider leaving my Constitution as an 8 and boosting all my other attributes. After all, what's the point? It's not like a "lucky" damage roll might hurt... Spending the points to up my CON by 4 could be considered a waste.

I also compared the damage to the players Fourthcore game I'm currently participating in, who happen to be 6th level: we all have 60, 48, 51, 50 and 63 HP (average 54.5 HP). Using the 15 damage base rule, four out of five of us would get dropped in 4 hits. Despite the disparity in HP (12 points between the highest and lowest of the four that would be dr0pped), it all boils down to AC and not HP.

Time, By the Numbers

So, strictly from a mathematical perspective, I'm starting to not like fix damaged. But the question is: does it really improve play speed? With fixed damage do encounters blow by so quickly that it's worth the lack of randomness?

Many have pointed out that fixed damage improves combat speed considerably in epic tier, where you can expect pretty much any attack to use no less than 4 dice. And god help you if you crit, 'cause then you might be wheeling out five more dice. Oh and Sneak Attack, so there's four more. Or Hunter's Quarry. Or Warlock's Curse. Or assassin shrouds. Or this... or that... Bonuses galore. The days of throwing a bucketful of dice to determine damage are not forgotten. And it's not like past editions where the mage might have to roll 40d6s worth of damage every now and then... that's pretty much on every attack.

But we're not talking about epic tier here; we're talking about level 6. For the most part, all damage rolls end up bring at most two dice, maybe three. If everyone does what I do and rolls damage at the same time as the attack, does the math really take that long to do? I'm a mathematics and computer science major, so that math is pretty easy for me, but I can't speak for everyone else at any given gaming table. Help me out here... How long does it take you?

So I've been trying to think of how to quantify this. Let's try to figure this out; please let me know if my logic is horribly , horribly wrong:

  • I assume the average combat takes four full rounds, and there are five players against three DM controlled monsters. That's, on average, eight attacks going on in any single round (I'm balancing lack of attacks - such as for Second Wind or other support duties - to compensate for opportunity attacks, granted attacks and minor action attacks from monsters). That's 32 possible attacks.
  • Let's assume 70% of those attacks hit. Given the attack bonuses, that seems like a reasonable expectation. Rounding up, that gives us 23 attacks that require a damage roll.

So time to do a little testing.

For testing purposes, I'm assuming the attack and damage rolls are made separately. And here's what I did:

Time Spent Finding Dice: If your weapon always deals the same die's worth of damage, that die should not be far away. So I'm estimating the time to reach over and grab one or more of these dice, separate from getting the necessary d20, at about 5 seconds.

That, in my opinion, is high - I spend that amount of time looking for the dice inside of my bag, so I can only assume you don't have an idiot player that stows his dice after every roll - but we'll roll with it.

My test subjects.

Rolling Dice and Adding: I grabbed my box of dice and picked some test subjects; I chose d4s because they are the hardest to read when thrown (they can't technically be read from directly above), and to compensate for the low number I got six of them. I also got one d20 that I will roll prior to starting the clock to determine the modifier I would be adding to the die roll; for example, if I roll an 11 on the d20 my damage roll will be 6d4+11.

After twenty rolls using this style, I averaged 8 seconds per roll. Because, let's be honest, math comes easy for me I'll double that number for the purposes of this test. So let's leave it at 16 seconds.

Applying Damage: The time spent to apply the damage does not change whether the damage itself is fixed or not, so it has no bearing on this test.

So let's round things off and say that for each damage roll the player spends 20 seconds. Let's add 50% and make it an even 30 seconds. Multiplied by the 23 attacks that hit you're looking at 460 seconds, or just under 8 minutes in every encounter.

Eight minutes an encounter, and that's a high estimate in my opinion... Is that really such a big deal, especially considering how long 4th Edition encounters take now?

Personally, I don't see that as enough time to justify it, but that's just me. I'd love to hear if anyone out there has had different experiences.


In the end, I'm still not sure. I'll continue to use fixed damage simply because I started that way, but it's not all that hard to change at this point.

What do you think? How do you feel about it, good or bad? Do you use it? Is it simply a matter that combat just feels quicker when there are less dice, even though it might not actually be significantly faster?


Maze of Possibilities

Hedge maze from "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
(c) 2005, Warner Bros.

There is one part of A Night in Seyvoth Manor that I've been having problems designing for a while: a hedge maze.

You see, this maze is intended to be huge with changing walls and paths, so that aspect alone makes it virtually impossible to represent on a tactical map. Not to mention that navigating such a thing on a physical map is somewhat of a time consuming process and this module's designed to be lean and run in a single day, so I've been looking for a means to make it fairly quick and painless.

After thinking about it and throwing the question to the Twitter collective, I decided to make it a sort of card game. There will be some progress cards (+1 point), neutral cards (no points or failure), threat cards (+1 failure), a few treasure cards and one "bonus" card. The DM would go around the table, asking each player to draw a card; the player can do so or try a skill check (hard difficulty) for a peek at several cards and pick the one of them, returning the rest to the deck. The objective: get "X" points before "Y" failures.

That all sounds well and good, but there's a problem: how do you determine "X" and "Y", and how do you determine what the deck consists of? How "rich" should the deck be on either side to ensure the party isn't drawing cards until the end of time or drawing every card in the deck? Although there are a certain amount of assumptions that can be made - for example, there *must* be at least "X-1" progress cards (the bonus cards counts as 2 points) and "Y" threat cards - but beyond that there's a whole lot of variables that makes it difficult to gauge the difficulty of the challenge.

My solution was to write a program in C# (.NET 4.0) which, given certain criteria for deck building (number of cards of each type) will perform random draws and determine the success/fail rate. This allows me to run several thousand iterations of the challenge and tweak the numbers as need be. It's the closes I'll get to actual playtesting, and one could argue it's even better because it's doing thousands of iterations.

So, for example, given the following guidelines...

  • The "main" deck contains 6 progress cards, 2 neutral cards and 4 threat cards.
  • The "secondary" deck contains 2 progress, 4 neutral, 3 threat, 2 treasure and 1 bonus card. Every time a card is drawn from the main deck, a card is taken from the secondary deck to replace it and the deck is reshuffled.

...I currently get about a 34-38% chance of success (across 10,000 iterations). The average number of card draws is a little over 9, which means two full passes around the table in a group of 5. To compare, chance of success in a complexity 2 skill challenge is lower than that.

In addition to that, players will average 1.5 threats per challenge, will get at least one treasure about 30% of the time and will get the bonus card about 13% of the time. That sound acceptable. but the convenient thing about this little application is that I can tweak the numbers and see how they impact the percentages. Heck, I even simulated a skill check to see how much of an impact it has (one skill check increases the chance of success by almost 10%).

The only concern right now is the lack of player skill being a determining factor. I am going to allow skill checks so that PCs can draw two cards from the main deck and decide which of the two they want to keep, but that's all I can think of right now. The challenge ends up being more about luck than anything, which I guess isn't such a bad thing but I'm trying to think of a better way to actively engage the players.

Do you have any ideas on how to approach something like this?


Disclaimer: I've been told that there is a labyrinth in the Fane of the Heresiarch from SVD Press. I'm currently an active player in a play-by-post version of that at Grind 4E, so I have purposely avoided reading that module and do not intend to spoil myself until the adventure is over. Those are the sacrifices we must make...

Note:  One A Night in Seyvoth Manor is released, I will probably also release the source code for the above application. Just in case you're curious or could use it for something similar.


Design Considerations for Seyvoth Manor

So development continues on A Night in Seyvoth Manor... I'm not 100% sure if it'll be ready by Halloween but I'm doing my damnest to get it done in time. And the first release will probably be for 4E only; I can't imagine myself having the time to convert it to other game systems before Halloween, but I do intend to convert it to at least Pathfinder/DnD 3.5e.

From the beginning I intended this to be a moderately-sized campaign but still be playable in a single session, so I've been using some of the Fourthcore design philosophies made famous by Sersa at Save Versus Death. The module is not encounter heavy - to be honest, I can only think of three or four required encounters right now and they're not all that big - and focuses on exploration and Zork-like acquisition of certain items needed to advance. In and around that there are many ways to die, or at least suffer a great deal of pain.

My only hesitation in calling it a true "fourthcore" module is that one of the tenets in 4C is that it be "bleak". Allow me to quote from the "What is Fourthcore?" page on Save Versus Death:

The world in which fourthcore adventures take place is an unhappy one. Tyrants stoke the flames of civilization with the ashes of criminals, rebels, and the many who have succumbed to the ravages of plague and war. Priests offer the blood of heretics and infidels to violent, jealous gods. All that lurks in the darkness between empires loathes humanity, and the ‘heroes’ that venture out to face such threats are little more than murderers, zealots, and privateers. Alignment is a meaningless concept and thus is not used in fourthcore.

My design goals in this module is to emphasize some of the tropes in your typical Halloween: a haunted mansion with some very bad things in it (don't want to give too many spoilers!). It's not a pleasant place by far, but there are no demons, tormented souls writing in fire or priests bathed in the blood of infidels. And, in an indirect sort of way, I do use alignment to some degree.

Secondly, I don't know if I'm "over the top" enough. Again, quoting SVD:

Fourthcore adventures are brought to life with extravagant threats and adventure sites that are both evocative and gruesome. Realism and coherency are pushed aside in favor of the outrageous, entertaining, and chaotic.

"Entertaining"? Maybe. "Outrageous" and "chaotic"? I don't think I'm quite there.

Beyond those issues, I'm using the same design style. Things hit hard, and there is most definitely the possibility of death in the air (even though I don't think I've written a "save or die" situation yet). There will be treasure cards, but I'm questioning whether I'll make rumor cards or not. And there isn't a time limit, but bad things will happen if you take too long.

So what do I call this thing? It might be designed with some of the same guidelines, but in my opinion it's definitely not a fourthcore module. I do not want to weaken the brand name that is 4C by billing my product as a part of it.

The only thing I can think of is referring to it as a "challenge" adventure, along the same token as Revenge of the Kobolds. Of course I will give Sersa V. credit where credit is due, but as much as I'd love to be part of the 4C movement I don't think I'm at that level just yet, so I'll leave the "fourthcore" name to those that have earned its use and I'll continue to do my own thing.

"A Night in Seyvoth Manor is a Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition challenge adventure made for a party of 6th level characters"... Yeah, guess that'll do.

In the meantime, I've been dropping some teasers through Twitter (@BrainClouds)... I am having a lot of fun with it, so it's hard for me to keep quiet about it. In any event, stay tuned for more!


Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Even though "Revenge of the Kobolds" is still in development (Kickstarter launch pending, and due to other financial obligations I can't officially hire my artist yet), I had the strong urge to do something special for Halloween. So I've decided to create an arguably short adventure that could theoretically be run in a single day, using some of the design concepts seen in some Fourthcore products but not necessarily with the same level of difficulty or over the top situations. I wanted something simple and fun that could be played in a single four to five hour session.

As seems to be the case in a lot of my products, I'm torn on the name. I wanted to use one of my favorite zone names from Everquest as the title - The Estate of Unrest - but I'm not so sure. The only other name I came up with so far is A Night in Seyvoth Manor, which is kinda cheezy... but that's not exactly a bad thing. With the amount of tropes I'm rolling in to this one, maybe cheezy is the way to go.

The premise... Kinda hacked together and needs a lot of work, but still:

Few people in the village of Ravenshire spoke of the manor atop the hill to the North, and even fewer dared approach it. After the horrific events that happened there so many years ago many believe the mansion and the estate grounds to be cursed, haunted by the restless dead, and some of the village residents could swear they have seen movement and lights coming from the seemingly abandoned mansion.

Throughout the years the village has had its share of disappearances; most of them had been blamed on the harsh environment of the surrounding forest and the natural dangers of the world we live in, but recent evidence leads to the doorstep of the Seyvoth estate. And when the two young daughters of a prominent noble go missing and the village sends out search parties to the surrounding area, two separate search parties that passed through the iron gate at the entrance to the estate have yet to return.

Now a local mystic warns of the danger looming in the manor, how the noble's two daughters will soon be led towards the darkness and turn against the village they once called home. Are you brave enough to step through the gates and seek out the missing search parties and the two noble daughters? Are you willing to unravel the mysteries of the Seyvoth Estate, even if it means risking your own life and sanity?

The first version of the adventure is for a party of 6th level characters, using the Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition rules. I am considering converting it to Pathfinder and other game systems (13th Age, Dragon Age, DCC, etc.) as well, but I'm not sure if I'll have the time to do that before Halloween. There aren't many encounters and the focus is primarily on exploration, so it may not be all that difficult to convert to any number of game systems. It is inspired by the Everquest 2 zone The Estate of Unrest, which has a few Zork-like puzzles ("...find object 'x' to gain access to area 'y'...") and some pretty memorable encounters.

And if you're familiar with the EQ2 zone, as much as I'd like to do it there will probably not be a "bomb in a bag"-like encounter... But there just might be a Bugaboo! 🙂

As it relates to 4th Edition, I am considering using fixed damage from all monsters and traps simply to expedite the game. 13th Age uses it, I believe, and I've considered trying it out for some time now. We'll see if it works out.

I've also gone ahead and written up sanity/insanity rules, loosely based on the rules that exist in the D20 SRD. Problem is that I'm not so sure to what extent I'll be using them... by design, those rules are made for Cthulhu-like horror, which isn't exactly the type of horror I'm going for here. My plans involve classic horror tropes - vampires, skeletons, ghosts, etc. - so it may not have the same level of mental impact that the traditional Lovecraftian horror does. I'll probably be publishing those rules on their own soon, then choose later whether I want to actually use them or not.

Whatever this adventure is called, I'm hoping to release it before Halloween.

As for Revenge of the Kobolds, we'll see when I can sort my life out in order to get that out the door. Currently waiting on my 6"x9" printed proofs to arrive and for my financials to settle so I can buy art. Stay tuned!


The Off Pitch

The time is upon us once again: a new submission window has just started for Wizards of the Coast and DDI!

And... and... I'm drawing a blank here.

The Thrill of Victory

Now I know how some of you think because I'm in a similar boat: getting something published in Dragon or Dungeon magazine would be really, really cool. It's an acknowledgement, a nod by a major gaming company that shows you actually created something worthy of their attention, so much so that they actually PAID you to do it! Not only that, but whatever you write will be read by lots of people! Players worldwide could potentially be using your content in their own private games! Your name will become a synonym for "awesome"!!!

Maybe I'm exaggerating that last part a bit, but you get the point. And I'm not saying that everyone's like that, but since I'm kind of already a self-publisher it's starting to look that way. I mean, I can already publish any content I want and it'll be seen by... well... a few people... So the only thing that DDI brings is a higher level of exposure and acknowledgement.

And money, let's not forget that. You can't buy a boat with it, but it's something. I admit that, had I received a check from Wizards of the Coast I would have probably not cashed it, choosing to encase it in plastic and make it a really cool paperweight. But, in case you all aren't aware, WotC doesn't send checks; they use direct deposit to pay you.

The Agony of Defeat

There's a flip side to acceptance: the agony of rejection. I have to admit, compared to other publishing venues in the world the folks at Wizards of the Coast do a fantastic job of rejecting your idea. Where most publishers will send you a "No. Just... No" form letter, WotC actually goes in to vivid detail as to why they are not interested in what you're proposing. There's an actual human responding to each and every email - I've received rejections from at least four different people at WotC in the past - and unless your idea is completely bats%#@ insane they'll add a fantastic personal touch to the message explaining why they are not interested at this time. I've never seen a company say "no" in such a nice, professional and constructive way. Even if they really want to say "good god, man... what the hell were you thinking?", they'll be nice about it.

But, regardless of how nicely they put it, some people see the rejection as a soul crushing defeat. Even if they respond "we like it, but we're doing that already", it'll feel like you're idea has been thrown in to the Abyss. If they don't like it, nobody will! You just have to look at the numbers to realize it... Every submission cycle WotC receives tens of thousands of submissions and only accepts a hundred or so. Where are these submissions? We should be up to our eyeballs in independently published content for 4th Edition, but instead these ideas are thrown away and lost.

The Publisher's Dilemma

Now I have to admit something: I have an article in the pipeline. I don't know when it might get published, or even if, but it's out there... sitting in either the "to be published" or "shred with extreme prejudice" virtual bin on a WotC server. And, yes, I did get paid... but printing my online bank statement, cutting out the single line that recognizes the wire transfer from Hasbro/WotC and encasing that in plastic just doesn't have the same flair to it.

That article was accepted about eight or nine months ago. Quite frankly, I freely admit it wasn't my best work by far, but I still look forward to the day that it might get published. At midnight on the last day of every month I eagerly open the new Dragon and Dungeon table of contents to see if my name is there yet, only to fall away in despair when it's not.

I know what you might be thinking: "you got paid, right? What does it matter?" ... Well, if you're like me you're not thinking that but somebody out there is. It all goes back to acknowledgement; until I see my article in print, the payment means little to me. It almost feels like I got paid to be silenced, especially since I legally can't publish it on my own now. Heck, I'm pretty sure I can't even mention the article's contents at this point. Until the world sees the article, the payment almost feels like hush money. And, at $0.06/word, it turns out that it's pretty cost effective to shut me up.

Because of my first experience with publishing something in DDI, I'm now hesitant to do it again. If I submit an idea now, it might not see the light of day until 5th Edition is out... and what's the point then? At this point I'm not worried they'll say "no", but I'm concerned of how I will react if they say "yes". Can I take another nine months of waiting for the article to be seen, hoping that it'll be published while 4th Edition is arguably still relevant?

And then the business person in me chimes in: "you're already a publisher! What do you need DDI for?" Admittedly, self-publishing is a lot more work and doesn't get anywhere near the level of exposure that a DDI article gets. And, even though WotC doesn't pay much, it might not make as much (I've only had one product sell well enough to be worth it, and of course it's the product I can't sell anymore and can't talk about. You know, that one...). Some people might write for recognition or for profit, but I write because I enjoy it.

The fact that I'm drawing a complete and total blank this time around doesn't help either. I have some big campaign ideas, but they are all beyond the scope of anything that would ever get published in DDI. And I am terribly bad at writing lore (I struggled on the lore like you wouldn't believe in the aforementioned article of mine), so I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing no matter how cool the idea might be. I just can't think of anything to submit right now.

But, sooner or later, I'll submit something. Because, god damn it, I want to see my name on that Dungeon table of contents!


In a completely unrelated and surprising note, "The Heart of Fire" was recently reviewed on ENWorld and got 4 out of 5 stars!

Two things I learned from that review:

  1. Interior art is important. I really got to do something about that.
  2. I'm not charging enough for my products. I've always been bad at gauging the worth of what I do; when one enjoys it so, it's hard to try and gouge people with the price. Many say I should raise the price, but I probably won't.