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


Some 5th Edition Monsters

I've been recently re-tooling my campaign "The Coming Dark" with the hopes that I would launch a Kickstarter for it in the very near future.

One of the sections that I've completely rewritten is a scene where a bunch of drow would occupy a keep on the way to your primary objective. Although drow are interesting to some degree and challenging to a young party, after giving it a lot of thought they didn't really have much reason to be there. The BBEG was a high elf, so the thought of them working together was rather unlikely to begin with. And there wasn't any acceptable reason for drow to be wandering about the surface besides "elves are over there, and we hate them!"

Another reason I wanted to get rid of the drow is because of possible publishing implications. One could argue that drow are part of the OGL - after all, they're in Pathfinder - but the general consensus of it is that they are part of the D&D realm. Also, in order to fully comply with the OGL, I'd have to leave their lore out of it... and, let's face it, drow are kind of dependent on their lore. It defines who they are, and without it they're not much more than a mean elf.

So after removing them, replacing them with other creatures, I found myself with a few monsters I no longer intend to use. So, good samaritan that I am, here they are!

First off is the wood golem that I posted on Twitter. It's loosely based on the Pathfinder version, made into a CR 4 creature.

Secondly is the leader of the drow group, a mage named Draya. Originally she as a summoner because of where she was physically located in the adventure, but just looking at her stat block alone doesn't indicate anything summoner-like so I just left her as a plain ol' "mage".

Anyway, here ya go! Enjoy!

Leftover Monsters - Wood Golem and Drow Mage


The 11th Skeleton

With the release of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit and Player's Handbook, I have decided to convert my long languishing adventure "The Coming Dark" to 5E. But, unlike other publishers who will remain nameless, I am not going to rush it out there, and no one's going to see a thing about it until (1) the licensing options are given, and (2) the Dungeon Master's Guide is released.

That being said, I have started to try and figure out how 5th Edition works in terms of creating adventures. In 4E, creating balanced encounters was rather simple because everything was equally balanced - given an equal level, five monsters were an even match to five PCs - but that's not exactly the case any more. Now it's more like 3.5E and earlier versions, where a monster's difficulty is reflected in an obscure "Challenge Level" which is extremely hard to calculate. I mean, after you stat up a monster how do you know what CR Challenge Level to give it?

That led me to wonder about balance in general, specifically how balance is determined. 5th Edition had an unprecedented amount of playtesters, so they had access to a variety of groups that could test and retest things in the hopes that they could determine what is balanced and what is unbalanced. But there's an inherent problem with that: not every group is the same, and not every player is the same. If an exploit exists, it will take a small handful of "high end" players to find it... so if something is taken advantage of by so few, is it really a balance issue? Can the game be unbalanced by something you're not even aware of?

So I thought about how some things could be experimented with... and the programmer in me realized that this is no different than load testing an application. When you do that, you don't run it a few times and see what happens. You run it a LOT of times and get the average results.

So I decided to create a simulator.

Combat Simulator


In the first scene of "The Coming Dark", the players are set upon by a large group of skeletons. But how many is enough? At what point does the encounter go from being a cake walk to a crushing defeat?

So I wrote a program to simulate 50,000 combats between two groups: the five pre-generated characters that are included in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit versus an indeterminate amount of skeletons. How many skeletons does it take before the players are likely to be on the losing end of the battle?

The small little program I wrote takes a few considerations:

  • All the attacks are basic attacks. Every class uses its preferred melee attack except the rogue (which uses his shortbow) and the wizard (which uses the cantrip ray of frost).
  • The noble fighter and cleric are the "preferred" enemies of the attacking skeletons. These are the front line defenders, and likely the ones that stand between the skeleton and the wizards. Only when they both fall is the rest of the party at risk.
  • No high end magic of any kind. Needless to say this would quickly sway the encounter in the player's favor.
  • No healing. No action surge, no cleric healing, no potions, etc... again, this is something the players have that the skeleton's don't. This also means that the players will not use any limited resources during the combat.
  • No one gets advantage or disadvantage on any roll. For that reason, the rogue never deals additional sneak attack damage.
  • A natural 20 deals double the normal damage. I know this isn't precise, but it's easier to code.
  • All the damage is rolled; no averages are used.
  • The skeletons have an AC of 12 and 6 hit points each. They have a shortsword as a weapon, which gives them a +3 to the attack roll and deals 1d6+1 damage on a hit.
  • The PCs are the five defined in the starter kit: Noble Fighter (greatsword), Folk Hero Fighter (bow), Cleric (morningstar), Rogue (shortbow), and Wizard (ray of frost).
  • Since he deals bludgeoning damage and the skeletons are vulnerable to it, the cleric deals an additional die of damage on a hit. Again, not precise... but easier to code.


I ran 50,000 iterations of each combat, adjusting the number of skeletons from 6 to 12. The simulations yielded the following.

# of Skeletons PC Wins PC Losses
6 49258 742
7 47238 2762
8 42606 7394
9 35178 14822
10  26024  23976
11  17060 32940
12  9388 40612

So, in a nutshell, the 11th skeleton is quite the badass. Players could more or less handle ten of them, but when that 11th one steps in things go to crap pretty quickly.

So what did we learn from this exercise?

  • It's very possible for PCs to trash a modest amount of low end minions without having to fire their big guns.
  • The above doesn't use healing at all, which means that even if the PCs get dinged about a bit they are still able to recover. PCs can win an encounter with 8 skeletons over 80% of the time and immediately go into the next encounter.
  • Dailies, spells, healing potions and other consumables - things that the monsters generally don't have - tip the scales considerably in favor of the PCs.
  • If you walk into a room with 6 skeletons in it, you can probably dispatch them fairly easily. As glorious as it might be, you don't have to nuke the whole room.

Until more concrete guidelines for monster creation and encounter balancing come about, I'll keep using this simulator and try to get a feel for how things should be. Over time, I might improve the simulator more and more so that it's more representative of each PCs actions in an encounter. Who knows? Maybe this will end up being a full on AI framework?

I can't help but wonder if WotC does this sort of analysis. Like I said above, sure they have tens of thousands of playtesters but it's such a diverse group with so many different situations that it may be hard to quantify. Not to mention that, if you present a specific combat situation to two separate groups, 99% of the time you'll get two different approaches and two different outcomes.

Can't wait to try this out on goblins and kobolds...


If you're curious, you can view the C# source code for the simulator HERE.


A New Age

13th AgeRecently I was introduced to 13th Age via a Google Hangout play session hosted by Aaron R. (@WolfSamurai on Twitter). You can read more about him and his campaign HERE on Obsidian Portal.

If I was only allowed to say one thing about 13th Age is that the ruleset has the amazing ability to win over players and DMs alike in just one session. And I'm not the only one that is fascinated by the product; I've been seeing several people moving away from traditional D&D and Pathfinder towards 13th Age. Heck, even Sersa at SVD Press released a PDF of conversion notes for Crucible of the Gods.

So minutes after I participated in that gaming session, I ran to the Pelgrane Press website and bought the rulebook, and now I wait here patiently while the thing travels halfway around the world to reach me in Miami. While I wait I've been pouring over the PDF (the "low resolution" version is available immediately when you buy the book) and thinking about what to do with it.

First off, even though The Coming Dark, Chapter One is 80% done for Pathfinder, I'm seriously considering converting it for 13th Age. The #1 reason for doing that is because it's so much easier; monsters don't have these huge, mathematically complex stat blocks. So I can focus more on the story and the environments instead of spending days on end tweaking the monsters in PCGen. I am practically convinced that I will make the switch, but I'm waiting until I receive the physical book to make my official decision.

I've asked the guys that created 13th Age about licensing; if you've read this blog before, you know that is an important issue and a very touchy subject for me. Officially they're not licensing it out yet because the system is still in its infancy and they want to build up their own products before letting third parties do it. So, depending on whether I wait for licensing to become available or not, I might end up releasing it as simply "13th Age Compatible". I still need to figure out the legalities in that.

I'm also considering flexing my software development muscles and creating either a character builder or a monster builder, but for this sort of thing I can't proceed until I get the publisher's blessing. So that may happen eventually... I just don't know if or when.

In the meantime, if you haven't already I highly recommend that you at least try out a game. Aaron's running games online almost weekly,  I think, so I'd recommend hitting him up on Twitter (@WolfSamurai).

My hardcover's scheduled to arrive Wednesday. Barring legal limitations in doing so, I'm predicting I'll make the official switch then, so I expect I'll be talking a lot about it in the near future.


Going Primeval

This past week has been... "interesting"... to say the least.

First of all, if you have yet to vote on the 2013 ENnie Awards I highly encourage you to do so. And, while you're at it, throw a vote or two for me and Darklight Interactive, who are nominated in two categories:

  • Best Free Product: "A Night in Seyvoth Manor"
  • Fan's Favorite Publisher: Darklight Interactive

So go and vote, will ya?

ThuleSecondly, in light of a lot going on in the RPG world this past month I have been actively trying to get involved as much as possible. I obviously can't go in to specifics on everything else I'm getting myself in to, but I can speak about what has just been announced: I am now a contributor to the Primeval Thule campaign setting currently running on Kickstarter.

This is a really cool opportunity that I couldn't resist getting involved with. Not only is it a great looking product, but it's involving a lot of people that I respect and would give a major appendage up to work with on anything: Rich Baker, David Noonan, Stephen Schubert, Ed Greenwood, Owen Stephens, Christopher West, Todd Lockwood, Jason Buhlman and others. Not to mention the recent additions of Mike "Sly Flourish" Shea and Scott "The Angry DM" Rehm.

This is also, arguably, the first time I participate in a project of this magnitude and scale where I'm not the only person working on it. So it's wild to think I'll be rubbing elbows with everyone involved, especially considering they all have a helluva lot more experience than I do in this sort of thing. I'm excited beyond description!

The project, admittedly, has a long ways to go still and very little time, so I ask you to drop whatever you're doing, head over to the Kickstarter page and help them out in any way possible.


Long Overdue Update

Gosh, has it really been over three months since my last post?

Well, suffice to say that things have been somewhat hectic. I started a new job on April 1st and my work schedule has changed radically, so I usually get home extremely tired and not thinking about blogging. But I will hopefully get back to posting stuff soon once I get a little more available time.

Holy s%#@!!! We're nominated!!!

Holy s%#@!!! We're nominated!!!

But there's a big reason to celebrate! Darklight Interactive's A Night In Seyvoth Manor has been nominated in the "Best Free Product" category of the 2013 ENnie Awards!!! I admit I was counting the days 'til the nominations were released and was worried that I was building myself up for disappointment but, alas, there it is. So fingers crossed and let's see if we can win the thing, eh?

As for my development efforts, it's been somewhat of a mixed bag. I'd been working on Return of the Crystal Scion but I've become slightly disillusioned by it. As it stands now it has some areas that I'm rather proud of, but there are some monumental plot holes that I've been having a hard time filling. As a result, I have suspended further development on it. My intention is to take the larger parts of it - the Tomb of Iryk-Tep, the Sarafi tribe and their Caves of Wonder, The Obsidian Tower, etc. - and release those in some sort of side trek format. I also intend to release some parts that are simply too small for publication, such as my Sky Kraken creature for Pathfinder, here on this blog. So stay tuned for all that.

But recently I've been drawn back to my original campaign, The Coming Dark. I had already created it for D&D 4th Edition and it clocked in at close to 200 pages, but I now had issues with its initial design. You see, it was the first thing I'd ever done with D&D 4E - or with high end campaign design, for that matter - and it was somewhat "railroady". In a nutshell, I didn't like it one bit; I had a story in my head, but in my efforts to translate it to the game it just wasn't working.

So I've started a full redesign of it for use in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game system. I'm changing quite a lot of it, using the Pathfinder design style which allows me to be much more flexible in what I can do. I'm not bound by the 4E balance, or the 4E GSL for that matter. It will be distributed in three parts, each part containing three chapters (or acts... haven't decided). And I feel it's a lot, lot better now so we'll see how it goes.

I also have Revenge of the Kobolds still sitting on my hard drive waiting for me to do something with it. It still lacks art so I'm hesitant to publish it as is, but as days pass I'm getting tired of holding it back. One of these days I'll just say "the hell with it" and unleash it on the world... when that day comes, I hope you enjoy it.

Finally, I kinda said I wasn't going to do it but I'm creating another small adventure (5 encounters) for D&D 4th Edition called A Festival of Magic, which is a proposal I pitched to WotC but they apparently didn't like (they never answered me, but still). I'm going to do an experiment with this one: once I complete and release the 4E version my plan is to convert this to as many other systems as possible. Pathfinder... 13th Age... DCC... Dungeon World... AGE... etc... Figure it's worth a shot trying that once.

Anyway, I'm still around so hopefully I'll get back to posting often.