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


WotC Announces Digital Tools… AGAIN.

Cavern of the Damned is now available for Pathfinder (through DriveThruRPG) and for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (through the DM's Guild)!

God, has it been *that* long since I posted anything here?

fvD4bT9FMy year has been kind of chaotic, to say the least... but leave it to Wizards of the Coast to announce something that might just bring this blog back from the dead: at PAX, WotC announced D&D Beyond, a new suite of digital tools being created by Curse to support D&D 5th Edition.

Wait, what? You mean you've heard this story before? Well... about that... Time for a history lesson.

Background: The History of D&D Licensing

In the days of 3rd Edition and 3.5E, WotC created the Open Gaming License (OGL, for short) so that publishers can create D&D content. Soon the market was saturated with content, and everyone was reasonably happy.

But the OGL created something that blindsided WotC: Paizo went through the OGL with a magnifying glass and, soon enough, Pathfinder was born. Suddenly there was a new player in town that directly threatened WotC's crown as the king of fantasy RPGs. WotC was terrified, and from that point forward they became more protective of their content than ever before.

When 4th Edition (4E, for short) came around, WotC decided to close the door on the possibility of such a thing ever happening again, so they discarded the OGL in favor of the Game System License (GSL, for short). The GSL did allow some publishers to release material, but it was heavily restricted and had several limitations as to what you can actively publish. Yes, you could continue to publish things using the OGL, but besides certain things you could not include legally (creatures that were part of WotC's "intellectual property") you could make no mention of WotC or D&D at all. Many were forced to do silly things like say their product was "compatible with the 4th edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game" (a claim that itself was in doubt due to the rise of Pathfinder).

Then there's the whole situation regarding the digital world... At the beginning of 4th Edition some of the core books were available in PDF format, but WotC quickly realized that they had no control over their distribution and weren't making as much money off them as they could. They were, in their eyes, losing money. So they yanked all the PDFs, took a step back in to the dark ages and pretended PDF technology didn't exist at all (some argue that this is the same reason why Dragon and Dungeon magazines were terminated; there was no way to make reliable money off them). Only recently, with the appearance of the DM's Guild, did PDFs return... and with such an absence of PDFs that was fostered over so many years, the demand for PDFs exploded and it was a rousing success.

For 5th Edition, WotC decided to go back to the OGL, but there's still an air of uncertainty as far as digital tools. It's not that people can't create the tools... it's that people are afraid to. WotC legal is a nasty foe to have (trust me on that), and many that have tried to create online tools before were violently shut down. There's such a cloud of uncertainty around digital tools that no one dares to do them for fear of WotC's wrath.

The Beginning of Digital Tools: 4th Edition

Prior to 4th Edition, in what you can arguably call the early days of the internet, WotC didn't have many digital tools to speak of to support 3rd Edition and 3.5E. Creation of such tools was in the hands of third parties, who could freely create these tools under the conditions of the OGL.

When 4th Edition's GSL came around, the GSL had a specific clause added that never appeared before: third parties were explicitly denied creating any digital tools or applications using the 4th Edition ruleset. WotC seized on the opportunity to create the tools themselves, and DDI (D&D Insider) was born, where WotC would charge a monthly fee for users to access their digital tools.

There's just one problem with that: WotC is not in the business of creating software (with the growth of Magic the Gathering Online, that has recently changed... but, even so, MtG's their golden goose). It never was, nor should it ever be. Yet they tried, and the results were disastrous.

At first they created a standalone application to create your characters, but WotC quickly realized there was no way they can charge a monthly fee for something that can be used offline. So they abandoned the standalone application in favor for an application hosted on their website. And to give you an idea of how much of a mess that was, do an experiment: go find any experienced software developer you know and see how they recoil in horror when you say the word "Silverlight".

Almost as soon as 5th Edition was announced (to be honest, I don't remember the exact timeline here), WotC announced that the 4th Edition tools would no longer be supported and would eventually be abandoned entirely. This went along with the new mindset WotC had: basically pretend that 4th Edition never happened.

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Chapter One

DISCLAIMER: The following is based on discussions I had with someone who, for now, asked to remain anonymous. Since WotC legal has me on speed dial, I cannot elaborate on where they got this information, but I personally trust it.

Trapdoor Technologies was a modest company that had an interesting product: a way to get content online and hyperlink the ever loving crap out of it. Admittedly, not a lot of people were using their app in the first place, but it was a nice idea at least.

But there's one thing that made them different: they were gamers. Basically the entire upper level staff at Trapdoor were heavily in to RPGs (they were the first group to ever playtest a product of mine, Cavern of the Damned for Pathfinder). And they saw that their tool would be a really cool idea to use for RPG content.

So they took a shot and pitched their idea to someone (I don't know who) at WotC, and that person at WotC loved the idea. At first Trapdoor only suggested the product they had - hyperlinking D&D content - but WotC is the one who asked Trapdoor if they can do that *and* create a character generator to boot. Trapdoor, a company with not much of a development team to speak of, agreed to do just that without having any real idea what they were getting in to. Contracts were signed, Trapdoor got some funding to begin development on what would end up bring Morningstar/Dungeonscape, and spent six months developing the product before its announcement at Origins.

Thing is, Trapdoor seemed as much of a developer "shop" as WotC was in the 4E days. They seemingly had no idea what they got themselves in to, and had nowhere near the infrastructure and resources to deliver a product of such scope. Prior to this they hadn't even created an Android app at all ever, so they immediately had to run around and find the developers to actually do that (I have to admit, I offered my services to them to do that). When someone brought up desktop support, they were equally flustered.

During this time, Trapdoor was in constant conflict with WotC over pricing. Trapdoor wanted to price the tools themselves cheap, preferring the users to spend the money on the actual books. WotC, for who knows what reason, wanted to go the other way: they wanted to add micro transactions *everywhere*. For example, they wanted to charge $1.99 for each class and each race you wanted. But, so long as the funding continued and the fans seem so like what they were doing, Trapdoor pressed on because, after all, they did have WotC's blessing to continue... right?

After GenCon of that year, in an act that should come as a surprise to no one that has dealt with WotC before, everything changed.

Apparently, the person at WotC that was dealing with Trapdoor was working autonomously, and had not even bothered to run it up the chain of command. In other words, 600K and six months were spent developing Morningstar while the upper echelon of WotC management - and, specifically, WotC's branding and legal departments - had no idea it was happening.

As soon as the "powers that be" found out, chaos ensued. WotC immediately demanded that they remove the books from Morningstar, which was the whole reason the project was green-lit in the first place. Without the book content, Trapdoor lost the only thing that WotC had apparently agreed upon, and they were left with not much of a product after that.

Trapdoor panicked and tried to renegotiate a new pricing deal with WotC, but WotC didn't see the future in the same way. Not only did WotC immediately terminate the contract, but they effectively threw Trapdoor under the bus and chastised them for "not meeting WotC's expectations." Trapdoor was thrown like a discarded bone at the fans, and they mercilessly tore into them.

Trapdoor tried to stay afloat, but there was no wind in their sails. In the eyes of the public, they failed. As a company, they didn't last long before their investors pulled the plug and shut them down.

Trapdoor still owes me $14.10 for Cavern of the Damned, but I'm not bitter...

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Part Deux

And here we are...

Trapdoor was effectively an indie startup that was barely staying in the black, but Curse is an established software development company with over ten times the staff (141 employees, at least according to their company profile). Curse is also owned by Twitch and has multi-platform products out there in the marked that are used by tens of thousands of gamers, so they've arguably done this before.

But Curse is that and only that: they actually are a programmer "shop". I have no doubt they can create a good product that would be easy to use, but they are only creating a front end for WotC's content. WotC has absolute say in how much access to that content costs, and as we've described above: when it comes to the digital realm, WotC is still in the dark ages.

Based on a Reddit post by the product lead at Curse, it looks like WotC is leaning towards the micro-transaction route that they tried to ram down Trapdoor's throat. So expect to pay as much for a 5th Edition character class as you would for a handful of hearts in Candy Crush.


I have confidence in Curse being able to make a decent app, but this project might be doomed from the start because of WotC's pricing model. I remain cautiously optimistic that WotC will see the light some day and change their ways. We can only hope.


“Revenge of the Kobolds” is out!

RotK covers, by Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg

RotK covers, by Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg

After languishing in a self-imposed "development hell" that lasted about two years, my pride and joy... Revenge of the Kobolds... is finally released! FOR FREE!

The product is made even more awesome through the cover art by Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg!

Now, if WotC would get their act together and release a 5th Edition license maybe I can convert this module to 5th Edition and make it even MORE awesome! I'm also debating converting it to Pathfinder and/or 13th Age, time considering... We'll see if I can ever get around to that.

Revenge of the Kobolds: DM's Guide

Revenge of the Kobolds: Player's Guide

And, like I said, it's FREE! So GO GET IT!!!


Did you know that there’s a Dungeons and Dragons slot machine?

DISCLAIMER: Company names and external links on all external communications have been omitted from this article. Proper names of individuals have been changed to protect them.

That title might sound completely unlike anything I've ever written on this site... and you're right, because I didn't write it.

Several weeks ago I got contacted by a company that was willing to pay me to post articles on my site.

Here's the first email:

Hi David,
I hope you're having a great day! My name is Samantha and I'd like to submit an editorial piece for your website, rpg.brainclouds.net.
We have a team of writers ready to prepare a post written according to your site's topic, whilst adding references to our client. We are also able to pay an administration fee of $100 for your efforts in publishing the article.
Our aim is to contribute an article that adds value to your website and something that you and your readers may find useful and entertaining.
Please email me back if this is something that might interest you, David.
I look forward to working with you.
Samantha Smith

*NOTE*: "Samantha Smith" is not their real name.

A subsequent email explains how this would work...

Hi David,

I sent you an email about providing an article for your site. Have you read it and had time to think about it?

To repeat, we can send over a well-written content created specifically for your site. The post would also contain references to our client.

You will also receive an annual payment for your effort, paid promptly through PayPal.

Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you.

Samantha Smith

"Yours"?!? Man, they're trying to sell me their body already?

So here's how it works: they send me an article, I post it in its unmodified form and leave it on my site for 12 months, and after 12 months they PayPal me $100. Sounds easy, don't it?

I, like pretty much anyone who's ever owned a meaningful blog, has probably gotten a fair share of requests like this. But has anyone ever done anything besides instantly hit the DELETE key and carry on with their lives?

So, for the sake of journalism and because I haven't posted an article here in millennia, I will take that challenge!

Now, if you're reading this you know what this site's content is about... but I couldn't help but wonder if they knew that. Furthermore, their article will contain links to their clients, so I can't help but wonder (1) whether they even can write an article about D&D, and (2) how they would railroad their existing clients into said article.

So, for curiosity's sake... or perhaps for amusement's sake... I decided to play along. I had some questions of my own before I proceeded.

This is my email to them, complete with shameless shilling of my fan base and my lack of time to post anything productive:

Well this is an interesting offer, I admit. I haven't had much a chance to post a lot recently, so really could use some articles to maintain my fan base (over 2,000 followers on Twitter!).
I do have some questions, though:
1) I currently do not have an active PayPal account due to collection problems with PayPal. Is there any other payment option?

2) Is it $100 per article or per year? If the latter, how many articles does that $100 include?

3) Do I have any right of refusal for articles you submit that I may deem inappropriate to post?

4) What kind of clients do you represent?

5) Do you have a company website, or somewhere where I can see examples of articles you have written?

6) Do you even know what my site's topic is?

Thank you for your interest. Maybe we can work something out after all.

Now, just to be clear, I could care less about the answer to questions #1-5... I wanted to hear their answer to #6.

And they did not disappoint...

Hello David,

Thanks for getting back to me and I'm more than happy to answer your queries.

1. We make our payments only with Paypal and Skrill/Moneybookers. We find these two channels as the most safe and efficient. If you don't have a Paypal account, you may also sign up with Skrill/Moneybookers, or we can transfer the payment to a friend or colleague of yours that has Paypal and we'll just cover the Paypal fees.

2. The fee is for just a single article which we would ask for you to keep on your website for 1 year.

3. The article is subject to your review and approval prior to publication.

4. The article will include a few references to our client, a digital entertainment company offering online games. You are free to review the article first to see if it suits your site and readership.

5. Yes, you can find more information about us here: http://letsgetwise.com/about-us/

6. The article we aim to contribute is written according to your site's topic - Game Design and /or D&D (video games)

Please let me know if you wish to see the article and I'll ask our writers to prepare the copy. You may also specify topics that you prefer so that I can pass them on.

I await your response.

Now there's two things to note in the above.

  1. Their client is a "digital entertainment company offering online games". Remember that description later...
  2. I'm a "game design and/or D&D (video games)" blog. Well, asctually, that's closer than I expected them to be so I'll allow it.

So far, there's no risk to me. They write me an article, and I get to choose whether to post it or not, and it doesn't cost me time or money. If anything, it costs me personal pride and ethics... but that's worth the $100 I'll make a year from now, right?

I, of course, had more questions before I commit to this...

I'm still considering it, and I am interested... One final set of questions, along with the request to see a sample of what they would intend to post:

1) Is there any sort of contract that would be involved in this?

2) Are there any restrictions - legal or otherwise - as to what I can and can't do outside of this one article (which I assume I can't alter) on my own site?

Beyond that, I would love to see the type of article I should expect from this sort of thing. If it really works out, I'd be more than happy to do this setup more than once; my site could use the content.

Thanks again.

The reason for question #2 is, if I do decide to post it, whether I'm allowed to bash it mercilessly in a blog post the next day. I could care less about the $100 in a year... this has comedic value now!

Hello David,

I hope you are well and my apologies on the delayed response. We don't have a set of terms and conditions or contract. All we would ask from you is to keep the article on your website for at least 12 months. Again, you are also free to review the article and make necessary adjustments to match the tone and style of your writing, however, we would ask you to keep the hypertext and links originally included when the article is sent.

I should be able to send the draft for your review within the next couple of days. If you have any editorial guidelines or specific topics in mind that you wish for us to write or avoid, please let me know so I can pass them on.

Talk soon

At this point, I couldn't wait for the monstrosity of an article they were going to send me!

Today I received the article. After looking at the post and the supporting links (we'll get to that later), I told them that I would not continue with our arrangement... but, of course, I'm going to post their jewel anyway. For free, 'cause I'm such a nice guy.

Here it is, in its entirety but with the links removed.

Title: Did you know that there's a Dungeons and Dragons slot machine?

Yeah, totally sounds like something I'd write. Oh boy... this is going to be good...


This was the image provided for the article.

In May 2014, legendary game developer Konami launched two slot machines themed after Dungeons and Dragons namely "Conquests and Treasures" and "Enchanted Riches." (link removed) According to the games’ description, both have a 4-level progressive feature, free spins, and Xtra Reward.

To those who aren't familiar with slot machines, 4-level progressive is a fancy term used by game developers for bonus rounds, which can be triggered after playing a slot machine for a certain period of time. Bonus rounds usually yield bigger winnings than the payouts given by regular spins.

Free spins is pretty much self-explanatory. They award free games, and can be unlocked when a player hits 3 specific icons from a single spin. Xtra Reward, on the other hand, is Konami’s original slot feature that is offered to players who bet big.

Now, who would’ve thought that a lot of casino-goers are fans of the world's leader in tabletop role-playing game? According to G3 Newswire (link removed), guests actually waited in line when the game was launched at the Valley View Casino and Hotel in San Diego. Apart from cool prizes from the event organizers, each guest was given an official action figure patterned after the slot machines’ fire-breathing dragon model.

“The players we see this day and age are out looking for entertainment, and there’s a lot of entertainment value in the new Dungeons & Dragons slot machines,” said Randy Reedy, the Vice President of Valley View’s slot operations. “They really enjoy the experience. Just watching them, they get excited about additional bonuses within the free spin feature, which takes them to the progressive functionality. It’s very fun and interactive."

Today's young adults are usually the target of slot makers. This is evident on An Online Casino (link AND name removed), the world's first online casino that opened in the late 90s, having games that carry with them the commercial license of DC Comics and several other movie franchises. Perhaps there are already enough slot machines tailored for the more mature audience so slot developers are now trying to expand their market by attracting the younger demographic.

Check out the DnD Enchanted Riches game in action on this YouTube video. (link below)

So the "digital entertainment company offering online games" is an online casino... I mean, I expected something like that, which is why I was curious how they were going to railroad that kind of client into an article about D&D, but thanks to Konami they had a reason.

And, you know, I actually considered complying with their request, posting it as-is, and bashing it tomorrow... but something really rubbed me the wrong way and forced me to tell them "no" immediately and make this post.

What was it? Well, here's a video of the machine being demoed:

Let's face it, we can't expect a SLOT MACHINE to capture the feel that is D&D (what's with the playing card letters and numbers?!?). And I have to wonder if Wizards of the Coast is actually aware that this is what was going to be done with their brand and signed off on this.

But about 0:30 in we get this jewel:

"...but it's not really hardcore Dungeons and Dragons. It actually, what we found, is it appeals to both men and women..."

*headdesk!* ... *headdesk!* ... *headdesk!*

You know, I just can't accept that.

So I immediately said goodbye to the $100 I couldn't wait to spend next year, and sent them an email that I "would not proceed with our arrangement".

Well, at least I got a blog post out of this...

Filed under: 4e, 5E, DnD, Games, RPG, Uncategorized No Comments

Discipline Magic

NOTE: This is a brain dump. I admit I don't have all the final details on this.

Yesterday I had an idea for a new magic system, so I found myself writing up some of the basics at around 3am.

The reason for the new mechanism is the way that I see the current world of magic: there is little room for specialization. Let's say you want to become a pyromancer, someone who really likes lighting stuff on fire. You don't want to beat around the bush learning non-fire spells for the first several levels... You want to jump right in! "You want to be a pyromancer? Excellent! First you have to master ray of frost first!" ... Why would I want to do that?!? I want to light stuff on fire!!!

Furthermore, let's assume you do become a pyromancer of sorts. Over time your skill improves, but right now it's only shown in a handful of spells that involve fire and the only thing that increases in those spell is the number of dice you roll for damage. At high levels you should be able to control fire in any way you please, yet you are still bound by the spell list someone else defined for you.

So here's what I envisioned: let's say you want to be a true pyromancer. At 1st level, you immediately gain a modest fire attack that does 1d6 fire damage at range. As you gain levels or through alternate methods, you gain "spell points" (or "SP" for short) that allow you to enhance this basic attack or get other abilities. You can increase its intensity, turn it in to a burst attack, make it light things on fire, attack multiple targets, etc... etc...

So, for example, here's the basic options you can improve your basic attack with:

Fire Scholar
Effect: You gain a fire attack. The attack has a range of 50' and deals 1d6 fire damage for every intensity level when it hits. When you first choose this discipline you must choose whether the attack is a ranged touch attack or requires a Reflex save (DC 10 + Int modifier + 1/2 intensity)
Enhancement (Max 10): You increase the intensity of the fire attack by 1, up to a maximum of 10d6 damage.

Fire Burst
Requirement: Fire Scholar 4
Effect: You can turn your fire attack into an area of effect attack. You can choose to reduce the attack's intensity by 1 to instead attack every creature within a 10' radius. A Reflex save (DC 10 + Int modifier + 1/2 intensity) negates the damage.
Enhancement (Max 5): For each enhancement level you can further increase the area of effect by another 10' and decrease the intensity of the attack by 1, up to a maximum of a 50' radius at the cost of 5 intensity levels.

Enhanced Fire Burst
Requirement: Fire Burst 3
Effect: Once per day, when you make a fire burst attack you can choose to have the attack deal half damage on a successful Reflex save (DC 10 + Int modifier + 1/2 intensity).
Enhancement (Maximum 5): For each enhancement level you gain one additional use of the enhanced fire burst attack per day.

Requirement: Fire Scholar 2
Effect: You can choose to reduce your fire attack's intensity by 1 in order to set the target on fire. On a successful hit the target gains the "burning" condition and takes an additional 1d6 fire damage at the start of each turn. The burning effect does not stack; if used on a target that is already burning it has no additional effect.

Elemental Barrage
Requirement: Any Elemental Scholar 6
Effect: You can make your elemental attack against an additional target, distributing the intensity between them. Before making an attack, choose two targets and distirbute the total intensity level between them. The damage does not need to be distributed evenly.
Enhancement (Maximum 5): For each enhancement level you can attack one additional target, distributing the base attack's total intensity amongst all targets.

Long Range Casting
Requirement: Any Elemental Scholar 4
Effect: You can choose to reduce your elemental attack's intensity by 2 to double the range of the attack.

Precision Casting
Requirement: Any Elemental Scholar 3
Effect: Once per hour, you can choose to reduce your elemental attack's intensity by 2 to increase either the attack roll or the save DC of the attack by 2.
Enhancement (Maximum 5): Fr each enhancement level you gain one additional use of precision casting every hour.

Each of these options will cost a certain amount of SPs.

Note something in the above: I don't specify what the fire attack actually is. It could be a bolt of fire, or it could be spontaneously generating a fire on the target, or it could be calling in to existence a large, flaming trout that slaps the target across the face. It doesn't matter what it is... mechanically, it all works the same.

This allows the player to describe how their fire ability manifests itself. So let's say you have an Intensity 3 Fire Burst 2 attack (3d6 fire damage to all targets within 20', 10 SP cost)... that's effectively the fireball spell. Or a flame strike. Or a really big flaming trout. How it looks visually is irrelevant and now up to the player's own creativity.

This also has an added benefit: the "spell points" reflect training, but leveling up need not be the only source of them. Let's say you find a really good arcane text in a dungeon, something that teaches you additional secrets on how to be an elemental caster. Studying that book at length can grant you 2 SPs, which you can immediately spend to improve your skill.

Also, the above allows you to either specialize as a "fire only" caster or make a highly diversified caster. At level 20 you can either be dealing a 10d6 fire attack (as an at-will, mind you) or you can spread out your SPs in pyromancy (fire), cryomancy (cold/water), storm mage (electricity/thunder), and others. Other disciplines could be necromancy or even straight up physical damage where your basic attack could be anything from magic missile to disintegrate.

I've been considering tying the above to a mana mechanism as well to limit the frequency that it can be cast. Like I said above, having a 10d6 fire attack that's an at-will could be pretty nasty... but is that really an issue? At 20th level a wizard is literally an arcane turret of destruction that could probably cast half a dozen 10d6 fireballs (maximized, even) on a whim.

I still need to figure out how to work in the non-escalating, non-damaging spells (things like charm person, sleep, etc.) or support spells (mage armor, shield, etc.) in to the above. I'm also considering upping the SP counts and gain per level so that a wizard can diversify more. For example, if they gain 4 SPs a level they can choose to gain 4 brand new weak spells or pile them all in to one discipline to really beef it up.

All this is in the works, rolling around in my head as I work on other projects. Maybe I'll write it up officially some day...



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.