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

13Mar/17Off

WotC Announces Digital Tools… AGAIN.

***SHAMELESS PLUG***
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.

Conclusion

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.

1Apr/13Off

DLI Acquires DnD Next Video Game License

DLIName_60

"Omne ignotum pro magnifico"

If you've been following this blog, you know that we have had our fair share of communication with the legal department over at Wizards of the Coast, and as a result we have not only learned a great deal of what we can and cannot do as far as licensing but we have been able to figure out exactly who the right person to talk to is in order to get the necessary licensing agreements in place

Several months ago, after a great deal of negotiations (most talks of which started with the words "now please don't sue us, but...") we have managed to talk to the right people and sign the proper agreements to do what we thought was impossible: secure a provisional license to use the Dungeons and Dragons brand name to create the next state of the art video game based on the "DnD Next" rule set. The official press release can be read below:

Official Press Release by Darklight Interactive (PDF)

Since we are not authorized to be direct competitors to the upcoming MMORPG Neverwinter by Cryptic Studios, our product is a single player campaign that will be a traditional delve through a dungeon. While we have had a group of professional, well known writers working on the story - most of which you are familiar with, but we are not allowed to disclose names yet due to Non-Disclosure Agreements - I and a group of experienced software developers have been working on the engine.

Since we do not want to take funding away from Wizards of the Coast and would rather they spend the resources they have to get "DnD Next" developed and released, in a few weeks we intend to launch a Kickstarter project to fund the development of the final product. We did not want to launch a Kickstarter before we had a "proof of concept", and unlike some other companies we do not want to launch a Kickstarter to fund said "proof of concept". So we have been developing the engine on our own, on our personal time and at our personal expense, in the hopes that it can show the world what we're capable of and more easily reach our goals once the Kickstarter launches.

After further negotiations, and painstaking work over the past few months to get it in running condition, I have been authorized to release our first "proof of concept" (which we refer to internally as an "alpha" build) for The Caverns of Mayhem: A Dungeons and Dragons Adventure (tentative title... we'll let the writers come up with something better) that you can download below!!!

Download The Caverns of Mayhem: A Dungeons and Dragons Adventure (ZIP)

The game engine is not exactly a direct port of the "DnD Next" ruleset simply because, as is the case in Neverwinter, a lot of the rules don't exactly port flawlessly from the tabletop to a video game. But it has everything you've come to love about D&D: it's got dungeons, it's got monsters, it's got treasure... and, heck, it's even got a dragon!

The "proof of concept" which you can download below has been developed for Microsoft Windows (we're investigating a Mac port, but none of us actually own a Mac so we'll probably have to wait for funding on that) and requires nothing more than the .NET Framework 2.0. It is not graphics intensive so it should run on pretty much any machine; in fact, for those of you with inferior machines our game will probably run significantly better than Neverwinter because the hardware requirements are much lower. And, thanks to proprietary compression technology, it uses a lot less drive space!

As we mention above, it is a very early "alpha" build and has some known issues. And, since it's an "alpha", I ask that you do not start reporting bugs in it; we pretty much know what most of them, and have tried to document them in the "readme" file included with the distribution. Please read that file prior to launching the game so you understand what to expect and are aware of the aspects of the game that have yet to be completed.

We here at Darklight Interactive are entering an interesting time, and we would like to thank everyone at Wizards of the Coast for giving us the opportunity to use your license. We hope that, after looking at our proof of concept below, you support us and await our upcoming Kickstarter launch.

Thank you all for your support.

Download The Caverns of Mayhem: A Dungeons and Dragons Adventure (ZIP)

Requires Microsoft Windows operating system and the Microsoft .NET Framework v2.0
(c) 2013, Darklight Interactive - All Rights Reserved
Dungeons & Dragons, D&D, Neverwinter, Wizards of the Coast, and their respective logos are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast LLC in the U.S.A. and other countries, and are used with permission. Hasbro and its logo are trademarks of HASBRO, Inc.
Please don't sue us.

6Apr/12Off

In the Works

First off, I now see why D&D wasn't to keen on my "Drizzt for President" items... Today they announced Rise of the Underdark at PAX East. Amongst the items they were giving out there was a "Lolth 2012" button. My timing is impeccable, isn't it?

Anyway, whereas a few days ago I had zero ideas on what to create next, in the past few days I have three I've decided to pursue:

  • A D&D 4E Fourthcore-style delve called... er... Something of the Crystal Something. OK, so I haven't decided on the complete name yet, but "crystal" is involved; that much I know. I was considering making it an epic adventure but I have almost zero experience in doing anything epic (only epic things I've done are bits and pieces in Items of Legend) so I'm kind of afraid, so the adventure will be targeted towards a party ofg 15th level characters. Instead of doing the style of maps I usually do, I think I'm going "old school" black and white (blue and white?) for this one. This product will probably be distributed for free.
  • A drow-themed adventure tenatively called Den of the Dark Mistress. I've actually been thinking about this one for a while, and a lot of it is based on one section of The Coming Dark that was somewhat out of place in that module, so I'm recycling it. This adventure may be for both Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and Pathfinder, if I can find the time to get around to it.
  • A war-themed adventure for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. I honestly don't know what the adventure will be about, but I recently was flipping through the Heroes of Battle supplement for D&D 3.5E and I was inspired. I haven't decided who will be fighting who, but the execution of it will be more than tactical encounters; I intend to provide a variety of options - from skill challenge to roleplaying situations - so that players can work on getting the victory points needed to prevent their home city's destruction. This may be a ways out.

In addition to all of the above, I still have The Heart of Fire just sitting there, waiting to get some attention and for me to decide what exactly I'm going to do with it. For now I'm not going to do a Kickstarter for it like I had planned; I don't see it as worthwhile right now.

As you can see, I have no intention of completely abandoning the 4th Edition. The above projects are significantly smaller than the 130+ page behemoths that are The Heart of Fire and The Coming Dark, Chapter One, so I should be able to knock those out quickly.

I am also working on creating my own store front so I can offer products directly through my domain instead of always using Drive Thru RPG. I got PayPal integration and PDF digital signing done, and next on the list is Google Checkout and Amazon Payments. Hopefully that will be ready soon.

Finally, I have an idea orbiting my head about a full on RPG game I'm considering developing. One could say the RPG I have in mind has been done before, but I might do it anyway. It will be somewhat future-themed, and will hopefully fill the void in my mind and heart that was once Gamma World. I have yet to decide on what game mechanic to use, but there are several inviting options that I'm pursuing. If I decode to go on with this, then a Kickstarter will defintiely follow.

Stay tuned everybody.

"Ever forward..."

12Mar/12Off

A Hero’s Journey

A Hero's Journey

So I've sent The Heart of Fire to a few people who volunteered to edit it; I haven't heard from them in a few days, so either I've stupified them with my awesome writing or my writing is soi abysmal that I compelled them to jump off a bridge. You can never tell with these sort of things...

In the meantime, inspired by Thick Skull Adventure's upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure "Attack of the Frawgs!" (which I help edit), I had an idea for a level 0 mini-adventure. I would have written it for the DCC ruleset, but all I have for now are the "beta" rules. I could have waited, I know... But I'm impatient. Once I get an idea in my head I need to get it done and out there.

So I decided to create the module using the level 0 rules for D&D 4E that were documented by the "A Hero's First Steps: Rules for Level 0 Characters" article by Philippe-Antoine Menard (a.k.a. @ChattyDM) that was published in Dragon magazine #403 (DDI subscription required). Here is the intro, in all its vague glory:

    For years you have followed in the footsteps of your master, watching his every move and learning through observation and study. You longed for the day when you might actually be able to follow in his footsteps and become an adventurer yourself, basking in the fame and glory that comes with such an honor.

     One day, during what should have been a normal expedition for your master and the other members of his group, everything changes. You suddenly find yourselves alone, the only hope for a city in desperate need of salvation, and you must put what you have observed in to practice. Can you step up and become the hero you were destined to be?

It's very short - less than 20 pages - and really only has a couple of encounters. I designed it with roleplaying in mind, where the players can really get in to character when their simple level 0 characters are thrust in to danger and must deal with forces beyond their understanding.

The hardest part of this module was coming up with names... The city had three different names - an online random name generator seriously suggested the name "Cloverclover" - until I settled on the name Feldspar. It's a strange name I know, but I'm sure someone can come up with a good reason for it to be called that? And I also had to find a name for a pirate ship, and even though the online "pirate ship name generator" are far from appropriate, it did help me come up with the ship name as The Red Barnacle.

Anyway, you can purchase the mini-adventure A Hero's Journey for the low price of $1.99 at Drive Thru RPG!

Map Pack M3: Crypt Entrance

While I was creating the adventure, I ended up creating a tactical map that I really liked: the entrance to an underground crypt. So I decided to make that in to a high resolution image (200 DPI) and release it as a map pack. This new map pack, brilliantly titled M3: Crypt Entrance (I suck at names... sue me) is also available at Drive Thru RPG.

Once I feel comfortable about The Heart of Fire - which will hopefully be soon - that will be released.

11Jan/12Off

Pleading the Fifth

If you're reading this blog, odds are you're aware of Wizards of the Coast's announcement that the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons is currently in development.

I have refrained from posting about it because I didn't want to take part in all the rampant speculation as to what this version will entail. But one thing does concern me: the above announcement has the subtitle "Your Voice, Your Game" and describes how they will "gather feedback" to create a game "that you want to run and play."

In other words, they're asking the public what they want in D&D. This, quite honestly, could backfire.

Picture this: gather 100 random people. Now ask each of them what kind of toppings they want on their pizza. Many of them will like similar things, and there is the possibility that certain toppings might count for a significant majority... But there are going to be those that want the "weird" stuff - like anchovies or pineapple (yeah, I said it!) - and will insist that their choices are the best and not care what people think. They may even scream it out loud for everyone to hear, try to convince others that their choice of toppings are the best by explicitly describing their reasons, and rail on those that think otherwise and suggest that pepperoni on a pizza is almost as bad as murdering kittens. And there are going to be several that don't care, want a list of options so they can choose, are vegetarian, are lactose intolerant, are allergic to tomatoes, would rather have a sub, want pizza slices cut in to squares, etc... etc...

And then there are those that might want something totally oddball. For example, I know of at least one person that tried to convince me that squid on a pizza was a good idea. Really? Squid?!?

I trust the team that WotC has chosen to develop the next edition, and I know that they will do their best to create a game I and many others will want to play. But I do not envy their job; it's going to be a hard road to travel, filled with landmines and potholes. I trust they will see their way through it.

Now, what do I want out of the next version of D&D... As far as game mechanics, I'm not going to make requests. I liked 3.5 and I liked 4E, so I see no reason to hate the next version regardless of how they decide to structure it. I would much rather leave the discussions of mechanics to people more qualified to do so: designers and players alike that have played the game consistantly since the day it was created.

What I *am* interested in is the licensing aspects of the new version, and what may happen to the extremely restrictive 4E GSL. But there's a problem with that: although Cook and Mearls are in charge of designing the new game mechanic,  they are not responsible for the licensing. The licensing is in the hands of lawyers, an anonymous group hiding in the dark corners of WotC (or New York, as the case may be), and they are not the type of folk to ask the masses for suggestions on how they should license their money maker. But there has been hints that the licensing will be different, and I think that many of the non-lawyers at WotC realize the inherent flaws in the GSL, so there's hope still.

So what does this mean for publishing? As a third party publisher, we're now in a difficult situation. We could continue to create content for 4E, but in light of the announcement there mauy be several fans out there that would rather not invest in 4E - or abandon it entirely - in anticipation of the new version. Now I know that 4E isn't "dead" - there are at least three hardcover books on the schedule in 2012, so I don't think WotC is going to go dark with 4E content until the next edition comes out - but you have to wonder what kind of impact the announcement will have on their 4E product line this year.

Currently I have a few products currently in development:

  • The Heart of Fire, a 4E adventure for a party of 10th level. This module is 95% done; it only needs a few remaining scenes written up and I need to commission some artwork (including a map of the island on which it takes place). This will continue as scheduled, and if all goes well should be released within the next 2-3 weeks.
  • The Coming Dark, was to be a 4E adventure for a party of 1st level. This module was created almost a year ago, and since then I have learned a great deal about campaign design in the D&D world. As a result, I see a lot of flaws in its design (my main issue being that it could be classified as being "on rails")... so I intend to rewrite most of the module from scratch. As a result, I have decided to hold off this campaign until it can be created and released under the next edition of D&D. This of course means that it will not see the light of day for at least another year, but if it means it'll be a better product and fill the need for new content once the new edition of D&D comes out, it'll work out for the best.
  • There are at least three different module concepts I have floating around in my head right now. If they end up being small delve-like campaigns, I might release them under the 4E GSL as well. But I might also hold off some of them until I can begin their development under the new edition. We'll see how things go between now and then.

The next couple of months are going to be an interesting time. It'll surely be a fun read on Twitter, at least.

NOTE: As you may have noticed in the above, I try to refrain from calling it the "fifth edition" or "D&D Next" (as it is being called on Twitter). Right now it has no name, so I don't want to start referring to it by something that it's not. Hopefully we'll know what to call it soon.