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


In Defense of Morningstar

MorningstarIn case you're not aware, the project formerly known as DungeonScape has re-launched on Kickstarter as "Codename: Morningstar". Now I haven't talked a whole lot about the product, and in the past I admit I have been a little critical of it at times, but I wanted to put in a few words about it in the hopes that some of you out there will help support it.

First of all, I have to admit something: as a gamer, I question how much I'll actually use Morningstar myself. I'm generally not a fan of digital devices at the table, mainly because they're usually too "fun" and distract from the play experience. But you can't really look at this product as something that can *only* be used at the table... it's much more than that.

Filling the Digital Void

Whether I personally use Morningstar or not is not as important as my feeling that I think a product like Morningstar needs to exist in this day and age.

Since I'm a designer more than I am a player, I see a major benefit to something like Morningstar: it's not only another avenue by which to distribute my product, but the product ends up being significantly more useful within the application. Hardcopy adventures and PDFs are one thing, but Morningstar promises to make anything you create interactive, far more than the traditional e-book is. It allows the DM to actually use the adventure and its content in a much more interactive fashion.

Also, and I think most of us can admit to this: we kind of need digital tools. As D&D grows and its content base expands, it becomes virtually impossible to maintain and reference. Pathfinder suffers from that now: there are a dozen core books with supplemental material, so do you wheel out an ox cart full of books every time you need to look something up? Probbaly not. Instead, you go to the Pathfinder SRD and everything is there.

Now, arguably, a D&D SRD would be enough for most... but this is the 21st century. You'd think in this day and age we would be able to get the tools needed to shape the content in ways we need, from players designing characters the way they want them to DMs tweaking monsters and building combat encounters the way he wants them. We criticize Wizards of the Coast for living in the stone age, but we don't embrace digital tools ourselves. We need these tools, in one way or another, to pave the way for a brighter future.

Barrier of Entry

One common problem with any version of D&D is how easily newcomers can pick it up. And creating a character has not always been such an easy thing... Heck, I'm not sure if I can create a character from scratch using just the book, and I've been doing this for a while.

A digital tool, either online or offline, allows a player to not worry about the math. It allows them to click a few buttons to get the character they want and run with it, without having to worry if they calculated their AC correctly or not. It allows them to get right down to the game without having to worry about any changes.

For example, one of your attributes goes up by two... Do you know all the other properties that need to be changed because of that? How easy would it be to miss one? With a digital product maintaining all the math, one click and everything's in sync. Any idiot can maintain their character, freeing their mind to focus on what is important: playing the actual game.

Electronic Distribution

I have this vision that Morningstar could potentially be the Steam of tabletop roleplaying: a means to distribute content much more intuitively than now. For example, right now if you buy a product on DriveThruRPG you get the product as it stands the moment you buy it. If that product goes through changes or updates, sure you can get it from DTRPG but there's no notification of it. Not to mention that you have to download another PDF and make sure the one you use is the right one.

Also, it allows for free content to be distributed much more readily and allows for immediate availability. You don't have to advertise it, you don't have to click a dozen links in order to get it, it's just... there.

The Sour Taste of Beta

I know what some of you are thinking... "Why should I back this when the beta was horrible?"

Yes, let's be honest... The DungeonScape web beta was abysmal. We know that. Heck, I'm sure *they* know that. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

At least Tiamat didn't suddenly drop dead... yet...

At least Tiamat didn't suddenly drop dead... yet...

First, let's get one thing straight: EVERY beta is horrible. They just are. I've done my fair share of beta testing, going as far back as Ultima Online (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Quake III: Arena (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Half-Life 2 (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Neverwinter (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Elder Scrolls Online (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful)... You sense a pattern here? And every time it's left a bad taste in my mouth, leaving me disillusioned about what the final product would end up being. Sometimes, rarely actually, my worries were right and the final product was a train wreck. Most of the time - as was the case with Half-Life 2, for example - the final product was fantastic.

That's the nature of a beta; it's an unfinished product that needs to be testing, and that testing goes on while development continues. It's not perfect... actually, it's way lower than perfect... but understand something about it: alpha or beta testing is not necessarily done to know what needs to be worked on, but how things need to be worked on. It's not done with the expectation of someone saying "XXX is broken", but rather with the expectation that someone will say "XXX is broken, but here's how it should be."

The DungeonScape web beta, quite honestly, should have not seen the light of day until months later... but I have a sense that it really wasn't Trapdoor's decision there. Wizards of the Coast is very traditional in their ways, and they had a certain timeline of when things were supposed to happen. They kept talking about these wonderful digital tools, building up the hype themselves, so they had a little bit of a problem in that they didn't exactly have anything to show for it yet. And Trapdoor was doing what they could, as fast as they could, with the resources they had...

Educated Guesses

...which brings up another issue: how do you build product "A", which is based on product "B", when you don't even know what product "B" is?

You see, at the time DungeonScape was being developed, the three core books didn't exist. OK, maybe the Player's Handbook existed in some capacity, but we all know the Dungeon Master's Guide didn't exist because that was the reason it was delayed: so they could work on it some more. So Trapdoor was tasked to create a product that would contain the functionality that was in a book that Wizards of the Coast didn't even finish writing yet.

Considering the limited time they probably had from the time they received content to the time it was available in the beta, I think Trapdoor did amazingly well. Especially considering that I doubt Wizards of the Coast did anything to make that transition easy for them.

The Elephant In the Room

The other concern many have is that they won't back Morningstar since it doesn't support D&D 5th Edition.

First of all, let me clear up a misconception that was circulating early in the Kickstarter's launch: it's not that Codename: Morningstar *won't* support 5th Edition. Wizards of the Coast has not told Trapdoor "no, you can't include 5E ever"... or at least I hope not, because if they did it would be one of the stupidest things WotC has ever said (and, let's face it, they've said some really stupid things in the past).

The truth of the matter is that we simply don't know: there is no 5th Edition license yet. Nobody knows what WotC is going to do, and only when the license is released will anyone have any idea whether 5th Edition will be available in Morningstar. If they go the OGL route it will most definitely be in Morningstar (and given that Trapdoor already has a lot of code sitting around already written, it should be an easy thing to do), but if they do something like they did with the 4E GSL - which explicitly prohibits software of any kind - then Trapdoor is up the creek. And, if WotC does do the latter, that will be yet another stupid thing they do, so I'm remaining optimistic.

Only time will tell whether Morningstar will support 5th Edition. I doubt we'll see a license before the end of the Kickstarter, but we could only hope.

In the meantime, Morningstar will support Pathfinder and - quite possibly - 13th Age. Many argue that this means they'll never use it because they don't run that game system... but I ask you to consider funding it not because of whether you'll use it or not, but rather fund the hope that the product will exist with a feature set that will make other game system publishers consider using it. Imagine a day where there would be a Morningstar for FATE... for Savage Worlds... for Star Wars... for Numerena... and, ultimately, for D&D 5th Edition.


Whether you think you'll use it or not, I ask you to consider backing Codename: Morningstar at some level. It's a product that, in my personal opinion, needs to exist and will hopefully pave the way for the future of digital tools in RPGs. They have a pretty lofty goal to reach, but their heart's in the right place.


A Developer’s Hell

Gosh, it's been a while... To say my life has been hectic, or difficult, is somewhat of an understatement. So much so that I have had to effectively cancel my trip to GenCon this year because I see no way whatsoever that it can be logistically or financially possible. So, to those of you that are going, I will have no choice but to experience it vicariously through you.

Meanwhile, my little pet project - the Atomic Age RPG - has been languishing in something I can only describe as "development hell". Or maybe "launch a Kickstarter hell", if such a thing exists.

Here are my concerns with the project:

1) I have no art

Right now, at this very moment, I can probably launch a Kickstarter, distribute or sell the product... but I can't bring myself to do that. You see, right now at it stands it's nothing more than a text dump, an almost identical copy of the Archmage Engine SRD with some words and numbers changed. That does not make for a successful RPG by any means, and I feel that if I were to do that the product wouldn't last a day before disappearing into obscurity.

If I'm going to do this I'm going to do this right, which means that I need some sort of art. And there are many levels that need to be covered by art...

  • I don't even have a LOGO yet
  • The Kickstarter listing alone needs some sort of art
  • The core book needs art. A LOT of art, quite frankly
  • Everything else (stretch goals, backer rewards, etc...) needs art

Now I know a handful of artists I want to approach with this project, and I have even had business-like discussions with them, but with all of them there is a cost to get this off the ground. Maybe some will do it free, I don't know... I didn't ask and I don't want to ask. Like I said, I want to do this right: I do not want contributions or charity. I'm going to treat this like a business, which means I will pay my artists what the market bears.

That being said, although the cost of prettying up the core book and supplementals will be covered by the Kickstarter itself, the logo and Kickstart art will not and has to be paid first. The financial turmoils I've already mentioned make that rather difficult to do, and I can't bring myself to take the next steps without knowing - without a doubt - that I can afford my artists.

2) It hasn't been officially announced

I've mentioned the project in passing, and have even posted images of some of the content I've been working on, but it hasn't really been officially announced. There's a website, and a Facebook page, and a Twitter account... but few people know about it.

Why not? I don't have a logo, and for personal pride reasons I feel I can't start officially directing people to the social media venues without having a product identity.

So, until I can do that, they stay clouded in obscurity and amidst the whispers of a select few.

3) It hasn't been playtested

Because it hasn't been launched, few people know about it. Even fewer have actually seen it. Actually, I can only think of two people that have, and even those two have probably only glanced over it, figuring I wasn't quite serious about this whole thing because I haven't done everything I mention above.

For that reason, I have no idea if what I'm doing is "right" or "broken". I don't know if I properly grasp the concepts and game style people expect or look forward to, or if I've created any single element that needs radical changing before it gets abused all to hell.

Granted, the playtesting could theoretically happen during or after the Kickstarter, but as a long time game designer it's a serious concern for me. I've had issues before with games that weren't properly tested... Sure, this isn't a video game, but I feel it needs an equal level of analysis and testing before getting anywhere near production.

4) It hasn't been edited

I'll be honest: I'm a lousy writer. And if you're a writer reading this, I bet you can admit (to yourself, at least) that in the early stages of your writing career you were a lousy writer too. Heck, there are probably several dozen grammatical errors and misspellings in this post alone (yes, I know they're there... No, don't point them out).

If I want to do this right, the game has to be the best that it can be, and for that an editor is absolutely necessary. Yes, I know that the editor can do his job pretty much at any time before the product reaches the final stages, but that would mean that the early "alpha" or playtest releases might end up looking like they were written by a child who can't speak English. Once again, personal pride steps in... You can be the creator of the best RPG the world has ever seen, but if you give it to the world using text that looks like it was written by a monkey with a typewriter it doesn't matter how good the game is.

5) It's not done

In the video game industry, there was a time when if you asked pretty much any video game developer when they were going to release their product they would answer without hesitation "when it's done" (I guess we can thank 3D Realms for that one). But the thing is, if it were entirely up to me and my creative flow, what exactly defines "done"? Honestly, I could keep writing content until the core manual is 3,000 pages. Who decides "OK, you can stop now and publish this"?

Furthermore, as many authors will probably attest to, it's hard to be satisfied with what you've written. When you think you're done, you look at it and think "you know, I didn't like [X]... let me fix that"... And six months and 400 pages of rewrites later you keep thinking the same thing. It's very hard for a writer to stop themselves because, in their eyes, it's never done... it's never perfect... and there's always room to do something better.

Let's look at the classic example of someone taking forever to write something: George R. R. Martin. Do you honestly think he sits down and starts writing page one, then as soon as he writes the last word of page 1,200 sends it off to the publisher and never thinks about it again? Heck no. Let's be realistic here, there probably is at least one version of The Winds of Winter that is already written cover to cover... He's knows it's terrible,  he's probably been writing and rewriting and rewording and fixing it for the last four years, and will probably keep doing that for another four years because that's the way he works. If he had someone that made him publish the books when they were ready, we'd have fifteen books in the series by now. They may not be as awesome as the five books we've seen (they'd probably suck, to be honest), but they'd be out there.

So unless you're George R. R. Freakin' Martin, eventually you have to put your foot down and say "OK, I might have spent five years rewriting this thing eighteen times, and I know it's probably the worst thing I've ever written, but I can't keep doing this until the end of time", send it to your publisher and hope that you're the only one that thinks it sucks.

I know a lot of things in my product are deficient, or "broken", or nothing more than a "// TODO" tag. It's personal pride again, preventing me from having anyone besides myself see how bad or lacking this product is. Every day I write something, even if it's a sentence or a paragraph or changing monster #135's Mental Defense stat... But I know that at some point I'm going to have to force myself to stop and let other people look at this mess.

Anyway, besides the personal issues I will not elaborate on here, I have a lot of things to do and a lot of battles with my own pride to overcome. This product will get done, sooner than later, and I just have to get my crap together to do it.

Until the Kickstarter launches, "ever forward..."


A Mutant’s Life

In case you haven't heard, I'm working on a new project. I'm bringing the apocalypse to the Archmage Engine!

Although I have a mental image for what I want this project to be, I've been curious as to what everyone else wants it to be. So I've been doing some research, acquiring rulebooks and reference materials for every other post-apocalyptic game system I can find. And, I must say, it's been somewhat interesting.


One thing I've seen addressed time and time again is the concept of mutations. In a post-apocalyptic world, where you have to watch your step or you might fall in to a crater of radioactive sludge, everyone has a mutation of some sort. Some might be cosmetic, while others might be unbelievable. But almost all post-apocalyptic systems seen to expect mutations to be present, and actually they are expected to be quite common.

Tables of Tables

Most game systems I've seen provide massive tables and pages upon pages of information regarding mutations, and how they function both stylistically and mechanically. For example, the one system I currently have open next to me has over 120 possible mutations and spends close to 20 pages of fine print detailing them.

Although I understand that that's what people might want, the ability to customize their character with that level of detail, that kind of goes contrary to the principles of 13th Age and the Archmage Engine. 13th Age has been designed to be simple, providing only the rules that are necessary, and leaving everything else to be nothing more than a mutual understanding between player and GM.

Nowhere in the 13th Age book is there a d100 table that spans two pages, and I think that's by design. Providing something like that, with hundreds of possible mutations, goes contrary to everything the system was meant to be.

A Different Apocalypse

As I mentioned, most of these game systems also go with the assumption that mutations are common in the apocalypse because it was inevitably brought on by nuclear holocaust. Humans were stupid... they couldn't resist pushing the big red button... and here we are.

Does that have to be the case? An apocalypse can happen for a variety of reasons - nuclear war, meteor strike, zombie plague, aliens... - only a handful of which would have genetic mutation as a side effect.

My plan was actually to either make the apocalypse a result of various events, all occurring almost simultaneously, and their collective chaos causing the downfall of humanity. Either that or simply not define what caused the apocalypse at all, leaving it up to the DM to decide what caused the world to be how it is now.

Regardless of which approach is taken, mutations do not seem to be a requirement. At least to me, that is.

Limiting Options

All that being said, I'm considering not providing mutations in the same manner, or at least not providing mutations that are based on radioactive exposure.

What I'm envisioning is that a player can customize their character using a specific set of possibilities:

  • Cybernetic implants, upgrades or other technology brought on by advanced science. Anything from bionic arms to electronic eyes.
  • Biologic augmentation, brought on by advances in biology and genetic alterations. Not exactly mutations since that word does have negative connotations. This covers things from having an improved muscular and nervous system to having wings. It can also include cosmetic things like a forked tongue, but I'd like to keep those as options the player has chosen through science rather than a side effect of radiation exposure.

If you want to have a character that has some sort of genetic mutation, you're welcome to do so. But, unless you come to a mutual agreement with your GM, it will not have any mechanical impact. Only the above, which will be a somewhat limited set, will have a documented impact. Everything else is fair game but up to mutual acceptance.

Diversity of Races

Then the question comes up: what races should the game have? I wanted to have the two basic types: human (organic) and android/robotic (inorganic), but what to do beyond that? Given sufficient customization using the above I imagine that those two options would get the most play, but I still wanted to provide other options for diversity. But those options can't be something that could also be brought on by mutation or they would be redundant... I originally thought of a race that would have wings, but in thinking about it that's not much different than a human who has chosen to grow wings and darker skin. The races need to stand out.

That being said, I am choosing to create races based on animal and plant life, not direct descendants of human. Currently that includes sentient plants, insects and reptiles. All three of these currently have corresponding icons in the game world, so it kind of fits.

Furthermore, I am considering the possibility of providing a tight framework by which you can define your own class. Want to be a sentient rabbit with a gun? OK... Here's a list of racial attributes and powers you can choose from... Pick two or three. That covers the mechanics, which don't care whether you're a six foot tall rabbit with a gun or not; anything else is flavor text and up to you and the DM.

Feedback Requested

So I have to ask the question: for those of you that have expressed interest in a post-apocalyptic game setting... What are you looking for in terms of mutations? Do you want a 20-page long list of possibilities? Do you want the option of mutations at all, at least in the same form that's common amongst other post-apocalyptic game systems?


The Archmage Beckons

A long time ago I did some content for a certain game system who, for reasons you may already know, will remain nameless. I was rather enthusiastic about that game system/campaign setting, but I was denied the option of using it to publish content.

But I really liked what that game system brought to the table, and ever since then I've been thinking about what it would take to publish a full, standalone RPG based on some of those concepts.

For months, maybe years, I've looked for a system by which to make it a reality... and I think I've found it.

Recently, Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal Media released the Archmage Engine SRD, which is the driving force behind 13th Age. And it is everything that I wanted it to be!

So this is a formal announcement of sorts... I have begun development of an RPG, using the existing Archmage Engine framework but all new content. A "total conversion", if you will. The premise? A post-apocalyptic society where the stupid decisions of man compounded with nature's urge to make our lives miserable has led to a changed, unforgiving world filled with destruction and chaos. It is inspired by the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless, by lesser known systems such as the now defunct Alpha Omega by Mind Storm Labs (which is a beautiful book and has a brilliant back story, but the game mechanic is one of the worst I've ever seen), and by movies and other pop culture (from Mad Max to Oblivion).

The RPG will be centered upon a dramatically changed United States, mainly because I don't want to have to worry about long distance or overseas travel. The way I see it, the U.S. is not much larger than the Dragon Empire is in 13th Age, so it kinda works.

I have a personal dilemma, though: the-system-that-shall-remain-nameless has a reputation for being, short of a better word, zany. It's one thing to have genetic mutation, and it's another to have those genetic mutations create some of the most cooky, off-beat, "you're kidding, right?" type of monsters the mind can imagine. And there are games like Numerena that contain similar aspects but try to maintain a level of seriousness and are not rife with over the top absurdity.

My hope is to do both. I'm keeping the icons and classes as serious as possible given the circumstances, but the monsters are going to be somewhat of a mixed bag. It will be up to DM's discretion on how to use them.

Right now, if you're curious, I have planned:

  • 10 brand new icons, from massive self-aware supercomputers to sentient plants
  • 6 "races", and I use that term loosely because I'm not sure if to consider a robot a "race".
  • 8 classes, from the battle tested veterans to wasteland berserkers to "channelers" that can bend the fundamental laws of physics ("Laws of Thermodynamics are more of a suggestion than a rule" sort of thing).
  • New rules for augments (socketable items that can increase performance like magic items), mutations and other forms of genetic modification.
  • Basic vehicle and mount rules.
  • Expanding a little on traps and hazards, based somewhat on what I've already talked about on this blog.
  • Monsters, lots of them.

My intention with all this is, once I have enough written, to launch a Kickstarter to fund the project in full and get the thing published. But that won't happen until I have a comfortable amount written, and there's still a long way to go.

And, once this hits Kickstarter, the two projects I've had shelved for far too long - The Fortress of Dr. Neb and When Worlds Collide - will no doubt be stretch goals (after some obvious changes, of course).

So there you have it... my crazy dream. Hopefully I can make it a reality sooner than later, and if I decide to go the distance on this I hope some of you will be willing to back me up on it.

Stay tuned to this blog for more news on this project.


In the meantime, as yet another form of practice, I decided to make the vector Archmage Engine SRD logo I made available for everyone to use! That is, at least until the 13th Age guys create one for real.

Archmage Engine SRD logo (1.51Mb)

The above link contains the logo in multiple formats: Fireworks, Illustrator 10, Illustrator CS6 and flat JPEG.


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The Needs of the Many

Sometimes I think I make a really bad business owner.

I admit that I don't do all this adventure design for the money. Heck, I can't imagine anyone doing this sort of thing for the money. Unless you somehow manage to have a multi-million dollar Kickstarter campaign, it's a hard industry to make a profit in.

And sometimes that makes little sense to those outside the industry. Take my wife for instance... "why haven't you created a game and made millions yet?" It just doesn't work that way, dear. I can't just whip up a multi-million dollar game - especially a video game, which both my wife and son seem to think can be whipped up in a weekend by a 25-year programmer such as myself - and expect it to make me stinking rich.

But I think I realize the problem with this industry: we, us happy few that create,  enjoy it too much. We aren't motivated by financial gain or a windfall as our products sell millions. We are motivated by the simple fact of enjoying what we do, sharing our creations with the public. I've said this many a times before: I could spend months, maybe years (I spent two years on The Opera, so I've been there) creating something... If I manage to get *one* person to enjoy it, it's all been worthwhile in my mind. With that mentality, no wonder we can't retire as soon as we'd like.

Another problem is self worth, trying to put a price on something we create. Look at my DriveThruRPG page... Comparatively speaking, my stuff is dirt cheap. Why? Because I haven't a clue how much it would actually be worth. And I have a hard time upping the price because (1) it would deny the product from getting in the hands of people, and (2) it feels like I'm price gouging. Since I don't have an accountant breathing down my neck trying to figure out how to make the next payroll, I can accept selling stuff so cheap.

So here I am, staring at the products on my DriveThryRPG page, troubled but not decimated at the fact that I haven't sold one in a month, wondering what to do with them. I want everyone on the planet to see what I've done, but it makes zero business sense to just give it away, right? Some of this stuff might not sell ever again, only to have it disappear in to obscurity. That to me is more unsettling than anything else... I don't care if I don't make a profit, but it's personally important to me that people know who I am and what I do.

At the end of last year one of the most well known sites in the RPG industry, ENWorld, was hacked and pretty much decimated. It's taken a painstaking amount of effort for those to run the site to get it back to what it once was, and they have decided to turn to the wonder of Kickstarter to fund the re-establishing of the system and creation of new tech to empower the site.

So I figured... If my products serve no purpose sitting idle on DriveThruRPG, maybe they can help someone.

So I'm happy to announce that I am now a stretch goal for the ENWorld Kickstarter. If the listing manages to reach 11K in the next 25 days, everyone who contributed $25 or more will get every single product Darklight Interactive has published so far FOR FREE.

If anyone in the community needs help, it's these guys. They have an awesome site and provide an invaluable service to the community.

In the meantime, I'll keep doing what I do. It might not be a cash cow of a hobby, but I could live with that.