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


17Jan/16Off

Size Matters

The recent announcements of the 5th Edition SRD/OGL and the DM's Guild has got me really excited, and I've begun to look back on a large "incomplete"/"shelved" folder I have on m external hard drive.

There's a lot of things there that I don't even remember doing, but one thing stands out: the Revenge of the Crystal Scion campaign that I was creating (below text was adjusted to make it more Realms-centric and cater to the DM's Guild):

For the past several days, large mysterious crystals have been appearing at seemingly random stops across Faerun. And, about two days after they appear, they disappear... along with several square miles of land, leaving nothing behind but an enormous crater. Up to now these crystals have been appearing in seemingly random locations - in the middle of the desert, on the open sea, and deep within the mountains to the north, but when one of these crystals appears in the center of Waterdeep* the locals are understandably concerned. Something must be done to save the city from becoming another smoldering crater of nothingness.

Revenge of the Crystal Scion is a D&D 5th Edition adventure for a party of 10th-12th level characters, transporting them from the heart of Waterdeep* to deep within the astral plane, where a new threat emerges that threatens all of Faerun.

*: I say "Waterdeep", but I'm honestly not sure which city yet. Obliterating Waterdeep might not go over well with some people...

It's a bit hokey, sure, and that's likely due to the fact that it's the first high level adventure I attempt. But the one thing I like about this is that it has some of the best maps I've ever made.

RavensRock

Raven's Rock, the pirate stronghold floating amidst the ether.

The campaign is admittedly a trainwreck; there are lots of ideas I find rather cool, but it's a bit of a mess to tie them all together in such a way that makes sense. But the big problem is that the campaign is pretty massive: I'm predicting it to be three times the size of The Coming Dark, Chapter One... Right now it's 101 pages and practically half done. And, unlike TCD, by design it can't be easily split up into three parts, so it has to be done all at once (TCD Chapters Two and Three are designed but not written... yet).

This is a nasty habit of mine; I'm somewhat of a storyteller at heart, so I envision these long campaigns that tell a robust story. As a result, they pay the price in page count. I really need to start making smaller "one shot" adventures; those are actually easier to sell and a lot less work.

I've considered breaking up RotCS into component parts, and I'm sure I can probably make a few adventures out of it, but that somehow doesn't feel right. Is it worth the effort to piece this mess together and release another mega-campaign, or cannibalize it for parts and release three or four smaller adventures... discarding the rest?

So what do people want? Huge 100-200 page campaigns/adventure paths, or quick adventures that might take only a few sessions?

In the meantime, it seems like it's still a go to do The Coming Dark, Chapter One as a Kickstarter. Video... damn it, need a video!

 

12Jan/16Off

Hell Freezes Over

hell-froze-over-400x221

Well it finally happened... WotC has released the 5th Edition SRD, officially putting 5E within the bounds of the OGL and, at the same time, announced the DM's Guild.

I admit I wasn't sure if this day would come. Lord knows I've been harping over it since 5E was released (and, arguably, before that), and I've heard may a rumor as to when it would happen only to have the months fly by. But WotC pulled their version of Half-Life 2, keeping the world in the dark over the fact that this was going on until the day they dropped it on the world like an anvil.

Now, admittedly, what they did isn't exactly cut and dry and there are still a few questions that need to be answered. Hopefully a lot of those questions will be answered in the upcoming AMA on the 15th.

In the meantime, and I may not be 100% sure on all this, but here is my interpretation of what this means.

 

So it seems you can publish 5E content in two different ways:

1) Using the OGL

You create your own product and sell it however you want to, in any way you want that does not include the DM's Guild (see below). As is standard with the original OGL/SRD, you cannot use any of WotC's intellectual property: no deities, no named things (places, people, etc), no campaign settings, and the usual "god help you if you use this" rogue's gallery of monsters restricted due to being "product identity" (sorry, no beholders!).

You also cannot use any official D&D or WotC branding (other than any OGL logo they may eventually release... and I'm remaining hopeful they will) as is the case with most other OGL publications. What and how you reference the core materials is covered within the SRD; if it's in there you can reference it, but how to do that exactly I'm not sure about.

2) Using DM's Guild

According to the guidelines that seem to be part of the DM's Guild (which is, effectively, Drive Thru RPG), it seems you can use any of D&D's IP that would have otherwise been restricted using by the OGL... including those elements that fall under IP (beholders! Woo!). Admittedly I'm not 100% sure if this is the case, but it does make sense because of the nature of the Guild; you are under WotC's coverage, and you are effectively selling a product they sanction and make a profit on themselves.

Although it wasn't clear at first, it seems you are NOT required to make your product an integral part of the Forgotten Realms (this was confirmed by Chris Perkins on Twitter).

There is one caveat: If you sell on the DM's Guild, you can sell ONLY on the DM's Guild. In other words, you can't sell it anywhere else: can't sell it on your website, or Amazon, or even in stores. WotC effectively owns the rights to it and you get a cut of the profits... and it is a smaller cut than if you tried to sell it yourself... but you have to consider that you are now exposed to a much larger audience and promoted by WotC.

If WotC likes your work, there appears to be the possibility WotC acquiring your content and making more of it: publishing it under official WotC cover (which will allow you alternate sale venues), adding the material it to video games or other digital products, etc... It also displays your product to a much broader audience in an environment directly promoted by WotC; WotC will not openly acknowledge that 5E products exist anywhere else, so to get similar exposure you would have to advertise yourself... and effectively become a WotC competitor.

 

So what does this mean?

Let's take my current product - The Coming Dark, Chapter One - which is, as it stands now, is technically OGL compliant (well... 99% compliant, actually).

Option #1 above:

I publish it on my own as Darklight Interactive through my Drive Thru RPG storefront. I will make full profit on anything sold there.

I retain ownership of the product and can sell it anywhere except the DM's Guild itself. I will, however, not have anywhere near the exposure I would otherwise get on the DM's Guild and would have to do my own advertising... arguably against product WotC would be pushing themselves.

I cannot use any official WotC branding, and reference only things from the 5th Edition core that appear in the SRD. No beholders!

I can Kickstart it like I could any current OGL product.

Option #2 above:

If I publish it through the DM's Guild, I can ONLY sell it through the DM's Guild. I, technically, lose exclusive ownership to the product in that I can't sell it anywhere else.

I gain less of a percentage, but it is likely the product will sell more just by sheer numbers. A lot more people will be looking at it, and it will be exposed to a very targeted audience.

If WotC likes your product, they will promote your product. If they really like your product, they may help you publish it in alternate venues... or publish it themselves... or cram the content into a video game. Whatever. As I said above, think of it as them owning the product; you're along for the ride.

I can include content I would otherwise not have been able to, like beholders parading through Waterdeep.

Whether products listed in the DM's Guild could be Kickstarted is unclear. After all, Kickstarter itself can be considered a storefront... and that goes against the exclusivity the guild provides.

 

As it stands now, I will likely put The Coming Dark, Chapter One through the DM's Guild. I admit I'm not exactly thrilled in doing that, but the difference in exposure is monumental. I am not sure how the Guild's guidelines of being the exclusive storefront falls into the Kickstarter scheme, but I hope that will be addressed in the upcoming AMA... that will decide whether it is Kickstarted or not. If I can't Kickstart it to be a part of the DM's Guild, it will be published with minimal art... and I will likely have to pay for editing out of pocket.

Anyway, I think this is a very good step in the right direction for WotC. I really wish them all the best in this new venture, and I look forward to seeing what the publishers and fans out there bring to the world of D&D 5th Edition.

20Sep/15Off

Into the Light

I've been talking about this for a long time... Hell, the actual product has been in development for five years... But now I'm finally going to do it for real.

TCD_Site

My #1 pet project, my three part campaign called The Coming Dark, is *finally* going to go to Kickstarter. Like I said, I've been writing this thing for close to five years and the campaign has seen at least three different systems (4E, 13th Age and Pathfinder) before finally settling on being published through the OGL and being compatible with the 5th Edition of the Don't-Make-Us-Have-To-Say-It roleplaying system.

I've been crunching the numbers for a while now, putting together Kickstarter spreadsheets that inevitably contained a lot of red numbers. At first I wanted a physical product, a softcover or hardcover book of the adventure that I and many others can hold in my hands, but with the costs of editing and artwork I just couldn't make the numbers work without an absurdly high stretch goal for an adventure. So, like several other adventures and campaigns as of late, I'm going to go fully digital. That way I can drop as much money as I can on editing and creative for the project.

Now the only things I have left to do before launching it are:

  • I have an editor already signed up, but I do not officially have a creative artist signed up to do the cover or interstitial art. I know who I want, and am just waiting for their response (and, if you're reading this, *hint!* *hint!*).
  • I need to make a video. This could be considered a personal phobia of mine... as you can tell pictures of me are kind of hard to find, and those that you do find weren't actually taken by me. So I have to set my fears aside, record the video and pray I don't look like a total fool.

That being said, assuming I get the responses I need, the campaign for The Coming Dark, Chapter One might be submitted for Kickstarter review as early as the end of the week.

In an effort to be ready for the social media push, I created a signup site where you can register for notifications: http://tcd.dlimedia.com/

Really looking forward to this, and with all your support I trust I can make it a reality.

7Dec/14Off

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.

Conclusion

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.

4Jun/14Off

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..."