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


The Cavern of the Damned

[Preliminary Intro - Subject to change!]

As you slowly open your eyes the world seems out of focus. The room dips and sways sharply as you raise yourself up off the ground, your arms shaking under the weight of your own body. As the blur twists and bends in reaction to your ear-splitting headache, you sense the taste of dried blood and dirt on your lips.

The chamber comes in to better focus as you stagger to your feet, and you frantically spin around to see your possessions scattered about you, discarded as if they had no meaning. You are bathed in a light from above that burns brighter than the sun, causing you great pain as you look towards it.

You struggle to clear your mind and try to remember how you came to be here, but that's just the problem: your mind is already completely clear, blank even, and you have no memory of what brought you to this strange place.

As you look past the circle of light in which you stand and into the darkness that surrounds you, as the ringing in your ear subsides, one thing is certain.

You are not alone.

Cavern of the Damned is an adventure that I've been working on for a while, or at least something I've wanted to do. It originally started as a 13th Age adventure, but I was actually having a hard time working the icons into the adventure (which, depending on who you ask, is sometimes considered a requirement for anything 13th Age). Since then I've also tinkered with it in Pathfinder, but have finally decided to do it in D&D 5th Edition, with the expectation that the eventual licensing will allow me to do so.

At first I had a problem: the adventure is supposed to really start with the party finding themselves cut off from the rest of the world in a dungeon without an apparent exit. This involved finding a way to have the entire party either fall unconscious or get captured or something, but I quickly realized that that's something rather hard to do because players have a tendency to not go quietly into that goodnight. Instead I have decided to start the adventure kind of in media res, with the players regaining consciousness while lying on the floor of the dungeon, without any memory of events in the past few days. Over time, those memories will return.

I have also decided to fully embrace the 5th Edition spirit while making it a challenging dungeon, using some of the design principles seen in Fourthcore (although I admit 4C is much more bleak than I could ever be) or even my own Seyvoth Manor. It will not be a walk in the part to day the least.


I had created a map for the original incarnation of Cavern of the Damned, but I lost the composite PNG file due to a drive failure. Since then I had a new vision of the adventure which requires a complete map redesign, which means that the map that I did is completely deprecated and will not be used. Therefore, I figure if I can't use it someone else out there could. So here is the arguably incomplete map in its 100DPI, 6+Mb JPEG glory for anyone to use. If you do use it, I'd love to know about it.


In the meantime stay tuned for Cavern of the Damned, which will be released once 5th Edition licensing is settled.


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.


Compass Rose

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to try and create a custom compass rose for my maps. I have a few available in the clip art I yanked from Campaign Cartographer 3, but I still wanted to have one of my own.

Also, it was sort of a challenge to myself. I repeat over and over again that I can't draw, and do all my maps solely through the creative manipulation of existing art. When it comes to create an object from scratch, freehand if you will, I cave.

So while I was in the process of putting stuff on my new DeviantArt page, I went exploring and found this tutorial that describes the basics on how to make a neat little compass rose. I figured I'd give it a go.

The result is the image you see to the right, which I am now making available to anyone who wants to use it.

The worse part of the whole thing that, unbeknownst to me, Cartographer's Guild was having a "mini" challenge that was exactly this: create a compass rose. I decided to create mine on the very last day of the contest, a mere three hours after the contest closed and all submissions were locked. Since that dismayed me a little, I'm giving it away for free instead.

There are two files provided below: one is the flattened, raster image and the native vector PNG created in Adobe Fireworks CS5. You would think that the raster image would be a thousand times larger than the vector one, but for some reason the vector one is a behemoth at about 1Mb in size compared to the 250K raster file (don't ask me why). Both image have a transparent background.

In any event, if you use these things anywhere or have any suggestions I'd love to hear about it.

Here ya go!

Download: Original Adobe Fireworks CS5 vector file (approx. 1Mb)

Download: "Flattened" raster PNG file (approx 254K):

Filed under: Art, Maps, RPG No Comments

Cartographer’s Guild Mapping Challenge

A few weeks ago I decided "this was the month I was going to do it," and by "it" I meant participate in the monthly Mapping Challenge posted by Cartographer's Guild. Kind of thankful I didn't think that way last month; it involved making an actual, physical diorama.

So today this month's challenge was posted:

This months challenge is to take an existing board game and give it an update and maybe a cool twist as well. Battle Ludo, Orkish Chess, Steam Punk Monopoly, Lizards and Stairs - what ever fun idea you can come up with - just remember to use an existing game as "base".

In the beginning, there was concrete...

I was worried for a bit, but I decided to roll with it... And have decided to use the game "Clue" (or "Cluedo" to you non-Americans) as the basis for my version of "Dungeon Clue". I assumed it existed - actually, while I was writing this very post someone pointed out the existence of Clue: Dungeons and Dragons - but that's not stopping me.

My goal is to try and document the process in some sort of tutorial format as the map progresses. It will not be easy since I do not have any drawing ability, so the map will have to be created entirely through the use of ProFantasy Campaign Cartographer 3 clip art and whatever visual effects I can pull off inside of the Adobe CS5 Master Suite (Fireworks, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc...).

I will of course have to make some adjustments. For example, I don't know of many dungeon lairs that will have a "Billiard Room" (then again, I'm sure one of you out there has had one at least once), so I will be choosing rooms to fit the theme and decorating them accordingly. I don't know what they will be yet.

Whether I go as far as making actual game mechanics I cannot say, but if I do I will try to make said rules game neutral: they won't be D&D, Pathfinder, etc... I don't want to start a whole new wave of Edition Wars for a board game.

Now, in and around all the other crap I have going on these days, let's see if I can pull this one off...

Filed under: Design, Maps, RPG No Comments

Contest: Design a Treasure Vault

I am currently developing another module titled The Heart of Fire. In a style that seems to be somewhat typical of me, it's another big one - 116 pages at current count - but I think this module might actually be more usable because of the way it's designed. It's not a linear path... It's effectively a dungeon crawl where the players can take multiple paths to their primary objective, or deviate to do something that has nothing to do with the primary objective, or just wander around and kill stuff. There are several roleplaying options, lots of traps and lots of monsters. Should be fun!

The module is about 90% done, and all that remains is the design of three different rooms and for me to write a whole lot of fluff for the rest of the module (as I've said many a time before, I'm no good at fluff).

Recently, as part of the "RPG chat" that occurs every Thursday, the discussion came up about how one goes about creating a campaign. A lot of people mentioned how they have a hard time with the "nitty gritty", putting together the mechanics on how things work, and have a much better time just coming up with stories or descriptions of things. I am the complete opposite: I guess it's because I've been a computer programmer for thirty years, but I have a tendency to do all the mechanics first and foremost, and then fill in the blanks and make the story around that.

Case in point: in The Heart of Fire, the first thing I designed was the full stat block and tactical encounter map for the endgame boss. I had no idea what his motivations were, or why he was a "boss" in the first place for that matter. I had no clue what environment he would be in, or what would be involved along the way in order to get to where he is at. In the module there is currently a group of zealots known as the Blackfire Order that worship said boss, but at the time I created the boss' stat block that cult didn't even exist; I hadn't thought of it at all. I had a fully documented Level 12 Solo Controller with an arsenal of traps and devices around his lair, but I didn't quite know what to do with it. Everything leading up that didn't exist, and at the time I had no clue what it would be.

Over time I built a world around it, but I built it one stone at a time. Whereas some people may have a vision of the story from beginning to end in their head, I didn't have the faintest idea where it would go. Eventually I created the Blackfire Order (the aforementioned zealots), and another group of antagonists that get in the way, and the maze of tunnels inside the volcano that the boss calls home, and the island on which the volcano stands, and the small fishing village at the opposite end of the island where the encounter starts. Actually, I didn't even get that far yet: the page on which I am meant to describe Serpent's Cove - the village where the party begins their adventure - is completely blank. I haven't written a thing about it.

But every creature, trap and hazard has a stat block. I know exactly how much XP every room has, and I know exactly what level the PCs will be if they take certain paths. I have 36 encounter areas with detailed mechanics, ranging from every unique monster's stat block to the hit points and defenses of the average temple door... but every single one of them has a "read aloud" section that currently blank.

That's just the way I am, I guess. I'll deal with it sooner or later...


In the meantime, I thought I'd try an experiment and see if anyone out there will bite. After I created the boss and his lair, I created the following map:

At the time I didn't know what to do with it, or where it was going to go, or what's in it. Now I have a vague idea, but still nothing concrete. But like I said above, I know every mechanical detail about the encounter that's just outside the door to the North (7 monsters, EL 11, 2,950 XP) and the specifics on the trap that secures the door... but that's it.

I made the map using the "OK, let's see what looks cool here" school of design. A massive pile of coins lying in wait underwater? Let me mess with the transparency and color contrast to make the water look weird... Lit braziers? Let me see how putting an aura around the flame looks...

All in all, a neat little map... That's devoid of content.

So I leave this to you: using the map above, design what the contents of the room will be. Put in as many death traps as you want, pile it full of enough monsters so that they can't move, devise some sinister puzzle or contraption that makes it difficult to get so much as a coin out of this place. The room could be a real treasure vault, or a place of watery doom. Use your imagination!

Conditions: The only condition is that you do not alter the structural content of the room. You can add all the creatures you want, but you must not change the appearance of the room by adding objects. At least not initially, that is - objects might appear after the room is interacted with, such as things popping out from the walls, rising out of the ground, or simply appearing out of thin air - but when the players enter the room must be as it appears above. Again, monsters are the exception: put whatever you want.

Game System: The design could be of any level, and preferably for D&D 4e although I will accept other game systems with D&D mechanics (from 1st Ed D&D to Pathfinder). You can even "fourthcore" it, if you're so inclined.

Judging: Depending on how many entries we get, I will either judge them myself or find judges to take a look. We'll see.

Prize: These days I cannot guarantee retail prizes like I've done before as I don't have the resources to buy them, but I could guarantee prizes I myself have created since they're free to me.

So the winner - or winners, if there is a tie - will get a voucher from Drive Thru RPG for all the products I have listed there (CC1: The Complete Collection, retail value $13.96):

And, to be honest, if your design knocks my socks off maybe we can work something out to include part of all of it in The Heart of Fire. Of course, you will get credit for the creation in every way possible. No guarantees, but I like to keep my options open.

Deadline: All entries must be in by midnight December 18th, 2011.

So if you're up to it, show the world what you can do!



I guess it would help to add the email: send it to contest@brainclouds.net!