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

1Jan/13Off

Through the Years

Starting off the new year on the right foot, this blog has been surprisingly selected as Stuffer Shack's "Favorite Site of the Month" for January! I'm not kidding about being surprised... I mean, as of late I've only been posting once or twice a month, and the posts that I have written aren't up for a Pulitzer (or whatever the RPG blog equvalent is... an ENnie, I guess?) any time soon.

But I was selected, so I thought it was time to post something.

This past year has been interesting to say the least. I didn't accomplish everything I intended to do, but it worked out overall. "The Heart of Fire" was released to what has become a dry market, so much so that I'm sure the six people that bought it really enjoy it. Other products went out here and there, but while D&D is in design limbo there has been somewhat of a market shift.

As a result, I'm looking at 2013 a little differently. Here's what's in store for you all:

  • "Revenge of the Kobolds" (D&D 4E) is being edited and reviewed by third parties. It will be released for free, without art (except for the map, anyway) on this site as soon as I feel comfortable. It might not be perfect, and it might not work very well mechanically, but it'll be released nonetheless. I predict that will be released by month's end, but don't hold me to that.
  • "A Night in Seyvoth Manor" (D&D 4E) is undergoing similar editing and review, and will probably be releadsed on or about the same time as RotK. Because of the nature of this adventure it's much easier to port to other game systems, so I'm looking to port it at least to Pathfinder and, if all goes well, other systems (AGE, 13th Age, Hackmaster, DCC, etc.). I may even use Kickstarter to fund the development for the other systems; don't know yet. The initial D&D 4th Edition version will be released for free asd well.
  • I'm imagining that my epic adventure "The Crystal Scion" will not have much public interest, so I have decided to convert what I have and finish development of it for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It's a fairly high level adventure - I'm predicting between 12th and 15tyh level - so I'm somewht worried since I've never done anything like that before. It'll be an interesting experience to say the least. I don't know if there's a market or demand for such a thing, but I imagine the market to be better than what 4th Edition is now...
  • My mega-campsign "The Coming Dark" has been going through some serious rework in my head; looking back on what is my first creation for 4th Edition I see a lot of things I did terribly, terribly wrong. So I'm reworking 99% of it and intend to release this for D&D Next as soon as it is possible (assuming it is possible... Licensing for Next is unknown at this time).
  • I have a lot of other small projects in the works. Not sure what I'm going to do with them right now, but until D&D Next is released it might be a toss up between 4th Edition and Pathfinder.
  • I have a couple of programs in the works, such as character and monster builders for D&D Next I've started on We'll see if they ever get to see the light of day.

Beyond that, stay tuned everybody... Lot more to come from us!

12Dec/12Off

Moving Forward

For the past two months, at least from a workload standpoint, I've been living through hell. So much so that I haven't had much a chance to get my two completed products - Revenge of the Kobolds and A Night in Seyvoth Manor - the needed attention to get them ready for publication. I haven't even been able to get my playtest going for Seyvoth.

But during that time I have released one tiny product, The Absent-Minded Alchemist... and even at its low price of $0.99 I've sold no more than six copies. The 4th Edition market is effectively dry, in no small part due to Wizards of the Coast's choice to seemingly pretend it doesn't exist. Heck, there isn't a single 4th Edition product in WotC's own gift guide.

So I have a bit of a dilemma... My intention was to use Kickstarter to fund the art for at least one of these products, but I can't help but think that creating a Kickstarter for a market that no longer exists seems like a waste. I can't in good conscience create a Kickstarter listing that I personally feel will inevitably fail. It makes no business sense.

Furthermore, I can't bring myself to publish and charge for a product that I personally feel is inferior or not the best that it can be. Sure, I might like the mechanics of the two modules, but to charge players any amount of money for a module with zero art in it just doesn't sit right. Yes, I've done that before... but it's always felt somewhat awkward.

So I've made some executive decisions:

  • The D&D 4th Edition versions of Revenge of the Kobolds and A Night in Seyvoth Manor will be released FOR FREE on this site and on Drive Thru RPG once I feel comfortable about the mechanics and have given it at least one editing run through by someone other than myself.
  • I am looking to convert Seyvoth Manor in to other game systems, most notably Pathfinder and a few others (13th Age, Hackmaster, earlier editions of D&D, etc...), and if I do these will probably have a small price to them (I'm not in it for the money, as you might be able to tell). Many have told me to create a "system neutral" product... the issue with that is that my thing is mechanics and "crunch", if you will, which goes contrary to making a neutral product.
  • I will not be creating any more large scale 4th Edition products. I will probably create small side-treks like The Absent-Minded Alchemist or an occasional snippet of content here and there, but don't expect any 100+ page 4th Edition modules any time soon.
  • Until "D&D Next" is closer to release and we have a better idea of what the licensing is going to be for it, I am going to keep myself busy somehow. Odds are that I may find myself doing some more Pathfinder work than I'm use to.

Revenge of the Kobolds will probably be released first because it's the smallest. It may not be perfect and I haven't playtested it as much as I would like, but I think releasing it is better than just having it sit on the virtual shelf without any exposure. I will also see if I can get the Seyvoth playtest off the ground one of these days.

I'm hoping that, with the release of "D&D Next", we'll have another D&D Renaissance and things will be much better. One can only hope...

1Nov/12Off

Feelings of Dread

So A Night at Seyvoth Manor is technically complete!

My original plan was to make it a release specifically for Halloween, but after a few minor setbacks (personal distractions, as well as one day losing the entire InDesign file to a corrupted drive) it seemed like it was highly unlikely t make it by then. But, amazingly enough, it did; I finished the last room at about 7PM on Halloween day. So it's ready to be released, right?

Not exactly, no.

You see, it hasn't gone through a lick of editing. And I've read through some parts of it, and it's quite a hurried mess as far as the writing is concerned. The mechanics might be all in place, but things like misspellings, contradictions between rooms, bad choice of words that make things hard to understand, simply wrong lore, etc... Things like describing the room have always been the hard part for me.

Plus, it hasn't been adequately playtested, which is something that's been a problem in anything I write. A module like this, one that defies the standard conventions of making balanced encounters, kind of requires a great deal of testing. I don't have an immediate means of testing this, so I'm up in the air as far as how many elements of it will play at the table. For example, putting a time limit on the adventure is virtually impossible without actually playing it.

Finally, I'm now faced with my own personal fears of releasing a product that is not perfect. I'm a perfectionist in that sense, and that's both a blessing and a curse most of the time. I become self-conscious of everything that I write, fearing that when I release it people are going to think it sucks and I'll be forced to crawl back in to my cave in humiliating defeat.

So now I'm torn on what to do. I can edit it some and release it, but for all I know it may be "broken". I can find playtesters, but that will delay release and no longer make the produce seasonal (which may or may not matter). I am also considering running it myself in a play-by-post format, but that's also a time consideration. And part of me wants to release for free just because I can, but the other part of me wants to put it up for sale for a small amount... like a buck (everyone tells me I suck at putting a price on my own stuff, so I might as well keep the tradition going).

So what would you do in my shoes? And anyone out there interested in participating in a play-by-post game of this?

20Oct/12Off

The Mathematics of Fixed Damage

Ever since I conceived the idea for creating A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I've been debating whether to use fixed damage values for the monsters and traps or not.

The general consensus is that using fixed damage values speeds up the encounter, primarily because mathematics becomes simpler. You don't have to read a handful of dice, add the modifier and figure out the total; it's one nice round number. No more fistfuls of dice!

The problem with using that premise in 4E is that the number is pretty much always the same. First off, when converting a monster's damage roll to a fixed number you kind of have to use the average of the damage; using anything other than the average wouldn't make sense (this is not taking "difficulty" in to consideration... we'll get to that later). But an inherent aspect of 4E is that, for any given level, all the monsters average the same amount of damage. That's by design in 4th Edition.

Damage, By the Numbers

As a point of reference, here are the average die values as presented in my 4E Dice Roller and in Sly Flourish's Die Roller:

Minion: 7 damage
Low: 10 damage
Medium: 14 damage
High: 17 damage
Limited High: 21 damage
Hardcore: 28 damage

Based on that, the first problem I have with using fixed damage would be that every monster would cause 14 damage, so for argument's sake let's make it a nice round number like 15.

Everything becomes 15 damage. Again, that's by design in 4th Edition; doing anything contrary to that risks unbalancing things. Sure there might be some exceptions to the rule - some things might do 10, some things might do 20 - but all in all it's the same average damage, over and over again. While creating my monsters for A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I actually got sick of writing "15 damage" in almost every stat block.

Critical Hits

One issue is how to handle critical hits. Gone are the days of the "ghetto crit" that could happen now; statistically speaking, a player is over three times more likely to roll maximum damage on a d6 (16.7%) than rolling a natural 20 (5%), so at low levels and players who may not have magical items a critical hit borders on being meaningless. So what do you do with critical hits and fixed damage? Double it? Add a die?

I thought about doubling the damage, but is that really "special"? With fixed damage, that's not much different than hitting twice. I tried to mitigate it by adding critical hit effects to monster powers, but sometimes  it feels like a lot of excess work.

Characters, By the Numbers

To figure out the effectiveness of fixed damage I decided to compare the above values to two different characters that would be playing such an adventure. Considering that it's a 6th level adventure, I created the weakest character I could think of (level 6 human wizard w/ 12 Constitution = 42 HP) and the toughest I could muster (level 6 dwarf battlemind w/ 21 Constitution and Toughness feat = 71 HP).

Using 15 as the base damage, it would take three shots to knock the wizard unconscious and five hits to drop the dwarf. That's arguably acceptable, but the problem becomes apparent when you realize that the wizard doesn't need a 12 Constitution... He could have a ONE as his Constitution (31 HP) and it would have the very same effect: he'd be at 1 HP after the 2nd attack and drop on the 3rd.

This means that the Constitution value - unless it's your primary stat - isn't as important. In the above case, if I knew the end result would be the same I'd consider leaving my Constitution as an 8 and boosting all my other attributes. After all, what's the point? It's not like a "lucky" damage roll might hurt... Spending the points to up my CON by 4 could be considered a waste.

I also compared the damage to the players Fourthcore game I'm currently participating in, who happen to be 6th level: we all have 60, 48, 51, 50 and 63 HP (average 54.5 HP). Using the 15 damage base rule, four out of five of us would get dropped in 4 hits. Despite the disparity in HP (12 points between the highest and lowest of the four that would be dr0pped), it all boils down to AC and not HP.

Time, By the Numbers

So, strictly from a mathematical perspective, I'm starting to not like fix damaged. But the question is: does it really improve play speed? With fixed damage do encounters blow by so quickly that it's worth the lack of randomness?

Many have pointed out that fixed damage improves combat speed considerably in epic tier, where you can expect pretty much any attack to use no less than 4 dice. And god help you if you crit, 'cause then you might be wheeling out five more dice. Oh and Sneak Attack, so there's four more. Or Hunter's Quarry. Or Warlock's Curse. Or assassin shrouds. Or this... or that... Bonuses galore. The days of throwing a bucketful of dice to determine damage are not forgotten. And it's not like past editions where the mage might have to roll 40d6s worth of damage every now and then... that's pretty much on every attack.

But we're not talking about epic tier here; we're talking about level 6. For the most part, all damage rolls end up bring at most two dice, maybe three. If everyone does what I do and rolls damage at the same time as the attack, does the math really take that long to do? I'm a mathematics and computer science major, so that math is pretty easy for me, but I can't speak for everyone else at any given gaming table. Help me out here... How long does it take you?

So I've been trying to think of how to quantify this. Let's try to figure this out; please let me know if my logic is horribly , horribly wrong:

  • I assume the average combat takes four full rounds, and there are five players against three DM controlled monsters. That's, on average, eight attacks going on in any single round (I'm balancing lack of attacks - such as for Second Wind or other support duties - to compensate for opportunity attacks, granted attacks and minor action attacks from monsters). That's 32 possible attacks.
  • Let's assume 70% of those attacks hit. Given the attack bonuses, that seems like a reasonable expectation. Rounding up, that gives us 23 attacks that require a damage roll.

So time to do a little testing.

For testing purposes, I'm assuming the attack and damage rolls are made separately. And here's what I did:

Time Spent Finding Dice: If your weapon always deals the same die's worth of damage, that die should not be far away. So I'm estimating the time to reach over and grab one or more of these dice, separate from getting the necessary d20, at about 5 seconds.

That, in my opinion, is high - I spend that amount of time looking for the dice inside of my bag, so I can only assume you don't have an idiot player that stows his dice after every roll - but we'll roll with it.

My test subjects.

Rolling Dice and Adding: I grabbed my box of dice and picked some test subjects; I chose d4s because they are the hardest to read when thrown (they can't technically be read from directly above), and to compensate for the low number I got six of them. I also got one d20 that I will roll prior to starting the clock to determine the modifier I would be adding to the die roll; for example, if I roll an 11 on the d20 my damage roll will be 6d4+11.

After twenty rolls using this style, I averaged 8 seconds per roll. Because, let's be honest, math comes easy for me I'll double that number for the purposes of this test. So let's leave it at 16 seconds.

Applying Damage: The time spent to apply the damage does not change whether the damage itself is fixed or not, so it has no bearing on this test.

So let's round things off and say that for each damage roll the player spends 20 seconds. Let's add 50% and make it an even 30 seconds. Multiplied by the 23 attacks that hit you're looking at 460 seconds, or just under 8 minutes in every encounter.

Eight minutes an encounter, and that's a high estimate in my opinion... Is that really such a big deal, especially considering how long 4th Edition encounters take now?

Personally, I don't see that as enough time to justify it, but that's just me. I'd love to hear if anyone out there has had different experiences.

Conclusion

In the end, I'm still not sure. I'll continue to use fixed damage simply because I started that way, but it's not all that hard to change at this point.

What do you think? How do you feel about it, good or bad? Do you use it? Is it simply a matter that combat just feels quicker when there are less dice, even though it might not actually be significantly faster?

16Oct/12Off

Maze of Possibilities

Hedge maze from "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
(c) 2005, Warner Bros.

There is one part of A Night in Seyvoth Manor that I've been having problems designing for a while: a hedge maze.

You see, this maze is intended to be huge with changing walls and paths, so that aspect alone makes it virtually impossible to represent on a tactical map. Not to mention that navigating such a thing on a physical map is somewhat of a time consuming process and this module's designed to be lean and run in a single day, so I've been looking for a means to make it fairly quick and painless.

After thinking about it and throwing the question to the Twitter collective, I decided to make it a sort of card game. There will be some progress cards (+1 point), neutral cards (no points or failure), threat cards (+1 failure), a few treasure cards and one "bonus" card. The DM would go around the table, asking each player to draw a card; the player can do so or try a skill check (hard difficulty) for a peek at several cards and pick the one of them, returning the rest to the deck. The objective: get "X" points before "Y" failures.

That all sounds well and good, but there's a problem: how do you determine "X" and "Y", and how do you determine what the deck consists of? How "rich" should the deck be on either side to ensure the party isn't drawing cards until the end of time or drawing every card in the deck? Although there are a certain amount of assumptions that can be made - for example, there *must* be at least "X-1" progress cards (the bonus cards counts as 2 points) and "Y" threat cards - but beyond that there's a whole lot of variables that makes it difficult to gauge the difficulty of the challenge.

My solution was to write a program in C# (.NET 4.0) which, given certain criteria for deck building (number of cards of each type) will perform random draws and determine the success/fail rate. This allows me to run several thousand iterations of the challenge and tweak the numbers as need be. It's the closes I'll get to actual playtesting, and one could argue it's even better because it's doing thousands of iterations.

So, for example, given the following guidelines...

  • The "main" deck contains 6 progress cards, 2 neutral cards and 4 threat cards.
  • The "secondary" deck contains 2 progress, 4 neutral, 3 threat, 2 treasure and 1 bonus card. Every time a card is drawn from the main deck, a card is taken from the secondary deck to replace it and the deck is reshuffled.

...I currently get about a 34-38% chance of success (across 10,000 iterations). The average number of card draws is a little over 9, which means two full passes around the table in a group of 5. To compare, chance of success in a complexity 2 skill challenge is lower than that.

In addition to that, players will average 1.5 threats per challenge, will get at least one treasure about 30% of the time and will get the bonus card about 13% of the time. That sound acceptable. but the convenient thing about this little application is that I can tweak the numbers and see how they impact the percentages. Heck, I even simulated a skill check to see how much of an impact it has (one skill check increases the chance of success by almost 10%).

The only concern right now is the lack of player skill being a determining factor. I am going to allow skill checks so that PCs can draw two cards from the main deck and decide which of the two they want to keep, but that's all I can think of right now. The challenge ends up being more about luck than anything, which I guess isn't such a bad thing but I'm trying to think of a better way to actively engage the players.

Do you have any ideas on how to approach something like this?

-=O=-

Disclaimer: I've been told that there is a labyrinth in the Fane of the Heresiarch from SVD Press. I'm currently an active player in a play-by-post version of that at Grind 4E, so I have purposely avoided reading that module and do not intend to spoil myself until the adventure is over. Those are the sacrifices we must make...

Note:  One A Night in Seyvoth Manor is released, I will probably also release the source code for the above application. Just in case you're curious or could use it for something similar.