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

5Jan/12Off

Gamma World Remnants: Accelerator Control Robot Guardian

In Where Worlds Collide, the party first needs to gain access to the computer systems that seal off the accellerator control room of what was once CERN. The site's AI, known affectionately as C3 (short for the CERN Computing Centre), has started to charge up the accellerator and intends to unlease a miniature black hole on Gamma Terra. Once the black hole is released, Gamma Terra will collapse in to a singularity and life as we know it will end.

Despite the multiple levels of security that block access to the accelerator core, C3 felt it necessary to add one final line of defense: a massive robot it refers to as "the Guardian". This hulking behemoth was manufactured out of the heavy machinery used to assemble and maintain the LHC itself. It has a wide assortment of weapons - laser batteries, flame thrower, flame retardant systems - and two arms. One of the arms has a enormous steel fist backed by pneumatic pistons, while the other arm ends in a five foot wide buzz saw.

For this encounter I wanted to give the impression that C3 had a lot of time on its hands, so whenever it discovered another new toy it did not hesitate to weld it on to the robot's frame. Therefore, I wanted this robot to be a walking arsenal of destruction, having every weapon and the kitchen sink at its disposal. It actually is the largest single stat block I've ever created for any 4E monster.

I never got around to designing the room itself, but it was going to be a large massive chamber with the usual bells and whistles prominent in most Fourthcore adventures. Since the module was meant for a party of level 5, going up against this level 8 behemoth was going to be quite the challenge.

Anyway, hope you all enjoy this one.

Where Worlds Collide - Accelerator Control Robot Guardian (PDF)

11Dec/11Off

Gamma World Remnants: Gammacore Reactor Control

I've been wanting to release this for quite some time, just haven't gotten around to it.

This was one of the planned areas in my cancelled Gamma World "fourthcore" (or "gammacore", as some have called it) project When Worlds Collide. The whole campaign was meant for a party of about 5th level.

In similar style to previous fourthcore releases, this is one of four possible areas the players must traverse in order to reach a computer system at the North end. It's a combination encounter and pseudo-puzzle involving prisms and very painful particle beams.

Hope you enjoy!

When Worlds Collide - Reactor Control (PDF, 448K)

28Nov/11Off

In the Shadow of the Great Dragon

Gosh, has it been that long since a post?

As of late, my life has been somewhat complicated due to work and "real life", but that's not to say that I'm sitting on my hands doing nothing.

Recently I've given a lot of thought to my campaign The Coming Dark, and I'm starting to realize the problems with it. Maybe it's overexposure, maybe it's disillusionment, maybe it's the infamous "DM burnout"... I don't know. The one issue I have with it that I can point to and say "that's a problem" is that it's somewhat of a linear adventure; everything must happen in a certain order, and the players really have no option to diverge from the set path. At first I didn't have much a problem with it, but participating in a few games and seeing the community's commentary on the subject makes me realize that not many people really want an adventure that is "on rails". Players want diversity, an option to diverge from the path before them and get creative with the world around them. They seem to want an open system, an environment where the DM ends up improvising a lot that goes on.

For that reason, I've once again began to work on another campaign, and it's another big one (100+ pages as we speak) but it has a lot of room to play around in.

The premise (this is a very rough draft): 

     A long time ago, a great dragon known as Vulkanon lived inside a volcano on the small island of Pyrias, from which he tormented and destroyed everything around him. A group of adventurers led by a mage named Raylen Darathar entered the volcano to stop this menace... Nobody knows what happened inside, but Raylen was the only person to escape the volcano alive. Even so, he was successful and the volcano fell silent. The great dragon was no more.

     But something inside Raylen changed as a result of the experience, and he became more hostile towards the people of the surrounding islands. The residents of Serpent's Cove - a small fishing village on the far end of the island of Pyrias - had a great deal of conflict with the mage, and eventually they had no choice but to banish him from the island. Raylen died shortly thereafter.

     Now, several decades later, Mazon Darathar - Raylen's son - has returned to the island of Pyrias with one objective: revive the great dragon Vulkanon and use his immense power to destroy the village that banished his father. Filled with vengeance and the need revenge, he entered the volcano... and the tremors have started once again. No one knows whether it's even possible for him to revive the great dragon, but the village of Serpent's Cove and the surrounding islands can't take that chance.

Here are some of the features in it:

  • The primary setting is an island with a volcano on it, giving the players the opportunity to explore the island itself before delving in to the dungeons towards their primary goal.
  • Besides the two major quests, there are several side quests that the players can pursue. Plus there are a few areas that are surprises, such as a hidden vault of treasure somewhere in the mountain.
  • There are actually two separate dungeons that the players can traverse to reach their goal: one of them is the Temple of Blackfire, populated by the religious zealots of the Blackfire Order that worship their "great dragon god" Vulkanon, and the site of the original temple that was abandoned due to a landslide but is now the point of entry of a large group of orcs that seek to claim the temple's treasures. Players are not require to go through both areas to reach their primary objective, but if they are in the mood to explore or to get more glory and treasure (such as the hidden vault, or a powerful artifact, or just a boatload of experience and things to kill) they can enter these areas easily.
  • It is theoretically possible to reach the "endgame" encounters without any combat at all, using a series of complex skill challenges and a lot of roleplaying.

So I'm somewhat pleased with this new module, and if people out there don't run it as-is there sure are various concepts in it that can be reused. As I said, it's a big one but the players are not expected to visit every room in it. There are two areas that link up to the BBEG's inner sanctum, and even in those areas there are multiple paths and side rooms they can explore. Lots of encounters, lots of traps and the occasional solo thrown in for good measure.

As a sample of the product, I'm including two excerpts. The reason I'm including these is not only to give you a taste but they are some of the areas I'm somewhat concerned about in terms of mechanics.

  1. The Blackfire crypt in the abandoned temple, now homw to a group of undead horrors that seek to suck the life out of the living. Although this is loosely based on the Deathgrasp Sarcophagus in Dragon Magazine - instead of one, there are eight sarcophagi - I debated whether to make this a trap or an actual set of creatures. It's kind of both, so I hope I've documented it adequately enough to make it an interesting situation.
  2. The Heart of Fire, an artifact that can be assembled and has extraordinary power over elemental fire. I've never created a sentient artifact before and flavor text isn't really my strong point, so I'm concerned whether this is overpowered, underpowered or just plain wrong.

 Feedback on the above is appreciated!

The module doesn't have an official name yet, but it is intended for a full party of level 10 characters and should be available within the month. I still have the usual issues - no artwork, and I despertately need to find someone to draw me a map of the island - but it's getting there.

One of these days I'll re-visit The Coming Dark, perhaps rework it so that it's not so linear.

Anyway, stay tuned; I'm still around! 🙂

-=o=-

On an unrelated note, The Endless Winter is now available in softcover color on Drive Thru RPG! It's on Lulu as well, but almost 80% more expensive as I've mentioned before. And as soon as I get around to making cover art for it, The Dragon's Master will be up there as well.

Please visit the Darklight Interactive page on Drive Thru RPG and enjoy my stuff!

When I get around to it (that's a common theme with me, if you haven't noticed), I will finish creating my own store front where all these products will be available as well. Stay tuned for that, too!

4Oct/11Off

Gamma World Remnants: Lepus Maximus

When the submission window opened for Dragon and Dungeon magazines, I immediately did the same thing I did the last time: proposed The Fortress of Dr. Neb and Where Worlds Collide as Gamma World adventures/delves.

Chris Perkins was thoughtful enough to answer at a greater length than the "we don't want any, thanks" one liner I'd gotten before:

Hi David,

I appreciate your devotion to the D&D Gamma World game (I’m a big fan of it myself), but we’re not looking to support it in the magazines. The decision has nothing to do with the game per se, which was always intended to have a finite product line. Wizards has made a brand/marketing decision to focus the magazines’ efforts on promoting the core D&D game experience.

We all kind of expected that to be the case: they have to focus on their core product, and there currently isn't any room for Gamma World. And, with its lack of support in the GSL, there isn't much of a venue for it at all. "It's not dead... it's restin'!"

The "finite product line" is an interesting comment; it means that there is no plans for any more Gamma World core manuals or add-ons. Legion of Gold was the last rulebook for it, and it will now have to wait until the next version. Maybe I'm interpreting it incorrectly, but I like to think that that doesn't necessarily mean modules or other "accesories".

But I have all these bits and pieces... What can I do with them? Simple... Give the stuff away!

This will be blog-exclusive content: it will not be in PDF form, and I will make no effort to actively sell or distribute any of this Gamma World content. I hope this isn't a problem (read: please don't sue me!). These remnants of Gamma World include elements from both the modules I mention above, and hopefully someone out there will draw inspiration from these bits and pieces and use them in their own campaigns.

So here we go... The following are excerpts from the now defunct module The Fortress of Dr. Neb... Enjoy!

Site 13

About thirty miles outside of Wildwood there is an abandoned missile complex known as "Site 13". It was buried under the desert sands for hundreds of years, only to have been recently discovered by the nefarious Dr. Neb.

But unlike the hundreds of missile silo that dotted the countryside, this one was not disassembled and still contained what it was designed for: a serviceable LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile, somehow overlooked by the military and left in its silo. The nuclear warhead, the navigation systems and the fuel were removed at some point, but in the hands of the doctor it won't be long before it can fly again and become an implement of mass destruction.

Dr. Neb began to prepare the missile intending to use its existence alone as a terror weapon, giving the residents of the surrounding area a choice: capitulation or annihilation.

Lepus Maximus

Dr. Neb had hordes of minions under his control, but that wasn't enough to defend such a prized possesion. He needed the ultimate guard dog to defend Site 13 from unwanted guests while he continued to make the missile flight worthy. He turned to his expertise in laboratory science and created what he called the Lepus Maximus: an enormous white rabbit that was close to ten feet long and weighed over three tons.

This behemoth stood within the electrified fencing of Site 13, lying motionless and obscured inside a specially made hangar filled with straw. If anything breached the outer perimeter, it would immediately spring in to action and pounce on it, tearing through it with teeth the size of dinner plates.

This creature was so large that it could theoretically be used as a mount, but after the giant rabbit ate one or two of them two Dr. Neb's minions didn't want to get anywhere near the thing.

Giant rabbit, a.k.a. "Lepus Maximus"

NOTE: "thunder" damage should probably be "sonic" instead.
Curse my traditional D&D 4e ways!

 

If you find a way to use the above, I'd love to hear about it. Otherwise, enjoy!

Next installment: Rollin' Down I-13 in a school bus. Just mind the raccoons!

24Aug/11Off

Is Surrender Always an Option?

In the movies, I don't recall many times where the protagonist asks the "big evil" to surrender and the BBEG says "You have a point. I surrender!" You didn't see Oddjob throw his hands up and capitulate when Bond threatened him with his hat. You didn't see the alien queen assume the fetal position and begin trembling just because Ripley called her a bitch. The Witch King didn't look blankly at Eowyn, suddenly realize that there was a little loophole to his immortality, and ran away screaming. It just doesn't happen in fiction, at least not as often as it would in real life.

Not much has been written about the possibility of surrender in D&D, especially in 4e. The only reference I can find is in the entry for the Intimidate skill (Player's Handbook, page 186 or the Rules Compendium, page 147):

Opposed Check: Against a monster’s Will. (Adventurers can also try to intimidate DM-controlled characters.) The monster gains a +5 bonus to Will against the check if it is unfriendly to the adventurer, or a +10 bonus if it is hostile.

.../...

Success: The adventurer forces a bloodied monster to surrender, gets a monster to reveal a secret, or cows a monster into taking some other action.

The above does not take in to consideration a variety of factors, such as morale. If the party has slaughtered fifty goblins as they plow through their lair, the rest of the lesser goblins would be much more receptive to "surrender or die." But, if you're a "by the book" DM, using the above numbers would still make it somewhat unlikely, or at least infrequent, that even the most lowly goblin would surrender.

Run Away! Run Away!

Every time I look at the first encounters in Keep of the Shadowfell, I can't help but think "why are these monsters still hanging around?!? Screw Irontooth, he could handle himself... I would have dropped my blade and run the hell out of there in a heartbeat!"

Let's do the math for a second: a Goblin Cutter (Monster Manual, page 136) has a Will defense of 11. For argument's sake, let's downgrade it from "hostile" to "unfriendly" - rather than charge at you with its sword, the goblin will be more likely to shout insults and really dislike your presence - so that's a +5 bonus, making the Intimidate check a DC 16. At first level, that's pretty close to a "Hard" DC (a truly "hard" DC at level 1 is DC 19). I have a level 2 warden that has an Intimidate bonus of +0, so he'd have to roll a 16 or higher to coax a goblin to surrender. That's a pretty tall order, even though he's the lead defender killing things left and right with a big honkin' battleaxe.

Let me sidestep for a minute and point out that Intimidate is Charisma based, which in my opinion is somewhat absurd. Your beefiest, burliest, most violently intimidating defender usually can't Intimidate themselves out of anything unless they take training in it (I've always wondered what "intimidation training" is like). If anything, it should be Strength based, I think. But I digress.

Someone trained in Intimidate and that uses Charisma as their primary attribute could get a +10 bonus if they really try. So even against a lowly, visibly shaken goblin they need a 6 or greater, which means there's still a 25% chance that the goblin will laugh in their face. And if the goblin was truly hostile (DC 21), that percentage rises to 50%. Somehow that doesn't seem likely enough.

I also need to point out the consequence of trying to intimidate anything. Under the block quoted above:

Target Becomes Hostile: Whether or not the check succeeds, using this skill against a monster usually makes it unfriendly or hostile toward the adventurer.

So if you happen to roll a failure, this lone goblin is going to come charging at you? Really? I also don't think I need to point out the inconsistency... Even if one rolls a success and the creature surrenders, as per the above it is still unfriendly or hostile. So what's the point of intimidating?

D&D does not have a "morale" stat; the closest it gets is a "circumstance bonus" to die rolls, but that's somewhat of a gray area and I don't think it's documented anywhere. If the party has been killing goblins wholesale, the remaining goblins would be terrified in no time at all. There is no way to quantify that, so DMs must use their own creative license, using what they may or may not know about how goblins act and try to make an intelligent decision of what exactly would happen in this situation.

Taking On the Alien Queen

But what if the target is your "big evil"?

"Gosh Ripley, you're right... I never meant to be such a bitch... I'm sorry. I should go."

The whole reason this conversation came up is because my primary party is going up against the "big evil" and the assassin/rogue decides to intimiate it. The BBEG has a base Will defense of 19, +10 for being hostile (no doubt about that here), so that's a DC of 29 (way beyonsd being "hard"). The assassin has a +11 intimidate, which means he'll have to roll an 18 or greater; that's a 15% chance of success. Another tall order, but at least it's fairly realistic.

But what exactly *is* success here? Many say that this shouldn't work at all, that there are creatures that are so fanatical that they are beyond intimidation ("fight to the death", as some official modules put it), but then I become one of those DMs that says "no". So if I allow the roll, and for argument's sake let's say the player rolls a natural 20, what exactly happens then? Would you still tell them that their intimidation had no effect, even though it was (1) a natural 20, and (2) higher than the BBEG's Will defense +10? Does the BBEG simply see the error of his ways and give up, no questions asked?!?

From a story standpoint, that's obviously not going to happen, but part of me still wants to reward the roll in the unlikely event that it is successful. I've asked this on Twitter and I've gotten suggestions such as granting an attack or damage bonus, decreasing his defenses, adding a temporary condition like dazed or weakened, etc... I actually like a lot of those ideas.

But what about failure? It is a big risk, but the player is making the check as a Standard Action so he's paying a certain price (especially considering he's the team striker). Besides a witty retort and back talk, should the BBEG gain some benefit? Some have suggested increased defenses, giving him one more action point, making an attack as an immediate reaction, etc... I'm still torn about this one, but for now will probably do no more than than laugh in the player's face and try to kill them again.

I do not want failure to be too extreme, because if it's something too over the top the player may not want to try it again. I do not want to put the "fear of God" in a player and prevent them from trying a creative solution to a problem using the resources they have available. I mean, if this will never work, again... what's the point of training Intimidate in the first place?

Others have suggested that it be a complex skill challenge, not leaving the unlikely surrender to a single lucky die roll and reflecting the inherent difficulty in trying to convince the BBEG to give up. This is another idea I'm considering.

Conclusion

I haven't rolled that d20 yet, but will do so later today. I still have the day to determine how it's going to be handled, but I'm wondering how many of you out there have dealt with similar situations. Does your BBEG end up being a big weenie and dropping to his knees, terrified that the rogue in the party really means business? How have your players used Intimidate, and what have you allowed them to get away with?

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Encounters, Monsters, RPG 4 Comments