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


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..."


Brief Hiatus

Gosh, has it been that long since a post?

I've been in the process of moving in to a new(er) home, and it's been somewhat exhausting work so I have not had the chance to focus on some things I intended to post here.

To give you an idea of how busy I am, I was one of the first players GIBBED in the Fourthcore Team Deathmatch game... And that was just on the initiative roll!

Anyway... On the bright side I have everything moved, and arguably have an office now. Problem is that it has boxes stacked to the ceiling, and there's still a lot of work to do in the new home.

Sorry for the silence; things will be back on track soon!

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Cornering the Gamma World Market

I realized something today: I'm a published author! And it wasn't even planned!

For the past several months, I've been working on my own personal Citizen Kane (or Waterworld... Time can only tell): a massive Heroic tier campaign for Dungeons and Dragons 4e called The Coming Dark. And when I say "massive", I kind of mean it: part one of three is about 80% complete and already clocks in at a staggering 116 pages. It's so epic that nobody may ever play it, but it's something I want to do for my own personal gratification.

I've been working on it for months, doing all the maps, designing and redesigning each scene, creating each stat block, laying it all out in Adobe InDesign, playtesting it with at least three different "play by post" groups. It's been quite an undertaking, and the focus of most of my development efforts.

But about a month ago I decided to take a little diversion. Every now and then I get an idea that pops in to my head and I just can't get rid of, and have to actually create it in order to satisfy my subconscious. Usually this has taken many forms, but this was very specific: it was a Gamma World campaign.

NOTE: To avoid spoilers, I have chosen to make no reference to the module's contents.

So one week I decided to take a break from TCD and write a short delve for Gamma World called Fire From the Sky. It honestly didn't take much time to put together - probably no more than a few days for mechanic design, then several more days for map generation and layout - and was somewhat of an entertaining experience.

At the time of its writing, I didn't quite know what to do with it. I had read the 4e GSL but didn't know how it applied to publishing Gamma World content, so I sent a letter to Wizards of the Coast legal department hoping for clarification; I have yet to receive a response. At the same time, I submitted my Gamma World "pitch" to the Wizards of the Coast submission email address, and I got three responses back saying "we don't want Gamma World content." Well OK then.

So be it. One day I decided "what the hell, I've got nothing to lose" and published a free preview of the first two encounters on Drive Thru RPG while I prettied up the module for publication.

The free preview has over 300 downloads so far. Who knew there'd be that many?

At the same time I was preparing to post my module, I noticed something: Drive Thru RPG didn't really have a Gamma World category, so it lumped it together with the 4e/GSL content. Looking through the product list... I was virtually the only person creating Gamma World content!

I wasn't sure if Gamma World even had an audience; I could very well be creating something that nobody will ever use. But the module was done, and there was no reason to hold it back at this point.

When the module went up for sale, I immediately started receiving emails from would-be customers. Since Wizards of the Coast seems to have virtually abandoned Gamma World, fans of GW were excited to see actual content from someone. They began to praise my efforts before even seeing the module. They asked for tactical maps with 1" squares. They offered suggestions on how to continue it. And, today, I saw at least two people on Twitter mention that they were going to use my module with their gaming group. It's kind of a surreal experience. People like it, I think! 🙂

Almost everyone that communicated with me in one way or another had the same question "are you making another one?" A few even said they would buy it "regardless of price", which is flattering.

Making more Gamma World modules hadn't occurred to me until then, but I see now that there are many Gamma World fans out there that are desperate for new adventures and need someone to fill the void. I had found what is apparently an untapped market, a market long forgotten by Wizards of the Coast, a market that is just dying for someone to step up and create more stuff.

Well, if anyone's going to fill the void, might as well be me.

I have officially begun development on my next Gamma World module. I don't have a title for it, but here is a brief synopsis:

The town of Wildwood has taken some time to recover from the recent chaos, but it is finally back to its "normal" self... For one whole day. Then the swarms began: millions of rats, birds and insects poured over the nearby hill and assaulted the town, forcing everyone to seek shelter as they harried anyone and anything left in the open. Granted, one could argue that swarms of creatures were pretty common in Gamma Terra, but when a swarm of monkeys arrived in Wildwood handing out hand written death threats from someone called "Dr. Neb", it wasn't hard to see that this was far from ordinary.

[Name Pending] is a Gamma World campaign for five 2nd level characters, who must brave the swarms and other oddities to find this "Dr. Neb" and stop his nefarious plans!

As you can hopefully tell, this campaign will be a little more "off the wall" than my last one. It will also be longer; I'm debating whether to make it span one or two levels.

Maybe that's my calling in this crazy world: to be the authority on Gamma World. Well, we'll just have to see how things go, won't we?

Stay tuned for more information!


Ever Forward

Before I continue with this blog, I thought I'd clarify a little about myself. I am a "gamer" in the traditional sense, and have been involved with game design and game development for close to 25 years. But, as far as D&D goes, I'm somewhat inexperienced when it comes to running a campaign in person... I'm currently DM-ing four different campaigns and playing in around six or seven, all of which are "play by post" (mostly on the Wizards of the Coast forums). The last time I played a live session of D&D - with other humans - was around 1988.

A lot of my ramblings will seem to most as the trivial, nonsensical banter from someone who may not know what he's talking about and is not experienced in this sort of thing. I freely admit that, when it comes to running a campaign that isn't exclusively online, I don't have the level of experience in this genre that most of my readers do. I will make mistakes, say things that are incorrect, talk about things that have been talked to death... Simply because I'm clueless.

As it turns out, Critical Hits had an article today called "So You Want to Write RPGs", which talks about what it takes to be an RPG designer... And it got me thinking a bit. Of the seven things listed, I fail miserably at a couple of them, and the ones that I do fail at might not be that easy to remedy because of personal situations and available means (full time job, family, geography, etc...). So if I do want to make a run of this sort of thing, I have a lot of work to do. Will that stop me from doing what I want to do? Probably not. If I don't follow those suggestions and continue on the way I have been, I might end up with a product that sucks.

Honestly, I don't care if it does.

Ten years ago I was the lead programmer of a group called "The Redeemed Assassins", and we were developing The Opera: an add-on for the original Half-Life from Valve Software. Development of TO was a brutal, painstaking process that took several years, and during that time we suffered in ways I can't even begin to describe. But we did it anyway. When asked why we would go through so much trouble to create something that would be disliked by anyone who saw it, and would probably not last a week (we released at the same time that CounterStrike came on to the scene; 99% of all Half-Life servers were running CS at the time, and there simply wasn't an audience for anything else) we had a simple answer: "If one person found our product enjoyable, that will make us happy."

After over two years of development, we finally released it... And it lasted about three weeks before it was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of CounterStrike servers. But, to our surprise and happiness, there was actually more than one person out there that really liked what we did. That made it all worthwhile, and despite appeasing only a handful of people it reassured us that the past two years weren't a total waste.

As nice as it would be, I'm certainly not doing this for fame or fortune. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've been a game designer for almost twenty-five years and during that time I don't think I've ever been paid to do anything game related (Valve flew me for a day to Seattle to meet the HL2 development team... Does that count?). This isn't a career, and at this point in my life I'm not expecting to make a living doing this sort of thing. But I do it anyway because I do this for myself and the hope that there's someone out there that might actually enjoy my creations.

So I press on, pouring hours upon hours in to something that has no other apparent reward beyond being a part of it. I will continue development of this campaign in the way that I think it should be, even if some of my designs might be awkward and not for everyone. The campaign might end up being such a train wreck that that nobody will ever run it in a table top game, or it might be so campy and flawed that nobody cares for it.

But in the back of my mind I'll remain hopeful that one person out there might like it, or might benefit in some way from that which I do.

Until I find out who that one person is... "Ever forward."



What better way to start a new blog than to introduce myself.

My name is David "Nighthawk" Flor and I am technically a game designer. I use the term "technically" because I haven't actually done it professionally... That is, nobody has actually paid me to design a game (yet), but you can't blame me for trying.

What I *am* professionally is a software developer, and have been programming for close to 30 years. During that time, as a hobby of sorts, I have done video game design (created "The Opera", an add-on to Half-Life) and alternate reality game design (founder of Darklight Interactive, designed and ran Looking Glass Laboratories), and am now venturing in the strange new world that is campaign design within the Dungeons and Dragons 4e ruleset.

What possessed me to do that, you wonder? For the past two years I've been designing an alternate reality game called Rachel's Walk. It's a massively complex and intricate world, containing people and places both in the real world and in an imaginary game space powered by something I call the "Dream Engine". I admit that my design is a little... how should I say... ambitious. But it was a great idea on paper anyway.

At the same time I was developing the backstory to this campaign, several friends introduced me to the D&D 4e ruleset. Now I'd played D&D before, going all the way back to the first edition, but this new rule set was quite intriguing. It was then I realized something: the backstory I was creating for Rachel's Walk would probably make a really cool campaign.

And so it began. Over the span of several months I created a campaign that spanned nine chapters, taking a party of five from level 1 all the way to level 10. A whole new continent, a band of NPCs, new monsters, new traps, new items... I admit I really got in to it, designing some areas with intricate detail even though the players might never see them. And I found myself drawing some pretty impressive maps, which is quite an achievement for a computer programmer who couldn't draw a square at gunpoint a year ago.

Since then I have launched the campaign on two forums, one of which is the Wizards of the Coast Real Adventures group, in the hopes that it can be playtested. Since my background is video game and alternate reality game design, some of my horribly intricate ideas did not translate to a D&D campaign very well, so I needed players in order to refine the mechanics of it. It was essentially a "beta", and during these controlled trials in which my players went through the paces I began to realize that players are quite a creative bunch. They tried things that I didn't expect, asked questions on story elements I hadn't even considered. They made the design better, and because of their input quite a few things have changed since it was first conceptualized.

So here we are. With the assistance of my players, I have decided to put together this campaign in a module format (whether I sell it or not is still up in the air). And I thought I might as well share some of the design considerations that went in to it with you.

But there's more... While running the campaign, I realized that managing a 4e campaign is HARD. There's so many details that the DM needs to keep track of - hit points, bonuses, detrimental effects, encounter powers, surges, treasure, even things like interactions with NPCs - that it's easy to lose one's mind. So I did what any programmer would do: I began to create a suite of applications - both offline and online - that will assist me in the execution of the campaign. This includes linkable online die rollers (a concept I didn't even know existed until I saw its use on the WotC forums), map generators, image hosting services, encounter managers and more. I realized that these tools should be available to everyone, not just little old me. So you'll see me mention them a lot, with the ultimate goal of making them available to the masses.

This blog will not reveal "spoilers" from the existing campaign; I'll try not to do that as best I can because I do want my playtesters to be able to read this blog without having it spoil their future.

I hope you stick around.

Filed under: Personal, RPG 3 Comments