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


Hell Freezes Over


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.


“Revenge of the Kobolds” is out!

RotK covers, by Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg

RotK covers, by Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg

After languishing in a self-imposed "development hell" that lasted about two years, my pride and joy... Revenge of the Kobolds... is finally released! FOR FREE!

The product is made even more awesome through the cover art by Val "Kick Girl" Hochberg!

Now, if WotC would get their act together and release a 5th Edition license maybe I can convert this module to 5th Edition and make it even MORE awesome! I'm also debating converting it to Pathfinder and/or 13th Age, time considering... We'll see if I can ever get around to that.

Revenge of the Kobolds: DM's Guide

Revenge of the Kobolds: Player's Guide

And, like I said, it's FREE! So GO GET IT!!!


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.


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.


The Fonts of D&D 5th Edition

Since I posted this on Twitter, I thought I would expand on it.

As a publisher, one of the things I always have to keep in mind is that my product's design and layout should be reasonably close to the official products while being very clear that it's not actually an official product. Although my data layout is fairly similar, I have ultimately chosen a different set of fonts and whatnot so that I have my own unique look... but there are still a lot of people out there that want whatever they do to look like D&D in terms of layout.

So I took the D&D Basic Rules free PDF, opened it up inside of Adobe Acrobat X Pro (part of the Adobe CS6 Master Suite), and looked at what fonts and colors they used. And this is the result...

All these fonts aren't exactly cheap, it seems. At first I thought they were free because I had them already, and I'm not exactly sure why I do but I do have upwards of 6,000 fonts on my system (they come with the job) after all... I have one of my many clients to thank I suppose. If you don't have a client to thank, going out and buying these will cost you like a grand total.

If you look around you can find some pretty close alternatives. For example, this font has been suggested (through the WotC forum thread here) as a stand-in for Bookmania. And ufonts has a wide assortment of ScalaSans fonts although they don't explicitly have ScalaScans Offc or ScalsSans Sc Offc.

So, although this information is here, I have to put a disclaimer: it is not the best of ideas to make your product look exactly like WotC's... Arguably, that's one of the reasons I got a C&D from them in the first place. You simply can't pretend to be an official product by making yourself look like an official product throughout. So you might be OK using this style for fan created, free content... but please do not use these fonts and colors for a retail product. OK?

Filed under: 5E, Design, DnD, Publication No Comments

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.