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

20Sep/15Off

Into the Light

I've been talking about this for a long time... Hell, the actual product has been in development for five years... But now I'm finally going to do it for real.

TCD_Site

My #1 pet project, my three part campaign called The Coming Dark, is *finally* going to go to Kickstarter. Like I said, I've been writing this thing for close to five years and the campaign has seen at least three different systems (4E, 13th Age and Pathfinder) before finally settling on being published through the OGL and being compatible with the 5th Edition of the Don't-Make-Us-Have-To-Say-It roleplaying system.

I've been crunching the numbers for a while now, putting together Kickstarter spreadsheets that inevitably contained a lot of red numbers. At first I wanted a physical product, a softcover or hardcover book of the adventure that I and many others can hold in my hands, but with the costs of editing and artwork I just couldn't make the numbers work without an absurdly high stretch goal for an adventure. So, like several other adventures and campaigns as of late, I'm going to go fully digital. That way I can drop as much money as I can on editing and creative for the project.

Now the only things I have left to do before launching it are:

  • I have an editor already signed up, but I do not officially have a creative artist signed up to do the cover or interstitial art. I know who I want, and am just waiting for their response (and, if you're reading this, *hint!* *hint!*).
  • I need to make a video. This could be considered a personal phobia of mine... as you can tell pictures of me are kind of hard to find, and those that you do find weren't actually taken by me. So I have to set my fears aside, record the video and pray I don't look like a total fool.

That being said, assuming I get the responses I need, the campaign for The Coming Dark, Chapter One might be submitted for Kickstarter review as early as the end of the week.

In an effort to be ready for the social media push, I created a signup site where you can register for notifications: http://tcd.dlimedia.com/

Really looking forward to this, and with all your support I trust I can make it a reality.

18Jun/15Off

“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!!!

9Apr/15Off

Did you know that there’s a Dungeons and Dragons slot machine?

DISCLAIMER: Company names and external links on all external communications have been omitted from this article. Proper names of individuals have been changed to protect them.

That title might sound completely unlike anything I've ever written on this site... and you're right, because I didn't write it.

Several weeks ago I got contacted by a company that was willing to pay me to post articles on my site.

Here's the first email:

Hi David,
 
I hope you're having a great day! My name is Samantha and I'd like to submit an editorial piece for your website, rpg.brainclouds.net.
 
We have a team of writers ready to prepare a post written according to your site's topic, whilst adding references to our client. We are also able to pay an administration fee of $100 for your efforts in publishing the article.
 
Our aim is to contribute an article that adds value to your website and something that you and your readers may find useful and entertaining.
 
Please email me back if this is something that might interest you, David.
 
I look forward to working with you.
 
Samantha Smith

*NOTE*: "Samantha Smith" is not their real name.

A subsequent email explains how this would work...

Hi David,

I sent you an email about providing an article for your site. Have you read it and had time to think about it?

To repeat, we can send over a well-written content created specifically for your site. The post would also contain references to our client.

You will also receive an annual payment for your effort, paid promptly through PayPal.

Thanks. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,
Samantha Smith

"Yours"?!? Man, they're trying to sell me their body already?

So here's how it works: they send me an article, I post it in its unmodified form and leave it on my site for 12 months, and after 12 months they PayPal me $100. Sounds easy, don't it?

I, like pretty much anyone who's ever owned a meaningful blog, has probably gotten a fair share of requests like this. But has anyone ever done anything besides instantly hit the DELETE key and carry on with their lives?

So, for the sake of journalism and because I haven't posted an article here in millennia, I will take that challenge!

Now, if you're reading this you know what this site's content is about... but I couldn't help but wonder if they knew that. Furthermore, their article will contain links to their clients, so I can't help but wonder (1) whether they even can write an article about D&D, and (2) how they would railroad their existing clients into said article.

So, for curiosity's sake... or perhaps for amusement's sake... I decided to play along. I had some questions of my own before I proceeded.

This is my email to them, complete with shameless shilling of my fan base and my lack of time to post anything productive:

Well this is an interesting offer, I admit. I haven't had much a chance to post a lot recently, so really could use some articles to maintain my fan base (over 2,000 followers on Twitter!).
 
I do have some questions, though:
 
1) I currently do not have an active PayPal account due to collection problems with PayPal. Is there any other payment option?

2) Is it $100 per article or per year? If the latter, how many articles does that $100 include?

3) Do I have any right of refusal for articles you submit that I may deem inappropriate to post?

4) What kind of clients do you represent?

5) Do you have a company website, or somewhere where I can see examples of articles you have written?

6) Do you even know what my site's topic is?

Thank you for your interest. Maybe we can work something out after all.

Now, just to be clear, I could care less about the answer to questions #1-5... I wanted to hear their answer to #6.

And they did not disappoint...

Hello David,

Thanks for getting back to me and I'm more than happy to answer your queries.

1. We make our payments only with Paypal and Skrill/Moneybookers. We find these two channels as the most safe and efficient. If you don't have a Paypal account, you may also sign up with Skrill/Moneybookers, or we can transfer the payment to a friend or colleague of yours that has Paypal and we'll just cover the Paypal fees.

2. The fee is for just a single article which we would ask for you to keep on your website for 1 year.

3. The article is subject to your review and approval prior to publication.

4. The article will include a few references to our client, a digital entertainment company offering online games. You are free to review the article first to see if it suits your site and readership.

5. Yes, you can find more information about us here: http://letsgetwise.com/about-us/

6. The article we aim to contribute is written according to your site's topic - Game Design and /or D&D (video games)

Please let me know if you wish to see the article and I'll ask our writers to prepare the copy. You may also specify topics that you prefer so that I can pass them on.

I await your response.

Now there's two things to note in the above.

  1. Their client is a "digital entertainment company offering online games". Remember that description later...
  2. I'm a "game design and/or D&D (video games)" blog. Well, asctually, that's closer than I expected them to be so I'll allow it.

So far, there's no risk to me. They write me an article, and I get to choose whether to post it or not, and it doesn't cost me time or money. If anything, it costs me personal pride and ethics... but that's worth the $100 I'll make a year from now, right?

I, of course, had more questions before I commit to this...

I'm still considering it, and I am interested... One final set of questions, along with the request to see a sample of what they would intend to post:

1) Is there any sort of contract that would be involved in this?

2) Are there any restrictions - legal or otherwise - as to what I can and can't do outside of this one article (which I assume I can't alter) on my own site?

Beyond that, I would love to see the type of article I should expect from this sort of thing. If it really works out, I'd be more than happy to do this setup more than once; my site could use the content.

Thanks again.

The reason for question #2 is, if I do decide to post it, whether I'm allowed to bash it mercilessly in a blog post the next day. I could care less about the $100 in a year... this has comedic value now!

Hello David,

I hope you are well and my apologies on the delayed response. We don't have a set of terms and conditions or contract. All we would ask from you is to keep the article on your website for at least 12 months. Again, you are also free to review the article and make necessary adjustments to match the tone and style of your writing, however, we would ask you to keep the hypertext and links originally included when the article is sent.

I should be able to send the draft for your review within the next couple of days. If you have any editorial guidelines or specific topics in mind that you wish for us to write or avoid, please let me know so I can pass them on.

Talk soon

At this point, I couldn't wait for the monstrosity of an article they were going to send me!

Today I received the article. After looking at the post and the supporting links (we'll get to that later), I told them that I would not continue with our arrangement... but, of course, I'm going to post their jewel anyway. For free, 'cause I'm such a nice guy.

Here it is, in its entirety but with the links removed.

Title: Did you know that there's a Dungeons and Dragons slot machine?

Yeah, totally sounds like something I'd write. Oh boy... this is going to be good...

DD_Podof3_Cabinet

This was the image provided for the article.

In May 2014, legendary game developer Konami launched two slot machines themed after Dungeons and Dragons namely "Conquests and Treasures" and "Enchanted Riches." (link removed) According to the games’ description, both have a 4-level progressive feature, free spins, and Xtra Reward.

To those who aren't familiar with slot machines, 4-level progressive is a fancy term used by game developers for bonus rounds, which can be triggered after playing a slot machine for a certain period of time. Bonus rounds usually yield bigger winnings than the payouts given by regular spins.

Free spins is pretty much self-explanatory. They award free games, and can be unlocked when a player hits 3 specific icons from a single spin. Xtra Reward, on the other hand, is Konami’s original slot feature that is offered to players who bet big.

Now, who would’ve thought that a lot of casino-goers are fans of the world's leader in tabletop role-playing game? According to G3 Newswire (link removed), guests actually waited in line when the game was launched at the Valley View Casino and Hotel in San Diego. Apart from cool prizes from the event organizers, each guest was given an official action figure patterned after the slot machines’ fire-breathing dragon model.

“The players we see this day and age are out looking for entertainment, and there’s a lot of entertainment value in the new Dungeons & Dragons slot machines,” said Randy Reedy, the Vice President of Valley View’s slot operations. “They really enjoy the experience. Just watching them, they get excited about additional bonuses within the free spin feature, which takes them to the progressive functionality. It’s very fun and interactive."

Today's young adults are usually the target of slot makers. This is evident on An Online Casino (link AND name removed), the world's first online casino that opened in the late 90s, having games that carry with them the commercial license of DC Comics and several other movie franchises. Perhaps there are already enough slot machines tailored for the more mature audience so slot developers are now trying to expand their market by attracting the younger demographic.

Check out the DnD Enchanted Riches game in action on this YouTube video. (link below)

So the "digital entertainment company offering online games" is an online casino... I mean, I expected something like that, which is why I was curious how they were going to railroad that kind of client into an article about D&D, but thanks to Konami they had a reason.

And, you know, I actually considered complying with their request, posting it as-is, and bashing it tomorrow... but something really rubbed me the wrong way and forced me to tell them "no" immediately and make this post.

What was it? Well, here's a video of the machine being demoed:

Let's face it, we can't expect a SLOT MACHINE to capture the feel that is D&D (what's with the playing card letters and numbers?!?). And I have to wonder if Wizards of the Coast is actually aware that this is what was going to be done with their brand and signed off on this.

But about 0:30 in we get this jewel:

"...but it's not really hardcore Dungeons and Dragons. It actually, what we found, is it appeals to both men and women..."

*headdesk!* ... *headdesk!* ... *headdesk!*

You know, I just can't accept that.

So I immediately said goodbye to the $100 I couldn't wait to spend next year, and sent them an email that I "would not proceed with our arrangement".

Well, at least I got a blog post out of this...

Filed under: 4e, 5E, DnD, Games, RPG, Uncategorized No Comments
9Aug/14Off

The 11th Skeleton

With the release of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit and Player's Handbook, I have decided to convert my long languishing adventure "The Coming Dark" to 5E. But, unlike other publishers who will remain nameless, I am not going to rush it out there, and no one's going to see a thing about it until (1) the licensing options are given, and (2) the Dungeon Master's Guide is released.

That being said, I have started to try and figure out how 5th Edition works in terms of creating adventures. In 4E, creating balanced encounters was rather simple because everything was equally balanced - given an equal level, five monsters were an even match to five PCs - but that's not exactly the case any more. Now it's more like 3.5E and earlier versions, where a monster's difficulty is reflected in an obscure "Challenge Level" which is extremely hard to calculate. I mean, after you stat up a monster how do you know what CR Challenge Level to give it?

That led me to wonder about balance in general, specifically how balance is determined. 5th Edition had an unprecedented amount of playtesters, so they had access to a variety of groups that could test and retest things in the hopes that they could determine what is balanced and what is unbalanced. But there's an inherent problem with that: not every group is the same, and not every player is the same. If an exploit exists, it will take a small handful of "high end" players to find it... so if something is taken advantage of by so few, is it really a balance issue? Can the game be unbalanced by something you're not even aware of?

So I thought about how some things could be experimented with... and the programmer in me realized that this is no different than load testing an application. When you do that, you don't run it a few times and see what happens. You run it a LOT of times and get the average results.

So I decided to create a simulator.

Combat Simulator

Objective

In the first scene of "The Coming Dark", the players are set upon by a large group of skeletons. But how many is enough? At what point does the encounter go from being a cake walk to a crushing defeat?

So I wrote a program to simulate 50,000 combats between two groups: the five pre-generated characters that are included in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit versus an indeterminate amount of skeletons. How many skeletons does it take before the players are likely to be on the losing end of the battle?

The small little program I wrote takes a few considerations:

  • All the attacks are basic attacks. Every class uses its preferred melee attack except the rogue (which uses his shortbow) and the wizard (which uses the cantrip ray of frost).
  • The noble fighter and cleric are the "preferred" enemies of the attacking skeletons. These are the front line defenders, and likely the ones that stand between the skeleton and the wizards. Only when they both fall is the rest of the party at risk.
  • No high end magic of any kind. Needless to say this would quickly sway the encounter in the player's favor.
  • No healing. No action surge, no cleric healing, no potions, etc... again, this is something the players have that the skeleton's don't. This also means that the players will not use any limited resources during the combat.
  • No one gets advantage or disadvantage on any roll. For that reason, the rogue never deals additional sneak attack damage.
  • A natural 20 deals double the normal damage. I know this isn't precise, but it's easier to code.
  • All the damage is rolled; no averages are used.
  • The skeletons have an AC of 12 and 6 hit points each. They have a shortsword as a weapon, which gives them a +3 to the attack roll and deals 1d6+1 damage on a hit.
  • The PCs are the five defined in the starter kit: Noble Fighter (greatsword), Folk Hero Fighter (bow), Cleric (morningstar), Rogue (shortbow), and Wizard (ray of frost).
  • Since he deals bludgeoning damage and the skeletons are vulnerable to it, the cleric deals an additional die of damage on a hit. Again, not precise... but easier to code.

Results

I ran 50,000 iterations of each combat, adjusting the number of skeletons from 6 to 12. The simulations yielded the following.

# of Skeletons PC Wins PC Losses
6 49258 742
7 47238 2762
8 42606 7394
9 35178 14822
10  26024  23976
11  17060 32940
12  9388 40612

So, in a nutshell, the 11th skeleton is quite the badass. Players could more or less handle ten of them, but when that 11th one steps in things go to crap pretty quickly.

So what did we learn from this exercise?

  • It's very possible for PCs to trash a modest amount of low end minions without having to fire their big guns.
  • The above doesn't use healing at all, which means that even if the PCs get dinged about a bit they are still able to recover. PCs can win an encounter with 8 skeletons over 80% of the time and immediately go into the next encounter.
  • Dailies, spells, healing potions and other consumables - things that the monsters generally don't have - tip the scales considerably in favor of the PCs.
  • If you walk into a room with 6 skeletons in it, you can probably dispatch them fairly easily. As glorious as it might be, you don't have to nuke the whole room.

Until more concrete guidelines for monster creation and encounter balancing come about, I'll keep using this simulator and try to get a feel for how things should be. Over time, I might improve the simulator more and more so that it's more representative of each PCs actions in an encounter. Who knows? Maybe this will end up being a full on AI framework?

I can't help but wonder if WotC does this sort of analysis. Like I said above, sure they have tens of thousands of playtesters but it's such a diverse group with so many different situations that it may be hard to quantify. Not to mention that, if you present a specific combat situation to two separate groups, 99% of the time you'll get two different approaches and two different outcomes.

Can't wait to try this out on goblins and kobolds...

*EDIT*

If you're curious, you can view the C# source code for the simulator HERE.

4Jun/14Off

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..."