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



Traps in 13th Age

As I think I've mentioned before, I've fallen in love with 13th Age... so much so that I have decided to convert my uber-campaign The Coming Dark entirely from Pathfinder to 13th Age. It's somewhat of a daunting task; in retrospect, I probably should just have written it from scratch, simply because that several design philosophies differ between the system.

In working with 13th Age, I noticed that there are several aspects that are lacking from the core ruleset: curses, diseases, poisons, detailed trap/hazard implementation, etc... All of which I need, at least if I choose to stick with the module as it has been designed for Pathfinder.

The following is my attempt to explain how I am going to implement some of these things in 13th Age. Let's start with the most commonly used...


The 13th Age book does not give a whole lot of emphasis on traps. To be specific, they're really only talked on one page (page 185) and are referred to as going "out of style". Frankly, I disagree with that; I think traps are somewhat of a necessity, especially if you consider the term "trap" abstract. Every trap isn't an acid jet or a 10' pit, after all... and there are several things that fall under the trap rules that just can't be lumped in to what the text describes as a "trap".

In addition to that, the text provides the "impromptu damage" table that doesn't scale with the party. A "normal adventurer" trap is much easier to a 3rd level party because the +5 attack roll is theoretically unchanged. And the second you take a step in to Champion levels that attack roll rockets up to +10.

What I have chosen to do in some cases is to treat some aspects of the trap as it is a monster. This includes handling attack rolls, initaitive, damage, and even hit points (when applicable) so that they do in fact level with the party.

Here's the guidelines I am using... In my initial example, for argument's sake, I'm going to design a trap that causes a cave-in.

Type of trap: First off, there are two types of traps: "mechanical" and "magical". "Mechanical" traps involve some physical aspect that isn't powered by raw magic - be it a pit, a large stone block, an acid jet, etc... - and as such require physical interaction to disarm them since they have no magic to be disspelled. "Magic" traps are created with raw, arcane power and as such are more likely to be disspelled with a counterspell than to be manually manipulated. A rogue trying to use thieves' tools on a magical trap is probably in for a nasty surprise since the trap isn't designed for that to be effective.

There are also other types of traps or hazards, such as "obstacle" or "terrain", which would inherently define how the trap is dealt with. We'll get to tat later.

Example: Our cave-in is clearly mechanical; no magic involved.

Trap Level: This is in parallel to what 4th Edition does. The trap's level defines its difficulty, its attack roll, its damage, etc... Traps can also be large, double-strength or triple-strength depending on their complexity and how threatening they are.

This also factors in to encounter balance; if the trap is active while an encounter is taking place around it, in terms of encounter balance the trap is treated as a monster of equal level and difficulty.

Example: Our cave-in trap is designed for low level but it's big and menacing, so we'll keep it simple and define it as a "Triple-strength 1st level trap [MECHANICAL]"

Initiative: If the trap requires some sort of initiative, such as traps that remain active and repeatedly attack the party, you can use the same guidelines as monsters, which is "initiative adjustment + level".

For mechanical traps, generally the initiative adjustment should be low, like +0 to +2. Magical traps, by nature, should have notably higher initiative counts since their reaction is driven by arcane magic, so I'd say put these at +2 to +4 if not more.

Example: Our cave-in is a one shot - it happens and that's the end of it - so no initiative applies.

Detect DCs: You can use the same guidelines as normal DCs in the game; DC 15/20/25 for Adventurer level depending on whether the trap is easy, normal, or hard to detect.

If the players fail to detect a trap that has an initiative count, the trap should either get a surprise round or its initiative count should end up being higher. One easy solution is to "take 20" for the trap's initiative roll.

As far as who can detect what kind of trap, preference should be given to the right classes. Rogues excel at detecting mechanical traps, so you may want to consider giving them a small bonus (as if it was a background, say +3) to the detect roll. If the trap is magical, arcane spellcasters should get a like bonus. You can even go as far as to give rangers a bonus to detecting terrain hazards. Use your discretion; if the PCs give a convincing argument, give them the benefit of a doubt.

Disarm DC: Same guidelines as above, but how the trap is actually disarmed is up to your interpretation. Rogues excel at dealing which mechanical traps, while spellcasters can channel arcane energy to dispel or neutralize magical traps. Some traps or hazards, like terrain hazards, can't simply be disarmed and have to be dealt with via conventional means.

In some cases it may be possible to simply circumvent a trap without actually "disarming" it. If players detect and trigger a 10' deep pit to open up in front of them without falling in, finding a way over it now that they know it's there may not require a skill check at all.

If the player fails the check to disarm the trap, you can either explicitly specify what will happen or you can use your judgment. You can also give the players a cushion for failure; for example, if the DC is 20, if the player rolls a 19 he might be able to get away with not triggering the trap. In these cases, you can specify a triggering threshold, such as "<15 triggers", so only if they fail to meet a DC 15 will the trap actually spring.

Note that if the player fails the check but doesn't spring the trap, he can try again, at least until he succeeds or the trap is sprung.

Traps that are "obstacles" or "terrain" may not have a means by which they can be disarmed; they're just there, a permanent fixture that can't be gotten rid of.

Example: Our cave-in should be fairly difficult to detect by the average PC, so let's leave it at a DC 20. As a DM, I would consider giving bonuses to dwarves or anyone that can detect irregularities in the stone work, assuming of course the PCs provide a convincing argument for such a bonus.

To disarm the cave-in is another matter entirely. First of all, if the hazard is detected the party can simply step around it or go another way, neither option of which would require a skill check. If the players choose to do something about it, such as brace it or prevent the trigger from being set off, it may require a roll if you so desire; in this case I'd set it at a DC 15 or DC 20. I would also grant the same bonuses I did in the detect above, such as giving dwarves a +3. Let's go with a DC 20 for argument's sake.

If the PC rolls a 15 or lower on the check, the cave-in should begin.

So our block reads "Detect: DC 20" and "Disarm: DC 20, <16 triggers".

Trigger: Most traps aren't active all the time; something sets them off. When the trigger condition happens, the trap will either enter the initiative order (if it has initiative) or simply attack.

Example: Our trap should trigger when the party proceeds down the cave tunnel. So, put simply, the block should read "Trigger: walking down the tunnel" and leave the rest to DM discretion.

Hit Points and Defenses: If the trap is a physical entity - a dragon's head that spits fire, a sharp blade on a swinging pendulum, a barrier of arcane force, etc... - it should have some degree of hit points. For this I would use the guidelines set forth in the "DIY monsters" section of the core manual, possibly choosing double or triple-strength characters.

In non-combat situations, it may not be necessary to track hit points at all. If the fire-breathing dragon's head is not threatening the party and the party is trying to damage it from a safe distance away, you can safely assume that the party will eventually cause enough damage to destroy it. Only when the party is in imminent danger, and they are under a clock to stop the trap before things get much worse, should you even bother with tracking HP. The same goes for the trap's defenses: if the party is out of range and unthreatened, unless there is a possible risk to the party there isn't a need to make an attack roll every time a PC takes a shot at it. Just assume that, eventually, they'll hit it enough to break it.

If you determine you need hit points, you will probably need defenses. Except for the really unusual 1% (such as traps that have a spiritual presence), traps do not have a Mental Defense and are immune to any sort of psychic attack. Most traps, specifically mechanical traps that are immobile, should have a relatively low AC compared to their PD, so much so that as a DM you might even consider attacks that target AC to always hit.

Example: The cave-in doesn't need any hit points to speak of. You can assume that if it gets attacked once it will trigger but that's not something that needs documenting, much less an attack roll.

Attack Type: One way or another, the trap's going to attack. It may attack once, it may attack repeatedly, and it may even have multiple forms of attack, but it's gotta do something.

As a basis I'm using the standard guidelines for monsters: Level+5 for the attack roll. Depending on the nature of the trap it will attack AC, Physical Defense or Mental Defense.

Depending on the nature of the attack you also have to decide:

  • Whether it's a melee, ranged or "close" attack.
  • How many targets it can affect, and whether those targets are "nearby" or "far".

Example: Our cave-in, being level 1, gets a +6 vs PD close attack that targets all nearby creatures.

Attack Damage: This is where it gets tricky... If the trap is in an area where there is an active encounter, its damage should be on par with a monster of equal level. In that case you can choose to use the static "strike damage" value in te DIY tables as a basis.

If the trap is outside of an encounter, and especially if it's a single use trap (like our cave-in), the damage should be considerably higher. This could arguably be covered by using the double-strength or triple-strength numbers. But even then, static numbers are averages by definition, so you might want to roll actual dice. In this case, use the table's "strike damage" as the average die roll and base your die pool on that.

The trap, like monsters, could also have secondary effects and attacks for special rolls, such as effects that trigger on "natural 20", "natural even hit/miss", etc... If you're doing something Fourthcore-like, you may even consider something like "Natural 20: Death".

Magical traps could be significantly more complex, similar in what they can do to wizard or sorcerer spells. Be as creative as you want; magical traps are magnificently lethal by design, and they should be extremely complex-looking and dramatic.

Example: Our cave-in is a pile of really big rocks crashing down on the party, so it's gonna hurt. That being said, I consider it a triple-strength monster, so the strike damage is 15, which is actually the average of 4d6 s0 let's go with that for our damage.

If the trap misses, it still might hurt a bit so let's add an additional condition: "Natural even miss: Half damage".

Additional effects: Traps may have additional effects, "nastier specials" or other features just like monsters do. If you want the trap to be either persistently annoying or downright lethal if a PC blunders in to it, you can choose to add a lot more complexity to it for dramatic effect.

Example: Rocks fall. There really isn't much room for creativity in this one.

Given all that, we now have our stat block...


That about covers traps, I think. I'm sure I'm missing something, but it'll come to me some other day. Maybe soon I can provide some more examples from The Coming Dark.


The Vortex Bag

While I'm editing the rather large campaign The Heart of Fire, I figure I'd share a few of the elements from it that aren't quite spoilers but give a sense of the things I'm trying to do with this module.

Let's start off simple with a rather dangerous discovery: what if there was a Bag of Holding that is flawed, causing the pocket dimension within the bag to begin imploding?

The Vortex Bag is a seemingly innocuous bag, very similar in appearance to the traditional Bag of Holding, except that once it's open will suck in everything in the area and, once inside, begins to crush it with powerful force. The only way to avoid it is to try to crawl out of it or destroy the bag. And if one starts to bash at the bag while there are people still inside, those victims may not appreciate it much.

Hope you enjoy. Until the release of The Heart of Fire, I may be releasing a few other things. It's just so hard to decide what to reveal without spoiling it... 🙂



Contest: Design a Treasure Vault

I am currently developing another module titled The Heart of Fire. In a style that seems to be somewhat typical of me, it's another big one - 116 pages at current count - but I think this module might actually be more usable because of the way it's designed. It's not a linear path... It's effectively a dungeon crawl where the players can take multiple paths to their primary objective, or deviate to do something that has nothing to do with the primary objective, or just wander around and kill stuff. There are several roleplaying options, lots of traps and lots of monsters. Should be fun!

The module is about 90% done, and all that remains is the design of three different rooms and for me to write a whole lot of fluff for the rest of the module (as I've said many a time before, I'm no good at fluff).

Recently, as part of the "RPG chat" that occurs every Thursday, the discussion came up about how one goes about creating a campaign. A lot of people mentioned how they have a hard time with the "nitty gritty", putting together the mechanics on how things work, and have a much better time just coming up with stories or descriptions of things. I am the complete opposite: I guess it's because I've been a computer programmer for thirty years, but I have a tendency to do all the mechanics first and foremost, and then fill in the blanks and make the story around that.

Case in point: in The Heart of Fire, the first thing I designed was the full stat block and tactical encounter map for the endgame boss. I had no idea what his motivations were, or why he was a "boss" in the first place for that matter. I had no clue what environment he would be in, or what would be involved along the way in order to get to where he is at. In the module there is currently a group of zealots known as the Blackfire Order that worship said boss, but at the time I created the boss' stat block that cult didn't even exist; I hadn't thought of it at all. I had a fully documented Level 12 Solo Controller with an arsenal of traps and devices around his lair, but I didn't quite know what to do with it. Everything leading up that didn't exist, and at the time I had no clue what it would be.

Over time I built a world around it, but I built it one stone at a time. Whereas some people may have a vision of the story from beginning to end in their head, I didn't have the faintest idea where it would go. Eventually I created the Blackfire Order (the aforementioned zealots), and another group of antagonists that get in the way, and the maze of tunnels inside the volcano that the boss calls home, and the island on which the volcano stands, and the small fishing village at the opposite end of the island where the encounter starts. Actually, I didn't even get that far yet: the page on which I am meant to describe Serpent's Cove - the village where the party begins their adventure - is completely blank. I haven't written a thing about it.

But every creature, trap and hazard has a stat block. I know exactly how much XP every room has, and I know exactly what level the PCs will be if they take certain paths. I have 36 encounter areas with detailed mechanics, ranging from every unique monster's stat block to the hit points and defenses of the average temple door... but every single one of them has a "read aloud" section that currently blank.

That's just the way I am, I guess. I'll deal with it sooner or later...


In the meantime, I thought I'd try an experiment and see if anyone out there will bite. After I created the boss and his lair, I created the following map:

At the time I didn't know what to do with it, or where it was going to go, or what's in it. Now I have a vague idea, but still nothing concrete. But like I said above, I know every mechanical detail about the encounter that's just outside the door to the North (7 monsters, EL 11, 2,950 XP) and the specifics on the trap that secures the door... but that's it.

I made the map using the "OK, let's see what looks cool here" school of design. A massive pile of coins lying in wait underwater? Let me mess with the transparency and color contrast to make the water look weird... Lit braziers? Let me see how putting an aura around the flame looks...

All in all, a neat little map... That's devoid of content.

So I leave this to you: using the map above, design what the contents of the room will be. Put in as many death traps as you want, pile it full of enough monsters so that they can't move, devise some sinister puzzle or contraption that makes it difficult to get so much as a coin out of this place. The room could be a real treasure vault, or a place of watery doom. Use your imagination!

Conditions: The only condition is that you do not alter the structural content of the room. You can add all the creatures you want, but you must not change the appearance of the room by adding objects. At least not initially, that is - objects might appear after the room is interacted with, such as things popping out from the walls, rising out of the ground, or simply appearing out of thin air - but when the players enter the room must be as it appears above. Again, monsters are the exception: put whatever you want.

Game System: The design could be of any level, and preferably for D&D 4e although I will accept other game systems with D&D mechanics (from 1st Ed D&D to Pathfinder). You can even "fourthcore" it, if you're so inclined.

Judging: Depending on how many entries we get, I will either judge them myself or find judges to take a look. We'll see.

Prize: These days I cannot guarantee retail prizes like I've done before as I don't have the resources to buy them, but I could guarantee prizes I myself have created since they're free to me.

So the winner - or winners, if there is a tie - will get a voucher from Drive Thru RPG for all the products I have listed there (CC1: The Complete Collection, retail value $13.96):

And, to be honest, if your design knocks my socks off maybe we can work something out to include part of all of it in The Heart of Fire. Of course, you will get credit for the creation in every way possible. No guarantees, but I like to keep my options open.

Deadline: All entries must be in by midnight December 18th, 2011.

So if you're up to it, show the world what you can do!



I guess it would help to add the email: send it to contest@brainclouds.net!


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! 🙂


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!


Hazard/Monster: The Black Obelisk

WARNING: Possible campaign spoilers.

I've recently been having a bit of a mental dilemma with certain traps in my campaign.

My previous post talked about a specific hazard that has both positive and detrimental effects, and issues that come up as it relates to forced movement. Now I'm dealing with a solo trap that... well... I'm not sure if it should be a "trap" in the first place, at least in terms of how a "trap" is defined by the 4e rulebooks.

NOTE: In order to avoid spoilers, I will be talking in a general sense and have created a radically different object that has the same issues: the Black Obelisk.

You see, there's this object that is extremely powerful. One could argue that it's also intelligent, in the same manner that artifacts are but at a much more powerful scale. And it has friends, creatures that want to protect it and the area ahead.

One could argue that that's a trap or hazard, but I have some issues with that:

  • The object's mechanics are beyond the scope of the traditional trap's statistic block. Most traps have a single attack or action they take; this object would have more options.
  • The object provides an aura that protects its allies, so it technically functions as a controller. If it were to have healing or regenerative properties, it could also be considered a "leader".
  • The object has multiple attack types, and some of those attacks or actions are not as intense as its bigger hits, so it has Minor and Standard actions. It could also conceivably have interrupt actions and make opportunity attacks.
  • The object is powerful enough that it can't simply be dispelled by a few rolls (such as the traditional Arcana-/Religion/Thievery-based skill challenge, for example), and there's no chance of it being defeated by a single Thievery roll. It should take significantly more work to disable it, so much so that it's probably easier to destroy than to disable.

With that in mind, a thought occurred to me: what if this was a creature? That also has some issues:

  • It is an object, and as such falls under certain guidelines in terms of defenses and durability (see "Object Properties" in the Dungeon Master's Guide). Granted, those defenses will probably be boosted because of the nature of the object, but it's still an object nonetheless.
  • It has no brain or mind of its own (one could argue its attacks are by design or due to some sort of programming), so it doesn't have a Will defense. It would also be immune to other mind-affecting keywords and specific attack types: disease, poison, gaze, psychic, charm, fear and so on.
  • It's anchored to the ground, which means it can't be force moved and probably cannot fall prone.
  • It doesn't provoke opportunity attacks because its physical state never changes; it cannot "let its guard down" (see the definition of "Opportunity Actions" in the Player's Handbook) because it really doesn't have a dynamic guard like a living creature would. It also doesn't have eyes, so it qualifies as having "all around vision" and blindsight.
  • Unless one of the creatures in the encounter is a mason, it can't heal. For that matter, it doesn't know what it is to be "bloodied" either. When it drops to 0 hit points, it is destroyed.

So I decided to make my object a "object monster", treating it as an Elite monster with a somewhat modified stat block.

As an example, I have created the Black Obelisk "creature" below. I admit I threw this one together rather quickly (I even had to make post-production changes to the image in Photoshop to remove spoilers) and only made it for this blog post to give you an idea of the sort of thing I had in mind.

The Black Obelisk

As you may notice, the important differences are in the top section (hit points) and in the "Traits" section, where the obvious differences between a monster and a common trap are. Beyond that, it's a monster. I hesitated including the attributes at the bottom since they don't apply and are hardly used, but whatever.

Now this "creature" is not meant to be alone; it comes with any number of other guys. Those guys in turn draw power from the obelisk, regenerating their wounds and gaining protection from the obelisk's own attacks.

Now that I've decided on this hybrid, I might end up using it in multiple places. I don't know... I somehow prefer creature mechanics compared to trap mechanics, at least for the simpler non-deathtrap traps.