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


Math Makes Brain Hurt



Over the weekend I acquired the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual... which I desperately needed for my conversion of "The Coming Dark, Chapter One" to 5th Edition.

I have to say, even if you aren't a DM, I highly recommend you get your hands on it. It's a beautiful book and is chock full of lore and other tidbits of information on all your favorite monsters. You may not be analyzing each stat block in vivid detail, but you can enjoy it nonetheless.

Needless to say, converting TCD has been... difficult. The campaign has existed in one way or another for four years and has had treatments in four different editions: 4E, Pathfinder, 13th Age and now 5E. In every edition before 5E it was pretty easy to put what I wanted into a given encounter; create your monster, and all the related math works itself out and balances everything for you. In 4E you can have a monster that's a mage with ten different types of spells, but since the damage from those spells is balanced and HP was predictable it wasn't a big deal.

5E is quite different, though: the players are fragile. At 1st level, it's actually pretty easy to kill a player, sometimes with a single blow. I find myself unable to create combats of the same scale as I did in 4E because the PCs aren't indomitable wrecking balls of destruction that just won't die. I have to scale things back, and sometimes that hurts.

For example, at a pivotal point at the end of Act II the party encounters two mages. These mages are supposed to be powerful but still defeatable by a party working collectively and tactically.

First off, let's assume I want to make a slightly difficult encounter for a 2nd level party... My XP budget would be about 750 XP. Two opponents gives a 1.5x multiplier, so that makes each opponent 250 XP. That means, assuming there's nothing else in the encounter, two CR 1 mages.

But what does CR 1 mean? I'm hoping more explanation on how to calculate this magic number is provided in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but in the mean time it's a bit of a crap shoot to figure out. In Pathfinder it was sort of easy - the CR could be calculated from class levels - but it feels like CRs are all over the place in 5E. According to the NPC lists, a 4th level spellcaster is a CR 2... and that's the "cult fanatic", which isn't even worthy of being a named villain. If I make both mages a CR 2, the encounter difficulty would rocket up to 1,200 XP (400 XP each, 1.5x multiplier), which is far beyond the "deadly" 1,000 XP budget for a five man, 2nd level party.

So, if I keep them at a CR 1, what level of a spellcaster is that? 2nd level? 3rd? That's hardly a menace... that's weaker than a "fanatic" for god's sake, and hardly worthy of a named villain. It feels like the math cheapens the encounter.

Now I know what you're thinking... "the hell with XP budgets; put whatever you want." If I were the DM I could handle that, deal with the situation accordingly and manage the by-the-numbers impossible encounter so it's not as overwhelming as the math shows. But I'm not the DM here... I'm a publisher. Those numbers are there for a reason: to assist those fledgling DMs that don't know how to control the game. A seasoned DM would not have much a problem throwing a CR 5 at a 1st level party... He would know how to give the party a fighting chance and how to control the situation. You give that CR 5 to an inexperienced DM that only knows how to make attacks and roll dice, it'll be a slaughter. So as a publisher I have to respect them, whether I agree with them or not.

And this scene isn't my only scene with such a problem. I hve a giant skeleton (CR 2) as literally the second encounter for a 1st level party. I have a scene with a pair of doppelgangers (CR 3s) against a 1st-2nd level party. I have a drow mage (CR 3, for now) summon a drider, which is a soul crushing CR 6 by MM standards, against a 2nd level party.

I guess what I'm getting at is that things are way different and I must adapt. In 4E, all I had to do to "fix" the encounter is look at the numbers and scale things. You could just *make* a level 1 drider that's balanced! In 5E you have to look past the numbers, search for new creative ways to make an encounter much more meaningful, and much less deadly, than it would be if it were based on numbers alone.

For example, in my examples above:

  • The party has help against the giant skeleton in the form of village guards. I've added the option that the giant skeleton, rather than target the party directly, might decide to go wail on some expendable NPCs instead.
  • Even though the doppelgangers are working together, they're normally not in the same room. So they can deal with one at a time unless the party brings them together, but then it's their own damn problem.
  • The drider is a "summoned drider", where I purposely reduced the stats to about a CR 3; it's still a threat given the other enemies in the encounter (and related multiplier) but not as overwhelming. And I added the possibility that the drider might be a little ticked at being summoned in the first place and take its rage out on the mage that made it appear, allowing the PCs to react accordingly.

Still not sure what to make about my "two wizards" encounter... need to think about that some more.


Just to recap my current projects:

  • The Atomic Age RPG is, short of a better way of putting it, in "development hell" right now because of personal situations I find myself having to deal with (if you follow me on Twitter, you probably know). Eventually this will appear on Kickstarter.
  • The Cavern of the Damned was in progress, but do to a drive failure I lost the map. It's about half done, and although it was intended for 13th Age I'm debating what system it will ultimately be for.
  • The Coming Dark, Chapter One is about 90% complete, at least as a first draft. It's been rewritten for 5th Edition, so it's contingent on licensing options of course. I'm optimistic. This may or may not be on Kickstarter; don't know yet.
  • Have one other pet project that I don't want to mention, but it could be really fun and I wish I had the time for it.
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To Crunch or Not To Crunch

Development has continued on the Atomic Age RPG... Granted, not as fast I would like due to personal and "real life" issues (how awesome would gaming be if we didn't have to do things like, you know, pay rent and eat food!) but it's moving along.

This past week I've been focusing on two things:

  1. Rewriting the rules so that they have more fluff. Right now, except for entirely new material, it's 90% text from the SRD which... let's be honest... reads like the owner's manual to a 747. It's presentation of the rules is as raw as it gets, and it isn't exactly as fun a read as the 13th Age book is. I'm hoping to fix that.
  2. Seriously reconsidering some of the new implementations I'm doing. Besides the all new classes, races, monsters and content, there are a few major things I'm creating exclusively for The Atomic Age:
  • Radiation sickness
  • Disease and toxins
  • Gun mechanics
  • Vehicles and driving mechanics
  • Hacking

#2 above is the one I have the biggest issue with right now. You see, I'm a crunch guy... As a mathematics/computer science major, I love crunch and can't get enough of it. But 13th Age isn't exactly designed that way... it's meant to be "rules light", comparatively speaking. So it's hard to do certain things without becoming what 13th Age isn't.

Some things could be unavoidably complex... Yes, I could make vehicle rules be no more than one paragraph, but do I really want to? I'm not the kind of person that would make it a single paragraph and expect the DM to figure out what to do with that. I want to write rules, but is doing so a direct violation of everything 13th Age and the Archmage SRD stands for?

Let's take the firs example above: radiation sickness. Or let's put it in terms I'm actually using: the distinction between radiation damage and radiation exposure.

Radiation damage is just that: raw damage, no different than any other. Radiation exposure is how much radiation your body soaks up; it may not be immediately lethal, but it probably won't be god for you. But how do I quantify that? At what point do I decide "OK, you've had enough exposure... time to start feeling icky."

So I conceived the concept of a "radiation tolerance", which is half your maximum hit points. Once you get exposed to an amount of radiation that exceeds your tolerance, your sickness level increases one stage. And it keeps stacking... For example, you start at Stage 0 but if your tolerance is 20 and you take 50 exposure your stage is now Stage 2 (with 10 points to spare).

So what are the stages? Here's the list I currently have...

Stage 0: No adverse effect.

Stage 1: Your Constitution score is reduced by 1d4.

Stage 2: Your Constitution and Intelligence scores are further reduced by 1d4. When you use a recovery, you only recover half the hit points you normally would. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may start to experience one small, cosmetic mutation that may not fully develop until your exposure increases or until you go a long time without treatment.

Stage 3: Your Constitution, Intelligence and Strength scores are all further reduced by 1d4. You cannot use any recoveries until your radiation level is reduced. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may experience one significant mutation (see Advanced Mutations on page XXX).

Stage 4: All your attributes are further reduced by 1d4. During each full heal-up, you must succeed in a hard Constitution skill check (see Environmental DCs for Skill Checks on page XXX) or die.

Stage 5: Death.

The problem with this is that now I'm introducing another mechanic: ability drain. Every time this happens you'll have to recompute everything: armor class, defenses, max hit points, attack rolls, etc... etc... etc... Do I really want that? This feels very... 3.5E/Pathfinder-ish.

So I thought of an alternate list:

Stage 0: No adverse effect.

Stage 1: You take a -2 penalty to all attack rolls and skill checks.

Stage 2: You take a -2 penalty to all defenses, and when you use a recovery you only recover half the hit points you normally would. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may start to experience one small, cosmetic mutation that may not fully develop until your exposure increases or until you go a long time without treatment.

Stage 3: You are vulnerable to all attacks against you, and you cannot use any recoveries until your radiation level is reduced. On a full heal-up, at the GM’s discretion you may experience one significant mutation (see Advanced Mutations on page XXX).

Stage 4: Death.

It's one stage less because I'm honestly running out of things to penalize.

So all of the above, with the addition of details on how to reduce your exposure and whatnot, takes up two pages of a Word document, which would translate to about a page and a half (sans art) in the final format. For a game whose rules on invisibility take up three small paragraphs, that feels like a lot doesn't it?

Again, is that such a bad thing? If I had to simplify it, I'm not sure how I would... any more and I might not as well include it at all.

This happens with all the other sections I mention above as well. Vehicle rules are like six pages right now, and that might sound absurdly long but, to me anyway, it feels right. So I have to force myself to adjust my way of thinking and create new rules that have the same design ethic as the rest of the document. Well that or create the entire damn game from scratch, which is not something I think I can do in any reasonable amount of time.

Anyway, I'll revisit these rules some of the day I suppose. I still got a lot of text to write for my icons in the meantime.

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A Place In The World

Gosh, it's been a while. Saying "I've been rather busy" is somewhat of an understatement.

ArchmageEngine_RGB_150x150.fwAs of late I've been having a but of a problem in the development of the Atomic Age RPG: I'm not exactly sure what the RPG is meant to be, in a manner of speaking.

You see, when I first saw the Archmage Engine SRD and decided "I could make a game with this", my original vision was to make something along the lines of Gamma World, and capitalize on that system's appeal. Create the utterly bizarre, and give the GMs the artistic liberty to create an environment that could be whatever they want it to be, however zany, off-the-wall and madcap they would want to make it. You know, gun-toting badgers and land sharks... that sort of thing.

But over the past four months of development it seems I've ended up with something different. The zaniness isn't there, at least not on the surface, and replaced with the elements of a gritty reality of a post-apocalyptic world. I found myself writing pages on gun mechanics, on vehicle driving rules, on poisons and toxins, on radiation exposure and so on...

That's mainly because, and I've mentioned this before, I'm a mechanics guy. As a computer science/mathematics major and a career software developer, I find myself at home writing crunch and could spend days, weeks, or even months writing mechanics. But writing fluff for me, quite honestly, is rather hard and takes a great deal of effort. You can't imagine how many rewrites I've done to some of the fluff pieces in this product... such as the icons or the geography. They're still 90% filled of "TODO" sections that are yet to be written.

So, after looking at the project as it stands now, rather than having something like Gamma World - which is what I originally intended, at least superficially - the RPG has ended up leaning towards something along the lines of Fallout or Mad Max. A gritty, harsh, post-apocalyptic world that has its share of weirdness, sure, but it isn't as over the top "WTF?!?" crazy that is Gamma World.

Although I accept that that's how the mechanics turned out, now I have to put together the fluff around it. The major dilemma I have right now is trying to decide what the system actually looks like... I need branding. I've asked a few people for ideas on what that should be, with the intention of at least getting a logo to start the social media blitz, but a lot of examples I've gotten in response to my inquiries have been leaning towards the original intent of this project: very Gamma World-like. And, now that I think of it, my project isn't that any more. And those that weren't GW-like seem very Fallout-like... I don't want to be "Fallout: The RPG".

Don't get me wrong: the weirdness is there. I have sentient plants, rampant AIs that want to kill you, an vorpal rabbits.

Part of the reason is that, by design, 13th Age is kind of open ended. They don't ram the setting down your throat, leaving it with a gray area on purpose and hoping that the GM will fill in the blanks. For example, very little is said of the icons, and the GMs can weave their stories any way they see fit without fear of breaking canon... because there is no canon. So for a while I thought to not pigeonhole myself in to something GW-like or not GW-like, leaving a gray area on purpose. If the DM wanted to make it like the Gamma World of old, he could do so with nominal effort. If he wanted Fallout, he can do that as well...

But the problem with that is that it makes it very difficult to present a product identity when the product doesn't have an identity in the first place. It's hard to give an elevator pitch to a product that's 99% gray area.

So that's where I stand right now... I have a whole metric truckload of mechanics waiting to be playtested, but no look and feel. It's ready to be reviewed, at least in terms of mechanics and playability, but I'm hesitant to do so without any identity. Yeah, that didn't stop D&D Next from getting playtested without a logo, but they have a foundation.

And I have to wonder... do I have an audience now? Doing something like Gamma World had an audience because that niche had yet to be filled, but since I'm not that I wonder how much appeal my product would actually have. And I'm not the type of person to turn my product into something like Gamma World by force just because it can be more successful. The product is what it is... 13th Age exists because it's the RPG the creators wanted to create and would play themselves. Atomic Age is in the same boat. I don't feel bad about that I suppose, but in light of my goal to have a successful Kickstarter I can't help but wonder if I'll have an audience for it.

Anyway, for now I'm going to work on reformatting all my Word documents into a PDF format for playtesting. By the time I'm done, hopefully, I'll have a better idea of what the project is and is meant to be, and maybe we can start getting it out there for my would-be audience to review and see if there's a place for it in this market.

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Open Call for Playtesters

So I was able to successfully "finish" A Night in Seyvoth Manor by Halloween... But you may notice the quotes around the word "finish".

The module needs work, lots of it. Editing is the most apparent concern, but beyond that I have genuine concerns over the mechanics of the thing and whether the adventure (1) works, and (2) is fun. The only way to determine answers to that is to actively play it amongst a group. And since I don't have any local groups that would allow me to subject them to my DM-ing abilities, I turn to the Internet.

I have created another blog - http://pbp.brainclouds.net/ - in which I have place an open call for playtesters to do an online play-test of A Night in Seyvoth Manor. Right now it's the best I can do, and the best way I can think of to resolve the personal worries about creating an adventure style I'm frankly not use to.

So who's interested? Head on over to the other blog and read the details, then if you like whip up a 6th level character (guidelines are posted) and send it my way. If we get enough interest, we'll give it a go.

Thanks for your support!

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