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


Long Overdue Update

Gosh, has it really been over three months since my last post?

Well, suffice to say that things have been somewhat hectic. I started a new job on April 1st and my work schedule has changed radically, so I usually get home extremely tired and not thinking about blogging. But I will hopefully get back to posting stuff soon once I get a little more available time.

Holy s%#@!!! We're nominated!!!

Holy s%#@!!! We're nominated!!!

But there's a big reason to celebrate! Darklight Interactive's A Night In Seyvoth Manor has been nominated in the "Best Free Product" category of the 2013 ENnie Awards!!! I admit I was counting the days 'til the nominations were released and was worried that I was building myself up for disappointment but, alas, there it is. So fingers crossed and let's see if we can win the thing, eh?

As for my development efforts, it's been somewhat of a mixed bag. I'd been working on Return of the Crystal Scion but I've become slightly disillusioned by it. As it stands now it has some areas that I'm rather proud of, but there are some monumental plot holes that I've been having a hard time filling. As a result, I have suspended further development on it. My intention is to take the larger parts of it - the Tomb of Iryk-Tep, the Sarafi tribe and their Caves of Wonder, The Obsidian Tower, etc. - and release those in some sort of side trek format. I also intend to release some parts that are simply too small for publication, such as my Sky Kraken creature for Pathfinder, here on this blog. So stay tuned for all that.

But recently I've been drawn back to my original campaign, The Coming Dark. I had already created it for D&D 4th Edition and it clocked in at close to 200 pages, but I now had issues with its initial design. You see, it was the first thing I'd ever done with D&D 4E - or with high end campaign design, for that matter - and it was somewhat "railroady". In a nutshell, I didn't like it one bit; I had a story in my head, but in my efforts to translate it to the game it just wasn't working.

So I've started a full redesign of it for use in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game system. I'm changing quite a lot of it, using the Pathfinder design style which allows me to be much more flexible in what I can do. I'm not bound by the 4E balance, or the 4E GSL for that matter. It will be distributed in three parts, each part containing three chapters (or acts... haven't decided). And I feel it's a lot, lot better now so we'll see how it goes.

I also have Revenge of the Kobolds still sitting on my hard drive waiting for me to do something with it. It still lacks art so I'm hesitant to publish it as is, but as days pass I'm getting tired of holding it back. One of these days I'll just say "the hell with it" and unleash it on the world... when that day comes, I hope you enjoy it.

Finally, I kinda said I wasn't going to do it but I'm creating another small adventure (5 encounters) for D&D 4th Edition called A Festival of Magic, which is a proposal I pitched to WotC but they apparently didn't like (they never answered me, but still). I'm going to do an experiment with this one: once I complete and release the 4E version my plan is to convert this to as many other systems as possible. Pathfinder... 13th Age... DCC... Dungeon World... AGE... etc... Figure it's worth a shot trying that once.

Anyway, I'm still around so hopefully I'll get back to posting often.


Through the Years

Starting off the new year on the right foot, this blog has been surprisingly selected as Stuffer Shack's "Favorite Site of the Month" for January! I'm not kidding about being surprised... I mean, as of late I've only been posting once or twice a month, and the posts that I have written aren't up for a Pulitzer (or whatever the RPG blog equvalent is... an ENnie, I guess?) any time soon.

But I was selected, so I thought it was time to post something.

This past year has been interesting to say the least. I didn't accomplish everything I intended to do, but it worked out overall. "The Heart of Fire" was released to what has become a dry market, so much so that I'm sure the six people that bought it really enjoy it. Other products went out here and there, but while D&D is in design limbo there has been somewhat of a market shift.

As a result, I'm looking at 2013 a little differently. Here's what's in store for you all:

  • "Revenge of the Kobolds" (D&D 4E) is being edited and reviewed by third parties. It will be released for free, without art (except for the map, anyway) on this site as soon as I feel comfortable. It might not be perfect, and it might not work very well mechanically, but it'll be released nonetheless. I predict that will be released by month's end, but don't hold me to that.
  • "A Night in Seyvoth Manor" (D&D 4E) is undergoing similar editing and review, and will probably be releadsed on or about the same time as RotK. Because of the nature of this adventure it's much easier to port to other game systems, so I'm looking to port it at least to Pathfinder and, if all goes well, other systems (AGE, 13th Age, Hackmaster, DCC, etc.). I may even use Kickstarter to fund the development for the other systems; don't know yet. The initial D&D 4th Edition version will be released for free asd well.
  • I'm imagining that my epic adventure "The Crystal Scion" will not have much public interest, so I have decided to convert what I have and finish development of it for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It's a fairly high level adventure - I'm predicting between 12th and 15tyh level - so I'm somewht worried since I've never done anything like that before. It'll be an interesting experience to say the least. I don't know if there's a market or demand for such a thing, but I imagine the market to be better than what 4th Edition is now...
  • My mega-campsign "The Coming Dark" has been going through some serious rework in my head; looking back on what is my first creation for 4th Edition I see a lot of things I did terribly, terribly wrong. So I'm reworking 99% of it and intend to release this for D&D Next as soon as it is possible (assuming it is possible... Licensing for Next is unknown at this time).
  • I have a lot of other small projects in the works. Not sure what I'm going to do with them right now, but until D&D Next is released it might be a toss up between 4th Edition and Pathfinder.
  • I have a couple of programs in the works, such as character and monster builders for D&D Next I've started on We'll see if they ever get to see the light of day.

Beyond that, stay tuned everybody... Lot more to come from us!


The Mathematics of Fixed Damage

Ever since I conceived the idea for creating A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I've been debating whether to use fixed damage values for the monsters and traps or not.

The general consensus is that using fixed damage values speeds up the encounter, primarily because mathematics becomes simpler. You don't have to read a handful of dice, add the modifier and figure out the total; it's one nice round number. No more fistfuls of dice!

The problem with using that premise in 4E is that the number is pretty much always the same. First off, when converting a monster's damage roll to a fixed number you kind of have to use the average of the damage; using anything other than the average wouldn't make sense (this is not taking "difficulty" in to consideration... we'll get to that later). But an inherent aspect of 4E is that, for any given level, all the monsters average the same amount of damage. That's by design in 4th Edition.

Damage, By the Numbers

As a point of reference, here are the average die values as presented in my 4E Dice Roller and in Sly Flourish's Die Roller:

Minion: 7 damage
Low: 10 damage
Medium: 14 damage
High: 17 damage
Limited High: 21 damage
Hardcore: 28 damage

Based on that, the first problem I have with using fixed damage would be that every monster would cause 14 damage, so for argument's sake let's make it a nice round number like 15.

Everything becomes 15 damage. Again, that's by design in 4th Edition; doing anything contrary to that risks unbalancing things. Sure there might be some exceptions to the rule - some things might do 10, some things might do 20 - but all in all it's the same average damage, over and over again. While creating my monsters for A Night in Seyvoth Manor, I actually got sick of writing "15 damage" in almost every stat block.

Critical Hits

One issue is how to handle critical hits. Gone are the days of the "ghetto crit" that could happen now; statistically speaking, a player is over three times more likely to roll maximum damage on a d6 (16.7%) than rolling a natural 20 (5%), so at low levels and players who may not have magical items a critical hit borders on being meaningless. So what do you do with critical hits and fixed damage? Double it? Add a die?

I thought about doubling the damage, but is that really "special"? With fixed damage, that's not much different than hitting twice. I tried to mitigate it by adding critical hit effects to monster powers, but sometimes  it feels like a lot of excess work.

Characters, By the Numbers

To figure out the effectiveness of fixed damage I decided to compare the above values to two different characters that would be playing such an adventure. Considering that it's a 6th level adventure, I created the weakest character I could think of (level 6 human wizard w/ 12 Constitution = 42 HP) and the toughest I could muster (level 6 dwarf battlemind w/ 21 Constitution and Toughness feat = 71 HP).

Using 15 as the base damage, it would take three shots to knock the wizard unconscious and five hits to drop the dwarf. That's arguably acceptable, but the problem becomes apparent when you realize that the wizard doesn't need a 12 Constitution... He could have a ONE as his Constitution (31 HP) and it would have the very same effect: he'd be at 1 HP after the 2nd attack and drop on the 3rd.

This means that the Constitution value - unless it's your primary stat - isn't as important. In the above case, if I knew the end result would be the same I'd consider leaving my Constitution as an 8 and boosting all my other attributes. After all, what's the point? It's not like a "lucky" damage roll might hurt... Spending the points to up my CON by 4 could be considered a waste.

I also compared the damage to the players Fourthcore game I'm currently participating in, who happen to be 6th level: we all have 60, 48, 51, 50 and 63 HP (average 54.5 HP). Using the 15 damage base rule, four out of five of us would get dropped in 4 hits. Despite the disparity in HP (12 points between the highest and lowest of the four that would be dr0pped), it all boils down to AC and not HP.

Time, By the Numbers

So, strictly from a mathematical perspective, I'm starting to not like fix damaged. But the question is: does it really improve play speed? With fixed damage do encounters blow by so quickly that it's worth the lack of randomness?

Many have pointed out that fixed damage improves combat speed considerably in epic tier, where you can expect pretty much any attack to use no less than 4 dice. And god help you if you crit, 'cause then you might be wheeling out five more dice. Oh and Sneak Attack, so there's four more. Or Hunter's Quarry. Or Warlock's Curse. Or assassin shrouds. Or this... or that... Bonuses galore. The days of throwing a bucketful of dice to determine damage are not forgotten. And it's not like past editions where the mage might have to roll 40d6s worth of damage every now and then... that's pretty much on every attack.

But we're not talking about epic tier here; we're talking about level 6. For the most part, all damage rolls end up bring at most two dice, maybe three. If everyone does what I do and rolls damage at the same time as the attack, does the math really take that long to do? I'm a mathematics and computer science major, so that math is pretty easy for me, but I can't speak for everyone else at any given gaming table. Help me out here... How long does it take you?

So I've been trying to think of how to quantify this. Let's try to figure this out; please let me know if my logic is horribly , horribly wrong:

  • I assume the average combat takes four full rounds, and there are five players against three DM controlled monsters. That's, on average, eight attacks going on in any single round (I'm balancing lack of attacks - such as for Second Wind or other support duties - to compensate for opportunity attacks, granted attacks and minor action attacks from monsters). That's 32 possible attacks.
  • Let's assume 70% of those attacks hit. Given the attack bonuses, that seems like a reasonable expectation. Rounding up, that gives us 23 attacks that require a damage roll.

So time to do a little testing.

For testing purposes, I'm assuming the attack and damage rolls are made separately. And here's what I did:

Time Spent Finding Dice: If your weapon always deals the same die's worth of damage, that die should not be far away. So I'm estimating the time to reach over and grab one or more of these dice, separate from getting the necessary d20, at about 5 seconds.

That, in my opinion, is high - I spend that amount of time looking for the dice inside of my bag, so I can only assume you don't have an idiot player that stows his dice after every roll - but we'll roll with it.

My test subjects.

Rolling Dice and Adding: I grabbed my box of dice and picked some test subjects; I chose d4s because they are the hardest to read when thrown (they can't technically be read from directly above), and to compensate for the low number I got six of them. I also got one d20 that I will roll prior to starting the clock to determine the modifier I would be adding to the die roll; for example, if I roll an 11 on the d20 my damage roll will be 6d4+11.

After twenty rolls using this style, I averaged 8 seconds per roll. Because, let's be honest, math comes easy for me I'll double that number for the purposes of this test. So let's leave it at 16 seconds.

Applying Damage: The time spent to apply the damage does not change whether the damage itself is fixed or not, so it has no bearing on this test.

So let's round things off and say that for each damage roll the player spends 20 seconds. Let's add 50% and make it an even 30 seconds. Multiplied by the 23 attacks that hit you're looking at 460 seconds, or just under 8 minutes in every encounter.

Eight minutes an encounter, and that's a high estimate in my opinion... Is that really such a big deal, especially considering how long 4th Edition encounters take now?

Personally, I don't see that as enough time to justify it, but that's just me. I'd love to hear if anyone out there has had different experiences.


In the end, I'm still not sure. I'll continue to use fixed damage simply because I started that way, but it's not all that hard to change at this point.

What do you think? How do you feel about it, good or bad? Do you use it? Is it simply a matter that combat just feels quicker when there are less dice, even though it might not actually be significantly faster?


Maze of Possibilities

Hedge maze from "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
(c) 2005, Warner Bros.

There is one part of A Night in Seyvoth Manor that I've been having problems designing for a while: a hedge maze.

You see, this maze is intended to be huge with changing walls and paths, so that aspect alone makes it virtually impossible to represent on a tactical map. Not to mention that navigating such a thing on a physical map is somewhat of a time consuming process and this module's designed to be lean and run in a single day, so I've been looking for a means to make it fairly quick and painless.

After thinking about it and throwing the question to the Twitter collective, I decided to make it a sort of card game. There will be some progress cards (+1 point), neutral cards (no points or failure), threat cards (+1 failure), a few treasure cards and one "bonus" card. The DM would go around the table, asking each player to draw a card; the player can do so or try a skill check (hard difficulty) for a peek at several cards and pick the one of them, returning the rest to the deck. The objective: get "X" points before "Y" failures.

That all sounds well and good, but there's a problem: how do you determine "X" and "Y", and how do you determine what the deck consists of? How "rich" should the deck be on either side to ensure the party isn't drawing cards until the end of time or drawing every card in the deck? Although there are a certain amount of assumptions that can be made - for example, there *must* be at least "X-1" progress cards (the bonus cards counts as 2 points) and "Y" threat cards - but beyond that there's a whole lot of variables that makes it difficult to gauge the difficulty of the challenge.

My solution was to write a program in C# (.NET 4.0) which, given certain criteria for deck building (number of cards of each type) will perform random draws and determine the success/fail rate. This allows me to run several thousand iterations of the challenge and tweak the numbers as need be. It's the closes I'll get to actual playtesting, and one could argue it's even better because it's doing thousands of iterations.

So, for example, given the following guidelines...

  • The "main" deck contains 6 progress cards, 2 neutral cards and 4 threat cards.
  • The "secondary" deck contains 2 progress, 4 neutral, 3 threat, 2 treasure and 1 bonus card. Every time a card is drawn from the main deck, a card is taken from the secondary deck to replace it and the deck is reshuffled.

...I currently get about a 34-38% chance of success (across 10,000 iterations). The average number of card draws is a little over 9, which means two full passes around the table in a group of 5. To compare, chance of success in a complexity 2 skill challenge is lower than that.

In addition to that, players will average 1.5 threats per challenge, will get at least one treasure about 30% of the time and will get the bonus card about 13% of the time. That sound acceptable. but the convenient thing about this little application is that I can tweak the numbers and see how they impact the percentages. Heck, I even simulated a skill check to see how much of an impact it has (one skill check increases the chance of success by almost 10%).

The only concern right now is the lack of player skill being a determining factor. I am going to allow skill checks so that PCs can draw two cards from the main deck and decide which of the two they want to keep, but that's all I can think of right now. The challenge ends up being more about luck than anything, which I guess isn't such a bad thing but I'm trying to think of a better way to actively engage the players.

Do you have any ideas on how to approach something like this?


Disclaimer: I've been told that there is a labyrinth in the Fane of the Heresiarch from SVD Press. I'm currently an active player in a play-by-post version of that at Grind 4E, so I have purposely avoided reading that module and do not intend to spoil myself until the adventure is over. Those are the sacrifices we must make...

Note:  One A Night in Seyvoth Manor is released, I will probably also release the source code for the above application. Just in case you're curious or could use it for something similar.


Design Considerations for Seyvoth Manor

So development continues on A Night in Seyvoth Manor... I'm not 100% sure if it'll be ready by Halloween but I'm doing my damnest to get it done in time. And the first release will probably be for 4E only; I can't imagine myself having the time to convert it to other game systems before Halloween, but I do intend to convert it to at least Pathfinder/DnD 3.5e.

From the beginning I intended this to be a moderately-sized campaign but still be playable in a single session, so I've been using some of the Fourthcore design philosophies made famous by Sersa at Save Versus Death. The module is not encounter heavy - to be honest, I can only think of three or four required encounters right now and they're not all that big - and focuses on exploration and Zork-like acquisition of certain items needed to advance. In and around that there are many ways to die, or at least suffer a great deal of pain.

My only hesitation in calling it a true "fourthcore" module is that one of the tenets in 4C is that it be "bleak". Allow me to quote from the "What is Fourthcore?" page on Save Versus Death:

The world in which fourthcore adventures take place is an unhappy one. Tyrants stoke the flames of civilization with the ashes of criminals, rebels, and the many who have succumbed to the ravages of plague and war. Priests offer the blood of heretics and infidels to violent, jealous gods. All that lurks in the darkness between empires loathes humanity, and the ‘heroes’ that venture out to face such threats are little more than murderers, zealots, and privateers. Alignment is a meaningless concept and thus is not used in fourthcore.

My design goals in this module is to emphasize some of the tropes in your typical Halloween: a haunted mansion with some very bad things in it (don't want to give too many spoilers!). It's not a pleasant place by far, but there are no demons, tormented souls writing in fire or priests bathed in the blood of infidels. And, in an indirect sort of way, I do use alignment to some degree.

Secondly, I don't know if I'm "over the top" enough. Again, quoting SVD:

Fourthcore adventures are brought to life with extravagant threats and adventure sites that are both evocative and gruesome. Realism and coherency are pushed aside in favor of the outrageous, entertaining, and chaotic.

"Entertaining"? Maybe. "Outrageous" and "chaotic"? I don't think I'm quite there.

Beyond those issues, I'm using the same design style. Things hit hard, and there is most definitely the possibility of death in the air (even though I don't think I've written a "save or die" situation yet). There will be treasure cards, but I'm questioning whether I'll make rumor cards or not. And there isn't a time limit, but bad things will happen if you take too long.

So what do I call this thing? It might be designed with some of the same guidelines, but in my opinion it's definitely not a fourthcore module. I do not want to weaken the brand name that is 4C by billing my product as a part of it.

The only thing I can think of is referring to it as a "challenge" adventure, along the same token as Revenge of the Kobolds. Of course I will give Sersa V. credit where credit is due, but as much as I'd love to be part of the 4C movement I don't think I'm at that level just yet, so I'll leave the "fourthcore" name to those that have earned its use and I'll continue to do my own thing.

"A Night in Seyvoth Manor is a Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition challenge adventure made for a party of 6th level characters"... Yeah, guess that'll do.

In the meantime, I've been dropping some teasers through Twitter (@BrainClouds)... I am having a lot of fun with it, so it's hard for me to keep quiet about it. In any event, stay tuned for more!