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


Game Preparation With Limited Resources

About three days ago I decided that I was going to run Fire From the Sky at GenCon, but during these three days I have a boatload of work and other preparations I have to go through before I travel. And, quite frankly, I'm broke. I needed to get ready quickly and at little personal expense. So for those of you that are looking for quick game setups, here's everything I have done so far.

I admit I do have one benefit: access to an industrial grade color printer at work. I don't know how many of you have access to that, so doing the high level of printing I've done may not end up being economical at all if you have to resort to a printing company. So your mileage may vary, I guess.

The Documentation

I printed several copies of the module and used Fedex Office's velo binding to make them look professional, but when I'm running the campaign myself I couldn't care less if it's "professional" or not... I want it to be easy to work with physically. So I printed the PDF with all the pages one sided, holding it together with no more than a single staple in the top left corner. So as I progress through the module, I can tear away and toss pages at my discretion.

As for the Gamma World manual, I didn't really feel like dragging the whole box to the convention. So, using the printer's scanning capabilities, I made a PDF of only the character creation pages in the Gamma World Core Rulebook, and then re-printed it so that the players can use it for character creation.

Time permitting, I will see if I can create some pre-generated characters in order to speed things up.

The Maps

All my maps were created in Adobe Fireworks CS5, on a grid where each square is exactly 50 x 50 pixels. Luckily all my maps are approximately the same size - each map is about 16 squares wide on each axis - but at 50 DPI (to ensure each square is exactly 1" x 1") that would be larger than the traditional page.

When the module was distributed through Drive Thru RPG it included a supplemental with all the tactical maps cut in to sections that fit on a letter-sized page, but this time I took advantage of the printing resources. I took each page and divided it down the horizontal center, printing each part of the map on a tabloid (11" x 17") page. Cut to fit and taped together, it should do fine.

Maps appear a little pixellated - had I known this was going to be the plan, I probably would have created the maps at a resolution higher than 50 DPI - but I don't expect anyone to be looking at the map with a magnifying glass and complaining that the trees look to pixellated.

The Markers

Shuma Gorath will have to do, I guess.

I had a bit of a problem here. Although I could print anything I want, I cannot print it in heavy stock paper. Without access to anything available at the store, what do I do for creature markers?

Instead of creating markers that lie flat, I decided to create stand-up markers that can be folded in to triangles.

Using the same resolution as the map, I created four part strips that could be cut and folded into free standing triangles like what you see on the right. Each strip is 45 pixels wide (just shy of the 1" square size) and 230 pixels long (45 pixels for each base, 70 pixels for each side). The Large creature strips are 95 x 430, effectively adding 50 pixels (1") to each face's dimensions.

Here is what the image for the first encounter looks like:

After they are cut and folded, since it was the only thing I had lying around I used a penny to give it some weight, and the result is the above image. Afterwards, I realized that nickels are slightly heavier and still fit, while the Large markers will use quarters or something bigger like dice.

The hardest part has been looking for appropriate images. I scanned the image of the zombie and some other creatures from the Gamma World Core Rulebook (which isn't as appropriate as you'd think, but whatever), but there are some creatures that just don't appear anywhere in the core manuals. So, thanks to Google Image Search, I found a picture of Shuma Gorath and some other appropriate images for some unique creatures I have. I still have one more to find, which I hope to get ready by end of day today.

I also forgot markers for the players. Oops... I'll take care of that today as well.

The Details

For actual encounter management, I got myself a stack of 3" x 5" index cards. On each card I wrote:

  • Each creature's details: defenses, base hit points, hit modifiers (vs AC and non-AC defense) whether it's an Elite or a Solo and their initiative and Perception modifiers.
  • I pre-rolled initiative for every creature. When it comes time to play, I will determine whether I'll keep those values or re-roll them (I like to space out monster actions in and around the players just to keep things more dynamic).
  • Each individual creature's current hit points, with lots of horizontal space so I can add conditions and manually rewrite hit points as they take damage.

Five encounters, five cards. And each card has the above monster markers (unfolded) paper clipped to it.

Other Supplies

I will have lots of blank index cards, several pens, and all the dice I have. Need to get tape somewhere.

Right now, I can't think of much else I would need... Am I missing something?


The nice benefit to all of the above is that, because I don't have a DM screen, I do not have to be concerned all that much about hiding everything. Index cards are low profile, and I can keep those on my lap or even in full view of the players (maintaining a certain level of discretion and trusting my players not to peek, mind you). As for the module itself, I've been up and down this module so many times that I like to think I don't have to look at it much, so it's not like I'll have to keep it open all the time and in full view.

Now I admit I'm still not sure if this game will happen; there's a lot going on at GenCon, I don't know when I'll actually do it, and I've never been there myself so I don't quite know how things work as far as pick up games. But the above preparations actually took little effort, so I don't feel that it's all a waste. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. Life goes on.

Odds are it will be at some point on Saturday. If you are interested and attending, send me a message to @BrainClouds and let's see what we can arrange.

Hope to see some players there!


The Architectually Unsound Fortress of Evil

While I was attending college at the University of Miami I worked as a lab tech on the School of Architecture's computer lab. While there I had access to all sorts of neat things, such as AutoCAD 10 (it was 1990... Humor me, OK?).

Let me clarify that I am not an architect: I'm a computer programmer. While some students were creating thirty story buildings with enough digital detail to impress Frank Lloyd Wright, I was thrilled creating empty 10'x20' rooms with extremely blocky furniture. Students around me were designing the Chrysler Building while I was designing a residence that looks like a shipping container. I spent four days designing a desk.

But even then I assumed certain things about designing a building: leave no space unused.

Bartoneus over at Critical Hits wrote an article called "The Architect DM: Negative Space in Dungeons", which mostly talks about dungeons... But what if it's not a "dungeon", at least in the classical sense?

One area of my campaign is a residence of sorts, a rather large keep or castle in a remote location. I began to design it as a normal residence would be designed: bedroom here, laboratory of death there... All with thin walls, almost as if the entire building was drywall on the inside. Then I went to look at other similar modules for research, and saw that quite a few modules had walls at least five feet thick, even if they were outdoor ruins (I do have to admit, the official Wizards of the Coast modules I looked at are pretty proper in this regard; the walls on their single story buildings were actually thin). Granted, quite a few structures were still "dungeons" in that they were carved out of solid rock, but why would a free standing building - a hovel, for example - have such an absurdly thick outer wall?

In a way, it makes sense in large structures and fortifications: you're designing a building that is meant to last and would have been built in a time similar to the Middle Ages. They didn't make buildings out of reinforced cinderblock, concrete and steel. There was no such thing as "drywall". Walls were solid stone, meant to support the massive building above them. Outer walls that were five feet thick were probably conservative (note: The moathouse near the village of Hommlet  has an 8' thick outer wall I believe, at least according to map scale), and anything smaller and without some serious internal support would collapse under the weight of the giant fortress of evil built on top of it.

I looked blankly at the structure I designed, trying to imagine how a four story building of solid stone with paper thin walls would hold up. It did not bode well.

There's also some other things I noticed... Think about what you have in your own home. The "home" I was designing had no kitchen, which is just as well because it had no food storage, or a dining room for that matter. It also had five residents in it... but no bathrooms (when I posed this concern to someone else, their simple solution was "add a chamber pot in each room". Ew!). And, in what is apparently typical in D&D lair design, it had an easily activated death trap where pretty much anyone can trigger it.

The residents wouldn't last a week. They'll either die - painfully - or resort to cannibalism and eat each other. And, if they do survive, they'll be quite... uncouth.

But if I add a kitchen, I encounter the other problem prevalent in D&D campaigns: every room has a purpose, right? A kitchen can't just be a kitchen; there has to be a monster in it, or a trap, or treasure, or a major plot element... something! No? It's Chekov's Room, right? (WARNING: That's a TV Tropes link! Click at your own peril!) It must be important eventually!

All you DMs out there... Try to think of how many times you'd have to repeat to your players "it's just a kitchen" before they'll move on somewhere else (if you say "only once", you're lying). No matter how many times you tell them there's nothing in it, I bet you still had to roll at least one Perception check because the PCs requested it (or, in some cases, they rolled it themselves... "31! So what's really in this... 'kitchen', hmm?"). If they insist, I'm tempted to put a Sphere of Annihilation inside the stove just to "reward" their persistence.

The other option is to either make the walls out of unobtanium or infuse the structure with arcane power. "What prevents the building from collapsing under it's own weight?" "Uh... Magic!"

I haven't modified the area yet - it still has paper thin walls - but I'm seriously considering it.

And now I know why ProFantasy's Campaign Cartographer has about fifteen different clip art elements for a chamber pot.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, Design, DnD, Maps, RPG No Comments

Contest: Win “Heroes of Shadow”!

Having recently won a contest myself, I'm in a charitable mood. So I thought I'd try a little experiment and run a contest of my own.

If you're wondering whether you can afford to buy upcoming Wizards of the Coast books like Heroes of Shadow or The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond, well here's your chance to win one of them!


DISCLAIMER: You will not get any manual before the dates listed below. We're giving it to you for free; we're not magicians and do not hold any power over Wizards of the Coast that allows us to get these books early.


The following information can be found on the official Contest page...


Entry Deadline: 12:00am Eastern Time on April 25th, 2011.


We'd like to see what you can come up with for a "solo" encounter... but asking for a simple encounter is just not enough. So we elected to choose a random element that the encounter or area must contain.

The element, randomly selected using the "Chamber Features" table (Dungeon Master's Guide, pg 192): 10(1d20) = "Pool, fountain or basin".


So here are the guidelines:

  • Encounter must be compatible with the Dungeons and Dragons 4e mechanic. This includes fourthcore, if you are so inclined.
  • The minimum requirement must be a single, actual encounter with a SOLO creature. You can add anything you want in and around the encounter - skill challenge, trap, hazard, special terrain, magic effects, other monsters, etc... - but the main adversary must be a solo monster and it must be an actual tactical encounter in which the solo monster must be defeated (Note: "defeated" need not mean "dead").
  • You must create your own solo creature, complete with monster stat block. You can base it of an existing creature from any official source, but it must be sufficiently altered to be unique.
  • The area must contain some sort of "pool, fountain or basin", and it must have some meaning to the encounter beyond being set decoration. We will leave the interpretation of that to you.
  • Encounter could be of any level, but must be designed for no less than five PCs.
  • Encounter must include a tactical map. Map could be dungeon tiles, digitally generated or drawn by hand, so long as it has a tactical grid of 5'x5' squares.
  • Encounter must stand on its own in that it cannot assume any previous actions by the party besides showing up.
  • You need not define monetary or item reward, but that is up to you.
  • It doesn't necessarily have to be in the traditional format that Wizards of the Coast likes to use, but it has to be put together in such a way that any DM can understand it.
  • Resulting document must be either PDF or a format compatible with Microsoft Word (any version).
  • For legal reasons, do not include any artwork that is not yours. For example, do not use copyrighted images from any Wizards of the Coast publication. Official WotC dungeon tiles are acceptable; we mean things like drawings of actual monsters.
  • We reserve the right to publish your submission on our site, regardless of whether it wins or not. You will of course be given full credit and, if applicable, we will direct link to your website or Twitter account.


Entry Submission: All entries must be emailed to contest@brainclouds.net before 12:00am Eastern Time on April 25th. You can either attach the entry to the email or link to it. Please include your contact information (name, address, email address, Twitter account, website, etc...). If you do not wish to be referred to by your real name, tell is what you want us to call you.

Entry Deadline: 12:00am Eastern Time on April 25th, 2011.

Judging: Honestly, I'm not sure who will be doing the judging yet. Worst case, it will be me... But we'll see who we can recruit.


GRAND PRIZE: ONE (and only one) of the following...

Heroes of Shadow (available April 19th, 2011) - Should be immediately available at contest end.

The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond (available May 17th, 2011)

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale (available June 21, 2011)

Neverwinter Campaign Setting (available August 16th, 2011)

NOTE: If you wish for any alternate Wizards of the Coast manual (core manuals, Essentials guides, Monster Vault, etc... Even official modules) , we may be able to make that arrangement so long as said book is available on Amazon. You are welcome to ask, and we'll see what we could do.

Prize will be ordered through Amazon and delivered once they become available for shipping. Subject to availability.

Prize includes shipping within the United States and Canada. Can ship abroad, but that all depends on the cost of shipping the item.


So let's see what you can do!


Encounter: Hall of Spiders

We Xogo recently had a "Create an Encounter" contest. Unfortunately I didn't win, but I figure the following encounter should not be wasted.

During the development of my campaign quite a lot of things have changed. Rooms have been added and removed, creatures have changed drastically, the plot has been altered five different ways, etc...

The main reason is that certain things look good on paper, but when it comes to actually using them in a game it doesn't quite work. Many a time I have thought of a really cool idea that I wound up trying to railroad in the the D&D 4e mechanic, and the end result isn't quite what I had hoped. And some things that do seem to fit perfectly end up being a disaster when it comes to playtesting it.

On the massive external hard drive I use to keep all my campaign information I have one folder called "Legacy", which is where maps go to die. But just because they don't fit in to my campaign doesn't mean they'll never see the light of day. Maybe someone out there could use them... Someone like you!

So this will probably be an ongoing series of mine where I provide encounters or scenes that are disassociated from the rest of my campaign, and because I have no immediate plans to use them they aren't "spoilers". Maybe someone out there will breathe new life in to them.

The Hall of Spiders

One of the focal points in my campaign is, without giving too much away, a dungeon with very strong divine and arcane influences that has been abandoned for hundreds of years. In these environments there are generally three different things you can find: undead that simply refuse to die, strange creations infused with arcane energies or nature simply taking residence in a nice comfy place. This is the latter of the three.

This encounter was the very first encounter I developed for my campaign, at a time when I had no idea what the rest of the zone was going to contain. I didn't even know what this was the entrance to... A castle? A lair? The local inn?

After everything else in the zone was developed, this seemed horribly out of place. And the fact that it came immediately after a complicated encounter with a lot of enemies didn't help; I know some would argue that it goes against some sort of DM's obligation, but I simply didn't want to keep slamming the PCs with encounter after encounter.

Originally this had a fixed amount of minions, which you are most certainly welcome to do to simplify your life (I had six Spiderlings in the original design), but recently I read the article by Mario Podeshi on Save Versus Death called "Endless Hordes" Minions and I wondered "why does the number of spiderlings have to be finite?"

So here it is... The Hall of Spiders (Level 4+ Encounter)


Enjoy! If you do use it, or make any modifications to it, do let me know.