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



David and Goliath

On Twitter somebody - I don't remember who - said that if a lone fighter went up against a lone goblin it would be "impossible" for a goblin to survive. But the mathematician in me has a hard time with the word "impossible", so I figured I'd actually do the math and figure out what a goblin's odds are.

DISCLAIMER: I have not checked all the math here, but it seems about right. If you find errors, please let me know.


Contestant 1:
A 1st level fighter, as presented in the DnD Next playtest materials
published on May 24th, 2012.

Contestant 2:
A common goblin, as presented in the same playtest materials
(DnD Next Bestiary, page 12)

Combat rules: Initiative modifiers are equal (+1), so we're disregarding them for sake of argument. Also assuming that neither party has availability to any sort of healing.

Also not counting the fighter's "Slayer" theme. We'll get to that later.

Round one, straight up fight between the two. No advantage or disadvantage:

Fighter: 65% chance (needs 8 or higher) to hit the goblin with his greataxe. Damage is sufficient to be lethal on any hit (average 14 damage).

Goblin: 40% chance (needs 13 or higher) to hit the fighter with his mace, and 45% chance (needs 12 or higher) to hit with his shortbow. Average damage without advantage is 4 (mace) and 5 (shortbow), which means the goblin would have to hit 4-5 times to kill the fighter. That means the goblin has a 1%-3% chance to kill the fighter in five turns. The fighter has a 98% chance to kill the goblin in five rounds or less.

Not impossible... but highly unlikely.

Round two, fighter has disadvantage:

Goblin: Percentages remain unchanged.

Fighter: Chance to hit drops to 42.25% each round. He still has about an 93% chance to hit the goblin in the next five rounds.

Goblin's chances are improving!

Round three, goblin has advantage:

Fighter: Original values remain unchanged.

Goblin: Now has advantage, which means his hit chance increases to 64% (almost identical to the fighter's) and he deals additional damage (dirty tricks trait), increasing his average damage to 7 (mace) and 8 (shortbow). He now has about a 26% chance to drop the fighter in three turns, but the fighter can drop the goblin in three turns or less 95% of the time.

Round four, goblin has advantage and fighter has disadvantage:

Using all the figures above, the goblin can drop the fighter in three rounds 26% of the time. The fighter has an 81% chance to drop the goblin in the same three rounds. Hardly "impossible"!

The Trump: The fighter's "Slayer" theme.

The fighter does have an ace up his sleeve, though: the "Slayer" theme. As documented, the fighter causes a minimum of 3 damage even on a miss, which means that it's impossible for a single goblin to survive beyond two rounds even if the fighter rolls a natural 1 on every attack. During those two rounds a goblin, assuming he hits twice (16% to 40% chance, depending on advantage), he will score on average between 7 and 13 damage (the latter is with advantage). The fighter will live to see another day... or will he?

But wait! Assume the goblin has advantage... If one of those hits is a critical hit, the goblin causes a flat 12 damage. If his second attack hits, if the damage is above average (average is 7) it *is* enough to drop the fighter! That could happen 2% of the time! And if the goblin scores two critical hits (0.25% chance), the fighter would be CRUSHED and dying at -4 HP!

Conclusion: If the goblin is a lucky bastard, he's hardly a pushover. Also keep in mind that it's one goblin, those are fairly decent odds.

But we're not asking the important question... how often do you come across just one goblin?



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!


Gamma World Remnants: The Love Bus

The following are exerpts from the cancelled Gamma World module The Fortress of Dr. Neb. You are welcome to use any part or all of the below, but I would appreciate hearing about it if you do!

Dr. Neb's Island Fortress

After the party deals with the situation in "Site 13", it was time to face the... "man"... himself: the infamous Dr. Neb!

The fiendish doctor's fortress is on an island in the center of a lake, a good quarter mile from shore in every direction. The island could be compared to the island fortress of Dr. No, just as Dr. Neb himself could be compared to pretty much every Bond villan rolled in to one.

Therefore, there are three possible ways to get there:

  • The subtle manner: procure a boat and navigate the mine-filled waters as you approach the island.
  • The moderately subtle manner: a dramatic incursion by air, hoping that you won't be detected and fired upon by anti-aircraft batteries.
  • The far from subtle manner: drive down the narrow road that connects the island to the mainland, plowing through all sorts of debris and obstacles along the way, and crash right through the front gate.

Since subtlety is not our specialty, here we present the ground approach.

The "Love Bus", complete with stunts and roof-mounted gun options.

The Love Bus

Just outside of Wildwood lives a rather loopy individual, someone who is known only by the name of Crazy Max.

Crazy Max has a special form of transportation that is perfect for this situation: an armored school bus, painted completely with bright groovy colors and swirls, with a roof mounted assault cannon. For a bus that is almost a century old, it's in remarkable condition and even includes a turbo boost system for some added kick.

Tires: It has ten wheels and the tires are protected by a layer of thick armor plating; the tires cannot be punctured by a critical hit from the outside.

Cannon: On the roof near the back is a converted artillery cannon that fires two types of shells: solid steel slugs and high explosive grenades. Before firing each shell must be loaded in to the cannon as a Minor action, and once loaded the cannon can fire in any direction. It must have one person sitting inside the gun to operate.

Roof Platform: There is also a ladder that allows access to a small platform on the roof. As a safety precaution, along the railing there are safety lines that players can use to secure themselves and prevent from falling over the side.

The Long Road

Features of the Area

Illumination: Bright light during the day.

Road: The road is paved highway forty feet (8 squares) across and 1,000 feet (200 squares) long. It is mostly clear of debris, except for the occasional hazard that might crop up (see below). To either side of the road is another twenty feet (4 squares) of dirt, grass and rough terrain, which is considered difficult terrain for the bus to move through. Beyond that is the lake, which is considered hindering terrain and the bus would sink like an anvil if it entered.

Road Hazards

At the start of the encounter roll a d10 and add 30; that is the number of squares ahead of the starting point there is before one of the below road hazards appears. After each hazard, roll a d10 and add 20 to see when the next one will appear.

When it is time for a hazard, roll a d6 to determine what appears:

1) Small Potholes: A 10 square stretch of the road contains 1d10 small holes in the pavement (in order to simplify random placement, you can use a d10 to determine the row a hole is in and a d8 to determine where along the road’s width the hole is to be placed). The holes are spread randomly throughout the area and each hole is considered difficult terrain for the bus.

2) Large Potholes: A 12 square stretch of road contains 1d4 large holes in the pavement. Each of the 3x3 holes is positioned randomly throughout the area and each hole is considered difficult terrain for the bus.

3) Small Barrier: A small barrier (debris, construction divider, etc...) one square deep blocks one of the four lanes in the road (use a d4 to determine which lane). The barricade is considered difficult terrain if the driver elects to try to drive through it (see the Punch Through Barrier stunt above).

4) Large Barrier: A formidable barrier (pile of concrete, abandoned vehichle, large tree, etc...) two squares deep blocks one or two two lanes in the road (use a d4 twice to determine which lanes; if the same value comes up twice, only that one lane is blocked). The barrier is too large to break through, and if the bus strikes the driver gets a saving throw; on a success, the bus passes alongside it in an adjacent square, and on a failure it crashes.

5) Makeshift Ramp: A large pile of debris completely blocks two lanes on the road, but the debris is shaped in to what appears to be a ramp. The driver can either avoid it or attempt to jump over it (see the Ramp Jump stunt above).

6) Oil Slick: A 5x5 patch of oil lies somewhere in the road. The oil is considered challenging terrain and if the bus enters it the driver must make a Mechanics DC12 check or lose control.

Air Defense

Of course, the diabolical Dr. Neb isn't stupid... He can't rely just on a bunch of debris to stop would-be intruders. So he created his own Air Defense Force, a squad of trained aerial experts who can rain fire from above at anything that approaches the compound.

Needless to say, Dr. Neb was hard pressed to find people to work for him, so he turned to his scientists to help create the perfect aerial soldier: flying squirrels equipped with rocket-propelled hand gliders.

And there are quite a few of them... in and around the compound there are a total of two dozen squirrels just waiting to take off. Some are assigned to the main road, some watch the waters for anyone trying to sneak in, and some are in a constant circular flight pattern securing the airspace above the fortress.

Once the squirrels are alerted, they will attack in waves:

  • First Wave: 5 Flying Squirrel Gunners (level 2 skirmisher)
  • Second Wave: 2 Flying Squirrel Gunners (level 2 skirmisher), 2 Flying Squirrel Bombers (level 2 artillery), 1 Flying Squirrel Rocketeeer (level 2 artillery).
  • Third wave: 2 Flying Squirrel Gunners (level 2 skirmisher), 3 Flying Squirrel Rocketeers (level 2 artillery).

Once all the creatures in one wave are disabled or killed, the next wave attacks at the start of the next turn. Once all three waves are dealt with or if the bus makes it to the end of the road (200 squares), the attacks stop.

Flying Squirrel Tactics

Each of the types of squirrels has different tactics:

Gunners: Some will stay within range of using their Machine Gun attack, focusing their fire on either  the bus or the person manning the cannon. At least three in the first wave and one in each subsequent wave will try to land on the roof (assuming there’s room) and attack the passengers at close range.

Bombers: The squirrel bombers will attempt to fly ahead of the bus (even if that means taking shots from the cannon) and drop their cluster mines or road spikes directly in its path. Once they are out of things to drop, they too will attempt to board the bus.

Rocketeers: The squirrel rocketeers will remain at range, aiming either at the bus or at the road directly ahead of the bus. Given the opportunity, they will fire upon the roof and hope to catch the gunner and anyone on the platform with each blast.


If the party manages to make it all the way to the fortress, who knows what horrors await them inside? There they must battle all of Dr. Neb's loyal minions until confronting the evil genius himself at the heart of his island lair.

Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion to The Fortress of Dr. Neb!


The Endless Winter and Upcoming Projects

So I have completed and released The Endless Winter through T. W. Wombat's Winter is Coming Blog Festival, apparently to some rave reviews.

Many have commented on the professional look of what I put together... I joked about "overdoing" my submission, but quite frankly I wouldn't have it any other way. One the one hand, yes, I'm a game designer who likes the process of creating stuff others can use. But I'm also a publisher who tries to reflect his interest in making quality merchandise in everything he does, so I'm not one to just slap content together just to get it published. So it might have taken me ten times longer to format and layout the adventure than it took me to actually design the mechanics of it, but I'm OK with that. If I manage to create a product that people like and can say "wow!" when they look at it, mission accomplished!

Besides, it looks good on my résumé... Don't ya think?

I am giving it away for free for now, and it's currently also available for free on Drive Thru RPG (where it includes the tactical maps and 50 DPI images for use in third party applications!). If you downloaded it before the tactical maps became available, email me at dflor@brainclouds.net and I'll send you direct links so you can get them; I tried emailing everyone who had already downloaded it, but Drive Thru RPG has some... "issues"... with its email system. I have yet to send an email through their site out correctly, so my blast got sent without the link in it.

So here are my planned future projects:

  • The Coming Dark is still sitting there as an enormous, virtually complete PDF. There's a long story behind this, but that's for another day.
  • I've been kicking around a concept that will either be a Fourthcore adventure or a Lair Assault encounter. Or both. I haven't decided yet... But it's a concept I just can't get out of my head, and it involves some elements I had planned to use in my canceled Gammacore adventure Where Worlds Collide.
  • I have several more map packs planned - a dragon's lair, a goblin's lair, a roadside keep, a ziggurat in an evil place, etc... - but that's just a matter of getting around to doing them. Those are actually a considerable amount of work because of how badly Adobe Fireworks CS5 screams in agony every time I throw a big file at it.
  • In the very near future I'm going to write a short series of posts called "Mapmaking for the Non-Artist" which describes how I - a person with almost zero artistic skill that can't draw a decent looking square at gunpoint - manage to create the maps that I do. This will everything from what tools I use to how to add certain special effects to the maps. I will not assume extensive experience in Photoshop (primarily because I don't have that experience myself), so it will center around Fireworks and other low end drawing tools. Stay tuned for that!
  • Because The Endless Winter got such a good response (150+ downloads through Drive Thru RPG alone, and I have no idea how many downloads through Wombat's blog), I'll probably make some more of those, either by making separate adventures or an actual series. Making The Endless Winter was actually really fun to do to be honest, and I enjoyed the experience so much I can't wait to do it again.
  • I am currently experimenting with converting The Endless Winter to Pathfinder. I've never actually played Pathfinder itself, but have played D&D 3.5e so I'm familiar with the mechanic as a player. But it's an interesting challenge to convert an existing 4e product to Pathfinder, and its an exercise I am also considering documenting for the sake of this blog.
  • Tomorrow starts the window for submitting things to Wizards of the Coast for Dragon and Dungeon magazine, and I'm considering submitting a few things. Among all of my ideas, I'm probably going to get myself in trouble again for suggesting they let me make Gamma World (*writes check!*) content (including the concept of a certain doctor and his fortress of evil), but you can't blame me for trying.

Anyway, more to come in the near future!