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



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!


Contest Results (Finally)!

First of all, once again I apologize... This has been a hellish month, and had I known that it was going to end up like this I probably would have handled the contest differently. It is my first contest after all.

Due to my inability to focus in a time of adversity, I put the call out for judges. Four people responded (all of them have chosen to remain nameless), and one of those four never responded to me sending them information, so I'm basing the following results on the other three. Each judge was to take all five entries and rank five of them them in order from 5 (best) to 1 (worst). All three judges' score would then be added and the highest score (out of a possible 15 points) would be declared the winner.

Using that mechanism, after a few days of deliberation on their part, we ended up with a two-way tie for 1st place and a two-way tie for 3rd place.

Due to the delay in prize selection, and adding the fact that I did not choose to be the tiebreaker myself (if I wasn't capable of judging before, I don't consider it proper to be judging now), I have decided to award all four with a prize in one way or another.

After seeing all the entries, I did notice something: Although "standard" and "elite" monsters are pretty well defined and everyone handles them the same way more or less, the "solo" encounter is a whole other story. I've seen multiple ways that the request for a "solo" is encounter was interpreted... Some did a very basic and plain solo creature surrounded by traps and hazards. Others created a sort of hybrid, where it's one creature that goes through three elite stages (once the "elite" version of the monster is destroyed, it's replaced by a different version of it). And others didn't put many mechanics in to the encounter and preferred the story and the potential roleplaying aspects of the situation play out.

So here are the results, as chosen by my crack team of judges, in no particular order except for the prize grouping.

TIE FOR FIRST (no particular order)... Prize: Heroes of Shadow (or equivalent) from Wizards of the Coast

  • "The Fountains of Unbearable Grief" by Caoimhe Ora Snow (@dazedsaveends on Twitter): The background story won over most of the judges. It also includes a very detailed encounter area with a variety of different terrains, and the solo itself is quite the intriguing concept.
  • "Fountain of Sorrow" by The Id DM (@TheIDDM on Twitter): This was more than I personally expected and reads like a full adventure (it's close to being longer than most the other contest entries combined), complete with an adventure summary, a social scene leading up to the encounter, a random encounter table, custom magic items and more. I would have taken points off for making the enemy my name spelled backwards though, so be lucky I didn't judge it... 😉

HONORABLE MENTIONS, TIE FOR THIRD (no particular order)... Prize: $10 Amazon gift card

  • "Ego-Tastrophy" by Jeff Gupton of Blackbyrne Publishing (@BlkbyrnePublish on Twitter): It probably helped that two of the three judges were creative designers, and one of which is a published designer. Very straight up encounter against a golem, but the inclusion of a tactical map was nice. And the judges were simply fascinated with the name of the creature: the "Horace Brigland Borgtite Golem".
  • "Lair of the Tentacled Horror" by Raja (NOTE: PDF does not contain the area map; don't have access to it right now, so it will be posted separately soon): The judges liked the concept of a monster that spawned minions repeatedly (similar to SvD's Endless Hordes, but instead of being a separate hazard it's part of the creature's mechanics). Mixed that with a very Cthulhu-esque atmosphere and enemies (cultists and tentacles! Woo!)  and it looks quite entertaining. This was yet another submission that went above and beyond presenting more than just an encounter; it included an entire underground system of caverns through which the "tentacled horror" can pretty much move at will. PCs would probably have to slice through several tentacles shooting up from out of the water before the BBEC ("big bad evil cehalopod") shows up.

Thanks to everyone for their submissions. I promise the next contest will be simpler, will be easier for anyone to enter without much effort, and will be decided upon significantly faster.

If you are one of the winners above, please contact me privately (through email or through Twitter DM) to make arrangements.

I may include some of the other submissions in a future post; I don't know yet.


Call for Judges

Due to my current health issues (inner ear inflammation, dizziness and vertigo, foul mood) and a major assignment at work that needs to be completed by Monday, in order to not further delay the choosing of a winner to the contest I am placing an open call out for impartial people to serve as judges.

Here's how I think this will work:

Judges: Between three and five judges who have not submitted an entry in to the contest.

Material: There isn't a lot, to be honest. I think at last count there were eight valid submissions (if you're reading this and yours is one of them, your chances are pretty good), so there isn't a lot to review.

Blind Judging: Unless it is unavoidable, I will present the entries to the judges without any indication of who is submitting it. In other words, I will open the submission in Acrobat, Word or whatever and remove your name and branding from the submission before I present it to the judges in PDF format. There may be cases I can't do this adequately (if removing branding would impact the content being judged), but I'll do my best so that the judging is as impartial as it can get.

Scoring: Unless someone out there has a better suggestion, I can't come up with a scoring system that would be acceptable, so I will ask judges to rank the top five entries in preferred order. These entries will be given a score, and the highest average score amongst all judges will be declared the winner.

Prizes: Because of this delay, I am considering selecting more than one winner. Don't quote me on that, though.

How to Apply: Email me at dflor@brainclouds.net and I'll take you in to consideration. Hopefully I will get enough people to do this in the next 24 to 48 hours.

The alternative to the above would be to wait until I can clear my mind and judge the entries myself, but with my left ear ringing, the room sometimes dipping and swaying as if I was at sea and a metric assload of work I need to finish by end of month, I can't guarantee when that will happen. I can't imagine some of you waiting long to find out if you get the prize or not.

I apologize for this inconvenience. I will plan for such things if I do such a contest in the future.

Filed under: 4e, Contest, DnD, RPG No Comments

Quick Contest Update

Just wanted to let everyone know where things stood on our Heroes of Shadow contest.

Since Saturday I myself have been battling with a relapse of inner ear issues I've had since childhood, and as a result I'm getting hit quite often with massive amounts of dizziness and vertigo. So I have not been able to concentrate to the point where I can be a proper judge.

But, for what it's worth, all the contest entries have been printed and I've gone over them in the most basic of ways. I have quite a task ahead of me... Some of the entries are quite impressive, and it shows you all have put much more work than I would have thought. I even got a few Gamma World submissions, and I had to go back and check that I never mentioned what gaming system you should be using in the rules, so I'm accepting them even though that honestly wasn't my initial plan.

If I feel I cannot make a proper decision of a winner by this Friday, I will put myself on "injured reserve" and look for third party judges to make the decision on my behalf.

As a result of my delays, I'm debating whether to have more than one winner. Don't quote me on that...


On an unrelated note, I have published my Gamma World campaign "Fire From the Sky" through DriveThruRPG. There's also a free preview of a single encounter (link's currently broken due to technical issues on the site), if you're curious.

I'm looking for people to review it on blogs other than mine... If you're up to it let me know and I'll comp you a copy.

Filed under: Contest, RPG No Comments

Contest and Upcoming Publications

First off, thanks to everyone who submitted their solo encounters to our Heroes of Shadow contest! As I've stated before, I had chosen to not look at any of the submissions until past the deadline, so now that that's done with I'm going to go through them and try to objectively pick a winner.

Will probably start doing that at some point tonight; hopefully I'll be able to select a winner by end of week.


On another note, a few weeks ago I had sent a pitch of my Gamma World module "Fire From the Sky" to the Wizards of the Coast submissions email. Today I got a pretty straight forward response...


Thanks for the proposal, but we're not looking for any Gamma World material right now.

(Name of person responding redacted)

Simple enough. At least they're listening!

Now I still haven't gotten a response from the Wizards of the Coast legal department regarding compliance with the 4e GSL (see this post for more information on that), but I have decided to go ahead and publish my Gamma World module for a nominal fee through RPG Drive Thru. If they have any objections to it (and lord knows I have tried to clarify things prior to publishing it), I will simply take it down.

I will be going through final review in the coming days (there's one thing that I know I have to change due to it not working well within the Gamma World mechanic), and then will let everyone know when it's up. If you would like to review it in the meantime, let me know and I can provide a free copy.


Finally, Chapter One of my uber-campaign The Coming Dark - a chapter called "Homecoming" - is technically complete and pending review from third parties. I'm kind of hesitant publishing it because it flows in to subsequent chapters that don't exist yet; part of me doesn't want to publish something that people will play only to stop while I work on the next part. So we'll see when that gets out there.

Stay tuned, everyone!

Thanks for the proposal, but we're not looking for any Gamma World material right now.