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



WotC Announces Digital Tools… AGAIN.

Cavern of the Damned is now available for Pathfinder (through DriveThruRPG) and for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (through the DM's Guild)!

God, has it been *that* long since I posted anything here?

fvD4bT9FMy year has been kind of chaotic, to say the least... but leave it to Wizards of the Coast to announce something that might just bring this blog back from the dead: at PAX, WotC announced D&D Beyond, a new suite of digital tools being created by Curse to support D&D 5th Edition.

Wait, what? You mean you've heard this story before? Well... about that... Time for a history lesson.

Background: The History of D&D Licensing

In the days of 3rd Edition and 3.5E, WotC created the Open Gaming License (OGL, for short) so that publishers can create D&D content. Soon the market was saturated with content, and everyone was reasonably happy.

But the OGL created something that blindsided WotC: Paizo went through the OGL with a magnifying glass and, soon enough, Pathfinder was born. Suddenly there was a new player in town that directly threatened WotC's crown as the king of fantasy RPGs. WotC was terrified, and from that point forward they became more protective of their content than ever before.

When 4th Edition (4E, for short) came around, WotC decided to close the door on the possibility of such a thing ever happening again, so they discarded the OGL in favor of the Game System License (GSL, for short). The GSL did allow some publishers to release material, but it was heavily restricted and had several limitations as to what you can actively publish. Yes, you could continue to publish things using the OGL, but besides certain things you could not include legally (creatures that were part of WotC's "intellectual property") you could make no mention of WotC or D&D at all. Many were forced to do silly things like say their product was "compatible with the 4th edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game" (a claim that itself was in doubt due to the rise of Pathfinder).

Then there's the whole situation regarding the digital world... At the beginning of 4th Edition some of the core books were available in PDF format, but WotC quickly realized that they had no control over their distribution and weren't making as much money off them as they could. They were, in their eyes, losing money. So they yanked all the PDFs, took a step back in to the dark ages and pretended PDF technology didn't exist at all (some argue that this is the same reason why Dragon and Dungeon magazines were terminated; there was no way to make reliable money off them). Only recently, with the appearance of the DM's Guild, did PDFs return... and with such an absence of PDFs that was fostered over so many years, the demand for PDFs exploded and it was a rousing success.

For 5th Edition, WotC decided to go back to the OGL, but there's still an air of uncertainty as far as digital tools. It's not that people can't create the tools... it's that people are afraid to. WotC legal is a nasty foe to have (trust me on that), and many that have tried to create online tools before were violently shut down. There's such a cloud of uncertainty around digital tools that no one dares to do them for fear of WotC's wrath.

The Beginning of Digital Tools: 4th Edition

Prior to 4th Edition, in what you can arguably call the early days of the internet, WotC didn't have many digital tools to speak of to support 3rd Edition and 3.5E. Creation of such tools was in the hands of third parties, who could freely create these tools under the conditions of the OGL.

When 4th Edition's GSL came around, the GSL had a specific clause added that never appeared before: third parties were explicitly denied creating any digital tools or applications using the 4th Edition ruleset. WotC seized on the opportunity to create the tools themselves, and DDI (D&D Insider) was born, where WotC would charge a monthly fee for users to access their digital tools.

There's just one problem with that: WotC is not in the business of creating software (with the growth of Magic the Gathering Online, that has recently changed... but, even so, MtG's their golden goose). It never was, nor should it ever be. Yet they tried, and the results were disastrous.

At first they created a standalone application to create your characters, but WotC quickly realized there was no way they can charge a monthly fee for something that can be used offline. So they abandoned the standalone application in favor for an application hosted on their website. And to give you an idea of how much of a mess that was, do an experiment: go find any experienced software developer you know and see how they recoil in horror when you say the word "Silverlight".

Almost as soon as 5th Edition was announced (to be honest, I don't remember the exact timeline here), WotC announced that the 4th Edition tools would no longer be supported and would eventually be abandoned entirely. This went along with the new mindset WotC had: basically pretend that 4th Edition never happened.

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Chapter One

DISCLAIMER: The following is based on discussions I had with someone who, for now, asked to remain anonymous. Since WotC legal has me on speed dial, I cannot elaborate on where they got this information, but I personally trust it.

Trapdoor Technologies was a modest company that had an interesting product: a way to get content online and hyperlink the ever loving crap out of it. Admittedly, not a lot of people were using their app in the first place, but it was a nice idea at least.

But there's one thing that made them different: they were gamers. Basically the entire upper level staff at Trapdoor were heavily in to RPGs (they were the first group to ever playtest a product of mine, Cavern of the Damned for Pathfinder). And they saw that their tool would be a really cool idea to use for RPG content.

So they took a shot and pitched their idea to someone (I don't know who) at WotC, and that person at WotC loved the idea. At first Trapdoor only suggested the product they had - hyperlinking D&D content - but WotC is the one who asked Trapdoor if they can do that *and* create a character generator to boot. Trapdoor, a company with not much of a development team to speak of, agreed to do just that without having any real idea what they were getting in to. Contracts were signed, Trapdoor got some funding to begin development on what would end up bring Morningstar/Dungeonscape, and spent six months developing the product before its announcement at Origins.

Thing is, Trapdoor seemed as much of a developer "shop" as WotC was in the 4E days. They seemingly had no idea what they got themselves in to, and had nowhere near the infrastructure and resources to deliver a product of such scope. Prior to this they hadn't even created an Android app at all ever, so they immediately had to run around and find the developers to actually do that (I have to admit, I offered my services to them to do that). When someone brought up desktop support, they were equally flustered.

During this time, Trapdoor was in constant conflict with WotC over pricing. Trapdoor wanted to price the tools themselves cheap, preferring the users to spend the money on the actual books. WotC, for who knows what reason, wanted to go the other way: they wanted to add micro transactions *everywhere*. For example, they wanted to charge $1.99 for each class and each race you wanted. But, so long as the funding continued and the fans seem so like what they were doing, Trapdoor pressed on because, after all, they did have WotC's blessing to continue... right?

After GenCon of that year, in an act that should come as a surprise to no one that has dealt with WotC before, everything changed.

Apparently, the person at WotC that was dealing with Trapdoor was working autonomously, and had not even bothered to run it up the chain of command. In other words, 600K and six months were spent developing Morningstar while the upper echelon of WotC management - and, specifically, WotC's branding and legal departments - had no idea it was happening.

As soon as the "powers that be" found out, chaos ensued. WotC immediately demanded that they remove the books from Morningstar, which was the whole reason the project was green-lit in the first place. Without the book content, Trapdoor lost the only thing that WotC had apparently agreed upon, and they were left with not much of a product after that.

Trapdoor panicked and tried to renegotiate a new pricing deal with WotC, but WotC didn't see the future in the same way. Not only did WotC immediately terminate the contract, but they effectively threw Trapdoor under the bus and chastised them for "not meeting WotC's expectations." Trapdoor was thrown like a discarded bone at the fans, and they mercilessly tore into them.

Trapdoor tried to stay afloat, but there was no wind in their sails. In the eyes of the public, they failed. As a company, they didn't last long before their investors pulled the plug and shut them down.

Trapdoor still owes me $14.10 for Cavern of the Damned, but I'm not bitter...

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Part Deux

And here we are...

Trapdoor was effectively an indie startup that was barely staying in the black, but Curse is an established software development company with over ten times the staff (141 employees, at least according to their company profile). Curse is also owned by Twitch and has multi-platform products out there in the marked that are used by tens of thousands of gamers, so they've arguably done this before.

But Curse is that and only that: they actually are a programmer "shop". I have no doubt they can create a good product that would be easy to use, but they are only creating a front end for WotC's content. WotC has absolute say in how much access to that content costs, and as we've described above: when it comes to the digital realm, WotC is still in the dark ages.

Based on a Reddit post by the product lead at Curse, it looks like WotC is leaning towards the micro-transaction route that they tried to ram down Trapdoor's throat. So expect to pay as much for a 5th Edition character class as you would for a handful of hearts in Candy Crush.


I have confidence in Curse being able to make a decent app, but this project might be doomed from the start because of WotC's pricing model. I remain cautiously optimistic that WotC will see the light some day and change their ways. We can only hope.


Fear of Birds

DISCLAIMER: The below talks a lot about the mechanics in D&D 3.5e. I, as I say below, am not as familiar with 3.5e as most of you so I'm sure I' probably making several errors and incorrect assumptions. I'd really like to know what I'm doing wrong.

Recently I had the opportunity to play in a Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 play-by-post running of A Dark and Stormy Knight (level 1). We have a few other players that were relative newcomers, so I chose to fall back on what could be considered the harder of all the classes to play: the wizard.

First, two things about me:

  1. I have not played D&D 3.5e in decades years, so I'm a bit rusty.
  2. I don't ever play mages. My specialty is rogues, with rangers being a close second.

So I went through the motions of creating my first level character, a half-elf named Zedric with a neurotic raven familiar named Quoth. Due to personal time constraints I didn't have much the opportunity to flesh out a back story, so I tried to focus on the character sheet.

After creating my character, I came to a somewhat shocking conclusion: if you're a 3.5e wizard and survived long enough to make it to level two, it must be a bloody miracle. Wizards must be dropping like flies everywhere.

I'd heard jokes about how mages can be killed by house cats, but I never had the math to back it up because I never bothered to stat up a wizard and have him go toe to toe with a cat. Now that I have the opportunity, I decided to crunch the numbers and analyze something... What if Zedric the wizard had to fight his own raven?

Logically, it might seem like no contest; the wizard could incinerate the bird in a flash with any number of spells. But let's assume he's already fired off his six spells for the day (three at level 0, three at level 1), so all he has is his trusty quarterstaff to bash the bird's brains in.

Let's analyze our two competitors:

Zedric: AC 11 (AC 10 flat footed), 5 HP, Quarterstaff attack is at a -1 attack bonus for 1d6-1 damage (minimum 1).

Quoth: AC 14 (AC 12 flat footed), 2 HP, Claw attack is +4 for 1d2-5 damage (minimum 1).

So let's look at the two attacks. In order to knock the bird out, Zedric has roughly a 30% chance of hitting (-1 atk vs AC 14, needs a 15 or higher). And if he does hit has a 67% chance of causing enough damage (3 or higher on the d6) to drop it to zero. 33% of the time, it'll require two hits.

On the other hand, the bird hits the wizard 70% of the time (+4 atk vs AC 11, needs a 7 or higher) and does 1 point of damage, so he has to hit him 5 times.

I'm genuinely afraid of my bird turning on me. This thing can eviscerate me!!!

A cat is similar - same AC, same hit points, same attack modifier - but gets two claw attacks as a full round action, so he can drop the wizard in 3 turns. OK, so cats *are* much more dangerous. Who knew?

All the above assumes the wizard runs out of spells and has to resort to his actual weapon. Although a 1st level wizard's spell repertoire would be enough to deal with a stupid bird, anything larger than that and you may have to resort to running like hell. Let's look at the spells I chose:

Level 0:

Ray of Frost: 1d3 cold damage in a 25' range. It's a ranged touch attack, so I'd be a +1 attack aiming at the bird's AC 14.

Flare: Ooooooo...

Presitidigitation: The single most unappreciated cantrip in D&D 4e. How is this not an at will?

Light: Hey, I gotta see where I'm going.

Level 1:

Burning Hands: 15' cone, which isn't very big (similar to a Close Blast 3; let the record show that Burning Hands in 4E is a Close Blast 5). 1d4 fire damage, DC 15 Reflex save (raven gets a +4 to Reflex save, so he has a 45% chance of saving) for half damage, which might still be  enough to drop it 25% of the time.

Magic Missile: Automatic 1d4+1 damage. Bird doesn't stand a chance.

Mage Armor: A wizard's only decent protection against birds and cats; grants +4 to AC, so the bird's hit chance drops from 70% to 50%.

That's it. That's all I got. Seven spells, with 3-4 of them specificlly for combat. Given enough enemies and bad rolls from the rest of the party, I could conceivably burn them all in one combat and be forced to whacking things with a stick soon.

So unless the party takes extended rests every encounter or two, the wizard is going to get annoyingly useless right quick.

Am I missing something here? Is there some design aspect I've missed that makes wizards more durable and not such paper tigers?


I'm very familiar with D&D 4th Edition, and this scenario is unthinkable; wizards are comparatively beefy and have on average 25 or so hit points. It is highly unlikely for a standard monster to "one shot kill" any PC (in player-versus-player situations, it's definitely possible... See Fourthcore Deathmatch). In 3.5e I have to stand near, and preferably behind, one or more "meat shields" to avoid getting dusted by even the slightest threat... but in 4E I can go crazy and not worry about the occasional hit. In 4E I can fall head first in to a 10' pit and not even get bloodied, but in 3.5e I'd be leaving quite an impressive blood red stain on the pit's bottom.

I've heard many say that that's by design, that a wizard is such a weakling at low levels to compensate for being an arcane god of destruction at higher levels. Really? That's balance? What good is the hope of being an uber-wizard if you're going to get killed by the first pack of rats you come across?

As people discuss the upcoming D&D "Next" (DDN, as I call it), there's been talk about bringing back the Vancian magic system, which is arguably the direct cause of the above problem. But apparently they are considering at-will options so the mage doesn't have to humiliate himself beating at rats with a stick.

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