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



Gamma World Remnants: Gammacore Reactor Control

I've been wanting to release this for quite some time, just haven't gotten around to it.

This was one of the planned areas in my cancelled Gamma World "fourthcore" (or "gammacore", as some have called it) project When Worlds Collide. The whole campaign was meant for a party of about 5th level.

In similar style to previous fourthcore releases, this is one of four possible areas the players must traverse in order to reach a computer system at the North end. It's a combination encounter and pseudo-puzzle involving prisms and very painful particle beams.

Hope you enjoy!

When Worlds Collide - Reactor Control (PDF, 448K)


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!


Lair Assault and Fourthcore

Yesterday I had the opportunity to stop by my FLGS and get to know some of the players and DMs there. I also got the first chance to see the new Lair Assault Forge of the Dawn Titan.

I was not an active participant because I got there too late and there were too many people wanting to play (8 people were in line), but I did manage to sit by and watch, occasionally flipping through my recently acquired Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium (great book BTW, but that's a talk for another day). I must say, it was an interesting experience.

Now I admit I didn't experience the entire adventure, and I resisted from reading the booklet itself (I was asked to DM a late game, but car troubles prevented that from happening. Not to mention I brought zero materials), but what I saw makes it quite an entertaining experience. Many have compared it to Fourthcore, but it's not quite that extreme: damage output is pretty high, but there are no "save or die" situations (at least none that I saw). And since it is effectively one long encounter (no rests at all), resource management became a big issue real quick: a normal party might be OK with one healer, but imagine how well your group would do if that healer can only heal you twice during the entire game.

With a group consisisting of one "passive" cleric, three strikers and one defender (notice: no controller) I was surprised that they made it as far as they did: two players made it to the end chamber only to run out of time (you only have 20 turns, or four minutes of "in game" time, to complete the encounter).

This experience, even if I was only an observer, has inspired me to offer running a game next weekend. And, without knowing what the players at this FLGS want but seeing how well they reacted to Lair Assault, I am considering running a Fourthcore game. Which one is to be determined: it'll either be "Iron Lich" or "Crucible", and which one I choose is really dependent on the level of interest in the players and which of the two they prefer running.

But I have to admit something: I'm kind of afraid.

You see, I haven't run an "in person" game in over a decade, and I don't know if I'm ready just yet. Sure I know the mechanic and the game rules, but DM-ing is sometimes much more than that, especially in a Fourthcore game that tests the abilities of players and the DM alike.

The biggest obstacle right now is that I don't have the materials: all I have is dice. I do not have a DM screen, miniatures, status indicators, etc... And the group is somewhat of a rowdy bunch, so I question whether I'll be able to maintain control over such a crowd of people much younger than I.

So in the next couple of days I have to suit up and be ready, just in case this does in fact become a reality. I don't know if I need a DM screen right out of the gate, and I can do with traditional pen and paper instead of the GameMastery Initiative Tracker (which I would have bought if it weren't for said car issues), but I have less than a week to think about what I'm going to do about miniatures and game markers.

So for the next week, I have to prepare myself mentally and see if I'm up to the challenge. If it goes well, I might start doing some WPN-level DM-ing.

Wish me luck!


In the meantime, two of the map packs that I have created: M1: The Wayside Inn and M2: The Ring of Stones are available on DriveThruRPG!

Just for reading this blog, for a limited time I'm offering a small discount on each of the items: just click on the above links to take advantage of the special pricing for the next two weeks!


A New Beginning

Technically this post has nothing to do with D&D. Hope you don't mind.

A short time ago, Sersa V at Save Versus Death announced that he will discontinue support of that which we know as "Fourthcore". I admit I've been in that position before, and I can't blame him for feeling the way he does.

I've mentioned this before, I think... Game design is sometimes a thankless job, and there isn't a worse feeling in the world than looking at that which gave you so much joy and thinking to yourself "this sucks".

For every person that enjoys your creation, you'll always have ten others that will berate it every chance they get. Whether it's because they hate some aspect of it, whether they don't understand it, or even if they just feel like complaining about something... it will not be a pleasant expeirence. When you get a handful of people tell you "man, you're awesome!", you'll get a bucketful of people yelling "man, are you serious? What the hell are you thinking?!?"

As a designer, you are left with a difficult decision. The way I see it, there are three options:

  1. Continue doing what you do in the way that you have been: The critics will continue to complain about it, regardless of whether the points they make have any validity. Ignore them and continue to develop games the way you have been because you want to; it is what brings you joy, and there is no reason to change. If you choose this route, you must be ready to accept that, over time, you may be the only person who plays your own game and the whole world might hate every fiber of your being (I've brought you John Romero before; he actually received death threats after releasing Daikatana), but at least you and you alone will have a good time designing it and a lot of fun playing it.
  2. Change the way you do things in order to adapt to the majority: If you do this, game design is no longer "fun"... it becomes "work". It becomes grueling, tiring, monotonous, depressing, and you yourself begin to hate that which you enjoyed not long ago. This could be compared to "selling out", where someone gives up their principles in order to create something that many more would play just because "more is better".
  3. Do something else: Pack as much as you can in to two suitcases and change your identity. Clean the slate and do something different.

In one way or another, I've been through every one of the above situations...

When The Opera was in development, I was creating the game that I wanted to create. And because I was mostly catering only to myself, the game could never be perfect enough to satisfy my own vision, so I continued to work on it to make it perfect. It took over two years to finish it as a result, but damn was I proud of it when it went gold. When the first version was released, I think that it was on a whopping three servers... compared to over 1,400 Counter-Strike servers. Sometimes I couldn't even find the server sitting on the ground next to my feet in the in-game browser.

For the next version of The Opera, we decided to try and fix all the issues that people had with the game in the hopes that more people will play it. It went from "creating something cool" to "fixing something that's broken". The month before the release of The Opera v1.2 felt longer than the two years leading up to the first release, and it was such a frustrating experience that The Opera R2 never came. We just didn't have it in us, the excitement faded and the group parted ways.

All this was during the time that Counter-Strike was a powerhouse in the mod community. Every product that was released was compared to Counter-Strike, and if it didn't come anywhere near being as good it never saw the light of day. Some brilliant mods for Half-Life were created during that time - Action Half-Life, Firearms, Day of Defeat, The Specialists, Natural Selection, etc... - but under the 800lb gorilla that was Counter-Strike they had no chance of success. Many of the designers sat around wondering "why are we doing this?" when nobody out there even knew they existed, and pretty soon Counter-Strike was the only mod that anyone cared about.

That is the reason I no longer do video game design. It was an uphill battle that I could not win, and that which I had spent years doing was no longer fun... It was grueling, painful and demoralizing. I began to hate it. So I found something else to do; it's still game design, but not video game design. And I'm happy once again (at least for now)!

Now I have another product: The Coming Dark, Chapter One. Honestly, I've been editing the thing over and over again for the past several weeks because it's not up to my expectations (I don't think it will ever be, but that's besides the point). When I release it, I know full well that there are many out there that will consider some of my design choices "wrong", hate some of the things I've done in it, or even burn it in a ritualistic ceremony in the front lawn just because the world must be cleansed of it. I would actually be surprised if anyone ever attempts to run this campaign. Quite frankly, I don't care... I'm creating it because *I* want to, because *I* have to for my own peace of mind. And the day I release it I will begin writing up Chapter Two and Chapter Three. If there is ever a time when I no longer enjoy it, when I feel this is a hardship that drains all the fun I had in creating the campaign, the project ends there. I go do something else, and life goes on.

Fourthcore, at its heart, was a great concept: it was an effort to bring back the golden age of D&D, the kind of game that Gygax envisioned when he created Tomb of Horrors and similar modules. But a lot of people saw it as a subversion of 4e; it was simply "wrong" and had no place in the D&D 4e mechanic. It was something that was seemingly railroaded in to an existing system not meant to support it, a system that seemed to ignore a lot of rules and design guidelines that made 4e what it was (Note: I emphasize the word "seemed" because a lot of critics may not have ever read a Fourthcore module, and are simply basing their wild rants on what they think Fourthcore is due to its description). But being "wrong" isn't necessarily a bad thing; many wonderful things have resulted from someone doing something "wrong". I can think of several billion dollar industries that exist because someone created something "wrong" that had no synergy with its parent product, so they wound up branching it off and doing it on their own. Heck, you could argue that things like vulcanized rubber and microwave ovens exist because someone did something "wrong".

So rather than trying to hammer the round peg in to the square hole, Sersa is moving on to create an entirely new product: "Wrath". This gives him artistic license to do anything he wants, and he won't have to worry about appeasing the screaming critics out there that continue to point out how Fourthcore doesn't "fit" in 4e. "Wrath" doesn't have to be a part of anything else; it stands on its own. For that, I applaud him and wish him the best of luck in this endeavour.

As for the nature of Fourthcore itself, I'm sure it will live on. The concept of Fourthcore is bigger than one person, and I have no doubt many others will continue the tradition and keep the concept alive even if it isn't called "Fourthcore" anymore. For example, I myself am still considering the creating a "GammaCore" module one of these days. Sersa planted the seeds of Fourthcore, but in some ways it has taken roots all its own and will live on in the hearts and minds of its fans.

If you're a designer, any type of designer, odds are you enjoy what you're doing; the thrill of creation is the reason you're doing it in the first place. But there will come a time when you will receive criticism and question whether it's all worth it. When that time comes, don't surrender. Either continue doing what you do because it's what you want to do or leave it all behind and move on the the next big adventure. Never let an outsider dictate what you do to have fun, because when you do it's no longer fun... it's work.

And work sucks...

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

Fourthcore/Gamma World concept

When I get an idea in my head, it's really hard to shake it. I'm already working on two modules, so I must be insane to think of a third one.

But I can't help it!!! It's my heroic flaw!!!

Having been heavily influenced by Save Versus Death's Fourthcore adventures (especially the ultra-secret playtest I have the honor of reviewing), and being even more inspired by his own talk of creating a "Gammacore" module next year, I had an idea pop in to my own head. Even though I can't imagine when I'll do it, I can't help but try in the near future.

Here is the premise, in its most primitive form (NOTE: The following is a "brain dump" and still needs a lot of clean up):

In the year 2012, a group of scientists in Geneva, Switzerland decided to try something different for a change, and with a simple flip of a seemingly innocuous switch the universe was forever changed in to the Gamma Terra of today.

Many believe that the incident was not a direct action by a human, but by the LHC itself. At the time, the LHC Computing Grid was the single largest computer system on the planet, and some think that it became self-aware shortly before the incident. The scientists, fearing a super-sentient computer might want them out of the way, panicked and decided to try and overload the system with a massive burst of energy from the accelerator.

The result was the "Big Mistake".

Today, all that remains at the site of the Large Hadron Collider is a crater thirty miles wide and two miles deep. The force of the experiment decimated everything for a hundred miles, and long after the Big Mistake portals continue to open and close sporadically across the barren landscape as multiple universes and parallel realities converged with our own.

Everyone thought that which was the LHC was vaporized, but that is far from the truth. Everything in the area - the entire collection of structures operated by CERN, along with all the scientists in it, and even the LHC ring itself - was sucked in to a parallel dimension virtually intact. This parallel dimension was an anomaly of time and space: a seemingly infinite void of blackness in which time runs slower than in the real world; what was only 150 years on Gamma Terra became thousands of years to the LHC.

The primary node of the LHC Computing Grid - the "tier 0" central hub at the CERN Computing Centre in Geneva, Switzerland - was pulled in to this parallel dimension in the blast along with the CERN operations center. Miraculously, it managed to remain online and began to conduct its own experiments (which was all that it knew how to do). For what amounted to thousands of years it learned at a geometric rate, growing more and more intelligent and altering the environment around it. It took over all the functions of the LHC, killed all the humans that remained, and began to look for a way to return to Gamma Terra... so it can destroy it by creating a world-consuming singularity.

Precisely every 16.74 years, when all the realities somehow synchronized, a gateway to this parallel dimension opens for a short time, allowing someone to cross in to that which is the LHC. During the 150 years since the Big Mistake, many have passed through the gateway looking to harness the secrets and the infinite power of the LHC. None have ever returned.

During the few minutes that the gateway is open the super-sentient CERN Computing Centre (which began to refer to itself simply as "C3")  tries to reach out to other computers still in operation on Gamma Terra, hoping to recruit them to make its objective of destroying the world easier. Needless to say, the other sentient computers do not have anywhere near the hate that C3 has accumulated over the centuries, and would rather not assist in a plan that would lead to their own destruction, so they have not been particularly helpful.

But they have sensed what C3 is capable of, and believe the next time that gateway opens may be the last. The only hope Gamma Terra has is for a group to enter through the gateway and stop C3 on its home turf before it finds a way to re-enter Gamma Terra and start its cataclysmic chain reaction that will implode the planet.

So maybe I'll be able to get around to this one of these days. In the meantime, I'll continue working on my next two modules:

  • The Coming Dark, Chapter One: Into the Light (Dungeons and Dragons 4e level 1 campaign) - To be released Summer 2011
  • The Fortress of Dr. Neb (Gamma World 4e level 2 encounter) - To be released Fall 2011

On another note, I am looking in to printing my first Gamma World campaign, "Fire From the Sky", and taking several copies of it to GenCon. I admit I don't quite know how it works there, whether I can take my copies and either give them to someone there to sell on my behalf or stand in front of the bathrooms and push them on people like other people try to sell drugs. We'll see.

In the meantime, our special offer of "Fire From the Sky" for $0.99 is still going on! Come on, you can't resist such a bargain price! Includes maps, too!!!