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



Items of Legend

Items of Legend (4E)

About a month ago I was busy working on my next module, Heart of Fire, when I decided to take a minor diversion and do something different.

I chanced across the D&D 3.5e book Weapons of Legacy by Bruce Cordell, Kolja Raven Liquette and Travis Stout... and realized that such a thing didn't exist in 4E. The closest thing was using inherent bonuses, but beyond that players were limited as to how their weapons could be upgraded without being replaced. If you have a +3 sword you had it until you found a +4 sword, at which point you would toss the old one aside as if it was garbage or melt it down in to slag. Selling it was pointless - considering the two items are at least six levels apart the resale value would be inconsequential - so the players just threw it in a corner of the dungeon and forgot about it.

I originally set out to create a system by which a weapon could increase in power along with the player, and not just by increasing its attack bonus by one. I wanted legendary items that had a whole slew of powers that the player can use as they became "attuned" to the item over time.

But I did not want an artifact... These items aren't made to be sentient or intelligent. They do not have mood swings, have desires or get emotional. They just get more powerful, that's all.

Thus Items of Legend was born. This supplement provides basic rules for items that grow in level through exposure to the player that wields them. Included in the document are six items, some of which honestly have been influenced by video games of my past (Ultima VII, Everquest II, even a certain LucasArts game). And it's not limited to weapons; this mechanic can work for anything.

I hope this is useful to some of you. Eventually I might create more items that follow this mechanic, and I don't know if I'll post them here or make a sequel. We'll see.

For now, you can pick up Items of Legend on Drive Thru RPG! At the same time, while you're at it, all of our other products are on sale for the low price of $1.99 for today only!


I'd like to take this opportunity and thank Stephen Newton of Thick Skull Adventures (http://www.thickskulladventures.com/) for editing this document. As I've said many a time before, fluff and extended writing isn't my specialty, so my grammar and way of expressing myself has its share of issues. I appreciate his services, and he helped make this product much better than it would have been doing it myself. Thanks!


Print Publishing In a Digital Age

See my name on the cover?!? BOOM!!!

For the past few weeks, in and around moving from one house to another, I've been working on getting a hardcopy version of "The Endless Winter" up for sale somewhere.

Actually, let me clarify that... This all started with my own desire to have a tangible, hardcopy version of something I created that I can hold in my hands, raise over my head and shout "I MADE THIS!!!" I've been doing game design for nearly twenty years and everything that I've published has been virtual; when asked "can I see the game you wrote?", the only response I had was "go to this website and download it." Now I actually have a physical product I can shove in people's faces screaming "HERE!!! LOOK!!! THAT'S ME!!!" while I'm giggling like a schoolgirl.

This all may sound somewhat silly to you... But I have to admit I'm somewhat old school in this regard. In this day and age, where the print medias are dying a slow and painful death at the hands of e-readers, a physical copy is meaningless and might never be bought by a single person. In fact, I myself might be criticized as a "tree killer" for even considering printing a product.

But, you know, it feels good to hold it in your hands. It really does. It's like cradling a newborn child, thinking how you made that possible with your own two hands (or other parts, as the case may be). It's extremely satisfying.

So in order to figure all this out I used two separate venues: Drive Thru RPG's printing service and Lulu. As I analyzed these two services, I noticed that Lulu was significantly more expensive then Drive Thru RPG, and I wasn't sure why at the time. I mean... it's an identical product, isn't it? Well here's a little more information on that.

Drive Thru RPG

"The Endless Winter" was already listed on Drive Thru RPG, so it seemed a logical choice to try their printing services. It also helped me understand exactly what is involved in getting something ready for publication - I have to start thinking about things like bleed, saturation and color space, proper contrasting colors when printing to black and white, etc... - so there was a lot of trial and error as I went back and forth. It doesn't help that it takes Drive Thru RPG three days to tell you the file you uploaded was wrong, so it took me almost two weeks to get a version finally viable for publication.

Drive Thru RPG forces you to order a "proof" of the publication before you can put it up for sale, and you have to buy it at the price it costs to print (more on that later) and with royalty credit, so I ordered both softcover color and softcover B/W. When I got them, I was excited beyond belief - "look mom! I wrote this!!!" - but there were still some issues that had to be addressed. And those issues were mostly due to color selection and contrast, such as the "Dark" in the word "Darklight" being illegible on the cover (due to a lack of a lighter edge) or the wooden bridge being indistinguishable from the chasm in the black and white version due to no contrast. Nothing major, and all easily corrected.

Drive Thru RPG was pretty reasonably priced, significantly cheaper than Lulu, but you do not get a free proof. As far as royalties, if you sell a copy your revenue is calculated after they take their printing cost; for example, if you sell your book for $20 and it costs $15 to print, your revenue is based on the $5 difference.


The first thing I noticed about Lulu is that it is a LOT more expensive. I mean like two to three times more expensive than Drive Thru RPG... So much so that the cost of printing no longer puts me at a competitive price point with other similar products. At first that didn't make much sense to me, but in time I noticed some significant differences and important features Lulu provides:

  • For every publication you get a free ISBN (owned by Lulu, but still). This is a somewhat important number, and identifies your product as unique to the world. If you were publishing on your own, it would cost you $125 to get one ISBN (the price goes down if you buy several at a time).
  • Lulu has several other avenues of sale than just their website; you can sell it on Amazon, for example. Your profit may get eaten up by the $10 "Retailer Fee", so you might want to start hoping for some serious volume.
  • The first proof of a product is FREE. You have to pay for shipping, but that's significantly cheaper for something that could effectively be a shot in the dark.

And, above all that, I have to say one thing: the hardcopy proof I received from Lulu is stunning compared to the Drive Thru RPG one. Print quality and materials are superior by far, it's not as over-the-top glossy as the Drive Thru RPG prints (which are pictured above) and it just feels like a quality product. By comparison, it makes the Drive Thru RPG softcover feel like newspaper stock.

Lulu's very blunt about their prices, but they do not appear to take a percentage beyond the cost of printing the product. So if your product costs $15 to print and you sell it for $20, you keep the $5 difference in full. Despite that, since Lulu's prices are higher you're not making as much money, but with the possibility of selling it across multiple major venues that may balance out due to volume (one can only hope).


So while I wait for my final proofs from Drive Thru RPG, I have listed "The Endless Winter" on Lulu. I'll be honest: that's not the price I want to sell it at, but as it is I'm not making a whole lot of profit and if I price it any lower I'm losing money. Once the Drive Thru RPG proofs clear, I'll list it there significantly cheaper but arguably inferior in quality.

Is the quality worth the significant price difference? Some would argue yes, others not. Personally, if I saw both products side by side I'd be somewhat hard pressed to pay almost double for the Lulu one, but I guess it matters on what you're buying. If this was meant to be a coffee table book or something that would serve in part as decoration then yes, the Lulu book is much prettier. If it's just to run the campaign, heck, I can do with printing the PDF personally.

So buy it at Drive Thru RPG if you:

  • Want to save a few bucks.
  • Just want a print copy, knowing full well that it's not as high quality of a print copy as it can be.
  • Are feeling charitable and want to help me out by buying at a place that gives me  better revenue margin.
  • Have store credit that you want to burn.

Buy it at Lulu, Amazon or wherever else if you:

  • Want a high quality, really nice looking product.
  • Want to help put me at the top of Amazon's bestseller list.

On a semi-related note, I am in the process of creating my own online store where I can sell all my products and not have to worry about someone taking part of my margin. This will allow me to do things like buy hardcopies in bulk (Drive Thru RPG gives a 5+% discount if you buy 50 or more of your own product) and make more. Stay tuned for that!

Future Projects

I have a few other things in the works, including another module that is somewhat inspired by Fourthcore. Once I have something to show for that, I'll post it. One teaser: an exploding island is involved... Should be fun.

I also have some more Gamma World Remnants to post, such as the reactor room from Where Worlds Collide. That will be posted in the next week or two.

In the meantime, you can watch the orc horde trounce anyone that opposes us in the Fourthcore Team Deathmatch, Round One!!!


Complying With the GSL

Since I can't even mention the words Gamma World without having to slice off a pound of flesh and mail it to Wizards of the Coast (darn it! I did it again!!! *STAB!!!*), I've decided to focus on my conventional D&D 4e campaign, The Coming Dark.

In order to do that, I have to go through my existing 150 page campaign with a magnifying glass and ensure that it is GSL compliant, and it's not as easy as it sounds. It's one thing to create a module while being compliant, but it's another thing to take an existing product and retcon most of it.

That compounded with the fact that I am "on notice" - It's on my permanent record now!!! Now I'll never get in to college!!! - means I have to be extra-careful.

Now I know what you're thinking: I agreed to the GSL before I even started writing TCD... Why isn't it compliant since I knew full well what had to be done? Simple: I wrote the module I wanted to write, not the module that the lawyers wanted me to. The contents of The Coming Dark, Chapter One are what I wanted to create, damn the restrictions, and I'm quite happy about that. I compare the situation I'm in to that of a writer writing a book; there comes a time in every writer's career (or so I've heard; don't quote me on this) that their publisher might suggest, hint or even insist that something be changed in order to make the product more marketable. And, for a professional writer that loves their work and loves that which they've created, that's a stab in the heart.

Nonetheless, I decided to begin the exercise of systematically going through my campaign, page by page, and changing what needs to be changed. Just to give you an idea of what this actually involves, here are some examples:

  • I can't refer to classes or races in the Player's Handbook 3 because that's not part of the SRD. In other words, my psion isn't a "psion" but simply a "telepath".
  • Thankfully, my psion didn't have a full stat block, so I don't have to worry about referring to powers like Mind Thrust and Dishearten, but other classes - fighters, mages, rogues, etc... - may be an issue. Originally, some of their powers came from sources not covered in the SRD; my mages may not be able to use Grease or Grasping Shadows, because they are in Arcane Power. So if the power was relevant to the campaign (such as the Grease spell) I reworded it and called it something different, and in the other cases I chose powers that are covered by the SRD and are thematically similar to the power they are replacing. Same goes for rogues that want to use Clever Strike or Handspring Assault, or barbarians that want to use Thunder Hooves Rage, or fighters that want to use Knee Breaker... I have to think of something else that retains the flavor of the original character.
  • The changing of powers above causes several problems when it comes to my BBEG: a warlock. Using only the original Player's Handbook as a reference, my warlock has been nerfed dramatically. In theory, powers like Cursebite (from the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide) are no longer available. The easiest way around this is to make up brand new powers that are nothing like anything published, but I have to ensure that those powers are in tune with the character. I admit I haven't thought much of this one yet because he's at the end of the chapter, but I'll get to him eventually.
  • I cannot include stat blocks copied straight out of Monster Manual or Monster Manual 2. For example, I cannot reproduce Kobold Skirmishers, and can only say something to the effect of "see D&D 4e Monster Manual for stats". The only way I would be able to include them is if I make enough modifications to the creature that makes it unique; for example, I converted the standard Monster Manual Skeleton in to a "Shadowtouched Skeleton" that has an additional power. Thankfully, this only happens in two encounters... but one of them has five different types of kobolds that I now need to think about.
  • According to the GSL, there are certain creatures you cannot include in your campaign... EVER: Balhannoth, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Displacer Beast, Gauth, Githyanki, Githzerai, Kuo-Toa, Mind Flayer, Illithid, Slaad, Umber-Hulk and Yuan-Ti. These creatures are an integral part of the D&D branding, and as such are not allowed to be used anywhere under any circumstances. They are completely absent from the SRD, and are listed in the GSL's "Imagery" section (section 5.7). Thankfully, this does not affect me right now because I didn't include them, but it does change a few things for the next chapter in the campaign.
  • In the original design of the campaign, I provided specific magic items as treasures because I felt they make sense; as much as I agree that the concept of treasure parcels is for the benefit of the players, I'm against ramming in a specific item in to an area just because a player needs it. Let's face it, a band of lowly kobolds isn't going to be conveniently dragging around a +1 Greatsword that the fighter has been dying to find since the adventure started; that's just unrealistic. But since only the Dungeon Master's Guide and Adventurer's Vault (partially; see below) is covered in the SRD I'm limited as to the items I can give out. For example, I can't have a Tethercord (from the Eberron Player's Guide), or the local inn can't have a Cask of Liquid Gold (from Adventurer's Vault 2). So I have to either change these items to something usable or describe what they do without copying running text word for word and actually referring to the magic item (such as the cask).
  • The Adventurer's Vault is an interesting problem as well: it's partially in the SRD, and there are apparently some items that are not listed in the SRD. For example, the Blinding Bomb and Tanglefoot Bag are in the SRD, but plain old Armor of Resistance is not. At least not explicitly that is... One could argue that the name is in the SRD due to its component parts - "armor" and "resistance" - but do I really want to take that chance? So one of my characters had to switch to a different type of armor that is more acceptable.
  • I am going to have some issues describing the Ethereal Bard because I can't include the running text from the bard powers; in other words, I can't describe the song, or at least not in the same manner that the Player's Handbook 2 does. I'll probably have to leave that to the DM's imagination.
  • I wanted to include the characters in my playtests as pre-generated characters, but since 80% of their make-up is non-SRD material I don't think I can do that. I'll have to think about whether I'll include any and what characters they may be.
  • If I do include pre-generated characters, when I detail their powers I can only state the damage. If they have any secondary effects, I apparently can only refer to that as "special". For example, a rogue's Dazing Strike power causes "1d6 +5 damage + Special (Rogue Attack 1)" on a hit. If the players want to know what "Special" means, they have to look it up themselves.
  • My biggest problem: there are two scenes that includes creatures from a race in the Monster Manual 3, so they may be right out. I need to think about what race to use instead, whether to make them a new race with a different name, or use an existing race from the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual.

All in all, it hasn't been as painful as I would have thought, but then again I've only gone through Act One.

Regarding the issue of treasure I mention above: one thing I've noticed in many modules is that they don't bother to list magic items at all and do things like tell the DM to "generate a treasure", so there's no concern of what they can mention in terms of magic items. I'm kind of indifferent about that, but talking about that is beyond the scope of this post and probably merits another post.

Many have suggested to not use the GSL at all and use the Open License; the problem with this is that, at least in my interpretation of it, I would be allowed to refer to even less of the elements in D&D. In a small campaign that's easy enough, but in a bigger campaign pretending that D&D doesn't exist and making no reference to its content is somewhat difficult to do, at least in my opinion. Maybe I'm interpreting the use of the Open License wrong, but it seems like going that route will create a lot more doubts; the GSL may be more restrictive, but at least the restrictions are well defined.

For someone creating small campaigns of a few encounters, complying with the GSL really isn't that troubling. But when you start dealing with "super-modules" and epic campaigns, it could be potentially frustrating. So I highly recommend you read the GSL top to bottom and keep it open while you're writing, ensuring that you remain compliant as you go. Don't do what I did unless your a masochist. 😉

I will keep making the changes, knowing full well that there will come a point where I will have to make a change and won't want to. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, DnD, GSL, RPG No Comments