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



Some 5th Edition Monsters

I've been recently re-tooling my campaign "The Coming Dark" with the hopes that I would launch a Kickstarter for it in the very near future.

One of the sections that I've completely rewritten is a scene where a bunch of drow would occupy a keep on the way to your primary objective. Although drow are interesting to some degree and challenging to a young party, after giving it a lot of thought they didn't really have much reason to be there. The BBEG was a high elf, so the thought of them working together was rather unlikely to begin with. And there wasn't any acceptable reason for drow to be wandering about the surface besides "elves are over there, and we hate them!"

Another reason I wanted to get rid of the drow is because of possible publishing implications. One could argue that drow are part of the OGL - after all, they're in Pathfinder - but the general consensus of it is that they are part of the D&D realm. Also, in order to fully comply with the OGL, I'd have to leave their lore out of it... and, let's face it, drow are kind of dependent on their lore. It defines who they are, and without it they're not much more than a mean elf.

So after removing them, replacing them with other creatures, I found myself with a few monsters I no longer intend to use. So, good samaritan that I am, here they are!

First off is the wood golem that I posted on Twitter. It's loosely based on the Pathfinder version, made into a CR 4 creature.

Secondly is the leader of the drow group, a mage named Draya. Originally she as a summoner because of where she was physically located in the adventure, but just looking at her stat block alone doesn't indicate anything summoner-like so I just left her as a plain ol' "mage".

Anyway, here ya go! Enjoy!

Leftover Monsters - Wood Golem and Drow Mage


The 11th Skeleton

With the release of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit and Player's Handbook, I have decided to convert my long languishing adventure "The Coming Dark" to 5E. But, unlike other publishers who will remain nameless, I am not going to rush it out there, and no one's going to see a thing about it until (1) the licensing options are given, and (2) the Dungeon Master's Guide is released.

That being said, I have started to try and figure out how 5th Edition works in terms of creating adventures. In 4E, creating balanced encounters was rather simple because everything was equally balanced - given an equal level, five monsters were an even match to five PCs - but that's not exactly the case any more. Now it's more like 3.5E and earlier versions, where a monster's difficulty is reflected in an obscure "Challenge Level" which is extremely hard to calculate. I mean, after you stat up a monster how do you know what CR Challenge Level to give it?

That led me to wonder about balance in general, specifically how balance is determined. 5th Edition had an unprecedented amount of playtesters, so they had access to a variety of groups that could test and retest things in the hopes that they could determine what is balanced and what is unbalanced. But there's an inherent problem with that: not every group is the same, and not every player is the same. If an exploit exists, it will take a small handful of "high end" players to find it... so if something is taken advantage of by so few, is it really a balance issue? Can the game be unbalanced by something you're not even aware of?

So I thought about how some things could be experimented with... and the programmer in me realized that this is no different than load testing an application. When you do that, you don't run it a few times and see what happens. You run it a LOT of times and get the average results.

So I decided to create a simulator.

Combat Simulator


In the first scene of "The Coming Dark", the players are set upon by a large group of skeletons. But how many is enough? At what point does the encounter go from being a cake walk to a crushing defeat?

So I wrote a program to simulate 50,000 combats between two groups: the five pre-generated characters that are included in the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Kit versus an indeterminate amount of skeletons. How many skeletons does it take before the players are likely to be on the losing end of the battle?

The small little program I wrote takes a few considerations:

  • All the attacks are basic attacks. Every class uses its preferred melee attack except the rogue (which uses his shortbow) and the wizard (which uses the cantrip ray of frost).
  • The noble fighter and cleric are the "preferred" enemies of the attacking skeletons. These are the front line defenders, and likely the ones that stand between the skeleton and the wizards. Only when they both fall is the rest of the party at risk.
  • No high end magic of any kind. Needless to say this would quickly sway the encounter in the player's favor.
  • No healing. No action surge, no cleric healing, no potions, etc... again, this is something the players have that the skeleton's don't. This also means that the players will not use any limited resources during the combat.
  • No one gets advantage or disadvantage on any roll. For that reason, the rogue never deals additional sneak attack damage.
  • A natural 20 deals double the normal damage. I know this isn't precise, but it's easier to code.
  • All the damage is rolled; no averages are used.
  • The skeletons have an AC of 12 and 6 hit points each. They have a shortsword as a weapon, which gives them a +3 to the attack roll and deals 1d6+1 damage on a hit.
  • The PCs are the five defined in the starter kit: Noble Fighter (greatsword), Folk Hero Fighter (bow), Cleric (morningstar), Rogue (shortbow), and Wizard (ray of frost).
  • Since he deals bludgeoning damage and the skeletons are vulnerable to it, the cleric deals an additional die of damage on a hit. Again, not precise... but easier to code.


I ran 50,000 iterations of each combat, adjusting the number of skeletons from 6 to 12. The simulations yielded the following.

# of Skeletons PC Wins PC Losses
6 49258 742
7 47238 2762
8 42606 7394
9 35178 14822
10  26024  23976
11  17060 32940
12  9388 40612

So, in a nutshell, the 11th skeleton is quite the badass. Players could more or less handle ten of them, but when that 11th one steps in things go to crap pretty quickly.

So what did we learn from this exercise?

  • It's very possible for PCs to trash a modest amount of low end minions without having to fire their big guns.
  • The above doesn't use healing at all, which means that even if the PCs get dinged about a bit they are still able to recover. PCs can win an encounter with 8 skeletons over 80% of the time and immediately go into the next encounter.
  • Dailies, spells, healing potions and other consumables - things that the monsters generally don't have - tip the scales considerably in favor of the PCs.
  • If you walk into a room with 6 skeletons in it, you can probably dispatch them fairly easily. As glorious as it might be, you don't have to nuke the whole room.

Until more concrete guidelines for monster creation and encounter balancing come about, I'll keep using this simulator and try to get a feel for how things should be. Over time, I might improve the simulator more and more so that it's more representative of each PCs actions in an encounter. Who knows? Maybe this will end up being a full on AI framework?

I can't help but wonder if WotC does this sort of analysis. Like I said above, sure they have tens of thousands of playtesters but it's such a diverse group with so many different situations that it may be hard to quantify. Not to mention that, if you present a specific combat situation to two separate groups, 99% of the time you'll get two different approaches and two different outcomes.

Can't wait to try this out on goblins and kobolds...


If you're curious, you can view the C# source code for the simulator HERE.


Atomic Age Preview: The Vorpal Rabbit

In case you aren't aware, my pet project - the post-apocalyptic treatment of 13th Age's Archmage Engine SRD - has a name now: Atomic Age. We have a website and a Twitter account, but I'm not exactly advertising yet because I don't have appropriate branding for it. I want a logo and a few creative assets before I head unto the breach that is social media.

In the meantime, development continues... Most recently on the catalog of monsters that will be included with the core book. Initially I had created the "straight", not off-the-wall monsters that could be present in a semi-realistic post-apocalyptic world - robots, soldiers, wasteland marauders, etc. - but now it's time to do the weird ones that make a post-apocalyptic game entertaining and offbeat.

While I was converting Lepus Maximus to Atomic Age, someone mentioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And with that the thought process was unavoidable.

Since it's actually compatible with 13th Age, here you have my latest creation: The Vorpal Rabbit. Hope you enjoy!

Rabbit, Vorpal

Normal 3rd level Wrecker Beast [RABBIT]
Initiative +7

AC 20
PD 15
MD 11
HP 44

Huge, sharp teeth +8 vs. AC - 8 damage, and the rabbit pops free from the target

Charge: The attack instead deals 12 damage on a hit if the rabbit moves first before attacking an enemy it was not engaged with at the start of its turn.
Natural 17+: 6 ongoing damage (hard save ends, 16+)

Quick footed: The rabbit gains a +5 bonus to disengage checks.

Leap about: As a move action and with a successful disengage check (if applicable), the rabbit can hop to any nearby space it can see.

Fear: While engaged with this creature, enemies that have 15 hp or fewer are dazed (–4 attack) and do not add the escalation die to their attacks.

Nastier Specials
Critical threat: When the rabbit makes a charging attack, it scores a critical hit on a 17+.

Vicious streak: When the rabbit scores a critical hit, it can move to engage another nearby target and makes a charging bite attack against it as a free action.


As Seen In Dragon Magazine…

Yesterday the Table of Contents for Dragon Magazine #421 was finally published, and it contains somewhat of a surprise: my co-authored article is finally going to see the light of day!

...and I don't quite know how I feel about that now.

The article was written over a year ago (my source file has the "last updated" date of 1/9/2012, but the approval for the article occured as early as November 2011), and quite honestly I've changed a lot since then. In retrospect, I don't quite know how I feel about the article in question; it's been a long time, and my design style has changed considerably in the past year. There are parts of it I'm not all that thrilled about, but I admit I've felt that way about everything I've ever published so I assume that's just the write in me panicking about the quality of everything I type.

For starters, if it's the bio I think I wrote it's really... and I mean really... weak. To be honest, I had a harder time writing the bio than I did the rest of the article. For those of you that haven't tried it before, it's actually fairly difficult to describe oneself without getting all preachy and while trying to maintain a little bit of humor. When asked to do it for this submission I kind of panicked and didn't know what the hell to say, so I wrote who I was and even mentioned my own company (Darklight Interactive). At this point I'd be surprised if WotC even published a reference to my own company (they did, after all, C&D me at one point).

Secondly, I've never had to fill out an art request before. In the past I always had a certain level of faith in artists in the same way as people have faith in me as a programmer. I never expected to have to go in to vivid detail on exactly what I wanted for art; I figured I'd give them a general idea and let the artist use their own creativity to come up with something that fits. Rather than tell them "draw me XXX", I had to go in to vivid detail of the scene I would have liked to see... Even going as far as capitalizing key words that I thought important ("... ELEMENTAL CHAOS ... MOLTEN LAVA ... THIN WINGS ... SHARP CLAWS ..."). If a client of mine went in to that level of detail when asking for a program I'm supposed to write, and even went as far as capitalizing keywords like that, I'd probably tell him to stuff it.

Finally, and I've said this many a time before, I suck at writing lore. I can create monster stat blocks until I'm blue in the face and can work on crunch text for weeks on end, but I now had to come up with lore background for the article. Luckily I was told up front that the article was going to be co-authored (at the time I didn't know who the other author was), so I prayed that the other author would be much better than I in terms of introducing the article and providing the necessary top level background lore.

But, regardless of that, I still needed to write the lore for the parts of the article I did write. So off I went to do research... After several hours of searching I managed to dig out the original Fiend Folio out of storage and I even spent a stupid amount of money to buy the UK5: Eye of the Serpent adventure module on eBay because that's where some of the creatures were introduced.I even dug out the D&D 3.5E Monster Manual and the Pathfinder Bestiary to ensure I had every bit of information I needed to do this right.

Why go through all this effort? Well, there's a big difference in creating something from scratch and creating something that has thirty years of history; I wasn't about to create something that the die hard D&D historians will immediately identify as being flat out wrong.

I was worried. Part of me created the stat blocks with the absurd amount of detail I normally put in to doing such a thing, but I was still concerned that these new creations of mine would not fit in to the established history of the creatures. In addition to the history across multiple editions, I had another concern: these creatures had already introduced in 4th Edition in an article by Logan Bonner. They were familiars then, but even if they weren't represented in the same style as previous editions they were still considered existing 4th Edition canon - they are in the DDI Compendium - so I technically couldn't create anything that went against that either.

It took me over a month to write the article. Actually, let me be more specific on that: it took me a few weeks to build up the courage to write the article, then spent a few days writing, then spend another few weeks staring at it and thinking "is this really good enough?" It was my first article to be published in Dragon/Dungeon, so I was nervous as hell. I think I even had my wife hit the "Send" button in the end because if not it'd still be sitting in my "Drafts" folder waiting to go out.

But regardless of all that, there it is... my name as an author on the Wizards of the Coast website. It's not a stellar, earth-shattering article I admit, but it is a personal accomplishment. Technically, I can now add "published in Dragon Magazine" on my resume. That's got to count for something, right?

Hopefully now I'll get the chance to fulfill another bucket list item of mine: getting my article errata-ed by WotC!


The Absent-Minded Alchemist

A couple of months ago some of us had an idea for a special project, but due to our lives getting a little more complicated than we had planned that project has yet to develop. Maybe some day it will, but not now.

I had created a short, two encounter side trek/delve for this project, which I am now releasing under the name The Absent-Minded Alchemist. The delve developed from an hook presented by The Angry DM through Twitter, and I simply couldn't get the idea out of my head for a few days so I went ahead and wrote it up.

Here is the intro text:

     The great alchemist Zaelin has made quite a reputation for himself in these parts. Although he makes quality alchemical mixtures, potions and other items he is noticeably absent-minded and, in some cases, careless about how he goes about creating these mixtures. He’s had his share of accidents, ranging from injuring half a dozen apprentices to destroying a large portion of his home.

     Most recently Zaelin has gotten in to the nasty habit of disposing of his failed mixtures simply by pouring them down the drain. Over time these highly volatile mixtures have eaten through the city’s sewer system and accumulated in the ground beneath his feet. There, the other smaller residents of the city – the countless rats that live underground – have been exposed to these alchemical mixtures and have been the victims of some rather nasty side effects.

     Now Zaelin has a problem: his basement is full of rats, but these aren’t the normal rats he’s use to. They have been infused with alchemical energies by his own hand, and they are too many of them for the hapless wizard to deal with himself.

     If only a group of adventurers could come by and deal with the problem...

Hope you enjoy!

The Absent-Minded Alchemist on Drive Thru RPG