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



Ever Forward

Before I continue with this blog, I thought I'd clarify a little about myself. I am a "gamer" in the traditional sense, and have been involved with game design and game development for close to 25 years. But, as far as D&D goes, I'm somewhat inexperienced when it comes to running a campaign in person... I'm currently DM-ing four different campaigns and playing in around six or seven, all of which are "play by post" (mostly on the Wizards of the Coast forums). The last time I played a live session of D&D - with other humans - was around 1988.

A lot of my ramblings will seem to most as the trivial, nonsensical banter from someone who may not know what he's talking about and is not experienced in this sort of thing. I freely admit that, when it comes to running a campaign that isn't exclusively online, I don't have the level of experience in this genre that most of my readers do. I will make mistakes, say things that are incorrect, talk about things that have been talked to death... Simply because I'm clueless.

As it turns out, Critical Hits had an article today called "So You Want to Write RPGs", which talks about what it takes to be an RPG designer... And it got me thinking a bit. Of the seven things listed, I fail miserably at a couple of them, and the ones that I do fail at might not be that easy to remedy because of personal situations and available means (full time job, family, geography, etc...). So if I do want to make a run of this sort of thing, I have a lot of work to do. Will that stop me from doing what I want to do? Probably not. If I don't follow those suggestions and continue on the way I have been, I might end up with a product that sucks.

Honestly, I don't care if it does.

Ten years ago I was the lead programmer of a group called "The Redeemed Assassins", and we were developing The Opera: an add-on for the original Half-Life from Valve Software. Development of TO was a brutal, painstaking process that took several years, and during that time we suffered in ways I can't even begin to describe. But we did it anyway. When asked why we would go through so much trouble to create something that would be disliked by anyone who saw it, and would probably not last a week (we released at the same time that CounterStrike came on to the scene; 99% of all Half-Life servers were running CS at the time, and there simply wasn't an audience for anything else) we had a simple answer: "If one person found our product enjoyable, that will make us happy."

After over two years of development, we finally released it... And it lasted about three weeks before it was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of CounterStrike servers. But, to our surprise and happiness, there was actually more than one person out there that really liked what we did. That made it all worthwhile, and despite appeasing only a handful of people it reassured us that the past two years weren't a total waste.

As nice as it would be, I'm certainly not doing this for fame or fortune. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I've been a game designer for almost twenty-five years and during that time I don't think I've ever been paid to do anything game related (Valve flew me for a day to Seattle to meet the HL2 development team... Does that count?). This isn't a career, and at this point in my life I'm not expecting to make a living doing this sort of thing. But I do it anyway because I do this for myself and the hope that there's someone out there that might actually enjoy my creations.

So I press on, pouring hours upon hours in to something that has no other apparent reward beyond being a part of it. I will continue development of this campaign in the way that I think it should be, even if some of my designs might be awkward and not for everyone. The campaign might end up being such a train wreck that that nobody will ever run it in a table top game, or it might be so campy and flawed that nobody cares for it.

But in the back of my mind I'll remain hopeful that one person out there might like it, or might benefit in some way from that which I do.

Until I find out who that one person is... "Ever forward."



What better way to start a new blog than to introduce myself.

My name is David "Nighthawk" Flor and I am technically a game designer. I use the term "technically" because I haven't actually done it professionally... That is, nobody has actually paid me to design a game (yet), but you can't blame me for trying.

What I *am* professionally is a software developer, and have been programming for close to 30 years. During that time, as a hobby of sorts, I have done video game design (created "The Opera", an add-on to Half-Life) and alternate reality game design (founder of Darklight Interactive, designed and ran Looking Glass Laboratories), and am now venturing in the strange new world that is campaign design within the Dungeons and Dragons 4e ruleset.

What possessed me to do that, you wonder? For the past two years I've been designing an alternate reality game called Rachel's Walk. It's a massively complex and intricate world, containing people and places both in the real world and in an imaginary game space powered by something I call the "Dream Engine". I admit that my design is a little... how should I say... ambitious. But it was a great idea on paper anyway.

At the same time I was developing the backstory to this campaign, several friends introduced me to the D&D 4e ruleset. Now I'd played D&D before, going all the way back to the first edition, but this new rule set was quite intriguing. It was then I realized something: the backstory I was creating for Rachel's Walk would probably make a really cool campaign.

And so it began. Over the span of several months I created a campaign that spanned nine chapters, taking a party of five from level 1 all the way to level 10. A whole new continent, a band of NPCs, new monsters, new traps, new items... I admit I really got in to it, designing some areas with intricate detail even though the players might never see them. And I found myself drawing some pretty impressive maps, which is quite an achievement for a computer programmer who couldn't draw a square at gunpoint a year ago.

Since then I have launched the campaign on two forums, one of which is the Wizards of the Coast Real Adventures group, in the hopes that it can be playtested. Since my background is video game and alternate reality game design, some of my horribly intricate ideas did not translate to a D&D campaign very well, so I needed players in order to refine the mechanics of it. It was essentially a "beta", and during these controlled trials in which my players went through the paces I began to realize that players are quite a creative bunch. They tried things that I didn't expect, asked questions on story elements I hadn't even considered. They made the design better, and because of their input quite a few things have changed since it was first conceptualized.

So here we are. With the assistance of my players, I have decided to put together this campaign in a module format (whether I sell it or not is still up in the air). And I thought I might as well share some of the design considerations that went in to it with you.

But there's more... While running the campaign, I realized that managing a 4e campaign is HARD. There's so many details that the DM needs to keep track of - hit points, bonuses, detrimental effects, encounter powers, surges, treasure, even things like interactions with NPCs - that it's easy to lose one's mind. So I did what any programmer would do: I began to create a suite of applications - both offline and online - that will assist me in the execution of the campaign. This includes linkable online die rollers (a concept I didn't even know existed until I saw its use on the WotC forums), map generators, image hosting services, encounter managers and more. I realized that these tools should be available to everyone, not just little old me. So you'll see me mention them a lot, with the ultimate goal of making them available to the masses.

This blog will not reveal "spoilers" from the existing campaign; I'll try not to do that as best I can because I do want my playtesters to be able to read this blog without having it spoil their future.

I hope you stick around.

Filed under: Personal, RPG No Comments