Archive for the '4e' Category

On Thought #30: Efficiency

2010 Nov 21

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write some posts in response to Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball’s excellent little volume, Things We Think About Games. The best thing about a book like this is not that it’s even 99% correct but because it makes you think about your own experiences and things you may be taking for granted.

Thought #30 is: Dollar for dollar, a roleplaying game is very nearly the most efficient entertainment you can buy. This is an oft-tauted advantage that roleplaying games supposedly have over video games and the like. After all, you can theoretically play a roleplaying game forever, hours and hours of entertainment, for less than the cost of X-Box game with limited retread.

However, this is also a myth, at least in the general terms stated here. Sure, a hypothetical roleplaying game could potentially be an efficient source of entertainment, but most roleplaying games are not especially efficient. Rather, most roleplaying games require an intense amount of invested time, energy, and money in order to deliver on their promised potential.

For example, my experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons 4E and the Dungeons & Dragons Board Game (i.e. Castle Ravenloft) couldn’t be more different in their respective efficiencies in delivering enjoyable experiences. With 4E, as the GM, I was required to invest substantial time and energy (making maps, building encounters) or in additional products (buying pre-made maps and encounters) in order to bring the game to the table. And there were very few guidelines or “best practices” instructions on how to do that in an efficient manner instead of stumbling through trial and error. Even when there were guidelines, over and over again, it was shown that they were not — in fact — correct. Fights dragged on forever because the creatures had too many hit points. Spending 1 Action Point per encounter was both lame and nonsensical. The group had to learn for ourselves, over extended play, how to play the game in a way that provided consistent enjoyment, and that process included a lot of wasted time and effort. Basically, it was not efficient at all.

In comparison, the more recent Dungeons & Dragons Board Game, despite being much more limited in content and replay value than 4E, was much more efficient in delivering enjoyment. There were several things that the group had to still learn through play — the biggest one was that any character exploring new territory was always attacked by whatever was in the next room — but overall the enjoyment happened with much less trial and error or laborious effort. You didn’t have to prep monsters or locations or plot. Character creation happened nearly instantly, thanks to the recommended power choices. Even players will no gaming background at all picked it up very quickly. It was not, perhaps, as fun as a good 4E session, but it delivered a solid, enjoyable experience with much less effort on our part. Consequently, I’m much more excited to play Castle Ravenloft again than I am to play 4E (or 3.5, or 3.0) again.

So here’s the axiom I would suggest for beginning discussions about the “efficiency” of particular entertainments: Games are efficient if they enable the players to more-or-less replicate the promised play experience with a minimum of unnecessary labor and struggle.

A simpler version would be like “efficiency = fun / effort,” but the subjectiveness of fun makes that less useful, perhaps. You can’t really ensure that other people will like the things you designed the game to do. But you can ensure that they can make those things happen without needless wasted energy. Improving the overall efficiency of player efforts has been especially emphasized in recent games, from Montsegur 1244, to Lady Blackbird, to Apocalypse World, to Castle Ravenloft.

In this day and age, when we have to compete with (or, really, coexist alongside) video games and the new wave of well-designed board games, even roleplaying designers should strive for their games to play faster and easier, without unnecessary hours of prep, extended study, and trial and error. Designers should know how to make their games really sing and be able to communicate that knowledge to their prospective players through guidelines and procedures. We cannot wait for other players to figure out how to play our games properly. We have to be able to show them.

Jaywalt’s Guide to Making 16-Bit Maps

2009 Jul 30

Some folks were asking about how to hack 16-bit video game maps into something usable for D&D or other tabletop games. Here’s my attempt to outline what I do.

Step 1: Software

I use Photoshop Elements for Mac. I used to use an ancient copy of Photoshop 5 LE for Windows. You don’t need the full version of PS for this. Some folks do this in MS Paint, but I prefer something that will draw a grid for you. There are some cool, free sprite drawing programs like Pixen, but they tend — in my experience — to crash when asked to handle larger images like maps.

Step 2: Finding Maps to Hack

I use the Video Game Atlas and the Spriters’ Resource as my two main sites to find low-fi video game images to work from. There are many other places as well, but those two sites should give you plenty to work from in the beginning. I suggest you start with a game you love deliriously. For me, it’s often Zelda: Minish Cap because it has the most amazing color schemes known to mankind. Seriously, looking at Lon Lon Ranch is enough to make me want to cry; it’s that beautiful.

Step 3: Pick a Section to Hack, Throw a Grid Up


I grabbed a section of this Zelda dungeon, thinking that this relatively plain room would be a good example. So I threw up a 16×16 pixel grid over it, to get a better sense of how the room was assembled from various 16×16 square tiles (which is almost universally how video game maps are constructed). However, as you can see from the image above, this section of the map isn’t quite aligned to my grid, so the first thing I have to do is fix that.

Step 4: Align your Source Material with your Grid


When aligning things with your grid, it’s easiest to look for tiles that are immediately obvious, such as the two square blocks in the middle of the image above. If I shift the source map just slightly, all of a sudden everything is in alignment and you can begin to analyze how the room is constructed. I’m not going to go into that analysis here (maybe another time), but I’d spend some time looking carefully at the various tiles before jumping right into hacking.

Step 5: Expand the Grid (Optional)


For my recent Doppeleffekt 4E game, I decided that I wanted to break the map into 32×32 pixel squares, because they can contain a lot more information and be more varied than 16×16 pixel squares (being composed of 4 of them). This may or may not be the choice you want to make, but I’m going to approach this example map from that perspective because it’s somewhat more difficult and lets me show you a few things. So, in the map above I’ve expanded my grid to 32×32, so we can figure out what changes need to be made.

Step 6: Adjust Material to Fit Desired Grid


As you could see from the previous step, our source material didn’t fit as nicely into a 32×32 grid as it did into a 16×16 grid, mainly because the dimensions of the original room are 15 tiles x 9 tiles. However, I want the map I’m making to be 16 tiles x 10 tiles, or 8×5 squares of 32×32 pixels. That’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, but I hope you see what I’m saying. In the map above you can see that I’ve deleted a lot of the unnecessary material around this one room and also shifted portions of the room to fit the new dimensions I have in mind. Generally speaking, you can often get away with very slight shifts which expand or contract the dimensions of the original material by a tile or two. More than that and the layout of the original map is subverted a bit too much, requiring more hacking on your part to fix it or even a complete rethinking of the layout of a room.

Step 7: Assess the Things You Need to Tweak


In the picture above, you can see that I’ve filled in the holes I’ve created with the background color of the floor, which makes it easier to look at and see where the major tweaks need to be made. In this particular case, I have four holes in the walls to patch as well as the two doors which are aligned fairly awkwardly with the grid of the floor. One more thing that bothers me (though it may not bother you) is that the two sets of wall columns are aligned differently with respect to the 32×32 grid and nearby walls, making it look like the ancient architect of the place was snorting too much Magic Powder or just plain incompetent. So our list of tweaks to make is: wall holes, door alignment, column alignment.

Step 8: Make Needed Tweaks


So I slide the right door over a bit and then patch the wall beside it by copying tiles from other sections of the wall.


Where I patched the wall on the far left side, I left the selection borders in place so you could see how I patched it. I copied the tiles from the middle of the top wall, turned them counter-clockwise, and then pasted them over the hole.


Here I shifted the right side columns to match the left.


Fixing the southern door required a bit of thinking. Because of the dimensions of the room, I couldn’t really center it between the columns (because it wouldn’t align with the 32×32 squares), even though that’s generally what the architects of Zelda dungeons would do. In the end, I decided to shift it left, making it clearly off-center instead of slightly off-center. The former implies a choice on the architect’s part while the latter implies bad design or poor planning. Plus, I figured that I could make some slight additions to the room later, showing why that door is off-center.

Step 9: Make Any Additions You Like


Looking at this relatively plain room, I decided it needed a few small additions to spice it up. The first was a justification for the southern off-center door, which took the form of those tiny wall stones that block your progress but allow you to make attacks over them (HtH to the squares immediately on the other side and Ranged anywhere). The second was a sense of purpose for the room in general, something that would allow you to make progress in the dungeon overall, rather than hosting yet another monster fight. This latter addition took the form of a pull-chain on the far wall, which might add something to the tactics of fighting in the room as well, since players might try to pull the chain before all the monsters in the room were dead.

Step 10: Playtest It or Just Play It

If you have time, I’d suggest playtesting your maps and encounters just like you would if you were releasing a published adventure (well, with significantly less playtesting than I hope [though I don’t believe] most published adventures get). You can either run the fight by yourself or, better yet, get a single friend to help you run a little 1-on-1 battle through the room, to learn more about what you’ve created (since everything won’t be apparent from just looking at it) and maybe even inspire you to make a few additional tweaks or additions, if things aren’t quite what you hoped.

Anyway, that’s my process. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.

Hard Boiled Pixels!

2009 Jun 24

It’s happening. Justin’s going to edit, looks like. Also, I might do layout myself since Fred’s busy with his new kid (congrats, Fred!). Here’s the first few paragraphs:

INTRODUCTION: Return to the Early-Mid 90s

This is a handbook for creating Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in the style of 16-bit, isomorphic console RPGs, specifically those released in the 1990s for the Super Nintendo and more recent offerings for the Gameboy Advance.

Primary inspirations include The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo: 1991), Secret of Mana (Square: 1993), Final Fantasy IV (Square: 1994), Chrono Trigger (Square: 1995), Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Square: 2003), The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Capcom/Flagship: 2004), and the recent re-release of Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (Square Enix/Nintendo: 2004). If your favorite console RPGs are not on this list, hopefully you will still find the guidelines and options in this handbook helpful in designing a 4E campaign that equals or surpasses your best memories of playing console games.

This handbook was put together during the process of co-designing and playing my current 4E campaign, Doppeleffect, with my friends Dev Purkayastha, Eric Pinnick, and Eben Lowe. Throughout the text, examples from Doppeleffect will serve to illustrate various concepts and design decisions.

Keep in mind that, in some cases, my design recommendations are undoubtedly influenced by the premise and specific circumstances of my current campaign, including the preferences and play styles of the other players. As this handbook seeks to make clear, making a console-style campaign that really rocks socks entails adapting the guidelines given here for local conditions of your own play group. This requires investment and participation on the part of both the Dungeon Master and the rest of the players from early on in the campaign-planning process.

Consequently, the next sections walks you through the preliminary planning stages, where you and the other players collectively brainstorm and build the imaginary console game that you will be playing over the course of your campaign. Later chapters cover the smaller scale, session and encounter-level planning and execution that will become the focus once your group is ready to begin play.

Hard Boiled Pixels?

2009 Jun 21

Just a concept I’m working on, based on various people’s questions about and interest in the 16-bit 4E game I’m currently running. The OBE guys (Fred, basically) have yet to approve of any of this, so it’s just work on spec at this point, but I figure they could probably be convinced, once the product was actually written (seeing as how I’m notoriously flakey). I’m going to update this post occasionally as I flesh out the outline and think of other things that I want to include.

1. Why 16-bit 4E?
2. My Campaign (used as an example throughout)


How flexible will you be? Do player choices actually matter? How?

1. Premise
2. Characters
3. Title Screen
4. Introduction
5. First Encounter
6. First Dungeon
7. Magic Items
8. Boss Monsters
9. Going Forward
10. Towns
10. Building Towards a Climax
11. Final Confrontation
12. You Win!


1. Item Management
2. Treasure Parcels
3. Quests & Milestones
4. Leveling
5. Designing Combat Encounters
6. Designing Non-Combat Encounters
7. Skill Challenge: Grinding
8. Boss Design

1. Figure out what kind of maps and sprites you need.
2. Start by hacking existing maps and sprites.
3. Download appropriate ones from places like the Video Game Atlas and the Spriters Resource.
4. Use grids to divide them into 32×32 pixel tiles, figure out what needs to change.
5. Move 16×16 pixel tiles around until you get roughly what you want.
6. Fine tune stuff by editing the tiles pixel by pixel.
7. Once you get comfortable with how lowfi maps work, you can make your own custom tile sets.

– ?

1. Overland map of some kind.
2. Regional map.
3. Dungeon map.
4. PC Sprites.
5. Monster Sprites.
6. Item Sprites.

Doppeleffekt Content Moving Elsewhere

2009 Jun 17

Instead of flooding my blog with all the stuff I’m making for Doppeleffekt, I’m posting stuff to a thread I made on SG. AP posts will still get posted here, with links to the stuff I’ve used in various sessions, but “lonely play” stuff from in-between sessions (prep, reflection, ideas, etc.) will go in the other thread.

Tomb Interior Map 1

2009 Jun 17

These tombs were sealed in days of old
Once with amethyst, twice with rose
For those who seek what the gravesinger stole
Once with amethyst, twice with rose

Desert Maps

2009 Jun 16

For anybody that wants to use them. In two pieces so you can print them out on two full-size pages.

Doppeleffekt: Prep, Title Screen, Intro, Level 1-1

2009 Jun 16

Today I ran my first session of 4E and it went really well.

Pre-Game Prep

My fellow players and I decided that we were going to play as if the campaign was a long-lost mid-90s console RPG, so I wrote up a few paragraphs of background with that in mind and Untervolkstum II: Doppeleffekt was born. I hacked the desert map from Link to the Past into a suitable encounter map, created some 8-bit gnoll tokens for the initial opposition, had the players pick PC sprites from Final Fantasy Tactics, and we were good to go.

Yesterday, Dev sent me the following character background for his Dwarf Earthstrength Warden:

Korin Slatesinger is made of moxie and courage. She has grey eyes. Like slate. She loves hiking and breaking rocks with peoples faces (and vice versa). She always sticks up for her friends, but has trouble backing down when she gets in over her head. She recently became old enough to choose her calling as Warden, but her parents didn’t like that at all. Everyone in her family has worked at some level with the local clergy – if not directly serving the dwindling Dwarven churches, then adventuring as a Cleric or Paladin. It seems like she’s set herself up to be something of a black sheep, but there’s something in the wild mountains that seems more real to her than the dusty divine tomes. Indeed: although none in her family recall it, she is actually one of the descendents of Kirohim Gravesinger, a Cleric of a forgotten dwarven God of the Earth, who adventured with the Noble Ones but was lost in the escape from the Old City. She perhaps has more in common with her long lost ancestor than she knows…

And Eric sent me the following for his Tiefling Fey-Pact Warlock:

Melia dates from the original “Untervolkstum,” where she appeared as a minor antagonist before joining the player’s party. Melia proved to be a popular character, particularly due to endless fan debate over whether she had sacrificed herself to cast a final spell, or had simply expended her “demonic vitality” and fallen into a stasis. As a result, Melia appeared in early promotional material for “Untervolkstum II: Doppeleffekt,” both laying on a funeral slab in the crypt of the palace and also as a mysterious hooded figure in teaser magazine ads. In the opening dialogue of “Untervolkstum II: Doppeleffekt,” Melia awakes from her thousands of years of slumber, having been revitalized by strange forces concerned about the fate of Svartalfaheim. To reflect this pact, Melia’s Job Class has been changed from “Mage Knight” to “Warlock.”

Eben’s playing a Gnome Cunning Bard, but kinda made his character, Genia, on the spot, so she ended up being the childhood friend of Dev’s character, which was fine for this genre.

Title Screen

I narrated the title screen of the game with some ominous chiptunes music droning in the background, something like: “You fire up your Wii and open up the game in WiiWare. ‘Presented by KraftKomm in association with Nintendo.’ The game opens on a black screen and slowly some text appears… ‘5000 years ago, the underground kingdom of Svartalfaheim was destroyed by a mysterious force. The survivors fled to the surface and their ancestors have lived for many centuries in peace. But, deep below, something stirs…’ And then we see that promo shot of Melia lying on a stone slab amidst the ancient destroyed palace, surrounded by rubble. And right as the music reaches it’s climax,” which it was currently doing, “Melia’s eyes open.”

“The title appears, ‘Doppeleffekt,’ with ‘Press Start’ flashing below. It asks you to enter the name of the protagonist and you put in KORIN.”

Intro Sequence

I also framed the intro sequence but had the players jump in as needed. It opened on the hacked desert map and I threw Korin and Genia’s tokens in the bottom right corner, saying: “Okay, you’re both 8-year-old kids, and one of you has dared the other to go hang out around the ancestral tombs and touch the plaque at the foot of the entrance steps.” Eben decided that Genia was daring Korin and they played that out a little bit before approaching the platform and Korin running up to touch the plaque. I said there was a floating triangle icon above the plaque that meant you were supposed to press A to read it.

Reading the plaque, I described the icon of the conjoined twin-fairy that led to the destruction of Svartalfaheim in the original game, followed by some explanatory text and a keyhole, with text near the keyhole saying, “These tombs are sealed forever, guarded by the spirits of our dead, so that the evil cannot escape, only the Gravekeeper’s Key can unlock it.”

At that moment, the screen shook. Frightened, the characters ran back across the desert. Korin’s father appeared, reprimanded the girls for playing out near the tombs, and dragged Korin back home by her ear. Then he took her out into the fields to show her that a strange black corruption had seeped up from the ground and was killing their crops.

The intro cuts back to the tombs, which rumble once more. Suddenly, in a flash of green light, Melia appears, having teleported to the surface. “It has begun again,” she said, before walking off the screen into regions unknown.

Fade to black…

10 years later, Korin is kneeling beside her father’s deathbed. The old man has eaten too many corrupted crops from his field and is dying. He hands Korin the Gravekeeper’s Key and says that it belonged to their ancestor, known as The Gravesinger. She must use it to descend into the tombs and destroy the source of the corruption, before the rest of her family grows ill or, even worse, the entire village dies from hunger or eating corrupted crops. Then he dies.

Walking outside her house, Korin bumps into Genia who, of course, follows her as she travels to the tombs (“Genia joins your party!”). They arrive to find a group of gnoll graverobbers camped out around the stone plaque, eating one of their comrades who died on the journey here. They talk amongst themselves in a cut scene and reveal that they are waiting for their commander, the Great Rondu, who will tell them how they’re supposed to enter the locked tombs. As Korin and Genia prepare to sneak across the desert toward the gnolls, Melia steps into view atop the hill in the northeast corner of the map. “A mysterious stranger joins your party!”

Encounter 1-1: Tomb Sweeping Day

Um, we killed a bunch of gnolls? The fight was fine but nothing to necessarily write home about. Eric kept Melia focused mostly on zapping one of the 2 gnoll huntmasters and staying concealed, which worked okay. Dev got Korin into trouble early when she got jumped by a pack of gnoll minions doing 7 damage each (5 + 2 for gnoll pack attack) and actually fell unconscious. Luckily, Eben was able to use Genia’s healing powers to bring Korin back and the three of them managed to mop up the rest of the gnolls without much more trouble, staying in cover to avoid the huntmaster’s bows and picking off the minions one by one. The lack of area-effect powers, aside from Korin’s encounter power, was felt, but that’ll probably be fixed as folks level up.

After the encounter, Korin opened the entrances to the tombs and I narrated a cut-scene in which the gnoll graverobber boss, the Great Rondu, finally appeared, praised his now-dead minions for having successfully opened the tombs and quickly ran inside through the far western entrance. The players wondered idly whether their characters saw that happen or if it was just directed at the players of the video game, ultimately deciding that such a distinction didn’t really matter.

And that was our first session. Very cool, actually, and everybody’s excited to see where it goes from here.

8-Bit Gnoll Pack

2009 Jun 14

Lowfi Console 4E Product

2009 Jun 14

Prepping for Doppeleffect has got me thinking about a potential 4E product (though who knows if One Bad Egg or anyone else would be interested in a product like this) that looks something like this:

  • a set of 32×32 pixel tiles for making 4E maps in a lowfi, 16-bit style (as PNG and PSD, maybe?)
  • a number of example maps constructed with the tileset
  • a number of homemade sprites for various monsters and PC types
  • a number of sample encounters using the example monsters and maps
  • some thoughts on how to structure a game as if it’s a mid-1990s console RPG
  • a few homemade chiptunes tracks to help serve as a “soundtrack” for the example adventure

What do you think? Is this a product that you’d be interested in? I feel like I’m going to make 65% of this over the course of running my “old school console RPG”-themed 4E game over the next month, so it only makes sense to put this stuff out in a form that other people might use, whether that’s as a commercial project or just something I release for free.