Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Power of Rectangles

newrectanglesOk, I made some very simple lunchtime changes over at the DM’s Guild to the Grey Tyrant and the Pathwarden:

  1. Unified the look of the covers and text
  2. Updated the names so they include a “brand” (5by3 Games, because why not?)
  3. Made some tweaks, including adding some designers notes and addressing a problem with the Pathwarden’s damage output.

These are not going to turn into overnight success by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a lot of value in consistency, so I feel better about them at least.

Can’t Eat Just One

pathwarden coverThe Dungeon Master’s Guild experiment continues!  It turns out that creating 5e hacks is an effective way for me to fidget, so I rolled out another subclass, The Pathwarden, this time for the Ranger.  It’s fun. I like th ecover image a lot (it’s most of why I did it) though I admit the font more or less screams “2003”. This was not any kind of money grab (though I’ll have you know I have earned over 5 whole dollars – big time now!) but rather that it struck me that I wanted to throw in a second fish, and as it turns out, I’m glad I did, since I learned a few more things.

The critical bit is this: because the “publisher” for everything on DM’s Guild is The Dungeon Master’s Guild, there is no systematic way to connect the two pieces I submitted.  If you search for my name, you’ll find them, but that requires that you know to look.

So why is this critical?  As the site grows, there are eventually going to be only two ways to find things – top lists (like hottest titles) and search. That introduces a number of interesting challenges in an of itself, but once someone finds one of your pieces, how are they going to find any others?

The most obvious answer to this is some sort of consistent naming, probably supplemented by consistent branding.  “The Pathfinder” and “The Grey Tyrant” have no connection, but if they become, for example “Fivefold Paths – The Pathfinder” and “Fivefold Paths – The Grey Tyrant”, then we have kludged together a keyword.  This is a bit of a hack, and I expect that in time DM’s Guild will add an extra field to DM’s Guild products to act like publisher does on the other sites, but there’s no telling when such a thing would happen.

Beyond that, “branding” would be best accomplished with a consistent look and feel – using a uniform cover page template for example.  Think of all the faux book covers you’ve seen on PDFs for examples of how this is done (and how it can go wrong).  You want your book to be quickly recognizable from its thumbnail as yours.

Though I note, the image of your book need nto be the actual cover.  I imagine you could do something clever with the cover images without messing with the books. Hmm.

Anyway, the bottom line is this is something I did very badly. My two pieces look like I just tossed them up there, because I did. So I suppose the next step is to fix it.

Now, If I were smart, this is where I would hand the task over to someone with actual skills in this area, someone with a good eye for layout and graphic design.  And the thing is, I absolutely have access to such people, but that feels like it would be cheating, at least for the moment, because part of the intellectual appeal (to me) is to see what I can do with my simple skills and simple tools.

So the upshot is that I need:

  1. A word or name that I can use consistently, but which is not too intrusive in the titles.
  2. A consistent look to the covers. That will require picking:
    1. Some sort of template image
    2. A color scheme that stands out (that is – NOT RED)
  3. To update both entries to reflect this.

So, I guess we’ll see how this goes.


Trying Out The DM’s Guild

GreyTyrantp1After waffling a bit, I broke down and converted the Grey Tyrant (a warlock background I had written) into a PDF, and submitted it to the DM’s Guild, so I could get a hands on sense of the experience. This was last night, so it’s still an ongoing process, but it’s been interesting so far.

I imposed some limitations on myself for this process. Obviously, I have access to a lot of tools for making one of these things, but I want to keep myself working at the “fan” level, so I opted to build it using the Word template provided by WOTC and a consumer level graphics program (Pixelmator, in this case). I already had most of the copy, so that required only a few tweaks, which meant this was largely a pure exercise of “turn this text into a product”.

The word template itself was a little painful. Possibly a lot painful, depending on your experience. I don’t fault the WOTC guys for this – as much as Word is a crappy tool to use for layout, it’s the tool more people will have, so it is only reasonable to support it. And the doc template is not entirely without thought – as one would hope, it’s style based, and that’s great, but it is way overcluttered and its font use is…capricious. I forced myself to use it (as much as I could) for this project, but for any future efforts I would definitely just start from a blank page.

Because I did not want the front page to just be some text (the DM’s Guild has lots of those, and they are not appealing) I needed some sort of art, so it was time to go back to 2002, where the model was “Find an image you’re allowed to use, apply some filters, and BAM, you’ve got art!”. The problem, of course was that due to the nature of the DM’s Guild license, I could nto use any external art. If I owned it, I’d be giving it to the DM’s Guild community. If I did not own it, I did not have the rights to give it to the community. So I was limited to the art that WOTC had offered as DM’s Guild resources, which is entirely maps and monsters.

I admit I spent a little time extracting page-edges from he maps, but then I remembered that Word sucks at edge to edge effects, so I discarded that. That left the cover. In my mind, the ideal cover image is a grey armored figure sitting on a grey throne over a dark abyss. Since I wasn’t going to get that, I went looking for something I could repurpose – maybe an armored giant or something. No dice, so I eventually just took a slice of one of the celestials, turned it black and white, applied some filters and called it a day. It’s far from striking, but it’s functional. Biggest problem is that grey is a terrible color for a cover – it might be thematic, but it looks very dull on the page.

This is, I should add, a total band aid solution. Not super satisfying.

After I had the doc ready and converted to PDF, I hesitated a bit because I knew this was a one way trip, but I was doing this for science, so what the hell. I followed the instructions provided and kind of stumbled along. Biggest point of confusion – uploading a file and setting up a product are entirely unrelated processes. I set up the product completely without ever uploading the file, and when I finished, I had no idea what had happened. Poking around a bit, I then uploaded the file, and it all started working. Clunky and counterintuitive, but functional. I also had to make not to explicitly flip it to public, something that would have been easy to overlook (as I understand, all this is normal SOP for Drivethru uploads). It informed me that there would be some hang time before it went live, but that ended up only a couple minutes. I should note, there was an additional legal agreement as part of upload, a very ominous one. I have gotten conflicting reports whether it’s the bog standard drive thru “you give up all rights because we need to put your stuff on server” agreement or something new. Still sorting that out.

So, now it’s up there. I have apparently made five bucks on it so far (of which I see $2.50) and am the 33rd hottest item! TIME TO RETIRE!!!

More seriously, that’s nice, but I admit I’m viewing this more like I have marked a fish and thrown it into unknown waters so I can track its progress and get a certain amount of sense of the environment. The DM’s Guild is new but rapidly evolving, and I am super curious about the shape of it.

I admit, the whole thing went a lot more painlessly than I expected. Enough so that it’s tempting to toss in a few more fish. Not sure if that’s a real thought, or just a momentary flush of temptation, so I’m going to have to watch that. I definitely wouldn’t want to do it with anything heavy duty, but small stuff that really has no value for me outside of the context of 5e? I could see it.

But it definitely requires making peace with giving up ownership of your work. That can be super hard if you’re a self-publisher, but I expect a lot of people who have worked freelance are wondering what the big deal is. If you think of it as freelancing for WOTC, the gaping maw seems a little bit less onerous (though it makes the whole arrangement seem weirder).

So, so far so good. Will report again after it’s had some time to percolate.

More Thoughts on the Dungeon Master’s Guild

dmsgI’ve had a little bit more time to look into the DM’s Guild, and think about what it means. The big thing it revealed is that there are a lot of issues about ownership of material that I breezed past which probably merit a little bit of unpacking. So a few more thoughts:

  • Right this second, there is not a huge amount of material available. As of last night there was an adventure template, some maps and a lot of art. The Forgotten Realms stuff still seems to be in the pipeline. This is not bad – some rollout time for these things are entirely reasonable, but it means that some of the benefits of going with the guild are currently hypothetical.
  • That does not mean people aren’t using it. There is already fan published material up there, mostly class and ability stuff that you would expect, and the early adopters are almost certainly seeing a bump. Interesting that many are adopting “pay what you want” as their model – curious to see how that shakes out.
  • There is some genuine uncertainty about how the DM’s Guild is going to handle product identity, especially with regards to art and such. At the moment there are no protections (more on that in a bit) against re-use, and that needs to be made clear before publishers start risking their IP.
  • There are some very scary seeming terms and conditions in the signup, but they are largely the same unilateral rights that you grant to any online storefront or website because they need those rights to host and serve your content. This is absolutely not worth getting worked up about.
  • That is not to say there is nothing to worry about. DM’s Guild rules are designed for a community of re-use, and anything that you put up can be re-used by anyone else. There are guidelines to prevent abuse (like someone just republishing your stuff), and hopefully those guidelines will be backed with enforcement, but it’s definitely a bit wibbly wobbly. Where it gets interesting and complicated is if you pull your stuff off the store, and other products are still using it – by the terms of the site, they can keep doing that (because there’s no way for this work, otherwise). This is not necessarily good or bad, but it’s a problem if you’re not aware of it.
  • It is easy for publishers to flinch at these terms, because it gives up a lot of autonomy, but if you are a publisher who worries about such things, then DM’s Guild is probably not for you. It is, however, remarkably well suited to *fan* publication, and I suspect that will be its bread and butter (supplemented by smaller publishers who understand how to play in the sandbox). As a seller, that whole “re-use anything” seems ominous and threatening, but as a fan community, that is a path to vibrant shared creation.
  • If I’m right and it’s really going to be strong fan driven, then it will be an absolute MESS, but it will be a *glorious* mess. And if WOTC does not find a way to give the community voice (direct link to forums or the like) then the community will probably make their own.

Personally, if I were to do things under DM’s Guild (and I might) then I would feel obliged to do “fire and forget” materials – things that I am not going to look to recover, or which are only valuable in the context of D&D 5e. Important qualifier – I’m talking about me as me here – Evil Hat considerations are a whole other matter.

For example, I have a few background write ups – those could very easily be released as DMs Guild products With no real loss because they don’t have any real utility outside of 5e.

On the other hand, I did several Warlock patron writeups that I like a lot, but which contain implicit setting material. If I were to release it through the guild, I would be more or less releasing that into the wild. I’d also probably lay it out with the WOTC provided art only, because until the art rules are sorted out, I don’t even want to use clip art.

That seems like a compelling reason to go OGL, which I could absolutely do, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d be surrendering a certain amount of audience that way. That is not really a big concern, but this other bit is – maybe it would be *cool* to share those ideas and let other people run with them. Certainly, if I’m not going to do much more with them, that is a safe path. And even if I do want to use them again, I still own them – even if they knock around perpetually within the walled garden of the DM’s Guild, I haven’t given up any rights outside of that (I think).

That community element has a certain amount of appeal, especially since I know I’m not looking to get rich off this. Creating things with the intent of sharing it liberates me from a number of concerns. Of course, I can also just OGL my material too, which shares it, but it maybe introduces a little more friction (at least for people willing to buy into DM’s Guild).

I admit some temptation to release some stuff on DM’s Guild, if only to see how it works out. I’ll probably pull some stuff together and see how I feel once it’s ready.

5e Opens Up

intheboxWOTC just made a very big announcement –  they have released the D&D 5e rules under the OGL and also announced a program that allows fans and small publishers to use WOTC content. This is a HUGE deal for many reasons, and something I’m personally very excited about. It’s also a big, complex ball of an issue, so let me talk through it a bit. Some of this will be familiar material to OGL veterans, but I want to make sure to hit the basics.

Open Gaming

WOTC has released a 5E SRD under the OGL.  Enough acronyms for you?  Let me unpack that in english.

Wizards of the Coast has published a System Reference Document (SRD) containing an abbreviated version of the 5e D&D rules.   That document contains the Open Gaming License, which means that most of the document (with clearly delineated exceptions)  can be used freely as long as the terms of the license are followed. Importantly, this is the same OGL that the 3e D&D material used, along with many other games, including Fate!

So Who Cares?

Well, I do for one!  This means that people will be able to create their own 5e compatible products (so long as their respectful of WOTC’s IP) for their own entertainment or for sale.  The 3e OGL spawned a number of brilliant games, and there’s no reason the 5e one can’t do the same.

So, is this a money train?

Weeeeeeeellllll, it probably will be for somebody, but be careful.  If you’ve ever heard the term “d20 glut”, it referenced the tsunami of d20/OGL products that hit the market after the 3e OGL was released. Some folks definitely made a lot of money off it, but it also did a lot of harm. Customers and dealers have grown wary, so it is not going to be worth spamming throwaway products, especially because that is where the most competition will be found.

It *is* an opportunity though, if you are willing to put in the time and do the work. A number of companies that are doing very well today did so by building a solid foundation of quality products during the glut. If you are looking for your 5-10 years to overnight success, this is not  a bad entry point.


So What’s the Catch?

There is a lot of stuff that’s *not* under the OGL.  The SRD is the bare minimum of the 5e rules to provide a framework. For example, for classes, it includes only one subclass. The expectation is that the OGL may be used to add new subclasses, not muck around with existing ones.  it is a reference for design, not to provide you a way to get out off buying a Player’s Handbook.

It also is explicitly not D&D or d20. You can make something under the OGL, but you don’t get to use those terms. You also don’t get to use anything that belongs to WOTC, including certain monsters and their settings, like the Forgotten Realms.  If you’ve used the OGL before, these are familiar limitations, though we’re still combing through the doc for edge cases.

Why Would I Use This?

This is very exciting and valuable if:

  • You want to expand on the 5e mechanics with new classes, races or the like without needing to worry about legal complexities
  • You want to take the 5e engine in new and interesting directions
  • You want to write settings or adventures that are compatible with 5e

But if you want to hew a little closer to D&D, there is another option:

The Dungeon Master’s Guild

dmsgThe Dungeon Master’s Guild is a storefront, but it’s also an idea. Under this model, you may write material that uses any of the 5e rules as well as material explicitly shared by WOTC (check the content guidelines for specifics). Notably, the shared material at the moment encompasses the Forgotten Realms, and there’s every indication that if this is successful, it may expand to include other material (like Eberron, Planescape, Dragonlance or what have you).

Material you write this way is upload to and sold through the DM’s Guild storefront, which is in partnership with Drivethru. Charge whatever you want, and keep 50%. The other 50% is split between Drivethru and WOTC.  That may sound steep, but Drivethru normally takes 30-35%, so an additional 15-20% for WOTC is a pretty good deal considering what you get, especially if the material that WOTC has put up on the site is any indication.

So I can just sell my own D&D Stuff?

Pretty much, yep.  As long as you’re willing to do it there.

This seems like a total win. Why wouldn’t I use this?

Well, it kind of is a big win.  If you want to put up a character class, publish your own adventure, write fiction in the realms (I’m pretty sure you can do that) or otherwise just write the 5e Material you think the market needs, the only real downside is that there will be a lot of competition for eyeballs, but that will be offset by the fact that a lot of traffic will be pulled to the storefront.   It’s also a somewhat self-perpetuating audience. The folks posting are also the folks buying, especially since the barrier to publishing is now exquisitely low. And as far as I can tell (IANAL) the arrangement is super respectful of your intellectual property.

The only reason I can think of not to go this route is if you want to distribute your material somewhere else. There are plenty of reasons why that might be so (promoting your own brand, doing non D&D stuff, or if you’re just releasing stuff for free somewhere.

Now, caveat – I’ll probably be doing OGL because I am already comfortable with it, and I am fearful of the noise level at DM’s Guild. But I have that luxury.

So What Does This All Mean

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons.  The OGL opens a door to a lot of new and interesting game technology, and it’s the part i’m most excited about.  But the DM’s Guild is the really fascinating part of this to me, for a number of reasons.

  • It opens the door for the 5e support material that fans have wanted
  • It creates a central marketplace for these things that is SUPER easy to get into
  • It opens up WOTCs toys to us.  Sharing the Forgotten Realms is a BIG DEAL
  • It creates a model that lets WOTC profit from its success, something that bit them hard with 3e (and which lead to some decisions I disliked in 4e).  Critically, since they make money off everything, they only need the market to be healthy and dynamic, they need not rely on specific “hits” to profit. This is important because WOTC’s health is D&D’s health.
  • If the next glut happens online, that’s less dangerous to the hobby than if it plays out in the Brick and Mortar stores.
  • And if you want. you can ignore it all.

There are a few concerns and questions

  • Drivethrucards has revealed the double edged sword of this. When engagement is high, so is difficulty in finding material.  This is going to get noisy, fast (though that in turn introduces opportunities for reviewers and bloggers to find the gems).
  • I’m not 100% clear how this will interact with things like printing, but I trust that will sort out.
  • While the Brick & Mortar stores are going to dodge the glut, they may lose out some in this equation.  If the process works like a filter, with the best stuff making it to print, that might work out well for everyone, but that’s a crapshoot.

It is going to be at least a year before we see how this really shakes out, but I for one am excited, and I intend to dive into the OGL and crank out some material.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

tripwireI was thinking about chargen techniques and the ways to push towards bad and hard things in play, and wondered about elaborating on a technique from 7th Sea. In 7S, as part of chargen, the GM could ask a player to describe their character’s death scene. There was absolutely no guarantee that this would be the way the character would die, or that anything related to it would happen, but for all that, it’s an incredibly powerful technique. Not only did it communicate a lot about the player’s intents and interests, it created this shared image that the GM could draw upon for foreshadowing and play elements that were guaranteed to have a certain amount of resonance and tension.

To give a crude example, if your character’s death scene is dueling her step-brother in the family crypt, you have just introduced an NPC that the player is invested in and created an interesting location. You have also guaranteed that when the game takes things to your family crypt, tension is automatically escalated because you have this shared idea. And if your step-brother emerges from the shadows, then it is on.

Placing this in the context of putting pressure on players (in ways they will enjoy), I found myself wondering what would happen if I were to ask during chargen “What are the three worst things that could happen to your character?”.

The answers would certainly be interesting an informative, and could be used to drive play in the manner of the 7th Sea death scene, but there are also risks. For some players (including many of mine), this list would more or less a checklist of the things they want to happen in play. For other players, this might be more of a list of options from which they’d love the GM to pick one (I’m more in that camp). For others still, this list would be the no fly zone, things they really don’t want to see.

Aside: That last group reveals that it’s important to define “worst” as considering any other limits the table has communicated. If a player has already communicated that something like child endangerment is not something they want to see, that should be taken as a given. They should not need to re-state it in in their worst list.

As with a character having an apex skill, this is one of those datapoint that works poorly without context, so there obviously needs to be some additional layer of communication. Perhaps something as simple as asking a follow up question “How many of these do you expect to come up in play?”.

That could work, but I worry about the no-fly list. When people pick zero, they’re giving you useful information about what they don’t want, but not much of you to act on. So what if you flip it around and also ask “What are three cool things that should happen to this character?”

I admit, I like this a bit because I know that when I create a character I really sink my teeth into, part of that process involves imagining their future triumphs. And it might be reasonable to leave it at that, but it’s maybe a bit too open ended and positive here, so I want one more tweak.

Suppose I ask both questions, then after I have two lists of three, I ask how many of them are expected to become true, with a limit on the number.

For example, I would be inclined to say “the two values cannot total more than four (or maybe three)” but that won’t work for every table. If your players are going to grab the bad with both hands, there’s no need to “balance” the equation. It’s truly a taste check. If, on the other hand, there is more of an interest in fairness at your table, you may say the good cannot outweigh the bad (or, if generous, that the good cannot outnumber the bad by more than one).

Either approach is fine, and has a pretty powerful result if you want your game to be strongly driven by players (as I do). But it also has an interesting upshot that is especially useful in advancement-lite games, like those in the Fate family. In getting this information, you have effectively just identified the character’s personal milestones. When one of the items on this list gets hit, that is a great mechanical trigger for almost anything, whether it’s a re-write, skill advancement or anything else.

I can think of a few more tricks to refine this – using cards for inspiration, for example, but I think as a baseline, this is a good enough trick that I need to bust it out for my next chargen.