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Tome of the Utility Drawer: Apologia

posted Aug 24, 2019, 1:57 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 27, 2019, 1:06 AM ]

As a taste of things to come, here is the introduction to Tome of the Utility Drawer, as it now stands. Everything, of course, is subject to revision until it is actually published:

        "I cut my teeth as as an RPG writer working for AEG’s series of pamphlet-sized adventures for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. I recall that one of my requirements was that I had to include one new mechanic of some kind in each module — a new character option, a new spell, a new creature, or a new magic item. It could be any of those things, as long as it was something not already present in the core rules. It was an article of faith that our audience pretty much expected us to provide new content, so provide it we must.

At the time, it didn’t make sense to me. As a player, I’d always felt that more options meant more stuff you had to learn, and (as with other forms of consumerism) having more choices doesn’t necessarily make you happier. Instead, it creates more work for diminishing return, because you’re already past the point of knowing enough to play the game.

Almost two decades on from that, my opinion hadn’t changed much. When I started Places by the Way in 2016, I decided to keep the new rules mechanics to a minimum. Less work for both you and me if I could just point you to something that already exists in the core rules — something that you already know — and say, 'Use that.'

Since then, however, my thinking on the subject has evolved, and you can thank the process of writing Places by the Way for that. One of the ways to make a place interesting the context of a roleplaying game is that you find cool items there, ideally things that are unique to that place. This can mean seeding it with at least one or two items that do more than a typical item of that type — i.e., its effect is different from what is specified in the core rules. So right away, with Narl’s herbal remedies in The Village of Darkharrow, I started doing that thing of which I had been skeptical — inventing new mechanics for each module. Not because I believed that my audience had some built-in demand for them, but because they would demand to know why these pissant little villages were worth visiting, beyond just waving hello to some local eccentrics and killing low-level monsters for them.

I also discovered that when I had written myself into a corner, creating a solution based on rules mechanics is not a bad way to get yourself out of it. How does the cartographer in a mining colony create illumination in a cramped subterranean room full of papers without the risk of fire (see The Demon’s Veins and Path to The Demon’s Veins, location #4)? Give him a magic rock that emits light without flame! If only real life was that simple.

Recently, I looked back on the body of work that I’d created for Places by the Way (and, more recently, Found by the Way) and realized that it contains enough supplemental material to fill a modest collection all its own. Hence, this book.

           Tome of the Utility Drawer collects all of the add-ons from the first eight Places by the Way/Found by the Way modules into one place. They are sorted into four chapters: New Character Options, New Creatures, New Mundane Items and New Magic Items. The first two are quite slender, as I tend to rely on stuff already in the core rules. The third chapter is far and away the most extensive, as it collects all of the unusual non-magical items from every settlement described in Places by the Way/Found by the Way. Over eight modules, all of those local specialities pile up. As for the fourth chapter — well, of course there are magic items. This is fantasy roleplaying. How could there not be magic items?

Each entry briefly discusses the background of that particular thing. Of course, it’s up to you to figure out how to use this material in your own campaign. But if you want to know more about its original context, that points you in the appropriate direction. The rules-crunchy stuff is divided by rules system: how it works in Dungeons & Dragons 5E, how it works in Pathfinder 2E and how it works in Pathfinder 1E. Some of this material is also found in our conversion notes for running Found by the Way #1-7 with Pathfinder 2E (those modules being native to Pathfinder 1E).

Richard Berg, Hail and Farewell....

posted Jul 28, 2019, 11:23 AM by Douglas Sun

This blog has been in cold storage for a while now, but there are certain occasions that one cannot let pass without comment. The passing of Richard H. Berg, a Colossus of the gaming hobby, is one of them.

I won’t attempt a grand synthesis of Berg’s career and legacy — things being what they are these days, this is being done piece-by-piece, over social media and discussion forums, by his friends, colleagues and fans. I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, so I know him only through his work. And thus, I don’t have anything particularly unique to share.

But I will say that I appreciated Richard Berg not just as a game designer, but as a tremendously gifted and erudite writer. One can debate whether or not his rules were as clear and precise as they could have been, but there is no doubt in my mind that he made the journey of learning and exploring his games entertaining as none of his peers have ever done. His engagements with Hans Delbruck in the rule books of the early volumes of The Great Battles of History, his argument in the scenario rules for Nagashino in Samurai that Takeda Katusyori was not the hot-headed idiot that Kurosawa depicted in Kagemusha — these remain vivid in my mind despite the fact that has been years since I read them.

As a writer, Berg had a natural style that flowed as smoothly as a good raconteur speaks when he’s telling a story — a rarer gift than one might think. He also had an eye for irony and absurdity, and his writing of history reminded you that the past was just as crazy as the present. He wrote almost all of the historical articles from Strategy & Tactics that I remember as my favorites. In fact, I couldn’t resist using his companion article for Veracruz as a source for an AP History paper on the Mexican-American War; it seemed kind of undignified to use an article from a gaming magazine for a school assignment, but it was as solidly researched as anything and quoting from it was too much fun (I think I got an A-). And as much as Sid Sackson was a respected game reviewer, Berg’s reviews for S&T were a lot more fun to read.

Today, I have to autograph and ship some Kickstarter rewards. But sometimes this week, I will set all aside and break out a Berg game from my collection and solitaire it. Perhaps it will be a battle from somewhere in The Great Battles of History (I have every volume). But more likely, I’ll go back to one of his old SPI games, particularly the ones that he did for S&T. Like Veracruz or The Siege of Constantinople — a game that isn’t regarded as one of his best, but it highlights the quirks and crannies of one of the most remarkable minds to grace our hobby, someone without whom it would be much poorer and duller, someone whose legacy will endure for as long as gamers continue to meet across printed maps and physical pieces. Hail and farewell.

Places by the Way Open House: A Piece of Sylvanhome Real Estate

posted Apr 11, 2018, 5:01 PM by Douglas Sun

Our current Kickstarter campaign, which pre-sells Places by the Way #5: The Dwarven Smith's Tome, drew the attention of a potential backer who asked for a preview of previous work. It's an entirely reasonable request, but I have to admit that what we have on hand is... not great. Our auto-generated previews on DTRPG and DMs Guild are pretty much pro forma — they just grab from the default-selected pages and show little more than publication info, table of contents and maybe a page or two of introduction.

I made a gesture toward correcting that when I posted the first draft of location #9 in Places by the Way #4: Sylvanhome in an update to the Kickstarter campaign for that module. It linked to this blog post. However, from where we stand right now, that, too, seems inadequate. The Luvans' workshop didn't change that much from then to the final version, but it did have some holes that I had to fill in before it was ready for the waiting public.

So, to provide a more adequate response to someone who found Places by the Way on Kickstarter (and anyone else who is interested), here is the final, published version of location #9 from Sylvahnhome:

Plugs For Friends: Strongholds & Followers on Kickstarter

posted Feb 11, 2018, 4:27 PM by Douglas Sun

Only a few days into the campaign, and it looks like my old Decipher RPG colleague Matt Colville has made one hellacious debut on Kickstarter. His campaign for Strongholds & Followers has drawn almost ten thousand pledges worth close to a million dollars as I write, and the campaign still has almost four weeks left to run. Not only has it taken off like a rocket, but it will leave the solar system and catch up with the Voyager probes as they enter deep space soon.

It’s always good to see a friend succeed. But in this case it’s all the more so because Strongholds & Followers addresses something that I have always seen as a big gap in the Dungeons & Dragons experience, but which has drawn remarkably few serious attempt to address it over the past five decades: How do you integrate a small group of characters into a dynamic larger world that not only affects them, but which they can affect through their actions? The simple answer is that, as the GM and the narrator of the story, you can use your right of fiat — make it up as you go along. But if you want something less arbitrary — to create a true system, a world that can surprise you as well as your players — you need rules that govern how that world works without you to steer it.

Despite the primitive level of technology and political organization that characterizes fantasy worlds, there are always larger forces at work beyond the individual character. Polities exist and come into conflict with each other — Queen So-and-so and Lord Whatsisface are at war — and in fact, such conflict may lie at the core of the campaign. How do you simulate that in a comprehensible way? What happens when large forces fight each other in proximity to the characters and you need to quantify its impact on the characters? How do you give characters the chance to affect the outcome? 

Sure, you can find a miniatures system and graft it onto your campaign and reconcile your players to fighting the Battle of Whatever Mountain before your return to your regularly scheduled programming. But it isn’t really D&D; it’s a kludge. And it doesn’t give you any systematic method for answering important questions: How do you create credible orders of battle? How do you know how large or small those opposing armies can be without stretching credulity? What is likely to happen after the battle is decided?

Related to this is another question that I have long seen as a weak spot in the overall D&D experience: What happens at the end of the road, once a character has made his or her fortune as an adventurer and there are no more dragon hoards left to pilfer? The conventional answer for a fantasy world is that you become a person of substance — the ruler of your own realm. Sure, you may get the itch to set out on another adventure like Tennyson’s Ulysses, but if you follow the rules of how such worlds work, you’re probably going to be a ruler of other people and solidify your wealth so that you can pass it on to your descendants. Realistically, that’s the end state to which you have aspired all along. How does governing a realm work? How do you maintain or even expand your personal wealth?

Maybe peace is no fun and this phase of the campaign needs conflict to keep it spicy. But that returns us to the first issue that I raised: How many armed followers can your realm support? How are they to be equipped and how effective are they likely to prove in battle? Where are you going to deploy them? Because that determines who and how many you can bring to bear if it comes down to a fight. Again, you need rules to govern how all of this works, unless you feel perfectly comfortable pulling figures out of thin air.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of helping Matt Colville put the finishing touches on a book called Fields of Blood, which introduced a simple, yet effective add-on system for D&D 3E for incorporating dynamic top-down world management into a campaign. Matt asked me to tie up some loose ends — crunching numbers, filling in charts and tables, that sort of thing. Much to my delight, I found that the book addressed these questions about army combat and top-down management with a depth and seriousness that I had never seen anywhere before. Certainly, it approached them with more systematic rigor than the cursory treatment they receive in the world-building section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And the entire subsystem integrated seamlessy with the 3rd Edition rules. Matt always gives me much more credit than I deserve for my contribution to Fields of Blood, but I have always been proud that I was part of that project.

Strongholds & Followers continues the basic project behind Fields of Blood: How do you manage a world from the bird’s-eye view while integrating that angle of vision with D&D in a clean, seamless way? Matt has spent a long time thinking seriously about these issues — as have I, but unlike me, he has actually put his formidable design fu to work and done something about it. Strongholds & Followers will share the benefit of his work with 5E fans. If you run a campaign and you want to let your world run on its own to see where it goes, or even if you have wondered about what your character can do once he has reached Epic level and has all the treasure he needs to last a lifetime, you will want this book.

Ramen Sandwich Press in 2018: Expansion, Not Modification; "And," Not "Or"

posted Jan 1, 2018, 12:19 AM by Douglas Sun

As the sun rises, bringing with it the new year, Ramen Sandwich Press and I have a couple of announcements to make in the spirit of looking forward to 2018. The profile that we cut will look a little different by the end of the year than it does now, but I want to emphasize that these changes are a matter of addition and expansion, not major shifts in direction.

First announcement: I have launched a Patreon page, live as of December 31. Over the last year, I have relied heavily on Kickstarter to fund Places by the Way, running four successful campaigns and getting valuable support from some wonderful backers. I’m happy with our results there. But we live in a time when the audience for just about everything is fractured and scattered in various ways — there are so many voices to listen to, and so many different places where you can hear them. If you confine yourself to one place, you miss out on people who would enjoy what you’re doing, but they’ll never know that you exist because they don’t visit that one place where you’ve taken root.

So I want to give Patreon a try to get more exposure for Places by the Way and keep growing its audience. I’m going to keep running Kickstarter campaigns. Even if Ramen Sandwich Press could fund production without the pre-publication revenue that they bring in, the campaigns are just too much fun to give up. But I hope that Patreon will bring in additional supporters who haven't backed the series because they simply aren’t Kickstarter people.

As an aside, I’ll share something that I learned from Ramen Sandwich Tees: Our original plan was to rely exclusively on Merch by Amazon for sales as well as printing. Everyone shops on Amazon, right? Well, Amazon would have you think so, but that’s not really true. So we set up listings on Etsy and eBay as well. And you know what? This past Christmas season, we sold more shirts through Etsy than through Amazon. It pays to spread your presence to different venues. In fact, we plan to set up on more print-on-demand platforms in 2018, but that is another story.

So as much as I enjoy running Kickstarters, I want to see if Patreon can do something for me, too. I figure they’ve had time to wipe off all the rotten fruit thrown at their office windows by now.

The second announcement has a similar theme. Our next Kickstarter will probably launch at the end of the month, and we’ll try to gin up support for a new product line, Found by the Way. It’s going to be a parallel series to Places by the Way, with each module compatible with the Pathfinder OGL instead of Dungeons & Dragons 5E. I’m going to go back and retrofit Places by the Way #1-4 for Pathfinder to provide the rewards, and if the campaign suggests that there is an untapped reservoir of support out there among Pathfinder enthusiasts, we’ll publish a Pathfinder-compatible version of each new module going forward under the series name Found by the Way. So when we publish Places by the Way #5 late in the spring, there will also be Found by the Way #5.

Again, this does not mean that I’m giving up one for the other. I want to embrace both D&D and Pathfinder. It seems to me that we live in a remarkable time for roleplaying games, in that I can’t remember another period when two high-profile rules systems in the same genre co-existed, sustaining themselves on large and stable fan bases, for this long. When Pathfinder first split off from D&D, I thought for sure that one would subsume the other within a few years. And yet, almost a decade later, D&D 5E is flourishing, and Pathfinder seems to be doing just fine, too. It’s a sign that the hobby is popular and healthy, so I’m happy that I was wrong.

I don’t want Ramen Sandwich Press to leave money on the table because we’ve chosen one system over the other. If there are potential readers who have skipped over Places by the Way because it’s not Pathfinder-compatible, I want to change that. I don’t know how many such people are out there, but it’s worth a test. Hence Found by the Way, and using Kickstarter as a test case.

I’m looking forward to 2018. I’m excited about introducing my work to more and more people. I’m excited about joining Patreon and keeping up with Kickstarter. I’m excited about writing more modules and sharing them with Pathfinder fans and D&D fans alike. I’m excited about ideas that are just, “Hmm. Maybe we could…” thoughts right now and will probably have to wait until 2019 or so. I hope that you’ll be entertained, as well.

Places by the Way Design Blog 4.1: A Preview of Sylvanhome

posted Dec 1, 2017, 11:42 PM by Douglas Sun

For the benefit of my Kickstarter backers and potential Kickstarter backers, I am posting a preview of location #9 from Places by the Way #4: Sylvanhome. It's just a preview, meaning that it's not authoritative, but you may take it as highly suggestive. Heck, I just wrote out the first pass this afternoon. What did you expect?

If you didn't come here from my Kickstarter campaign for Sylvanhome, you should check it out. If you came here from Kickstarter, read on:

9. Aela and Luven Welleaf, Weavers

This spacious house doubles as a workshop and the family home of Aela and Luven Welleaf and their two children. The largest room houses a loom on which Aela spins spider webs into silk. From that silk she makes rope that is both exceptionally light and durable. [describe properties of the rope]

Aela refuses to sell or barter for her rope (so does everyone else in the family, if approached). Instead, she refers all interested parties to her uncle Lio Welleaf (see location #7), the village merchant. Lio’s store is their sole distributor. These Welleafs consider themselves artisans and they have no interest in running a business.

Luven’s job is gathering raw materials for his wife. He focuses on abandoned webs; usually, there is little point in messing with spiders in their lair. But Luven recently found an enormous web that looked to good to pass up — the fibers were exceptionally strong and thick. Unfortunately, the web was still occupied by proportionately large — and aggressive — spiders. Much to his wife’s annoyance, Luven won’t stop talking about what a haul this web would provide, if only those damned spiders weren’t in the way. Much to her alarm, he also talks about bringing their young children with him to help clear them out.

If the party strikes up a conversation with Aela and Luven, Aela perks up when she realizes that they are adventurers:


Aela turns to her husband and says, “Luven, they’re adventurers! They can help you with that spider web you’re always talking about.”

“What, that?” Luven turns to you and explains: “I found this huge web in the forest. Beautiful silk, very strong. Aela would do wonders with it. But the spiders — big spiders. I’d love to harvest that web but, well, you know.…”

“So let’s hire these people to take care of them. If those spiders are so large, they could become a menace unless something is done. What if they attacked someone?”

“I’ll take our young ones with me to help.”

“You’ll do no such thing.”

“I’ll give them knives.” Alea gives him a sharp look. “What? You’re always telling me I should spend more time with the children.”


Aela promises the party a reward if they agree to clear out the spiders. If the party agrees, Luven takes them to a spot out in the forest and shows them a 10’ x 10’ spider web anchored on either side by the trunk of a tree.

Places by the Way Design Blog 4.0: Ye Elves of Groves, Yadda Yadda Yadda

posted Sep 24, 2017, 3:23 AM by Douglas Sun

"Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves..."

— Shakespeare, The Tempest

It has always seemed to me that wood elves pose a nice challenge when running a typical D&D campaign. From the very beginning Dungeons & Dragons has taken most of its cues on the elvish race from Tolkien*, for whom elves are anything but little nocturnal dudes who help out overworked shoemakers. His elves are more like the ultimate good guys — not immune to faults and bad judgment, but beings of considerable beauty and power, and fundamentally benign. The Players’ Handbook tells us that, “They value and protect others’ freedom as well as their own, and they are more often good than not.” Any capacity for evil is conveniently cordoned off through the existence of the drow.

Furthermore, the Players’ Handbook also tells us — again, taking cues from Tolkien — that there are “high” elves and “wood” elves. The latter are wild and uncouth compared to their “high” cousins (although such concepts are all relative when you’re talking about elves) and above all, they are reclusive and distrustful of non-elves. In other words. Thranduil and the elves of Mirkwood live on in D&D. And we all remember how they dealt with Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves.

This becomes an especially contentious issue in a setting like the Forgotten Realms, in which humans have inexorably pushed elves and other venerable races out of lands they formerly inhabited. If you’re an elf, are you really going to be good with that, even if you understand that most humans aren’t deliberately trying to exterminate your kind?

Conflict between elves and non-elves got worked out in The Hobbit because Tolkien, telling his own tale as the sole author, made sure that the good guys all got together in the end. But what about the less predictable course of an interactive storytelling exercise like a D&D campaign? How many buttons can you push on a wood elf before he snaps? And what happens then? Does he exclaim, like Finn the Human: “I can’t do that; it’s against my alignment!” Wood elves pushed over the brink — that sounds like a recipe for real ugliness.

When I started brainstorming Places by the Way #4 a few weeks ago, I soon realized that this tension between wood elves’ intense insularity and the good alignment and benign nature of elves in D&D needs to be my angle on the module. It’s not interesting to say, “Oh, they’re elves and they live in trees and stuff, la-dee-da-dee-da,” and then leave it that. But if I play around with the fact that they’re instinctively hostile to outsiders and protective of their turf, yet theoretically limited in what their alignment and basic nature permits them to do in response to such challenges — as well as the fact that within a community there is bound to be a continuum of attitudes and opinions that fall within those parameters — well, now I think I’ve got something.

It’s too early to say exactly where I’m going to go with this. I have decided that the wood elves of Sylvanhome will be concerned about humans who have moved into the neighborhood. At least some of those humans are good, but probably some will be evil. This will be a problem, as all humans look alike to these elves. Most probably, the challenges facing the party will involve diplomacy as well as fighting.

Beyond that, you’ll just have to stay tuned and see how things shake out. If you have been grappling with how to handle wood elves in D&D as I have, I hope Places by the Way #4 will help you — in terms of your general approach, if not with particulars.

*As a comparison, something that fascinated me while working on the Rolemaster Races and Cultures book was how RMFRP seems to handle faerie races in a way that owes more to the Brothers Grimm and older, folkish traditions.

Places by the Way Design Diary 3.0: The Road to and From Oyster Cove

posted Sep 17, 2017, 1:15 PM by Douglas Sun

Writing Places by the Way has been great fun so far. My only aggravations have stemmed in some way from my decaying eyesight, including the fact that I could no longer read my original notes for most of the time that I was working on Places by the Way #2 and #3 because I could no longer read anything written with a normal ballpoint pen. In fact, I started taking notes in Sharpie, just to make sure I could read them afterward. Fortunately, I could remember just about everything from my old notes, and the final products aren’t missing anything important.

Now that my left eye is no longer obstructed by a cataract, I can read my original notes for Places by the Way again. I am reminded that I do, indeed, have a lot of ideas for the series — on top of the three that I’ve written so far, over a dozen more. I’m confident that almost all of these will turn out to be viable, and I’m not done adding to the list.

I can also see that I have an overall plan for Places by the Way that I couldn’t fully articulate before I stepped back from scribbling notes to see the forest from the trees. Back in the days of D&D 3rd Edition, I contributed to a lot of AEG’s d20 Topics series. These books covered a broad range of general topics that were relevant to D&D: The first book was entitled, Dungeons, the second, Dragons. And it went on from there. It was a good idea in context of the original OGL gold rush, but I always felt that AEG’s approach could have been more systematic, more thoroughgoing. There are probably plenty of good reasons why this was not practical, but it planted the idea in my mind that it would be cool to write a truly encyclopedic “alternate” treatment of just about everything under the sun in Dungeons & Dragons.

When I started brainstorming Places by the Way, I decided to set the first module in a farming village because agriculture is going to be the dominant activity in many, if not most, high fantasy settings. In a pre-technological, high fantasy world, gathering food is labor-intensive — just as it was for human history in the real world up until modern times. So it’s probably going to be happening in a lot of places in your world using a large percentage of the population. If Places by the Way was going to use mundane life as a starting point for adventure, then agriculture seemed like a broadly useful first step for the series.

The shipwreck in Places by the Way #2 recycled some old ideas because I knew that I could write it up quickly while I got used to the rhythm and flow of writing and self-publishing. But the fishing village in #3 is actually the first line-item in my notes — again, chosen because gathering food is obviously going to be a common and important activity in pre-modern societies.

As I added to the list, I kept thinking in terms of mundane places that would be typical of most D&D campaign settings. Now, upon second inspection of that list, I can see that I’ve been working on an encyclopedic collection of such places. So that’s what Places by the Way will be in its full form: a broad (striving to be comprehensive) collection of deceptively quiet places that you could put into your campaign world (including the Forgotten Realms). If a fishing village isn’t going to work for you, maybe you’ll find utility in something else from later in the series. And so on. Ideally, of course, you will want to buy them all, to have a full range of options at your command.

As it stands now, I’m confident that I have enough viable ideas to keep churning out Places by the Way for at least another two or three years. From that standpoint, the series has plenty of legs; these first three modules are only the beginning. The decisive question is, how many readers are willing to support its creation, whether on Kickstarter, or through more traditional sales venues? That is is still not clear to me, as I am not the one who will supply the answer.

Places by the Way Design Blog 2.0: Vague Insinuations About the Future

posted Feb 3, 2017, 4:08 PM by Douglas Sun

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Well, we’re getting close.

Our test print of The Village of Darkharrow should be coming back from IngramSpark any day now. If no adjustments are needed, we’ll order up a print run.

Since the rewards are close to ready, I will survey Kickstarter backers within the next couple of days for delivery info and t-shirt size and color.

In the meantime, I just finished the first pass at The Bitch Queen’s Prize. So it should be ready for layout after another quick pass or two to tighten the nuts and bolts. Places by the Way #2 will be more conventional in structure than Places by the Way #1. It’s more of a mini-adventure than a pure location module, and its elements are meant to be processed in a more linear fashion. The party will be expected to explore a shipwreck in search of a particular item, with extra credit if they choose to complete a brief coda to the main adventure.

Even so, it’s an amusing little side-quest that you can throw at your players just by the way if they happen to be in a port city (like Waterdeep). 

Places by the Way #3  will go back to the relatively non-linear, location-based structure of Places by the Way #1. Its main purpose will be to describe a place — in this case, a coastal village (set in the Moonshae Isles, if the Forgotten Realms is your thing). I have not yet decided whether its cash crop will be fish, or pearls, or some other littoral variation on rural life. At the same time, those of you who want more narrative thrust will find that it serves as a sequel to Places by the Way #2. weaving into the village’s fabric the answer to questions left hanging.

Places by the Way Design Blog 1.1: I Wanna Easter Egg!

posted Jan 24, 2017, 11:29 PM by Douglas Sun

Two weeks since the last update; so how are things going? They’re going. We’re close to sending The Village of Darkharrow tp Ingram Spark for a test print. March by Amazon seems to have sorted out the worst of its capacity issues from before Christmas, so our original plan for having the t-shirts done up should still be valid. The manuscript for The Bitch Queen’s Prize is close to done, and once it is done the foundation and the load-bearing walls for A Treasure on the Rocks will be in place. In short, everything is still on track.

A month has passed since the campaign ended, so I’ve had a chance to reflect in how I went about it. One of the best pieces of advice that I got about how to handle a Kickstarter came from a friend who has backed a lot of campaigns; he advised me that backers like to get something that they won’t be able to get if they wait until after publication to buy your game — unique material items, like special dice or other such components.

This advice cuts against my argument that crowdfunding is simply a demotic, modern version of the noble patronage system of yore, in which wealthy aristocrats backed the arts both out of genuine interest and just so they could bask in the reflected glory of creativity. After all, Lord Chesterfield famously ticked off Samuel Johnson because he tried to claim more credit for backing Johnson’s Dictionary than he deserved, not because he asked for a higher-level reward than the one for which he had paid. Nor did he expect a special variant cover or different words than je would see if he waited and bought a copy on Amazon. 

But my friend’s point still made sense to me. After all, those of us who are not fabulously wealthy are conditioned to act like consumers rather than benefactors. We expect tangible value in return for our money, so we will always act accordingly. Not even PBS expects its viewers to be pure altruists, which is why they give out tote bags and coffee table books in exchange for your pledge.

But promo cards and custom dice don’t really go with a D&D mini-module. I had already thought to use my autograph as a sweetener. A signed copy might fetch something in the Gen Con auction someday if Places by the Way comes a runaways success. But I admit that at that this point, this sounds like betting on penny stocks..

That’s when the idea hit me to come up with an Easter egg, drop it into The Village of Datkharrow, and create a “limited” edition of the module that would only be available to Kickstarter backers. For those of you who have paid no attention to digital games (or fooled around with a DVD UI) over the last 25 years or so, an Easter egg is an amusing bit of unadvertised content that you can activate by issuing a certain command under a certain set of circumstances. An Easter egg was originally something that the programmers would slip into the release version as a lark. But the concept proved so popular that at one point they were practically de rigeur — couldn’t be a self-respecting PC or video game without them.

At that point, both manuscripts for Places by the Way #1 were finished, and I had no desire to submit The Village of Darkharrow to a rewrite of any kind.  The Easter egg concept suggested that I could drop in an addition to one of the encounters that would differentiate the Limited Edition without any effect on either the encounter or the module as a whole. In other words, I wouldn’t have to go back through the whole manuscript and make sure all the pieces still fit together.

I won’t give out any spoilers about the Easter egg in The Village of Darkharrow Limited Edition, at least not yet. But it’s a doozy, if I do say so myself. It turned out pretty well for something that came right off the cuff. As a result, I feel comfortable laying out the following rules that will guide my future use of Easter eggs in Places by the Way:

1) Every Limited Edition of a Places by the Way module will have at least one such Easter egg in it. This will distinguish the Limited Edition from the version that will be made available for general sale.

2) The Easter egg will not materially change the encounter in which it is embedded, nor will it affect the overall course or nature of the module.

3) But it will have real amusement value all its own, I’ll try not to get too obscure with the references, so that at least someone in your group should be able to say, “Ah, I see what the designer did there.”

4) At the same time, the Easter egg will also provide the party with something of unusual material value. Savoring a clever joke is all well and good, but it just isn’t D&D without treasure. Besides, a special item reminds you of how and where you got it, so it’s all part of creating a memorable moment within a campaign.

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