Category Archives: dungeon design

You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

Hostile environments not meant for people

My Ancient Lands setting never felt like I wanted it to when I ran adventures in it, and I think I know understand why. Even though the whole concept of the world is one about dealing with alien spirits and witches, almost all my adventures were pretty generic empty ruins inhabited by animals and bandits. There’s some wisdom in the claim that the unnatural only feels unusual if it’s set in contrast to a very natural world, I took it much too far by making the normal stuff dominating the campaigns.

I am still not sure how to give the supernatural otherworld the center stage that it should have, I think it really starts with the idea that there are places and environments where people are not meant to be. Not just are the native creatures are great direct threat, the environment itself gets in the way of the characters and puts them at an even greater disadvantage to the native inhabitants.

Here are some generic factors that make an environment work against the players even when it does not actively try to harm them.

  • Don’t let the party have rechargable magical light sources. When torches and lamps run out they are completely blind when underground (or at least some of them) until they can find something to light on fire or glowing worms or something like that.
  • Track food and make edible plants really hard to find in dungeons and spiritworlds. Leaves and grass won’t feed people and fruits might not be healthy.
  • Use a lot of water. Even when the party has magic to breath underwater their torches and lamps won’t be working there.
  • Little weak monsters that wait to attack the party until they are weak and need to recover. And not just once, but repeatedly.
  • Great differences in height and monsters that can fly.
  • Huge open spaces and monsters with ranged attacks.
  • Fog that blocks sight and creatures that are sneaky.
  • Ground that slows characters down or hurts them when they trip. But not the native creatures.
  • Wind that can make characters fall and interferes with ranged weapons.
  • Low ceilings that force characters to fight crouched or narrow passages that make large weapons unusable and keeps parties from fighting as a team.

Dungeon Crawls and Antagonists

During my planning for a new campaign based around loosely connected dungeoncrawls instead of a longrunning epic quest or an open world sandbox I realized what always had been missing for me from dungeon modules. (Aside from plots, since I used to be young and stupid.) It’s great villains. Great antagonists are one of the big draws of Sword & Sorcery and pulp adventures and even though some boss monsters from early D&D have become famous, the early modules consistently had a lack of actually great villains.

The main problem with a generic dungeon crawl is that it has enemies in fixed places and some enemies who are randomly encountered wandering around. And any supposed villain was almost always in his throne room or something to that effect, waiting there at the far end of the dungeon to be the big final fight for the dungeon. Saying a few arrogant lines before a fight to the death does not make a great antagonist. A great and memorable enemy for the players is a villain who does things and they have meaningful interactions with. In movies villains often have most of their scenes in which they show how cool and badass they are far away from the heroes and they only run into each other very late in the story. In an RPG that does not work. You only get the moments where the villain interacts with the heroes to make him cool.

There are several ways to do that before the final fight in which the villain is killed. A really neat idea that I’ve seen in many wuxia stories is that the world of martial arts masters is actually pretty small and everyone knows absolutely everyone else. Even if they’ve never met before, people have heard enough about each other to get a good idea who they are dealing with. In a campaign in which every NPC without a name has no character levels and the majority of named characters are only first or second level this can easily be made to be plausible as well, regardless of the specific setting. When a major antagonist spots the party he might be able to recognize them simply by their appearance and weapons and react to them accordingly. This is not so easily done when the players encounter a new NPC, but any NPC friendly to the party might be able to tell them about some of the people who have been seen near the dungeon or in the company of the dungeon’s current master. Though that friendly NPC might only have heard some vague rumors that could be of greatly varying accuracy and might be misleading the players to expect someone who turns out quite different in person.

Another good method is to drop plenty of clues about the presence and status of a powerful NPC in the area before and after they meet him in person. Captured enemies might talk about their masters and superiors or the party might overhear them talking about them. Or the villain placed a lot of recently made traps ib an area that seems otherwise uninhabited. Corpses of monster killed by antagonist who are nearby are another alternative. Lots of corpses full with arrows, cleaved into pieces, or burned to cinders will give the players certain expectations who they might be facing in the near future.

Something that is easily forgotten and never appears in published modules and adventures because it requires a lot of flexibility from the GM is that every NPC who isn’t killed can show up again in later adventures. Sometimes even if they have been killed (but don’t do that too often, it gets lame very quickly.) Often it’s presented as the default or even only option that any encountered enemy will automatically attack and be killed. But that’s really not necessary and also quite lame. Except for mindless undead all enemies want to live and rather escape than die. If you make use of that option you will end up with a lot of enemies who escaped alive pretty quickly. For the main villain of a dungeon I would even plan ahead to let him fall back a few times before the players might corner him. But only if it’s tactically possible. If the players manage to cut of escape routes or get a few lucky hits that kills the enemy leader in the first or second encounter than that’s what should be happening. It’s not necessary that he will still be able to fight in the last fallback position. The minions might fight on for a while by themselves before they flee from the party or a lieutenant might take over command for the big bad. That lieutenant might turn out to be the actual big antagonist the players are going to remember from the adventure.

If a prominent antagonist survives an adventure, I would not usually use him agaib right in the next adventure and go after the party. That would only encourage the players to never let anyone survive. Wait three or four adventures and then let the players have an unexpected run in with an old acquaintance of theirs.

Though all that being said, I think a dungeon crawls should still be about the dungeon first and everything in it optional. Instead of making a major antagonist the final goal of the dungeon, he should simply be the main attraction. The villain’s lair shouldn’t be in the farthest and deepest room of the dungeon but better in a more central area. This way the players are given plenty of opportunities to avoid a confrontation with something scary like an undead sorcerer or a dragon, but they also will get close to the lair several times throughout their exploration, which gives the villains more opportunities to be on the players’ minds, making them more memorable.

Bounties and Rewards are also Treasure

In B/X and I believe most OSR games these days the primary source of experience points for PCs is treasure which they bring back from their adventures. If you go with the rules as written the XP gained frok overcoming enemies is tiny to the point of being marginal if you want to have even a modest pace of character advancement in a campaign.

I quite like this approach as it makes lethal combat a means to an end instead of being the end in itself. And only one means among many others. But while giving one XP for every gold piece found in a dungeon and brought back to town works well enough for a game about treasure hunters it does have it’s limitations in pretty much any other scenario. I think mines are a great environment for a dugeon crawl, but how much treasure can you hide down there in an at least somewhat plausible way? Or take adventures in which all the opponents are wild animals or spirits with no use for treasure. Simply putting big pots of gold in random places is neither believable, nor fun.

A simple workaround for this are bounties and rewards. An owlbear with 1,000 gold coins in its cave would be silly. But an owlbear whose head is worth 1,000 gold coins when delivered to the village elders really doesn’t stretch plausibility in any way. (Aside from gold being apparently worth almost nothing in most fantasy games.) Yes, a trophy is not exactly a treasure. But there is plenty of precedent of valuable tapestries and paintings whose only worth is that someone in town will give the party a bag of coins for them, and they have always been regarded as treasure that counts towards calculating XP. Treating reward money for things done in a dungeon as treasures taken from the dungeon is a perfectly valid thing to do.

Another nice trait I like about NPCs announcing rewards for certain things is that it’s more noncommittal than having an NPC hiring the party for a quest. When you send the players on a quest it brings with it the expectation that there’s a planned plot that the players are meant to play out and I think I’ve never seen players deciding to just not complete a quest unless they were obviously set up by an evil NPC. A notice of reward is much more open ended and more of an optional objective that can be done when doing stuff in the dungeon. If there’s plenty of other stuff to do and grab, players are more likely to think twice about asking a dragon for his head or taking a gem that keeps an underground garden alive. Decisions are always the most interesting when there is no obviously better option to pick.

How I run my games

Running an RPG really is an art. Primarily because rulebooks almost never even mention how you do that. The first edition of D&D was a collection of notes that an apprentice DM would get after he had been trained by an older master and somehow everyone kept doing that ever since. Two page Examples of Play are garbage. The only exception I know is the 1983 Basic Set for D&D. And that is after four decades and hundreds of games. Other than becoming an apprentice of the GM of the group you play with (simply observing a good GM at work won’t do it), the only people who can teach you to be a good GM are old GMs who explain it on the internet. The Angry GM and Matt Colville are both super helpful and there’s a lot of equally great stuff by The Alexandrian. (Links to all three are to the right.) I think I was a pretty poor GM myself until I started doing more research three years ago. Practice alone doesn’t make you any better if you just keep making the same mistakes every time. But all the methods to use as a GM are only options and not all of them work for every purpose. You need to have some reasonably clear image of what you want to do before you can pick the methods that work for you.

This post is basically my current playbook on how I am running games.

When in doubt, yes

Any time a player has an idea and you say no, the game stalls for a moment. Whatever vague plan was forming in the player’s mind will have to be discarded and a completely new approach considered. Saying yes keeps the game moving forward. Generally you want the game to maintain forward momentum and avoid situations in which players are overthinking things. For that you want to encourage and applaud their crazy ideas, not create the impression that they have to figure out what you think the correct solution should be. Even when the question is something like “Is the bridge made of wood?” and you have not thought about it before, answering yes will probably lead to the most interesting result. Whatever it is that the player is thinking about, it’s probably something that will only work if you say yes.

What are the players trying to do?

This is probably the most important thing that a GM has to understand. Before you decide the outcome of an action it is crucial to confirm that you and the player are on th same page. If players say they want to do something that seems nonsensical, it’s almost always because their picture of the situation is different from what you meant to describe to them. In an RPG the GM is the eyes and ears of the players. They can always only know what you tell them. If they get something wrong it’s your fault. And that means it’s your duty to make sure that you and the players are imagining the same situation and context.

Only when you know what the intended outcome of an action is can you decide what the best method is to handle it.

Do we need a roll?

Many rules heavy games have a mechanic for almost everything players might want to do. And that leads to a stong tendency to use mechanics for everything. But most of the time doing so is nonsensical. Most actions do not require a die roll. When it seems obvious that an action should succeed it should succeed automatically without a roll. If an action is effectively impossible, no roll is needed either. Dice are rolled when there’s a clear chance for both success and failure and failure also has a consequence. If the character could just keep trying until he rolls a 20 or a 01 then the question is not whether he can do it but how long it will take him. If there is no consequence of failure, no roll is needed. The most common forms of consequence are taking damage, alerting enemies, time pressure and anything that will make it impossible to try again. When player roll dice it should be a meaningful moment, not just tedious routine.

Sometimes only the first attempt wil have a consequence but successive attempts will not. For example a character kicking in a door could surprise the people on the other side. But only on the first attempt. If the first attempt fails anyone on the other side will know someone is trying to break the door and be alerted. A second or third failed attempt won’t have any further consequences and need no additional checks. It’s enough to tell the player that it didn’t work the first time and ask if he wants to keep doing it until it works or stop.

Only roll again if something has changed

Generally every action should require only a single roll. If a character disguises himself as a guard and fools the guards at the gate, no additional rolls are needed to fool the guards in the courtyard. That’s still the same situation of wandering around without being noticed. If the character would attempt to enter a restricted area or take a prisoner from the cells then he is doing something that would make people take another closer look at him and a new check might be required. If you would check for every guard the character walks by it would be only a matter of time until a roll fails and the whole plan of getting inside disguised as a guard becomes impossible.

What does the other side want?

Any time an encountet happens, whether it’s planned or random, the first thing the GM has to do is take a moment and decide what the NPCs or monsters want. It’s almost never to kill the PCs at any price. They might want to rob or eat them, get them to leave, prevent them from getting past, and possibly a wide range of other things. And usually, above all, they want to stay alive. To effectively play the people and creatures the party encounters, whether it leads to a fight or not, you have to know what they want to get out of the encounter. What tactics they use, when they might retreat or surrender, whether they attack first or need to be provoked to fight, and how they might negotiate all depends on what they want from the PCs.

Reaction Rolls

Enemies in videogames are stupid and all they can do is running straight at the characters and start hitting until they are dead. Henchmen in movies tend to do just the same. And most RPGs seem to assume the same thing of NPCs and monsters. But that’s a complete waste of interesting interactions and that’s what RPGs should be about, not combat. In the heat of the moment it’s often difficult to come up with interesting ways in which creatures react to spotting the party and so GMs usually default to instant attack. The reaction roll is a very simple and extremely useful mechanic to address that. If the reaction of a creature is not automatically apparent, roll a dice to see what it does. In B/X D&D immediate attack is a very rare result. Much more commonly they are hostile and waiting for a good opportunity to attack or just chase the party away, or they might wish to avoid a fight or even be friendly. The important part to remember when using reaction rolls is to question whether the reaction would really be automatically apparent. It’s a matter of tone for the campaign, but just because something is said to be evil or occasionally eats people doesn’t mean it has to attack. When in doubt, make a reaction roll.

Retreat and Morale Checks

Almost all people and creatures encountered by the party want to not be killed above everything else. When it becomes apparent that a fight is lost, have the enemies attempt to save their lives in whatever way they can. They might retreat, surrender, or try to negotiate.

But even when a fight can still be won enemies might get too scared by the killing around them and flee in panic anyway. This can be handled by a morale check. 2d6 are rolled the first time someone in the fight is killed and again when the enemy group has lost half of its fighters, either to death or being incapacitated. If the roll exceeds their morale score they will flee, regardless of the tactical situation.

Random Encounters

In OSR games defeating an enemy in battle gives characters only very little XP compared to the considerable risk they pose and the resources it takes to defeat them. They are a pure nuisance and something to be avoided. Since random encounter rolls are made based on the time the party spends in a dungeon or enemy stronghold, the only way to avoid them is to be quick and don’t spend any unnecessary time in the place. Random encounter checks are also made any time the players do something very noisy that might attract attention, which is an incentive to be sneaky. Random encounters really only work if the players are not meaningfully rewarded by getting into fights. If a random encounter provides a good amount of XP and treasure then they defeat the purpose.

Encumbrance

Most encumbrance system are way too complex to be fun and slow things down so much that they are just completely ignored. A much simpler system is to have every item have a weight of 1 and let characters carry as many items as their Strength score unencumbred and twice as many with being slowed down to half speed. Exceptionally big items like armor count as two or three items, very small items like keys or papers count as having no weight at all.

Going from full speed immediately to half speed seems very unrealistic but is by far the easiest solution to deal with turns on large maps. Having a 3/4 step in between would make it all much more unwieldy.

Turns and Zones

Most OSR games use turns of 10 minutes to track the durations of torches, spells, and potions and check for wandering monster encounters. Usually this is tracked by how much distance of empty tunnels the party has covered. This requires having the whole environment map out at great detail, which I am not fond of. Instead, for larger locations with a lot of empty space, I break the whole sketchy map down into zones of not clearly specified size and each time the party leaves a zone for another a turn has ended. If the party moves at encumbred speed, two moves have ended.

In addition, the end of a fight also means the end of a turn, regardless of how long or short it is. Tidying up after a fight tends to take longer than the fighting itself and for the sake of simplicity it’s assumed that another turn has ended once the party continues its exploration. A turn is only approximately 10 minutes, not a precise unit of time. Some turns are longer, some are shorter, and torches, potions, and spells don’t run on an exact timer either. It’s just a simple approximation.

Preparing Adventures

No NPC or location is irreplaceable

Even though I was born in the mid-80s I am very oldschool in my approach that RPGs area about the players making their story, not about the GMs telling their stories. It has nothing to do with nostalgia or snobbery, I just found it to be a vastly superior use of the great potential of roleplaying games once I really understood the idea. Not understanding this is why my campaigns used to be bland and underwhelming.

Whatever you put into your campaign is there for the players to interact with. It’s not to show off your creative work. If the players decide to do something that leaves an NPC dead or a cool place destroyed then let it happen. If you are not willing to see it go up in flames, don’t put it in the campaign.

Don’t prep plots

The adventure is a story the players are making, not a story they are being told. A good adventure provides things the players can interact with in interesting ways. And GMs don’t know how the players will interact with the things they’ll find so you shouldn’t assume that they will do certain things and then prepare additional scenes based on that. A good adventure is an environment with multiple people who want and do various things. It’s wise to spend some thought on what would happen if the players don’t interfere but don’t write a sequence of scenes that are meant to happen. When you do that the players will make their decisions based less on what they would like to do but more on what they think they are supposed to do.

Yes, almost all adventures that are being released are scripts of scenes. And I also think most released adventuresare bad.

Always have alternative routes

Probably the biggest mistake that is constantly made in dungeon design is to put obstacles in the way of the party that have to be overcome or the adventure can not continue. In a well designed adventure absolutely everything needs to be optional. And the best way to do that is to always have more than just a single possible route to get to an important place. Failure to do that leads to a long list of really bad problems. If the adventure can only continue if a creature guarding a gate is defeated, then the players know that they can not lose a fight against it. It will be easy enough to defeat and if things go wrong the GM will help them out and make them win anyway. From this follows that everything they encounter will be defeatable without much trouble, which leads to the conclusion that everything is meant to be defeated. And just like that the game turns into a meat grinder where combat is always the default response to encountering a monster or enemy.

Add plenty of optional content

Players aren’t really into exploring. Players are into discovering. So add plenty of hidden stuff to adventures that can be discovered through the actions of the players. They will probably miss a good deal of them so prepare them in a way that takes that into account.

Don’t make important things hinge on a single die roll.

If you want something to be found for certain then make it impossible to miss. It’s not common but still happening all the time that very substantial parts of adventures will only be accessible if the players find a hidden thing, make a saving throw, or succeed on a skill check. When you include such thing, always ask yourself what happens if the players fail.

Make battlefields interesting

Some games have a lot of rules for battles and others have very little. Even if you have a complex battle system it might seem fun to just rely on the standard maneuvers but every fight will be several times better if it takes place in an interesting battle field that both sides can use to their advantage. Add rubble, pits, fences, pillars, tables, stairs, balconies, barrels with oil, giant spider webs, huge furnaces, and chandeliers to swing on. Nothing is more boring than a featureless square room.

Placing Treasure

In a campaign in which characters get XP primarily from retrieving treasure, my rule of thumb is to take all the possible XP from fighting opponents in a location and multiplying it by 10 to get the value for treasures that can be found in that place. A good amount of it will be in the lairs of creatures but most of it well hidden and easy to miss. In the long run this should lead to a ratio of about 1:6. Treasure is put where it makes sense. In a location with mostly animals, most treasure would be in hidden staches while in an area with many humanoids much of the treasure would be in their lairs.

To have an easier time with encumbrance each treasure item takes up one slot of inventory space and has a value of either 100, 1,000, or 10,000 XP.

Thief Skills (for OSR games)

Thief skills in OSR games are always a weird thing. Thieves have a skill to hide and to sneak but what about other characters who try to quietly move around unseen? And the chance to successfully pull it of is a measly 15% for first level thieves. With less then an 80% chance it’s not worth to even try. Sadly, D&D never explained itself on how this is supposed to work and all we have are various interpretations on what those skills and odds are actually meant to be for.

Stealth (for B/X)

The actual names for hiding and sneaking in D&D are Hide in Shadows and Move Silenty. This means hiding when there’s nothing to hide behind and moving without making any sound that could be detected. These are things that an average person could not do. In situations where other characters would automatically fail without getting a chance to roll dice, a thief might just be able to pull it off with a big amount of luck.

For regular hiding and sneaking I simply have characters make a Dexterity check, possibly modified based on how good their hiding places are and how much ambient noise is present.

Climbing (for B/X)

As with stealth, the climbing skill of the thief is actually called Climb Sheer Surfaces. Again, I agree with the interpretation that this applies to climbing things that would normally be impossible. And again, climbing things that are regularly climbable is done with a Dexterity check if necessary.

Locks (for B/X)

Unless there is time pressure, which there generally is not, a single roll is made to attempt to open a lock. This roll simply determines whether the thief can open the lock or not. If he fails then it’s beyond his skills.

Traps (for B/X)

I handle the detection of traps in two ways: A general quick lookover and a specific interaction. The thief skill is used only for the former. The player can declare that he quickly checks if something looks fishy and a roll is made. This roll is made in secret, which allows me to roll multiple dice in case there are multiple traps. If a roll is a success the character spots the trap. But any player can declare to do specific things to make sure there really isn’t anything hidden. A thief rolling to detect traps is only a chance for auto detection. Manual searching will find or possibly trigger a trap based on what the players are doing.

Dungeons and Wilderness in Modular Campaigns

In my previous post about modular campaigns I have been rambling about the reasons for structuring a campaign into individual chunks that can easily be moved around, rearranged, and modified. (It’s all still work in progress.) The key idea being to have the convenience of episodic one-shots with an irregular group of players while also giving the players agency in choosing where they want to go and what motivates them and getting a campaign that better captures the spirit and atmosphere of Sword & Sorcery tales. What I haven’t really been talking about yet is how I want to structure each module to get as much out of every session as possible (occasional players should not be left hanging at the end of a session with nothing seeming to have been accomplished) without making thing too rushed and not neglecting a proper buildup of tension and atmosphere. Because that’s something I only worked out these last days.

Something I struggled the most with is how to deal with the journey from the town to the dungeon. I am a big proponent of skipping the boring parts that serve mostly as padding to make the adventure feel bigger but contribute very little to make the game feel like an adventure and making it memorable. Especially when you have players who only play four hours every 5 or 6 week you don’t want to unnecessarily draw things out when you could do more of the exciting stuff. Simply starting and ending each session at the entrance seems tempting, but I think that’a throwing out the baby with the bath water. I support the notion that most dungeons should be otherworldly. If the essence of Sword & Sorcery can be broken down to a single phrase it would be the encounter with the supernatural. But for a world to be other and supernatural you have to contrast it with a world that is normal and natural. Both the town and the journey to and from the dungeon are this normal world to which the PCs are native.

So, going with the assumption that the wilderness travel is a crucial part of the experience, the next goal has to be to find ways to pack these trips with as much excitement as can be done and making it relevant to the real meat of the adventure that is the dungeon. It’s not often but sometimes you see people make suggestions that seem to be just pure gold. The suggestion someone gave to me is to make the encounters on the trips to and from the dungeon not based on the natural wildlife and local population of the region but on the denizens of the dungeon the path leads to. I think you can actually treat the wilderness journey as the first level of the dungeon. What the party encounters along the way is not unrelated to what is inside the dungeon but already connected to it. With larger dungeons the party might have to make the trip multiple times to haul back the loot and get new supplies, which makes randomly rolled encounters a much more interesting option than having just one or two fixed ones. You can also already include a few “rooms” and branching paths the players may choose from. Sentry posts or creaky bridges that could be collapsed to shake pursuers trying to keep the party from reaching the safety of the town with their loot would be great additions to what could otherwise just be a single straight path through the forest. The wilderness from The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun comes to mind, though it’s a somewhat crude execution of a great idea and more tedious than adding much to the exploration of the dungeon. Through random encounters players could learn of secret entrances into the dungeon or safe places to rest near it without having to make the whole trip back the the town. I think the only real difference between the “wilderness level” and the dungeon levels would be to make wandering monsters check ever 2 hours instead of every 20 minutes and perhaps only once or twice when the group is making camp for eight hours. There’s not going to be much treasure in it (though perhaps a randomly encountered group of humanoids might be tracked back to their nearby lair) but players already have an opportunity to learn about what is making its home inside the dungeon. And especially in OSR games, knowing is half the battle.

Once you reach the proper dungeon I am a big fan of making the players feel that they have come to the other side of the rabbit hole and are not in Kansas anymore. If the dungeon includes surface ruins they often form a kind of border zone. You have reached a strange place and can start exploring but you still have the sun in the sky and fresh air around you and plenty of room to escape if you wish to. But this ends at the threshold beyond which looms the mythic underworld. It can be a door, a cave entrance, stairs leading down, or just a small hole in the ground. Once you cross beyond this point anything could happen.

It’s a bit different when the adventure site lies in an enchanted forest. Enchanted forests usually don’t have a threshold and that’s what makes them unsettling in their own way. You make your way through the wilderness anticipating the see the border to the magical realm ahead until you realize that you crossed it long ago and you won’t be able to get out quickly. How to do this well I am not sure yet. I think it might be a good idea to have two different encounter tables for the mundane wilderness and the enchanted forest. The players might only realize that they’ve already reached the magical realm when they encounter its inhabitants. When the dungeon is in an enchanted forest I think there’s no need to for a visible transition from surface ruins to underground passages. The characters have already committed themselves to the dangers of the otherworld.

How long the trip should be depends on the overall setup of the module, but for the reasons mentioned previously I wouldn’t make it more than two fixed encounter area per possible path (if you have alternative routes to the dungeon) and an average of two random encounters. In a four hour session you probably don’t want to have more than half an hour for each trip.

Now you’ve come to the dungeon itself. How should it be structured? Since the main goal is to allow irregular players to enjoy the game even when jumping in irregularly and to let players have many adventures all over the world I would keep each dungeon relatively limited in size. Usually it shouldn’t take more than two or three trips to a dungeon before the players decide it is time to move on to another module. I don’t imagine playing only the middle one of three adventures into a dungeon to be terribly satisfying. The first contact and the big discovery in the farthest corner are usually the highlights of a dungeon crawl and which give the whole thing context and meaning. With relatively modest sized dungeons I would also recommend sticking mostly to a single theme that ties everything together. If you could split a dungeon into two or three separate dungeons that could each stand on its own, then you probably should.

Also a few words about towns here: During each adventure players will spend relatively little time in the town and will have little interaction with the NPCs. What I would do is to not create a completely new town for each module. When the players wrap up a module and you offer them a few new rumors and hooks to pursue you can easily put one of them near the town they are already in, or in a town they have been to in the past. Since modules are meant to be shuffled around regularly as the players move from place to place I think it’s probably the best idea to keep any town NPC for a module very generic. When preparing each module in advance make notes simply for “guardsman”, “merchant”, or “innkeeper”. These roles will then be assumed by whatever fitting NPC is present in the town currently visited by the party.

Not everything is trying to kill you

I think the greatest thing that oldschool roleplaying brought to the attention of younger GMs like me is the whole system of wandering monsters, reaction rolls, and morale checks. When I first got into RPGs I occasionally saw mention of them, but they seemed silly and annoying for what I assumed a good adventure to be like and a good riddance in general. But after having played and run games for over 10 years, all the adventures never turned out to be anything like what I had been hoping they would. And I think it really comes down to D&D of that time having abandoned the aforementioned mechanics. Which didn’t start with 3rd edition but actually preceded even AD&D 2nd edition for a good number of years.

My first contact with RPGs was Baldur’s Gate and that set a precedent of what I expected adventures to be like and I found it confirmed by AD&D modules I’ve looked at. When you encounter a creature, one side makes a surprise attack and then the fight continues until one side has been wiped out. The characters get XP and the treasure lies where the enemy fell. Having creatures appear randomly and someimes trying to run away would be a nuisance and interrupt the plot. But videogames NPCs are still absolutely primitive compared to one controlled by a GM and I much later learned that most of the modules were not meant to be normal AD&D adventures but tournament modules for conventions where many groups would play the same dungeon simultaneously as a single session one-shot and then compare which party got the most points. Which is why The Tomb of Horrors is so awful. It’s not meant to be part of an ongoing campaign, but unfortunately fails to explain that to GMs who read it.

Wandering monsters in a dungeon have the main function of keeping the party moving and the clock ticking. They make resting in a dungeon almost impossible and that means your spells and hit points have to last you through the whole expedition. Since wandering monsters have negligible treasure and roughly 75% of XP are expected to come from collecting gold, fighting them is just a waste of resources and a risk of death with barely any reward. And as wandering monsters are encountered based on time spend in the dungeon, there’s a real incentive to be quick. Giving the majority of XP for treasure also has the effect that it is often more efficient to just steal treasure without a fight and minimize the loss of spells and hit points (and party members). Getting 75% of XP for stealing treasures without defeating the owners will get you more than getting 100% from just one creature. XP for gold seemed silly, but is actually great design.

It also makes morale checks much more interesting. An opponent who runs away may abandon its treasure. Every round you don’t have to fight saves you more hit points and spells and allows you to continue the current expedition a bit longer. Yes, they run away with their pocket change, but you still get all the XP for having defeated them.

But let’s now look at reaction rolls, which are perhaps the most intriguing element of oldschool roleplaying. A reaction roll tell you how a group of creatures or NPCs will react to encountering the PCs when their reaction is not predetermined by the adventure or obvious. I took notice of this and mentally filed it away to be used with animals encountered in dungeons or NPC parties encountered during overland travel. But what does “obvious” actually mean? A group of zombies? Yeah, obvious. A golem guarding a door? Predetermined by the adventure. But what about a group of orcs sitting around a campfire? Obvious?

Well, I always assumed it is, based on fantasy books, movies, videogames, and all the adventures published by WotC and Paizo. But this is a preconception that is not actually supported by the 1981 Moldvay Basic rules. Yes, orcs are chaotic and it says that Chaos generally means evil. But player characters can be chaotic as well and they are members of the party. Chaotic indicates breaking rules and promises when it benefits you and you can get away with it. And what benefit is there in randomly attacking groups of well armed people?

I always found it somewhat difficult to interprete the rection table. What does it mean if the result is “Hostile, possible attack” or “Uncertain, monster confused”? But with a bit of searching you can easily find a few examples from fiction. When Bilbo encounters Golum under the mountains, Golum plans to kill him and eat him. But he doesn’t have surprise and knows that frontal attack is risky so he keeps Bilbo talking in the hope of getting an opportunity where he has advantage. That fits very well with “Hostile, possible attack”. Another good example is in Return of the Jedi when Leia encounters the ewok Wicket whose reaction is just spot on “Uncertain, monster confused”. He holds up his spear but only to keep her at a safe distance, not with an intention to attack her. Because she handles the situation well she’s able to get the ewoks as allies. A bit later the others get in a similar situation but Han handles it less well ad the ewoks decide to cook them.

return-of-the-jedi-ewoksOnly on a roll of 2 on a 2d6 does a reaction roll actually indicate an immediate attack and a 3 to 5 indicates hostility with a chance that the creatures might attack. This results in only a 28% chance that a fight breaks out without the players initiating it. If you start making reaction rolls for any encounter where the reaction isn’t automatically fixed, it will change the game quite a lot. Orcs and ogres are no longer monsters but people just like bndits, mercenaries, or barbarians. Their culture might be different and unappealing to many of the PCs, but if the players handle it right they can be interacted with just like people.

This affects both worldbuilding and the way that adventures play out. A dungeon in which only a third of encountered denizens are hostile and the rest could provide information, cooperate with the PCs, or even offer free help is a very different place from the common deathtrap presented in most modules in which everything including the kitchen sink tries to kill you on sight. And again, this is supported by XP being gained mostly through finding treasure. How much XP you get out of a dungeon does not depend on the number of fights. XP for gold may not be perfect, but it certainly beats XP for combat only. If you get a reward for fighting and no reward for not fighting, the message for players is clear. Kill everything. (Don’t let them run away, they take all their treasure with them which you need to buy magic items from stores.)

This encourages and supports a play style that is really about exploration and discovery of fantastic environments the PCs will find themselves in. Treasures are an incentive to poke around and find hidden rooms, but seem much less like the main purpose why you go on an adventure. The options to discover things about the environment and the greater world are very much limited when all your interactions are with statues and wall paintings. There is so much more that can be leared by interacting with other people and the knowledge you gain becomes much more useful and meaningful if it can help you with dealing with other people you’ll encounter later. Or possibly people you encountered before and who might reward you for sharing your discoveries.

Another fascinating part of the rules that had almost entirely disappeared are retainers. In 3rd edition you have to be at least 6th level and spend one of your precious few feats to get only one retainer. In Basic everyone can have around 4 at first level for free. (You have to pay wage, but that’s no limited resource.) My assumption was that you’re meant to post job offet notes at the market place and then pick one of the people who come to apply. But that’s not what the rules demand. A much more fun and interesting option is to recruit people you meet on adventures. It says retainers can be of any level or any class but not have a higher level than the PC they follow. But the Hit Dice of a monster are effectively the same as class levels in every way. Once you make it practice to befriend monsters, why not let players take them along as retainers? The GM would have to rely on making good judgement calls on what kinds of monsters might possibly be hired. A black pudding or a purple worm would be silly. But if it’s reasonably intelligent, able to integrate into society, and the player mange to get it friendly, why not?

While working on my setting and preparing for my next campaign I wanted to do something different than the average treasure hunt or assaulting the lair of a villain over and over. Instead I want to do something much more fantastic that focuses and supernatural things and discovery. I mostly failed at this with my last two campaigns and even in the last months much of my preparation once again ended up focusing on humanoid antagonists. Realizing that the 35 year old Basic rules suggest a world that is much less hostile and encouraging cooperation with dungeons denizens between the line has been a major eye opener for me. And once more makes me feel amazed that an RPG so close to what I consider perfect has been around almost from the very beginning. (There’s still negative armor class and spell preparation, but those are easily fixed and exist for the purpose of edition compatibility.)

Setting Modules

In a discussion about The Maze of the Blue Medusa, one person mentioned that despite many highly positive reviews for OSR “settings”, there seem to be barely any people who say that they actually ran a game in Red Tide, the Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong, or Yoon-Suin. Despite the praise and the money people pay for it, they seem to be barely getting used by anyone.

Which wouldn’t really be that surprising as the people who enjoy this kind of content tend to be people who also create a lot of their own custom content for the campaigns they run. The main draw seems to me, and probably many others, to salvage these books for ideas. I regularly buy books for games I don’t have or know the rules for, or ever have any intention to play. It’s always all idea mining for me with everything I get for RPGs. I don’t think I ever used anything out of the box since my earliest hears with D&D 3rd edition.

And I believe many of the people who make OSR settings are very much aware of that. Vornheim and Yoon-Suin can’t really be considered settings in the traditional sense and are really all about being toolboxes for creating your own content. My impression of Red Tide is that the setting of the islands and the backstory of the setting is really mostly a practical example for how a world using the tools in the book could look like.

My previous Ancient Lands setting was very traditionally designed like the many settings of the late 80s and the 90s, but when I started all over with a blank canvas to do the Old World I abandoned that approach pretty much entirely. It’s not practical for running my own games and I doubt there would be more than two or three GMs in the world who would actually run a campaign if I would get it into a releasable form.

I recently looked into One Page Dungeon after talking somewhere about my frustration with typical D&D settings being so vague on adventure locations to be practically useless. As all dungeons are made independently by completely different people and the only format restriction is that it has to fit on a single page, people have been trying out a lot of different things with that idea. And I think this could be a really good approach for small scale campaign setting writers in the coming years. Completely abandoning the idea that a setting is a single world and instead providing collections of thematically matching but mostly stand alone pieces of content.

Campaign settings as coloring books

I am still settling in after my recent move across the country back to the grim North of the Baltic Sea, looking to pick up my great grandfather’s trade as a carpenter, or another great grandfather’s trade as a saddler, or take the old family passion of gardening as a job in a plant nursery. (And yes, we are almost as rural as you can get in central Europe.) So this idea is still somewhat half baked, but something I consider interesting to ponder.

Many campaign settings published for RPGs tend to written in a way that makes them interesting ro read, but not necessarily good to actually play in. When a 300 page setting book tells me that there is a burried ruin at the end of an old elven road in the forest, which is constantly guarded by a dozen or so elves from local clans, and which turn away everyone until they have a special permit from their leaders, it does get you interested and makes you want to explore the place. If you are a player. But if you are a GM, what are you going to do with it? A few words on why the elves make the effort to post a permanent heavy guards and what reasons would get the players permission to enter would be more than just useful. Such information is necessary.

And it’s something that I rarely seem to find. Published campaign settings never seem to be able to decide if they are an overview for players with knowledge that player characters could easily know, or GM guidebooks that provide hidden behind the scenes information to run adventures. I’ve been long of the opinion that these kinds of books should simply be split. A main volume with the standard public informtion, and a smaller booklet with secret knowledge for GMs. But how would such a GM book look like?

I think a good length would probably be about half a page for each location, including a basic overview of what the place looks like, what special features it has, what it is inhabited by, and what kind of big secret it hides. Even with small font side you get half a page very quickly. But I think as content goes this might be enough. Enough for GMs to use it as a starting point to create their own location based adventures. Some ominous words about a room with six portals to other worlds being hidden somewhere in the deepest halls, or frog-like creatures seen dancing around a large fire during stormy nights is insufficient for GMs. It makes players curious and interested to check out these places, but doesn’t give any help to GMs who still have to make up some cool background and story for it from basically nothing. What GMs need is not a finished adventure for every place in the setting, but a solid concept of what each place is meant to be and what it’s special feature is that the players are meant to discover.

In many ways, this would be making a campaign setting like a coloring book. You provide the outlines that already let you see what you’re dealing with, but it’s up to the GM to bring it to life by creating maps, chosing the types and numbers of creatures to be found there, the current situation the players will encounter, and so on. Every GM’s dungeon will be different, so it doesn’t matter much if some of the players have read the description in the past. They will always encounter something completely new behind each door and corner. And even knowing that somewhere in the dungeon is an undead warrior guarding the tomb of a mummified sorcerer who is gathering his strength to return and conquer the country wouldn’t give away how exactly an encounter with these two would play out.

As someone wrote a while back, people don’t like exploration. People like discovery. A campaign setting that only gives you things to explore but no things to discover isn’t really well suited for use in an RPG. And even as a GM, creating places to explore is easy. Filling them with things to discover is much harder, especially for a world you’re only passingly familiar with. I think a lot more could be done in this regard than it has been in the past 30 years.