Category Archives: dungeon design

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.

An adventure for any number of characters of any level

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about the problems I have with published adventures. One of the pretty big problems that makes most adventures unusable to me is that they are not only written for a different game than the one I am running, but have also been designed for a group of player characters of a specific power level. While am talking a lot about published adventures here, the main point I want to make further down is really about designing adventures in general, so even if you don’t usually use published adventures either, this might still be interesting to read. The earliest adventures for Dungeons & Dragons were pretty vague on this subject, simply saying they are for adventurers of “1st to 3rd level” or characters should be “5th to 10th level”. Since at that time nobody had any pretense that character levels and monster experience were an exact science, it really was just very rough eyeballing. But soon it got more specific like “This module is designed for 6-8 characters of 4th to 7th level. […] The party should possess somewhere between 35 and 45 levels of experience.” Since experienced henchmen were a common feature of the game at that time, it really wasn’t any big deal to get a few more of them to make the party ready for adventure. I make no secret of the fact that I think AD&D was really terribly written and had really bad ways to deal with numbers. But while the 3rd edition did some good work in straitening up the rules (mostly fixing attack bonus, armor class, and XP tables), it also went of into a completely wrong direction with long steps. A derection into which I, being totally new to RPGs, happily followed.

Over time people realized that any claims that there was a balance between the classes and experience, treasure, and monster abilities were carefully calculated and weighted against each other was complete nonsense. It was still nothing but eyeballing and often pretty bad one. But you still got all this huge amount of additional math that didn’t actually make anything better! But the published adventures might be one element of the game that suffered the most. From now on published adventures would usually make a statement like this. “The Sunless Citadel is a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS adventure suitable for four 1st-level player characters. Player characters (PCs) who survive the entire adventure should advance through 2nd  level to 3rd level before the finale.”

Great. What if the characters are already 2nd level? What if I have another adventure I want to run that is for 2nd level characters? At these very low levels it’s not such a big deal yet, but when you get adventures that are for 10th level characters and take them to 14th level it does become a real issue. My campaigns are usually with new players and run for perhaps a year or so, so I usually ran games with characters that are all 1st or 2nd level. (It’s easier for new players.) Which means lots of great adventure I never got an opportunity to run. But it got worse. The way things were described in the rulebooks and the first adventures that were published for 3rd edition, players had the expectation that the encounters would be “balanced” and “suitable for their level”, which means they should win the fight without any big trouble. I did. I am guilty. I was young and stupid.

But of course, that idea is nonsense. While Gygax was pretty bad at explaining himself, he did understand that D&D was not just a game about individual fights, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about rationing your strength and resources. Part of that is judging when to let the warriors clear the room with their swords and when the wizards unleash their full awesome power against enemies the warriors can’t handle on their own. And when you put it this way, it is obvious that individual encounters should be highly imbalanced in either direction. Many fights should be pretty easy while some should be pretty hard, and the key to being a successful adventurer is being able to tell which type of fight you’re currently dealing with. If you rush in with full force, your resources will be quickly exhausted. And if you then get into a fight against a strong enemy, it could be your death. But if all fights are balanced to a level where the players will be able to win without great difficulty or great risk, what is there really to do for the players other than “I guess I attack it with my sword again” over and over and over. 3rd edition tried to “fix” this with lots of special attacks and feats. But that’s where everything started to go wrong. They tried to make the round by round attack and damage routine more entertaining, but that part was never meant to be center of the game. It really was about judging the strength of your enemies, using the environment to your advantage, and making calls which fights to pick and which ones to avoid. The notion that fights should be balanced according to a mathmatical calculation killed all that. The Sunless Citadel did include a fight that would be really difficult to win and force players to retreat and come up with outside the box solutions or avoid that particular monster entirely. But as the story is being told, people complained about the encounter being unbalanced and that practice was discontinued from there on. Paizo eventually became not only the biggest creator of published adventures but actually the biggest RPG company of all. (Seems like WotC has left the field.) But even though there’s lots of great stories, I only really ran three of their adventures. Flight of the Red Raven and Escape from Meenlock Prison and The Automatic Hound from the Dungeon magazine. All three of which I completely rewrote to fit the size and level of the party I was running them for.

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Exploring Dungeons isn’t exciting

I know, a bold statement.

But think about it? What are the really cool and exciting scenes you love from novels, movies, comics, or video games? And how many of them have the characters walking down corridors and opening every door, to deal with the things they find in each room one at a time? Sure, sometimes there are really cool scenes that take place inside of dungeons. But these usually are not about exploring the place, but generally about seeking something or someone very specific inside that place. It’s the sneaking past the guards to reach the target and then finally confronting it that makes the whole event exciting.

I readily admit that both as a player and a GM, I very much favor a highly narrative style. And a game of managing resources and collecting treasure can be fun. Risk and Settlers are my favorite board games and I spend insane amount of time when playing STALKER to search every piece of rusted pipe and then drag myself back to camp massively overburdened with 40 first aid kits and a dozen high quality assault rifles to sell. But reading GMing advice and keeping up with many of the popular RPG forums, I often get the impression that these two quite different aspects of RPGs get thrown together as if they were the same. Which they are not.

Having a dungeon with lots of unique rooms, that each have special features and often include interesting creatures is a good thing. If you are playing the game to have a dungeon crawl. My personal favorite style of fantasy is Sword & Sorcery and I wanted recreate the special traits of that genre in my current campaign, which I’ve started this January. And while my players all seem to have had great fun so far, I am personally rather disappointed with what I’ve come up with so far. Because, as I think now, I was still approaching the adventures starting with the dungeons. I had my Monster of the Week and laid a track to its lair for the PCs to follow, now all I needed was to add some padding to stretch the game between finding the entrance to the lair and encountering the monster. Actually, a lot of padding, because you just need to have a cool dungeon.

But looking back, the dungeon wasn’t cool and in the end it really was just pure padding. The only result it had was draining some hit points from the PCs, and that really only because they had no priest or any healing potions. I havn’t written the summary of our last session, because there really isn’t much interesting to say. And as I’ve said in another article two weeks ago, if a part of the adventure is not worth retelling later, it didn’t had to be in the adventure in the first place. Instead, I should have spend much more preparation on the encounter with the boss at the end of the dungeon, who really just ended hitting the PCs with his claws as soon as they opened the door until he was dead.

In closing: A dungeon is not an adventure.

A dungeon is the stage for an adventure, but even the coolest dungeon can not substitute for a story. (Which in a dungeon crawl wouldn’t be an issue.) Right now, this is just one piece of insight I want to share here and I don’t have a lot of advice what to do about it yet. But it took me over 10 years to figure this out, so maybe this can be a nudge for other GMs to rethink what they’ve been doing so far as well.

Fantastic Bestiary and Locations

I’ve been running a gallery for collecting pictures of exotic and interesting looking fantasy creatures for some time, and now added another one for unusual and evocative landscapes. With most of the images I have not the slightest ideas how I would use them for my campaign, but I’d really like to do so one day.

You can check them out here:

tumblr_mzkgx1CoqQ1r426wco1_1280Fantastic Bestiary

tumblr_n374rxTjKW1tx4l4ho1_1280Fantastic Locations

What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 1: Environment Zones

While I was pondering whether the new Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games might be something worse purchasing instead of sticking with Star Wars Saga Edition (the FFG game require three $60 books, of which only one has been released yet; but SE is a d20 game with all the baggage that includes), I considered giving another chance to the generic class-less games that are out there. There’s a lot of praise for Burning Wheel and Savage Worlds, but Fate Core brings with it the huge advantage of being entirely free for download.

I have to admit that I am still not a big fan of Fate Points (Action Points, Bennies, Force Points, Luck Points, whatever you want to call them) and I can say outright that I think using Fudge Dice only has the purpse of selling special dice to me (though the game appears to be perfectly playble with 2d6 instead), but there’s really a lot of ideas in that game that frankly should be in every pen and paper game ever published! It’s not even strictly mechanical stuff, but really just some basic ideas how to approach the creation of character personalties, campaign setups, and encounters. Things that can be applied to probably every RPG that exists.

One thing that I really, really like – as someone who thinks miniatures have no place outside of tactical wargames – is to define the battlefield for encounters as a number of zones. The idea is, that you come up with a location for an encounter and divide it into a couple of zones that represent different kinds of environment. For example, an attack of a small hut could have the zones “Inside”, “Front Porch”, “Back Porch” and “Roof”. On each characters turn, they can move from one zone to another one and still get to take one action. In the first round, you could enter the “Front Porch” zone and then throw a smoke grenade through a window, and in the second round you move from “Front Porch” to “Inside” and try to tackle the enemy. The effect from the smoke grenade would now also affect only the “Inside” zone.

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The Bane of Dungeon Design

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Inception is a movie about many things, but primarily it’s a movie about telling stories. And for both GMs and game designers, what I consider the most important scene in the entire movie is the one where Cobb hands Ariadne a block of graph paper and asks her to show him a demonstration of her creative abilities as an architect. And none of the mazes she draws for him are satisfactory until she flips over the block and uses the plain backside instead of the graph paper.

If you are playing on a battle grid and want to be able to exactly determine the number of squares in any given room, you can still copy or trace the map onto graph paper. But other than modern houses, the world is not arranged along neatly places squares. Trying to create maps for forests or caves, and even villages or castles along the grid of graph paper never really gets you anything that looks really good.

But once you ditch the grid all kinds of new possibilities become open to you. Which can result in such awesome maps as the ones made by Kevin Camplell presented at Dyson’s Dodecahedron.