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Platforms, Voice, and Toxicity

July 24, 2014

Modelview Culture has been putting out a ton of great articles on videogames and the tech scene.  Today’s article covers the issue of how platforms (programming languages, tools for building games, online organizing tools, etc.) end up being used by marginalized folks who end up promoting the platform, but at the end of the day, the same social circle that benefits the most can’t be bothered to open the door in return…

Here’s a common pattern:

  • Male programmers builds a platform out of code.
  • Platform is adopted by a huge user base of marginalized people.
  • Those people drive widespread adoption and popularity of the platform.
  • Original creator turns out to give no shits about oppression, happily takes all the credit without mention of these creators.

Many of the POC, women, queer designers I personally know have had situations where they haven’t been paid, had the credit for the work they’ve done lifted in projects, or had people out and out plagiarize their work for profit.

Who is community?  Who gets to be human?

Although you’ll always run across cases of unethical exploitation, what is more problematic and worth talking about is the overall community that allows this kind of thing to thrive, and the fact that only some folks are targeted for that abuse.

What the article points to is the fact that these platforms, just like an RPG system, or a play style movement, or a social scene – all of these rely on a network of people to gain viability… and the question is how much does that serve the people who form the network.   Or rather, WHICH people get to be served in that network.

Ten years ago, I went to my first GenCon.  I remember someone said something to me that encapsulated the problem in full:  “Why should we care about people of color?”

The idea that, as a gamer, involved in the scene, that I had to prove myself UP to being worth considered equally as any other (white) gamer?  Oh, well, there’s the problem right there.   The disconnect was that “people of color” didn’t equal “people”.   “Prove to me that you are people” is the underlying assumption.

Questions we shouldn’t have to answer

Just as much as you have to navigate whether your money is going towards someone who wants you literally dead, the other parts you end up having to navigate as marginalized person are:

- Will working in this (rpg platform/community/etc) help me by creating outreach, or will it just promote people who will exploit then throw me away after the fact?

- Will participating and promoting this particular geek thing be fun, let me engage with other folks and “finally prove” to people we’re also part of the hobby?  Or will it just be promoting a scene that will shit on and harass me?

The balancing act between useful network and meaningful connections vs. harassment and exploitation is one each person has to navigate for themselves.   Much as I said before, the options often boil down to suffer in silence, suffer more for speaking up, or walk away.

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Challenge in your games

July 24, 2014

There’s a LOT of stuff that carries over well from videogames to tabletop roleplaying games.  The relevant stuff starts at about 2:05.

Telegraphing/Sufficient Information to make choices.

The part about telegraphing, and sufficient information towards making meaningful choice is a critical one.

You can see a lot of old school dungeons where “gotcha” traps basically take people out without any sort of reasonable forewarning (which, may be a realistically great way to set up traps, it’s a shitty design for game play, though).  On the flip side, one of the principles in Apocalypse World that works really well is the Countdown Clocks and the difference between Soft and Hard Moves.  Effectively, these rules force the GM to start telegraphing problems before slamming players with the consequences.  Other games like Trollbabe and Poison’d also do this with injuries/harm to the character.

Iteration Time

This is one of the huge hurdles for tabletop rpgs, particularly ones where players can find themselves left out of play when a character dies.   High challenge works well for videogames because you can simply go back to a save, restart, or otherwise get back into play without much problem.  For tabletop games, you have to start with the fact that making a character might be a half hour, or much longer, making the “restart time” pretty punishing – and that also doesn’t take into account the time it takes to bring their new character into play.

Both of these ideas are important whether you’re making a roleplaying game, or trying to run a game based on Gamist Challenge.

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Dungeons Part Seven: Flow and Area Encounter Design

July 23, 2014

A much more indepth look at the ideas I spoke on in Running the Dungeon.

Flow

So remember when I said that dungeon design is like videogame level design IS game design?  In part one I linked a bunch of things from analyzing good dungeon set ups in a macro sense, or Metroidvania style game design.  Here we come full circle, except this time I’m looking at the flow of individual rooms, or areas, as they pertain to making a good combat encounter.  Here’s where mostly it comes down to the logic in stuff like MOBA or FPS game design.

Unlike those games, you’re not going to have playtesters run through it thousands of times, nor will you get to reuse most of your areas many times, which makes it a lot harder to come up with good, novel areas on a consistent basis.  Oh well! You don’t need perfection, you just need good fun.

Positioning as a choice

Boardgames and war games rely on positioning as a key point of strategy in play.  Tabletop roleplaying games… well, sometimes.  The problem is that many include maps or grids but ultimately don’t do a lot with positioning.   If the ideal form of play is to simply run up and hit each other without much movement during the actual battle, it’s functionally no different than a JRPG console game where the teams line up and hit each other until one side drops.

Tabletop games have attempted to add some of it with flanking rules or spell area effects, but it often only results in minor back and forth shifts during play and not a lot of heavy movement.  Because so few games give good support in the core mechanics, it falls upon the GM to set up areas where movement is encouraged.

The Crashpoint

What’s the goal in a combat game?  To beat the enemy.  So what’s the best place to be, tactically?  The place where you can dish out damage the quickest and receive the least damage.

In an empty room or area, with no features and no tactical factors whatsoever, the “best place to be” is the place where you can do damage to the enemy the quickest – which often ends up being the midway point where the two groups meet – the Crashpoint.

The Crashpoint is like the center square in Tic-Tac-Toe – it’s where all the interesting stuff of play happens, and, if you know where it is, you can build areas and rooms that are tactically interesting by putting stuff there to make it hard to get there, or to make other places more tactically valuable to be – and thereby, move or split the Crashpoint.

Remember, fun tactics sits in fun choices.  If there’s only one place that’s the tactically best place to be, what choice is there?  You want to make a few tactically interesting options, so players have to start thinking about what’s going to be best.

Movement Tax

So consider this – anytime characters or monsters might want to move somewhere else than a direct line to do damage, they’re paying a “movement tax”  (actually, it’s a time tax, as they’re losing actions doing something other than direct damage… but since we’re talking about moving a map and how to set up areas to affect this, we’ll stick with Movement Tax).

If you want folks to go somewhere other than the Crash Point, you have to either put enough hazards/dangers in the way, and/or advantageous positions in other locations to make the Movement Tax worth paying.   In other words, this sets up choice – players can try to go straight for it, or try to avoid danger, or try to get something that should be worth more than doing straight damage.

Area Encounter Design

Blockers and Funnels

Blockers and funnels are obstacles, walls, debris, rocks, trees, crates, whatever you want that basically stop movement and funnel movement into particular areas.  This changes where combats happen and change where the Crashpoints are.  These also tend to set up some fun tactics about ranged attacks and chokepoints for melee fighting.

It’s also worth noting what’s a Blocker or Funnel for one type of creature or character may not be for another – a half ruined wall might be a big obstacle for a normal character, but the giant spider just climbs up the side of it like nothing.    This is worth considering if you want to load the map to favor one group or another.

Also consider that blockers and funnels may be destructible depending on what’s going on.  A monster might knock them out of the way, an earthquake spell knocks down the trees, the bridges everyone is fighting on start collapsing.. etc.  When you put Blockers and Funnels in the way of the Crashpoints, you move where they go, just like how water flows around things.

Alternating Wide and Tight Areas

Generally, you’re not going to go wrong by playing around with alternating more open areas with only one or two hazards or obstacles, and tight areas.  Usually my rule of defining “wide” vs. “tight” is whether the party can all stand side-by-side and fight without having to do tricky maneuvering around each other (for grid based games, don’t forget this includes diagonal positioning).  Tight areas should often include alternate paths to flank each other.  You can take a big area and set up enough Blockers, Funnels, and Hazards until it’s effectively a tight area.

The big effect this has on play is a matter of things like how well groups can focus fire on a single target, how well players can quickly distribute healing, retreat at short notice, surround an enemy or use area effect spells.  It also strongly impacts the advantages of having good movement abilities, whether raw speed or skills to jump over small gaps, climb over things, fly, etc.

Hazards

Hazards are a negative incentive- everyone generally avoids them, if they have a choice.  That said, putting Hazards next to Crashpoints or near places with advantages will cause players to have to start weighing their odds.  Be careful if the Hazard can move around, because it might completely change the set up of the encounter area.

Single Use Stunts / “Power ups”

Things that can be used to an advantage on a short term are positive incentives.  This could be a pile of logs to knock over on enemies below, a catapult to be shot, a lever to close a gate, etc.  If you can only reasonably use it once in a combat, it’s a “single use” advantage, and so, it needs to have a good amount of effect to be worth the Movement Tax.

Alternatively, you can make it a thing which can be reused at the cost of time – a catapult might be reloaded to be used again and again, but then the cost turns into time spent.  Again, consider what the benefit is compared to the amount of time the players could have been just using direct damage to the enemies.

Sandbox Encounter Considerations

Unlike an FPS map or a videogame encounter zone, combats can flow across areas, or move into spaces you didn’t expect.   This means your initial guesses on crashpoints or hazards might be completely off – the party isn’t going to care about the fiery pit in the middle of the room if they’re stuck in the hall when they’re getting attacked.   Again, this is the reason you don’t want a lot of empty rooms and halls without anything tactically interesting in them – the more the dungeon as a whole has interesting stuff in it, the more likely you are to have that intersect with your encounters for entertaining results.

Work vs. Payoff?

“Wow, this all seems like a LOT of work, to consider all these game design factors in making a dungeon!”

*Tired voice* “….yes, yes it is.”

I generally don’t do a lot of dungeon crawls for this reason – I set up short dungeons, maybe 12 areas/rooms or less, with more emphasis on Logistics and Tactical play, and not so much on Exploration.

Unless you plan on publishing a dungeon or having several groups run through it, you’re probably not going to get enough payoff for thinking this hard about it.  Of course, if you’re the kind of person who actually cares enough to want better dungeon design for your games, and you read this massive amount of words and thoughts I’ve thrown at it, you probably WILL use some of this to whatever level fits your needs.

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GM-less RPGs Comparison Podcast

July 22, 2014

My friends Jono and Sushu podcast about GM-less RPGs and how they work differently.

This was after a Universalis game we played months ago, comparing it to other games like Primetime Adventures (which does have a GM) compared to Capes.

One thing I really love about their podcasts is they manage to make it very accessible.

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Dungeons Part Six: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

July 22, 2014

Fun Fights

What’s not fun vs. What is

First, I will tell you what is not fun: repetition and no choices.  Doing the same thing over and over, without any meaningful way to affect anything.   This is why the card game “War” is not fun once you’re not a child anymore- you just flip cards and hope for the best – there’s no choices to make, no strategy, just luck.  Long, drawn out, luck.

In your encounters, if the best option for the players is to do the same thing over and over?  That’s not fun.  If the monsters and encounters are always in the same kind of environment, doing the same things?  That’s not fun.

Fun encounters are unique and memorable AND/OR tactically challenging with interesting choices to make.

The Tactical Dial and RPGs

Now, here’s an important thing to consider – most roleplaying games do not do high challenge tactical play very well.  Consider – most games which produce a high challenge make it easy to set up and play – you can usually be up and playing a game within a few minutes, maybe 10-15 minutes for the most complicated boardgames, if you know the rules.  Now consider how long it takes to make a character, in most games.

The sort of repeatable experiences that allow you to gain skills to play at high level tactics in other games, aren’t so easily put to play in RPGs.  Videogame RPGs either re-spawn characters, go to previous saves, or even in the most hardcore roguelike games – start you at the beginning with barely 3-4 choices to make a new character.

So with this in mind, be aware most roleplayers, even those interested in tactical play, aren’t usually interested in extreme challenges.  You often will do better with a lower challenge that has unique elements that make it seem worse than what it is.  Personally, I prefer to start with an under-powered set of challenges and turn it up a bit after I know the playgroup and how well they deal with challenges, otherwise you can simply overwhelm folks and they don’t really learn anything or get much from it.

Sandbox vs. Set Piece

So remember how I posted about Threat Structure?  This is an important consideration for how you design dungeons with your combats  in mind.

Set Piece Encounters

If the combats are going to be isolated locations, with monsters in one area not chasing players around the whole dungeon and helping out other monsters, you can build much simpler areas and you can control the combat encounter balance much better.  On the other hand, you have to come up with decent reasons why the monsters don’t chase the players if they retreat, and what happens if player characters run off the map area you prepared for a given encounter.   It often feels more “videogame-y” to do encounters this way, so you should be mindful to think of rationales to cover it up a bit, if you can.

Sandbox Encounters

If the combats can spill out and go anywhere, then you have a much different situation.  Monsters might snowball into a larger group than the party expects.  Players might lure monsters into an area more favorable to killing them.  Monsters might fight other monsters.  Etc.

This ends up mirroring some of the issues MMORPGs have seen in the last few years where players might lead a bunch of monsters, or an uber monster into an area that you don’t expect it to go.   Some of this naturally depends on running the monsters not as mindless AI bots, but even then there’s ways this can happen.  It also means players might inadvertently lead monsters to areas more favorable to the monsters, as well.  It’s more “realistic”, or at least, allows more options than videogames do, but it’s also more messy and you have to be willing to improvise and accept that things will be more swingy than what you’ve planned.

Monsters + Environment

So what makes a memorable encounter?  Something unique that happens.  Goblins are gobins.  Goblins attacking you by swooping down on hang gliders is another.  Goblins riding dinosaurs is yet another.  Goblins jumping down from trees onto the rickety raft you’re navigating with supplies down the river is yet another situation as well.  As you can see, the context makes a simple monster, into something much more interesting.

I once had a gelatinous cube chasing players in a library.  It’s slow, big and stupid.  Easy to outrun. Except when it started using it’s three tons of mass to knock down shelves upon shelves of books, trapping characters so it could devour them, slowly.  It wasn’t like it was thinking about this – it just took a straight line path towards food…

Towards the Monsters’ Advantage

It’s easy to think of many ways in which the environment might be in the monsters’ favor – defensible positions, darkness, water for swimming creatures, etc.

For any monster that has a form of movement the player characters do not – burrowing, climbing, wall walking, swimming, hovering, teleporting, etc., there’s an environment well suited for them.  Weird amorphous creatures, small swarms that can flood through tiny cracks, gaseous creatures and ethereal types are especially dangerous in this way.  Also don’t forget great size or strength is it’s own form of movement advantage – a monster that can casually push down trees like brushing through grass is strong enough that many obstacles… simply aren’t obstacles to it.

Consider whether the advantage is short term (an ambush, having the high ground, etc.) that can be easily lost, or if the advantage is lasting, like a swimming creature dragging you underwater, where the advantage is likely to impact every single round of combat.

Towards the Players’ Advantage

Environment favoring the players is something you have to think about a little differently than that favoring the monsters.

First, it works best if it provides choices and things to do.  Putting a monster in an area where it is inherently disadvantaged isn’t that much fun.  Putting the monster in an area where the characters can do something fun like use the environment, lead it to a place where it can’t fight back as well… that’s fun.  These are “Stunt Zones” – areas where stunts are likely.

But for this to work, you have to have players who are willing to think outside the box and try to do these things – some players are used to any ideas they have that aren’t listed on the character sheet being shut down, they will not try them ever.  It helps with new groups or players to point out some options, usually based on what kind of character you’re dealing with.  A warrior would know that luring the monster into the tunnel would prevent it from flying around and make it easier to hit.  The rogue character might immediately see the cart full of salt and know it could get thrown into the creature’s eyes for a blinding effect.  Etc.

Second, it makes epic battles more reasonable.  You can fight a terrible monster if the situation limits it’s abilities and brings it down to a more manageable fight.  This might be injuries or simply better conditions.  If you fight a dragon in a (relatively small for it’s size) tunnel, it can’t fly, it can’t turn around as well, and you have a better chance to win.  But you still get the excitement of fighting a dragon.

Expected vs. Foreign Environments

Fighting Ice elementals in a tundra, fighting fire elementals in a volcano… pretty classic fantasy logic, right?  There’s an elemental version of most things, and they’re keyed to a particular environment.  That’s easy enough to fit a monster to an environment – it’s expected.

But what happens when you’re fighting a fire elemental on a frozen lake and it’s melting the ice you need to stand on?   What happens when you have a fire elemental in a library?  How about an ice elemental in the middle of a monsoon?  Or when your party is waist deep in water?   Think of putting those monsters in foreign environments and consider the effects!  You can make a lot of things a lot more memorable this way.

Collateral Damage

So remember how I suggested putting “Breakables” as a section in the notes of any dungeon room?  Collateral damage is fun.  Not just for the players, but also when the monsters do it, too.  Did the party manage to avoid getting hit by the giant?  Great.  But did it take out half the support pillars to the room, starting a cave in?  Uh oh.

Every time someone misses, ask yourself what got hit instead?

I don’t recommend tracking every little thing by points, as much as using common sense applied to the laws of your game world and a little forethought for your encounters.    If you absolutely need to make it a mechanical thing, consider strength rolls and similar set ups.

Hazards

The easiest way to spice up an encounter is to put a hazard in the area.  A key point for designing good hazards is that they have to have some clear indication that they are dangerous.   That is, an open pit is  clearly a hazard.  A rickety bridge “that looks pretty shaky and questionable” is also a hazard.  A pit of spikes with a magical illusion over it that looks perfectly safe isn’t a “fair hazard” as much as a “gotcha” style trap.

A hazard doesn’t have to favor one side or the other, although it can depending on the abilities of everyone involved (a pit doesn’t really faze flying creatures, for example).

Hazards can be something that causes damage, slows or stops movement, wrecks gear and supplies, and or sets up other long term problems.   An important consideration is if you foresee a hazard taking someone out of the combat – because even if it’s incapacitation, or being stuck spending the next 7 rounds trying to climb out of a hole, it’s effectively “out of the combat” just the same, and that’s a dangerous thing for your encounter planning – it can swing a combat one way or another very quickly.

Hazards should be placed either central to areas where players are likely to cross, or, at least, near things the players would likely want.  If you have a hazard in the corner where no one wants to go anyway, they’ll just avoid it and it becomes set decorations in the background and not actually anything interesting.

Chaotic Elements

A pit is a pit, and everyone knows not to go fall in the pit, right?  But a raging bull that is randomly moving about and goring or stomping people in the middle of the battle… that’s not so easy to avoid.

Some hazards are more fun if they’re chaotic – they can move around, grow/shrink, have changing effects.   That said, you have to be careful about these kinds of hazards.  Because they’re randomized, they might go really bad one way or another, and favor one side or another just by luck of the draw.Chaotic Hazards can have lesser effects, their randomness usually makes them memorable.  Be careful not to make them too mechanically complicated since you have to keep track of them.

Next: Flow and Encounter Area Design

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Navigating Character Sheets & Simplification

July 21, 2014

So, one thing that hit me worth going over again is the issue of usability and character sheets.  One of the big hurdles to non-gamers to roleplaying games is navigating character sheets.   Most games have a process like this – the player states they want to do something, the GM says, “Do an X check/roll/test” and then you have to look up something on the character sheet, do something with dice or cards, then make a calculation of some kind.

Teaching that process is a basic skill for whatever game you’re doing, but it also means that new folks are basically playing “Where’s Waldo?” trying to find the correct information on character sheets that may look a lot like arcane tax forms.  This becomes especially bad if terms are repeated several times on the sheet.  “Bonus” or “Modifier” probably makes up something like 30-40 boxes on a typical D20 game, which doesn’t help a new person at all.

Simplified Character Sheets

Usually, I’m teaching new people to play less mechanically heavy rpgs to start, but if I have to teach something with more heft, I try to get the cleanest, most simple and least detailed character sheet out there, if someone has it.  Otherwise, I make one in a word document, trying to keep it to the minimal amount of info necessary to run the game.

The less stuff on the sheet, the easier it is for a new player to find it.  If you have 7 skills you use all the time, but the normal character sheet lists 30 of them, how much easier is it to find what you need if all we list is the skills you have, instead of having you look through lines upon lines of skills you don’t?

Also accept that maybe simplification causes you to skip or do some things wrong the first couple of games.  “Oh, wait, this one modifier shouldn’t normally be added in this case!” “We’ll try to remember next time”.   That’s fine, you want the players to grasp the basics and then refine, not drop them into the deep end without support.

Sections: Related Info goes together

Just like I said with tracking dungeon data?  Break out information into sections.  Put the combat stuff together, the social stuff together, the magic stuff together, etc.  This may include repeating info from other sections or simply moving it altogether if it only really gets used in one way.

You do not want to force players to have to jump around a lot looking for multiple pieces of information – put it all in the same area and make it easy to find.  If there’s also charts or rules that do well to include on the sheet, put these in this same places as well.

You can also use visual breaks like large fonts, boxes, symbols or colors to help people differentiate the sections from each other.  Of course, these things have to be large and readable enough to stick – there’s lots of folks who used really small or detailed symbols and all it ends up doing is cluttering up the sheet.

Detail vs. Shorthand

So, the trick to a character sheet is to give you information you need to play, right?  Expert players don’t need as much information – they’ve memorized a lot of it.  They can write “Magic Missle” on their character sheet and they know what it does and how it works.  Another player needs the range, the cost, the effects, to reference it.

So everything you have on the character sheet is basically a balance between detailed descriptions and shorthand.   Now, this isn’t to say the player has to internalize everything – other players at the table can help, or the GM can as well.  For example, using my shortened skill list suggestion, if a player has to use a skill that’s not listed, someone at the table can go, “Oh, what’s your Intelligence attribute? Ok, roll a die and add that” pretty easy.

On the other hand, if there are powers or abilities which require choices in thinking about whether to use them, or how to use them, you want at least a shorthand layman’s description of what it does so that a new player can even make that initial guess to try to use it.   For many games that have powers or magic like this, it often eats up enough space on the character sheet that you need to use the back or give it a whole sheet onto itself.

Leaving Space

Have space on your character sheet for random notes, even if it’s on the back or wide margins.   You could make a box or section for every single thing (“Weight, height, hair color, eye color”) or you can leave it off and have a blank space for players to take the notes they want.   The thing is, players WILL take notes for things they find important, and it’s easier for them to do that than to fill every last millimeter with boxes or sections and expect the players to hunt it out every time.

Noob Strategy Advice

If the game has a lot of crunchy strategy to it, it’s also helpful to have a sentence or two describing what this character is good at, and which of their abilities might be useful in certain ways.  “Loma is a powerful warrior, best used to running up to the front lines and taking on the enemies head-on.  Use your Warrior’s Healing to keep up your life points!”   This helps new folks figure out a bit about the strategy and if they want to play this character to begin with.

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Dungeons Part Five: Information Management

July 20, 2014

You don’t just design the dungeon for the players to play it, you also have to design it so you can RUN it in play.   This post is just about the practical tricks to managing your information.

What to Track?

Do Not Bury Your Information

One of the worst ways to organize your dungeon info is to have several blocks of text with important stuff buried in it.  You want information broken out, into separate sections so it is easy to navigate.  You can find adventure modules where a room has nearly a half page of description but buries stuff like stats and mechanical bits right in with the (longwinded) room description.

Do Not Scatter Your Information

The other terrible thing for handling information is to bury a chunk of information into it’s own section, elsewhere.  For example, if you have a magical effect that works on several rooms, you could put a single section describing this effect near the beginning or the end, but it’s probably better to have a shorthand of that description included WITH each of those rooms.  It’s just easier to not have to flip back and forth in your notes, or skip around.  Your notes are supposed to make it easy to run a game, so put everything you need, every place you need it.

Exploration, Logistics, Tactics

Depending on what your group wants, determines what you should bother recording.

Groups who have no interest in exploration don’t actually need a map, even.  You can just have a list of relevant locations and an approximation of how long it takes to get there.  Groups who care about logistics probably want to know things like sources of water, where to find tools and supplies, or things that can be used as such.  Groups who want tactics  might not care about an overall dungeon map, but want good maps for the fight areas…  So keep this in mind, as I describe stuff to track, you pick and choose what makes sense based on your groups’ needs, rather than do everything just to do it.

Interaction

What are the odds of events in one room affecting another? Are monsters going to react to hearing sounds of fighting?  Or are they undead or constructs bound to an area?  Or is it too far too hear?   If monsters run from one area to another, will other monsters react in turn?  If a guard doesn’t show up at another station in a certain amount of time, when do they send out patrols to check on them or barricade themselves in assuming an attack is imminent?

If your rooms and it’s inhabitants might have chain reactions upon each other, you may want to track it (see Sounds, below).

Persistence

If you’re playing a one shot or short run through a dungeon, you probably don’t need to worry too much about notes and obsessing on what effects the players have upon the area.  If the dungeon is a mega dungeon where the players will be playing for many game sessions, or a years-long campaign, you may want to track how things get changed and what the consequences are, in detail.

If your game is going to be long lasting, you may want to track Persistence (see Breakables and Notes, below).

Room Info

I use the word “room” but this can be any kind of area in your dungeon – a hall, stairs, a giant cave with an underground lake, etc.  A “room” is basically an area you need to have some kind of information to deal with about it.

Title

Give each room a title.  “The Creepy Statue Room”, “The Sliding Hall Trap”, etc. work better than just “Room 42″.   To be sure, you can still use numbers as well, but the title will help you remember things so you don’t have to re-read your notes as often.

Features

Features is the most important thing!  What are the exits? What hazards, threats, challenges or rewards does this room hold, if any?  If it doesn’t hold anything, you should ask if it needs to be here, and even if you do need the room, do not spend too much time giving it description.  You can look at this as being the “reason” the room exists at all from a game design standpoint, and determines if the room has engagement density.  This is a good place to write down critical mechanical bits, preferably with a bullet point breakout for ease of reference.

This is how I measure how “big” a dungeon is, not how many rooms, but how many rooms have something interesting to engage with.

Description

Description is what the PCs see upon first sight.  It can either be a few sentences you can read out loud, or it can be short notes that mean something to you (“Storage room, looks like creepy shop from Gremlins movie”) that allow you describe or improvise the rest.  Notice that this is not going to include things that are hidden, require investigation/examination, stats, etc.

Unless I’m using a mapless dungeon (just a list of important areas), I don’t bother writing the basic room dimensions – that’s what the map is there for.  If there’s some kind of weird thing that wouldn’t display well on the map (an incline, the ceiling sloping in a weird way, etc)., then I would include it here, although if it’s enough to impact gameplay in an obvious way, then it goes to Features instead.

Secrets

Traps, hidden doors, hidden treasure, etc.  These are the things which aren’t obvious without close and careful inspection.  If someone starts searching or using funky detection magic, you have it in the Secrets section to make it quick and easy to find.  It’s also worth noting if some special action has to be taken to find these things or what the difficulty numbers are if it involves some kind of skill roll.

Information

Does the room have objects, decorations, markings or evidence of anything that tells something about the setting or the world around you?  Does the room communicate information?    This can be anything from giant claw marks that serve as forewarning there’s a large monster about, to tapestries that show you this was once the stronghold of the Elven King of the East.   Information is broken out separately because it nearly always requires a little bit of time to inspect and think about it, which may not be relevant if players are just running through.

If you already know your players and what their characters can do, you can specialize information to be specifically relevant to certain characters.  Give different characters extra information based on what they would know.

Sounds

How well does sound carry between rooms?  Is there any nearby rooms where sound carries well?  Useful to check if other creatures can hear you, or if you can hear things going down with other creatures.  This is worth noting if there usually are creatures in these other areas, and especially important in Fortress, Mastermind, and Faction style Threat Structure dungeons.

“Conversations can be heard in the hall (2), shouting reaches the Garden (5) and the Stair Entry (23).”

Breakables

A list of things that break easy – fragile objects, furniture, etc.  You don’t need a detailed laundry list, shorthand is fine (“alchemy lab on the table, bookshelves of ancient books”).  This is important to consider when players are tossing fireballs and lightning around the room or a minotaur is running around swinging wildly.  Just cross off the things as they get ruined…  “Table, Paintings, Urn of Hot Coals, Chairs, Shelves of Books”

Also note that a lot of breakables are also “takeables” – things players might have their characters pick up, or move to somewhere else… Also useful to cross off.

Note Space

If you plan on having this be a longer dungeon run where enough time will pass for significant adaptation within the dungeon, give yourself space to write notes on each room.  This becomes useful when you need to remember that one area is full of rotting carcasses stinking up the area and drawing scavenger monsters or another place has been barricaded, etc.

SAMPLE ROOM:

The Flooded Chamber

Features

  • The room is flooded up to 3 feet.  It counts as rough terrain.  Shorter characters may need to swim.
  • The water is murky, anything in the water has Concealment to things above/out of the water.
  • Fighting things in the water has Disadvantage unless the weapons are daggers, short swords, or spears.
  • There’s a crocodile that will ambush the party, getting the first round by surprise.

Description

This part of the abandoned mine is flooded with 3 feet of water, and you can see water trickling down the walls.  The east and west tunnels are also partially flooded, but you can see the very top of a downward sloping Northern tunnel which is completely flooded.   A strong breeze comes from the northern doorway.  The water is murky and fetid, and a rusted wheelbarrow is floating nearby.

Information

Mining/Dwarf characters only: This flooding must be relatively recent, only within the last couple of years as the wood supports haven’t rotted out yet.  Since you can see water trickling down from above, you wonder if a small pond has formed above or a stream has been diverted somehow…

Sounds: N/A (Nothing is nearby to react to sounds that happen here.)

Secrets: N/A (There’s nothing really hidden here, it’s a flooded tunnel)

Breakables: N/A (there’s the rusty wheelbarrow… but yeah, nothing really)

NOTES: Normally I’d leave out anything with “N/A”, but I’m including it here for you to see the sort of layout for a room I might play with.  This is mostly a mild terrain hazard with an ambush type creature, not much else.  As you can see, the Features lists a few critical things to pay attention to.

If I had a lot flooded areas, I would consider either putting the relevant bits at the beginning of each room description under Features OR I’d have it printed on each page, so I don’t have to flip around looking for anything..  Alternatively, you could use a single index card for every flooded area and just keep it available.

Information Wrangling

Maps

There’s a ton of map options these days – drawing it out on graph paper, using a dry-erase mat, pre-printed dungeon tiles/maps, and dungeon mapping software.  Regardless of what you’re using, I suggest trying to put notes directly on your maps, if you can.  The less you have to flip between your map and your descriptions of areas and rooms, the better it is for you.

The trick, of course, is finding which bits are most relevant and can fit within your chosen medium.

Divvy up by Sections

While you could theoretically simply list 100 rooms in order, it’s easier to navigate these things if you actually break them up into sections.  Those different sections might be stored as parts of a binder with dividers between them, or it might be different files in your computer.   This makes it easier to navigate overall rather than having to shuffle through the whole dungeon.  This also works well if you’re using some of the design ideas from “Metroidvania” style videogames – where you already end up dealing with larger sections connected by a few possible paths.

Using Index Cards

If you don’t have to have too much info to list, an index card system can work great.  I like to write the room number in the top right corner, with a big, black marker.  Put all your index cards in a holder, or box, in order.  Then, as you go through the dungeon, you can check your map, pull out the card the players are exploring plus the connected ones as well.  If you have monsters, give them their own cards and paperclip them to the room they’re in – and if they move rooms, you just move the clip accordingly.

The drawback is that you don’t have a ton of space to record information and if you’re not organized, you can turn it into a complete mess.  Also, unless you go out of your way with cardstock and printing and cutting, you’ll be putting these together by hand, which might be a ton of extra work.

Using Software

There’s a ton of software out there these days, though I have to admit I can’t give a lot of info for you there – I’m mostly into hand drawing maps and scrawling out the notes by hand.  I can imagine a lot of value being in a map tool or presentation software where you simply hyperlink the image of the map and the individual rooms to take you straight to a file or description of that room.

My basic experience with gaming and software is that screen space is a premium and you always underestimate how long it will take between clicking, opening up files, scrolling to the right location in the file, and then dragging windows around to have everything you need visible at the same time.  I usually will use a combination of a file open on a screen and written/printed notes as you can spread out the notes in front of you for quick reference.

The other concern is if you need to be online to access your notes and what happens if you lose connectivity, and also if you have players sending you data, if you have to reformat it or re-enter it to work with whatever other system you have going on.  These all seem like mild hurdles, but these just add up to more work you have to do that isn’t directly focused on playing.

Next: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

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