Dungeons Part Three: Running a Dungeon

July 18, 2014

So, now we’ve covered some basic theory about the design, and laid out the fact different groups want very different kinds of challenge from a dungeon delving game… let’s go into more specific applications to play.  (if this looks like a lot… well, it is. Like I said, dungeon design is level design is game design.  Doing it well requires a lot of forethought and there is a reason the videogame industry PAYS people, full time to do this kind of stuff…)

On the Grid, To the Table

Depth vs. Novelty

Aside from constructing your dungeons to meet your players’ particulars about Exploration/Logistics/Tactics, you also need to think realistically about whether your group wants a longer, megadungeon or a short dungeon they can clear quickly, and, how long that should go.  People really like having benchmarks to go by and a sense of accomplishment.

One of the problems is that a lot of old school dungeon building advice assumes weekly games, long sessions, over years of play… and ends up teaching people to “put the cool stuff” deeper in the dungeon.  (It’s also why I think the modules aimed at higher level play were generally pretty popular – the cool stuff kicks in at the beginning much more often).

Prep only what you need so you don’t end up wasting a ton of time on something that’s not going to show up in play.

Engagement Density

How fast will the players encounter challenges, puzzles, or rewards in the dungeon?  This isn’t so much how far apart are they spaced physically, as much as it’s a question of action time at the game table – “Oh, they should get through this room and into the next with 10 minutes of play.  That fight should take 30 minutes.”

This is a highly variable thing, but you can see that density is much higher if the dungeon is laid out simply, if the challenges/puzzles/rewards are tightly clustered, if there’s not a lot of obstacles from point A to point B, if there’s not a lot of traps or secret doors or other obstacles slowing movement or forcing the players to be extra cautious.

One of the old school pieces of advice is “Most rooms should be empty” which, may be more realistic, but it’s not particularly fun to have most of the rooms empty – it means a lot of wandering around to find the fun, and also, if the game features traps, ambushes, or cool rewards hidden away, a lot of time spent searching and cautiously entering every room.  Empty rooms are generally not fun.  It also means you have to either spend more time coming up with creative descriptions of non-interesting areas, OR give it a barebones boring description as well…And, you’re competing with every other kind of game your players could be playing right now – so you want pretty high engagement density.  (Check out Spacing The Threats below for a bit on the strategic issues with this, too.)

Obvious Exits and Highlighted Secrets

When a videogame is doing it’s job, you have a good idea of where to go, or what to do next.   When a videogame is doing poor design, you’re lost, you’re stuck, your not even sure what you should be trying to do.  Videogames have quickly recognized that players need adequate information to make meaningful choices, and poorly communicating that makes it feel like you’re being cheated rather than challenged.

This is “obvious exits” – big colorful paths pointing the way, a giant gate, a glowing door, or more subtle, lights right at the entrance, etc.  In roleplaying, be sure to point out the things that are obvious and important to the characters – make “obvious exits”, whether that’s literal exits or things worth interacting with.

The other trick videogames do is for many games, there’s often tiny clues or giveaways that something is a secret area worth poking at.  A statue out of place among similar statues, a place where all the flowers are colored differently for no apparent reason, etc.

Why prep a bunch of secret things if no one ever finds it?  Unlike a videogame, you’re not going to have thousands of players running through your dungeon, nor will people be able to play alone and poke at the dungeon, so you actually want to give better odds of finding stuff for your group just to make it worthwhile.  These highlights do not have to tell the group HOW to get into/at the secret, just that it’s worth investigating.

Dungeon Pitfalls: Red Herrings

Lots of dungeons and dungeon advice seems to have Red Herrings – things that look important, but turn out to have no secret at all.   This is a terrible thing to do.  You end up wasting your players’ time, and it teaches them NOT to look or investigate on things that seem weird, but to pass them up for things they KNOW are worth their time.    It’s like the Empty Room of features.

From the Grid to the Players


While it’s easy to see the dungeon as mazes + monsters, it’s also fun to consider how the dungeon can be a piece of world building for your game.  As the players wander through an area, give them descriptions based on their characters’ understanding of what they’re seeing.  Fill your dungeons with history – the Dwarf recognizes the carvings of a lost Dwarven Kingdom, a human sees old shields with insignias from an army that was defeated in her mother’s lifetime, etc.  Give more details to players whose characters have history or knowledge skills as would be appropriate.

If you can, make these relevant to actual conflicts/characters they meet now, not just random filler.  Maybe they find out the friendly wizard in town, his family used to live in this keep before it fell into ruins.  Maybe the Cult of the Red Savior is actually a terrible misunderstanding of an Elvish mural from a famous play…

Groups that love lore and history will eat this up.  This pushes on some players’ love of Exploration, but it bores people who don’t really go for setting and world building stuff.

Dungeon Politics

Not all of the monsters are working together.  They might even be in the same army/cult/whatever but have internal rivalries.  Where there are intelligent creatures in the dungeon, you can assume many of them either have alliances, rivalries, or out and out hatred for each other, and when the PCs enter the mix, all these groups will respond to what happens.   Smart players can make allies or get monsters to take each other out.    There might be creatures who need to be rescued or protected – in which case you have a heroic situation int he making.  You can set up all the usual issues of politics, needs, and pressure among the monsters and just make sure it gets communicated to the players as you play.

Groups that love social roleplaying and deception schemes love this kind of thing.   Players who don’t care and simply want to kick in doors won’t care.

Leaving a Mark

Dungeon delving is disruptive… things get damaged, destroyed, entire monster groups get driven out or wiped out.    If this dungeon is going to be a focus of play for many sessions, take notes of this.  Note how the players change the setting and how the creatures react.  Be sure to remind the players as they return through areas, all the little (or not so little) marks they’ve left:

“You still see the arrow shaft near the top of the door where you fought the Ghost Knight.”

“The stench of the rotting giant lizard is nearly completely gone, scavengers have picked it over pretty well.”

“It’s easy to find the secret door again, you just look for the charred blast marks on the stone from the fireball fight a few weeks ago…”

While it’s easy to just have superficial things, also make and expect objects for the players to break or use to change the possible ways to MOVE in the dungeon itself.  Maybe the players used magic to form a tunnel between two rooms that didn’t exist before, or they toppled a giant statue over a chasm to serve as a bridge.

These little things are just FUN, and it gives the players something they don’t get from videogames – a chance to realize the dungeon isn’t an unchanging, automated area to run through.

Adapting Threats

This is a dial – on one end, the creatures in the dungeon do not change or adapt in response to the players.  This is pretty much like a videogame at this end.  On the other end, the dungeon dwellers set up traps, move, cave in areas or build barricades, set up complex ambushes, etc.    Now, the dial doesn’t just affect how dangerous the dungeon is, but it also affects the engagement density…

See, one of the benefits to a longer dungeon delve is familiarity with areas you’ve already gone through and relative safety to run in or out of those areas.  If the areas are repopulating with new creatures, or the other dungeon dwellers are already moving in and changing things, it means previous “cleared” areas are not actually cleared at all.  (I’ll go into some options of what this can look like in the next post.)

It’s realistic and dynamic, and that part is fun, but it also means the players might feel like they’re getting nowhere in beating the dungeon.   The time it takes to get through areas you’ve run through before stops being fun and becomes a chore if the threats are too dense or it happens all the time.

Talk to your group!  Some folks really like the idea of a living world and having to adapt to meet it, other folks feel like it makes play feel like an unrewarding struggle.


Logic Puzzles vs. Context Puzzles

Puzzles are hard to do in tabletop play for two reasons – puzzle games are normally a solitary activity.  You can take all the time you want to mull over it, put down the videogame or walk away from the puzzle book and think about it while you go about your day and come back and then solve a puzzle.   When you’ve got a group of people at the table, everyone’s time is on the line and you can’t quite do this the same way.   This is the reason most puzzles in tabletop games are side options – they open an extra area, or give you some extra bonus, but they’re not the core of play.

You end up with two types of puzzles – logic vs. context puzzles.  A logic puzzle focuses on elimination or procedure to create the puzzle – things like the fox, the hen, and the corn across the river kind of things.  You know what your end goal is, you’re just not sure what order to do things in.  Or process of elimination type puzzles, which again, you know there’s one correct answer, you just have to figure out all the ones that aren’t it.

The one problem with logic puzzles is that your group is either skilled with them or not.  If they are, they solve these in short order and the puzzle becomes a minor chore rather than a fun thing.  If they aren’t it requires more work, and then comes the question of how much work is still fun vs. crossing over the line where they just decide to ignore it.

Context puzzles depend on context outside of the game – stuff like riddles, knowledge of greek mythology, etc.  These never work that well because not only does it depend on the players having that context, it also depends on the players thinking in a completely different context than the world the game is taking place in – so they might know the answer but not think of it from that alone.  I see people post about “the players didn’t get it! It was SO OBVIOUS.” and it’s like… no, actually, context puzzles are never really obvious.

Spacing The Threats

One point of Engagement Density is monsters.  How tightly packed are the monsters?  If there’s a fight in one room, why don’t they all run and mob the party right away?  This is the issue of spacing threats, and I believe, one of the reasons old school dungeon advice often recommends a lot of empty rooms – to give the party a better chance at survival.  That said, I still think the empty room technique is bad for game play.

If the monsters are not cooperative with each other, many will probably stick to certain safe areas, or only come out some time after things have quieted down, looking for carrion or things to scavenge.  Intelligent monsters might hear the commotion and decide the best thing to do is hide or fortify defenses until they know what’s going on.

If the monsters are cooperating with each other, that’s a much harder set up.  You can have them with lax and poorly considered communication situations (outposts far out in the dungeon outside of hearing distance), drunk or lazy or absent guards, or perhaps other problems preventing them from reaching each other (like other monsters between them).   Even well organized groups may have internal rivalries that get in the way – “Intruders are attacking the east tunnels?  Let them!  If Captain Grimfanger dies, I get command!”

If you are dealing with an organized group of monsters, who do work together well, your threat is multiplied GREATLY.  Assume any encounters will be with many of the nearby groups as well, and figure out how long it will take for them to figure out there is danger, grab their gear, and get down there.  In older D&D, where a round was 1 full minute, that was usually only a few rounds at best.  In newer D&D and many other games, a round of combat is 10 seconds, 6 seconds, or even less.  It’s quite probable that a combat will be over before the reinforcements arrive… buying the party a little bit of time to set up.

Strategic Space: Chokepoints and Flanking

When you design your dungeon, if your players like tactical challenges, you have to consider a variety of space in which to move and fight.  Realistically… dungeons were cramped, small and not particularly great spaces to have fights in.   Realistically, you don’t get wizards or dragons either, so screw realism.  Whereas overall dungeon design benefits from learning from Metroidvania videogame design, most Tactical play design benefits specifically from looking at the level design philosophies in First Person Shooters.

Usually, two types of set ups work well for interesting tactical play, along with gearing fight sets specifically to whatever stunting/tactical bits your particular game system supports:

Open space plus obstacles

A larger room where the whole party can fight.  This is usually going to be 30-40 feet on the smallest end, and up to 100 feet on the large end (with anything bigger than that being so large as to being a “open field” as far as tactics are concerned.

This space will do well with a few obstacles in it that can be used as cover, things to get around, climb on, etc.   This can be support pillars, furniture, book shelves, fallen debris and supports, pits and cave ins, etc.  All of the junk serves to provide places of defense, choke points and things to flank around.  Ranged attackers must deal with cover, melee attackers need to move around these things.  Clever use of powers and magic might alter the terrain some, and monsters may be able to ignore or easily deal with some of these barriers – a swarm of bugs just flows through/over it, a giant monster might casually topple anything while coming after you…

Tunnels and Flank positions

The small cramped areas are fine, as long as there is plenty of paths to flank each other.  It gives the party multiple avenues from which to protect from attacks, and avenues in which to launch them.  It rewards cautious players for covering the sides or rear areas, and it rewards the clever players for finding ways to attack the enemy from the side or behind.  Don’t forget this can include vertical movement – climbing up onto something and jumping down is also a flanking move.

You can adjust a lot of difficulty based on how well the monsters make use of this.  Things that can climb on walls, burrow through the dungeon, are amorphous or outright ethereal are absolutely terrifying threats in tunnel fights.  Think of the xenomorph from Alien and you’ve got a good idea of how bad it can get.  This becomes worse if the creatures not only are good at setting up flanking and ambushes, but regularly use retreating tactics to wear a party down.

Also remember that winning the fight can be separate from beating the opposition.

Fun Traps vs. Crap Traps

The “game” part of any roleplaying game depends on this: what choices do you have to make, and why is it fun to make those choices?

In many dungeon crawls, traps are shit.   The choices you make are not really choices.   It’s either “woops, roll a random die to see how badly you get maimed” or it’s a choice of “Spend a tedious amount of time, searching everything, for traps, all the time, or suffer.”  Those aren’t fun choices.  (Now mind you, if you were playing very old school D&D where everyone gets 10-20 PCs, what happens is a trap takes out 1-2 of your guys, THEN you have a choice about dealing with it with the remaining party.)

Fun traps are mostly puzzle traps.  They’re elaborate deals that take several turns to kick off, and you have to figure out how to get out or disable them while they’re in action.  This requires a lot of forethought into making sure the goals/options are obvious, but the procedures in doing so are more complicated.  For the usual “dangerous dungeon feel”, I prefer Hazards…


A rickety bridge, a partially collapsed wall, a room half flooded…  Hazards aren’t traps in the sense that someone set them up and hid them, they’re obvious things that are a pain in the rear to navigate, or things that are obviously dangerous.   The fun in hazards isn’t information scarcity – you see them, you see they’re trouble, but it’s in the Logistics of getting past them, and how you can use them as choke points or ways of hurting the monsters.

Hazards also require less justification.  You don’t need to explain things like “Why the hell would someone build this falling block trap HERE?  How the hell do they reset it?” etc.  Hazards are just the natural ruin of the place and it makes rather mundane skills like climbing, jumping, balancing, repairing/jury rigging things, using poles, hammers, spikes, ropes, etc. a fun thing to add into your game.

Next: How to build your dungeon starting with Threat Structure as your theme.

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Dungeons Part Two: What Players Want

July 17, 2014

One of the strengths of dungeon or map-based tabletop games is that it provides you with a nice set of prepared material to run play with.  The players go somewhere, and stuff happens based on that – you’re never having to consider issues like story pacing or scene cutting in the same way for games that are not location based.

As I said in Dungeons Part One, just because everyone wants a “dungeon crawl” still doesn’t mean they want the same kind of game.  The focus or balance of Exploration, Logistics and Tactics means you not only need to run a dungeon differently, but the kind of material you should prep vs. leave out is also very different.  And the answer is not just “prep as much as possible”, because you have to also make the information something you can navigate and use easily – plus the reality is why spend hours prepping material you’re not going to use?

Start from the goal: find out what your players want from this game, then figure out what information you’ll need in play based on that.

What the Players Want


  • Fights should be: balanced to meet the player characters / might be unmatched to the party
  • Fights should be: avoided / sought out
  • Fights are: rare / regular


  • Threats are well balanced to the party
  • Threats might be too powerful for the party to deal with right away
  • Some threats may be too dangerous, overall


  • Supplies are not really an issue, they’re background color to play
  • Supplies are a minor issue, as long as you bought enough food, that’s fine
  • Supplies are a significant issue – track food and torches, etc.


  • Player characters should try to explore everything / prioritize and pick what to explore
  • Secret doors, treasure, and traps will be: obvious / depending on dice rolls/ require explicit declarations of inspecting/investigating/searching
  • Players are expected to draw a detailed map / the GM will provide/show a map as play goes on / players do not need to worry about making specific navigation choices during play


  • Assumed competence – the GM assumes the characters are cautious, searching, etc.
  • General narration – if the players say their searching a room, the GM assumes it is a good and relatively through job
  • Specific narration – the players must describe exactly how they’re searching/interacting with any object for it to be true.


  • There will/will not be anything that can kill/incapacitate you instantly, by surprise
  • There will/will not be any poisoned/cursed/trapped objects
  • Traps/hazards will be absent / rare / common and/or absolutely lethal
  • No mercy: the walls, floor, ceiling, doors and treasure chests all might want to eat you.


  • Players should/should not try to negotiate with intelligent monsters, creatures, or NPCs.
  • The party of PCs should always work together/sometimes/might betray each other utterly.
  • Players are/are not expected to roleplay the lives of characters outside of adventuring

As a Group

Now, you could sit down with this full list and run your whole group through it, though I suspect unless they’re theory-heads and excited to do a long haul dungeon crawl, it’s not going to actually get them excited but rather kill some of their enthusiasm and not provide enough value for the amount of time it takes.  The important thing to do is to start by sussing out what excites people from the Exploration/Logistics/Tactics side and then try to narrow down with some of these ideas.

When it comes down to “Ok, everyone, let’s play a dungeon crawl” conversation as a commitment, then lay out some of these ideas as you plan on going with (with some room for modification) but primarily as a way of communicating the expectations of this to folks.

“Hey, talking to everyone, no one really likes traps in games, so in this game, they’re only going to show up as big puzzle ‘death traps’ to solve when they do.  I know Quinn likes tactical combat, and Jono likes the strategy of sneaking around, so we’ll have a bit of both – there’ll be fights but there’s also going to be fights to run from or avoid.” etc.

You may notice that some games or adventure modules are designed in certain ways or modules set up that hits specific combinations on that Exploration/Logistics/Tactics ratio, and these serve as ways to get players on the same page quickly and easily – “Tomb of Horrors” already preps everyone to be in a deathtrap dungeon mentality, while Torchbearer is a game about Logistics management.  You can also see people make manifestos or movements as ways to formalize these preferences – Fourthcore, E6, “Rulings not Rules” etc.

Wants -> Play Estimates -> Prep Needs

If you know what your players want in their game, you can start making good estimates on how much play will come from what kind of preparation.   A combat focused game might simply require 3 combat encounters to prep and then you’ve got a full session from that.  Another game might involve 2-4 traps spread across 8 rooms and some interesting descriptions and you know the players will spend t a lot of time searching, poking and prodding things.

Part of that will also be you figuring out how much of your prep work deals with mechanics (writing down monster stats, drawing maps for detailed positioning, etc.) and how much of the prep is more about creative spark and inspiration (memorable descriptions, personalities, etc.)

All of this means you can become very efficient with your prep – prepping just the right kind of material when you create a dungeon, knowing how much you need to prepare in advance vs. deal with later vs. improvise on the spot, and what kind of resources you can use as inspiration/places to steal ideas from.   This also means if your game falls apart or goes on hiatus, you lost 1 session of prep, and not a month of prep work languishing in a notebook to probably be forgotten when you next run the game.

You’re not just designing the dungeon for the players to play, you’re also designing the dungeon for you to run, and these are both important.

Next up: Running a Dungeon

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Dungeons Part One: Theory and Design

July 16, 2014

As folks gear up for the new D&D and the resurgence of roguelike games, the flood of questions about how to design dungeons has arisen again.  Luckily, in the last 10 years there’s been some great discussion about dungeon design , which comes straight out of a larger population having better language to talk about game design in general, and videogame levels as a common experience.

What does a dungeon do?

Dungeons where you draw out maps, and prepare challenges, aren’t just scenery – they’re effectively level design in the same sense a videogame level design matters.  Dungeons structure your gameplay in three ways:

Information Scarcity

“What’s behind the door?”  “What’s down the dark hallway?”   “What’s that weird sound?”

Dungeons often rely upon hidden information – where treasure is hidden, where the worst threats are, and ways to get around them.  So you can find in many games a fair amount of play revolves around trying to suss out these things and spell lists and valued magic items reflect this.  This also means part of the value of a dungeon for multiple sessions of play is that one of the “rewards” the players pick up is familiarity with the dungeon itself – knowledge of how it is laid out allows them to make better strategic choices and use their resources better.  This sort of “dungeon mastery” goes hand in hand with system mastery of how the rules work for strategy in play and expertise of the players.

Constraining Resources

“What don’t the heroes just call for help?”  “I just go to a store and buy the right kind of tool” etc.

The dungeon separates the characters from a lot of potential resources, including allies or supplies.  At the very minimum, some things that wouldn’t be problems normally become problems (“Well, we could get across if we had our rowboat.  But we don’t.”).  More in-depth, you can start exploring the strategies of using limited resources to get by and improvise solutions.  You can also see this is where things like magic items or spells exist to solve these particular problems.

Strategic Play

The two issues above, along with very limited ways in which you can travel, sets up strategic options.  Choke points, areas good for fallback positions, flanking, etc. come out of these limited movement options.   “Knowing the Terrain” was a key point of warfare since forever, and you can even see things like MOBA style videogames using map design to encourage strategy in this same way, as well.

Different kinds of fun

To put it roughly, these three elements give players fun in three different categories – Exploration, Logistics, and Tactics, though they don’t map exactly one to one.  For example, traps rely on information scarcity, but usually the part players have fun with traps is figuring out how to outwit them, bypass the trap, or use it to their advantage – Logistics.

These three aren’t entirely incompatible, but depending on the group of players, they may want very different kinds of ratios – and those desires for different ratios might BE incompatible.  Some people love exploring and drawing maps and making inferences (“Oh, wait, see how these two hallways line up?  I bet there’s a secret door here.”), while other people are bored out of their minds.  Some people love figuring out how to efficiently use their torches and supplies and not end up stranded – other folks look on in horror at, what is to them, tedium.  Others like a good old fashioned fight – and others rather play a heist game where you avoid as many fights as possible.

In other words, even if everyone wants a “dungeon crawl” and everyone wants a Gamist experience to “beat the dungeon” what they may want can be very, very different.  I’ll go into more on this in Part Two.

Layout and Flow

Well, I’m just going to link to a pretty great analysis of some iconic D&D dungeons as flowcharts to read.  You’ll notice that a key value the author talks about is giving players choices and multiple paths in a dungeon, along with circular loops at points.  This is actually something noted as a positive in some of the older MMO dungeon designs as well.  Currently, most of the good theory on game design about the kind of layout and flow that applies most to dungeoncrawls can be found in “Metroidvania” style games.

Branching Options

All the above links talk about the value of branching options of which way to go.  Initially, the players will only have what scarce information there is to decide which way to go – it might be sounds, the idea that going up or down is a better choice, a faint breeze and scent, etc.  It’s useful to provide information of SOME kind at branching directions, otherwise for the players it’s completely a meaningless choice the first time through.   After they’ve seen what’s further ahead, the branch becomes a tactical/navigational choice – especially if they’re being chased or otherwise need to hurry somewhere.


Gating/Blocking is a key part of Metroidvania design, though it shows up in older tabletop dungeons too – it’s where there is a door, gateway, or obstacle that cannot be passed without some kind of special action or tool.  It might be the magical door that has a riddle or the area you can’t reach without a rope.   Gating/Blocking gives players a reason to come back to an area and sits as a question in the back of their minds as they play.  The obstacle should be for a branching path, and not block play altogether.

Although this is generally a great thing to throw in any dungeon design, it’s important to also remember in many games, players will find ways past some of these gates.  Maybe a character is strong enough to simply break one down, or uses some kind of magic to get past it.   This is why dungeons become harder to design as characters get more powerful and magical – characters who can teleport, dig, or phase through solid matter aren’t really constrained…


Previews are ways of showing players things they can’t get to… just yet.  Most of the time this is good things – like a treasure chest that is on the other side of a chasm, but it can also be dangerous things, like a monster on the other side of a gate…   Previews are good because they give the players incentive to push ahead, forewarning of danger, and basically help the area feel whole and connected.   If you are using circular or looped level design, this also helps connect areas – so when the players get around to the other side of the chasm, they can point back: “OH, this is the other side, we came in over there!”.

Videogames do this all the time, though tabletop dungeoncrawls usually don’t do it enough.


What makes a shortcut different than just a normal branching option?  It either has to be secret or something you earn.  “Earn” may include going all the way to the end of a path to find a secret door back to where you started… “earn” could also mean something like having to find a rope to lower to an area you’ve been before.  Shortcuts can either give you a quick way back, or a way around a dangerous hazard or threat.

Just like branching paths, shortcuts become tactical choices – players know where it leads and it gives them an extra option to get around.

One Way Paths

One way paths (doors, slides, pitfalls, bridges that crumble, teleporters, etc.) do one of two things.  Either it forces the players into a new area and the danger of having to find their way back through unexplored territory, OR, it forces them back to somewhere they’ve been before, forcing them to go through it all again.

The former is more scary, as the players don’t know what they’re dealing with or how far they may need to go before they can get to safety.  The latter usually makes folks angry, as it pushes them back to the beginning and any lasting hazards will need to be avoided or handled once more.

One way paths are tricky to use in tabletop games.  Being pushed forward, it increase lethality for the characters… and unlike a videogame, you can’t simply go back to a save point.  Being pushed back to previous areas, usually just wastes time, as most hazards the players dealt with are not going to be regenerated or replaced in that short of a notice.  If your game relies on specific party balance, one-way paths, more than anything else, are great at splitting up parties… which usually throws play out of wack for most dungeon crawlers.

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Forge Bundle of Holding

July 12, 2014

The current Bundle of Holding has a LOT of Forge games for sale, and a lot that I can recommend as being worth checking out and playing!

Breaking the Ice – a great 2 player game that plays a bit like a rom-com.  It’s fast, fun and very flexible.

Shadow of Yesterday – A fantasy game which developed “Keys” as a reward mechanic, which you can see in Lady Blackbird or the recent Marvel Superheros Roleplaying Game as Milestones.

octaNe – a post apocalyptic game of wacky hijinks to grindhouse violence, depending on how you turn the dial. One of the first games to really use smart narration trading mechanics.

Trollbabe – A super light system with fun narration trading, where your character only powers up by making relationships to characters.

Dog’s in the Vineyard – A nice game that forces you to make hard choices in each conflict, and “damage” makes your character grow as a person.

Universalis – probably one of the best GM-less RPGs out there.

Sorcerer – dark supernatural stories – think if you had Vampire via The Wire.


Designing Easy-To-Modify Games

July 8, 2014

One thing that’s pretty interesting is the level to which tabletop RPGs expect the groups playing them to hack and change them.  There’s pretty much three ways to address that, and it’s worth considering how those work:

“Design it yourself” (AKA anti-design)

This would be “Rule 0″ or “if you don’t like these rules, make up your own”.  This has been in rpgs for decades, and specifically is a non-helpful way to do things.  It also gets used a lot as a defense when the rules didn’t do what they’d claim they were supposed to do.

I’ve heard arguments in the past “no, no, really the game was made poorly to FORCE you to become a better gamer”… which… is ridiculous.  You might make that argument about certain forms of training and the need to ramp up difficulty, but in games?  Difficulty should be about a challenge factor in playing the game, not a challenge to making the game work – the challenge in basketball is playing basketball, not tying people’s legs together and blindfolding them and giving them a half-flat ball.


This is pretty much the easiest way to make an easy-to-hack game, though the changes are all effectively superficial.  The Pool, HeroQuest, octaNe, Universalis, Fudge, FATE…  all of these games have easy to swap labels while keeping the mechanics identical.  What’s the difference between a heavy armored robot and a small fast robot?  The labels “Heavy” “Armored” vs. “Small” “Fast” applied to them.

On the other hand, while this allows easy genre and element swapping, it doesn’t actually make for any mechanical differences in hacking by itself.  Often these systems use a universal resolution and there’s not a lot more to hang on it.

Unified Principles

Vincent Baker has a nifty chart about how rules work vs. how we actually play at the table. (you should read the whole post, it’s almost 9 years old but still very relevant).

This is an idealized design-to-play set up.  The turquoise is the actual rules in the game book/text.  You’ll notice it’s like 98% within the other circle – which is “how we play at the table”.  In other words, nearly all of the rules or advice in the book are actually useful in play.   You’ll notice of “How We Actually Play”, the part that isn’t covered by the game text circle, is broken into two sections – Ad Hoc decisions, and Principled Decisions.

Principled decisions are the choices you make because they fit in with the principles the game has communicated to you on how things generally work in the game.

Say you’re playing D&D and there’s a gas explosion in a mine.  “Oh gee, the book doesn’t have rules for that… but it’s a LOT LIKE a Fireball or Dragon’s Breath.  Let’s say it does this much damage and you make a Saving Throw for half damage”.   You can make that call and it works with the game because it’s based on common principles within the game.

So part of a game design is how well you communicate the principles of your game – which doesn’t have to be pages of theory and designer notes, but it does need to be consistent across your rules.

Hacking a game and considerations

So, from the other side of this, as a gamer, it’s worth looking at what you need to consider when hacking a game, which then shapes things people should think about when we’re talking about game design for modification.


How much does modding the game risk throwing things way out of wack?  Some games are pretty open to tossing stuff in without too much trouble.  Some games are an exacting system of currency and bumping it around breaks things quickly.  If you are designing a game with the intent for people to modify it, you need to try to aim for less fragility and be clear about which parts are more/less able to be fiddled with before breaking.


How much effort does it take for me to hack things into your game?  Is it a few minutes or nearly hours of trying to put together numbers?  Less crunch makes easier hacking.

Complex Combinations

How many OTHER rules do I have to think about this hack intersecting with?  Are there ways it could do things very different than what I intend because of a complex interaction?

Existing Tools

What’s already in the game as rules that I could use right now or with the most minimal changes?  Why should I use one as opposed to another?  (Example: when should you make this an attribute roll vs. when should you make it a skill roll?)


What are general goals of the rules?  What are rules they follow over and over?  What sorts of things work against this?

So, here’s an example: Apocalypse World has a principle in the rules of “Soft Moves” vs. “Hard Moves”.  A Soft Move is something the GM does that warns about trouble coming, a hazard or a threat.  A Hard Move is something the GM does that has consequences, now and lasting – whether that’s injury, an NPC getting killed, etc.   A core principle is that you have to give warning, you have to go through at least one Soft Move and give the players a chance to act, before jumping into Hard Moves.

Because this is generally a good principle for a lot of action games (forewarn danger, then enact danger) as opposed to “gotcha!” traps, it is something people caught on to and find AW very hack-able to many other things (Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, etc.).

On the flipside, the D20 flood of bad materials is a pretty good example of what happens when you have both high complex combinations and little in the way of principles communicated.



Those who want you dead…

July 5, 2014

 I heard an accusation. But what she and my Dad were trying to make me hear was their question:Why do you love a thing that won’t even let you exist within their made up worlds?

Pam Noles -Shame

The issue for marginalized folks in any geekdom is navigating this issue, all the time, every time: how much of my money do I want to give to people who literally want me dead?

Your options come down to three choices, all of which are terrible:

Speak no evil

Participate, enjoy to what you can, try to endure or avoid and say nothing.  You avoid some drama, but you’re always subject to microaggressions, and nothing changes.  Enjoy feeling like you contribute to people prospering who want you to die.

Disengage completely

Walk away.  You do not give money or fame to the people who hate you.  You’ve been driven out of a geekdom, fandom, gamer space and have cut out yet ANOTHER thing you love, out of your life and the question of how much of this is you making good boundaries vs. them controlling your life sits at the edge of your mind.

Speak up and be a target

Participate, but point out the problems.  Suffer the inevitable backlash and harassment.  The more outreach you get, the more violent and neverending the backlash.  People defend dehumanization with… death and assault threats, harassment, stalking, and attempting to destroy your job and life and mental health.

All three of these are terrible choices.  There’s not even necessarily a “right” choice, as all of these are coping mechanisms in the face of what clearly is a hostile and fucked up social problem.  It’s not just because there’s people who want you dead, there’s people who are OK WITH people who want you dead.   Is that really a space in which you can have fun?

Watch people demand you define which choice you take, and justify it, while never making the same effort to demand the people spewing hate shit to justify anything.

There’s a fourth option, and the only one I’ll condemn every time:

Defend it and pretend it’s a reasonable situation

Whether that’s an out and out denial, or “Well, this one person is a problem” while ignoring the fact 200 people sat by and did nothing while the one person spews their shit, or, worse, they supported them.

And I can see how people get to this point; they don’t want to admit the fact the whole thing is fucked up.  These people they thought were friends, they thought they had community, but in fact, all of this isn’t true.  When your humanity is partial, being abused is normal and you are expected to take it without complaint to “be accepted” in a community?

The heart of the whole situation is the same old racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc. that you find in society in general.  The only thing geekdom does different is it’s target: they want to destroy your imagination.

And I think a lot about what kind of mentality refuses to even let you find joy in imagination, and moreso, the mentality of the people who are ok to watch these people do what they do…


The Task Resolution Tool

July 4, 2014

As I’m trying out a bunch of games, I have to remind myself not everything has a good conflict resolution – and I find myself falling back into bad habits and problems with task resolution systems.  Mostly in rolling dice for uninteresting results.  Guh.

Can you think of a fun, entertaining, interesting result for failure?

No, not really

Ok, then:

1) Say Yes.  The character succeeds.  Keep play moving

2) Offer a precondition: “You can try but first you’ll need to…”

3) Offer at a cost: “You can do it, but it will cost you this…”

4) Impossible: “It’s too hard, but maybe you can…(offer other ideas)”

Yes!  Well, maybe! Give me some ideas!

Ok, then it’s a good time to roll the dice.  Here’s some ways to get worthy failure.

Four Types of Worthy Failure:


Risk is not necessarily damage or harm.  Risk opens you UP to the potential of those things.  So, jumping across a gap?  Failure isn’t falling, failure is hanging by one hand, precariously, while the enemies are shooting at you.  Risk is losing your lead on escaping danger.  Failing a risk roll means the GM takes the lead and the next roll involves harm, injury or capture.


Information failure means you accidentally let slip some kind of clue or information that those who would harm you can use.  Your location, your methods, your intentions, your allegiances, where your resources come from, what you are lacking, your vulnerabilities, your secrets.   This could be leaving behind a clue, accidentally saying the wrong thing, showing too much of your hand too early, etc.


Resources are things like gear, equipment, food, tools, mounts, hired allies, etc.  Mostly logistical resources.   Losing these makes life harder and some things impossible.  It can also create other problems – being in the wilderness without food or proper clothing can become a hazardous problem very quickly.


Standing is how NPCs see you.  And not necessarily society at large – just one NPC’s view of you can be everything.   Your King no longer believes you are capable of the job, your best friend isn’t sure they can trust you, your contact in the secret society doubts your commitment…    Or maybe it’s a small group – the people in a village, the wizard’s society you spent so long getting in good with.   Standing loss isn’t instant hate – but it means you have to work harder, do more, and get less and expect less support.


Dogs in the Vineyard’s “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”, Inspectres & octaNe “When should we roll dice?”, Apocalypse World’s “Hard Moves”, Mouse Guard’s “Conditions”.


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