Warring States

October 19, 2015

The last month has had me re-reading The Wiles of War: 36 Military Strategies from Ancient China which is a great book in terms of highlighting my favorite parts of Chinese folk-history military stories – a mix of political intrigue, military strategy, and personalities in conflict.

For the last few years I had always thought Pendragon’s mechanics around Character Traits would be a good way to model some of this, so I figured I should write up some rules for using this.  (Mind you, enough is being done differently that you don’t need to get the full Pendragon game – you can pick up the 48 page Book of Knights for a few bucks and get what you need to work with here.)

Survival of the State

The biggest difference is the focus of what a campaign looks like.  This isn’t Arthurian romance – this is Warring States China – alliances are made, broken, betrayal might happen at any time.  No one is going on grand quests and no one really has time to spend pining about romance.  The focus is keeping your state together, and perhaps, if you’re bold and ambitious, growing it.

Characters might already be the Dukes or royal families, generals or ministers, or low ranking captains struggling to gain recognition and promotion.  A fisherman one day might be the general a year later… under the right conditions.

Conflict may be neighboring states looking for conquest, internal struggles among nobles, rebellions and uprisings… even terrible and incompetent rulers above you.

Our Land

Unlike the full Pendragon game, I don’t think a giant setting book of historical China is really the way to go.  Instead, I’d rather just do a few random rolls to build your state and it’s scenario.

Overall Situation

You can roll for the overall strength of your nation, or, if you want to as a group, just pick what kind of campaign you want.  A weaker nation has to deal with problems from multiple directions, while a stronger nation has less sources of conflict to deal with.  I’m not giving hard mechanics to all the strengths and weaknesses, however you should use them to set up what kinds of conflicts make sense or resources the characters should expect.  When you do have situations like morale checks (“Roll on Valorous…” for general troops), you can add a +4 bonus where one of these things would apply, or -4 if it’s a negative.

1  Failing Nation – 1 Strength 3 Weaknesses

2-3  Shakey Nation – 2 Strengths, 2 Weaknesses

4-5  Good Nation – 2 Strengths, 1 Weakness

6 Strong Nation – 3 Strengths, 1 Weakness


1 Mountainous Terrain (good metalworking, mineral deposits, defensive terrain bonus)

2 Good Fields (good amounts of crops every year, more food, larger population)

3 Strong Trade (more wealth, good intel, good roads/riverways)

4 Courageous People (stronger military)

5 Strong Industry (better equipment, better/faster construction)

6 Stable Past (More loyalty from citizens)


1 Divided Noble Clans (create at least 2 NPC clans that are at odds, NPCs of those clans have Hatred of the opposed clans)

2 Flanked by Larger Nations (when you create neighboring nations, they have more troops, resources, etc.)

3 Decrepit Defenses (through peace or neglect, most of your cities are not well suited to withstand assault…)

4 Bandits and Uprisings (a sizesable number of people are causing havoc in your nation)

5 Targeted by another Nation (either because of your resources or a personal vendetta.  You’re on the brink of war)

6 Mismanaged Resources (someone in the near past or currently has wasted a lot of the food and wealth…)

Setting Up the Nation, then your characters

You’ve got a couple of key features about what’s going on with your Nation.  Give it a name and some description – is it landlocked, does it have major rivers?  Is it by the ocean? How stable has it been?  Don’t worry, we’ll get to the neighboring countries soon enough.

If you have an idea about your Nation, the players can pick out what kinds of roles they would like to play and make characters for:

A Duke?  His prince sons?

The Prime Minister? Any of the other Ministers or Advisors?

A General?  Lower ranked captains?

If no player has picked these roles – write them down – you’re going to create them as NPCs: King, Prime Minister, General  (Strengths or Weaknesses of your Nation may make you have to create Noble Heads, or Princes, or Bandit Leaders or whatever fits as well).


Starting PCs begin with the following Passions:

Loyalty to Liege  3D6

Love of Family  2D6+6

Loyalty to Nation 3D6

Ambition  3D6

Honor 3D6

(Notice a character might be more loyal to the Nation than to their Liege… or, vice versa…)

For NPCs, don’t bother rolling all of these up – roll twice on the following chart to find their most relevant Passions and each one will be 2D6+6 (reroll or pick another if you get a duplicate)

1  Ambition

2  Honor

3  Loyalty (Liege)

4 Loyalty (Nation)

5 Loyalty (Family)

6 Hatred (pick a person/group) – this is about revenge for a wrong, legitimate or perceived petty slight…

Character Traits

Player Characters

Player characters start with Valorous 15/ Cowardly 5.  Pick one of each pair and roll 3D6 to get your Traits per the usual set up in the Book of Knights.

There are no specific religious bonuses as per Pendragon.  During this time, it’s the Hundred Schools of Thought – philosophies and religions and ways about how to live are at odds.  Sometimes someone is praised for being reckless and courageous, another story will have someone praised for using deception and cynical manipulation to protect their land.  While this means there may not be a universal set of traits, you can be sure that most NPCs prefer people who have attitudes like their own.


Again, with NPCs, don’t bother rolling for all of the Traits, you’re going to roll twice to find their most relevant character defining Traits.  If the player characters would have known the NPCs for months or years, then their Traits are known, otherwise they are hidden from the players.

Dominant Traits

1-3 See Chart 1

4-6 See Chart 2

Chart 1

1 Chaste/Lustful

2  Energetic/Lazy

3 Forgiving/Vengeful

4 Generous / Selfish

5 Honest / Deceitful

6 Just / Arbitrary

Chart 2

1 Merciful / Cruel

2 Modest / Proud

3 Pious / Worldly

4 Prudent / Reckless

5 Temperate / Indulgent

6 Trusting / Suspicious

After you’ve determined which pair, roll again to see which of the two Traits is going to be dominant (1-3 first one, 4-6 second one) and it will be rated at 12 + 1D6.

NPCs – your own Nation and Others

So for the NPCs in your own nation, you should have a couple of Traits, and a Couple of Passions.  Finally roll a 3D6 to determine the quality of the NPC at their job.  You can consider that their skill rank for doing stuff related to their role.

Look for characters with high Ambition, Hatred, Loyalty, or Honor.  Look at their Dominant Traits.  Think of how they might go about things in life and how that might play into, or against, the Strengths or Weaknesses your Nation has.  If the player characters are other people in positions of power, consider how their own Traits and Passions probably meshed with, or grinded against, the NPCs.  Some people are probably tight allies, and some hate each other.

Figure out how many Nations directly border your own – 1D3+1 is a good bet.  Now make a set of NPCs for each of them – King, Prime Minister, General – and look to see which sets might be potential threats to your player’s nation.

Running the Game

All the Traits and Passions set up a lot of the tools to do Flag Framing play, with many NPCs easily fitting the 7 Types of Antagonists, the Strengths and Weaknesses plus your own world building of the Nation can use Logistics and Politics conflict tools, and the actual action scenes can pull heavily from the Big List of Combat Stakes.

Most of the usual awards around Glory and Honor apply just the same or are easily modified for Warring States China.  You might need to bump a few of the skills over as well, as the cultural context is different, however it’s not too hard to make those adjustments.

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Emotional Investment Techniques

October 10, 2015

Pretty much for every type of media I consume, I like character drama plus action.  That’s movies, books, comics, videogames, and tabletop roleplaying as well.  Just recently I started playing a videogame which is effectively a case study in anti-design for emotional investment – and funny enough, it reminded me a lot of bad campaigns I’ve played in, or run in the past.  Which, naturally helps me better think about what does work and why.

The usual advice applies – you should find a way to coordinate on the focus of the story, make the NPCs and situations flexible, not IF-THEN constructs which fundamentally block the protagonists from being protagonists.  Anyway, with that said, here’s some things that occur in the media that get character drama right in terms of getting people to emotionally invest:

Friendly Characters

There’s friends, family, lovers, mentors, and so on.  People who generally think well of the protagonist(s), try to help, offer advice, ask them how they’re doing, serve as a sound board, and sometimes check them or ask for help in return.  Friendly characters allow us to see who the protagonist is with the people she or he cares about.

However, part of this is that these characters have to have actual interaction.  That interaction doesn’t have to be all smiles and happiness – troubled relationships can still matter, however, the fact is if you just say “You’re supposed to care about someone” without showing and playing it out, getting the player investment is hard.

A lot of tabletop campaigns fail here either by having no friendly NPCs at all with which you build up a relationship, or, that the NPCs are all quest givers and potential betrayal characters – in which case, they stop being people and start being more like a treasure chest that might be trapped…  They’re not really characters, they’re objects, in which case, you don’t get emotional investment.

Unfriendly characters with voices

This is the second thing.  If you have rivals or enemies, they have to have a voice, the ability to have a conversation in order to be a way for us to learn more about the protagonists.  The key is that while they may not be someone you can convince to your side, it’s a conversation because both the protagonist and the antagonist can make solid points towards each other – and how they react to that reveals more about their characters in the process.   Batman and Joker punching each other is not as interesting as Batman and Joker talking to each other.

The key failure for a lot of tabletop games is that when the unfriendly NPCs speak, they don’t have conversation – they’re usually monologuing and/or clue dropping.  This again, is because a lot of folks end up running their games with pre-planned scene goals, so the only point of dialogue is to try to usher players into one of the appropriate planned branches, instead of having the NPCs respond in ways appropriate to the situation.

Setting with Context

So lots of games have lots of setting.  Hundreds upon hundreds of pages.  Timelines, history, population counts.  However, that is usually the least useful information as far as emotional investment – what matters is why should anything matter?

The context of what something means is the important part.  “We’re going to kill the king” hold some weight.  It holds more weight when you consider this might bring the downfall of Rome.  Context gives it power.  And it only has context for the group if a) everyone knows it’s something important, and b) why it’s important.

If some action or declaration in a game is supposed to be important, but it’s dealing with a tiny paragraph in the middle of 300 pages of setting… your players may not know that’s “the important part” or have even read it.

In most stories there’s a build up of context, which makes things important as you go.  The information is given or revealed to the audience, and the investment matters more.  While you can get away with some exposition up front, you need to also reinforce it during the actual events in the story itself.  In roleplaying games this can be out and out narration to the players as well as characters’ talking and characters’ inner thoughts.

Adjusting in play

Tabletop RPGs have an advantage that other media do not – you can adjust during play to find the stuff the players are most interested in.   Let me rephrase that – everyone playing can adjust the focus of play to the things they are interested in.  As a group, you can work together to make the most exciting, entertaining, and meaningful game for your group collectively.

You can pass the spotlight, you can have your characters ask questions of each other and the world around them, you can use mechanical pushes or Flag mechanics to help each other get the game and story you want to see.  You know how you watch a tv show and you think, “I wish they’d do more with X & Y characters?” You can do that.  That’s totally something you can have happen in an rpg, and you should take advantage of it.

This was something that playing lots of Primetime Adventures taught me – the focus you think you’re going to start with, will probably turn out to be different within a few sessions of play.  You go in a general direction and play shows you the specific direction of what gets everyone excited.

Making this happen in play

Well, you start with a focus for the story – that gives you some unity of motivations and character concepts – but also important, it lets you narrow down the setting stuff you need to focus on.  You can give players a quicksheet of the most relevant setting bits and then it’s easier to have the focus of what to work with.

Players give you Flags, you design NPCs, friendly and unfriendly, around those.  Including having some NPCs who are tied with one protagonist tie over to another player character’s Flags.  (“Your sister is actually hanging out with the street thief the other player has been trying to catch…”).

Make sure to give scenes of the characters interacting in all kinds of ways – sometimes it’s action, sometimes it’s reaction and commentary on the action.  The NPCs make motivated choices – sometimes wise, sometimes not, sometimes the worst possible thing, sometimes the best possible thing, according to what fits their personalities and the situation at hand.

The players take actions and the world responds accordingly.

Emotional investment?  It’s a combination of characters who play and respond, and a world the protagonists have a hand in shaping.

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What we need to play

September 27, 2015

There’s a few common failure points to successfully running a game, however, the solutions to these mostly boils down to this decision tree:

Did you talk about it and come to an agreement?

A)  No, we didn’t. – > Go talk about it and come to an agreement.

B) Yes, we did.  -> Talk about what went wrong, or changed, and come to a new agreement.

C) We can’t come to an agreement – > either play a different game or play with people whom you can talk and come to an agreement with.  (also: don’t play games or with people you can’t come to agreements with.)

Keep this idea in mind – it applies to all of the following steps which are crucial to being able to run a tabletop roleplaying game.

Social Commitment: Can I even fit this game into my life?

How long is each session? How long is the expected campaign?  How important is steady attendance? How well can it adapt if people get busy, get sick, or schedules change?

The question underlying all of this is: “Can I even fit this game into my life?”

This is a question people don’t ask, yet it’s really the biggest question to start with – if people can’t make the time to play the game, maybe you need to play a different game.

And, if the game is bigger than a single session, you have to figure out what to do when it comes to life intruding.  Not having this conversation doesn’t mean “things just work out”, it means the game just stops after a point.

Agenda: What’s the point of the game?  What’s the fun part?

Note that if you play a superhero game about fighting villains and the fun part is strategically using your powers to win tactically and the same premise but the fun part is roleplaying the drama of balancing a secret identity with obligations as a hero – the focus of play, what you do in play, is very different.

If you don’t talk about this, then people may show up with all kinds of mismatched expectations and start trying to force each other to “play right” without ever agreeing on what “playing right” is.

Setting: What do we need to know about the fiction to play?

What’s the genre? The tone? The setting?  What kinds of characters make sense to go into this setting?  What kinds of decisions, or behaviors?  What kind of outcomes and conflicts?  Do you need to know the Culture of Vampires and Elves?  Do you need to know The Third Age?

This helps us create together as a group.  If we don’t know what we’re working with, some folks may make references or meaningful statements while the other players have no context at all.  If it is expected to be known, how much reading or “homework” is it, and again, can players fit it into their lives?

System: How do we find out what happens?

The actual rules.  How much do you need to know to play comfortably?  How much is it ok if you look it up during play or have someone handhold you through the process?  How do you, as a player, try to make things happen in play the way you want them to?

I mention “the actual rules” because a lot of games suffer from people saying, “You can do anything you can imagine” and then find out “Actually the GM has preplotted everything and you can’t really do much really” and similar issues.  Jono’s Big Flowchart of What Game Are We Playing? is a great example of a terrible and common issue.

Clearing these hurdles

Effectively what my Same Page Tool does, is take several standard RPG play tropes and sort them into categories to make it easier for a group to talk about and make a decision on everything except social commitment.  The problem I’ve always pointed to is that games should already tell you what the point of play is and how the system works and an idea of how to use the fiction and genre tools they give you to play – you pay for a game to tell you how to play it.

A well designed and well-written game makes these issues trivial – you are able to easily come to agreement because the game either sets the parameters or gives you tools to decide between the forms in which it operates.

So this fixes everything?  Not quite.

There’s two common problems this doesn’t fix.  However, these are fundamentally unfixable problems.

“What if people are dishonest about what they want out of a game?” 

Well.  In a game medium that exists through conversation, if someone is lying to you, about what they consider fun, in a game about elves, cyborgs and vampires or what have you – think about how deep the distrust has to be for that to be a reflexive behavior.   Someone who can’t be honest about what they find fun is someone you can’t find fun with.  Move on.

“How can I make people like what I like, want the same kind of game that I want?”

You can’t.  You can’t make people like music they’re not into, you can’t make them enjoy flavors they don’t like, and so on.  If you know that you have incompatible goals – don’t roleplay together.  Play games or do activities that you all DO enjoy, and leave the roleplaying to the subgroup that has the same tastes.  It’s ok, you’ll still be friends.

Having an honest talk will reveal both of these situations rather quickly.  Either the agreements fall apart in play because someone is dishonest, or you can’t come to an agreement in discussion because what you want is fundamentally different.   These are the hard truths people don’t like to deal with, but there it is.  Once you recognize these, you can stop wasting time and focus on people who want to play a game with you and have fun.

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The Failing Business of Hate

September 4, 2015

So, this last week has been full of some interesting news, with several people boycotting DriveThruRPG for carrying about as blatantly open violent misogyny material as one could imagine.  The discussion about the products, or the choice to carry them mostly falls into points I’ve made in the past.

The interest discussion for me, in this, however, is that several other game publishers have noted how much the impact has been on their sales, and argued against a full distributor boycott.  There’s effectively two arguments, but both are empty, and those are both worth dissecting.

What the Market Wants and Business Choices

Before we go into the arguments – the fact is, if your sales have been impacted, then that’s how many consumers have just told you that they not only don’t want to buy hate material, they also don’t want to support businesses (the distributor, in this case) who also profit by them.  A growing gaming community that isn’t built on hate propganda is more important to them than buying a luxury.  I’m sure you’ve made other choices about how to sell your game and how it will fit into the market – here’s one more factor.

Now consider the distributor’s role in this: the distributor exists to make it easier to sell your game.  Part of that is basic PR – ideally they promote your game and make it look good, but if nothing else, maybe not themselves becoming associated with the kind of thinking that gives us mass shooters and violent stalkers is kinda one of those basic PR things.   If your distributor is making themselves look so bad that customers are not buying your games, perhaps, you should look for other options?  (ETA: here’s an example of a videogame company who hired a PR firm… that had bad PR themselves and what that meant for their game…)

In this particular case, it’s not like there aren’t a ton of options for electronic distribution, and, at least, a few good options for print on demand.  A key problem that the Forge folks pointed out in the past was that 3 tier distribution meant you were locked into playing the distributor’s game, even if they fucked you over, said your company had closed to people asking for your game, didn’t pay you on time, or at all, etc.  And likewise, customers had to deal with the chain as well.   These days, you have options – and realize, so do your customers.  They can buy a LOT of RPGs, from a LOT of places, and they can even get them for free.  Sorry, it’s a hard market,  maybe you better make some choices about how to meet it…

Argument #1: You shouldn’t boycott the distributor because it hurts ME (and businesses like mine)

I’ve seen this argument show up in the Sci-fi/Fantasy community before – it’s a very entitled view.  Often people will talk about their kids needing to eat, their medical issues, and so on.  And yes, those needs are real, however customers have no obligation to make sure you pay rent or eat every month – what you’re looking for there is the base needs safety net to be found in socialist policy – not capitalism.

Basically, you’re making a sales pitch combining the value of your product plus the sympathies of the people you see as your market vs:

a) the fact they don’t owe you sales

b) you’re selling a minor luxury

c) market demand for basic human decency

Personally, if your living situation is that dire, there’s many fundraising sites specifically for that purpose – I had to use them several times in the last 2 years during and after cancer.  The passive aggressive “you owe me sales” is a dishonest guilt trip to throw at folks.

Plus, honestly, RPGs do not pay living wages.  If you are a professional writer, editor, layout designer, illustrator, etc. you already know that RPGs do not pay decent wages, or on time.  You already know you can’t afford to do this and make rent.  The only people who seem to not get shorted are the printers, and that’s because they demand money up front and do not accept the 1930s Depression-Era wages other folks will take to “be accepted into RPGs”.  If you have structured your life to try to survive on RPGs, a lot of choices had to go into that.

Argument #2: “This is an attack on Free Speech!”

We’ll hopscotch past the obvious points of Free Speech and government, and consequences, and go into this simple idea:

I can choose to spend my money, or NOT spend my money, on consumer products as I wish.   If you make products that are shit, I can choose to not buy it.  If your store sells Klan Regalia, I can choose to not go to your store entirely, and while I know I wasn’t going to buy an Imperial Grand Wizard KKK hood, I also know I don’t want any of my money going to your store because you’re clearly ok with that stuff.

You’re making a business choice on a principle – I’m making a consumer choice on a principle.  Effectively you’re using the idea of Free Speech as a marketing tool, albeit poorly and dishonestly, however, it’s this idea a principle that you’re selling.

A lot of folks base their business or consumer choices on principles – some people only use specific types of Linux OS because they have views about open sourcing, and how they use their computers or data.  Some people put their products up for free – either as in no cost, or as in available to be reused, re-mixed, etc.  Some people will not sell PDFs or ebooks, only hardcopies.

That’s all your choice to do.  If it’s really important to you to sell your game in a venue that will also carry open hateful material, so that you can stand firm on your principle, go ahead.  Just don’t complain about what the market wants in regards to that.  I mean, you can sell your game only in BitCoin – that’s a choice some folks make – but don’t complain if it gives you a limited market.

At the end of the day

It’s so telling to me about the “we’re not the bad ones” publishers who look at this situation and can neither see business choices to make NOR what the point is when people vote with their dollars.  It really only makes sense if you felt entitled to sales and didn’t think your customer’s desires mattered at all.


“What am I supposed to do with that?”

August 25, 2015

There’s a nice technique I’ve pinned down for play – although it seems to focus on the NPCs acting, it really ends up getting the player characters to respond, and you learn more about them instead.

Funny enough, I got this from a videogame – the Walking Dead game. In the game, there’s a point when a 10 year old girl you’re helping escape the zombie apocalypse, Clementine, asks you, “Did those men have to die?” It’s an emotional gut punch where there’s no right answer.

In terms of tabletop games, the technique is to have NPCs explain what they’re going through emotionally and use the PCs as a sounding board. Aside from making the NPCs more human and interesting, it also causes the players to reveal more about their characters as well – do they give good advice? Are they supportive? Manipulative? Are they too emotionally scared or inept to help? Do they say absolutely the wrong thing to say?

All of this then feeds back into the NPC’s motivations and actions after that – again, improvising is easy because all you have to do is play out on those motivations, and players can see how the impacts they’ve had have been for good or for ill.

It’s a very different play on the idea that NPCs always need something from the PCs – most people think in terms of side quest type things: “Fetch this” “Kill that” “Find out X” but instead, “I’m going through this, and I don’t know how to feel about it” is just as much a request, it’s just one where there’s not necessarily a single good answer and a skill roll won’t solve it.

It also brings up a great way to cross with the player characters’ motivations as well – do they take the time for the NPCs to help them, attempt to convert them to their own causes, do they decide to change their own principles and values after hearing how others are doing?

The way I’m using this is to simply make sure at least every few scenes there’s an NPC talking about what’s going on and what they’re dealing with and how they feel about things – and see what happens from there.


Formalized Scene Structuring

August 15, 2015

I’ve been trying to get back into the groove on running games.  It’s been tough as I can’t run with my usual group due to my new job schedule, and playing online with new people involves the usual hurdles of tech logistics, new scheduling, and new communication spaces.  The thing I’ve noticed that has been the hardest part of falling back into play is keeping up momentum on scenes – which, when I think back to why it worked so well for my usual group is that we’ve internalized the Primetime Adventures method of scene structuring, which boils down to this:

Go around the table, each player (including the GM) gets a turn to set up a scene, focused on any of the PCs they’re interested in (including their own, as players).

I think I’m just going to import this rule into most of the games I run, since it works better for getting people to plan for the kinds of scenes they want to see, and to have time to think about it while play continues.  As a formalized rule, it also sets expectations and I think ends up being one of the fundamental play habits which kind of permeated a lot of the games out of the Forge era, but effectively became an “unspoken oral practice” which is kind of necessary to make half of the games even work right.


Dungeon Design: Specific Tricks

July 25, 2015

The new job has eaten up a lot of my brain and energy the last 2 months.  However, I have been taking in game design videos and articles here and there, and picking up some interesting ideas from the world of videogames and figured it’d be worth talking about some ideas that port over well to tabletop dungeoncrawls and further expanding on my previous set of dungeon design posts.

Effort to Play ratio

One thing to realize is that you have to manage how much time you put into designing areas for a dungeon crawl against how much play you’ll get out of it.

The classic GM burnout comes out of pouring lots of hours of design into things the players will run past without a thought.  Videogames can afford to do great design in their levels because thousands of players will get into the game, and in most cases, there’s a decent level of replayability – so the areas will see a significant amount of re-use.

If you’re just going to have the party run through an area once, there’s not much point in putting too much work into designing it.  If this is going to be an area they revisit and deal with in multiple sessions, then these tricks make more sense.

Preview Spaces

One of the key things in dungeon design is information control – if you can have some idea of what’s ahead,  you can prepare for it.  The problem is that many tabletop games are run where the dungeon gives you zero future information, which means the players can’t really plan ahead, so they just have to stumble forth from battle to battle – no strategy.

However, if you give preview spaces – an area where you can see ahead to something else you can’t reach (the other side of the iron bars blocking the path, the other side of the chasm, the garden below the balcony), you can give previews to what is ahead.  It’s not just enough to see a space, it’s also important to consider what makes that space interesting – and that usually comes in one of the following flavors:


“You’re not quite sure, but you swear you see the form of a wolf, slipping out past the wall when you look out across the yard.”    Forewarning players of danger allows them to plan and to stay on their toes.  This can be obvious danger like a monster, or it could be an indication of a fight that happened recent – “There’s bodies and smoldering torches. This couldn’t have been too long ago…”


“The other side of the gap you can see a turned over cart, and the gleam of silver spilling from the torn bags.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the bridge wasn’t out…”  Resources get the players to think about how to get to them, and perhaps to push ahead to try to get to that area quicker.


“Above in the bell tower, you can see an unearthly blue glow…”  Mystery is one of those things players can see going either way – but it definitely gets them curious.

Easy Preview Zones

A few types of areas lend themselves naturally towards previews and you can use them in a lot of different contexts.


Balconies, viewpoints, rooftops, walls, windows, bridges, walkways, ladders, towers, stairs, hills with winding paths.   Think of being on these, at the top of them, or underneath them looking up.


Gates, doors, walls, windows, cracks in walls, holes in floors, ceilings.


Chasms, rivers, broken bridges.

Pitfalls to Preview areas

Now, there is a pitfall to this that is particularly important to tabletop design – in a videogame, you can accept a bunch of weird things like invisible walls or limitations that you wouldn’t accept in a tabletop game.  Players can come up with a lot of creative methods to get around/across/up/down things you wouldn’t think of, and it becomes even more true when you add in magic or super powers.

In most dungeon crawl games, as play continues, the players gather more and more means to circumnavigate the obstacles that divide preview areas.  This is effectively why dungeons either become totally pointless after a certain point where the power curve is exceeded (“We can fly, burrow, teleport, breath water, and turn insubstantial. Nothing can stop us.”) or become ridiculous magical mazes (“Everything is magical forcefields, adamantine walls and null-magic zones”).

Gating Opposition

One of the key points to a dungeon crawl is controlling the flow of encounters – you don’t want the whole dungeon of monsters to jump the players right away, so you have to figure out how to keep things from getting out of hand – it becomes important to think about how you gate the monsters and NPCs and keep them from running everywhere as much as you would the players.


One way is if the monsters are limited to a specific type of terrain.  Your water-breathing fishman can’t really go chasing everyone around the dungeon – they have to stay in, or close to, water.

While this is a great way to have a strong gating mechanism, it also only works for a few monsters – presumably most breath air, or can survive in the areas where the player characters can.   You can set up a few things like undead that will only stay in dark areas or magically empowered constructs that can only operate within a magically empowered zone, but overall this is hard to do for the majority of creatures.


Big monsters can’t fit through small tunnels.  This is a pretty great way to limit the really nasty monsters from being able to run throughout the whole dungeon area.


So, you have a dungeon full of hostile monsters that may fight amongst each other or prey on each other for food… if you were a monster living in this place, you would probably stick to a few safe hunting/foraging zones, or claim a “territory” and not go too far from it, for your own safety as much as anything else.

This means monsters may chase you a certain distance, but back off once you start going into areas they don’t know much about, or areas that they know are populated by the monsters they don’t want to tangle with either.  This works for any kind of creature with animal intelligence or better.

Altering Space

Many people have pointed out that the dungeon isn’t static – new monsters move in, others change territory as the protagonists change the power balance within the area.  However, there’s yet another part which you should consider – the physical space of the dungeon can change as well.

– Intelligent creatures will set up barricades or traps, or repair some areas, or burn bridges

– A fight or battle that happens when the PCs aren’t present might cause damage

– Rain, melting snow, flooding, cave-ins, all of this might contribute to changing the area

– Burrowing creatures might open up new pathways, or collapse existing paths

– Other adventurers might leave climbing gear, nail doors shut, make barricades, etc.

This is particularly fun to do if you’re doing the kind of game where the party has to come back to the dungeon for multiple trips.  Their old maps are mostly good… except something they’ve come to count on has changed, or there’s some sign of some kind of incident that makes them take pause or reconsider the situation.  (“Good news – something killed the GiantClawBeast while we were gone.  Bad news – some THING killed the GiantClawBeast while we were gone, and it probably is still down here…”).

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