h1

One Way to Frame a Dungeon – Disaster Dungeons

September 26, 2022

I’m not new to “anywhere can be a dungeon” with the premise being mostly the combination of “exploration + danger + treasure”, however the thing I’m finding myself doing for Errant, is setting them up as active disaster zones.

Why a disaster zone?

Disasters allow you to include all the cool stuff that goes into a dungeon without having to think about equilibrium, economy or ecology*. Do you want to include NPCs? They’re stuck, trapped, trying to escape or pull some hijinks while the disaster unfolds. Is there treasure? Sure! People didn’t grab everything, things got forgotten, left behind, etc. “How do people get around?” you ask with the bridge and the stairs crumbled? No need to answer, they haven’t figured out how to get out either.

It also explains the other usual question to dungeons: why hasn’t someone come along and raided this place for treasure yet?

Now mind you, as we’re living in the era of horrible climate change disasters, I’m talking primarily about sci-fi/fantasy disaster zones; a zombie outbreak, a dragon appears, someone became a lich, etc, not the depressing reality of disasters, since, unfortunately swinging a sword or throwing a fireball at those things doesn’t really fix them.

(“*What about mythical underworld type of dungeons? You don’t have to think about those things in those either?” For me, I don’t care for those in these types of games. If I’m going to deal with an underworld built on symbolism, I want to play a game whose system deals with that, instead of, movement rates, armor types, and weapon reach.)

A lot of media to pull from

Tons of action, sci-fi, and fantasy movies and videogames pull from this trope and you can get a lot of good inspiration; Resident Evil, Prototype, Dark Souls, most of your shooter games, and many RPGs will have at least a level or two of active disaster space to play with.

The main thing I look to these for are the fun ways in which environments or terrain are shaped – things like main paths being blocked while the players have to crawl through broken gaps in walls or knock over something to use as a bridge.

Things like “red key for red door” are not interesting but finding tools to open paths or access ziplines or whatever tend to set up fun situations. (especially bc unlike videogames, players may find other solutions to get around any kind of obstacle).

PCs are in a heist movie, NPCs are in a horror movie

Finally, the NPCs. In the traditional dungeon, if you have NPCs you also have to explain how these NPCs survive and live in this place of danger over a long term. In a disaster, you just have to explain how they managed to stay safe for a few hours or days, which is a lot more reasonable.

Which brings us to another point; the player characters are here to get treasure – they’re in a heist movie… but the NPCs are mostly trying to escape with their lives – they’re in a horror movie. (If you’re playing a more heroic game, the PCs are in an epic fantasy… but the normal NPCs here, are generally still in a horror movie).

So now it’s very easy to set up motivations for NPCs – they want to be safe and/or escape, along with friends and family. A few NPCs who are very dedicated to a goal, will want something else and risk more danger. This sets up a point of leverage and negotiation between the players and NPCs – players want info about the area, they want resources, the NPCs want safety, healing, a way out – maybe to rescue some other NPC. And in dealing with all this, the PCs leave impressions, make allies or enemies that set up longer term play issues.

Disasters Cooling Off

Of course, most traditional dungeons originate in some disaster or another, but the longer it goes, the more the situation has to settle into an equilibrium and stable state, which… means more thinking and a little less “random danger” and of course, generally less NPCs. (I mean, folks do think up dungeon communities and towns in these spaces but then there’s other logistics questions to think of… and more work.)

The way I’m framing these disasters are “a few days ago, a few weeks ago, or a number of years ago” and each changes up the situation accordingly. The important question to answer as time goes on is – why has this place been abandoned TO the disaster?

Maybe it’s a monster threat that’s too tough to deal with, or perhaps the political power doesn’t think it’s worth chasing (or they’re suffering rebellion or a coup and too busy), or maybe the main reason to be there is gone (“Well guys, the lake drained out through a hole, so no lake no fishing”)

The next question is – who’s still around? Why? How do they get by? It’s easy to imagine a few survivors, or some folks with powerful magic and/or adventuring skills finding a way to keep going. Or maybe they live in some isolated space with access to water and food? But generally the worse an area is, the less people will be around and harder it is to survive.

You can also decide most people fled the danger, in which case you could have a group of folks outside the dangerous area, who have formed a temporary camp. This sets up a “town” to retreat to, and you can easily excuse why they have X resource or lack Y resource because… well, people fleeing grab what they can and sometimes that’s pretty random.

Designing a “Disaster Dungeon”

As always, start with a concept. What is the place, and what is the threat? It’s good to look for 1-2 themes to build all the problems on.

It’s one thing to have a dragon attack a town; it’s another when you find out the reason it’s attack is that a necromancer cult was doing magic with one of it’s relatives. So while the dragon is the reason there’s an active disaster, the necromancer cult provides a LOT of encounter options as well. Maybe it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane that just happened to fling a lot of violent fishman seafolk into the town and now you’ve got both a hurricane and raiders. The more high fantasy your game goes, the more magical weirdness can be the cause of the disaster or perhaps, increasing the effects of a natural one.

You can take a normal town map, or an isolated outpost, or a small noble’s manor, or a mining work camp… then start dropping obstacles onto the map. Things that obstruct movement and view, and of course, things that are broken open and toppled over and can now be traversed where they were not accessible before. The goal is not to make impassible “walls”, but to have the party have to navigate the area in a way that is not typical and maybe sparks some creativity as well.

Likewise “traps” are less “built” and more all the problems that come with a disaster; sinkholes, crumbling walls, ceilings, floors, rickety stairs, fire, deep mud or water in unexpected places, sharp & pokey rubble, etc. In a high fantasy setting, the problems might also be magical; runaway elementals, spells gone awry, etc.

Threats

How did the monsters get here? Are they things that rushed to this location, things that were summoned or brought here, things that broke free of some containment or obedience effect, or things that someone mutated into? Are they the cause of the disaster or did the disaster cause them to show up somehow?

How well does the monster move in this space? Are there things they pursue or feel safer being around? Things they would avoid?

Treasure

What’s fun about a disaster is that you can put treasure just about anywhere. If it’s in a place where it already makes sense, you don’t have to do any work, really. If it’s in a place that doesn’t quite make sense, you can probably assume people were trying to move the treasure and got interrupted/killed. Or, in some disasters, objects might have been washed down with a flood, blown by a hurricane wind, or somehow flung into unusual places.

If you are running the sort of situation where NPCs might gift or give things to PCs, it can make a little more sense why they might do so; the 10 year old kid whose (now dead) brother gave him his magic sword, is still not up for fighting – but he might give it to a PC who shows they would actually know what to do with it.

“Clearing” the Disaster Dungeon

Context is everything here. Maybe there’s a monster threat or a magical threat and when it is dealt with, the disaster will end. Maybe there’s some very important person or item you have to go in there and rescue before leaving the place to burn to the ground. Maybe this disaster is just in the way of your travels – if you want to get to the other side of the pass, you better get through the city that fell to a werewolf curse frenzy.

Finally… if the place CAN be saved, and the party gets too beat up to do it, you can certainly say another group sends in troops and finally gets it under control (or part of it) and re-establish the area in a new way. I would only do this after significant play and the players saying they’re not so interested in grinding it out, or if they took care of the major problems.

Anyway, hopefully you’ll find some fun ways to put these into your games.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

h1

One way to stock a dungeon

September 24, 2022

We start playing this week, so, last minute stuff getting done. Errant defaults to the assumption that you will either a) pull a module/adventure from older D&D or similar OSR games, or b) you’ve played enough of them that you will import your own preferences for creating dungeon space.

Knowing my group and my own preferences of play, traditional dungeons tend to be both too large and too finnicky – we’d like to clear dungeons in 1-2 sessions of play. That means shorter, more content dense kind of dungeons than what these things usually produce.

So, here’s the formula I’m using to make dungeons, which might be useful for other folks too.

Concept

Short idea to set the tone for yourself; “Half sunken mansion”, “A labor prison with a loose mimic”, “Pueblo style cave ruins”, etc.

Map

This is my primary nod to saving time – I look through my collection of purchased maps, or maps online for 1-3 maps that will fit the bill. If something doesn’t quite fit but would otherwise be a good map, I might go back and revise the concept to fit better.

Encounters/Treasure/Hazard Totals

Over on the Discord, Ava Islam had this simple chart:

Roll d6: 1-2 empty, 3 trap, 4, monster, 5, treasure, 6 monster/trap+treasure

Random rolling the rooms isn’t going to work as well because while this works fine for larger dungeons where the averages work out, smaller dungeon types might give entire areas with nearly no threats or maybe no treasure just on bad rolls.

Instead, I count up all the rooms/areas and then use the proportions to figure out how many should have what. So, if I have 21 areas, I know 1/3rd are empty, I can assign 7 areas to be empty. I know 1/6th are traps, so that’d be 3.5, I’ll just round down to 3. Same for “just monster” and “just treasure” Finally another 3 are Monster/trap+treasure.

Then I got and assign these to the map, according to what seems cool and/or makes sense. Yes, it does mean things get a little more predictable (“Wow that room looks like a boss room.” Yeah I’m putting a boss there.), but it also avoids a lot of other weirdness.

Monsters

From the point of dungeon concept onwards, I’m thinking up monsters. The stat blocks in Errant are pretty lightweight, so it’s not hard to jam together monsters at random points – I’ll write some ideas down in my notebook while riding the train to work and so on. Generally I’m looking for 3-5 monster types depending on the concept.

Treasure

Errant is pretty agnostic about treasure, other than the advice of “try to give X number of coins’ value per level”. I made my own personal chart of broad descriptions “Trade Items” “Bulky Heavy Treasure” “Coins” etc, and percentage estimates fo the “total coin value” and some modifiers like “Rare, sought after” or “Magical” to finish it out. I roll up X number of treasures (based on the allotment above) and then assign them to locations as makes sense.

Last Tidbits

Once I’ve got a map, assigned locations for monsters, treasures, traps/hazards, and whatever important bits… I finish with some notes.

  • Tools or supplies that might be present. It’s not treasure but the PCs might want them.
  • Notes on clues about other creatures or things present – claw marks, sounds, smells, etc.
  • Notes on alerting others; being loud or having bright lights might draw enemies from adjacent areas. I might forget this in play, so I put notes in a room/area.
  • Does weather affect this area? How? Like do areas get cold, hot, or flood after a time?
  • Are there time considerations out of the norm? “The door will close after 3 days then open 7 days later”? “A patrol will camp out in the entrance once a month, usually around the brighter phases of the moon” etc.
  • Cool descriptive bits, lore stuff if it’s present.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

h1

Map Design and The Free Path

September 20, 2022

As I continue to prep to run Errant, I figured it’s a good time to explain a simple idea from the arena of videogame map/level design – The Free Path.

Inherent Map Choices

Maps in RPGs are effectively tools to make choices; you are in a place, which direction do you go? Each option provides possibilities, and risks.

At minimum in most games, the question is “How do I get to the place I want while collecting the most treasure for the least amount of danger?” or, perhaps, “How far should I push before resting?”. More immediately, however, you’re making choices like “Should we go up on this hill? We’ll get a better vantage point but we might get spotted”, or “I can hear rushing water down that tunnel, which means the danger of water but we also might find drinking water we can use?” And that’s before you get into the specific considerations of stuff like tactical combat (“Our warrior’s leg is injured, he’s moving slower, we’re not crawling in the small tunnel like that, let’s take the larger hall instead”).

All of this depends on the game system you’re playing in, and the expectations around how people are expected to navigate the map and deal with threats. Anyway, one part that is always true is that sometimes options on a map might be hidden or have some kind of gate or obstacle that must be overcome to take that path; the locked door, the puzzle to raise a bridge, a chasm too far to jump but with magic, one might make it. Or maybe even a secret door or illusion hiding the path.

The Free Path

Modern action-adventure videogames often provide multiple paths through a map, usually built around stealth vs. open combat, or sometimes things like access to vehicles or special weapons (“If you climb up there you can use the mount gun”). But one thing they will always have is at least one “free path” – a route which is clearly marked, and aside from having enemies, no meaningful obstacles to stop you from taking it. This is the default for people who are basically playing as simply as possible.

If you’re designing a dungeon or some kind of map where longer scale exploration matters (more than a single encounter), then you should think about what the free path is for this map. (If you want branches or loop backs, you should probably have two at least).

This is even more important in map based tabletop RPGs than videogames for a simple reason; your players’ time is valuable; it’s not a solo game where you can pause, save the file, come back anytime you want – you have to coordinate time between everyone, which makes it exceeedingly more precious. You don’t want players wasting 10-20 minutes being stuck at a locked door.

If your campaign expectation is one trip to a dungeon to run it; you want to hide/lock away even less, because it is quite likely the group will miss things. If it is expected there will be multiple trips and expeditions, then it makes more sense to add more hidden/locked things as players will have more chances to find and open/unlock the secret areas.

The Pitfalls

One of the parts of tabletop RPGs that can be challenging is that it is easy to fall into the mindstate of a narrative writer or the logistics of “realism” and work against what makes a fun map. A narrative wrtier can make nearly impossible to discover secret doors or intense levels of obstacles bc the narrative writer also will be creating the story of how the protagonists overcome them all anyway. The logistics of realism would typically work against a small band of heroes being useful for most things.

You can think of the free path as the set of places where the heroes are luckier than normal; the patrols go around here as the foot bridge washed out in the storm, the gate is propped open because the lazy evening shift guards hate having to lock and unlock it, etc.

Obviously, if you design your map as a phantasmagorical underworld, none of this matters, but if you want build on logical consistencies in your maps and setting, then you should temper it with the reminder to be very aware of what the fun part of play is for your group and how to get them there as quickly as possible – a free path is a key tool for that to happen.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

h1

ACOUP and a post on game design

September 11, 2022

One of my favorite blogs on history, A Collection of Unmitigated Pendantry, has a post that gets a bit into game design (around videogames) that is worth reading if you’re into design overall.

Notably, the author makes an important distinction about how a game can encourage/discourage types of play, between what options “give you more power” in one sense, but lock you out of options or content – removing power, in another. The aspect of encourage/discourage/nudge and push is basically the core logic of reward systems and effectively one of the core design ideas that has taken TTRPGs years to get around to talking about in meaningful ways.

As a side note, a key difference between TTRPGs and videogames in this case is that “locking away content” only makes sense if you have a railroad, branching railroad happening in play. For videogames, people have the opportunity to play repeatedly or see accounts/video of others playing so they can make a choice about directions to go for content, while in TTRPGs if you’re not playing a scenario/adventure module you have no way of knowing what you might have missed. And, furthermore, the persistent consequences of events in most RPGs – reduces your space for experimentation, unlike a videogame.

Noentheless, there’s a lot of good stuff to learn from VG design for TTRPGs, especially around reward.

h1

Double Tier Encounter Charts

September 7, 2022

Several friends have really clicked with Errant, so it’s looking likely I’ll do a short run of it in a few weeks or so. Along the way, I’m pulling out some old skills I haven’t used in…. well decades. Errant is designed very much to do a lot of procedurally generated content as part of play including the original tool for that – the random encounter table.

Random Encounter Tables, layered

My experience way back with wandering encounter tables is that it seems like you will roll the same outcome far quicker and more often than you expect, even if you have a fairly large set of entries. My solution for that is to make “double tiered entries”, where the first time you roll that entry, you get Encounter A, and the second time you roll it, you get Encounter B. It’s not a big tool, just a nice little extra you can use for charts.

Hyper simplified example (d4 roll)

1 1A: Goblins / 1B: Mounted Goblins
2 2A: Drunk celebratory mercenaries / 2B: Desperate, hungry Mercenaries
3 3A: A road checkpoint, staffed by bored militia / 3B: An empty checkpoint, with a sated Ogre
4 4A: Emio, notorious small time thief and gambler / 4B: Marza, Emio’s brother, a priest, trying to find him

Anyway, while I’ve made each A/B entry related to each other, you don’t need to. It could easily be Goblins/Corrupt Taxman or whatever. The only main thing to remember is that whatever you put in the B tier is not going to be the first thing players encounter, and perhaps, if they can move quickly enough, the second tier encounters might be avoided altogether.

Design Thinking

So why add this? Well, as you probably figured, some of these set up sort of two step story beats players can follow. It also gates some things; you have to experience A before you can experience B. If the game you are playing has some kind of standardized rules around such tables, you can basically stack this on a table to add content without adjusting the dice or stats if for any reason you want to leave all of that untouched.

You can also use this to cause an encounter chart to “evolve” or enter a second state; consider for example, if the A entries are loaded more towards peaceful/neutral encounters and the B entries are more hostile – maybe it’s random encounters as a city falls into riots and chaos under the shadow of The Watching Serpent, or, vice versa, A entries are mostly bandits and as the heroes scare them away, capture or drive them off, the B entries are more peaceful as the area is made safer.

Now, could you add C entries or D entries? Sure, but at that point it seems like a LOT of work and the two questions are “How long are players in an area where this same chart is getting used?” and second, “Will the events of the area really be predictable that deep in, or will you be better off making up new content to adapt to whatever hijinks went down?” (Also, if you want to go deep into procedure generators that get really interesting in state changes, Hex Flowers might be the tool for you.)

I generally think of these things as additional tools to play, not the core of play; especially when you put it in the context of a treasure hunt/dungeon crawl game like Errant or similar. These are twists to the path, not the path itself.

So hopefully a small tool to play with for those of you using random encounter tables.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.