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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Honest Communication

July 4, 2015

There’s no real new problems for tabletop RPGs.  A lot of the issues people have are the same problems you can read about in old issues of Dungeon Magazine from the early 80s, or even older newsletters.  These problems boil down to trivial problems (things that are a matter of taste and easily adjusted, like small house rules), problems that take a lot of time (“retool this complicated set of rules to support a completely different setting”) and non-solveable problems.

The last category is where a lot of gamers waste an incredible amount of time and once you recognize them,  you stop wasting energy trying to fix what is unfixable.

Honest Communication

If you sit down to play poker with your friends, you understand there is an expectation of how you will communicate within the game – you are totally expected to lie about your hands and bluff and all of that.  That’s part of that game, right?  However, no one would consider it “fair play” to set up a fake call from the hospital telling a fellow player their mom is dying, just so you could look at their hand.

A game can include deception within the bounds of the game, however, people are expected to be honest outside those boundaries.

Here’s two things, which you need honesty from for a game to work:

– What game are we agreeing to play?

– What do I want from this game?

If there is dishonesty here, the game will simply dysfunction. When people can’t communicate with you honestly as one person to another, what can you build on top of it?  The trust around most games is a super low bar to meet.  (Yes, there are super emotional games where trust matters. Most Imaginary Elf games are not it).

Yes, everyone can show up, yes all the players except one player might be playing the same game, but it’s rather like playing a boardgame with a toddler who picks up random pieces or throws their crayons on the board when their turn comes up – no one looks at that and imagines the child is playing the game with you, or that their actions aren’t sometimes disruptive to the actual game being played.  Unlike a toddler, however, you’re dealing with someone cognizant enough who should be able to make a choice to play or not play and communicate it.

Emotional Dishonesty and Intentionality

Now, in nearly every case like this with tabletop games, it’s not like someone showed up and said, “I’m totally going to lie about these things, let me get my story straight”.  Emotional dishonesty is often a reaction that people don’t realize they’re doing, a pattern.  HOWEVER, when you present the differences between what they say they want to do and what they’re doing, there’s basically only 3 options:

“Oh shit, you’re right.  This isn’t what I wanted to have happen at all.  Let me figure out how to change what I’m doing.”

This is the path where you can FIND honesty and create functional communication.

“Well. damn, you’re right.  I guess I actually want this OTHER thing and maybe this game isn’t the right one for me.”

Hey emotional honesty and an end to wasting time on things that aren’t going to change.

“No, that’s not what I did at all!!! Let’s just have fun! Why can’t we just play?”

I’ve pointed out before that when everyone is interested in the same type of play, it’s really easy to make happen.  When someone isn’t interested in actually playing that way, everything “somehow” becomes a problem. And that a lot of this kind of “don’t talk about it” attitude is about the idea of either forcing each other into “One True Way” to play or else trying to avoid the elephant in the room that the group doesn’t actually want to play the same game.

Problems that cannot be honestly described, problems that you don’t have cooperation in addressing?  Those can’t be solved.  This is not a matter of time.  You can’t force any individual to “want” something they don’t want (well, you can abuse and brainwash people, however, that’s certainly not about fun or enjoyment…)

Pretty much after the point where the group has talked to a player or set of players about what the expectations of play are supposed to be, and they continue to be violated?  Then that’s someone who isn’t interested in communicating – they’re not listening.

People don’t want to hear it

You ever have friends in a bad relationship, and you point out obvious A to B connections about behaviors and what’s going on and the one option that never comes up is “just leave” or when you bring it up, they have a million and one reasons including “..but I love them!”?   Yeah, that’s the same pattern when it comes to dishonest communication in a game group.  You can read forums and see this question pop up again and again, “What do I do about X player?” and pretty much it boils down to: “Talk to them, and either they change or they leave.”

The answer they really want is “How do I change their mind? How do I make them want what I want?  How do I change who they are?”

There’s no answer to that.  It’s an unsolveable problem.

Some of it is that people don’t want to admit the difference in goals and that they actually just like different things.  Some of it is that the person in question is abusive or a jerk, and most importantly – never was your friend to begin with.  Self examination can reveal a lot and not all of it is pretty.  “Are THESE people and THIS game giving me what I want?”  There’s a question to consider.  Like a relationship, “Is this even working?” is a question people don’t bring up for themselveses enough.  Being honest with yourself often is half the hurdle here.

I deal with enough unreasonable people in life in general – why spend my time gaming with them as well?

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Three Questions in Action

July 3, 2015

Someone on rpg.net asked about how the “three questions” work:

What kinds of conflicts make sense for this game?

What kinds of characters make sense for this game?

What kinds of outcomes make sense for this game?

It’s important to recognize “this game” isn’t just the specific ruleset, or a setting, it is for this particular campaign we’re going to run.  Good game design and text either locks these answers in and makes them clear to you in play, OR it gives you tools to create the answers as a group before you start playing.

I’m gearing up to play a Star Wars hack of Shadow of Yesterday, and given how “Star Wars” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, these 3 questions are actually pretty useful to answer.

Let’s start with the raw premise:

10 years after the prequels, a few half trained apprentices are on the run, seeking the last remaining Jedi to train from.  Half of this is a diaspora story – what traditions do you preserve, what do you change, how do you survive?  The other half is martial arts story – proving yourself, finding lost techniques, comraderie vs. rivalry.

What kinds of conflicts make sense for this game?

There’s the easy kind of conflict to point to – being hunted by the Empire, though that’s more of a pressure builder than necessarily a core conflict.  What’s more interesting is the idea of the rivalries between the survivors, the struggle to prove oneself, and the issue of which parts of history you hold onto vs. let go of.

The hinge points are idealism, traditions, and secret techniques to bring this all out.

What kinds of characters make sense for this game?

On the surface, we’re talking about inexperienced Jedi or Force users.  Capable enough to survive these last 10 years, but not so capable as to be “full fledged” in their own right.  Equally as important – these characters are still exploring what their ideology or world view is – maybe it’s “set” in their mind, but… they’re about to have to put it to the test and see where they really stand.

So this fits perfectly with the martial arts story parallel here.

What kinds of outcomes make sense for this game?

The primary point of this kind of game is the transformation of the characters – rites of passage, making choices about where the older folks are right, full of crap, or only halfway right and how they themselves want to live.  The choices might be a process of maturation or a process of bad choices and regret.

The outcomes that make that happen are what people do about traditions, about ideals, about learning or not learning specific techniques.  For a parallel – take a look at Avatar the Last Airbender – nearly all of the themes, the issue of training and tradition, ideals and self development – all of those appear in that story as well.

Original trilogy Star Wars isn’t too far from this by the second and third movies – Luke’s path to success is effectively rejecting every tradition given to him – staying at home, abandoning his friends at Yoda’s behest, joining Vader, fighting and killing in domination, etc.  Pretty much the only value he ends up sticking with is Obi Wan’s “Trust the Force” (over everything else).


See how all 3 of those questions fit together? We ended up hammering these together in about 45 minutes of discussion from being unsure what to play at all.

It wasn’t a deep theoretical discussion as much as, “Hey, what about Star Wars? Like 10 years after the prequels?  Scattered surviving Jedi apprentices?” “Oh, yeah! What if part of the conflict is that some are hardcore about the Jedi way, others are doubtful?”

We bounced it back and forth to get those ideas together and now everyone is working on characters.


Primetime Adventures

June 29, 2015

Primetime Adventures finally has a new website!

PTA is hands down one of the best RPG designs ever made.  If you look through my archives, I’ve run/played in PTA the most over the last 10 years.  I’m really happy to see the game is back in print, and no longer a game of playing “hunt down the last PDF vendor who still sold it” which I had been pushing people towards for many years.

Primetime Adventures is lightweight and elegant.  Unlike a lot of lightweight games that brag “the rules get out of the way”, the mechanics in PTA do what rules are supposed to do – help you make amazing play experiences as a group.  It helps you focus pacing for stories, it gives everyone chances at input, the rules teach you to improvise better, and how to make more entertaining play in the moment, through it’s reward system.  I’ve had people say “We’ve had more happen in a 2-3 hour session than entire campaigns in other systems” and it’s true.

If you’re looking for a game that is easy to learn, focuses on stories (Narrativism) and plays out full campaigns in 5-9 sessions, this game has not been matched since it first came out, over a decade ago.


Examining Conflict to Produce Momentum

June 23, 2015

(This is pretty much solely concerned with Narrativist games.)

Player Commitment to Character Commitment

What makes a good story?  We are care about (are invested in, interested in the outcomes of) the characters and the situations at end.  We, the audience.  In media which we simply consume, part of it is that the movie, tv show, book, comic, etc. in question has to win us over as an audience.  They have to give us characters and events that are interesting, and then we begin to care about the outcomes.

However, in roleplaying games, we are not just audience – we are also creators.  And the relationship of creators to the characters and the fiction is a bit different.  You have to commit towards trying to make interesting characters/situations on some creative level to do it well.

The questions of character commitment are what fuel interest – Can they succeed? How will they succeed? What prices will they pay? What choices will they make? etc. And not all of these questions actually matter – we might all know this is the genre where the good guys win… but what kind of people they will be at the end of it is the question we’re asking.  Or, perhaps this is a superhero story and we know the characters will be true to their original concepts regardless of events, because that’s the kind of genre we’re doing.

So as a player, you have to think about what kind of character you are creating and what they are willing to fight for (and, in some way, make it clear to the rest of the group what that is, whether that’s a discussion ahead of time or good Flag mechanics).

Status Quo – that which fulfills/kills you?

There’s basically two things that drive characters into action – either protecting the status quo or trying to change it.  It’s either something that fulfills them and should be protected, or else it’s something that is harming them, and become unbearable, whether the conditions have worsened or the character is just fed up with it all.

Identifying that when you make your character is a great thing – because it tells the GM and the other players how to interact with your character and where there is space for conflict and growth.

You’ll notice that in other media, it’s the character’s commitment to this protection/change that plays a part of what wins us over as an audience.  If the characters’ don’t care, why should we?  If the characters make a big deal of it, we at least are put to the space to consider how important it is for us as audience members.

Momentum in play

If the players commit to the characters’ beliefs, goals, and so on, and drive towards seeing those fulfilled in play, it becomes very easy to keep things moving.  The players push it forward.  And you’ll notice that it doesn’t necessarily require a clue-train or trying to nudge players into action.

1. The players’ commitment creates the characters’ commitment.

2.. The characters’ commitment creates ongoing events in play as improvised by the players.

3.  The ongoing events create chances for expressing the characters and consequences.

4.  The expresssion of characters and consequences creates player investment.

This requires the players’ to buy in before play begins and commit, but in doing so, this is how you get good play coordinated.  Constrast this to the games that take several sessions to get any investment at all – most of the time it’s fumbling around to get character goals, or any expression of the characters in a way that matters, and of course, whether player input (via characters) gets to matter at all, or is blocked from play as a matter of course.

You can think of events in play like rowing a boat – if everyone’s rowing, the boat moves very easily.  If there’s a group of people in the boat but only one person is rowing, it is very tiring, quickly.

Changing Motivations

What’s key here is the commitment to FIND something your character cares about, and to have your character PUSH to see it protected/changed/fulfilled, etc. and not so much about the specifics of what that thing is.  As long as there’s some kind of established plausiblility you can follow, the motivations can change, or be revealed to be about something else, and so on.

You’ll notice that this is a different sort of spending a few sessions “finding your feet” than the traditional method.  In this method, it’s “let me find a better way to show you what my character cares about” that’s the change, whereas, the traditional method is “let me figure out if my character cares about any of this to begin with, then figure out if it’s worth fighting for”

This is not the same as the reluctant hero, which can work in static media simply because the creators know that the hero will be pushed into her destiny or moment of conflict.  The reluctant hero only works in roleplaying games if you are clear about the difference between reluctance as a trope vs. reluctance as a thing that shapes the story and drags yoru character away from the conflict you’re interested in exploring.


Monsters: Choice, Compulsion, Existence

June 17, 2015

A lot of our games, and settings for our games, have monsters of some type.   However, what that monster is, thematically in the fiction, can be very different things, and depending on how you are coming at it, it can mean a very different type of game, or story you are creating.

Monsters of Choice

A monster of “choice” is a creature that does evil as a choice.  The important part of this is that this is something the monster, as a character, chooses to do, and could, if they wanted, choose to do otherwise.  One might be able to convince such a creature to stop or reform.

In this regard, a serial killer would be as much of a monster as a giant that chooses to eat people.

This is a key point worth understanding, as most often this is the default understanding of sentience – you can choose to do things, and if the species as a whole is constantly portrayed as wanting to do evil (without, say, some kind of context like a society that encourages harm or something), you basically have the classic D&D problem of the “Chaotic Evil” race.

Monsters of Compulsion

A monster of compulsion is unable to stop itself from doing harmful things.  This is often what you get when you have a story with sympathetic vampires or werewolves.  They are under a condition they cannot control which causes them to do terrible things.  Although plenty of fiction plays with the fact about such types being either against their condition or reveling in it, the role of heroes who are not monsters would be to try to best free such creatures of their compulsion.

Usually however, this only shows up as protagonist characters who are under a compulsion – the various White Wolf games love to play this up.

Monsters of Existence

A demon of hate, summoned from another dimension.  A robot that kills all organic life.  etc.  These are the monsters that are unable to even question or doubt their choices, if they can make choices at all.   They are evil because they are evil and you don’t have to worry about destroying them or whatever harm befalls them in stopping them.

This is the monster that is the best kind to have for guilt free action games – you want a lot of monsters to beat down? Skeletons! Robots! Etc.

Confusion in play…

So, if players don’t know they can try to redeem monsters, as they assume they are unfixably evil… then they won’t.  If players keep trying to have their characters reach out to a demon that cannot be converted to good… they will waste a lot of time.   The players will probably have a lot of intercharacter fighting if they think it goes one way or the other and can’t see why someone would (murder without a thought/reach out to a forsaken demon) etc.

There’s definitely a fun space for stories where you’re not sure which category applies, however, those stories tend to be brutal examinations of morality, and usually over the fate of a single character.  Bonus drama: if you’re still unsure AFTER the situation has been resolved as well – “Do you think we could have saved him?”  “I’d like to think so… but we’ll never know now…


Small Mysteries and how you run your RPGs

June 15, 2015

Humans are curious – it’s why we love mysteries.  I don’t necessarily mean the mystery genre, but what I mean is small mysteries, little things in a story, or a game, where you say, “Something is going on there…” and you really want to find out what it means – Two people shoot each other a meaningful look, someone pauses just so, something seems to not work the way it should….

There’s a lot of different approaches and it’s kind of a key point to know as a group, as each sets up a different play expectation.


A mystery as a puzzle is something to be solved, and the question is more about whether it should be solved in the short term (“figure out how the trap works to get past it”) or in the long term (“Find out who killed Colonel Mustard through investigating everyone…”)

A key expectation about treating mysteries as puzzles is that the mystery is only uncovered through actions of the protagonists (and, in RPGs, the players who control them).  With that in mind, it means players have to constantly ask questions, poke and prod at things, and act kind of an ass in general to figure things out.

This mirrors behaviors in adventure videogames where players poke at everything, “click on everything”, push/attack every wall or object, try to jump over walls, etc. because they have to try to find every secret.

This is common to dungeon crawl type play, but ultimately very weird and out of place for any other kind of media.  It works well when you’re mostly prodding objects, however, when it comes to investigating other characters, the sort of compulsive information squeeze doesn’t work so well.  You’ll also notice that this expectation can get players stuck on investigating non-interesting things, because they’ve projected onto it, some kind of importance or mystery.


A mystery as a promise is how stories typically do it – “there’s something weird” and you know the storyteller will eventually reveal it.  The mystery is presented as a tease, as suspense, and you know there’s going to be a reveal and depending on how it’s all done, you are either entertained, nonplussed, or annoyed.

When it comes to RPGs, treating mysteries as promises frees players from having to compulsively pick at everything – they can either let it pass, let their characters be ignorant/heedless of it, play into it even further, or check on it and be ok that it will come back later.   This is also true of players revealing mysteries about their characters, as well.

The nice thing about treating a mystery as a promise is that it lets you take time to find the most entertaining way to address it, and as a group commitment, allows everyone to work together to revealing stuff together, without necessarily requiring some kind of out of play conversation about it.

Window Dressing

Mysteries as window dressings can make for cool background material – the weird statue, the sound that seems to come from the walls, the character who acts strange for no apparent reason.   The problem is that a great number of old school dungeon modules would mix up the Window Dressing with the Lethal Deathtrap – so many gamers ended up developing habits of assuming everything is a Puzzle mystery instead.

Window dressing mysteries can add a LOT to the play experience – they are basically the style, or the aesthetic you build.


Bullshit mysteries are what I call it when a story or game pushes itself with mysteries as Promises and then turns them into Window Dressing or leaves them forever unanswered.  People tell me this is effectively what the TV show Lost, was doing.

Now, roleplaying games are great for being able to make shit up on the fly – until it gets stated or otherwise put into play, everything is unformed.  So it’s easy to set up mysteries or connections without knowing the answer when you do it – but you also have to bring it back and answer it at some point, and in a way that fits with the plausibility expectations of your game.

If you don’t deliver, or break/destroy key ideas that people have accepted as part of the story/world/setting, then people feel cheated.

Coordinating this all

One of the things I’ve done over the years when I run dungeon crawls is I tell everyone that there will be no traps or hazards that are not clearly visible as dangerous.  I’ve done this because I despise “check every 10 feet because the whole dungeon wants to eat/fall on you”, but it also ends up being a very clear communication of what mysteries to expect and deal with – if there’s going to be a Puzzle mystery, it will be clearly marked, otherwise everything else is Window Dressing.

I usually play explicitly Narrativist RPGs like Primetime Adventures, because the default expectations and rules set you up to get mysteries as Promises, and you can focus on the character development and events that form in play without having to poke or prod at things, and so on.  Flag Mechanics are effectively a way to set your character’s issues, goals and values up as Promise mysteries to deliver on.

(This post was mostly inspired  by watching Steven Universe and catching up on the Erfworld comic, and thinking about the ways in which they reveal their mysteries over the longer story form.  Yes, I’ll probably put together a short, simpler way of talking about this and jam it into the Same Page Tool later on.


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