Archive for July, 2015


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 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.