Archive for November, 2020


Puzzle Dungeons

November 20, 2020

I’m sure I must have linked Game Maker’s Toolkit Boss Keys series on Legend of Zelda dungeon design before, but this recent one on puzzle dungeons has some great principles for tabletop folks looking to make the same kind of thing.

I do recall old school dungeons having stuff like rotating rooms, elevator puzzles, etc. here and there, and it’s not a bad idea overall.

I think a key difference is that in a videogame you can back track through rooms in a matter of seconds and there’s a small play reward of the joy of jumping, swinging, etc. along the way that doesn’t quite happen in tabletop – so you probably don’t want the density of required state changes to solve a puzzle that a Zelda game has.

Where these do become more interesting is if your game has issues like wandering monsters or supplies that run out (like… torches) where efficient navigation becomes especially useful.

And, being a tabletop game, you can play with ideas like – does a state change in the dungeon trap, block, or kill some monsters? Does it open pathways for other, dangerous ones to run loose? Are there intelligent creatures also enacting state changes to the dungeon?

It’s important to note that until players understand what they are doing and how it works, the whole thing is an obstacle, and once they do, it might become a useful tool or advantage.

Finally, there’s also the issue that unlike videogames, players can come up with some really creative, but plausible ways to traverse to areas you might think impossible. Rope, a little bit of magic, and some creativity can get people around a lot more than you think.


Towns, shops, places

November 15, 2020

I saw a thing where someone was giving the time honored advice about preparing a town or place in an RPG using the “atlus/gazateer” method – where you think of all the sorts of places and people that would make sense and list them out. I find this tends to be rather time intensive for little play value most of the time, so here’s how I normally go about this.

Game worlds are fractal, your real time is not

So here’s a thing; you can make any location and group of NPCs deeply interesting if you want to – consider how a soap opera can take a dozen characters and go for years, adding or removing only one or two people here and there.

The depth of complexity is fractal – the more you zoom in, the more you can add.

However, your real world time, as a GM, and as a play group, is not infinite. So you need to figure out where the focus of play is, and put the effort there – if the game is about who will win the throne, having 4 sessions of play dedicated to resolving a fisherman’s relationship with his estranged son as a random aside might not be the way to go.

So when you are prepping a place, keep in mind if this is a place where the focus of play will happen, and whether it will be a recurring location or a one-off place, in order to decide how much effort to put in.

Having a notebook with tons of detailed notes on each village but the players basically pass through them all in minutes, is not a good use of time.

A summation to start

Start with a broad understanding of the place you’re doing prep for. “A decaying village, no longer receiving trade from across the water.” “A small military fort, on edge awaiting war.” “A dragon’s lair, where the creatures who have moved in await the day, in the far future, when it shall awaken.”

The broad idea helps you make up anything that would fit in – the characters, the objects, how things look, feel, smell. You can do this for a whole place, but also the places within it as well – inns, schools, shops, sketchy alleyways where the gangs hang out, etc.

If you feel comfortable enough with it, you might not need anything more to improvise – I usually find this is true with modern-day locations or in games where we already have a very set of movies, books, cartoons, etc. to draw from – “What things look like” is already well established.

Attitudes vs. Angles

NPCs have two levels of detail to start with.

“Attitude” is a tiny bit of personality and a general thing they want. The smith is tired, wants you to hurry up and buy stuff and get on. The innkeep is a terrible gossip and loves hearing drama. The cyberhacker collects toys from a videogame series and will talk to you all day about it.

It’s a decorative thing I give NPCS and not intended to be a “deeper thing”. If I see players starting to do the thing where “you’ve made this more interesting than a featureless wall, I will overexamine/interact with it”, I let them know that this isn’t the focus here and there’s no secret hiding in this NPC.

NPCs who have MORE going on, either want something from the PCs or else are hoping to make something happen with regards to other NPCs, and are willing to take action. This is an “Angle”.

The Captain of the Guard wants the Red Slasher caught, mostly, but he also would like the credit, because the Council has been trashing him. The CEO of the security company wants to ruin your team’s reputation since you keep making his business look useless. Etc.

Make it up on the spot

Just those tools above make up the most of how I prep or improvise things. I don’t need to list every character in a place, I just need to be able to jam together some idea of a personality and build from there. I need to prep when it’s important that some angle or aspect of a place or town is covered but not as a general rule – so I may only have 1-3 NPCs written for an entire city and expand outward as we continue play.

Of course they have X vs. The weird thing is

Generally, you can always state something is present that would make sense, but sometimes you might say something that seems out of place. When that happens, you can either go, “oh my bad, you’re right, actually they WOULD have X” or, if you’re feeling quick witted, “The weird thing is…” and explain why something is unusual.

Those sorts of things could be conditional – “The tools are aren’t in the shop because we had a summons for a big job today and they’re working on the Mayor’s house” or they could be setting building – “Yeah, the ironworkers are across town, but they send over a cart once a day. It’s a holdover from the days when we had an East gate before the dragon attack 30 years ago, and didn’t have to put the stables over here.”

“You already know this…”

There’s a really good shortcut in play for places – just tell the players what their characters are already presumed to know.

Sometimes players get into the habit of playing an RPG like a videogame when it comes to learning about the location – “I look here” “I open the drawer”, open each door, etc. You can skip all that and just tell them with the assumption their character either is making a very good guess/inference, or actually knows a thing.

It could be historical – “Yeah, you already know a short cut to the healer’s house – you used to run behind the low wall chasing your friends around as kids” or it could be immediate – “You already saw the restuarant’s back door to the alley when you went to the bathroom before dinner – there was a fire alarm and a hook for keys, probably for the janitors and the delivery bikes.”

Creative Fatigue

Now, coming up with lots of details, repeatedly, can be taxing. However, you should be prepping more for the focus of the game you’re playing and helping players also follow that set of expectations as well, so the stuff to improvise should be relatively few and lightweight.

If you find that you are having to do a lot, it’s worth considering what the focus of play is, and what you really need to prepare.

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


Go check out The Abuser’s Playbook

November 4, 2020

Not really an RPG, but an educational resource using the PbtA language. Pay what you want, proceeds go to stop cyber bullying.

The Abuser’s Playbook(s) is an educational resource designed to use the language of PBTA moves (rules for the Powered By The Apocalypse system) and character archetypes to teach people about the “mechanics” of abuse.

The Abuser’s Playbook(s) is not designed to be an exhaustive guide to all of the different types of abuse that exist. Nor does it discuss all possible forms of abuse. There were many other “playbooks” I could have written, but I chose to focus on abuser archetypes that are common but don’t often get talked about as being abusive.