Archive for March, 2021


Signal Boost: Paizo Blog – International Transgender Day of Visibility

March 31, 2021

Go read!

Many voices, with a lot to say. Still a long way to go.


April 2021 Game Hype

March 30, 2021

Eh. March disappeared in an instant, and while April is 2 days away, might as well do the write up now.

Uncharted Worlds

We’re a few sessions in, and, my idea of using a hex map for the issues of space travel and war is working out well. We just had a full session of strategizing and planning – the map naturally sets up the players in situations where there is, on average, 3 places they might want to go, but which one is the best choice given the enemy’s intentions and their limited capacity as a single ship?

The issue I was afraid of, that the generalized Move system would cut out the support you get from Apocalypse World’s clear stakes in most Moves is actually true, and it’s a bit sad because it is one of the key points I think a lot of PbtA designs miss out on.


We’re also a couple of sessions into Perilous. It is very light and easy to work with in terms of mechanics, but it is also very swingy in terms of outcomes. Much like Uncharted Worlds, without better stakes guidance, though the math is easy, the creative lifting is a bit harder.

That said, I’m not totally sure this would be my go to for dungeoncrawls specifically – I’d like to try some of the dungeon specific games like 5 Torches Deep as a comparison. Perilous might just work better for the more general adventure set up instead.

Amour Astir Advent

I saw someone recommend this on Twitter and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s a magical mecha game, with influences from Gundam, Escaflowne, Voltron, and more. You are rebels fighting an oppressive power, with the setting pretty much open for you to design specifics.

The mechanics are pretty much – emo drama = powering up. Relationships have their equivalent to Countdown Clocks from Apocalypse World – when they’re full, the relationship has to change (grow, shift, fall apart) and you get your advancement primarily through that. The game splits play between Sorties and Downtime. I’d love to play this and compare it to Bliss Stage, as Bliss Stage delivers unparalleled heart breaking scenes between characters, this might be a good option for a little less intensity and a little more mechanical heft.

Witch Quest

I had forgotten about Witch Quest! One of my friends reminded me a month ago and I’ve been thinking about it since. It’s basically the Kiki’s Delivery Service RPG, with the bonus that players can play either a witch or a cat familiar. I think this will probably be the next thing I run for my group. (Golden Sky Stories is also on that list, but given I have enough players who love witches, Witch Quest will probably be an easier draw.)

Since it’s been years since I had looked at the rules I only vaguely remember bits, but I do remember it’s got it’s own tarot cards, and I’d probably want to research into whether I want to print and cut up a set or make them virtually on a shared table system.

There’s about a dozen other games I ended up snagging on sale I need to look through and see what they’re doing mechanically as well.

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A simple dungeon

March 22, 2021

We’ve started playing Perilous and I ran a very simple dungeon (using the Dungeons for Stories principles)since I know half my group has never done dungeoncrawls before, and I wanted something that would hit some basic ideas without being a massive commitment. I wanted to go ahead and use it as an example of ideas in play, not necessarily “perfectly designed” or anything like that.

A last minute dungeon

I jammed this whole dungeon together in an hour, because work has been hell lately and I didn’t have a lot of prep time. I started with an idea, scribbled out the map (with a vague of idea of a couple of the rooms) then typed up the rest before the game. Because Perilous is very mechanically light, all I need to do was make sure I had the ideas ready to go.

If the notes seem spare and incomplete? Well, remember, you only need as much notes for yourself to run the dungeon, not for everyone else, as you would with a published product.

That said, 1 hour of rushed prep got 6 hours of play, so it worked fine.

Layout Choices

So, there’s two needs happening at the same time for this layout. (entries are at the bottom of this post)

First, it was once a functional place – and with that in mind, I thought about a small religious palace – the left side (2 and 7) has a room for vistors and then a shrine. The central rooms (1, 5) were greeting halls, leading to the throne room (8), and much later, the magical meteor room was added (10). The right hand side is all practicality – an apothecary and storage room (3 & 4), a ritual room (6) and the hall of the dead to work with the necromancy (9)

Second is all game needs. I wanted minimal choice, but still choice. So, there are two entrances, the front door (1) and the hole in the roof in the ritual room (6). The available paths are fundamentally a ring with side rooms – but until you explore it, it is unclear how much this will branch off, which was a useful bit of misdirection for the players who were familiar with dungeon crawls – they’re not sure how big this place can get, or how many monsters, so until they loop around, there’s a bit of tension.

Storywise, there’s two things going on. One is the little boy Manyo who fell into the dungeon during the roof collapse. There’s the problem of getting him to safety and his family looking for him (the town points to the dungeon). Second, the monsters are all guardians and the rooms have environmental stuff to foreshadow the truth of what happened. Some of the things aren’t going to be solveable by the party without help from the town (the dungeon points to the town).

Monster Choices

There’s basically 4 encounters set up for this dungeon. The clay Guardians outside the doors, crawling forth from the mud are numerous, but the party has the option to retreat and the monsters are not smart. The Clacking Chimera is a wandering patroller of the “pouncing predator” variety – about as smart as an animal and something they might encounter in any room. The Beetle Guardian and the Dead Guardian Skeletons both are inactive until you enter the room, but the difference is that the Beetle will not pursue you far, while the skeletons will not stop.

There’s not a lot of mechanical differentiation in Perilous, but there is a lot of fictional considerations – if you declare a monster has a ghostly immaterial body, you better have a way the heroes can fight it, while at the same time, acknowledging not EVERYTHING can work against it. So in this way, one trait is as mathmatically weighty as the next, but it is clear some traits are much more versatile or difficult to overcome.

Plans for future dungeons?

Well, now that we got the intro dungeon for the players future dungeons will be a bit bigger (I can’t imagine more than twice the locations, though, maybe 24 rooms, tops), more navigation hazards, more dungeon NPCS and people outside/near the dungeon, and monsters + treasure. At a larger size, stuff like 1 way routes or loopbacks become more viable.

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Click here to read landslide dungeon entries

Guaranteed Input

March 21, 2021

Many months late, I come across Cavegirl’s Theory of Hard & Soft Tools which is an excellent summation of the design issue around types of player input, GM fiat, Procedures vs. Directives, undirected broad authority, and the old conversations around Push & Pull play and mechanics.

For the last month or so I’ve been trying to formulate a good way to talk about hard tools and “guaranteed input”, but that post kinda covers most of it. This idea is also one of the points of why narration trading is an easy and useful feature to include in games aiming for Narrativism; when the whole group has the potential to completely change the direction of any story, railroading, or Illusionism cannot function.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because on one hand, there is a treasure trove of design theory available (GDC talks, boardgames, etc.) RPG design is only -just- starting to tap into it and a lot of the old spectres keep popping up, including confusion “light systems”(short word count) for being the same as systems that are supporting or complete when mostly it shovels the work onto the group or the GM and provides rather inconsistent play experiences across the board.

It is true that the simplest rule is “I say the thing and it happens” and everything else is more work, but fundamentally for play to have a direction and momentum, mechanics should be contributing to that as well. A system that “gets out of the way” is basically saying you’re going to swim because you’ve found all vehicles are bad because you kept driving cars into water and wondering why they don’t float, instead of trying something that does what you are trying to do – get a boat instead.

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Building Dungeons for Stories

March 14, 2021

I’m currently running a game of Perilous, which is a fairly rules light fantasy game. Half of my players have never played a dungeon crawl, and, I wanted to give a light taste of it without going into counting torches or having to make your own map or any of that. I have written previously about the crunchy aspects of dungeon layout (see the whole Dungeon Design series halfway down the link bar on the right side of this page), but I wanted to go a bit over the ideas and set up for making dungeons built around non-gamist needs.

“It’s closer than you think.”

A trope that is good for books, movies and videogames but not so good for RPGs is the idea that dangerous places like dungeons are very far from civilization and other people. Sure, you can ramp up how far away help is, or supplies, but the flip side is you lose a lot of room for character interaction and stakes.

See, if the dungeon is not too far from people, then the risk of monsters wandering out is a problem. The risk of people wandering in, is also a problem. Maybe kids were playing and wandered in, maybe a travelling peddler tried to hang out in the ruins to avoid a storm… keeping the dungeon near people means you cna play with the idea of the dungeon being poreous – you might encounter NPCs anywhere inside, you might encounter monsters coming out.

Town points to dungeon, dungeon points to town

This sets up the second point; you should have NPCs who need you to go into the dungeon, and you should have things in the dungeon that need you to go to a nearby town.

Robbing a grave for coins is not heroic, rescuing those kids who wandered in the dungeon and stopping the road to the town over from being over run with skeletons is. Helping the young wizard find his grandfather’s stolen spell book or the dwarven prince find the remains of his brother who braved the dungeon a decade ago, those are heroic.

Likewise, that weird book you found in the dungeon might be a language you can’t read, but the librarian in the town, can. You can’t smith those bars of mitril yourself, but the master smithy can. Even if you take out the classic tracking of supplies or needing to sell treasures, the dungeon and the town can be tightly linked.

Purposeful Space vs. “Dungeon Dressing”

I’ve seen some adventure models or ideas where the dungeon looks a bit like a poorly set up procedural generated area from a videogame – you have things that should go into the area, but they’re all set next to each other in weird ways (“There’s a clawfoot bathtub in the garage?”). These are what I consider to be built by considering everything “dungeon dressing” without context- “Of course you have to have a torture room” “Of course there’s a room with a lava pit in the middle” etc. and while these certainly make for fun and weird hazard spaces, they’re not particularly great for anything else.

I’ve also seen books and posts go into historical architecture, and, unless you and your group are into those things, that’s probably overkill too.

Instead, think of what the area was used for, and what things that entails. If there’s a dining hall, the kitchen isn’t too far away, and the kitchen will be near a pantry/storage area. If there are soldiers, there are barracks, an armory, and a place to train. All of these things might be in ruin, now, or have been changed to serve a different purpose by the point the party shows up, but if you have an idea of what it started as, you can improvise a lot of details for furniture, decorations or what might be around.

Partial Information is more fun than no information

Partial information is more interesting in dungeon crawls than full information or no information. No information gives the players no chance to think about it or make any meaning choice of it. Full information usually has obvious answers. Partial information means having to guess, plan for problems and try to find ways to get better information.

In my Perilous game, I’ve already twice foreshadowed “some creature” being behind a heavy door, snuffling at the ground then slamning against the door when people are too close. Now the players are both wondering what the hell it is as well as where in the dungeon is safe to go. The only way to really find out for sure is to go looking for it – which is dangerous, or to try to avoid it, which… not knowing is ALSO dangerous.

Partial information builds tension, suspense, and makes things into a gamble. Perfect for stories.

Hazards over traps

Again, partial information is more fun than full information or no information. Hazards present problems that players can come up with solutions, whether those are mundane answers or magical.

Traps are a common dungeon trope, but, as many people are seeing, the two basic methods of using them in a game have issues as well. You can abstract the trap to a skill roll to avoid/deal with – in which case, there’s no choice being made by the players, it’s just a random luck roll thrown at them sometimes. Or you can make the traps something players can describe searching for, and how they deal with them, which is fun for the rare player who likes that kind of puzzle and not fun for everyone else.

Now, you might point to videogames where traps work well – for example, Dark Souls or Legend of Zelda – however in those cases a) death has no real long term consequence, b) player skill is involved in avoiding these things, and c) many cases the traps are clearly telegraphed (“giant swinging blades over a bridge”) and the challenge isn’t being surprised, it’s trying to have the twitch reflexes to deal with avoidng the trap.


You can look up photos of abandoned places and get some good ideas for what you might do with a dungeon. Sure, there may not be a 50’s style TV left abandoned in your dungeon, but you can look at what appens to palace when the roof caves in and years of rain tear through floor after floor. What does it look like when animals make a nest in a place. You can find images of places where they find out they built over stuff like a Roman plaza generations ago, and get an idea of what happens when things fall into ruin or are built over, and over, repeatedly.


There’s basically three types of monsters that work well for these things, which is not to say they’re the only ones to use, just that they work -better-. I’m using the word “monsters” but obviously we’re including both natural creatures and just, well, people. Part of what makes intelligent monsters interesting is that they can be bargained with, tricked, or convinced.

Monsters with an Agenda

Monsters with an Agenda are sentient, probably can speak with the characters, and are quite active about either sending minions or going directly out to get stuff from the world outside the dungeon. The classic “evil sorcerer kidnapping people” is a perfect example but it could work in a lot of ways. Because they’re intelligent, they will be very reactive to the party’s actions as well as other NPCs and that makes them very dynamic.

Conflicting Communities

Two or more groups of intelligent monsters are at odds within the dungeon space itself. This usually entails having a much larger dungeon to accomodate the groups. The politics of the groups allows players to align themselves with one, both, or neither group depending on the situation.

These types of monsters only work if you plan on having a longer campaign, since the politics and interactions leads to more complicated play. If you’re not going to focus around conflicting communities, I recommend smaller dungeons generally, because a story isn’t just “things happen” but focus around a theme or a situation, and a smaller dungeon lets you hand that better than a sprawl, especially if you want to play with the town and the dungeon pointing at each other more.

Holdover Monsters

So once there was a community here, before the place became ruins. They had raised, summoned, or built creatures to guard, to labor, or to eat and they’re still here. Maybe it’s only a pack of dangerous dogs, maybe it’s a gargoyle guardian that attacks everyone who tries to enter a particular room. Maybe it’s a magical experiment gone wrong. If you know the purpose of the dungeon and have a general story of what happened there, it’s easy to come up with holdover monsters.

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