Archive for the ‘D&D’ Category

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Illuminas Episode 1

August 17, 2018

We’re doing a short run of D&D and posting podcasts of the play.  It’s very casual, so this means jokes, what-sound-quality-we-could-get-from-our-various-headsets, and so on.

Because I am new and TOTALLY AWESOME with OBS, I lost the first session, so you get to start with the intro from the first session, and then we start with the second session.  Enjoy!

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Dungeons Part Seven: Flow and Area Encounter Design

July 23, 2014

A much more indepth look at the ideas I spoke on in Running the Dungeon.

Flow

So remember when I said that dungeon design is like videogame level design IS game design?  In part one I linked a bunch of things from analyzing good dungeon set ups in a macro sense, or Metroidvania style game design.  Here we come full circle, except this time I’m looking at the flow of individual rooms, or areas, as they pertain to making a good combat encounter.  Here’s where mostly it comes down to the logic in stuff like MOBA or FPS game design.

Unlike those games, you’re not going to have playtesters run through it thousands of times, nor will you get to reuse most of your areas many times, which makes it a lot harder to come up with good, novel areas on a consistent basis.  Oh well! You don’t need perfection, you just need good fun.

Positioning as a choice

Boardgames and war games rely on positioning as a key point of strategy in play.  Tabletop roleplaying games… well, sometimes.  The problem is that many include maps or grids but ultimately don’t do a lot with positioning.   If the ideal form of play is to simply run up and hit each other without much movement during the actual battle, it’s functionally no different than a JRPG console game where the teams line up and hit each other until one side drops.

Tabletop games have attempted to add some of it with flanking rules or spell area effects, but it often only results in minor back and forth shifts during play and not a lot of heavy movement.  Because so few games give good support in the core mechanics, it falls upon the GM to set up areas where movement is encouraged.

The Crashpoint

What’s the goal in a combat game?  To beat the enemy.  So what’s the best place to be, tactically?  The place where you can dish out damage the quickest and receive the least damage.

In an empty room or area, with no features and no tactical factors whatsoever, the “best place to be” is the place where you can do damage to the enemy the quickest – which often ends up being the midway point where the two groups meet – the Crashpoint.

The Crashpoint is like the center square in Tic-Tac-Toe – it’s where all the interesting stuff of play happens, and, if you know where it is, you can build areas and rooms that are tactically interesting by putting stuff there to make it hard to get there, or to make other places more tactically valuable to be – and thereby, move or split the Crashpoint.

Remember, fun tactics sits in fun choices.  If there’s only one place that’s the tactically best place to be, what choice is there?  You want to make a few tactically interesting options, so players have to start thinking about what’s going to be best.

Movement Tax

So consider this – anytime characters or monsters might want to move somewhere else than a direct line to do damage, they’re paying a “movement tax”  (actually, it’s a time tax, as they’re losing actions doing something other than direct damage… but since we’re talking about moving a map and how to set up areas to affect this, we’ll stick with Movement Tax).

If you want folks to go somewhere other than the Crash Point, you have to either put enough hazards/dangers in the way, and/or advantageous positions in other locations to make the Movement Tax worth paying.   In other words, this sets up choice – players can try to go straight for it, or try to avoid danger, or try to get something that should be worth more than doing straight damage.

Area Encounter Design

Blockers and Funnels

Blockers and funnels are obstacles, walls, debris, rocks, trees, crates, whatever you want that basically stop movement and funnel movement into particular areas.  This changes where combats happen and change where the Crashpoints are.  These also tend to set up some fun tactics about ranged attacks and chokepoints for melee fighting.

It’s also worth noting what’s a Blocker or Funnel for one type of creature or character may not be for another – a half ruined wall might be a big obstacle for a normal character, but the giant spider just climbs up the side of it like nothing.    This is worth considering if you want to load the map to favor one group or another.

Also consider that blockers and funnels may be destructible depending on what’s going on.  A monster might knock them out of the way, an earthquake spell knocks down the trees, the bridges everyone is fighting on start collapsing.. etc.  When you put Blockers and Funnels in the way of the Crashpoints, you move where they go, just like how water flows around things.

Alternating Wide and Tight Areas

Generally, you’re not going to go wrong by playing around with alternating more open areas with only one or two hazards or obstacles, and tight areas.  Usually my rule of defining “wide” vs. “tight” is whether the party can all stand side-by-side and fight without having to do tricky maneuvering around each other (for grid based games, don’t forget this includes diagonal positioning).  Tight areas should often include alternate paths to flank each other.  You can take a big area and set up enough Blockers, Funnels, and Hazards until it’s effectively a tight area.

The big effect this has on play is a matter of things like how well groups can focus fire on a single target, how well players can quickly distribute healing, retreat at short notice, surround an enemy or use area effect spells.  It also strongly impacts the advantages of having good movement abilities, whether raw speed or skills to jump over small gaps, climb over things, fly, etc.

Hazards

Hazards are a negative incentive- everyone generally avoids them, if they have a choice.  That said, putting Hazards next to Crashpoints or near places with advantages will cause players to have to start weighing their odds.  Be careful if the Hazard can move around, because it might completely change the set up of the encounter area.

Single Use Stunts / “Power ups”

Things that can be used to an advantage on a short term are positive incentives.  This could be a pile of logs to knock over on enemies below, a catapult to be shot, a lever to close a gate, etc.  If you can only reasonably use it once in a combat, it’s a “single use” advantage, and so, it needs to have a good amount of effect to be worth the Movement Tax.

Alternatively, you can make it a thing which can be reused at the cost of time – a catapult might be reloaded to be used again and again, but then the cost turns into time spent.  Again, consider what the benefit is compared to the amount of time the players could have been just using direct damage to the enemies.

Sandbox Encounter Considerations

Unlike an FPS map or a videogame encounter zone, combats can flow across areas, or move into spaces you didn’t expect.   This means your initial guesses on crashpoints or hazards might be completely off – the party isn’t going to care about the fiery pit in the middle of the room if they’re stuck in the hall when they’re getting attacked.   Again, this is the reason you don’t want a lot of empty rooms and halls without anything tactically interesting in them – the more the dungeon as a whole has interesting stuff in it, the more likely you are to have that intersect with your encounters for entertaining results.

Work vs. Payoff?

“Wow, this all seems like a LOT of work, to consider all these game design factors in making a dungeon!”

*Tired voice* “….yes, yes it is.”

I generally don’t do a lot of dungeon crawls for this reason – I set up short dungeons, maybe 12 areas/rooms or less, with more emphasis on Logistics and Tactical play, and not so much on Exploration.

Unless you plan on publishing a dungeon or having several groups run through it, you’re probably not going to get enough payoff for thinking this hard about it.  Of course, if you’re the kind of person who actually cares enough to want better dungeon design for your games, and you read this massive amount of words and thoughts I’ve thrown at it, you probably WILL use some of this to whatever level fits your needs.

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

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Dungeons Part Six: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

July 22, 2014

Fun Fights

What’s not fun vs. What is

First, I will tell you what is not fun: repetition and no choices.  Doing the same thing over and over, without any meaningful way to affect anything.   This is why the card game “War” is not fun once you’re not a child anymore- you just flip cards and hope for the best – there’s no choices to make, no strategy, just luck.  Long, drawn out, luck.

In your encounters, if the best option for the players is to do the same thing over and over?  That’s not fun.  If the monsters and encounters are always in the same kind of environment, doing the same things?  That’s not fun.

Fun encounters are unique and memorable AND/OR tactically challenging with interesting choices to make.

The Tactical Dial and RPGs

Now, here’s an important thing to consider – most roleplaying games do not do high challenge tactical play very well.  Consider – most games which produce a high challenge make it easy to set up and play – you can usually be up and playing a game within a few minutes, maybe 10-15 minutes for the most complicated boardgames, if you know the rules.  Now consider how long it takes to make a character, in most games.

The sort of repeatable experiences that allow you to gain skills to play at high level tactics in other games, aren’t so easily put to play in RPGs.  Videogame RPGs either re-spawn characters, go to previous saves, or even in the most hardcore roguelike games – start you at the beginning with barely 3-4 choices to make a new character.

So with this in mind, be aware most roleplayers, even those interested in tactical play, aren’t usually interested in extreme challenges.  You often will do better with a lower challenge that has unique elements that make it seem worse than what it is.  Personally, I prefer to start with an under-powered set of challenges and turn it up a bit after I know the playgroup and how well they deal with challenges, otherwise you can simply overwhelm folks and they don’t really learn anything or get much from it.

Sandbox vs. Set Piece

So remember how I posted about Threat Structure?  This is an important consideration for how you design dungeons with your combats  in mind.

Set Piece Encounters

If the combats are going to be isolated locations, with monsters in one area not chasing players around the whole dungeon and helping out other monsters, you can build much simpler areas and you can control the combat encounter balance much better.  On the other hand, you have to come up with decent reasons why the monsters don’t chase the players if they retreat, and what happens if player characters run off the map area you prepared for a given encounter.   It often feels more “videogame-y” to do encounters this way, so you should be mindful to think of rationales to cover it up a bit, if you can.

Sandbox Encounters

If the combats can spill out and go anywhere, then you have a much different situation.  Monsters might snowball into a larger group than the party expects.  Players might lure monsters into an area more favorable to killing them.  Monsters might fight other monsters.  Etc.

This ends up mirroring some of the issues MMORPGs have seen in the last few years where players might lead a bunch of monsters, or an uber monster into an area that you don’t expect it to go.   Some of this naturally depends on running the monsters not as mindless AI bots, but even then there’s ways this can happen.  It also means players might inadvertently lead monsters to areas more favorable to the monsters, as well.  It’s more “realistic”, or at least, allows more options than videogames do, but it’s also more messy and you have to be willing to improvise and accept that things will be more swingy than what you’ve planned.

Monsters + Environment

So what makes a memorable encounter?  Something unique that happens.  Goblins are gobins.  Goblins attacking you by swooping down on hang gliders is another.  Goblins riding dinosaurs is yet another.  Goblins jumping down from trees onto the rickety raft you’re navigating with supplies down the river is yet another situation as well.  As you can see, the context makes a simple monster, into something much more interesting.

I once had a gelatinous cube chasing players in a library.  It’s slow, big and stupid.  Easy to outrun. Except when it started using it’s three tons of mass to knock down shelves upon shelves of books, trapping characters so it could devour them, slowly.  It wasn’t like it was thinking about this – it just took a straight line path towards food…

Towards the Monsters’ Advantage

It’s easy to think of many ways in which the environment might be in the monsters’ favor – defensible positions, darkness, water for swimming creatures, etc.

For any monster that has a form of movement the player characters do not – burrowing, climbing, wall walking, swimming, hovering, teleporting, etc., there’s an environment well suited for them.  Weird amorphous creatures, small swarms that can flood through tiny cracks, gaseous creatures and ethereal types are especially dangerous in this way.  Also don’t forget great size or strength is it’s own form of movement advantage – a monster that can casually push down trees like brushing through grass is strong enough that many obstacles… simply aren’t obstacles to it.

Consider whether the advantage is short term (an ambush, having the high ground, etc.) that can be easily lost, or if the advantage is lasting, like a swimming creature dragging you underwater, where the advantage is likely to impact every single round of combat.

Towards the Players’ Advantage

Environment favoring the players is something you have to think about a little differently than that favoring the monsters.

First, it works best if it provides choices and things to do.  Putting a monster in an area where it is inherently disadvantaged isn’t that much fun.  Putting the monster in an area where the characters can do something fun like use the environment, lead it to a place where it can’t fight back as well… that’s fun.  These are “Stunt Zones” – areas where stunts are likely.

But for this to work, you have to have players who are willing to think outside the box and try to do these things – some players are used to any ideas they have that aren’t listed on the character sheet being shut down, they will not try them ever.  It helps with new groups or players to point out some options, usually based on what kind of character you’re dealing with.  A warrior would know that luring the monster into the tunnel would prevent it from flying around and make it easier to hit.  The rogue character might immediately see the cart full of salt and know it could get thrown into the creature’s eyes for a blinding effect.  Etc.

Second, it makes epic battles more reasonable.  You can fight a terrible monster if the situation limits it’s abilities and brings it down to a more manageable fight.  This might be injuries or simply better conditions.  If you fight a dragon in a (relatively small for it’s size) tunnel, it can’t fly, it can’t turn around as well, and you have a better chance to win.  But you still get the excitement of fighting a dragon.

Expected vs. Foreign Environments

Fighting Ice elementals in a tundra, fighting fire elementals in a volcano… pretty classic fantasy logic, right?  There’s an elemental version of most things, and they’re keyed to a particular environment.  That’s easy enough to fit a monster to an environment – it’s expected.

But what happens when you’re fighting a fire elemental on a frozen lake and it’s melting the ice you need to stand on?   What happens when you have a fire elemental in a library?  How about an ice elemental in the middle of a monsoon?  Or when your party is waist deep in water?   Think of putting those monsters in foreign environments and consider the effects!  You can make a lot of things a lot more memorable this way.

Collateral Damage

So remember how I suggested putting “Breakables” as a section in the notes of any dungeon room?  Collateral damage is fun.  Not just for the players, but also when the monsters do it, too.  Did the party manage to avoid getting hit by the giant?  Great.  But did it take out half the support pillars to the room, starting a cave in?  Uh oh.

Every time someone misses, ask yourself what got hit instead?

I don’t recommend tracking every little thing by points, as much as using common sense applied to the laws of your game world and a little forethought for your encounters.    If you absolutely need to make it a mechanical thing, consider strength rolls and similar set ups.

Hazards

The easiest way to spice up an encounter is to put a hazard in the area.  A key point for designing good hazards is that they have to have some clear indication that they are dangerous.   That is, an open pit is  clearly a hazard.  A rickety bridge “that looks pretty shaky and questionable” is also a hazard.  A pit of spikes with a magical illusion over it that looks perfectly safe isn’t a “fair hazard” as much as a “gotcha” style trap.

A hazard doesn’t have to favor one side or the other, although it can depending on the abilities of everyone involved (a pit doesn’t really faze flying creatures, for example).

Hazards can be something that causes damage, slows or stops movement, wrecks gear and supplies, and or sets up other long term problems.   An important consideration is if you foresee a hazard taking someone out of the combat – because even if it’s incapacitation, or being stuck spending the next 7 rounds trying to climb out of a hole, it’s effectively “out of the combat” just the same, and that’s a dangerous thing for your encounter planning – it can swing a combat one way or another very quickly.

Hazards should be placed either central to areas where players are likely to cross, or, at least, near things the players would likely want.  If you have a hazard in the corner where no one wants to go anyway, they’ll just avoid it and it becomes set decorations in the background and not actually anything interesting.

Chaotic Elements

A pit is a pit, and everyone knows not to go fall in the pit, right?  But a raging bull that is randomly moving about and goring or stomping people in the middle of the battle… that’s not so easy to avoid.

Some hazards are more fun if they’re chaotic – they can move around, grow/shrink, have changing effects.   That said, you have to be careful about these kinds of hazards.  Because they’re randomized, they might go really bad one way or another, and favor one side or another just by luck of the draw.Chaotic Hazards can have lesser effects, their randomness usually makes them memorable.  Be careful not to make them too mechanically complicated since you have to keep track of them.

Next: Flow and Encounter Area Design

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Dungeons Part Five: Information Management

July 20, 2014

You don’t just design the dungeon for the players to play it, you also have to design it so you can RUN it in play.   This post is just about the practical tricks to managing your information.

What to Track?

Do Not Bury Your Information

One of the worst ways to organize your dungeon info is to have several blocks of text with important stuff buried in it.  You want information broken out, into separate sections so it is easy to navigate.  You can find adventure modules where a room has nearly a half page of description but buries stuff like stats and mechanical bits right in with the (longwinded) room description.

Do Not Scatter Your Information

The other terrible thing for handling information is to bury a chunk of information into it’s own section, elsewhere.  For example, if you have a magical effect that works on several rooms, you could put a single section describing this effect near the beginning or the end, but it’s probably better to have a shorthand of that description included WITH each of those rooms.  It’s just easier to not have to flip back and forth in your notes, or skip around.  Your notes are supposed to make it easy to run a game, so put everything you need, every place you need it.

Exploration, Logistics, Tactics

Depending on what your group wants, determines what you should bother recording.

Groups who have no interest in exploration don’t actually need a map, even.  You can just have a list of relevant locations and an approximation of how long it takes to get there.  Groups who care about logistics probably want to know things like sources of water, where to find tools and supplies, or things that can be used as such.  Groups who want tactics  might not care about an overall dungeon map, but want good maps for the fight areas…  So keep this in mind, as I describe stuff to track, you pick and choose what makes sense based on your groups’ needs, rather than do everything just to do it.

Interaction

What are the odds of events in one room affecting another? Are monsters going to react to hearing sounds of fighting?  Or are they undead or constructs bound to an area?  Or is it too far too hear?   If monsters run from one area to another, will other monsters react in turn?  If a guard doesn’t show up at another station in a certain amount of time, when do they send out patrols to check on them or barricade themselves in assuming an attack is imminent?

If your rooms and it’s inhabitants might have chain reactions upon each other, you may want to track it (see Sounds, below).

Persistence

If you’re playing a one shot or short run through a dungeon, you probably don’t need to worry too much about notes and obsessing on what effects the players have upon the area.  If the dungeon is a mega dungeon where the players will be playing for many game sessions, or a years-long campaign, you may want to track how things get changed and what the consequences are, in detail.

If your game is going to be long lasting, you may want to track Persistence (see Breakables and Notes, below).

Room Info

I use the word “room” but this can be any kind of area in your dungeon – a hall, stairs, a giant cave with an underground lake, etc.  A “room” is basically an area you need to have some kind of information to deal with about it.

Title

Give each room a title.  “The Creepy Statue Room”, “The Sliding Hall Trap”, etc. work better than just “Room 42”.   To be sure, you can still use numbers as well, but the title will help you remember things so you don’t have to re-read your notes as often.

Features

Features is the most important thing!  What are the exits? What hazards, threats, challenges or rewards does this room hold, if any?  If it doesn’t hold anything, you should ask if it needs to be here, and even if you do need the room, do not spend too much time giving it description.  You can look at this as being the “reason” the room exists at all from a game design standpoint, and determines if the room has engagement density.  This is a good place to write down critical mechanical bits, preferably with a bullet point breakout for ease of reference.

This is how I measure how “big” a dungeon is, not how many rooms, but how many rooms have something interesting to engage with.

Description

Description is what the PCs see upon first sight.  It can either be a few sentences you can read out loud, or it can be short notes that mean something to you (“Storage room, looks like creepy shop from Gremlins movie”) that allow you describe or improvise the rest.  Notice that this is not going to include things that are hidden, require investigation/examination, stats, etc.

Unless I’m using a mapless dungeon (just a list of important areas), I don’t bother writing the basic room dimensions – that’s what the map is there for.  If there’s some kind of weird thing that wouldn’t display well on the map (an incline, the ceiling sloping in a weird way, etc)., then I would include it here, although if it’s enough to impact gameplay in an obvious way, then it goes to Features instead.

Secrets

Traps, hidden doors, hidden treasure, etc.  These are the things which aren’t obvious without close and careful inspection.  If someone starts searching or using funky detection magic, you have it in the Secrets section to make it quick and easy to find.  It’s also worth noting if some special action has to be taken to find these things or what the difficulty numbers are if it involves some kind of skill roll.

Information

Does the room have objects, decorations, markings or evidence of anything that tells something about the setting or the world around you?  Does the room communicate information?    This can be anything from giant claw marks that serve as forewarning there’s a large monster about, to tapestries that show you this was once the stronghold of the Elven King of the East.   Information is broken out separately because it nearly always requires a little bit of time to inspect and think about it, which may not be relevant if players are just running through.

If you already know your players and what their characters can do, you can specialize information to be specifically relevant to certain characters.  Give different characters extra information based on what they would know.

Sounds

How well does sound carry between rooms?  Is there any nearby rooms where sound carries well?  Useful to check if other creatures can hear you, or if you can hear things going down with other creatures.  This is worth noting if there usually are creatures in these other areas, and especially important in Fortress, Mastermind, and Faction style Threat Structure dungeons.

“Conversations can be heard in the hall (2), shouting reaches the Garden (5) and the Stair Entry (23).”

Breakables

A list of things that break easy – fragile objects, furniture, etc.  You don’t need a detailed laundry list, shorthand is fine (“alchemy lab on the table, bookshelves of ancient books”).  This is important to consider when players are tossing fireballs and lightning around the room or a minotaur is running around swinging wildly.  Just cross off the things as they get ruined…  “Table, Paintings, Urn of Hot Coals, Chairs, Shelves of Books”

Also note that a lot of breakables are also “takeables” – things players might have their characters pick up, or move to somewhere else… Also useful to cross off.

Note Space

If you plan on having this be a longer dungeon run where enough time will pass for significant adaptation within the dungeon, give yourself space to write notes on each room.  This becomes useful when you need to remember that one area is full of rotting carcasses stinking up the area and drawing scavenger monsters or another place has been barricaded, etc.

SAMPLE ROOM:

The Flooded Chamber

Features

  • The room is flooded up to 3 feet.  It counts as rough terrain.  Shorter characters may need to swim.
  • The water is murky, anything in the water has Concealment to things above/out of the water.
  • Fighting things in the water has Disadvantage unless the weapons are daggers, short swords, or spears.
  • There’s a crocodile that will ambush the party, getting the first round by surprise.

Description

This part of the abandoned mine is flooded with 3 feet of water, and you can see water trickling down the walls.  The east and west tunnels are also partially flooded, but you can see the very top of a downward sloping Northern tunnel which is completely flooded.   A strong breeze comes from the northern doorway.  The water is murky and fetid, and a rusted wheelbarrow is floating nearby.

Information

Mining/Dwarf characters only: This flooding must be relatively recent, only within the last couple of years as the wood supports haven’t rotted out yet.  Since you can see water trickling down from above, you wonder if a small pond has formed above or a stream has been diverted somehow…

Sounds: N/A (Nothing is nearby to react to sounds that happen here.)

Secrets: N/A (There’s nothing really hidden here, it’s a flooded tunnel)

Breakables: N/A (there’s the rusty wheelbarrow… but yeah, nothing really)

NOTES: Normally I’d leave out anything with “N/A”, but I’m including it here for you to see the sort of layout for a room I might play with.  This is mostly a mild terrain hazard with an ambush type creature, not much else.  As you can see, the Features lists a few critical things to pay attention to.

If I had a lot flooded areas, I would consider either putting the relevant bits at the beginning of each room description under Features OR I’d have it printed on each page, so I don’t have to flip around looking for anything..  Alternatively, you could use a single index card for every flooded area and just keep it available.

Information Wrangling

Maps

There’s a ton of map options these days – drawing it out on graph paper, using a dry-erase mat, pre-printed dungeon tiles/maps, and dungeon mapping software.  Regardless of what you’re using, I suggest trying to put notes directly on your maps, if you can.  The less you have to flip between your map and your descriptions of areas and rooms, the better it is for you.

The trick, of course, is finding which bits are most relevant and can fit within your chosen medium.

Divvy up by Sections

While you could theoretically simply list 100 rooms in order, it’s easier to navigate these things if you actually break them up into sections.  Those different sections might be stored as parts of a binder with dividers between them, or it might be different files in your computer.   This makes it easier to navigate overall rather than having to shuffle through the whole dungeon.  This also works well if you’re using some of the design ideas from “Metroidvania” style videogames – where you already end up dealing with larger sections connected by a few possible paths.

Using Index Cards

If you don’t have to have too much info to list, an index card system can work great.  I like to write the room number in the top right corner, with a big, black marker.  Put all your index cards in a holder, or box, in order.  Then, as you go through the dungeon, you can check your map, pull out the card the players are exploring plus the connected ones as well.  If you have monsters, give them their own cards and paperclip them to the room they’re in – and if they move rooms, you just move the clip accordingly.

The drawback is that you don’t have a ton of space to record information and if you’re not organized, you can turn it into a complete mess.  Also, unless you go out of your way with cardstock and printing and cutting, you’ll be putting these together by hand, which might be a ton of extra work.

Using Software

There’s a ton of software out there these days, though I have to admit I can’t give a lot of info for you there – I’m mostly into hand drawing maps and scrawling out the notes by hand.  I can imagine a lot of value being in a map tool or presentation software where you simply hyperlink the image of the map and the individual rooms to take you straight to a file or description of that room.

My basic experience with gaming and software is that screen space is a premium and you always underestimate how long it will take between clicking, opening up files, scrolling to the right location in the file, and then dragging windows around to have everything you need visible at the same time.  I usually will use a combination of a file open on a screen and written/printed notes as you can spread out the notes in front of you for quick reference.

The other concern is if you need to be online to access your notes and what happens if you lose connectivity, and also if you have players sending you data, if you have to reformat it or re-enter it to work with whatever other system you have going on.  These all seem like mild hurdles, but these just add up to more work you have to do that isn’t directly focused on playing.

Next: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

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Dungeons Part Four: Threat Structure

July 19, 2014

So, important confession time: the order of these posts is about “takeaway value” and modularity for you folks reading, rather than the order in which I use these ideas to make a dungeon.   Pretty much everyone can see the value in better design flow from playing stuff like Metroidvania games, and everyone has probably played a dungeon crawl that worked in a way very different than what they wanted in terms of Exploration/Logistics/Tactics, so those ideas are easy to pick up and plug into your own dungeon design.   The specifics of running a dungeon only make sense in light of those two ideas, and although this is the fourth article, it’s actually the first conceptual step I take before I draw any map or look up any monsters:

Threat Structure

Threat Structure is an idea of how the dungeon overall should be populated, set up, and react to the player characters.  It’s a very different experience between poking around and fighting off bits of wildlife in a tunnel system vs. wandering through a giant clockwork dimension created by a mad wizard who can reshape it a will.    Not just in colorful description, but also the way the monsters react – do they run?  Do they set up traps? Do they cooperate and mob you?  This is the game design part that’s worth considering.

Critters

Many dungeons are “critter” dungeons – they’re full of random monsters that either live in a natural habitat zone or have moved into some place that has been abandoned.  Critter dungeons might have a few small groups of intelligent creatures, but mostly the dungeon is things with animal-level intelligence.  You can get a good variety of threats in this kind of dungeon.

Critter threats are often predators or things fighting back out of fear.  You get stuff like alpha predators, pack hunters, ambush predators, poisonous things, and swarms.    Monsters don’t cooperate, so it’s easy to keep the encounters from snowballing into mob rushes.  A lot of the creatures can be driven off, which makes some fights easier, but it can also mean the players might have to deal with a monster that keeps coming back to try and pick them off.

Lair

A Lair is a little different than a critter dungeon, in that there’s one dominant monster or a species.  There may be a lot of other types who live on the side or are otherwise not interacting with the main creature(s), but most of that ecology is shaped by that central focus.  This might be a theme like if you have a poisonous dragon, that most of the creatures who live here have become poisonous as well – by absorbing the miasma it gives off…

Lair threats are an alpha predator or predators that shape the whole ecosystem.  Other monsters avoid these things.  These monsters are experts in most of the terrain, have hunt zones they know very well, and will violently protect their territory.  If the animals have good senses like smell or hearing, the party’s location might be easily tracked at all times, leading to some very scary games of cat-and-mouse.

Mastermind

A Mastermind dungeon involves an intelligent being of great power that actively sets up the dungeon as a place of defense.  They may or may not fix everything up, but they’re definitely using and manipulating the monsters within for their own safety and exploitative needs.  This might include breeding or magical enhancement to improve them.

Thematically, a mastermind dungeon might be known and feared (“A Vampire lives in those catacombs!”) or it might be something the players only discover after they’re in the dungeon.  It can be quite horrifying to realize what you thought was random critter ecology was actually engineered by someone on purpose.

Because there is a Mastermind running the dungeon, you can be assured they will take action as soon as they feel there’s a problem, to either get rid of the intruders, lead them off the right track, or otherwise improve their defenses.  Masterminds tend to make nasty traps, magic, or use of environment with their monsters, and you may have a few powerful lieutenant monsters that work to patrol the dungeon and modify the defenses as intruders attack.

Fortress

A Fortress dungeon is an area that is dominated by one large group of intelligent creatures, that work together in an organized fashion.  This might be your classic Fortress of Orcs, or it could be a colony of giant ants.  Either way, they have a large organized social structure, work well together, and will adapt quickly if problems develop.    In my opinion, this is one of the most dangerous threat structures, if only because it’s so easy to get mobbed, and the creatures will adapt.

This is a kind of dungeon where the value of information scarcity flips over to the players – the party are the ones trying to stealth their way in, and getting discovered will lead to a hard fight or likely loss.   Unless the monsters have moved into a cave system or ruins of another space, it’s quite likely that the dungeon will be relatively well laid out, and thus, not as confusing or maze like.

You don’t get a lot of monster variety or hazards in this kind of dungeons, which usually makes it less likely to be used.  The D&D Against the Giants type modules worked because the issues of being human sized in giant-zones meant their normal furniture, etc. created the hazards and complications rather than collapsed tunnels and ruined bridges.

Factions

Faction dungeons are have several intelligent monster groups which are working at odds with each other.  This may be a cold war tension between them or out and out violence.  These are great for doing dungeon politics type games – players can take sides, set up groups to fight each other, etc.

Like the Fortress type dungeons you have groups who are organized, and there is a possibility of getting mobbed, but because the groups are afraid of getting overwhelmed by other groups, they’ll often play defensively – only committing some of their forces as to never leave things like their food supplies or treasure, unprotected.  Adaptability can be quite high, and while there may be traps, most are probably deterrents or “alarms” rather than  anything else.

A tricky thing to consider is this: if you have all these groups who are raiding each other, trying to stay alive with whatever resources they can get, what is their first assumptions about intruders/newcomers?  What is that assumption like if they see you fighting their enemies?  What is that assumption if you’re fighting their allies?  What if you come across their bodies from a skirmish they had with someone else, but a witness sees you and assumes you did it?   Are their racial or historical issues affecting it too? (“They hate Dwarves.”)  This shifting role of views and attitudes can turn this sort of thing into a very interesting space for rolelplaying and political moves.

Tying it all together

This is the actual process I use, in this order.

1.  What the Players Want (length of game, interest in a single dungeon, Exploration/Logistics/Tactics ratio)

2.  Concept/Theme+ Threat Structure 

3.  Draw the map and give the actual dungeon layout using fun play tricks

4. Specifics of Monsters, Traps, Hazards, Puzzles, etc.

Steps 1 & 2 go quickly for me – usually this is a 5-10 minute process since I know my players, have a good idea of how long they’d like to commit, and then just need a cool idea for a dungeon.

Steps 3 and 4 I prep just enough for 1-2 sessions at first and that takes 1-2 hours for crunchy games like D&D 3E or 4E.  Since I usually run a 2-4 hour session game, I know how much engagement density the players will push through, and can prep accordingly.  After the first session or two, that prep time drops to 30-45 minutes a session.  If something like Tunnels and Trolls, then we’re talking 10-30 minutes prep at most.

Prep vs. Payoff Balance

One issue is that as you play higher level games, the players get access to all kinds of movement options (burrowing, phasing through objects, teleporting, etc.) that can let them leapfrog a lot of areas in a dungeon.   This means you’re going to have to prep a lot more dungeon as the amount of prep time you do provides less and less guaranteed engagement density.

This becomes killer if your game system also has a narrow range for balancing encounters – you have to prep a lot more with more detail, but you also may have the party jumping ahead of where they should be or missing expected resources or magical items because they skipped ahead (or, they might have an easier time escaping or luring a fight to somewhere you don’t expect because of these abilities.)  This can be one reason you see GM burnout- you’re doing more and more work to get sorta the same play balance, but it’s just getting harder and harder to catch up.

Next: Information Management (Aka, how do I organize all of this?)

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