Archive for the ‘theoryforplay’ Category


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.

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

Click here to read landslide dungeon entries

A Broken Wheel – A reminder post

December 31, 2020

A few conversations online has let me know it’s time for a reminder about… I guess one of the most basic theory things that directly, immediately, and completely impacts play.

  • No game system is good at everything; each system is good/bad at certain things
  • Trying to make a system do what it’s bad at, means more work and probably unfun experiences for the group

Improvising, to start

One of the conversations I saw was someone asking about improvisation play; specifically within D&D – but, given D&D’s tight expectations of encounter balancing, D&D is bad at improvisation. The conversation had someone giving advice with the usual “Improvisation is hard!” opener, but that’s exactly the problem. Improvisation in other rules sets is easy, just as much as crossing a river in a boat is easier than trying to cross it in a truck.

Consider: every player of a character is improvising every session they show up. They have no idea what is going to happen, or what their plan is, but they come up with dialogue, choices, and actions just fine. Improvisation is one of the first skills of roleplaying, period. When you’re not required to tightly balance specific numbers and factors in a minute or less, with the consequences of making the game unfun for everyone, yes, improvisation is easy.

But yes, also applying to everything else, too

Extending this beyond improvisation, this issue that some games are good at some things and not others covers a whole lot of possible things people might want in a game:

  • Character drama and character development
  • Moment to moment tactical choices (block, parry, feint, etc.)
  • Resource tracking/logistics
  • Rising/falling story arcs and tension
  • Collaborative world building
  • Low cognitive load for math
  • Quick handling time with mechanics
  • Social tension between players (not just characters)
  • Deduction, deception and hidden information games

And of course, more. Literally this is why I have the Same Page Tool to help people sort through “Do you want to play this system, this particular way, this campaign?” and to make sure people aren’t confused about mixing up other possible (but not well fitting) ways.

House rules vs. Broken Goals

Another car analogy. It’s one thing to mod your car. That’s a choice you make because you want your car to work different in some way. There might be some tinkering, but basically the car does the basic thing you want it to, and you’re just making it a LITTLE better in the way you want.

If you have to fix your car all the time, or because it keeps not doing the thing you want (working), that’s not the same at all. That’s a problem.

House rules are the former, trying to get the game to do what it’s bad at (that you want to do instead) is the latter. If you spend a lot of time constantly having to ignore the rules, fudge dice, or change them repeatedly to because it’s still not doing what you want – you should probably use different rules.

RPG myths that hold us back

Hand in hand with “this game can do everything!” are the myths that:

  • All games are as hard to play or run
  • All games are as expensive
  • You have to “master” this game to get it to do what you want

In all of these, the benefit for publishers is monopolizing a customer base and making sure they don’t look at any other games. I remember in the early 2000s when I suggested people play 3-4 very different kinds of RPGs to get a feel for what is out there, Internet Doodz(TM) claimed I wanted everyone to play one particular way. (Even though, I myself, have a few drastically different ways I prefer to play and that hasn’t changed, really.)

And that ties back to the problems I mentioned long ago when I first shifted over to making this blog – a lot of the history of tabletop RPG design has been poor design propped up with “We’re the real roleplayers! Not like those guys over there! Don’t look over there! Don’t try any other games unless you want to be a loser like them!” – some people believe the ONLY way you can recommend a game is because you want no one else to play any other game, ever again.

I said many times it’s a game, not a marriage. Or perhaps more accuately, it’s not a religion demanding you disavow any other ways along the way.

I often point to boardgames as a healthier example – boardgamers often play many types of boardgames, and while they have some favorites they come back to, outside of things like Go, Chess, etc. most people play many of them without a problem. And, equally important, the variety allows them to have examples and language to talk about what they like vs. what they don’t like – which helps you ask for what you want and lets you find people who also want the same thing, so you can play together.

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


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.


Focus vs. Background

October 16, 2020

One of the questions I ask when looking at a game to run, is “What kinds of conflicts make sense?”.

This isn’t conflict in the sense of “combat” specifically, this is more like, “Is counting torches and supplies important, or is it background?” “Does your noble rank involve family and power struggles, or is it background?” “Does the crew of the Starcrossed Lion need to pay attention to fuel and bank accounts to get to the next spacestation or is that background?”

Years back, I remember playing in a game of Dog Eat Dog and one of the players tried to play it like a tactical game – he tried to have his character gather weapons and supplies and hide in a cave – but that kind of conflict doesn’t fit the game – it’s about culture, identity, and social power(lessness), not “x feet to target, partial cover, 18 more bullets left”.

So we had a pretty bad mismatch, and, unfortunately, a lot of games experience this because roleplaying has a ton of possible play space and things a game could be about, but for a game to run smoothly, folks should be coordinated on what specifically the focus is.

So, some terms to use to help talk about this:


Another term I heard long ago was “furniture” to apply to things that were fundamentally decorative in a game, sort of how in many videogames there’s furniture in the scene but you can’t interact with it.

Is the fact your character a retired general mostly just a neat background fact that doesn’t mean much to the scenario? Is the keepsake necklace just a fond memory of the past that’s a cool costume decoration? Is the catty talk in the grand ballroom mostly just to show the NPCs are gossipy and not something you’re supposed to engage/challenge? Decorative.

Some games have you roll for your character’s height, weight, hair, and eye color or at least make you mark it down like it was a driver’s licence – and while it’s not impossible for some of these to matter in a game, for the vast majority of games, this is decorative.

Now, to be fair, tabletop RPGs are unique in that you can basically make up anything and your creativity means you might sometimes leverage a decorative thing into an angle or tool for a real conflict/situation, but the point in knowing what’s here is that it’s not the FOCUS of play, for this particular campaign you’re running.

Plot Device

Plot device elements are also background, but they provide initial motivation to move towards something, without necessarily being the focus.

Consider treasure hunting in modern D&D: few games actually are about walking off with the most treasure, as much as clearing the dungeon/stopping the evil/fighting the monsters. The treasure hunting is a plot device to enable the actual focus of play.

This specifically occurred to me as I was thinking about pulp fantasy and how much of any given story begins with a plot device style motivation that ultimately gets put aside or subsumed for the ‘real conflict’. Being washed up from a shipwreck would make survival seem like the focus, but actually meeting the sorcerer who is raising dead gods from the volcano is the real focus, for example.

This part matters a lot for player character backgrounds – the player and the GM should probably figure out what’s what – the GM wants to make sure they don’t neglect something the player wants to be a focus, the player wants to make sure the GM isn’t taking something that’s decorative/plot device and turning it into ‘a thing’ instead of what they really want to play with.

Of course, I’ve written about Flag Mechanics as the easiest solution for this problem.


Focus is actually the things you’re trying to have the play focus on. These are the elements that will be in conflict, challenged, brought as leverage either way.

Is the number of gold pieces you get from the treasures hunt going to determine how well supplied you are next time and whether your character gets stronger or not? Is the fact you’re a retired general going to be a situation where your status and political stance hold weight, and you’re forced to encounter people you’ve commanded, for good or ill, or even people who your armies fought?

I once ran a Legend of the Five Rings game, and a player had a interesting character concept – he wanted to play a character who couldn’t lie, as someone in the faction known for scheming. In hindsight, I guess he was expecting a game that would be railroaded and that things would ‘work out’ for his character, whereas I saw THAT, being truthful in a fundamentally devious social hierarchy, the real conflict.

When it came up that his character choosing to fight some ronin types didn’t earn him accolades, but scorn (“Why would you lower yourself to fight dogs in the street?”) the player froze up and actually freaked out a bit. For him, noble status was a background aspect, not supposed to be the focus.


Support elements matter, but they serve primarily to help play around the focus of play. Usually support elements provide a small amount of leverage to the core conflict focus of a game; gear choices in combat, your wealth level in a political game, camping skills in most wilderness situations in games.

The thing here is to point out “Here is the focus, but don’t neglect these other things too.”


Anyway, I think this is a good thing to keep in mind when you are writing a game or pitching a game to a group. It’s also not bad language to have if you are joining a game.

Again, this is one of those things that I think good game design solves – a well written game that is clear what things are the focus vs. background, OR, at least, gives you tools to clarify that as a group, would make this unnecessary.

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


Playing Flawed Protagonists

August 8, 2020

I never play characters who I think are the best possible people. Not out of the sense of “ooh, edgy bad boy” BS, but rather characters with flaws are more interesting to play, especially if a part of the character’s arc is whether they will out grow them or not.

However, there are some general guidelines I follow in these sorts of characters, because I’ve also seen people use their character’s flaws as an excuse to fuck up a game (“My Guy Syndrome” – “My guy would do this” “I’m just playing my guy” etc.).

Flawed, not despicable

For PCs, I play characters who I, personally as a player, feel are good people or at least people trying pretty well to be good. That means I don’t include flaws that would make them horrible people, in part because I would just feel terrible playing that kind of character all the time.

As a GM, I’ve run some NPCs that make me actually feel bad, not because they didn’t anything particularly traumatic, but they’re just the people who I truly despise the most. For example, in a Sorcerer game, I played a tech CEO who would constantly come up with ideas that are… objectively bad, irresponsible and ruinous to communities. He didn’t have to hit anyone, abuse them verbally or physically, etc. he was just such a callous person who would casually monetize disaster, that…. eeesh.

So anyway, I think of a character and I give them a flaw that I know I can live with over the course of a campaign – I do hope to see them overcome the flaw, but I’m also willing to pull one of the principles from Apocalypse World and place “being true to this character” (in terms of growth) as a guiding directive.

Plays well with the group

I make sure my characters have reasons to interact with the group – the “loner/anti-social” character who actively pulls away from the other characters rarely works out well in tabletop. While, to be sure, in most games you play with the characters as a party or a band of allies, even in games where it’s all rivalry and drama, you want motivations pointing the characters to interact with each other.

So, when you pick flaws, you want flaws that make the characters complicated to each other, but not necessarily enemy-making or causing the other players to decide “Oh hell no, get rid of this person”. I played a character who would not kill, but had no problem using violence outside of that. And it was complicated because at first the party is like “Oh, you’re the muscle” and then to find out he’s “I do harm reduction. If someone needs to be knocked out, cool. But I’m not taking a life.”

It’s even better if the flaws enable or tie into other character goals/motivations, so then you set up this interesting dynamic where your character’s problems are also in a way, helpful.

I played a magical talking cat who had the knack for doing cat things – getting where he shouldn’t, breaking things, and being a bratty cat – inevitably this became helpful whenever the party was in a jam or impasse – a little chaos, someone finding the inconvenient truths behind the curtain, or willing to rile up deceivers into dropping their masks worked well. Of course, all of these things usually makes you enemies as you go along, so he was also a source of trouble as it was.

Overcoming Flaws

We all love the story where the character transforms into a better person in an epiphany, and sees triumph. This sort of thing is hard to do in RPGs if only because it is hard to structure most conflict and interaction in ways to highlight this sort of thing without a lot of planning and editing.

So, instead, I look for characters to evolve in stages. Sometimes it’s finding a line they won’t cross with regards to their flaw. And that line gets drawn tighter and tighter so the flaw is smaller and smaller.

Sometimes, it’s that the character develops a coping mechanism and a better way to do things so the flaw isn’t a problem as much anymore. It’s good to look at the other characters in the game and ask yourself if your character ever gets enough awareness to go “Oh, I should just do like they’re doing.” and grow as a person.

Also, as situations evolve in a game, your motivations and goals change, which might also change your flaws or have you outgrow them. If your character is nationalistic, maybe when the Demon Lord tears through the world and hell gates are everywhere your character suddenly realizes the rivalry between two kingdoms is meaningless and has to find a new path.

Flaws I like to use


The character has done something (or at least blames themself) and now has oriented their goals and way of doing things around fixing/never doing X again.

Always listens to X

The character has another character they always go along with their plans or ideas, even if these are poorly thought out or have glaring issues. Your character might have a LOT of good sense and insight otherwise, but when it comes to this person, they always trust, or eventually fold and accept the plan. (You can also externalize this to NPCS – “Always listens to my parents”, “Always listens to the clergy.”, but it mostly depends on the campaign and situation on how often this will come up).

Important Moral Line

There’s a thing your character won’t do. And this thing is quite likely to come up in play. If you can’t think how this will get complicated and difficult for your character you don’t have the right moral line.

Be aware, however, don’t pick a moral line that’s simply obstructionist to the point of play. If you’re playing a band of thieves, it’s fine to have a character who won’t steal from certain types of people, or steal certain things, but not someone who is opposed to theft from the start.

Mild Overconfidence

I say “mild” but this is actually the sort of overconfidence that’s mostly out there – it’s not complete foolhardiness, it’s just taking on things a little above what you should be, and not properly planning or thinking about it ahead of time.

Obviously, in high lethality games, this is shitty for both you and allied characters, so maybe not in the sense of life/death risk but other fields it would work fine.

Inattentiveness and ignorance also work here as well. The nice thing about this kind of flaw is… well, there’s lots of real world examples – it’s the minor problems you get yourself into, your friends get into, and so on. Most of us only have a few places where we’re like this, so you can figure out what would be the most entertaining.

Generally – the best kinds of these flaws put you into troublesome situations, gets you interacting with other characters more, and so on.


Your character has a code of honor about something. For me, it’s usually stuff like “If someone is harmed by your actions, even accidentally, you have to make restitution.” “If you make a promise, deliver on it.” etc. You don’t need to announce these things, just play your character following it.

This, of course, becomes a flaw when your character encounters places where these simple values start to become impossible due to the stuff that happens in RPGs. Who and what will your risk to stay true to your belief? How bad will you feel for breaking it?


I like to pick one topic/thing the character is really afraid of, whether they’ve been threatened by it directly or saw someone get hurt/killed by it, or otherwise had lives ruined. Sometimes that fear is “I just want to live my life and not lose everything I’ve worked for.”

The key is not irrational “omg run screaming” but the other issues like avoidance strategies, hesitation, asking for reassurance, or the character basically going into a panic attack/hyperventilating AFTER facing the thing. Our media usually goes for 2 dimensional melodrama around fear, but subtler, more realistic reactions tend to work better in RPGs.


Give your characters a fun flaw or two. Make sure they’re fun for the group, not just yourself. Be true to the character, but also know the character can, and should, grow and change.

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