Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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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.

Inspiration

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.

Monsters

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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Uncharted Worlds, a map, and intel as goals

February 27, 2021

I’m starting up an Uncharted Worlds game, and the scenario is developing star system attempting to protect itself against a sudden invasion.

One of the things I wanted to do was play out a bit of strategy in the game; where you are vs. where the enemy is, where your allies are, and where resources are, all being relevant factors. To this end, I made a star system map, and not just “here’s the planets and colony habitats”, but also, “Here’s the last known location of the enemies”, “Here’s the assumed locations of your allies”, and so on.

The player characters are ex-privateeers who have served in the local fleet for a number of years – they are usually entrusted with doing high value cargo delivery – ex-pirates would be the best at knowing how to evade other pirates, after all. So when the invasion occurs, they’re in the middle of a delivery run; no one else in their fleet knows EXACTLY where they are, and generally the fleet is going to be sitting on radio silence except for things that they don’t mind if the enemy learns or assume the enemy can’t do anything about/extra with knowing. So the party starts off with being a bit hidden, but also not knowing the full situation for their allies, either.

A lot of the map has markers for allies and enemies, but in some cases it’s simply “they have a few ships here” “About half of our fleet is usually at the capital” and the players are going to have to figure out how to get more intel if they want to know more. In a way, the map becomes a list of information objectives as much as anything else; the players are going to have to figure out where they can do the most effect/benefit while they have the element of surprise. Likewise, while their fleet is on “their side” they’ll probably want to link up with commanding officers who are more amenable to letting them do what they do best – hit and run tactics, not being a secondary destroyer in a large fleet battle – so that’s a bit of social information they’ll be digging up at the same time.

Note how this is a shift from the usual sort of mapping-strategy of a lot of fantasy RPGs – it’s not that you don’t know where or what the locations are, what you don’t know is why you would go to a place or avoid it – you need more info to make those decisions. I had known the ideas but not the name of, The Johari Window, but that’s effectively what we’ll be juggling with for this game.

Anyway, I’m really excited for this, and it is making me think about different ways we can choose to design map play into games. I’m leaving the map accessible to players between sessions, as I figure they may want extra time to mull it over between each session- while the characters may experience days of space travel between locations, the players are probably only getting a few minutes (“Ok, it’s a week to get there”) so I want to give them that time to think, at least.

(Minor aside; part of this campaign idea was inspired by the Honor Harrington sci-fi novels and the war logistics posts over at A Collection of Unmitigated Pendantry.)

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Signal Boost: Our Traveling Home

February 15, 2021
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Feb 2021 Game Hype

February 8, 2021

I figured I might as well talk about some games I’ve played, and games I’m looking forward to playing and hype them up a bit.

Once More into the Void

We played this as a one shot, but I feel it would probably do well as a 3-4 session game. The best way to describe this is Narrativist Mass Effect.

Each player gets a turn to set scenes, and each scene utilizes a type of subset rules based on the type of scene it’s supposed to be – a combat scene gets a different set than an investigation scene. These subset rules are all relatively simple with small charts to work with. The only two pitfalls I saw were: a) having some loose boundaries at least, for the group’s world building, and b) it can be tempting to speed through each scene and not give it some space to breathe.

I hope to play it again, later this year.

The Final Girl

I’m not a huge fan of horror games, so I was really surprised how much I enjoyed this one. You make a host of characters, who will, naturally, be picked off one by one (or more than one) until you’re left with a final character. Along the way, the relationships the characters have, end up determining their effective plot armor – characters who have neither friendship nor rivalries are picked off quick, characters who work their way into being the center of drama tend to have more staying power.

Again, with a lot of games with plot focused rules, it’s a good idea to nail down some boundaries for what makes sense for narration for the type of game you’re running, and to give some time/space for things to play out.

Primetime Adventures

I just finished another campaign a few days ago. As always, if you have players who are interested in narrativist play, PTA is one of the best games. The Fan Mail system, of players rewarding each other for good roleplaying, remains one of the best systems in play, and while Tenra Bansho Zero’s Aiki/Kiai system is a good cousin, it often feels like adding bells and whistles over a core idea that just works perfectly as is.

As I’ve heard more than once in my years playing/running PTA with folks, “Wow, we did more in (5/9) sessions, than years of play in other games.”

PTA just delivers GREAT stories.

Uncharted Worlds

I’m looking forward to trying out Uncharted Worlds as my next campaign for my Friday night game. It has an incredibly flexible character creation system that doesn’t require lots of complicated build considerations. It runs on a Powered by the Apocalypse system, which, I kind of see as neither here nor there, since most of the PbtA’s tend to either over generalize their Moves or remove the wider pressure mechanics that Apocalypse World has. If nothing else, at least it’s a simple system.

I dug out an old setting idea I had and just put it into UA, so we’ll see how it goes. I feel it might be a good system to hit my Mass Effect / Expanse etc. game needs with just enough tactical-ish bits in it such that I don’t just default to Once More Into the Void or Primetime Adventures.

Perilous

Perilous is next up for my Sunday night game. It peels a bit of an idea from FATE by using an Aspect/Tag system, but has more interesting stuff with a light, flexible feat/ability system, and a meta resource of Edge which effectively has players trading between “Do I rest and recover wounds (but lose my Edge pool) or keep pushing harder to have the Edge points available?” which is a nice sort of very light version of the classic D&D “delver deeper or go home”? balance.

The game clearly establishes the point of adventuring for building up the home town communities, and not just treasure hunting, and the art depicts the sort of cosmopolitan – “goblins, humans, dwarves, demon people, whatever” kind of party groups that effectively hits modern fantasy.

I think less that the system is specifically innovative, as much as it is a good light alternative for people who want fantasy with some narrative emphasis and some fictional positioning strategy around tactics and resources.

Front Earth Striders

It’s pretty rare to find unique settings, but this one looks so charming and weird, I can’t wait to try it.

Take classic fantasy, except… push tech up to the 1950s, with magic tech and so on. And tons of animal-spirit type people. So, you’re basically going on adventure quests in your jeep, with your magic tech rifle, and sword.

The designer is Korean and the English is rough in some spots, but the game takes a combo of OSR-ish bits, item tag systems of modern systems, and some interesting ideas about consequences and stakes shifting, with rotating GMs. There’s enough stuff put together I feel like I’m just going to have to play it to see whether it fits well or needs some nudging and best practices to run smooth, but it’s doing enough different things together that it seems like it will be fun.

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Layering understanding: Players vs characters & audience

January 27, 2021

I often find a lot of good ideas in RPG theory/understanding by looking at other games or media genre analysis, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how speculative fiction ends up presenting a double hurdle. The creator has to present a strange/different world to the audience, and then, often, the difference between what is normal for the characters in that world vs. unusual/exceptional for those characters.

RPGs, however, have an additional layer; the group is both the creators and the audience, which means:

  1. You need the group to find a way to coordinate on what they’re creating – this either usually comes in the form of setting text, safety tools, guided or (most of the time) unguided discussion up front, or direct tools in play.
  2. You need to figure out what aspects are more fun for the players to know, but their characters don’t, vs. what is fun to be revealed to both the player and character at the same time.

Consider, for example, a religious or folklore belief of a character in a fantasy game:

  1. The belief is cosmologically true; the player and the character both know this.
  2. The belief is cosmologically true; the player knows this, the character is unsure.
  3. The belief is cosmologically true; the player is unsure (assuming a GM game, the GM knows), the character is played as believing it true.
  4. The belief is cosmologically false; the player knows and the character does not.
  5. The belief is cosmologically false; neither the player (again, assume a GM knows) nor the character knows.
  6. The belief is actually irrelevant to the events in play – it might never be proved or proveable in play. (Add in every possible iteration about player/character knowledge as well.)

Of course, in this case I’m using fantasy religion and presumably some thing like “Dragons are enemies of the gods” or whatever, but you could easily put in stuff like “The government is working for aliens” or “This elected official was against the war the whole time” or whatever is relevant to the setting/game.

Ah, but designing for this

Now also ask how you communicate this in a game text to a group?

A lot of older games in the 80s and 90s would have a GM section, where the “truths of the setting” were placed, however, this simply assumes players who won’t read it, or haven’t GM’d the game, or played in the past and been exposed to the “big reveals”.

I’m not even saying there’s ONE way to do this; several of these options might be better for a given genre, setting, or game, or worse for them. I do think, however, it’s a complicated idea about the roles of creator(player, GM, etc.), characters in play, and how we play them, and it’s not like you can simply shove a bunch of theory at a group and say “yeah now play this”.

The easiest way is that everything presented is both true for player and character; you don’t have to do a lot of mental displacement. The next easiest method is that the players have full knowledge while the characters may or may not have knowledge (common in a lot of horror games).

I don’t have easy solutions, but, as usual for me, mapping out the issue is the first step towards getting the navigation tools around it. My suspicion is that the solutions will probably be very game specific about “You know this vs. your character knows this” and that a broader theory would not be mentioned in any given game (or to a group you’re running with).

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