Friday, May 31, 2024

The Walled Gardens of Nisk

I've been experimenting with writing city adventure locations with minimum-necessary detail for gameplay. The intention is to have the foundation of a place made and ready to go, so that when a "go to x location and accomplish y task" adventure is called for the x part is ready and accounted for above and beyond what is necessary for the y. 

It's not too difficult to come up with a bespoke location for an adventure, but for a city game where players are more free to wander around wherever they want it's useful to have locations that can be run on their own without the players having a specific impetus to be there. The party might journey to the Place of Masks to steal a mcguffin but if they just stumble upon it I want there to be enough material for spontaneous adventure. And if down the line when the PCs need a disguise or something and one goes "what about that costumer we ran into in that mask place?" then everything worked as intended.

All that's needed at the preliminary stage is a concept, an encounter table, factions, and a couple points of interest. My goal is to have the whole location fit on a two-page spread, maybe not including stat blocks if I'm being generous to myself. 

The following example took me about two days to finish between work and other commitments to finish. If I start with ~10 and build more as necessary, the city would exist as a fully operational ecosystem of adventure locales that could be run indefinitely. Hopefully. This might become a monumental amount of work that I'll shamefully abandon but we'll see how it goes. 

The Walled Gardens of Nisk

Since before anyone can remember, the wondrous pleasure gardens were tended to by the Greenskeeper clan, an insular group whose self-seclusion gave rise to all manner of strange customs and practices. At one time the gardens were the pride of the city, but since the coming of the Overlord few dare to walk its tangled paths. 

Michael Hutter

Encounters (d20)

1-2 3d4 Greenskeeper clan soldiers led by a 3 HD captain [patrolling | hunting sectids | resting] 

3-4 2d6 Greenskeeper clan botanists [planting, 25% are keeping watch | transporting valuable plants, soils, or seeds worth sp equal to 100x no. encountered; accompanied by 1 clan soldier for every 4 botanists | fighting a monster plant (8 HD)] 

5 Greenskeeper clan hivemaster accompanied by 2d6 apiarists  

6-7 1d4 Decorative fauna [grooming | feeding | slowly being consumed by a monster plant]

8-9 Monster plant

10-11 2d6 Sectid skirmishers [emerging from the ground | tearing down trees | consuming deceased sectids]

12 1d100 Sectid scavengers [devouring plant matter | dehydrating flower plots | shedding old carapaces] 

13-14 2d8 Touring nobles, accompanied by 2 guards per person. 

15 Clan ceremony procession. 3d20 Greenskeepers in full regalia chanting, spreading seeds, and holding tall flowers like military standards.

16-17 1d8 Thieves [stashing treasure | meeting a contact | getting loaded]

18 Dryad, cut off from her world, filled with remarkable sorrow and loneliness. The melancholy beauty of the plants blooming around her would make anyone’s heart ache. 

19-20 2d6 Plant poachers employed by an alchemist house [creeping around looking for vulnerable plants | harvesting, disguised as botanists | running from a squad clan soldiers]

Set dressing/points of interest (d20)

1 Observation tower with an immaculate view 

2 Bridge over gentle stream 

3 Overgrown pergola/pavilion/gazebo

4 Sculpture park

5 Topiary scene 

6 Defaced nymphaeum

7 Mossy fountain

8 Stone amphitheater 

9 Reflecting pool

10 Rickety bandstand

11 Menagerie prison, with 1d6 captives (50% agents of alchemist houses, 50% random plant poachers or interlopers) held in ornate verdigris-covered cages. The animals have been cleared out long ago. The Greenskeeper clan use the now use it to incarcerate captive poachers.

12 Fish pond, stepping stone bridge

13 Area razed by sectids. Desiccated ash fills the gaps in the cobblestone path. Rows of garden plots reduced to nothing but dust. Even the air feels dry. 

14 Bell tower

15 Telescope tower

16 Lens tower. Giant magnifying glass on top floor focuses sunlight to create a devastating heat beam. One of many hidden defensive structures from a bygone era. Operation without a key requires a successful disarm trap roll. Once activated it operates for 2d6 rounds before shutting down. Targets save vs. death ray or take 2d20 damage, half on success. Each round the beam can either sweep in a 60' line or target a single individual, imposing -4 to their save. 

17 Greenskeeper clan residential building. Short hexagonal tower overgrown with vines and ivy, meant to blend with the surrounding follies. Off limits to everyone, even nobility. Guarded by d6+6 soldiers at all times. 

18 Apiary. Rare imported bees tended to by 1d12+2 clan beekeepers and 1 hivemaster at a given time. Four clan soldiers stand guard after sundown.  Rare honeys worth 2d10x10 sp can be extracted from the hives, but protective equipment is required. 

19 Dueling grounds (40% chance it will be in use; two nobles dueling, their seconds, and a crowd of non-combatant spectators) 

20 Greenhouse. Guarded by 1d6+1 soldiers and operated by three times as many horticulturalists. Among cultivating all manner of plants, greenhouses are where clan horticulturalists research and conduct radical plant experiments. 

    Plant types (d6)

    1 Valuable, 1d6x1000 sp.

    2 Reagents, 1d6x100 sp for spell research and potion-making costs. 

    3 Poison, 2d8 doses, save vs. death when imbibed. 50 sp per dose on the black market. 

    4 Monster plants, 1d6 4 HD of the same type. 

    5 Beautiful but extremely fragile, will shrivel immediately after leaving the greenhouse. 

    6 Extremely noxious, unless wearing face covering save vs. poison or pass out, -4 to everything on success.

Sample NPCs

1 Mila Stenot; clan horticulturist. Proud and passionate. Loves the gardens above everything else. The rest of the city could burn for all she cares. Distrustful of outsiders. 

2 Abel Halict; clan botanist. Frequent jokes poorly mask his many anxieties. Sells plants on the black market (or to anyone else willing to buy) to pay off his immense gambling debts. 

3 Diedrik Andren; commander of the clan soldiers. Sharp but getting up there in the years. Convinced the alchemist houses are behind the sectid infestation and it’s driving him mad. 

4 Nora Collet; hivemaster of Apiary IX. Hyper-rational scientist-type. Secretly keeps a brood of sectid hatchlings in an abandoned shed to study their habits. She won’t admit she’s growing too attached. 

5 Dominicus Glyth; nobleman and garden enthusiast. Tranquil but a little spacey. Spends more time in the gardens than anyone else outside the clan, and knows more than he lets on about what goes on there. 

6 Faine Hisembol; alchemist house aspirant. Young, headstrong, takes himself too seriously. Poaches plants in the hopes of getting accepted in an alchemist houses.

Quick stats

Greenskeeper clan botanist/horticulturalist/apiarist 

Smart cloaks, utility coveralls, badges denoting rank and station

HD 1 AC 7 Att. dagger 1d4 (horticulturist+apiarist) or short sword 1d6 (botanist) Mv. 120'(40') Ml. 7

    Botanists and horticulturists have whistles that will hail 2d6 soldiers in 1d6 rounds. 

    Apiarists each have a jar of bees they can throw for self-defense. 

Greenskeeper clan soldier

Grass-stained uniforms, cumbersome sallets

HD 1+1 AC 5 Att. polearm 1d10 Mv. 90'(30') Ml 9

Greenskeeper clan hivemaster

Wicker bee-mask, bulky protective gear, constant sound of buzzing

HD 3 AC 5 Att. battle axe 1d8 Mv. 90'(30') Ml 9

    Always encountered with 2 swarms of bees under their control.

Sectid skirmisher

Chittering kobold-like locusts. Origins are a mystery.

HD 1/2 AC 7 Att. claw 1d6 Mv. 120'(40') Ml 7

Sectid scavenger 

Smaller kobold-like locusts. Origins are a mystery.

HD 0 (1 hp) AC 7 Att. slam 1 dmg Mv. 150' (50') Ml 7

Decorative fauna 

Beautiful flightless birds and ruminant mammals, bred or imported, decorate the gardens and feed carnivorous plants. The remains of such creatures are valuable—worth 100 sp to a dressmaker, taxidermist, etc. 

HD 2 AC 9 Mv. 120' (40') noncombatant, will run away if attacked

Thieves and poachers

As bandits

Nobles, dryads, bee swarms, etc.

As per system

Monster plants

Swollen shoots, Dagger-like thorns, immoderate blooms in garish colors.

HD 1d6+2 AC 1d4+2 Att. Thrashing Vines x4 (variable, 20’ range)+see below Mv. 0’ 

Vine attack type (1d8)

1-2 Razor sharp. 1d10 damage

3-4 Constricting. 1d6, repeated each round + target immobilized unless vines are hacked away with a slashing weapon

5-6 Whipping tendrils. 1d8, 6 attacks per round

7 Bloodsucking. 1d4, repeated each round until vines are torn off, plant heals 1 hp each time vines deal damage

8 No vines but instead thick burled branches. 2d6, 3 attacks per round

Additional features (1d8)

1 Regenerating. 1d4 hp/round

2 Parasitized. 1d4 parasites emerge when killed, stats as giant centipedes 

3 Ambulatory. Move speed 20’

4 Thorn tangle. 20’ radius around plant, starting your round in the radius causes a save vs. paralysis or become immobilized; spend your attack and take 1d4 damage to break free. Radius increases 10’ every round in combat

5 Chemical release. Triggers every 3 rounds; everyone in a 60’ radius saves vs. poison or becomes confused for 2d6 rounds 

6 Snapping maw. Additional attack, 2d8, exceeding AC by 5+ means target is swallowed. Digesting enzymes deal 1d4 damage/round; creature breaks free if at least 6 slashing damage is dealt to the plant in a round

7 Thick mucilage. Save vs. paralysis on hitting or being hit by the plant in melee or be covered in glue; half movement and -2 to attacks until cleaned off.

8 Swarm attractor. When reduced to half hp, the plant releases compounds that attract 1d4+1 swarms of bees to harry attackers. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

High times on the Flying Island

A bunch of new players joined our game recently, and I wanted a brief starter adventure to get everyone on board and teach them how to crawl before they're left to fend for themselves in the big scary world. The previous players are already very new so this would be a good time for everyone. 

The ideal starting adventure is of course:

  • vanilla fantasy enough that embellishments can be made without disruption and everyone more or less understands what's going on without having to wrap their head around any oddball setting details
  • ...but not so generic that my friends check out and lose interest.
  • appropriate for level 1 but reasonably epic and high-stakes. Rats in the basement fuck off. 
  • mechanical gimmicks and special rules kept at a minimum. Manually tracking inventory is already the most daunting game-related task anyone here has ever done before; no need to pile on more things things. 
Now given that the number of starter adventures is probably in the high thousands and more are being produced every day, I'm sure there are hundreds of suitable modules that fit the bill but shopping around for modules is uninteresting to me and I was unemployed when I was first planning this out so time was no issue. 

The adventure I envisioned would serve as a little intro so we wouldn't have a flock of new players just show up in the middle of the in-progress dungeon excursion returning players are currently embroiled in. 

The trickiest part is being vanilla but not too vanilla. Once the feel is figured out, everything falls in from there. There are probably a lot of ways to triangulate the appropriate setting vibe and thread the needle between familiar and new but the easiest one I know of is to put familiar things in unfamiliar contexts.

So what I did was take a generic D&D sandbox and put it IN THE SKY.

Flying island. Sandbox. Maybe its from seeing Castle in the Sky at an early age but the concept of a landmass floating above the earth is like a shortcut for my brain to think "this is great!"

Anyway, the adventure I banged out has an inciting incident, time pressure, a starting town with well-meaning yet down-on-their-luck villagers, a wizard of dubious intentions, humanoid mooks, peculiar treasures, a dungeon, and a dragon. Everything you need for a balanced D&D.

Session 1: The characters all awaken in a giant nest, surrounded by eggs the size of carriages. The last thing they each remember was going about their days as normal when, all the sudden, the sky went dark as a giant bird blocked the sun and plucked them from their terrestrial trappings to soar off into the clouds. 

They messed around the nest a bit, gathering equipment from corpses old and new and trying to get their bearings. A couple PCs found a rocky outcropping on the far end of the nest they could climb to get a lay of the land. To the left: the edge of whatever landmass they're on and then ocean hundreds of yards below, the sun slowly descending toward the blue horizon. To the right: windswept fields, hardscrabble farmsteads, and low-drifting clouds casting long shadows along the ground. 

The players decide to get a move on when one of the eggs starts to tremble. Wandering down from the giant nest, the party came across a little ranch where a bushy man tends to a herd of giant pill bugs.

Introductions are made, but cut short when the ground begins to shake and the wind picks up. The man urgently rushes everyone into his hovel. Peering through the rough planks of the ceiling, the PCs see a freak storm roll in, rapidly accompanied by a giant winged serpentine shape flitting in and out of view above them. "Was it the thing that brought us here?" they wondered. No, that's no bird—for each PC, it was their first time seeing a dragon.

The dragon flew off as night descended on the island. Spending some time around the little hamlet of past bird-survivors, the party learns the following:
  • They're on an island flying high above the earth
  • The island is watched over by something they refer to as the Ancient. Normally it stays around the island, but recently it fell into its centennial slumber and drifted to the upper firmament. 
  • Since it has departed, a malevolent dragon has made its way to the island and lairs in the Sky Temple. A bunch of other probably related bullshit has been going on, namely the tengu-men native to the island have gotten dramatically more hostile, people have been disappearing in clouds of ghostly fog, and freak weather patterns are causing chunks of the island to break off.
  • Pillbug milk is thin and grassy.
And so the PCs are beseeched to travel to the SKY TEMPLE, brave its perils, and blow the MISTRAL HORN to awaken the ANCIENT so that it may set things right once more—and hopefully get them off the island. 

They also broke up a bar fight, befriended the strange alewife lady and received a gift in her secret makeshift alchemy lab, learned of a mysterious fellow with an ape-like henchman who also recently stopped by the hamlet (everyone's first thought was "wizard," which goes to show how strong genre conventions can be even for non-fantasy people), and charmed the town bully into journeying with them. He died by crossbow bolt not more than several miles outside of town during an encounter with a pack of recently marooned sky pirates. But dead follower be damned, the encounter ended happily with a delegate from the party and the pirate captain getting drunk together.

This is what sky pirates look like.

Session 2: After the engagement with the pirates, the party got a rude map of local area and was informed of some of the dangers surrounding the temple. They also heard that the pirates recently espied a strangely dressed fellow wandering around near the temple with his ape-like follower. 

After traversing through ruined gardens and terraced fields the party finds a floating tower like a column of purple obsidian hanging in the air, tethered to the ground by a long thin chain. Near the foot of the chain is a small tent with the remains of a campfire outside and a hunched figure sitting in the grass. Immediately all interest the players' have in their current goal is supplanted by urge to partake in the venerated tradition of plundering a wizard's tower. 

I was almost certain the party would pounce on the unsuspecting henchman and climb blades-in-teeth up the chain to take a crack at what lies within the mysterious hovering tower on the mysterious hovering island but they in fact did not—the more diplomatic voices of the group won out, the henchman was consorted with (reaction role dictated he was overwhelmingly happy to see the party) and some info was learned about this wizard who's been looming in the margins of the adventure.

The party makes it to the temple, skirted some tengu-men sentries guarding the main entrance by traverse-climbing dangling roots and vines to get to a wide crack in the side of the lower temple structure leading to the undercroft. From there the party navigated the temple complex, avoiding unquiet spirits, toppling a stone guardian through the nimble maneuvering of a 10'-foot pole, beheld some ancient murals, and messed around with a strange altar until it granted them a magic prayer flag that makes weightless whatever it is tied to. Poor Berda the torchbearer was brained by the stone guardian but otherwise setbacks were navigated and morale was high.

All throughout the interior parts of the temple complex, the party noticed a strange chlorine-like acridity in the air and massive claw-marks on the walls, shattered masonry all strewn about. While the rest of the party decides to move on after they were done investigating murals and playing with the altar, one PC splits off and heads in the opposite direction, eventually leading to the main entrance chamber. It looked like a bomb went off inside—big enough at least to blow the roof off and collapse most of the floor. 

Hawthorne, the level 1 chaos cleric with barely an experience point to his name, examines more cryptic murals before peering into the hole in the floor. Far down below, he sees the form of a fearsome dragon sleeping atop a gleaming hill of gold. At that moment, something primordial gripped poor Hawthorne's player: the atavistic drive, known well to generations of D&D players since the hobby's dawn, to do something really stupid just to see what happens. Reaching into his meager coin purse, perhaps still transfixed by the dragon's majesty, Hawthorne withdrew a single silver piece and let it fall into the chasm. 

I ruled there was a chance the dragon would stay asleep—normally I apply Smaug logic, where a dragon can sense even the faintest manipulation of its treasure horde while laying atop it, but there may have been enough complicating factors that consulting the dice would be appropriate. Nevertheless, said dice dictated the dragon was roused. Seconds after the faint tinkling of the dropped silver piece met Hawthorne's ears, a rumble shook the room and the dragon burst forth from the pit, driving upward out of the absent ceiling and into the open air above. 


So the party is entered the temple, won some treasure, lost a couple followers, and now has a menacing dragon on their hands. Fortunately for the party, there are enough nooks and crannies in the temple that they can hide from the searching dragon, but many dangers are still as yet undiscovered. 

A lesson I learned with this group is that a lot of these new players, and new players in general I guess, are more turned off by the sort of boring, neutral things that can happen in sessions than their seasoned counterparts. Where experienced players may have more practiced patience to apply to internalizing whatever framing information may prove useful later, even slight bits of expository background info were causing these newbies' eyes to glaze over and hands to reach for snacks in the hopes that chewing and swallowing would provide enough stimulation to make the passing moments more bearable. Just more reason to leave the slow stuff to the side and keep the action front and center.

But I love playing with this group. New players who don't immediately lose interest always prove how the way the game is played is a function of what make its a good time. People want to push and prod and mess around not just because it's what you're supposed to do in the game but because it's fun. Everything the players come across is something new to latch onto—is that guy in the distance friendly or hostile? Will these pirates choose booze over treasure? Will flipping this switch open a door or blow my head off? Every problem, every challenge, every ambiguity is begging to be resolved or understood because the act of doing so is in itself engaging. 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

This is level 1

People have some differing thoughts on what exactly 1st level PCs are in the game world and what distinguishes them from an average person. However helpful they may seem, level titles are big source of the confusion. Here is how I interpret 1st level PCs in the games I run.


What differentiates 1st level fighters from laymen and 0 level men-at-arms is that fighters fought in and survived a conflict where others like them perished. Could be anything from fighting in a war to fending off a pack of wolves. What's important is that fighters went through the crucible of lethal combat and emerged more alive than before. First level fighters are called VETERANS. 


Beginning magic-users have studied in the ways of the sorcerers of ancient Zenon, where it is said all secrets of magic were known. Through rigorous cultivation, a magic-user's mind is prepared to serve as an intermediary between this world and the unseen realms from which magic is derived. First level magic-users are known as MEDIUMS.


Anyone can slink in the dark and steal an exposed coin purse but a real thief is something more. To move in true silence, vanish in shadows, scale sheer surfaces without aid, intuit the precise workings of a complex mechanism and the vulnerabilities of an unsuspecting target—all are feats that exceed the capability of mundane folk. But it's hard to learn these things on your own, so it is assumed thieves start as inductees in the mysterious thieves' guild or some other branch of the organized crime network. First level thieves are APPRENTICES. 


Clerics are closely tied to their alignment. Beyond conventional worshipers, clerics are the earthly champions of Law and Chaos, and are granted numinous powers for their devotion. While some clerics may follow a specific patron deity, all clerics of the same alignment are more or less part of the same faith. Newly initiated clerics must still prove their worth, and so are relegated to executing their function without the use of spells. First level clerics are called ACOLYTES. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Place-names: the naming convention

A name is almost always the first thing a person learns about a place, and so it carries a lot of weight. A good evocative name has the capacity to convey the "feel" of a place in a way that a bland or more rotely descriptive name does not. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "the difference between the almost right name and the right name is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." 

I used to struggle so hard with names that it would impede the rest of my game prep—if I couldn't find the right name for a place, I would lose my excitement for the idea and let it die on the vine. Eventually though I came to a solution: offload my place-naming to a naming convention. 

After that, every time I needed a new region or settlement, I used the name of a fabric type. For a stretch of years, my players sought mythic treasure in the island of Cottondor, fought witches in the blighted lands of Woolovia, explored among the ancient trees of the Gabardine Forest, and partied and schemed their way through the bustling city-state of Corduroy. I called the setting "Fabricant."

Most of the locations in my game were conceived as me thinking "I need a place for x" and then looking at a big list of fabric names, letting whatever jumped out at me guide the look and feel of the place. The trick I found was that having the name first and working backward to the details of the place is far easier than the opposite approach. You're using a name to evoke somewhere that largely doesn't exist yet, as opposed to making a place and then struggling to find a phrase or collection of syllables that truly captures it.

And even when you do have a pretty clear idea for a place, a naming convention expedites the naming process by giving some guardrails to work within.    

Why fabric types? There are a lot of them, they're usually short and easy to remember, and they often have a good sound to them. Also helps that textiles come from all over the world so there are names for all kinds of eras and cultures.

One might worry that fabric names are already known as such by the players and that repurposing them as place-names might limit their ability to buy in to the fantasy of the world. That wasn't an issue for me: what I observed is that once the players heard the names in the context of the game world, they were able to form a sort of subconscious line in their mind that delineated the fabric names from the place names. My friend Mike only came to realize the whole fabric thing six whole months into the campaign. C'est la différance.

The naming convention did run me into another issue though, and it was a rather predictable one: after a while I started to feel pigeonholed. Even with a wealth of fabric name options available, I started to feel a bit listless about the whole thing. I never broke the naming convention, but after the campaign ran its course, I never since went back to a naming convention. But the one I had was substantially useful to me for quite some time, and I would still consider using one for shorter adventures or campaigns.  

Here's the shortlist of fabrics I compiled for place-naming. A good amount of them had use in my old game, but most of them were kept in reserve, only loosely sketched out with a handful of notes based on what the word sounded like to me. See what sort of places the fabric names evoke in your mind:

Saga Nishiki

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Overloading the search die

The overloaded encounter die is OVER in 2024. A monster will appear at the same time your light source goes out while you need to rest and you will LIKE IT.

But the idea of streamlining procedures by keying each result on a die is a good one, if streamlining procedures is your aim. 

As far as I'm concerned BX D&D and its derivatives are as close as you can get to the platonic ideal of dungeon crawlers, but, and I say this with head bowed in humility, the assumptions baked into the game's design do not necessarily apply to the contemporary elfgamer's table. It's the iPhone era, after all.  

The victim of this post is the BX search procedure, the rules of which are as follows:
  • Characters can listen at a door for passing monsters, or spend a turn examining a 10'x10' area for room traps or a 10' section of wall for secret doors. 
  • Each action has a 1:6 chance of success, modified by certain race/class abilities. If there is nothing to be found in the area the character is searching, no roll is made.
  • Each character can only listen at a door or search a given 10' wall/area once. 

This can be boiled down to "PCs get one chance to search X to find Y, rolling a d6 and succeeding on a 1 or sometimes 2." As an aside, I like how each search action has a specific noun its looking for: monsters, room traps, or secret doors for listening, searching an an area, or inspecting a wall, respectively. This is one of those board-gamey elements of BX that show it was designed in part to be a closed system, but with rules and mechanics robust enough to be applied to all manner of other scenarios.

For instance, if a PC wanted to rifle through a cluttered desk to find a specific document, there's no reason why a search roll wouldn't be appropriate even if that situation wasn't outlined in the rules. It shows a design philosophy distinct from that of most contemporary games—instead of describing mechanics expansively with general terms, old school D&D defines its mechanics through specific instances which invite players to extrapolate how else they may be used. Saving throw names are another good example of this.

Anyway, the old OSR maxim goes that players should mostly be describing their character's actions instead of rolling dice, but the dice system still has its place for searching. In my games, if the actions a player describes would reveal something hidden I give it to them without any rolling, but if they just want to do a general search I roll to see if they find whatever noodly detail is hidden there, if any. This works reasonably well from a game flow perspective, but the problem is that 1- or even 2-in-6 chance is punishingly low for smaller groups, especially when abiding by 10' space increments and the one-chance-per-character rule. Sure, traps and secret doors should be telegraphed, but telegraphing all of them all the time removes those moments of random danger and discovery that contribute so positively to the game.  

My solution is to OVERLOAD the SEARCH DIE.

Here are the rules: When a player wishes to search a room, they can choose to specify which actions their character takes or opt instead to conduct a general search, which takes one turn. During a general search, the character attempts to find secret doors, concealed traps, monster spoor, and other obscured features. When a general search is made, the DM or player rolls a d6 to determine the outcome. A character may spend as many turns as they wish searching until a 6 is rolled or they get the same number over two consecutive turns, indicating they have exhausted their faculties and can no longer comb the room until their next dungeon excursion. Demihumans roll a d8 instead of d6. Big rooms can be broken up into halves or quadrants per the DM. 

Search results
  1. Discover secret (if any)
  2. Discover secret (if any)
  3. Encounter omen
  4. Scavenge goods
  5. Dungeon insight
  6. Setback
  7. [Demihuman only] Discover secret (if any)
  8. [Demihuman only] Encounter omen
Discover secret
Identify the location of one secret door, concealed room trap, or other important but not-obvious feature of the room if there is one to be found. 

Encounter omen
Find evidence of other nearby dungeon inhabitants. 

This result accounts for both hearing noises in adjacent rooms or corridors, like the original listen-at-doors roll, as well as general clues regarding the next encounter. If there are no creatures keyed nearby that the character could hear, the DM rolls for the next encounter and provides a hint or detail as to its nature.

Scavenge goods
Uncover a random item. A character can only find one item in a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

This is where I tell you that if you don’t already have a d100 list of junk lying around your dungeon, get one now, and trust me when I say it’s worth it. I recommend The Dungeon Dozen and d4 caltrops blogs for inspiration. Trick out your list with unique and specialized entries and it becomes another avenue to convey the dungeon’s lore. Anyway, this result implies that the item was not immediately visible upon entering the room—there are situations I foresee where this could be contrived but generally unless your dungeon rooms are empty cubes it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a little hiding spot for that left boot a character just found.

Dungeon insight
While the characters might not find anything in particular, their search may yield some fact or detail about the room, level, or dungeon as a whole. A character can only find glean one insight from a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

Dungeon insights could be something that indicates the room's original purpose, the behavior of the former or current inhabitants, a hint regarding a special set piece somewhere else in the dungeon, or even just a curiosity that contributes to the wonder and strangeness of the mythic underworld.

The character didn't find anything, and an additional complication occurs. 

This can be a direct result of the searching, such as the character springing a trap or dropping something that makes a loud noise, but the setback can also be an anomalous hazard the dungeon throws at unwelcome interlopers: a flagstone launches itself at the character, a ration-rotting miasma billows from a grate in the floor, or a ghoulish hand yanks at a piece of gear from a gap in the wall.


Here's why the overloaded search die works: it does away with the null results of classic search rolls, so even if characters don't find any secrets the find something else worthwhile or get into some trouble. Upping the success rate while introducing an element of danger makes searching more exciting, and the option to burn turns to continue searching introduces a compelling risk/reward challenge. If you love your hazard system/overloaded encounter die/event die/whatever else it's called but you're not overloading your search dice, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. 

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Year of the Dungeon

2023 was the year of the dungeon. 

For me, at least. But 
among the blogs I've read this year that seems to be the case for many others.

I am not just referring to Dungeon23, where participants construct a dungeon over the course of the year by writing one room per day. I didn't participate, and haven't really followed the projects of those who have. Though I thought it was a splendid idea, I was already underway on a giant dungeon project when Sean McCoy issued his fateful challenge. Alas.

From the end of last year to now, the end of 2023, I have created and am in the process of running a megadungeon, with as much attention to developing a "full" dungeon campaign experience as possible. I'm talking about sublevels, secrets, lore, weirdo NPCs, and as many opportunities for the coveted "emergent narrative" as I could manage.

Pedro Correa

Despite playing D&D on and off since I was but a lad in the 3.5 era, this is the first time I've ever sat down to make a full campaign-scale dungeon. My desire was to create as faithful an approximation as I could to a true old-school style megadungeon, which meant adhering closely to the foundational assumptions of D&D while straying where necessary (ie frequently) for the sake of practicality, cohesion, and personal preference. So there are orcs and pit traps and stuck doors but also enough outside material that certain points might struggle to be recognized as classic D&D fantasy. Turns out, when you work on a creative endeavor long enough your individual tastes sneak in whether you want them to or not. 

Obviously, given that what everyone is doing here can in some way be traced back to a game with "Dungeon" in the title, dungeons are a regular topic of conversation. But instead of merely discussing particulars or sharing inspiration, there was starting in about early/mid-2022 a surge of excellent posts about that raw and elemental process of turning a blank set of rooms into a vivid and textured underworld. 

Emil Nilsson

It started in the Spriggan's Den back in 2022, with Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon. Yora identifies the golden ratio of BX dungeon design, figuring a platonic 18-room dungeon with additional thoughts on treasure placement and experience. The act of turning the probabilities of dungeon rooms in BX into a statistically average dungeon is a simple transformation on the surface, but offers a novel perspective on creating dungeons that is arguably easier to build around than the stocking procedure from the book. 

In Bite-Sized Dungeons, Marcia B. at Traverse Fantasy adapts the statistically average dungeon to OD&D, and then distills it into a 6-room dungeon experience, complete with layout, which in a perfect world would replace all references to the 5-room dungeon. While nothing about these dungeons are "mega," this is the formula I have taken to following for secret levels and monster lairs. 

Phlox at Whose Measure God Could Not Take elevated Yora's already-lofty 18-room dungeon with 20-Block Dungeon Stocking, adding incisive and well-reasoned notes on crucial dungeon elements not covered by stocking procedures. The post goes above and beyond basic room stocking to articulate the actual utility and intention behind each step of the dungeon-designing process. The list of recommended dungeon features, added with the platonic dungeon block, should be recognized as a more specific and utilitarian version of the indispensable Dungeon Checklist

Warren D. of the I Cast Light blog has been doing a sensational job getting gritty and granular on room stocking principles. EMPTY BUT NOT NOTHING: Thoughts on Actionable Empty Rooms is a quick, clear, and concise write-up on just how exactly to use "empty" rooms to contribute to the larger dungeon experience. I know there's that other guide on empty rooms, and as a resource for random tables and lists it's still great, but Warren's post packs more value word-for-word and I find it to be overall more practical. 

Vile Cult of Shapes delivered a one-two punch directly to my frontal lobe with How to start adventuring and dungeon generator, two posts that explain both writing a campaign from zero and also just the entire creative process in uncomplicated terms. No, I haven't actually followed the procedures, and no, I didn't need a blog post to tell me that I can watch movies or go for a walk if I need inspiration, but that's beside the point—these methods shows us a way to make wondrous and meaningful campaigns with as little mental clutter as possible. 

Miranda of In Places Deep revealed her Stocking Procedure, offering a straightforward method of building out dungeon floors accounting for monster placement and treasure distribution that is sensible and conducive to good internal cohesion without compromising on organizational ease. Miranda is a veteran blogger whose work I really admire, and reading her describe the basic blueprints with which she builds her dungeons is like hearing some sort of artist master describe their process and thinking "hey I can do that too."

Honorable mention goes to the honorable Nick LS Whelan, whose post Two Week Megadungeon will, I predict, be instrumental in the creation of thousands of megadungeons in the near future. Like a blade through fine fabric Nick cuts down the myth that making a campaign-scale dungeon has to be a huge undertaking, and that all it takes is clear goals and a couple working sessions. The reason this is an honorable mention is purely because I had already largely wrapped up my megadungeon prep by the time the post hit the feed—turns out my approach to making a dungeon is strikingly similar to this one, except that I took like a year instead of two weeks and my maps are handmade but still kind of garbaggio. Oh well. Next time I get the urge to pull out the notebook and start a new megadungeon, whenever that may be, I will by hook or crook finish it in two weeks because of this post.  

There are probably a bunch of relevant posts I forgot about or haven't read. If you know of one or even wrote one yourself, please send it my way. Maybe even drop it in the comments for others to see. 

Anyway, the true lesson I got from all this, one of those things that you understood intellectually but don't truly grasp until you come out the other side, is that all these procedures and methods and best practices are but means to the end of creating a fulfilling and engaging experience at the table. What this means is, in a sense it doesn't always matter if one floor of the dungeon has four special rooms instead of three, but more importantly, you should find or develop a procedure that you know you can trust to deliver those meaningful game experiences. Once you do, you can sit back and let the system of generation work on its own, and you get to have the experience of dungeon crafting be just as much about discovery and exploration for you as crawling is for the players. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Chaos are the bad guys

"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners... many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.” Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“'Those two worlds — and many more for all I know — are in some way the same. The same fight was being waged, here the Nazis and there the Middle World; but in both places, Chaos against Law, something old and wild and blind at war with man and the works of man. In both worlds it was the time of need for Denmark and France.'” Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

“Brigands are loosely organized outlaws and renegade mercenaries who live by raiding towns and robbing caravans and travelers.” Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Expert Rulebook

A big reason why some elfgamers reject alignment is that they feel it's limiting. I disagree. Alignment can be a generative force in a campaign, because at its core it's about conflict

Frankly, D&D shat the bed on alignment when good and evil were added, and shat it again when articulating alignment as personal morals instead of distinct factions, or whatever was going on in OD&D. A lot of people recognize instinctively that these are overly simplistic ways to frame personal ethics (and if you don't, here is a solid summary), but alas we persist in the shadow of this twice-shat bed. With that being said, I'm going to be a shooter for Gygax et. al for a second and explain why the classic perspective of alignment-as-ideology is actually (kinda) an effective formulation of the central tension of D&D's implied setting, working backwards from the assumptions the game gives us. 

There's a lot of talk about what's "implied" about the world in old school D&D editions but tiptoeing dancer-like around the discussion of to what extent D&D can be perceived as colonialist fantasy etc. predicated on assumptions of untamed wilderness and savage others etc. and to what extent this is problematic etc. the most compelling interpretation of D&D's implied setting (meaning what is communicated through the descriptions of monsters, wilderness, and so on) is not some new-world myth of untrammeled wilderness, as many presume, but rather a post-collapse dark age—hence all the dungeons and bizarre magic and treasure for us to find. The dangers that lurk outside of the little bastions of civilization are a direct result of overlapping cultural, economic, and infrastructural breakdowns of a past supercivilization.

Some historians say the fall of the Roman Empire was such a catastrophe that archaeological evidence suggests people in Britain lost the ability to make wheel-thrown pottery. The scale of catastrophe would be indistinguishable from a slow apocalypse to the people living through it. Total bummer when it happens in real life, but ripe territory for D&D: imagine a Mad-Max-style landscape of lawless territories and hard-bitten settlements, with roving warbands of ruthless warriors bearing a motley patchwork of armor and weaponry salvaged from a lost civilization. But in a fantasy setting: less football pads and flamethrowers and more gothic plate mail and halberds (and also maybe flamethrowers).

Where does alignment come in? It's deciding what to do now that the old world has ended. Law and Chaos are not (solely) found in the quasi-religious spiritualism of Moorcock's or Warhammer's cosmic conflict, but in the choices people are confronted with when humanity is driven to the edge. Does one try to preserve what is left and rebuild amongst the ruins, or do take what they can and burn the rest? Both endeavors have their appeal, and more importantly, both have their place within a campaign world. But when perceived through the framework the game offers us, chaos is the anti-human impulse. 

When the brigands take up arms and raid the village, they are not doing so out of any specific malice to the townsfolk but rather pure self-interest and a straightforward disregard for the wellbeing of those they deem lesser. Chaos is the rule of might making right, it's the sentiment that the world can burn as long as I get mine. When you understand chaos through such a lens it makes a lot more sense why Poul Anderson identified fascism as an ideology at odds with the works of mankind in Three Hearts and Three Lions, the book that gave alignment to D&D. In terms of societal structure, alignment can be looked at as the difference between relational and coercive hierarchy. Lawful societies may be strict and repressive, but chaotic societies are ruled purely through the use of force and subjugation. Skulls for the skull throne. 

I am sympathetic to attempts at rehabilitating chaos. The instinct to invert the conventional morality of law and chaos is an understandable one, especially considering how many real-world institutions of authority benefit a privileged few at the expense of everyone else. But while this approach offers a compelling alternate perspective on chaos as a defiant and liberatory counterpoint to law's oppressive authoritarianism, it relegates chaos to that of a response to a status quo; any competing viewpoint is secondary to resistance against the current thing. Instead, I feel that alignment offers more when law and chaos represent their own sets of opposing principles that are in dynamic competition with one another. Of course, this ultimately comes down to personal preference and what kind of narrative you want to engage with.

In this way, the lens of alignment-as-ideology can also be applied to orcs and the age-old issue of "evil" races. Forget about trying to untangle the fraught presumption of monstrous humanoids being objectively evil—they are just in competition with everyone else. And they're doing well enough to pose an existential threat to humanity. Our peak has come and gone. Now it's their turn. Gothmog put it best: "The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come."