Saturday, September 19, 2020

One Page Dungeon Design

The 2020 One Page Dungeon Contest wrapped up on the 15th of July, and I’ve entered this year (for the first time since 2015). I don’t think my dungeon has much of a chance - it’s a bit the esoteric work/aesthetic design testbed and lacks the artistic attention traditionally necessary to win the contest … but … the goal isn’t to win, it’s to produce a tiny, but usable TTRPG adventure and to learn about what that entails. I encourage everyone who has any inclination for adventure design to enter next year or at least try to construct a one page dungeon and hone it to a standard that someone else could run it from. The lessons in creating such a small, focused adventure teaches are useful more generally, and in the end you hopefully have something to share that shows how you like to play TTRPGs -- which at their best are a creative pastime.

My 2020 OPD - Maw o Snails
PDF at end of post

One Page Dungeons are a form of adventure publication that is literally what it says in the name. One, one-sided, 8.5” x 11”/A4 piece of paper with a complete adventure on it. How one wants to do that is the interesting part. Sure it’s a gimmick, but it’s a fascinating one because the highly restricted space encourages a lot of design compromise that ultimately makes the designer decide what has to cut and what the most space saving way to communicate is. There’s practical and aesthetic considerations as well - which likely appeal to the more artistically and design inclined, but for the adventure designer the One Page Dungeon (OPD) is an experiment in cutting away the unnecessary and emphasizing the most important elements of a chosen playstyle and preferred design goals.

Below I’ll explain in more detail, but here is a list of steps and considerations that go into a One Page Dungeon, or at least a specific type of One Page Dungeon -- the keyed location based kind with as much classic exploration feel as possible:

  • Brevity, Not Ultraminimalism
  • Reduce Density, Not Size
  • One Solid Image
  • Avoid Gimmicks and Accommodations Unless they Save Space
  • Use Map and Other Aesthetics to Add Detail and Complexity

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 9 - Vessels of the Plague Fleet & Dungeon Types

The Capital Fleet of the Successor Empire, once a thousand stone ships, depleted and weakened by mutiny, war, neglect, disaster and finally broken in the war of Maratime Schism by magical plague. Trapped in the estuary of the Green Flow, the towering stone hexareme and octeres - each a floating castle topped in towers and fortresses mired in mud. The smaller trihemioliai and quinquereme, baking on the hot sea, crews skeletonized by disease. Beyond the pickets of the Schismatics, and the units of the mutinied units of the Expeditionary Fleets. Lingering, crews and marines bloated and raved under the Pyre Sea sun until the surviving captains met, pooling their healthy sailors, manned an escape squadron, headed by the bombardment enneres Implacable, and sailed out to battle the mutineers in a long pursuit back to Aurum Ferro. The fleet that remained died at the hands of its sickly crews. Shuttlecocks opened, weapons spiked, the dying crews denied their vessels to their enemies: sinking with them or driving them ashore.

Three easily explored vessels are included here and are the most complete and well preserved of the Plague Fleet, fixed fast in its mud and the dense mangroves that have grown outward as the Green Flow dumps tons of rich sediment into the Morass each year.

The Hemolina Cruelty, a lighter vessel, a sharp prowed raider driven into the shore, its trapped treasure holds still containing plunder from a raid on the Sapphire Islands of the Maratime Provence. Currently the renegade revolutionaries, the Lost Lambs scavenge its stern in search of volatile arcane munitions to aid their insurrectionist violence.

The Quadireme Risen Empire, a siege ship, rebuilt from the razee of the burnt octeres One Thousand Wisdoms, now mired deep in the mangrove, its overgrown bombard decks home to the court of the Ape King and its holds a submerged ghost grave.

The Hexareme Red Queen rests in the shallows, a stately dreadnought, trapped in time. Aboard the forces of its former ship’s daemon stalks the decks, animating the vessel’s figurehead, locked in an endless battle with the soul of the sorcerer king once bound to its power plant.

Perhaps 30 other vessels are lost in the Green Morass and the waters around it, most entirely submerged or buried in silts. Others are capsized, choked with mangrove, or burnt shells, emptied of accessible valuables by time and the elements. These other wrecks can be expanded on by an ambitious GM (Appendix A includes some tables and ideas on how to do so) but the Cruelty, Risen Empire and Red Queen represent both many sessions of exploration and the central puzzle of the Plague fleet, so it’s unlikely a party in an open world game will want to explore them all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dragon of Icespire Peak - A Review


Icespire GM's Screen - that almost makes up for sparse art.

This blog isn't often kind to the products of Wizards of the Coast - largely because the ‘Crawl’ (as in Dungeon Crawl) playstyle that All Dead Generations champions is very different then the one 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons seems directed towards. Yet, taking a deep look at offerings from Wizards of the Coast is one of the best ways to highlight those differences and understand them. Lost Mines of Phandelver has been the WotC sanctioned introductory adventure since the 5th edition came out, but in 2019 Wizards of the Coast published the Essentials Kit, updating the boxed set concept for 5th edition and including an introductory adventure/campaign “Dragon of Icespire Peak”.


Introductory adventures are interesting things, doing a lot of work to define setting, and if they're part of a particularly successful system they can offer a model for adventure design to an entire generation of players. When the first edition of Basic Dungeons and Dragons was introduced in 1977 it didn’t contain an adventure, though this was remedied by 1978, when B1 (for “Basic”) “In Search of the Unknown” by Mike Carr was included. In Search of the Unknown, despite an alluring cover illustration* and amazing title has to be regarded as a somewhat experimental product, which perhaps took its role of educating the new GM too far at the cost of being fairly uninteresting and a bit unplayable. Alternatively B1 represents an insight into what early D&D looked like -- its lack of naturalism or any kind of monster ecology (it depends on random stocking) and equally unnatural map emblematic of a wargame derived early play that Gygax (for all his flaws) showed an alternative to. B1 was quickly supplemented by B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” by Gary Gygax, which is likely his best work, and still remains a read for anyone interested in adventure design or game mastering.

“Keep on the Borderlands”, the nature of the challenges in its caves of chaos and the playstyle it fairly effectively taught defined Dungeons & Dragons for TSR’s early 80’s golden age: dungeon crawls based on a stilted internal logic and ecology where scheming humanoid factions were the primary foes within a ‘points of light’ setting. That’s the power of the introductory adventure, to not only showcase an official setting (promoted or implied), but to set the tone and playstyle. “Keep on the Borderlands” was removed from D&D basic sets in 1983, which instead included a short solo adventure heavy on scripted events (as it would have to be given it’s solo nature), around the same time as the first Dragonlance module (“Dragons of Despair”) was published championing adventures of the linear, scene-based style where player characters receive immunity from harm to assure the adventure's narrative remains predictable.

Yet “Keep on the Borderland” set the basic model for the introductory adventure, one that “Dragon of Icespire Peak” even follows to some degree, it to is a regional set of adventures set in a lawless region of a world where “[e]ven farms and freeholds within a day's walk of a city can fall prey to monsters” prefaced by more general play instructions and including play aides. The adventures within “Dragon of Icespire Peak” however, and especially how they are structured, vary from the open world presentation of B2. The question for this review is thus “How well does Dragon of Icespire Peak work to introduce players and GMs to the game, and what sort of game does it introduce?” Even more specifically, and derived from looking at other 5th Edition products, “What, if any, are the contradictions between Dragon of Icespire Peak’s fiction (setting and adventure details) and the mechanical playstyle it presents?”


A 64 (Including 15 pages of 5th editions’ indulgent monster stat blocks) page series of 13 adventure locations ranging in size from 5 (Umbrage Hill - a Manticore attack) to 30 (Axeholm - A ruined Dwarven Fortress) keyed locations and designed to be played episodically, connected by an underlying structure of regional events. I believe the adventure is written by Chris Perkins, he’s credited as the designer in the rulebook, but not the adventure itself. Likewise art in the standard 5th edition style drawn by a passel of artists specifically for the adventure, unlike early 5th edition offerings. The art and cartography has the bright colors and generic fantasy look one expects from a Wizard’s of the Coast product, though it’s pretty sparse - we have illustrations of several monsters, cover art of some adventurers confronting the titular dragon, NPC illustrations, a vista of Phalanden, a random gnome fiddling with a contraption and a skeletal horse. Given the blandness of the wotC house imagination/style and the quotidian content of Dragon of Icespire Peak this is good as far as it goes. No illustrations that are especially useful at the table (magic items, complex rooms), but the NPC cards are a nice touch and drawn in a more whimsical style than most WotC illustrations. Maps are likewise typical of a WotC product, serviceable, not especially complex but not entirely linear either -- though the small number of keyed areas in many of the locations limit the orienteering aspect, which is perhaps a hallmark of 5th edition play.

Reading through the overall introduction of “Dragon of Icespire Peak”, I’m pleasantly surprised by its openness and stated commitment to player choice. The central “job board” gimmick is something borrowed from CRPGs from before they had the budget or graphics to animate NPCs - but I guess it’s an expected trope. I sometimes wish there was a board in my town that said things like “The mayor will pay $5,000.00 to any brave souls that investigate the ruined missile silos and defeat the scabrous vermin that dwells within” but like much of WotC’s brand of D&D fantasy the job board has a logic of its own at this point. Starting quests lead to complications and new quests that all tie into an overarching region's situation of the same sort that this blog champions - factions fighting over land and power, with the adventurers theoretically holding the balance. While Dragon of Icespire Peak still assumes the party and players will be drawn to heroic motives, unlike many WotC offerings it doesn’t lay out how to act on them in a linear and entirely predetermined manner. The seemingly open basic structure is reinforced by a set of advice that might seem familiar to All Dead Generations readers, though it's fairly general in nature.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 8 - Shore Monster Statistics and Random Encounter Procedure


Sea Hulda in repose

1. Vampire Apes:
Hulking, 8’ - 9’ tall, four armed and pale furred predators. The Apes resemble Plague Monkeys on a massive scale, and perhaps are magically warped from them, but where Plague Monkeys are cowardly Vampire Apes are aggressive and fearless. Only loosely under the control of the Malign Intelligence, and with greater than animal cunning, they believe themselves the nobility of the Morass, vassals only to their Ape King who holds court from the overgrown superstructure of the Risen Empire. Vampire Apes will not see reason, they will not make deals but will suffer lesser, properly deferential, creatures to live until the Apes are hungry, and will duel anything that acts like a rival one on one, and not always to the death. Communication can be hard however as Vampire Apes know only bellowing whoops, growls and expressive body language.

Vampire Ape (1D6/2): HD 4+4 (27) AC 8(12), ATK 4* (fists), DAM 1D6, MV 60’, ML 11, SV F4
* At range the Vampire Ape can throw tree trunks and small boulders - 1 attack for 1D6+3 damage)

Vampire Ape 5E (1D6/2): HD 4D10+12 (32 HP) AC 12, ATK 4* (melee) +5 hit, DAM 1D6+3, (fist - bludgeoning) MV 40’, STAT (S: 19, D: 12, C: 16, I: 5, W: 13, CH: 5)
* At range the Vampire Ape can throw tree trunks and small boulders - 1 attack at +5 for 1D6+3 damage)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Parctice 7 - Wilderness Exploration Tables & Procedural Generation

Shadowed channels and dense thickets mean that encounters with the resident horrors of the Green Morass tend to occur at close range, 2d6X10’, unless the party is surprised in which case the encounter occurs at the monsters’ preferred distance (melee range except for the Scavengers who will engage with missiles at 80’). Monsters with surprise will attack, capitalizing on their advantage, unless otherwise noted.

Denizens of the Unwholesome Sea
Vampire Apes (1d6/3): Mountains of aggression, stinking white fur, and pale pink flesh.
Four-armed alpha predators of the Green Morass, always hungry for fresh blood and
dominance. Vampire Apes have no fear and arrive booming and ululating.
Malign Thrall (1): Cheerful, with a shanty on its withered lips this mad hermit still wears
the rotting garb of a sailor or explorer, rags hanging from a withered frame.    
Dead Men (2D6): Shambling confused corpses: bones wrapped with the shreds of a
naval uniform, sun blackened gristle wearing explorer’s boots or naked and sea
changed.  The dead have no needs, but furious anger. They may ignore you however.
Scavengers (1D6+2): Crouch and men in travellers leathers, blackened mail. Each
with a sheepskin pelisse. Hard-eyed and wary of the mangroves, they creep and watch.
Owlbears (1D6/2): Fat balls of grey fur and pink feathers with curved beaks. Smaller
then many subspecies, the Owlbears of the Green Morass are well fed and numerous. 
Plague Monkeys (2D6): Screaming from the trees, grey green with mouths of  ivory
sickles, the monkeys are the eyes of the Malign Intelligence, tormented by hunger. 
Sea Hulda (1D6/2): Languid singers of enchanting melody who nest along muddy
channels, the Hulda are not predators but filled with mischief, curiosity and wild
Droning Birds (1 swarm):  Hummingbirds, bloated to the size of a sparrow - each a
carbuncle reflecting angry red and cool grey green.  They fill the air with droning song
and seek to drown their jagged beaks in warm blood with singular purpose. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 6 - Small Point Crawl & Exploration Die


Approaching from the shore is no less dangerous than from the sea, and the area within a half day from the wrecks is an arcane sink, polluted with rotten magic. Wilderness Encounter checks in the morass occur once every two hours, including during the night, unless the party has camped with the Lost Lambs. However, beyond constant threats and strange happenings, the very land revolts against mortal life, making camping within the Green Flow Morass near impossible due to the mangrove's Vampire Ecology.

Despite the constant attention of biting insects and the sucking mud’s reek of vegetal decay, travel through the morass is beautiful in its fecundity - the profusion and variety of life arresting. A narrow reed choked channel opens into a dappled pond where gold and scarlet pitcher plants blanket the sluggish water. A siege of herons with bright banded legs, beaks and cascading tail feathers hunts along the shore of a white beach. The alchemical ceramic columns of a sunken Hemiolia’s pilot house rise from a marsh, jarring white against the Morass’s greys - a shaded portico that promises cool respite from the desiccating heat.

The Morass isn’t huge, but it’s a dense and unruly maze of shifting channels, mud islands, red sand beaches and overgrown wrecks. Traveling through it takes time and rarely follows the same route, but as a matter of game mechanics the Morass is abstracted, its map is a simple point crawl, with dots noting each segment of travel. Assuming the adventurers are equipped with skiffs, coracles or canoes, items available and recommended at any Crouch Village, each segment of travel requires roughly two hours (approximated as six each day and six each night) and an exploration die roll. Without water transport explorers will take 4 hours and two checks per segment of travel as well as quickly becoming drenched in foul mud and briny marsh water.

An exploration roll, like a random encounter roll, is a D6 check that determines what the party discovers of encounters in the next period of travel. Used in wilderness travel it has the advantage of providing context for travel beyond encounters for wandering monsters: encounters, signs, weather, events, landmarks, and becoming lost.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 5 - Sea Monster Statistics (Basic and 5th Edition)

Sea Encounter Details

Bishop Crab: Hog sized, muddy grey green crabs with bright blue human eyes. They are oddly communal creatures, building inexplicable edifices on their shells, along the beach and in their undersea gardens -- fragile, sometimes beautiful assemblages of detritus that look vaguely like many spired cathedrals. They are scavengers, but will defend their territory, sculpture and selves aggressively with their huge right claws, which can crush and tear through armor with ease. Thrown food or chum will convince Bishop Crabs to retreat unless their sculptures have been damaged.

Bishop Crab: HD: 2 (HP: 12), AC 3(17), ATK: 1*, DAM: 1d8(claw), MV: 40'/Swim 60', ML: 10, SV: F2
*Bishop Crabs treat all non-magical armor as leather (AC 7)

Bishop Crab 5E: HD 3D8+6 (HP: 21), AC 16, ATK: 1(melee)*, DAM: 1D8+2 (claw - penetrating), MV: 30’/Swim 40’, STAT: (S: 15, D: 15, C: 15, I: 7, W: 10, CH: 6)
* The crushing claw of the Bishop Crab treats all normal armors as a maximum of AC 13.

Blood Jelly: Hunting jellyfish of prodigious size that float at the surface to feed. Ponderous clear cushions, they drain blood with their paralyzing flesh and blistering, stinging tentacles, turning pink and then red as they feed. The jellies are far more dangerous to submerged or swimming prey, but can ram small boats to overturn them when aggravated. Jellies can be distracted with living prey or chum. Jellyfish venom loses its potency within an hour of the creature’s death, but with a fire, several hours and proper equipment, one skilled in alchemy or chemic sciences can distill the creatures to form 1D6/2 flasks of valuable regent and topical anesthetic: “pale viscera” worth 100GP per flask.

Blood Jelly: HD: 4 (HP: 25), AC 8(12), ATK: 1*, DAM: 1D6* (sting) or Special** (ram), MV: Swim 40’, ML: 8, SV: F1
* Jellies make one sting attack per round against any target in melee range and in the water with them, and successful attacks inflict damage as well as paralysis for 1D6/2 turns (beware of drowning) on a failed Save v. Paralysis
** If attacked or harassed from above the surface (on a very hostile reaction roll or if a small boat stays near for more than a few minutes), jellies can ram small boats. On an attack roll of 15 or better a jelly can capsize any boat under 20’ throwing its passengers into the sea.

Blood Jelly in 5E: HD: 6D12 (HP: 48), AC 10, ATK: Multi(reach - 10’)* or Special**, DAM: 1D6+3*** (sting - penetrating), MV: Swim 30’, STAT: (S: 17, D: 10, C: 12, I: 1, W: 6, CH: 4)
* The long tentacles of the Blood Jelly can reach anyone in the water within 10’ of the jelly and attack once per round at +3 to hit.
** If attacked or harassed from above the surface (on a very hostile reaction roll or if a small boat stays near for more than a few minutes), jellies can ram small boats. On an attack roll of 15 or better a jelly can capsize any boat under 20’ throwing its passengers into the sea.
*** The sting of the Blood Jelly is paralytic and any creature hit by them must make a DC 15 saving throw or suffer paralysis for a maximum of 1 minute, with a new save allowed each round. Terrestrial creatures will begin to sink and drown during this time unless pulled to the surface or shore.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...