Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Fistful of Crystals

Character Generation
and House Rules for My Home Game

I'm going to be running a Crystal Frontier game online, the first semi-public game I've run since the end of G+.  In preparation rather then introduce my house rules piecemeal I've prepared a character generation and basic rules document for the game.

It includes the major subsystems for my house ruled version of Original Dungeons & Dragons (the 1974 pre-Greyhawk version, but not using Chainmail). This is the system I've used for several years and I find it works quite well for dungeon crawls. The goal is a quick, low complexity system that makes exploration a coequal element of play and can be used for online two to four hour sessions in an expedition based (each session you must leave the dungeon) campaign.

They make significant changes to the base OD&D system, though I think most of these changes fill in voids in the original rules or streamline areas where the design doesn't support contemporary games. At it's core though it should still be that same sort of D6 and D20 based flatter power curve, high lethality system as the original.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Dungeon Design, Process and Keys

With my decision to work on Dungeon23 coincides my starting a public Crystal Frontier Campaign and being dissatisfied with the progress I've been making to various new projects. I've got three large, rather experimental dungeons about 1/4 - 1/2 finished (including art and layout), and a smaller one of about 20 rooms 2/3 done, but they've just refused to come together this year. Hopefully at least the small one will be out sometime. So I've had lots of reasons to thinking a bit about how I personally design dungeons and adventures again - not as a theoretical exercise, but because I need to write some new, satisfying dungeons.

Below are some notes on my personal quick technique for getting something together for play at my table and (after a lot of additional polishing) for publication. I hope they can be of help to newer designers thinking about giving Dungeon23 a try (or really just writing up a dungeon to crawl).  As always they are for the classic dungeon crawl style of play: exploration supported by procedural turnkeeping, supply, and randomized risk. They are likely the entirely wrong way to write an adventure that will make really good live action Youtube or help you run a Vampire the Masquerade campaign, I don't pretend to know how to do either of those things. 

I’m a naturalistic, or maybe even ‘organic’ designer.

This has nothing to do with whole grains. As a style of adventure design, what I’m calling organic is an expansion of what's often described as “Gygaxian Naturalism” because Gygax discusses it in “The Campaign” section on pages 86-88 of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. While the focus is usually on Gygax's creation of a fantasy ecology, I'd say he goes further and offers an approach to making dungeon adventures that form a logical whole.

It’s also obvious to me that this was Gygax’s personal style of adventure design, meaning naturalistic design was extremely important to the success of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games more generally. Organic design shows through clearly in Gygax’s best work, his most memorable adventures such as Keep on the Borderlands (B2) and Against the Giants (G series). While these adventures might not appeal to everyone today, in praising them it’s important to look at them compared to other design options at the start of the hobby. Arneson’s original Temple of the Frog as included in the Blackmoor supplement for OD&D and Wee Warrior’s Palace of the Vampire Queen by the Kerestans are great counter examples.

The naturalism and coherence of Gygax’s adventures sets them apart, he focused on the dungeon space as interconnected by logical relationships, sometime ecological, but often political or historical. His contemporaries produced dungeons that were far closer to a board game sytle series of encounters, or as the afterthought to a larger scale political and military conflict (which Arneson did design quite naturalistically). The mead hall of Gygax’s giant chief makes sense as a location, structurally, thematically, and as an adventure. Its rooms have clear uses and a sensible layout within the larger fictional space. Its inhabitants relate to each other and have uses for the spaces they inhabit. While Gygax's dungeons are far from realistic, and can become odd at times there’s almost always a thruline of sense and purpose that can only come from the conscious effort to build a dungeon around its inhabitants and a theme. As affirmed in his Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gygax doesn’t want to overthink the logic of his dungeons as a simulation, but to create a plan and structure a location that are comprehensible to and and exploitable by the players. You can poison the giant’s stew in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief because the kitchen and feast hall exist as part of a sensible and coherent whole—that’s Gygaxian Naturalism (though the term is also used sometimes to describe a group writing process). Jennell Jaquays, tentatively with F'Chelrak's Tomb (1976), and notably in her later adventures Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower (less effectively), expands on Gygaxian Naturalism quite successfully. Her designs start the practice of layering history and increasing the density of description, the level of interactivity, significance of faction relationships, and spacial complexity of dungeons making them more functional for exploration.

In some circles, Gygax’s other major contribution to adventure design is more popular - procedural generation. Appendices A-H of the Dungeon Master Guide are one of the first (they date back to Strategic Review/Dragon, Issue 1 as a way to play D&D solo) efforts to define this technique - providing a means for a dungeon to build itself through random dice rolls.

I’m not much of a fan. Here’s why.

I’ll acknowledge that procedural generation can be useful as a springboard for ideas or to fill space in a hurry when nothing better is available (such as when your players move off “the map”), but randomly generated rooms are either too vague and disconnected for anything more than board game style play, or require such complex tables that the designer might as well just produce a much larger keyed adventure with the amount of space and ideas. Relying on random stocking almost always means that the details and complexity need to be filled in, and the random design expanded and rationalized. You’ll still end up describing, keying, factionalizing and connecting the parts of your dungeon for it to function well. All procedural generation does is add the step of randomly generating elements of the space that have to be revised to give the dungeon coherence.

These are the basics of what sort of dungeons I want to write. Classic keyed spaces with a high degree of coherence, interactivity, variety, a layered history (useful and discovered via clues in play), navigational puzzles, and both description and themes that go beyond those of typical Gygaxian vernacular fantasy or the contemporary expectations of standard fantasy settings.

Friday, December 9, 2022



Sean McCoy of Mothership fame recently proposed a community challenge, event or project he calls
Dungeon23. My friend Ben L. over at Mazirian’s Garden has a bit more to say about it.  

The basic idea is to challenge yourself to write a dungeon room key each day and dungeon level a month in 2023. Come January 1, 2024 you will have a 350 room dungeon … a megadungeon.

The room keys don’t need to be fancy or extensive, and Sean suggests an extremely minimalist style, so the dungeon keying becomes a manageable habit and not a chore. I like the idea, it feels a lot like some of the challenges and community events from back in the days of Google Plus, such as these hex crawls, keyed by anyone who wanted to add a hex key -- a practice referred jokingly to as “Gygaxian Democracy” at the time.

I’m likely to give Dungeon23 a try, but unlike my aborted effort at Gygax75 -- where I discovered that what I needed for an adventuring region was very different then the project -- I’ve made the changes I want to make to the challenge to make it work better for me. I also want to help others get their own megadungeons finished, so I am sharing the series of worksheets I made and have linked them below so that anyone can use them by making a copy of the googledoc (please turn of sharing on your copy).

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Gus L. Free Adventure Archive

I've created an Archive of all the free adventures I've written since 2012 here:


I also wrote a paragraph about each the adventures included to place them within my own design evolution and perhaps a larger story of OSR design from 2012 - 2020.

In Other NEWS Tomb robbers of the Crystal Frontier is available as a Print on demand version, on Drivethru for $16.00 (as of 9/22 - print costs change). This version includes an area map, added art and a new supplemental adventure.

Questing Beast Youtube Review

link for purchase

Thursday, June 16, 2022




“Here we come across another, very positive feature of play : it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game", robs it of its character and makes it worthless.”

- Homo Ludens

Homo Ludens is a foundational work in the scholarship of games or “play” and of cultural history more generally. Written by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and published in 1938, it defines play as a distinct natural activity that exists outside everyday survival, only for the purpose of freedom and fun. However, a major element separates play from other leisure activities
play requires rules.

Play produces “games” or what RPG communities like to call “systems”, each of which has a set of rules, even the games of animals. Huzinga’s example is dogs playing at fighting, pretending to be furious. The dogs nip and mouth each other, but never bite to injure as they would in a real conflict. Even the play of puppies has unwritten rules that fall largely into the concept of “fairplay”, exactly the same concerns that dominate human play, including RPGs. RPGs though are a complex game, and have correspondingly complex sets of rules, including unspoken ones.

Rules come in more than one variety as well, especially in complex games. In RPGs we often focus on what I differentiate as “Mechanics”; rules that largely cover how events within the fiction of the game work. What dice we roll and what they mean when the system models a fight for example. Mechanics are almost always the primary focus of rule books, because without them it’s impossible to play the game at all, or at least it’s impossible to play as a distinct system, and that’s the goal of most designers: to share their distinct vision of play with others.

Yet there’s another sort of rules. Rules about why and how we play more generally that I will call “Procedure”. Procedures are a form of rules for outside of play itself, the rules for using the rules. While mechanics define why and what is happening in a game, procedures define how it happens at the table. Procedure is the way we, the players, do something in the game.

This is a somewhat loose definition, and there’s overlap between procedures and mechanics
edge cases where rules may be both, where they serve different purposes at different times, or where it’s hard to tell which category they fit in. However, the existence of troublesome borderline rules isn’t grounds to dismiss this entire distinction, because most of the time the distinction is intuitively obvious, and more importantly it’s useful. The distinction between mechanics and procedure allows one to look at games: rules, design principles, ethics, and cultures of play in a new way, viewing what might seem like eccentricities as necessary parts of the entire rules structure, interrogating them as potential elements of intentional design. However, even with this distinction in mind the relationship between how, what, and why in a rules-based system is complex, but this complexity isn’t just for RPGs or games, similar issues appear with all complex rules-based disciplines and there are applicable tools available for a better understanding of Procedure.

I am not adapting my definitions of procedure from Huizinga, or from the theory of games at all. Instead, to dig into the meaning of Procedure, I went to theory of another rules-based structure, an older and more fiercely contested space, with far more theory around the distinction between substantive and procedural rules—legal theory.

Proceduralism is a significant approach in the theory and practice of law, and especially American jurisprudence. This may feel like an odd leap, from law to games and back, but it’s not entirely my own, it's also Huizinga’s and he makes a compelling argument that the legal system shares many elements with a game or contest.

“The judicial contest is always subject to a system of restrictive rules which, quite apart from the limitations of time and place, set the lawsuit firmly and squarely in the domain of orderly, antithetical play. [...] The lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle.”

- Homo Ludens

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Stumbling Towards D&D's Alternate, Alternate Combat System
The combat mechanics of Classic fantasy RPGs are a huge source of both debate and game design innovation. The first official changes to Dungeons & Dragons in “Supplement 1 - Greyhawk” are changes to combat mechanics (variable Hit Dice, including weapon damage and Hit Points by class) that form a central aspect of every subsequent edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Even now D&D's combat rules continue to evolve, increasing in complexity and offering ever more variability, steadily accreting to form the 100’s of pages of rules, customization options, feats, spells and mechanics that allow the current edition to function almost as a tactical game of fantasy superpowers and feat usage.

I’m not going to catalog, debate, or mock these early design choices. Like most of early Dungeons & Dragons the combat system is entirely functional, and while, like all novel inventions it can be streamlined or optimized in various ways, it serves. Of course what’s also fascinating about the system offered in the first edition of D&D is that it’s presented as an alternate but it was adopted almost exclusively by early players, by many presumably because they didn’t own the recommended rules in Chainmail. Both Gygax and Arenson, in the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, start fiddling with it almost immediately. Other groups also begin to transform Dungeons & Dragons very quickly, often starting with the combat system, but retaining its core assumptions … the deep DNA of hit points, distinct hit and damage rolls, and damage based on weapon type, can be found even in contemporary video games. The haphazard alternate combat system offered because the preferred one (at the time) was already published, too lethal (per Arneson), and too complex to include in the modest booklets of early D&D, has become the model for the majority of mechanics in role playing games -- your Fromsoft console protagonist still fights like a 1970’s tabletop ironclad, battered into sinking by enemy blows.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022


A draft cover for a potential
Crystal Frontier adventure
A purchaser of Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier recently asked me how the adventure might fit into a larger setting. Specifically they inquired about the "Warlock King", ruler of the Bull Kingdom - who claims sovereignty over the Frontier but doesn’t seem to project much power into it. The Warlock King and Bull Kingdom have been mentioned in a couple of Crystal Frontier adventures, notably Marble Eye, the Bruja in The Bruja, The Beast and The Barrow is a refugee from the King’s court, hiding in exile from the his demonic assassins. Other then that we know of the King and his nation only through Jolly Diamond, the Bull Kingdom’s agent in Scarlet Town, a bad gambler and sore loser whose loyalty is enforced by a “demon mark” on his chest. There’s a few other tidbits of information about the Bull Kingdom and Warlock King scattered around Tomb Robbers, but nothing much, it’s largely a Swords & Sorcery cypher ruled by a powerful wizard who has a sinister reputation.

This is as it’s meant to be. Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier is a stand alone product, a dungeon with a minimal amount of setting to supplement it and maintain a Fantasy Western aesthetic. Hints and implications rather than a gazetteer with detailed descriptions.

Yet, The Crystal Frontier has been my home campaign for over a year, getting on to 25 sessions, with a 3rd and 4th level party. I’ve also written or at least written up notes on several more adventures for the setting, including the two large projects I’m working on currently covering the Frontier’s North Eastern coast, where fewer crystals fall, but the old history of the land is closer to the surface. So, while there’s only minimal published information on the Bull Kingdom and its Warlock King, The Successor Empire and its Syndicates, or the environs of the Crystal Frontier at large, I have a great deal of knowledge about it. For example I currently have enough notes and rough maps to quickly prepare, or run the following Crystal Frontier locations: The Tower of Musk (A manticore lair), Old Argento (Ruined former provincial capital), The Palace of War (A crashed yet mostly intact Empyrean invasion fortress/megadungeon), Cold Manse (ghoul infested haunted mansion), the Tower of Flints (pirates, owls, and a shrine to an Imperial sea god), Cold Water Hamlet, Stone Quay (a port ruled by cattle drovers), The Palace of Reflections (an extradimensional Empyrean villa accessible via a magic scroll and infested with a blue wyrm of unreason), The Bone Fields (ancient barrows being dug up to obtain ancient magic infused bones for fertilizer) and The Dead Colossus (a walking castle destroyed by the Warlock King himself during his ascent to power). Some draft art for these location illustrates this post.

I won’t reveal much detail about these locations or the factions and histories underlying them unless I get to publishing them as adventure locations (which is honestly unlikely in most cases), but I’m quite happy with this situation. These locations have evolved through my home game, and emerged from play because they make sense based on player interest and actions as part of what has been a largely emergent setting. Other people don’t need many details of the entire setting region, let alone the world its part of to run my adventures, and it’s likely best if they take the time to do their own world building as needed, taking or discarding the hints and vague outlines that my adventures provide.


Worldbuilding & Gygax ‘75
Setting is one of those popular aspects of RPG design that I enjoy immensely, but also don’t really find much use for. Like me, it seems that many referees and designers enjoy building their world, filling it with detailed minutia, histories, locations, and people. I’ve always found this both inevitable and secondary to, or worse inhibiting of play. There’s a great deal of advice on “world building” offered on blog posts and published in guides. Even most editions of the Dungeon Master’s Guide seem to contain a huge amount of suggestions about it. I don’t want to do that and I don't for my home games. At least not in the ways that it’s popularly suggested. I want the world of the setting to weigh lightly on my campaigns, to come through during play, but not demand a great deal of fidelity to some sort of “setting bible”. Instead my settings, especially anything I offer to others, should have big holes and unexplored spaces for me or another referee to add whatever they like. Most world building advice rejects this goal, and is often very “top down”: starting with the world, it’s cosmology, gods, and continents. This seems wrong to me.

I even made a little logo for
this nonsense!

Instead I like to approach things on a "just in time" basis, build from the ground up, design with the goal of creating what’s needful for play for the first session and building up from their. Back in 2013 I wrote a long post about this sort of setting design, but there’s a fine antecedent, the “Gygax ‘75” process, derived from a 1975 interview that Gary Gygax gave to a fan magazine, “Europa” titled “HOW TO SET UP YOUR DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS CAMPAIGN - AND BE STUCK REFEREEING SEVEN DAYS PER WEEK UNTIL THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING!

I am usually not especially charitable to Gygax, I find his rules fussy, his ideas about refereeing antagonistic, his public behavior fairly odious (the litigiousness alone!), his writing frustrating, and the cultish fawning over him that still persists in parts of the hobby disgusting. However, Gygax also produced excellent adventures and championed the hobby of fantasy RPGs to great success and with obviously sincere love and conviction. I may not share his weird fixation on polearm variety, but I do appreciate that from the very dawn of a hobby he was one of the its primary inventors who got many things right in ways that have sometimes been too casually discarded. One such thing that Gygax did better then more contemporary sources (such as the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, which starts with a section titled “A Master of Worlds” and immediately leaps into designing a multiverse or entire world as a setting, cosmology first) was give setting design advice.The Gygax Dungeon Master’s Guide has a section about mid way through, “The Campaign” that begins with:

“What lies ahead will require the use of all of your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time …Your campaign requires the above from you, and participation by your players. To belabor an old saw, Rome wasn't built in a day. You are probably lust learning, so take small steps at first. The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants … This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby.”

Excellent and still trenchant advice which is better laid out and elaborated in the 1975 interview a few years prior. The “Gygax ‘75” process has become a bit of a regular challenge among designers who work with older editions of D&D, and it’s well explained here at DIY & Dragons. It’s also starting up again among several bloggers I enjoy, and spurred by the question regarding the Warlock King I’ve decided to apply it to the Crystal Frontier!

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...