Sunday, August 29, 2021

Classic Vs. Five Rooms

FIVE ROOMS DON'T MAKE A DUNGEON

This blog is largely devoted to repeating a single message about game design, hammering away at the same subjects for what I hope is a growing audience. At times it feels repetitive and foolish, but then when one looks out into the larger Roleplaying Game community there’s still a lot of confusion about these same subjects -- the “Dungeon Crawl” style of play.

So once again what is a Dungeon Crawl? Why might some adventures or play styles that call themselves Dungeon Crawls fail to deliver on the promise of the genre? To explore this topic I’ll discuss a design exercise/theory and adventure format popular in the Contemporary Traditional community, the “Five Room Dungeon”. To some extent this distinction is one of definition, but I think it’s a useful distinction as it will hopefully introduce some players to the Classic style of play or at least provide tools to think about the differences between play styles and examine what sort of experience one’s table provides.

The Contemporary Traditional community has its own ethos of play, values, design principles, preferred mechanics and of course play style, and my goal isn’t to pass judgment on them, denigrate, or otherwise offend. Rather I want to present some reasons why designing and playing following the Five Room Dungeon format may not feel much like dungeon exploration and why it doesn’t fit within the (or my) definition of a Dungeon Crawl derived from or following the Classic play style found in such adventures as Caverns of Thracia.

This is all certainly not to say that Five Room Dungeons are bad or don’t work for the play style that they are designed for, only that they aren’t a panacea for adventure design or a great place to start when learning about Classic play or the Dungeon Crawl. To help understand why, it’s necessary to describe what goes into a Dungeon Crawl, or perhaps a “Crawl” more generally, as the Dungeon Crawl shares key elements with wilderness adventure designed as Point, Hex, or Wave Crawls. The basic structure of the Crawl style adventure contains three elements: Space, Exploration and Procedure.

Crawling Into the Past 

What does the Dungeon Crawl promise? To some it’s a label for any adventure set in an underground maze or even any fantasy adventure regardless of design and mechanics. To me and as used here, the Dungeon Crawl label implies something more: an adventure in a complex environment filled with danger: traps, monsters, secrets and mysteries -- something beyond just combat or NPC interactions where the location and environment is an important character in the game. Focusing more narrowly, the simplest definition I have for a Crawl as a set of design principles is to say that it’s a play style or adventure where the locus of play is:

A fantastical SPACE that is EXPLORED PROCEDURALLY.

I’ll be looking at each of these elements a bit individually, and they may already be familiar to regular readers of All Dead Generations, but I’ll only be discussing the definitions and how the elements work holistically rather than the details of their history or supporting mechanics.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Classic Vs. The Aesthetic

AESTHETICS


“Clewd the Fighter straps down his heavy heater shield and loosens his arming sword in its sheath, while behind him Sister Agata’s kneels, her mace resting on the flagstones and lips moving in a prayer to St. Cuth the Chastiser. The rest of the party stands behind: Rastar the wizard - impassive, Dougal the thief, picking his nails with a barbed knife, Blackleaf the elf, eyes unfocused thinking back to some riot of flowers or bloody skirmish in the forests of his home three hundred years before, and three stalwart hobilers in thick hauberks recruited from Fort Tribulation and wielding 12’ bec de corbins. The band is ready, and with a shout Clewd kicks open the rotten oak and rusted iron bands of the damp swollen door, bursting into another of the square stone cells beneath the ruins of Castle Doomeye.

Squealing goblins scatter for their crooked spears and rusting implements of war, surprised by the adventurers. In the guttering light of a torch held by one of the Fort Tribulation Stalwarts, the band sweeps through the humanoid’s lair. Black blood splatters, and the goblins fall to blade and bone crushing mace before they can organize resistance. Only Blackleaf can understand the subhumans’ cries for mercy, their gurgling mongrel tongue incomprehensible to the people of law and civilization, but Blackleaf delights in their terror, as his people and the teeming goblin filth have waged a war of annihilation for ten thousand years. In moments the chamber is still and the brave adventurers, inured to the stink of split bellies and ferric tang of blood, ransack the goblins’ corpses for a handful of copper trinkets and braided rat tails.

Dougal grunts, sniffing a dubious, yellowed goblin sausage before tossing it back onto one of the foe’s corpses and points to the damp swollen door on the other side of the room. Beyond the maze of dungeons and gray stone corridors continues, winding ever deeper. Shockingly regular and featureless, only a mad wizard could conceive of and construct such a place to conceal golden treasure and ancient sorcery.”

NOTE: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT THE USE OF HUMANOIDS OR THE RACIALIZED OTHER IN DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. OBVIOUSLY GYGAXIAN VERNACULAR FANTASY IS STEEPED IN UNEXAMINED MID-CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE AND ATTITUDES ABOUT RACE. ONE CAN'T CHANGE THIS BY DECLARING HUMANOIDS COSMICALLY EVIL, OR NOTING THAT D&D IS JUST A GAME, AND THE ISSUE PERSISTS OR EVEN WORSENS IN CURRENT EDITIONS WHICH REMOVE NUANCE AND MORAL DECISION WITH A TENDENCY TOWARDS COMBAT FOCUSED PLAY.
THIS POST IS ABOUT HOW AESTHETICS  (SETTING, PLAYER EXPECTATIONS, THEMES AND IMAGERY) INTERACT WITH MECHANICS AND DESIGN PRINCIPLES. 


Dungeons & Dragons has specific aesthetics, the most frequent a product of the particular vision and play style of its early pioneers, changed and complemented by the way their games evolved and refined through the art of early TSR publications, and in the half century since. The Mid-Western campaigns of Greyhawk and Blackmoor were a pastiche pulp Swords and Sorcery, Tolkien and wargaming ephemera. While the earliest art and description for Dungeons & Dragons is haphazard and fairly fantastical in nature, much of the late 1970’s Dungeon & Dragons art suggests a knowledge of and concern for historical arms and equipment. Especially in the work of some artists, characters are fully armored and wield a variety of authentic looking weapons. Gygax’s particular interests also push in this direction, with the increasingly detailed (and apocryphal) equipment lists of AD&D and his indulgence of an uneducated obsession in medieval weaponry. Gygax’s first editorial in Strategic review is an odd pseudo-historical (it was used by “primitive” and poor peoples) justification of why spears are ineffective in Chainmail while his second is a compilation of loving description and mechanical details for varied polearms that doubles the size of the Original Dungeons & Dragons weapon list.

I call this “Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy” -- a bricolage of Tolkien, Conan and Osprey Publishing’s Medieval Warrior series full of dungeons, evil humanoids and +1 swords that is incredibly influential. The paragraphs of fiction above are an exaggeration of the form, emphisizing its retrograde and unexamined morality, and by now it should look quotidian. In the 1970’s it was novel, and useful for early Dungeons tying down the more fantastical elements of Swords & Sorcery with the details of medieval wargaming. It has been highly successful since, creating the basic understanding of "fantasy" seemingly worldwide. Yet, that very success has led to some of the present difficulties in writing for it or playing it.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Classic Vs. The Past

A PDF of this 60 page adventure is available on DriveThruRPG.  An introductory delve into a densely interactive classic dungeon crawl designed with contemporary sensibilities.


RPGS Aren't Played As They Were In The 1970’s And Even Classic RPG Design Must Grapple With It!

All Dead Generations is a blog about “Classic Gaming”, something that Retired Adventurer’s “Six Cultures of Play” essay in April identified as “oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly" … The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge.”

While the essay notes that I use the term Classic to perhaps describe something different then it’s version of Classic play, I’m not sure I fully agree. Yes, All Dead Generations frequently suggests rule variation from the primary sources of what Retired Adventurer identifies as the Classic style (AD&D and 1981’s Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert books) and certainly my preferred aesthetics of phantasmagoric Western or opium fever Dunsanyian fantasy are somewhat far removed from the Gygaxian vernacular fantasy of gray stone corridors full of orcs that make up most classic adventures, but as far as ethics of play and play-style goals I place both All Dead Generations and my adventure design firmly in the Classic tradition. Why the distinction then? There are certainly still plenty of designers working with the Gygax aesthetic, and perfecting adventure design that reflects back to Keep on the Borderlands or even Castle Greyhawk. I’m not, and moreover the entire purpose of Jewelbox Design is somewhat antithetical to the maximal dungeons traditional for Classic play.

I’d argue that All Dead Generations and my current dungeon design seek to offer the same sort of “progressive development of challenges” and fairness that are the core of Classic design, but make them functional for contemporary play. By contemporary play I don’t mean 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons or its design principles, I mean the actual physical conditions that most RPGs seem to be played in in 2021. Two or three hour sessions, played at most once a week seems the modern standard, especially for online play. This is very different then how Gygax and other early designers appear to have run their tables and visualized play. While it’s a bit hard to pin down the exact length of Gygax’s sessions for Castle Greyhawk, Gygax notes in the April 1976 issue of the Strategic Review that:

“It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years tosee 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.”

The important context here is that while the number of sessions played is somewhere around one or two a week (though Gygax apparently ran Greyhawk more often with different groups), the length of the campaign is assumed to be many years. The length of session also seems to have generally been far longer. The original announcement for Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign read “There will be a medieval "Braunstein" April 17, 1971 at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis.... It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll's bridge between sunup and sundown.” An eleven hour game session. One assumes that Greyhawk ran on a similar basis, at least on the weekends, and even on weeknights and for younger players at least 4 to 5 hours.

Given this disparity in time, both of the individual sessions and the length of campaigns, it’s very unlikely that the classic megadungeons of Greyhawk and Blackmoor, or even shorter published adventures like Tomb of Horror were approachable in shorter, less frequent sessions. In an interesting example, the 1975 Origins I run of the Tomb was supposed to be two hours, though famously only the a level “Evil lord” and 14 orc retainers played by Rob Kuntz finished it with a virtuoso display of calculating orc sacrifice that took 4 hours. This 1975 edition of the Tomb was lengthened for commercial release, with more complexity and puzzles added that greatly expanded play time.

Kuntz’s delve into the Tomb of Horrors varies from another aspect of early play that’s different from present conventions, Robilar the Evil Lord completed the Tomb of Horrors solo, with a large number of retainers. While there’s several stories of similar solo play or adventures for small numbers of drop in visitors, the party size that explored Gygax’s castle Greyhawk during it’s long weekend session ranged up to 10 or 20 players. As anyone who has run a group of that size can attest, organizational efforts and decision making take longer, but the party’s ability to handle threats (combat especially) are vastly improved. Contemporary, and especially online play, depends on smaller parties. Rime of the Frost Maiden, a recent WotC campaign, is designed for four to six players, compared with the six to nine players Keep on the Borderlands suggests.

While they overlap at the edges, and vary, all three of these circumstantial elements: campaign length, session length and expected party size are generally smaller in contemporary play. The limitations imposed by technology as well as different expectations of how rpg play will work have changed since the mid 1970’s. While none of these 2021 conventions are worse or better then those of 1976 they do militate for a different style of adventure design and perhaps rules modifications that account for shorter sessions.

Monday, March 29, 2021

So You Want to Build a Dungeon?

You want to write a dungeon adventure for a classic style roleplaying game, and you want it to be good. How does that work?

What exactly does a “dungeon” imply and what is it as a game tool?

A dungeon is a specific kind of adventure, one that has its own form and which requires certain elements to be successful. More, a dungeon is a “location based adventure”—an adventure that will involve the exploration of a fictional space room by room. It’s certainly not the only kind of roleplaying adventure, but it’s the primary kind for a particular exploration, navigation and problem solving style of play that is both the oldest and still a compelling one. A dungeon must be a fantastical location, but it need not be an underground maze or cave system: buildings, shipwrecks, space stations, castles, formal gardens or the corpses of an enormous beast all make fine dungeons.

What is necessary for a dungeon adventure is to create a bounded fantastical space, “Rooms”, linked together in some order that the players can freely navigate: backtracking, turning, and determining routes. Within these Rooms the designer places obstacles and rewards. Traditionally this means a series set of stone corridors and chambers filled with monsters, treasures and traps. However, neither the aesthetic of the space or the nature of the inhabitants, valuables and challenges within are fixed elements of design, and reinterpreting the dungeon space can make for a novel and exciting adventure.

Likely when you decided to write an adventure you already had a story in mind, and that’s good, but since location based adventure is about the players’ decisions, that story will recede into the background. Given freedom to scheme and explore, players are as inventive and truculent as a proverbial herd of cats, and trying to force or trick them into telling a specific story is about as successful as ring-mastering a cat circus. Rather than a story, consider your ideas a “Theme”, one that will inform the “Ecology” and a “Layout” or map that together define the dungeon adventure. Putting a plot to it is likely to fail when the players, unaware of the plot, follow their own interests.This is the joy and burden of location based classic dungeon crawling, that its story has to evolve from player decision.

The most dangerous part of a designer’s story is a climax or ending because it’s very hard to include one without making dangerous compromises to the dungeon adventure form. Narrative beats make assumptions about how the characters within a story will act, and become very difficult to maintain when those characters’ decisions are being made by someone other than the author. Players decision making is unlikely to bind itself to even as simple a narrative structure: incident, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. The players may decide that they wish to avoid the climax’s confrontation by siding with the antagonist or they may simply turn away from the rising action as they become distracted or the risk seems too high and the rewards uninteresting. Instead the dungeon designer is best building only the space for a story to unfold, and relying on the players to determine the narrative within that story.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Jewelbox Design and Broken Bastion

MERCILESS SHILLING

Broken Bastion is the third “mini-adventure” I’ve written up for Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier. (Link to Drivethru Page) It’s a longer location, designed for 3rd level adventurers, with several small levels and 14 keyed locations. It’s also an experimental effort, a trap maze of sorts and includes a significant number of GM notes. Broken Bastion is experimental in that it does several things that I’d normally consider ‘bad’ location design: begins with an obstacle, includes a powerful “hunting” monster that’s potentially difficult to run, offers very limited opportunity for roleplaying/faction intrigue, includes numerous weapon immune creatures and has multiple traps that can annihilate the entire party without a chance of a saving throw.

However, I’ve done my best to make these various bad ideas work together to create a risky location that’s deadly, but not unfair and with sufficient rewards to tempt players into unwise decisions rather than death by happenstance. Broken Bastion may not include the reviled “Rocks fall, you all die” sort of trap, but it does include “Magic machine explodes, you all die” -- and that’s pretty close. The question I tried to answer in designing it was if one can use these kinds of high risk obstacles in a way that feels fair and offers an enjoyable adventure. I’d like to think I succeeded, and I’ve included a number of discussions and notes about how to run these sorts of scenarios and obstacles, but I won’t repeat them here.

Something that I keep coming back to in these “mini-adventures” is how they are different from classic modules in terms of scope and density, while also serving the same purpose as discrete adventure locations for exploration and plunder that can be placed independently on a map, outside of any larger story (hence the term “module”). Ben L. of Mazarin’s Garden and Ultan’s Door reviewed Prison of the Hated Pretender a few weeks ago and described it as a “Jewelbox” dungeon, a compliment that I think captures the design style these adventures aspire to.

WHAT IS JEWELBOX ADVENTURE DESIGN?

The term “Jewelbox” is borrowed from architecture to describe a smaller building, usually a home, that uses high quality materials and an attention to detail and habitability rather than size and opulence to create high end homes. Of late it’s become a term used to sell luxury condominiums and is often contrasted with the “McMansion”. It’s also popular in interior design as a way to describe spaces that are densely packed but seek to be ergonomic and have a high degree of utility. Built-in bookshelves and cabinets are often described as features of jewelbox interiors for example.

In terms of RPG adventures what does “Jewelbox” mean exactly?


  • A classic LOCATION BASED rather than scene based adventure,
    but usually SMALLER then standard classic adventures with fewer keyed areas. 

  • Increased level of detail produces keys with greater DENSITY over standard
    adventures, acting to streamline play without too much of a reduction in risk.

  • Requires greater detail and novelty to encourage Player interaction
    with keys and so tends towards NON-STANDARD fantasy settings/elements.

  • Can include greater focus on HISTORY and ECOLOGY of location
    because of greater interactivity.

  • The detail and scope of a jewelbox adventure ideally creates a play loop where

    INVESTIGATION and INTEREST are self-reinforcing.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier - Play Report - Session 1

Adipose Mab
Expedition Leader

Below is the first play report for my current home campaign, a playtest of Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier, which I'm also working on for publication.  So far I've played five sessions, the first four within the initial location "Murkvey's Rock" - a starter adventure for the setting.

WELCOME TO THE CRYSTAL FRONTIER

Manny had been a ruffian, one of the big, tough bums that pushes the weak face first into Aurum Ferro's fecund gutters until they give up their green glass bottle of grog or the pennies they'd begged. Sorcha a run away villiene from the Solar Papacy, her horse sold, armor filthy and pockets empty, but still swaggering bow legged and proud. Tiny a hedge warlock from some nameless village, Feather, an exiled Priestess of some jungle bird good, blue skinned and lamp eyed. Coldway had been born to wealth, a fop still, but also, like the rest she was another destitute last chancer, gems pried from the guard of a battered rapier, and white crocodile leather breeches filthy.

A last chance to die or be redeemed on the Crystal Frontier. Adipose Mab, a thin, dusty knife of a women: scholar, surgeon, torturer, antiquarian and tomb robber had offered them and twelve other wine soaked gutter leavings a future. Act as scouts and plunders, or bait Coldway said, in the exploration of one of the Sky Tombs that fell across the mountains and get set up for a new life. The terms were generous: passage out of the Empire and over the Maiden Tombs in Mab's mule train, a purse of coin and a set of Tombrobber's equipment. If they did a good job, Mab might keep them on for a percentage or hand over information about a crystal or two they could crack and loot on their own. It was a dangerous deal, but a lot better than any other offers Manny, Sorcha, Tiny, Feather or Coldway could expect.

At the edge of the towering mountains, arrested by the vista, the mules halted: Mab, her bodyguards, Kotto and Karo, her 'gemcutter' Flash, the Aurum Ferro exiles and 12 other wretched fools. Below to the South lay the Frontier, behind the friable, wind-tortured peaks and beyond the resurgent Bull Kingdom, once and Imperial dependency, now the personal demesne of the Warlock King. The Frontier was excessive -- stark but the sandy land erupting with fierce color: oranges,reds,chartreuse and magenta spattered and strung across dune, badland and hill. The painted land sectioned by the thin white lines of the crumbling Imperial highway and a meandering reflective river, Rio Ahogo.

Still far above, the band would not reach the plain until the next morning, camping at the edge of the hills sheltered in the ruins of a fallen villa, overgrown in dead tangled vine -- a monumental bonewhite wall, cabled in late Imperial false pillars and sweeping sinuous arches to block the night winds. As the brush fed fire burned low o half buried mosaic depicting a red, fire winged woman slaughtering legions, Feather watched the sky blazing with meteors - streaks of pink and blue plummeting towards the Frontier. Mab claimed they were the crystal ships, coffins and fortresses of Empryean people, falling through a single aperture in the spheres that held the moon and planet, to strike this one region. Feather wasn't sure she believed the greasy haired scholar but the colors and vast expanse reminded her that she was far from the tangled indigo depth of her home.

---

Two days later they were camped at the edge of a crumpling crater, floor growing waist high with prickly pear, and shadowed rim teeming with yellow lichen, red ice plant and tiny flowering succulents. At the center a cluster of pink crystal prisms, towering 30' or more from the dust -- a formation mostly buried by impact. Mab and Flash walked the crater floor, pointing at crystals and talking animatedly. Some of the newly hired scouts began to check the straps on their armor, readying themselves to delve whatever lay beneath the crystal spires, but Kotto, the more friendly of the Iceheller bodyguards, discouraged them, saying it would be hours before Flash faceted an entrance. Better to find some shade and wait.

The old gemcutter soon got to work, pulling lens, prisms and tuning rods from his case, tapping, shining light, examining the crystal and tapping again for hours before he started in with his hammers and pitons. It wasn't until the noon beans were boiling steadily that Flash's work produced cracking sounds from the crater, and sparkling slabs of crystal started to fall away from the spires. By mid-afternoon there was a gap deep tall enough to step through in the side of one high hexagonal prism, revealing a hollow interior. Mab cautioned against the cut crystal's poison dust and usher the five forward.

---

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Note on Deceptive NPCs and More Crystal Frontier

VULGAR COMMERCIALISM

December has been a productive month, though projects keep moving off sideways rather then plodding on properly to their finish. I’ve put out a second ‘Mini-Adventure’ for Tombrobbers of the Crystal Frontier, while the original project still needs some art, layout and editing to finalize.

The Beast

At 1900 words, this second Crystal Frontier adventure isn’t quite a One Page Dungeon, but it’s only eight keyed locations, a lair, and it certainly lacks all the elements of a full scale dungeon adventure. Most importantly there are no random encounters or other mechanisms that put time pressure on the party. Instead it revolves around negotiation with two NPCs: an untrustworthy exiled sorcerer and the undead, demon tainted assassin that hunts him on behalf of a powerful, but distant regional faction: The Warlock King. The Brujia, The Beast and The Barrow is less of a single one session adventure (though it’s also that, and I think it contains a couple of interesting puzzles) and more of an introduction to one possible source of intrigue and a useful NPC who can remove curses(curses and magical disease are a prominent feature in the setting).


The adventure itself is something I’m happy with, the layout and art are properly brooding while maintaining the colorful, slightly psychedelic look that I’ve picked as the overall visual theme for Crystal Frontier. The keys are short and while the barrow isn’t expansive, it holds a few puzzle style traps and dungeon furniture that tells a simple story about if the players want to seek it out.


 

It’s available as a PDF here on DriveThru RPG.

I’m currently at work on another of these mini-adventures, though this one is 14 keyed locations and revolves around a dangerous “hunting monster” that stalks the characters as they search the location for treasure. It’s an interesting variation on the dungeon crawl, a style of threat that’s hard to do well but seems like it should offer possibilities -- I’ll see how well I can manage it. “Broken Bastion” should be out next month, also as a $1 PDF on DriveThru.

Maunderings about play style, 5E, and theory follow. They are entirely absent from The Brujia, The Beast and The Barrow.  

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...