Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Descent into Avernus - From a Dungeon Crawl Perspective

Cover of Descent Into Avernus
With the basic ideas behind dungeon crawl style play covered, I'll be taking a look at the current state of contemporary Dungeons & Dragons adventure design and how it succeeds or fails to deliver a Dungeon Crawl or Classic Play experience.  Specifically I'll be looking at the recently published Wizards of the Coast ("WotC") campaign book "Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus" ("Descent"). My goal isn't to attack or denigrate Descent or the play style it supports, but to discuss where and how it follows design principles that support classic play, where it departs from them and to what effect.  I may also be able to offer some ideas that will help others run the adventure in a more classic way emphasizing: dungeon crawling, player choice, and open worldbuilding.

Fairly typical of WotC's contemporary adventures Descent is a 200 plus page series of adventures that make up a campaign that will take characters from 1st to approximately 14th level.  It's designed for many sessions of play and an epic scope. The campaign is the product of a large team of authors, designers and artists including D&D's current creative leads Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins. It's also nice to see that much of the cartography within is the work of Dyson Logos, a blogger and map maker who I consider to be broadly part of the same community as All Dead Generations and whose distinctive cross hatching style is inspired by classic map design.

Descent is an epic story, and this is it's first goal, and the first way it departs from classic sensibilities.  Organized (as are the vast majority of contemporary WotC adventures) into Chapters Descent is a linear narrative where the players follow and unfolding danger, overcoming challenges and gaining power as they go. It's writers don't countenance players deviating significantly from the chapters, their order and the consequences or events of each.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

THREAT - The Risk Economy Part III

The last of the set of basic design principles for classic Dungeon Crawls are those around the animate opposition, the active threats to the character, commonly called ‘monsters’. The second of the booklets in the original 1970’s edition of Dungeons & Dragons was titled “Monsters and Treasure”, and began with a list of potential antagonists. Little has changed, the taxonomy of Monsters still has a special place in the game that has increased in importance, size and detail with almost every edition. There’s plenty of reasons for this, monsters are fun and interesting, and a big part of the impetus for play is discovering and confronting wondrous creatures. Yet what exactly monsters do in play is also interesting, and not entirely obvious.
David Trampier - Goblin
From the AD&D Monster Manual

Monday, September 9, 2019

A NOTE: On Encumbrance, Treasure and Session Structure

Recently I’ve discussed the importance of resource based risks to classic play, and perhaps offered a reason to use this play style, but I’ve saved the most important element of meaningfully including supplies in your game until now. Risks and tables that offer dire consequences for characters who fail to appreciate them are maybe interesting, but they’re superfluous if they never have a chance to enter play, which requires limiting player supply. The primary way to limit supply is Encumbrance. The amount of equipment, weapons and armor that a character or party of characters can carry in game is important because it provides a clear metric of character strength beyond hit points that makes intuitive sense to any player, and with proper rules can make mechanical sense in a dungeon crawl (see The Risk Economy Part II).




When I was a kid, playing Basic Dungeons and Dragons after school in a friends basement around 1986, one of the game events that upset me the most was an encounter with a ‘Rust Monster’. The propeller tailed, bug thing completely devoured out fighters’ weapons and armor before being killed. A prized +2 sword was reduced to a jagged crumbling shard of metal and both me and the other two players were aghast at the horror visited upon us. The Rust Monster is one of the uniquely Dungeons & Dragons creatures that Gary Gygax invented from a bag of plastic toy “dinosaurs”, but more than any of those others: the Bulette, the Owlbear and perhaps the Umber Hulk, the Rust Monster is a monster tied to the exploration side of the game. It doesn’t do much harm to characters’ hit points, but it destroys the party’s ability to engage in combat with other enemies, dramatically increasing the risk of further adventuring because it attacks equipment rather than hit points. It upset us young players for precisely this reason, because it operated outside the structure of risks and rewards we expected. It was such a scandalizing outrage that I still remember it because equipment (especially that magic sword) is something that D&D players value greatly but view as static, and because its destruction made a great deal of obvious sense.

The rust monster's natural form
 The Rust Monster itself looks a bit goofy, but there’s nothing wrong with what it represents, a novel danger or obstacle for the players to think around. It’s a trick monster, but notably the Rust Monster’s trick, while dangerous, doesn’t represent a danger of immediate death for a character. The loss of equipment hurts a character effectiveness and increases overall risk and is difficult to replace in the adventure locale, but it has an intuitive logic - tools break - and so it doesn’t feel like a gamified and artificial mechanic. There’s an important distinction her though, as much as Rust Monsters, prying open doors, rolling down slopes of jagged scree and wedging moving walls apart make losing weapons or armor make sense, weapons, armor and magic items are generally considered permanent - players don’t expect them to be exhausted, while other items are disposable. Food, light sources (including oil bombs), scrolls, potions and a few mundane supplies like iron spikes are something that players expect to exhaust during the adventure and resupply in town. It’s useful to make a distinction between these types of supplies - semi-permanent equipment and usually the easily exhausted consumables (or supplies).

Risk to character equipment has a history beyond special monsters such as oozes and the rust monster, and the AD&D includes a set of saving throws for equipment based on its material and various types of disasters. Potions boil, freeze and shatter while scrolls survive falls and “crushing blows” with ease. It’s a fairly functional system really, applying both to the loss of player items in trying circumstances and player character efforts to destroy mundane objects: cutting ropes, burning down doors and such.

AD&D Monster Manual Rust Monster
David C. Sutherland III (?)
5th Edition also makes some nods to the possibility of equipment destruction, thought it seems more concerned with players destroying obstacles and dungeon furniture.“When characters need to saw through ropes, shatter a window, or smash a vampire's coffin, the only hard and fast rule is this: given enough time and the right tools, characters can destroy any destructible object. Use common sense when determining a character's success at damaging an object. Can a fighter cut through a section of a stone wall with a sword? No, the sword is likely to break before the wall does.” - 5th Edition Dungeon Masters’ Guide, Pg. 245. Afterwards the 5th Edition Guide provides useful rules for item Armor Class, Hit Points and damage reductions/thresholds to make durable objects stronger.

The burdensome nature of these rules (or punitive one if used in every situation where they might apply - do all the items in a PC’s pack need to save after every blow, after every battle?) makes them something that often gets forgotten in play, but exact method (the saving throws above, or perhaps a simple X in 6 chance of breakage) is unimportant and can be streamlined or applied only in extreme situations. The special revulsion and horror that I showed towards the rust monster as a young player shows that risks to character equipment remains a valuable tool for a GM who wants to expand risk while attacking something other then character HP, but like most serious risks, if a character would have a chance to evaluate risk of breaking an item then the player should be forewarned.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

SUPPLY - The Risk Economy Part II


Slow building tension and risk is one of the goals of the Risk Economy, a way to encourage exploration by offering the chance and creating a need to find the best routes through a location, unpuzzle secret entrances into new areas or discover safe havens within the dungeon. Yet, time and space alone won’t make a compelling Dungeon Crawl. Wandering endless halls can still feel like a time filling chore rather then slowly building tension and a constant concern that the characters have delved too deep. For the Dungeon Crawl to work there needs to be palpable slowly increasing risk. Random encounters provide one essential form of risk, but by design they aren’t predictable and calculable to the players - they may create dread or a sense of danger, but it’s one that only incidentally increases over time as the dangers of the dungeon become better understood at the price of depleting party numbers, spells, equipment and hit points.

Light, food and equipment are another, far more regular, character resource subsystem..

Jeff Easley's cover to the 1986
"Dungeoneer's Survival Guide"
Both Random Encounters and Supplies depend on Timekeeping to be meaningful and emphasize the risk of exploring, but they are also separate mechanics that can be implemented effectively or badly. Supply or Resources are the steadier, more constant risk subsystem most directly related to the exploration and spatial aspects of play (though random encounters can be used to good effect in other types of adventure), but they require more than simply a large dungeon and timekeeping to function. The mechanics of encumbrance and with it treasure with XP value are also implicated, but will need to wait for a more in depth discussion. Supply alone, assuming there’s the possibility of depletion and an associated risk, present a counter intuitive, but useful way to mitigate the danger of puzzle solving and exploration.


One popular complaint about classic Dungeon Crawls, but even more, about modern efforts to implement the Dungeon Crawl is the high lethality and arbitrary nature of puzzle obstacles. Critics reject adventures where players quickly come to fear traps and dungeon dressing that threatens or conceals instant destruction. To some extent this is a playstyle problem - a player ethics of completionism (likely borrowed from computer RPGs), or a GM problem of antagonism and performative rigor - but it’s also a mechanical problem.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

TIME - The Risk Economy Part I


Only when I started running 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, and really digging into the rules did I realize something shocking to a player with a background in earlier versions of the game. 5th Edition D&D has no meaningful mechanics about time. Not combat rounds, which it devotes a good amount of space - analyzing how many actions can be taken per round, how many feet traveled and such - but non-combat time. There’s a few mentions of hours and minutes and generalized statements like “It takes them [characters] about a minute to creep down a long hallway, another minute to check for traps on the door at the end of the hall, and a good ten minutes to search the chamber beyond for anything interesting or valuable.” Player’s Handbook, 5th Edition, pg 181.

This nonchalant approach to time is a contrast with that of 1st Edition - where Gygax famously shouts “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 37. As always Gygax is a bit of a showman and loves an exaggeration, but, while there’s no need for all caps, earlier editions are much more concerned with how time passes for the adventurers and tracking that time then 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Today it’s easy to write the concerns about time in 1st Edition Guide off, at least as exaggeration, and the examples that follow in the old book don’t help much - they are focused on the passage of large blocks of time - days and weeks and activities like magic item creation, training and healing - but you shouldn’t dismiss time if you want to run a good dungeon adventure.

AD&D 1979 DM's Screen
Space and the players’ movement through it is the primary focus of the dungeon crawl, but space is meaningless without time. How can any resource mean anything with your game if it is never at risk of exhaustion? Are light, rations, spell duration, even HP (if rests are allowed without risk) meaningful outside their applicability in each encounter or challenge if they aren’t ever at risk of running out? It’s possible to run a game this way, but you’ll be eliding exploration and discovery by reducing it to a boring time waster (because there’s no risk to wandering and investigating everything). I sometimes think this is what happened to adventure design as the editions advanced - players and designers jettisoned the clumsy, somewhat unclear rules for resource management and non-combat time out of frustration and a sense that tracking torch supplies and movement rates outside of combat were unexciting or unheroic. The ascendancy of Dragonlance and its authors’ (The Hickman’s) search for play that feels more literary combined with a distrust for the actuarial, war-game like logistics of Gygaxian play may also have had a role, but by the time the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published, 35 years after the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, non-combat time is relegated to single vague paragraph. Spells, torches and lanterns have durations in minutes, but these are essentially meaningless both because of the vague nature of the 5th Edition minute and the length of the durations - 60 minutes for a torch (which will illuminate an adventuring party’s movement through 18,000 feet of dungeon corridor). It’s no surprise then that time, movement and resource management begs to be ignored in more modern games - and as a result the narratively significant encounter becomes the building block of adventure design over the spatially significant level. It’s even a perfectly reasonable way to play, but this is a blog about running classic dungeon crawls focused on exploration and risk v. reward, so time and timekeeping are extremely important.


Time is important, as important and central to meaningful exploration play as Gygax implies it is, keystone to a set Design Principles that enable the classic dungeon crawl to focus on exploration by creating a risk economy and a spatial environment. Other Principles that support exploration and which I’ll look at in the future are: Encumbrance and Random Encounters which provide time with its dangers, but without which time tracking or modelling simply becomes meaningless drudgery. This isn’t to say that modern encounter based design or the trend away from exploration is a mistake or without benefits, because without the support of other principles time is largely without purpose and the classic mechanics for tracking it (and encumbrance) are irksome at best.

In the 1981 Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeon’s and Dragons time, like everything else in this astonishingly dense and effective set of rules, gets only a short note - but one that is balanced towards exploration.

Time in D&D adventures is given in turns of ten minutes each. A turn is not a measure of real time, but is a measure of how much a character can do within a given amount of time. A character may explore and map an area equal to his or her movement rate in one turn. It also takes a turn for a character to search a 10'x10' area, for a thief to check an item for traps, to rest or to load a bag with treasure. The DM should decide how long other actions that characters might try will B19

As similar as these ideas are to the 5th Edition notation on time, Basic D&D uses movement much lower movement rates (60’ per turn for a party with armored members) and the longer duration of the ‘turn’ mean that resources are expended far faster. Torches in Basic D&D burn out in 6 turns, or roughly 360’ of dungeon corridor, vs. 5th edition’s 18,000. Moreover early Dungeons & Dragons, including the basic rules above, are part of an ethos where resources are important and spending time in the mythic underworld is risky. One where “It is essential that on accurate time record be kept so that the DM can determine when to check for wandering monsters, and in order to keep a strict check on the duration of some spells (such as bless, haste, strength, etc.)” Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 38.

These rules are more emphasis and dire warning then actual mechanics, and place the task of timekeeping firmly in the Game Master’s hands - the GM is responsible for deciding what actions constitute a turn, tracking turns and determining spell, torch and other durations. This is a lot of work, work that distracts from running the more exciting aspects of the game such description or monster motivations and characterization. Second this method of timekeeping opens up space for dispute about what exactly constitutes a turn’s worth of activity, dispute that becomes ever more likely the more important time and resources are to character success and survival.

The rules for timekeeping aren’t especially clear and so can become a basis for in game disputes between players and Game Master, but worse they are rules that impact every action within the dungeon encouraging disputes to be commonplace. Despite this a basic set of rules, largely uncodified, has been worked out by players in games where timekeeping a resources matter.

To understand why this system has been unpopular, and is quickly abandoned - even by the rules of later editions consider that at the core of the classic dungeon crawl is an acceptance of Game Master adjudication and ad hoc decision making. While this maxim is only lightly held in an era where public play and Rules as Written predominate in some communities - the GM exists to do more then set up a clockwork adventure run entirely with rule mechanics or to impart NPCs and monsters with quirky personalities. Game Mastering at its core is resolving unexpected situations and deciding how to model novel player actions. In unprecedented or rare game scenarios the players and Game Master should have room to discuss and determine how to fairly proceed with the GM acting as final decision maker, but this is a time consuming process inefficient for common, reoccurring disputes. For commonplace game event, especially those without clear resolutions, rules are necessary. This is one reason why tabletop games often have a large amount of rules regarding combat, even in games - such as those in the classic dungeon crawling tradition - where combat isn’t a major locus of play. Timekeeping should not be an area for dispute and conflict.

What are the classic rules for timekeeping then? Both the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and the 1981 Basic Dungeons and Dragons book don’t really give much in the way of clues. Obviously one could carefully mark out the movement of PCs on the map - approximately 6 squares per turn and 60 squares with 6 random encounters per torch. Again, all of this falls on the Game Master, and while the tracking can be minimized with prepared sheets that can even include pre-rolled encounters (not really illusionism, because while predetermined by turn there’s no indication or limit on what the players could be doing when the random encounter appears) it makes timekeeping a treacherous chore that takes energy and thought away from a myriad of other Game master tasks. One can also create a menu of how long common dungeon tasks require to perform, but this seems like an interminable chore. Secondly doing so breaks the concept and utility of the dungeon turn, because suddenly there are actions that take partial turns and the minute by minute granularity of time returns. The basic principle of classic timekeeping then is to generalize player actions so that they take a turn each.

This is precisely the route recommended in early Dungeons & Dragons guides. “All referees should keep a side record of time on a separate sheet of paper, marking off the turns as they pass (melees or other actions which result in fractional turns should be rounded up to make complete turns).Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1st Edition, pg 39. It’s important to note that even at this stage of the game’s design, and even with a designer as actuarially minded and simulationist as Gygax, player actions are rounded up and generalized to complete turn to avoid the constant argument of how long various tasks ‘should’ take or ‘realistically’ take. Regardless of if you choose to use a classic tracking system for timekeeping or the ‘Exploration Dice’ method I discuss below the gamification and abstraction of meaningful player actions to turn length is essential to avoid falling back into conflict and the minutiae of adjudicating character performance on a minute by minute or even second by second scale.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A NOTE: Illusionism

What’s Illusionism, and why should you care while running a game?

Illusionism is a method of setting building or adventure design that raises the question of player choice or agency. It’s the practice of Game Masters or designers of changing encounters or events in game that will follow a specific path or create a specific scenario. The term itself is sometimes used pejoratively - but like most other things in a hobby or fandom that get people angry it’s a nuanced issue with multiple perspectives. Obviously GM actions that force specific results or events can be a problem for players when the players feel that their choices will lead inevitably to the same results. This is somewhat like the tendency of players in of computer RPGs to skip through cutscenes and dialogue because they expect that decisions about plot developments or the motivations and plans of their characters are pre-scripted or will inevitably lead to the same result.

In a tabletop game roleplaying the plans and motivations of both player characters and NPCs or factions in the setting are an area that tabletop can manage extremely well with a GM there to make the setting react reasonably to unexpected plans, shifts in allegiance or changes in player goals. In a video game the next adventure or scene has already been scripted and designed and cannot be modified should the player decide they want to do something else or approach things in an unexpected way, while a tabletop Game Master can easily change things to adapt a scenario to unexpected player decisions. While such improvisational adaptations might share elements of illusionism, they generally result in players feeling more connected to the setting and events then if the GM had simply run events as initially expected.
Ogre art from the 1st Edition Monster Manual

So essentially the danger with illusionism is that players will feel their actions and desires are meaningless, advancing a plot that the GM has already designed even when they want to take the game in another direction, and the advantage of it is that it can create more dramatic or responsive reactions to player decisions and character plans, goals and personalities. In dungeon crawls the advantages of illusionism rarely outweigh the risks - because the nature of the setting already contains a great many logical, diegetic (that is resulting from the story itself) restrictions on player choice. Many classic types of Illusionism are also more dangerous for the GM to use in a dungeon crawl because the sorts of decisions, especially decisions about character movement and encounters, that it tends to effect are ones that are already a focus of player attention in a dungeon crawl. For players to accept the GM violating the assumed nature of the setting: time, physics and other constants (for example putting the same mundane creature in multiple places at the same time to force a player encounter) it's best that these interventions are secret, unknown and relatively unimportant.

An alternative way of viewing illusionism is as a sort of inverse of ‘simulationism’ - the impulse to make your game as realistic as possible - entirely controlled by realistically modeled rules and chance. In the perfect (and entirely impossible) simulationist game the GM wouldn’t make any decisions, only consult rules and tables of chance and likelihood for even the most mundane events. As much as illusionism’s bad reputation is earned when GM’s use it excessively or clumsily to negate player decisions, simulationism deserves an equally bad reputation when ‘realism’ and the inescapable tyranny of chance are used in ways that make game boring or lead to frustratingly pointless character deaths (such as a GM who claims that characters have a 1 in 100 chance of slipping on tavern stairs or choking to death on a beer).

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Exploration Play


The first leg that the classic Dungeon Crawl stands on is “Exploration Play” - a description that points to (or obfuscates depending on how understandable the following is) the Locus of Play in the Dungeon Crawl. Characters in Dungeon Crawl scenarios or games are first explorers - adventurers even - not combatants, designed with abilities and ‘builds’ maximized for destroying specific potential opponents. Nor are characters in the Dungeon Crawl personalities first - they don’t require meaningful information about their pasts or goals (not to say these aren’t potentially fun elements) to play and the Dungeon Crawl isn’t designed with story growth in mind. Exploration play may include a good amount of role play, but it doesn’t focus on emotional character development in the sense of the examination and resolution of character flaws, traumas or desires. It also doesn’t ask the players to deeply inhabit their characters as representatives of a genre - a Dwarf fighter won’t succeed or fail in a dungeon crawl based on how well the player performs aspects of ‘Dwarfiness’ or ‘Fighter’. None of these other types of play are bad, but they aren’t at the core of the Dungeon Crawl experience. Instead the game is found in the characters and players direct interactions with the location itself.

From the 1st Edition Player's Handbook
A dungeon or location exists to be explored - to have it’s passages mapped, its puzzles solved, secrets revealed and inhabitants outwitted or pacified. The trick is understanding what that all implies and to make these exploratory activities both mechanically significant and meaningful for the players. Exploration is facilitated by more than a dungeon with a large number of keyed areas, or many encounters that will take multiple sessions to investigate or overcome. To make exploration meaningful the act of moving through dungeon locations needs to create a sense of ‘risk’ - tension and anticipation. In a scene or encounter based adventure tension builds as the narrative rises towards confrontation and the story advances towards climax - much like a novel or film. In a location based game the progress of the party in exploring the location creates tension without expected end point or climax: unraveling secrets, delving deeper, discovering its dangers and its potential rewards while steadily exhausting their resources.

Another way to say this is that there is no overarching plot to provide tension, and no predetermined, expected or rules generated climax that will become the moment of greatest risk and reward. I don’t want to suggest that you can’t have plot or set piece encounters in your game and still incorporate dungeon crawls - but if one is running plotted large-scale narratives it may be best to think as the crawl itself as a single scene or plot point. Nor is this to suggest that characters’ motivations can’t be tied to a location - a character may want to explore a location for personal reasons, and the GM can, even should, still accommodate that. A character’s backstory can be worked into a dungeon - a missing brother may have joined a faction within the dungeon or a lost heirloom might have been stolen away to the dungeon’s fastness - but this is an afterthought. Characters’ individual stories can advanced while exploring the dungeon, character background might even be a useful hook to initially encourage exploration, but personal character stories shouldn’t be the focus - both because this fails to offer incentives for other characters and because the Dungeon Crawl’s Design Principles make scene based revelations and narrative structure difficult to include without forcing the spatial complexity of the dungeon into a linear mold, scattering clues and scenes haphazardly or engaging in sleight of hand that degrades player trust. I don’t want to suggest that a good GM can’t pack a lot of story into a location or that a good location based adventure doesn’t lend itself to creating stories, and I’ll get try to address some ideas about how this works when I discuss the importance of factions in a a Dungeon Crawl, but the Design Principles behind exploration aren’t related to any kind of extrinsic story or narrative.

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...