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


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.


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.


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


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.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

December Update and Ongoing Projects

So rather then work on the various projects and posts I have planned for All Dead Generations, I decided to prepare a series of ambitious projects:

Equitone - Our Lady of Situations

CRAWL -- A codification of the OD&D based ruleset I’ve been using for the past several years. Is CARAWL a retroclone? Sorta? Is CRAWL a heartbreaker? Maybe? Is CRAWL an effort to center exploration and with mechanics and playstyle? Absolutely!

The Growly Hoot is an ornery varmit

Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier -- An introductory adventure for CRAWL (or maybe the 1981 Moldvay Basic Set) about plundering the crashed tomb fortresses of the Empyreans (Space Elves) while surviving a Low Western infused wilderness.

I’m doing all my own writing, art and layout for these projects, but I’ve made it 60% through a Quickstart for CRAWL (30% through the longer Rules with explanatory essays similar to All Dead Generations), and 80% of Tomb Robbers is writing, illustrated and laid out (but not edited).

Star Spire

In preparation I’ve produced a Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier mini-adventure, a small, newly crashed, crystal tomb ripe for plundering -- the Star Spire

STAR SPIRE is here if you want to buy it for $1 Dollar.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Aligment ... Reaction ... Asymmetry ... Faction



Alignment x Reaction x Asymmetry x Faction  PDF

This summer I wrote a series of threads about the ways that certain legacy rules, often disfavored in Contemporary Traditional rulesets like Dungeons & Dragons' 5th Edition work to mitigate tendencies towards racial essentialism (the idea that a people is defined by a specific character - laziness, rigid adherence to duty, inscrutable cunning, religiosity etc) and colonial fantasy (fantasy that replicates and uncritically includes elements of colonialism) within the game. The issues are concerning for many players who are put off by the Good v. Evil and the assumption that the goal of Dungeons & Dragons adventures is the slaughter of various humanoid "races" such as Orcs. Colonialist and even genocidal themes are certainly present in early editions of the game, and Gygax himself spoke in support of the idea that humanoids in Dungeons & Dragons could be understood as a metaphor indigenous people and that the proper form of play was to massacre them in the manner of colonial conquest.

This is obviously not something that most people want to emulate or bring into their games, and it comes up in the context of modern Dungeons & Dragons because despite overt gestures towards a more inclusive game, Wizard's of the Cost continues to use humanoids that are sometimes described in terms that echo colonialist stereotypes of non-white peoples.  This oversight is compounded by the way that 5th edition elevates combat as a solution to most obstacles, humanoid 'monsters' included, and designates most many 'races' of humanoids as wholly, irredeemably, cosmically evil.

I  see and acknowledge these trends in various of Dungeons & Dragons, along with the distasteful beliefs of Gygax and many other early creators, but I I don't believe that a game of Dungeons & Dragons must be a colonial or exterminationist fantasy.  From long play it seems to me that many of the solutions to these issues are found within the older rules in the places that they step away from simple, linear, heroic narratives and towards interrogating the morality of Fantasy adventure by offering the players themselves choices.  The mechanics to do this existed in early Dungeons & Dragons, the way the game offers players the chance to take stances and imagine actions at odds with their own morality - to weigh what evil looks like and contemplate how expedience can lead to wrongdoing, even within the simple structures of fantasy adventure gaming, is one of the types of play unique to and attractive about playing RPGs.

These mechanics are: Reaction Rolls/Morale, Asymmetrical Encounters and Faction Intrigue.

Beyond any desire not to include disturbing, uncritical echos of colonial history and subjugation
in ones game, or even for hobbyists who reject this argument (please still consider it and remember that you might not see what isn't a threat to you)these mechanics are fun and support a specific play experience. They encourage more complex roleplay, player planning and non-combat solutions to obstacles.  With these chnages classic social mechanics and design principles make for a better open world games, and generally promote player engagement with the setting because role play and negotiation themselves become paths to mechanical success, combat becomes more risky and 'fluff' or 'lore' become useful for understanding NPC/Monster motivations and goals.

Recently, Wizard's of the Coast seems to have adopted some of these principles - emphasizing, if not providing mechanics for, parleying with monsters in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything and giving various humanoid factions goals and values beyond "Be Evil" in Rime of the Frostmaiden. Morale rules (complex and and a bit of an afterthought) have always existed in 5th Edition's Dungeon Master's Guide but they are rarely if ever mentioned. These are positive signs, both that Wizard's is taking concerns about representation and themes in its game seriously and that the company open to play styles beyond linear story arcs in support of tactical combat.

I've attached a PDF of my thoughts on these legacy social mechanics: how they work, what they accomplish and how they can be implemented.

Alignment x Reaction x Asymmetry x Faction

Thanks to Warren D. of I Cast Light for the compilation and editing of these threads.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Prison of the Hated Pretender 2020 Release

A revised, updated, edited, illustrated and annotated version of my 2012 Prison of the Hated Pretender is now available for purchase and download at DriveThruRPG.  The adventure is introductory, and now includes copious notes on running classic style adventures as well as conversion details for 5th Edition D&D. 

Published through the amazing Hydra Cooperative, and available here:

DriveThru Link

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...