Monday, February 17, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 2 - Rumor Tables


Two sets of rumor table for characters who express an interest in discovering more about the Plague Fleet. Simply offer a rumor for ever 5GP the party is willing to spend asking about for information, or just provide a few rumors attached to a general description of the location.

Rumors available in the dives and salons of the grad, decaying port city nearest to the Green Flow Morass.

A tall tale … and its Teller.

  1. Wrecks? That’s underwater work usually - to breath you’ll want value stopped air bladders for that work. ... Longshoreman and regatta man of the Blue and Gold’s Demes. Leathers decorated with patches, badges and sailing medals.
  2. Imperial military ruins are rarely worth it for amateurs - the valuables are trapped ... Travelling Tomb Robber, uncommonly talkative, stone skull mask hanging loose.
  3. She is come again, she is waiting to be freed from the Morass, our Red Queen ... Naked drunk, prophetic on narcotic honey mead and shouting between seizures.
  4. At the delta of the Green Flow the seas are unwholesome, a shipkiller, haunted ... Leviathan Harpooner with hypnotic tattoos spending a year’s pay on an epic spree.
  5. To bring peace to ghosts they must be buried and shriven, at least the skulls ... The Tout’s ingratiating false smile suggests his goods will not live up to his promises.
  6. The worst arcane corruption is invisible and odorless - it leaves only death ...Wyrm Hunter from the Desolation of Zubrab - violent and mad eyed with arbalest primed.
  7. This? A green vampire monkey pelt from the Morass. There are apes also ... Perfumed, bedecked in lace and bodyguards, a Fop brags loudly to any willing to listen.
  8. The haints and raw bones of the Plague Fleet are still Imperial soldiers, a geas of command binds them to obey rank and insignia ... Grave meined Footman in the livery of a minor house, his quiet cultured speech mesmerizes a crowd of fellow servants and layabouts.

The rumors below are available only to characters with unsavory reputations and underworld connections.

The whispered admonitions … of cautious Whisperers

  1. The “Lost Lambs”, roughest lot mob in the marshes aid travelers ... A group of three Crouch hunters, wild on snake squeezins’ and eager to please.
  2. The corals of the Green Flow Morass hunt for flesh and take ships ... Smuggler, scarred upper face wrapped in sigil painted rags, unerring with her knife tricks.
  3. The machines of ancient wrecks hide gems and gold inside the works ... Crouch mudlarks bubbling excitedly in sing-song chorus.
  4. No sleeping in the Morass, everything there drinks blood - it'll eat you at night ... Crouch river pirate of the notorious Hook Gang, chitin lacquered with clotted blood.
  5. Beware old naval ordinance, it leaks magic esters, and worse explodes ... Legless wrecker living on charity, the bitter & haunted survivor of a dead expedition.
  6. Morass Plague kills fast - buboes and delirium - cured with salt water and rest ... Exiled gaucho from the Pyre Coast, weary enough of endless war to rot in the swamps.
  7. A malign intelligence that controls all things in the Morass - but it sleeps ... Snake eating cultist, hair bound with shed skins and hissing with a split tongue.
  8. The Fleet's dead are peaceable, until you loot the wrecks, then you join them ... Sweating Hellsman, still reeking of pine sap and snow, wanted for heretical singing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 1 - Plague Ships Intro and Hooks

Below is the first of a series of  shorter posts discussing my personal design process and rationales for design decisions through the example of keying a location - the wrecks of high fantasy arcane warships in a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting.  I intend to key it for both the 1981 Moldvay Basic edition and 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but that may prove to be impossible.  A lot of decisions and elements of the project may prove to be impossible ... but even in the likely event of failure, I hope readers will find some ideas to discuss and mull over about the nature of classic adventure.

These posts will be structured to include elements of the project - "Plague Ships" and a notes on one or more design element of the content.


Polyandrium of Imperial ambition, Green Flow Morass stinks in the hot Southern sun. Bluish mud flats teem with giant blue shrimp below a shallow green tide. Grey mangroves garlanded in moss echo with the screech of sickle-fanged monkeys and the constant drumming drip as the fecund growth sweats in the humid heat. Above it tower the imperishable remains of the Grande Fleet of the Successor Empire, immured in an inconclusive settlement to an inconclusive war and scuttled to prevent the ancient stone war vessels from being parcelled out by the squabbling victors... the Plague Fleet.

The unwholesome airs of the Morass, untrustworthy currents and offshore reefs of wandering predatory coral have limited recovery and salvage to the schemes of crackpots, dreamers, confidence men. That the wrecks are haunted, trapped, and cursed makes them too dangerous for all but the most desperate and foolish freebooters.

The Morass is at the delta of the Green Flow, one of the many rivers that wind through the swamps of the Umber Havens. While both Morass and Flow are landmarks, they have grim reputation as plagued and dangerous even in a land of endemic mosquito and waterborne illness. The general location is all that’s necessary to find the wrecks, but in lotus dens, pleasure arks and gaming pits along the Alien’s Wharf of old Auram Ferro there are stories of the Morass to chill the soul. Likewise, in the swamp villages of crouch and human outcasts the cockroach people bubble and hiss strange tales of the wrecked Fleet.

If hints of wealth and strange adventure or desperate circumstances fail to intrigue your players the following opportunities may draw them to the Plague Fleet.

d6  The Largesse of Aurum Ferro’s Golden Thrones Smile on the Brave.

  1. The spring ball season has found its fad - the calculating spheres from the bombardment ordinators of stone ships worn on the corsage or as a wig borne fascinator.
  2. A dispute among gentlefolk will end in a duel, and civil unrest if proof of the battle honors and identity of 1st Officer of the quadrireme Risen Empire aren’t recovered soon.
  3. The popular Rag Priest of the 19th “Indigent” Emperor, Maximo the Obliging disappeared months ago, a holy vision demanded he succor the the Plague Fleet’s dead.
  4. The Arsenal will pay handsomely for ancient weaponry, or even parts - the fleet needs lightning casters, falconets, sakers and the sights and motive chambers of basilisks.
  5. The decrepit, wealthy Margrave is fixated on Imperial pride. He’s offering commissions to mount an expedition scourging Crouch and foreigners from the war graves of the Fleet.
  6. The Hemolina Cruelty was a storied raider, and her concealed strongroom hides the mummy of a Maratime Heresiarch Emperor/Admirals - returning it would bring trade.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Descent into Avernues - Dungeon Keying

In the last post All Dead Generations looked at the general design principles in Wizard’s of the Coast’s new campaign tome Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, and compared them to the classic style of open world, location based dungeon crawls. Descent into Avernus is not a classic adventure, it is not meant to be played as an open world and even its locations which have some of the trappings of dungeons, or are named dungeons, aren’t in any mechanical sense. Rather the majority of Descent’s dungeons appear to either be small lairs, arenas to facilitate a specific encounter, or a series of linear scenes sometimes laid atop a map but largely unconnected during play.

The Dungeon of the Dead Three is the last of these: a selection of encounters partitioned off from the location largely as a means of introducing or ending them each with filmic or novelistic flair - to create a predesigned “moment” of gameplay. This is obviously a very different play style then the classic dungeon crawl, and it seeks to produce predictable narrative moments at every opportunity - willingly sacrificing many aspects that define the classic dungeon crawl to do so. Still, The Dungeon of the Dead Three and Descent into Avernus in general show care and creativity, and the contents of the individual keyed areas within it can be evocative enough that even a reader who doesn’t like the encounter based playstyle must recognize that Descent’s design choices are intentional.

The Dungeon of the Dead Three in particular deserves a closer look, because of anything within Descent it is most like a classic dungeon crawl, and seems to want to evoke the feeling of one - even if it pays no attention to the exploration elements of timekeeping, supply or risk management. Yet, despite disfavoring an exploration playstyle (which is hard not to with the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons mechanics) Dungeon of the Dead Three includes many aspects that superficially make it appear to be a classic dungeon: a looping map that includes empty or nonessential rooms, traps and secret doors as well as a traditional feeling of the dungeon crawl - the infiltration or exploration of close corridors in an alien underworld. Here of course that’s focused on a sewer, which unfortunately is also a popular video game cliche, but at least it avoids including wererats. Because of these inclusions, it’s easier to conceive of the The Dungeon of the Dead Three as a classic dungeon, and despite its designers clear intent for it to play very differently, one can interrogate it in the context of running a resources, risk v. reward dungeon crawl.

Beyond modifying or including rules that better encourage exploration play (e.g. random encounters, timekeeping, meaningful encumbrance, and lighting) the question of “how does one design a dungeon that facilitates exploration play” remains. With the larger elements of the adventure: map, concept and basic structure in place, or at least not actively working against the dungeon crawl playstyle, the core of the design process is in the individual location keys.

Keys are the basic building block of adventure design, information that the designer believes most important to understanding the location, provided in a way to allow the reader to run the adventure.


There's a variety of techniques to keying locations, from the ultra minimalism found in some of the first published adventures, to boxed text designed originally for tournament adventures and bullet points or other, mixed types of formalism. The style used in Descent is mixed one: short boxed text, sometimes preceded by and always followed by GM directed text about room contents. Areas without encounters (combat in Descent) lack boxed text and have only short paragraphs. The writing itself is serviceable, but it doesn’t appear to have been intended as writing for a location based adventure, and it’s not well focused on usability. The organization that exists is a haphazard use of bolding to set off paragraphs about treasure or traps in some of the locations. This sort of effort is good, but without consistency it doesn’t help a GM run the location or to highlight the most important information in the key so that it stands out. Descent does make laudable effort to limit the length of its locations, but because of uninspired writing may do so at the cost of dulling down the play experience of the dungeon as a whole.

Boxed text is always a concern, it exists to regularize play experience, an understandable goal in the tournament modules that pioneered it, but unnecessary for players and GMs that aren’t in a tournament. Like all design choices, it has a cost as well as an advantage and that cost is generally a risk of confusion for both players and GM. There’s a lot of potential sins for a designer writing boxed text (or simple keys without read aloud text), and below is a list of some of the most obvious with notes on how well Descent’s Dungeon of Dead Three manages them.

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.

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...