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 PDF

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

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Risk Economy - Part 0 - Orienteering and Exploration


This is Adventuring!
1st Edition Player's Handbook Cover Painting

In past essays All Dead Generations has focused on the “Risk Economy” as the engine of classic dungeon crawl Roleplaying - a precarious tower of danger where the players are expected to balance multiple currencies of supply and character survival against the risk of the dungeon’s inhabitants and obstacles while accounting for time’s slow attrition. All Dead Generations has covered ‘Risk’ -- mechanics and design principles, but it hasn’t looked much at the other side of that economy: Reward.

What is the basic reward in the dungeon crawl? As with most styles of classic play the reward for continued play, or perhaps for successful play, is leveling one’s character -- though giving the problem solving nature of classic play it seems likely that this is a less effective reward then it might be in a system that puts more mechanical weight on level, one with a steeper power curve. “Fun” or “play” are obvious from a meta-game standpoint, but without denigrating the ludic joys of roleplaying games, that’s too broad a category to usefully interrogate for mechanics and design principles. However, focusing on this overall goal is a good place to start, to narrow it down and ask “what kind of rewarding fun does the classic dungeon crawl offer?”

I don’t want to suggest that dungeon crawl games offer a unique reward in play, but they do have specific focuses, different from other playstyles. Classic dungeon may offer the gambler’s highs and lows of random success or failure and the storyteller’s joy of creating a fiction, but the mechanics aren’t set up to deliver these kinds of fun, at least not as much as they are to provide the satisfaction of solving a problem or puzzle (the dungeon crawl’s main mode of play) and offering the joy of discovery, ideally the wonder of the strange or unexpected. Revealing description of a fantastical universe through play is hardly unique to a classic play style, but it is emphasized, and made a cornerstone of play in the dungeon crawl through the mechanical weight placed on exploration, the way play demands interaction with the described physical environment. Unlike problem and puzzle solving, this mode of play, the discovery and interaction with the fictional environment hasn’t been specifically described in a past All Dead Generations’ post, though it has been mentioned several times as the concept “Orienteering”.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

One Page Dungeon Design

The 2020 One Page Dungeon Contest wrapped up on the 15th of July, and I’ve entered this year (for the first time since 2015). I don’t think my dungeon has much of a chance - it’s a bit the esoteric work/aesthetic design testbed and lacks the artistic attention traditionally necessary to win the contest … but … the goal isn’t to win, it’s to produce a tiny, but usable TTRPG adventure and to learn about what that entails. I encourage everyone who has any inclination for adventure design to enter next year or at least try to construct a one page dungeon and hone it to a standard that someone else could run it from. The lessons in creating such a small, focused adventure teaches are useful more generally, and in the end you hopefully have something to share that shows how you like to play TTRPGs -- which at their best are a creative pastime.

My 2020 OPD - Maw o Snails
PDF at end of post

One Page Dungeons are a form of adventure publication that is literally what it says in the name. One, one-sided, 8.5” x 11”/A4 piece of paper with a complete adventure on it. How one wants to do that is the interesting part. Sure it’s a gimmick, but it’s a fascinating one because the highly restricted space encourages a lot of design compromise that ultimately makes the designer decide what has to cut and what the most space saving way to communicate is. There’s practical and aesthetic considerations as well - which likely appeal to the more artistically and design inclined, but for the adventure designer the One Page Dungeon (OPD) is an experiment in cutting away the unnecessary and emphasizing the most important elements of a chosen playstyle and preferred design goals.

Below I’ll explain in more detail, but here is a list of steps and considerations that go into a One Page Dungeon, or at least a specific type of One Page Dungeon -- the keyed location based kind with as much classic exploration feel as possible:

  • Brevity, Not Ultraminimalism
  • Reduce Density, Not Size
  • One Solid Image
  • Avoid Gimmicks and Accommodations Unless they Save Space
  • Use Map and Other Aesthetics to Add Detail and Complexity

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 9 - Vessels of the Plague Fleet & Dungeon Types

The Capital Fleet of the Successor Empire, once a thousand stone ships, depleted and weakened by mutiny, war, neglect, disaster and finally broken in the war of Maratime Schism by magical plague. Trapped in the estuary of the Green Flow, the towering stone hexareme and octeres - each a floating castle topped in towers and fortresses mired in mud. The smaller trihemioliai and quinquereme, baking on the hot sea, crews skeletonized by disease. Beyond the pickets of the Schismatics, and the units of the mutinied units of the Expeditionary Fleets. Lingering, crews and marines bloated and raved under the Pyre Sea sun until the surviving captains met, pooling their healthy sailors, manned an escape squadron, headed by the bombardment enneres Implacable, and sailed out to battle the mutineers in a long pursuit back to Aurum Ferro. The fleet that remained died at the hands of its sickly crews. Shuttlecocks opened, weapons spiked, the dying crews denied their vessels to their enemies: sinking with them or driving them ashore.

Three easily explored vessels are included here and are the most complete and well preserved of the Plague Fleet, fixed fast in its mud and the dense mangroves that have grown outward as the Green Flow dumps tons of rich sediment into the Morass each year.

The Hemolina Cruelty, a lighter vessel, a sharp prowed raider driven into the shore, its trapped treasure holds still containing plunder from a raid on the Sapphire Islands of the Maratime Provence. Currently the renegade revolutionaries, the Lost Lambs scavenge its stern in search of volatile arcane munitions to aid their insurrectionist violence.

The Quadireme Risen Empire, a siege ship, rebuilt from the razee of the burnt octeres One Thousand Wisdoms, now mired deep in the mangrove, its overgrown bombard decks home to the court of the Ape King and its holds a submerged ghost grave.

The Hexareme Red Queen rests in the shallows, a stately dreadnought, trapped in time. Aboard the forces of its former ship’s daemon stalks the decks, animating the vessel’s figurehead, locked in an endless battle with the soul of the sorcerer king once bound to its power plant.

Perhaps 30 other vessels are lost in the Green Morass and the waters around it, most entirely submerged or buried in silts. Others are capsized, choked with mangrove, or burnt shells, emptied of accessible valuables by time and the elements. These other wrecks can be expanded on by an ambitious GM (Appendix A includes some tables and ideas on how to do so) but the Cruelty, Risen Empire and Red Queen represent both many sessions of exploration and the central puzzle of the Plague fleet, so it’s unlikely a party in an open world game will want to explore them all.

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...