Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Fistful of Crystals

Character Generation
and House Rules for My Home Game

I'm going to be running a Crystal Frontier game online, the first semi-public game I've run since the end of G+.  In preparation rather then introduce my house rules piecemeal I've prepared a character generation and basic rules document for the game.

It includes the major subsystems for my house ruled version of Original Dungeons & Dragons (the 1974 pre-Greyhawk version, but not using Chainmail). This is the system I've used for several years and I find it works quite well for dungeon crawls. The goal is a quick, low complexity system that makes exploration a coequal element of play and can be used for online two to four hour sessions in an expedition based (each session you must leave the dungeon) campaign.

They make significant changes to the base OD&D system, though I think most of these changes fill in voids in the original rules or streamline areas where the design doesn't support contemporary games. At it's core though it should still be that same sort of D6 and D20 based flatter power curve, high lethality system as the original.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Dungeon Design, Process and Keys

With my decision to work on Dungeon23 coincides my starting a public Crystal Frontier Campaign and being dissatisfied with the progress I've been making to various new projects. I've got three large, rather experimental dungeons about 1/4 - 1/2 finished (including art and layout), and a smaller one of about 20 rooms 2/3 done, but they've just refused to come together this year. Hopefully at least the small one will be out sometime. So I've had lots of reasons to thinking a bit about how I personally design dungeons and adventures again - not as a theoretical exercise, but because I need to write some new, satisfying dungeons.

Below are some notes on my personal quick technique for getting something together for play at my table and (after a lot of additional polishing) for publication. I hope they can be of help to newer designers thinking about giving Dungeon23 a try (or really just writing up a dungeon to crawl).  As always they are for the classic dungeon crawl style of play: exploration supported by procedural turnkeeping, supply, and randomized risk. They are likely the entirely wrong way to write an adventure that will make really good live action Youtube or help you run a Vampire the Masquerade campaign, I don't pretend to know how to do either of those things. 

I’m a naturalistic, or maybe even ‘organic’ designer.

This has nothing to do with whole grains. As a style of adventure design, what I’m calling organic is an expansion of what's often described as “Gygaxian Naturalism” because Gygax discusses it in “The Campaign” section on pages 86-88 of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. While the focus is usually on Gygax's creation of a fantasy ecology, I'd say he goes further and offers an approach to making dungeon adventures that form a logical whole.

It’s also obvious to me that this was Gygax’s personal style of adventure design, meaning naturalistic design was extremely important to the success of Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games more generally. Organic design shows through clearly in Gygax’s best work, his most memorable adventures such as Keep on the Borderlands (B2) and Against the Giants (G series). While these adventures might not appeal to everyone today, in praising them it’s important to look at them compared to other design options at the start of the hobby. Arneson’s original Temple of the Frog as included in the Blackmoor supplement for OD&D and Wee Warrior’s Palace of the Vampire Queen by the Kerestans are great counter examples.

The naturalism and coherence of Gygax’s adventures sets them apart, he focused on the dungeon space as interconnected by logical relationships, sometime ecological, but often political or historical. His contemporaries produced dungeons that were far closer to a board game sytle series of encounters, or as the afterthought to a larger scale political and military conflict (which Arneson did design quite naturalistically). The mead hall of Gygax’s giant chief makes sense as a location, structurally, thematically, and as an adventure. Its rooms have clear uses and a sensible layout within the larger fictional space. Its inhabitants relate to each other and have uses for the spaces they inhabit. While Gygax's dungeons are far from realistic, and can become odd at times there’s almost always a thruline of sense and purpose that can only come from the conscious effort to build a dungeon around its inhabitants and a theme. As affirmed in his Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gygax doesn’t want to overthink the logic of his dungeons as a simulation, but to create a plan and structure a location that are comprehensible to and and exploitable by the players. You can poison the giant’s stew in the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief because the kitchen and feast hall exist as part of a sensible and coherent whole—that’s Gygaxian Naturalism (though the term is also used sometimes to describe a group writing process). Jennell Jaquays, tentatively with F'Chelrak's Tomb (1976), and notably in her later adventures Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower (less effectively), expands on Gygaxian Naturalism quite successfully. Her designs start the practice of layering history and increasing the density of description, the level of interactivity, significance of faction relationships, and spacial complexity of dungeons making them more functional for exploration.

In some circles, Gygax’s other major contribution to adventure design is more popular - procedural generation. Appendices A-H of the Dungeon Master Guide are one of the first (they date back to Strategic Review/Dragon, Issue 1 as a way to play D&D solo) efforts to define this technique - providing a means for a dungeon to build itself through random dice rolls.

I’m not much of a fan. Here’s why.

I’ll acknowledge that procedural generation can be useful as a springboard for ideas or to fill space in a hurry when nothing better is available (such as when your players move off “the map”), but randomly generated rooms are either too vague and disconnected for anything more than board game style play, or require such complex tables that the designer might as well just produce a much larger keyed adventure with the amount of space and ideas. Relying on random stocking almost always means that the details and complexity need to be filled in, and the random design expanded and rationalized. You’ll still end up describing, keying, factionalizing and connecting the parts of your dungeon for it to function well. All procedural generation does is add the step of randomly generating elements of the space that have to be revised to give the dungeon coherence.

These are the basics of what sort of dungeons I want to write. Classic keyed spaces with a high degree of coherence, interactivity, variety, a layered history (useful and discovered via clues in play), navigational puzzles, and both description and themes that go beyond those of typical Gygaxian vernacular fantasy or the contemporary expectations of standard fantasy settings.

Friday, December 9, 2022



Sean McCoy of Mothership fame recently proposed a community challenge, event or project he calls
Dungeon23. My friend Ben L. over at Mazirian’s Garden has a bit more to say about it.  

The basic idea is to challenge yourself to write a dungeon room key each day and dungeon level a month in 2023. Come January 1, 2024 you will have a 350 room dungeon … a megadungeon.

The room keys don’t need to be fancy or extensive, and Sean suggests an extremely minimalist style, so the dungeon keying becomes a manageable habit and not a chore. I like the idea, it feels a lot like some of the challenges and community events from back in the days of Google Plus, such as these hex crawls, keyed by anyone who wanted to add a hex key -- a practice referred jokingly to as “Gygaxian Democracy” at the time.

I’m likely to give Dungeon23 a try, but unlike my aborted effort at Gygax75 -- where I discovered that what I needed for an adventuring region was very different then the project -- I’ve made the changes I want to make to the challenge to make it work better for me. I also want to help others get their own megadungeons finished, so I am sharing the series of worksheets I made and have linked them below so that anyone can use them by making a copy of the googledoc (please turn of sharing on your copy).

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...