Aug 22

August RPG Blog Carnival: Devious Dungeons



My previous contribution to the RPGBA Blog Carnival was a post about the Albino Blood Leech, for the July Carnival hosted by Hereticworks.



This month, the Carnival is hosted by James Eck at Mind Weave RPG. James describes the theme for the latest Carnival as follows:

So, let’s talk about dungeons. Dungeons are first and foremost a way to present Challenge in the game. While they can also enhance the story, the puzzles and battles found in a dungeon appeal to that primary aesthetic of the medium. This is where, cut off from relief, TPKs never to be forgotten occur. This is where insurmountable obstacles are overcome and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. This is where legends are born.

In this month’s carnival, I hope we can explore together the things that make a dungeon fun to play, fulfilling, and memorable. What makes a good dungeon, in your opinion? What are good puzzles in dungeons like? Is it system dependent? How do you incorporate believable combat encounters in dungeons?



The Role of the Dungeon

This month’s Carnival is a tricky one for me, as I do not really use dungeons as the primary aesthetic of my campaign. I can see how they hold a central role in the origins of our hobby, and doubtless remain a key part of the OSR movement and many f20 campaigns.


Yet, as I have embraced the narrative approach to gaming, I find myself moving away from using dungeons in the game. Ironically, we are currently exploring some catacombs in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign, but this is the first true dungeon in the current cycle of tales, and likely to be the only one. As my Players and I push for more story in our games, I find the slow, attritional slog through vast underground complexes to be less rewarding for the style of game I seek.



Narrative & Faster Prep

However, there can still be a place for an underground complex in a narrative game. If drama comes from conflict, then there is sure to be plenty of drama in a dungeon. My current campaign is exploring a complex of tombs and we are finding plenty of story in the sequence of chambers.


These catacombs were also the subject of my June RPGBA Carnival article.


So, how does a narrative GM stock a dungeon? Well, this narrative GM simply did not want to go through the traditional room-by-room prep routine. I have done this in the distant past, only to find it something of a time sink. Plus, for all those rooms that my Players simply ignored, I had outright wasted my time.



The Story of a Dungeon

Instead, I needed a much faster method. I still wanted to hit the elements of the main narrative, which meant writing up some of the rooms. So, I created short descriptions for the highlights of the story. This covered the entrance, the dwarven guards, an arcane war machine that related to the broader campaign history, a few chambers of walking dead and the final chamber holding the goal of the dungeon quest.


This still left me with about half the rooms empty. Rather than double my workload by making notes for each of these, I just created a list of potential room contents. This list is really little more than some improv-style notes, but it serves to reinforce the main themes of the tombs.


Dungeon Table

As the location to be explored has a tight theme, a network of tombs, it was an easy matter to list the five types of chamber that could be found:


  1. Clockwork Mechanism, defunct – No threat to the Heroes
  2. Shelves of Servant Corpses – Eerie, but harmless
  3. Generic Tombs – Standard dwarven tombs, with nothing of note
  4. Clockwork Mechanism, active – An active trap to be disarmed or bypassed
  5. Treasure Tomb – More ornate tomb with valuable contents
  6. Roll Twice – Combine results


Whenever a Hero walks into an “empty” area of the tombs, I roll a d6, consult the table and describe accordingly. Simple, effective and quickly stocks the peripheral areas of the dungeon with minimal prep from me.


Advanced Options

It is possible to take this idea further, and add a little more variety to the outcomes.


First of all, the 6 result represents an exploding re-roll. If another 6 is rolled on the initial re-roll of two dice, than another two dice are rolled. Furthermore, if a double is rolled on any re-roll, then there are also 1d6 Walking Dead in the chamber.


Secondly, beyond a certain point in the dungeon, as the Heroes near their goal, two dice are rolled for each chamber. Once more, sixes are re-rolled with two more dice. Doubles will also result in d6 Walking Dead. This increases the variety of results, with more combined entries. Plus, it better reflects the overall pace of the story, namely that the stakes are increasing as the Heroes near their goal.


Bigger, More Intense

The next step up would be to simply increase the size of the table. I shall use the example of eight entries, but the principle could be extended further. This would give us the following, expanded table:


  1. Clockwork Mechanism, defunct – No threat to the Heroes
  2. Shelves of Servant Corpses – Eerie, but harmless
  3. Generic Tombs – Standard dwarven tombs, with nothing of note
  4. Clockwork Mechanism, active – An active trap to be disarmed or bypassed
  5. Treasure Tomb – More ornate tomb with valuable contents – +1 to all Rolls, max +2
  6. Roll Twice – Combine results – +1 to all Rolls, max +2
  7. Dwarven Ghost – Attacks all non-dwarves
  8. Tomb of the Dwarf King – Armoured Dwarven skeletons and ancient crown treasure.


As before, this table uses a d6. However, once a five or a six are rolled, then modifiers are added to the subsequent rolls. This ensures that the defunct clockwork mechanisms are only encountered in the early parts of the tombs. Likewise, the shelves of servant corpses will also cease to appear once the second modifier is added.


Conversely, once the modifiers are in use, new areas of the tombs can be encountered. Eventually, the climactic Tomb of the Dwarf King will be rolled. If there are still more rooms to be explored, then treat this as a unique encounter, and re-roll twice more on the table. Otherwise, this dungeon will have run its course and it is experience points and waffle time.


It is possible to add more encounters to the table, but this example is enough to give you the general idea.. Ensure that you adjust the maximum modifier number to allow for the upper numbers to be rolled.



Using a table to generate the rooms in a dungeon that are not central to the plot will ensure you focus on the important narrative locations. Yet, this simple method gives you faster prep and can create content for many lesser chambers. For larger dungeon complexes, you could create one such table for each themed area: tombs, orc nest, mushroom forest, etc.


What sort of tables would you create? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Check out all the entries to the August Carnival at the Mind Weave RPG site.


Happy Gaming


Follow this link to learn more about the RPG Blog Alliance.


Something for the Weekend next week: Yes/No and Little Wizards, a synthesis of interesting outcomes.

Aug 21

Prep in Progress: Chapter 23, Part 2


Session outline, location aspects and Day After Ragnarok.


The Prep in Progress entries are short summaries of my prep for my ongoing campaign The Tales of the Hero Wars.


Yesterday proved to be a good day for the game prep. Along with the Session Outline, I also put in time on the Wiki backlog. I skimmed through Kenneth Hite’s awesome Day After Ragnarok to prepare a briefing sheet to brainstorm some options with the Players. This is working several sessions in advance, but it is better to spread the effort over several weeks, rather than have it all to do in one week.


I want this Interlude to be as fun for the Players as I can make it, and the best way to achieve this is to ask them what they want.


Even better, there are a couple more minor game upgrades to introduce. This is very much an ongoing process, mostly refining the ideas that we have, rather than adding new sub-systems every time.


This week will see a further expansion of the Location Aspects.


As game day approaches, I hope to find the time to work through a little more of the Wiki backlog. Ideally, I also need to look at some more of the administrative aspects of running the game, but I doubt I will have enough time to achieve everything.


Overall, another good week and I am looking forward to Saturday’s game already.


Happy Gaming


Aug 20

Reading Around: octaNe, a post-modern RPG


The previous Reading Around was Nordic Larp.


octaNeIt has been a while since I last posted a Reading Around article, but I am still reading through my virtual pile of pdfs..


Last month I bought the excellent Indie Games bundle from Bundle of Holding.


This was a superb bundle of games that have been a joy to read. There are some real gems here, especially for narrative gamers. Today I want to share with you the awesome octaNe by Jared A. Sorensen. Jared describes the game as:


octaNe is a roller coaster ride through the trailer parks and strip malls of a post-apocalyptic, trash-culture America. A garish B movie brought to life in living Glam-O-Vision. A funkadelic, no-holds barred steel cage match of . . . well, you get the picture.

octaNe shares a kinship with the B-movie action of Feng Shui, the PoMo gestalt of Over the Edge, and the weird western vibe of Deadlands (and its post-apocalyptic follow-up, Hell on Earth). But unlike some of those games, it’s not a grim, cautionary tale of the apocalypse or a gritty slice of urban street life. It’s a ridiculous world gone out of control, where the Mythic West meets Hollywood, where the clichés of film noir collide with the excesses of pulp comic books.


Cool, huh?


The real appeal for me is the mechanics-lite rules and the emphasis on story. Simply pick and choose anything cool, throw it into the game and just have fun with it. Here there is no barrier between the Mythic and the Mundane, and I like that.


octaNe is 116 pages long, which gives Jared the space to look at some wider issues of narrative gaming. The part that really caught my eye was where he discusses the potential modes of play of octaNe:


Each mode is based upon a distinct sub-genre of post-apocalyptic action film (or just types of sci-fi/action film in general). Each mode has several “dials” controlling the amount of realism, explicit content, and what I’ll just refer to as “big ideas” appearing in the game. At the start of your game, make sure everyone knows what mode you’ll be using. And unless you’re going for a disjointed effect, be sure to keep within one mode throughout the entire game session.


This is a really interesting idea, that the same game can be played in many ways for a different style of game. Change the “dials” of your game, and the experience can be radically different for the Players. This is one of those concepts that seems very obvious, once somebody points it out to you.


This concept really resonated with me when one of the modes Jared outlined matched the style of game I am trying to run. It seems that I am running an Arthouse game, a label which probably would not surprise my Players. According to Jared, my game should therefore include:


  • Everything Should Mean Something
  • Characters can die, but only in intense and dramatic scenes
  • Use big, sweeping themes, soulful gazes out across the wasteland, and tons of symbolism (read Hero with 1,000 Faces by Joseph Campbell)
  • Break up the narrative with flashbacks, dream sequences, fast-forwards, and other cinematic techniques
  • Emotions should run strong and deep; characters should have equally strong ties to other people – no man is an island, even if he “walks alone”
  • Reward players with bonus Plot Points for cool visuals and clever lines of dialogue
  • Steer clear of the civilized areas of the setting (or better yet, you and the players should create your own on the fly)
  • The game should have the feel of an epic saga (albeit one in a decidedly Western setting) – see Greg Stafford’s game Hero Wars or Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer & Sword RPG supplement for inspiration and advice.


Given that HeroQuest 2 is a descendent of Hero Wars, I must be on the right path.


octaNe is available from DriveThru [Affiliate Link]


Happy Reading


Aug 19

Prep in Progress: Chapter 23, Part 1


The Prep in Progress entries are short summaries of my prep for my ongoing campaign The Tales of the Hero Wars.


I know I write this nearly every week, but it was another great Session on Saturday. We worked through a few more rooms of the catacombs, yet still managed to progress the personal stories of the Heroes. Even when we are gaming in a dungeon-style environment, the Players still found opportunities to develop their characters. The story will out!


The highlight for me was the improvised section when one Player wanted an encounter with a ghost. Ironically, I had prepared an encounter with a ghost in a nearby room, yet this improvised scene was so much better than the one I had scripted. There is a clear lesson here. I am drawn towards more improvisational game prep techniques, and this experience suggests that it could work for me.


Moving forwards, I now need to look at the game prep for tomorrow. This will be a day at home, so I have high expectations. As we are still in the catacombs, I only need the Session Outline for the game on Saturday. Some administrative tasks remain, but once they are sorted, I should have time to clear some of the endless Wiki backlog.


Finally, I want to put in some groundwork for the final Interlude of this campaign.


I need to skim through the setting book, and make a few notes. This is in preparation for a briefing session with the Players, to learn what they want to do in a Pulp-era setting. Bouncing ideas off the Players has to be the best way to find a plot that appeals to us all.


Overall, it should be a fun day of game prep.


Happy Gaming


Aug 19

Looming Deadline for the August Contest


journal squareAs mentioned previously, August sees a new home for the Warlock’s Journal.


It is now with Dominick at his Fields of Blood and Honour blog. As usual, a new home means a new Contest. This round of the Warloack’s Journal Contest is also groundbreaking with the first ever video introduction to a Contest.


Dominick has uploaded an eight minute video to You Tube where he outlines the latest contest. The topic of the August contest is described as follows;


Design a group in a fantasy world for fighting in gladiatorial arenas


The entries for the Contest must be in by 25th August 2014. You need to write, edit and submit your 500 words describing a gladiatorial group VERY promptly. This round of the Contest has an amazing prize from Dominick. The winner will be published with a cover credit as part of his forthcoming book Fields of Fame and Fortune, due October 2014. Furthermore, the winner will receive 5% of the gross receipts from sales of this book.


All the voting rules, and the additional details about the Contest are outlined in Dominick’s video.


Best of luck, and get designing VERY quickly.



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