Sunday, October 11, 2020

From Dungeons to City Streets ... on a new hack and some faction generating


Well. Feedback (from one of my players and from a commenter on this blog - thanks!) had me chewing on player agency in dungeon-crawls, as well as the ways that my recent experiments with streamlined dungeon design did (or didn't...) promote said agency. I started wondering whether something already put-together like Into the Dark (aff) would be better (I don't have it, but it's a really interesting-looking trimmed-down Forged in the Dark game for dungeon-crawling, basically) And then my players made it clear that they are ok with dungeons but they really favor something more varied anyway. 

So, this probably marks the end for now of that series of dungeon thought-experiments, though it's been helpful; if nothing else, dungeon geomorphs stand out to me as quite workable "one page dungeons" just waiting to be stocked, which can (in the better cases) be quite robust enough for some short play with flexible links to the next episode. Anyway. Thank you, gentle reader, for bearing with me on that zig-zag. :-) 

Meanwhile gaming continues. Since Into the Dark had me looking over at Blades in the Dark again, the "something more varied" that wound up pleasing my players (and me!) was an urban heist/mystery game of oath-bound secret agent vigilantes in a gritty, corrupt fantasy metropolis. For rules, I made my own hack that combined many of the heist-RPG principles from Blades in the Dark with the sheer mechanical simplicity of On Mighty Thews (aff), which I've talked about recently on this blog. So it's sort of another attempt at a light-weight Blades, but coming from an angle that I haven't seen before. If it continues to come together well, you may hear more about it. 

Our first go at it tonight worked very well, I'm happy to say; in less than 2.5 hours, we assigned pre-gen characters, generated multiple factions from scratch with connections to the crew, then ran a mission. Somebody had just blown up the crew's safehouse (and most of the surrounding neighborhood), and clues at the blast-site pointed to a local nobleman owner of an alchemical factory, with no clear reason for animosity vs the players' crew. So the heist goal was to break into his tower, secure his confidential logbook, and figure out who paid him to blow the PCs' hideout to bits. The job went well, with half the crew climbing a tower to infiltrate the top floor to get at a wall safe and the others arranging a rather bold diversion - guest appearance downstairs at a fancy dress ball hosted by the man who'd just tried to blow them up! 

You will not be shocked, I suspect, to read that violence eventually ensued. The baddie did not end the session still alive (nor did Giovanni, his 8-foot-tall Dueling Golem bodyguard). The players got the villain's logbook from his wall safe and then all made it out alive, but one of the PC agents took enough Stress to take a permanent point of Trauma. To be fair, that player also rolled a "1" three times in a row on a 1d8, which (I believe) has a 0.2% mathematical probability of happening. Yowsers. 

Now the crew knows that it was the Dark Potioners that paid Lord Roethe to (try to) blow them up. Why - and what to do about it - must wait until next session. 


I told the players that they were operating in a kind of early modern Alexandria-meets-Venice (though inclusion of alchemical golems etc. pretty pushed 'early modern' to mean something more like 19th century steampunk, once in play...). To generate factions quickly for tonight's game with minimal prep, I whipped up a 6x6 table loosely inspired by Technoir transmissions, with 6 places our new city might often feature across the top, and 6 adjectives often associated with things in the city below. These were: 

Noble Houses
Fencing Academies
Fallen-Star Cults
Beetlemen Infestations
Necropolis Mines
Leper Colonies

Waterborne (involving the canals and harbors...)
Too-learned (cultured and academic, or maybe things-man-was-not-meant-to-know...)
Mercantile (money...makes the city go 'round...)
Alchemical (ya know...)
Occupying (involving the foreign army that conquered the city a while ago)
Precursor (involving the undefined non-human beings who built the city's first layers long ago)

Cross-referencing these can create 36 different factions. At the start of the game, we cross-referenced (picking 1 and rolling the other) and identified 4 factions that I asked the players to define. The city had: 

+ House Aurelian, fighting other Houses for control of the canals. The crew's Heavy knows some of their muscle. 
+ The Dark Potioners, once an honorable potions guild, now turned poisoners. The crew's cat-burglar/potions guy used to work with them before they turned vile. 
+ Some of the city's Occupiers are smuggling some unknown substance into the city and staging it in the leper colonies. What is being smuggled - and why the city's own rulers aren't bringing it in openly - remain mysteries, but the crew learned about it when their sharpshooter killed off the Captain of the Guard last month (!)
+ An Ancestor Star Cult worshipping the city's first Precursor Builders is active in the shadows of the city...they raised a member of the crew (the blademaster) but he left in rather violent terms as a young man when things got ugly in their theology and social relationships. 

This was a fun exercise to generate some content for urban improv-heavy play. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Abstract vs Pointcrawl Navigating in a Jaquaysed MegaDungeon: Notes from Network Theory

(Good grief, who writes these blog post titles?)

As I noted recently, I’ve been thinking about a streamlined way to handle megadungeons or large dungeons, in which play occurs almost entirely on geomorphs, “Dungeon Areas” where the dungeon’s dangers and rewards are focused - and the rest of the giant dungeon is referenced only abstractly as “Flux Space,” rather than mapping it concretely. 

Last night, via Zoom, I ran a short dungeon crawl into just one geomorph (the top one pictured below). It was fun! Though…I did kill off two player characters and the third fled the geomorph Dungeon Area in terror at the end…

Speaking of leaving the Dungeon Area: in different ways two reader-commenters on my previous post raised the important question of how to link between and describe movement between the Dungeon Areas. This post is just a brief sort-of-answer to note some possibilities and also apply some things I’ve noticed in thinking it through.

First, it’s worth highlighting that all of the standard ‘elements of good dungeon design’ should still be involved as much as possible, but mostly inasmuch as they can apply to each single, geomorph-sized Dungeon Area. That is to say that the best geomorphs for this process will be relatively “Jaquaysed” geomorphs, tiles in which most of the spaces mutually interconnect in looping ways. In fact, since many geomorphs are made with the big multi-tile dungeon in mind rather than as stand-alones, one might need to whip up new geomorphs specifically for this kind of application (you can see below some recent rough samples that I made for fun this weekend, and used in play last night). 

Alas, farewell to the character who was picked up,
lofted airborne, and then eaten by harpies in that stalactite chamber...

Ok, great, but how to connect and travel between the different geomorphic nodes? Some options: 


Pointcrawling is an immediate and strong contender. Make yourself a node-network chart and you’re off to the races (a recent commenter suggests using the London tube map :-) ). A fixed network map has the signal advantage that it boosts player agency based on knowledge of the game’s concrete ‘reality’  - though (again), player agency can still be important in this system, but pushed as much as possible into the realm of the primary ‘adventuring space,’ the dungeon geomorphs…

Normally, I really love point crawls for designing campaign and adventure spaces. They strike a very nice sweet spot between abstract and concrete. There are much more abstract options available, too - the “depth crawl” has been making the rounds very recently in the blogosphere as one semi-abstract way to handle movement between dungeon areas. Another way is spelled out in The Perilous Wilds…in a nutshell, one has a table of themed dungeon areas, a minority of which are unique. When players travel between dungeon areas, you keep rolling to generate new areas from this table, and once all of the “unique” areas have been found, the dungeon has been fully explored. (In some ways, the whole idea that I’m chewing on could be conceived as an attempt to combine the fast, abstract dungeon design from Perilous Wilds with the concrete spatial reality provided by small maps and geomorphs). 

When I first started thinking about all this, I initially thought right away that point crawl network maps would be more pleasing than the abstract options - and particularly much more realistic. 

But then I got to thinking, and I realized that if you’re working with a truly mega megadungeon, the abstract methods aren’t actually necessarily less realistic. It just depends what kind of network you’re dealing with. 

In network theory, some networks are “decentralized” - they are connected by many disparate connections between network nodes; they have, essentially, no or few chokepoints. A network that is less decentralized does have more chokepoints, more nodes that control the flow of traffic across the network. The more decentralized a network is, the easier it is for traffic to flow uncontrolled; the less decentralized the network, the easier it is for specific nodes to wield influence over the entire network. 

Now, let’s think of a megadungeon as a network of nodes, areas, connected by the various paths one might take around the megadungeon. 

A Pointcrawl is a particularly realistic way to model a megadungeon only if you want that megadungeon to include some chokepoints. Think, again, of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum in Moria: a pretty dramatic chokepoint. Hold - or destroy - that bridge, and you’ll sway the flow of traffic across much of the dwarven city. 

However, think about the other parts of Moria - the endless, winding corridors, the dim unseen neighborhoods that we can only guess at, down all the myriad paths not taken by the Fellowship during their journey beneath the mountains. How to model those areas? 

Well, if we accept that a megadungeon as a whole is and should be heavily “Jaquaysed” for easy navigation, then modeling that megadungeon using abstract navigation instead of a pointcrawl is not actually any less realistic! If a megadungeon is a decentralized network, there should be many ways for a traveling party to wander around obstacles, and find a slightly different route from Point A to Point D, perhaps even bypassing Points B and C entirely. 

I used to think about abstract dungeon-area navigation methods as mechanically helpful due to their simplicity, but displeasingly unrealistic. I’ve realized, instead, that they can be quite realistic if the dungeon being modeled forms a decentralized network - if, in OSR gamer terms, it is heavily Jaquaysed. 

So, what method do I prefer for the time being for this little project of mine?

Hmm. Hmmm. To really answer that, I need to chew on this some more. While I’m chewing, however, I might as well write with my mouth open, and spill a few more thoughts. 

One option: compromise. Hybrid. Go ahead and assign (say) a single “chokepoint” Area - our Bridge of Khazad-Dum analogue - and treat it as a middle-point for the dungeon. All other areas are either West or East of that chokepoint. You can move abstractly among any of the Areas on your side of the chokepoint, but to switch from West to East you MUST clear and pass through the chokepoint Area. 

Parties won’t spend much game-time in the Flux Space, apart from a few exceptions:

+ what if the PCs are chased out of an Area and still pursued? I’d suggest that they make an escape/flight roll…and if they fail, you simply generate a new Dungeon Area immediately and grab a new geomorph (one that hadn’t existed as a designated ‘Area’ yet) in which they fight out the next rounds of the pursuit combat. 

+ a number of games include travel montage rules for overland travel. These could be modified for use in the megadungeon Flux Space. Give the players a quick sense of the kind of areas they’re traversing, and perhaps even some clues as to what might await in the next Dungeon Area they find. 

Well, these last few posts have been ramble-fests in a very busy time, but I’m enjoying this new (for me) direction in thinking about dungeons. Thanks for reading.  

Friday, October 2, 2020

Mad Musings on Streamlined (Mega-)Dungeons, with Strange Rules-Light Inspiration...

 This one will cover a lot of ground, but I promise you it's going somewhere. At least, I think it is. That's why I want your feedback at the end. Pretty please

TL;DR: Dungeons and Geomorphs have been around fuh-revah, I know. But I'm chewing on ways to combine "dungeon flux space," geomorphs, and some principles borrowed from semi-abstract fast-play rpgs to make a dungeoncrawling experience that hits most of the traditional old-school notes while pushing the really fun (to me) stuff to the forefront. In some ways, this is a development of my thinking earlier this year about streamlining RPG procedures even further in old-school play. I'm not really sure how well this would work (or how helpful it really is)...but it's been my hobby distraction during a pretty busy week. What do you all think? 


I GM'd for my kids last weekend. Their characters realized they would need to confront an old enemy, a dimension-hopping wizard tyrant currently in league with a group of volcano-dwelling fire giants planning to drown the local realm in fire. Rather than a direct confrontation, one of my kids favored a risky but cunning idea; since there happened to be another site nearby rumored to house a trio of ancient dragons, perhaps they somehow could persuade or trick the dragons into aiding them against the wizard? Off they went to the dragons' lair, where they ended up face-to-face with a red, a green, and a white dragon. As it turned out, they discovered that the dragons were forever trapped within their lairs, bound there by an even older wizard who now lay entombed in the frozen crypts across the valley. Free them from the older wizard's power, the dragons promised, and they would aid their liberators! Off the adventurers went to look for the old wizard's bonds. In the frozen crypts, they fought their way past half a dozen frozen dwarven mummies guarding the wizard's tomb. Fortunately, once inside, they found the crystal sphere the wizard had used to entrap the dragons. Unfortunately, the wizard's ghost floated into and then animated the skeleton of a dead dragon buried with him! The two heroes defeated this dracolich in fierce combat, and set off to liberate the three living dragons...but there our session ended...

The time I GM'd before that, I ran two adult players through a post-apocalyptic scenario. One controlled a dune-buggy-riding gang of cyborg followers; the other, a philanthropic but ambitious minister, leading a small band of devotees. The two players teamed up to wrest control of a local mine from a cruel ruling bank - but they also had to deal with not one but two invading armies from surrounding foreign states. They struck a deal with one group of invaders, and then defeated a platoon-sized force sent by the other invaders, and shut down the eldritch teleporting gate that had enabled their invasion. All the hubbub had awoken a kilometers-long metallic chaos beast slumbering beneath the region (its face read "BOEING" in the Ancient Script) - but one PC hopped on his motor-bike and let the chaos-beast chase him all the way to the other invading army's camp, just outside the play region. Upon his safe return from the ensuing slaughter, the PCs teamed up to assault the fortified bank, and wrested control of their local community, founding a new and successful small state. 

Whew. Those were fairly epic sessions, with the kind of shenanigans I'd normally expect to read about from a high-level, long-lived campaign. But in fact, in each case I was running what amounted to a one-shot, with character generation included in the same session. Oh, and setting generation as well. How? Because I've been running more of On Mighty Thews, and experimenting with the boundaries of this nifty little sort-of-narrative-game-meets-sword-and-sorcery title. I've recently explained here what I like about this game and how I came to appreciate it, so I won't repeat all that. More critically, though, I will say that after repeated plays, I'm not entirely sure I like handing the players the narrative power represented in that game by Lore rolls (my players come up with very cool ideas, but it makes it harder to run the sort of old-school game I'm accustomed to - not railroading, but building a coherent world with hidden information)., this game sure flies, and it allows players to get so much done, while still facing some meaningful decisions. 

So, hmmm, I've been wondering...what more could it do? I've experimented with simple domain and warband rules for the game...anything else? Could you run an old-school dungeon well using this resolution system, with or without Lore rolls? Would On Mighty Thews' ability to provide sometimes-tense but really fast combats work well in an old-school dungeoncrawl? Well, that's what I was wondering, when...everything below happened, too. 


A commenter on Reddit recently alerted me to a new branch of games - Trophy, Trophy Dark, and Trophy Gold. They're about (probably doomed) expeditions into dark woods and ruins. The whole thing feels aesthetically like a hybrid of Symbaroum or WHFRP or Into the Odd. It's very rules light. Whereas Trophy expects the party to die or go insane in almost every session, Trophy Gold (currently running a kickstarter) expands and develops Trophy's simple rules, but aims for a hybrid with a more old-school dungeon-crawling feeling where there is at least some real chance that your poor rat-catchers might survive a few missions. And I do emphasize feeling, because in the end TG still looks very much like a narrative story-game that produces old-school-like narratives. Overall, I don't think this is a game I'd want to run extensively - too prone to railroading in service of story goals, for example. 

But. Oh goody gumdrops but. There are some really clever ideas in this game, and a few of them might just start showing up in my more traditional old-school-flavored rpg campaigns. 

How many of us have wondered about exactly why these foolish adventurers are willing to keep plunging the dungeons over and over again, no matter the attendant dangers, and no matter how rich they get? How many of us recognize the utilitarian benefits of gold-for-xp, but either feel uncomfortable about its inherent ethical message, or - maybe even more of us - just don't find treasure all that interesting after the 15,000th gold piece? How do we motivate players AND player characters in a believable, narratively-interesting way? 

Meet Burdens from Trophy Gold. Treasure in this game is pretty abstract - it seems to work like "this pile of gold counts as 1 Treasure, and so does that magic knife we found, and so does that silver crown we pilfered." This means that by session's end, each player will hopefully have a real but fairly small number of Treasure Points they personally got from the party haul. Well, you had better get more each time than your Burden, because your Burden is the number of Treasures your character must bring back from each session or THE CHARACTER FUNCTIONALLY DIES. Huh? See, the assumption is that these hardscrabble characters are in terrible debt to various cold and uncaring social entities back in 'civilization.' To advance and become more powerful, your character may outfit more impressive gear between missions, or even new spell-rituals - but each of these improvements earns you greater Burden. Fail to find enough treasure per session, and you fail to pay your harsh debt-holders back in town...and they come after you. You narrate what happens - debtors' prison, or just a crushing wage-slavery back home...or even death...but either way, you create a new character and hope for better luck next time.

This system means that characters have room for meaningful advancement, but the act of advancement also raises the stakes in future adventures. You might be more powerful, but you also must accomplish more, or your character is toast. This accomplishes a TG design goal of creating characters who always feel that traditional low-level angst about being a few mis-steps away from failure or death...all the way throughout their character arc. And that's without even mentioning the threat of dangerous beasties eating you in the dark. But Burdens provide a compulsion to go deeper into the dungeon, to take that one extra risk just this once, because you have to do so to save your character. Other games have already played around with indebted characters (Classic Traveller, Electric Bastionland...) but I don't recall seeing one that makes debt-service so urgent and necessary every single time you play the game. 

This is quite a simple yet elegant idea. I could imagine it working well in a variety of old-school style dungeon-crawl games. You could even alter the 'currency', so that whatever kind of accomplishment you want to emphasize becomes the ticking time bomb that could derail a character. 

That being said, I don't like how TG makes simple, mundane weapons and armor the things that add burdens early on - to harness this idea, I'd rather let characters just have the mundane stuff (see the 'no shopping' section of Barbarians of Lemuria for inspiration!) but make more exciting and powerful tools or weapons cost Burden. 

If TG sounds worth checking out, you can buy it on DriveThru in an issue of the Gauntlet's Codex: Gold magazine - but for the time being, the rules are available for free download on the Trophy Gold Kickstarter page. 

Anyway. There are a bunch of other small ideas in TG that I might borrow to play with, (Ruin is an interesting way to handle health) but I wanted to highlight Burdens in particular. And maybe harness them? 

Maybe like this? ... 


So, a few months ago, I had a wild fling with the megadungeon phenomenon. 

Unfortunately, some health issues affecting a regular player led to a pause and change to our ongoing Isle of Dread campaign. To fill the interim space, I decided to set up a drop-in, open-table, zoom-able megadungeon campaign. I pored over my options; I already have Barrowmaze complete, Archaia, and Highfell ... I considered all the main stand-ins...and ended up purchasing both ASE 1 and Stonehell, and compromised by pitching Stonehell, but with a science-fantasy post-apoc background!

We ran a few sessions. We had some very fun moments. I got kind of bored. Now we're playing On Mighty Thews instead for a bit. 

Why was I bored? Not because of any flaws inherent in Stonehell, I think (I'd recommend it, cautiously). But...just...all that pure, unadulterated old-school dungeon-crawling wasn't terribly fulfilling, for me at least. I soon realized that more faction action was needed, so I made sure to insert that, and it definitely helped. But I think I kind of wanted the players to just move through it all a lot more quickly, to spend more time encountering the really cool stuff and a little less time checking out just one more alcove. 

It's quite possible I could have run it better. I also note that the players were traversing the undead-dominated "Quiet Halls" on level 1 for several sessions...and I just read an interesting older blog post about pacing megadungeon "slow" vs "fast" levels that said this: "A series of long hallways with 10' by 10' crypts that monsters burst out of is a tremendously slow level, as anyone who's run the Quiet Halls in Stonehell can attest." Hmmm...maybe I just jinxed myself by running the wroooong laboratory experiment! But it's made me wonder: is there a way to keep the nuts and bolts of old-school-style dungeoneering, but make everything I really want to see jump right out to the forefront, make it more tense and more uniformly interesting? 

And then my various ideas, from the various elements of this post, started to congeal together. 

So I'm messing around with this idea. It might be a really great one, or it might be terrible; or it might already be done and tried and available and I don't realize it. I'm hoping for some feedback on just how fun and useful this approach seems. I'm kind of working through this even as I type, a bit, so thanks for bearing with me here...

The pitch: PCs play probably-doomed heroes and possibly-redeemable rogues who must clear a giant, winding dungeon of evil before it destroys their homeland. But said homeland aboveground is on hard times, and is now ruled by avaricious, heartless brutes who will destroy the PCs if they don't make their regular payments. Thus, the PCs have to get a certain amount of Treasure (Burdens from TG!) each session, and they must shut down and sanctify a certain number of 'dark sources' in the dungeon per session, or the forces of darkness will overwhelm their society and the players lose the campaign (so you can lose the campaign together as a party, and you can lose your player character individually). Oh, and things in the darkness want to eat you. 

Some inspirations: everything mentioned above, plus Blades Against Darkness, Into the Dark, Into the Odd, The Nightmares Beneath, etc., etc. Oh, and especially The Perilous Wilds, which already includes a system for semi-randomly generating themed dungeons quickly or on the fly. This is like that, but with the more concrete map of a geomorph added to provide a bit more tactical content for engagement within each dungeon Area. 

How I envision this working: each dungeon 'level' has two kinds of spaces: Flux Space which stays unmapped, and Areas. Flux Space are the nigh-endless miles of twisting corridors or tunnels that interconnect, wind, double back, and generally cause navigational headaches while actually permitting Jaquays-style movement between different Areas. Areas are those spots where Danger, Reward, and interesting stuff converge, the places worth 'zooming in' to see what happens in play. And yet the areas themselves aren't abstract; they need to permit good ol' fashioned old-school tactical dungeoncrawling. So each Area is modeled by ... a 10x10 dungeon geomorph. 

Geomorphs by Dyson Logos

You need a stack of geomorphs, like the free ones Dyson has on his website, to run this thing. You can use top-down or side-view geomorphs (or mix them up, even better!). The geomorphs don't have to fit against each other, because each Area is surrounded by Flux Space rather than another geomorph. 

Each Area/Geomorph has one Dark-Source that is seeping evil into the world from deeper within the dungeon. These must be shut down and sanctified to make safe each Area, one at a time. Expect 1 Dark Source and therefore 1 Area per player in each session, more or less. If you don't shut down enough Dark Sources, something really bad happens, maybe even campaign-loss, or minimally an XP penalty or something like that (I'm thinking to keep this game tightly focused on the actual dungeoncrawling by linking the dungeon to a city above, but keeping the actual city stuff abstract and out of the direct lens - except when city factions show up, for example). 

Each 'Level' would be a target ideally for a single session of play, allowing the Players to run through approximately # of players x Areas in one session (this will require use of fast play rulesets...I think). Each Level has one or more Factions which will have some presence each session. Each Level also has 1 randomly-generated narrative twist that is triggered when players reach a certain Area on the level, and stays in effect thereafter (maybe the players discover a live human prisoner, for example...or a new schism occurs within a faction present, etc.). At any rate, Factions need to be a big thing in the random encounters - Yoon-Suin-style random-generation for 3 above-ground factions and 3 subterranean factions to make each campaign its own bespoke thang. 

Each Area also has 1d3 Threats and 1d3 Treasures, randomly or deliberately assigned to rooms on the Geomorph. When moving through a Geomorph, a random encounter also occurs with 1-in-6 chance every time you enter  a new room, or every time you take certain actions (resting, testing a secret door, etc.). Each Area/Geomorph is either Garrisoned (intelligent foes who are organized and maybe fortified), has Monsters, or is Abandoned & full of Traps as Threats. Because the number of Threats and Treasures per geomorph will vary within a narrow consistent range, there is constant incentive for players to just push to see if there is another treasure on this one before they go back to flux space to find a new geomorph...but there might be other threats too. 

Another by Dyson Logos.
I feel his geomorphs hit the right balance, small enough to run through fairly quickly amid 1-3 encounters, but just big enough to have a couple corners that might call out for further exploration...

This could work simply as a system-neutral approach to building dungeons, I suppose, but I'm thinking it would work best with something somewhat abstract and probably using conflict-resolution rather than task-resolution. But it could work either way. Maybe Into the Odd could handle it well? 

Folks, this post is much more rambling than is my wont ('s been a really busy two weeks...). Thanks for bearing with me. If you have any input on whether this makes sense, whether it's already been done to death, or whether it looks fruitful to develop, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks, happy gaming, and best wishes!