Saturday, January 13, 2024

Light/Darkness ideas: following up after playtesting

My thanks to all who read my recent thoughts on procedures for light and darkness in dungeons. An unfortunate illness kept half my gaming group out of action last weekend, but the cancellation of our normal game opened space for a little dungeon crawl to play-test those procedures with a couple other available players. 

Playtesting is funny business. Sometimes you discover that something has really clicked; more often, of course, you find in practice the holes and problems that you missed in design. This time around — I got a bit of both! Before I summarize what worked well and what didn’t click for my players, I’ll confess that I’m not a very scientific play tester. My tendency is to be ambitious, and to use my limited play-testing opportunities to try out a bunch of things at once. Any lab scientists out there will know, of course, that this means (too) many variables all competing for analysis. If all my games were play tests, I’d try to evaluate just one rule change at a time.
If wishes were fishes... Anyway, some of the problems we encountered have little to do with the light/darkness rules, so I can isolate those out, but it’s worth noting that the session ended with a TPK — for two reasons. First, I was trying out some tweaks to combat rules that made fighting deadlier; second, we had freakish luck - I rolled really well for the monsters, the players rolled really poorly for the first half of the night (though one player did get back-to-back Nat 20s later in the evening), and the random encounter rolls were off the hook frequent! So, combat was deadly and we had more combats than I expected. 
Anyway, on to the darkness/light feedback.
If you’ve read my last post, you know that one part of my philosophy here is to move away from the ubiquitous OSR emphasis on inventory management. My rules for managing dungeon illumination aimed to create decisions around encounter risk and trap vulnerability without relying on logistical bean-counting. I also wanted to focus on the more emotionally satisfying (to me) narratives of danger looming in the darkness. 
All that was validated strongly by my players. In short, they said that they, too, are tired of fiddling with inventory slots; one particularly hates the numerical resource management micro-game. That feedback was validating for my approach, though it certainly pushes against many widespread OSR principles. To be clear, these aren’t players who hate old-school play style and who just want the world handed to them on a bed of 24-times-per-short-rest superpowers. They’ve amply demonstrated their willingness to think creatively while solving problems, or to die horribly while fighting monsters. 
So, for what it’s worth, here is one local group’s plea to the indie-OSR-NSR-whattheheckSR design community: Knave, Cairn, Mausritter, etc. are dope, but please keep designing things that don’t rely on micromanaging inventory, too. 
Ok, what about the light/darkness thing? 
The players enjoyed my greater attention to lighting limits. They endorsed my enhanced narration of the uncertain darkness. Having light sources really only illuminate part of each new room led to more atmospheric play and — in a few instances — extra decision points about which risks to accept. So all that was a win.
However, the players advised against the ways I’d mechanized illumination. The setup for the playtest probably didn’t show my rules in their best light (uh, sorry for that one): to save time, I used a free online dungeon with fairly small rooms, and missile combat played almost no role in the session (those factors muted a few of the tradeoffs of the dungeon crawling stances + light states). The fact that bright light made a random encounter much likelier rankled a bit because of the aforementioned wacky dice rolls, which produced far too many encounters for such a small dungeon. Nonetheless, I did agree (with some chagrin) that my formalized attention to mechanical triggers didn’t match the perceived usefulness of the different light states in play. 
Where does this leave me? Honest, thoughtful feedback about rules remains helpful, even when pointed against “my babies.” Although the playtest revealed some issues, it also was paradoxically somewhat liberating. My players and I agreed that without implementing my full-blown procedures as described in my last post, we should add the following to our games:
+ pay more attention to who is holding the light - monsters may try to extinguish it

+ assume lights illuminate much smaller dungeon areas, to heighten narrative drama and reframe exploratory choices
+ minimize inventory management where feasible
Additionally, I think I may still include the option to shine much brighter light that does call for an immediate, higher-risk encounter roll — but I may not make the modifier as punitive. (Think Gandalf, again: “perhaps we can risk a bit more light…”). 
What is freeing to me is that my musing about the experience of dungeon crawling has led me to some new resolutions about play, but these are resolutions we hope to implement through fewer rules, instead of more procedures. There’s something refreshing about a freeform solution to a problem. How will it work in future sessions? Dunno. I’d better keep playing to find out.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Less Bean-Counting, More Darkness: Improved Dungeon Exploration Stances

 When does darkness matter, and when doesn't it? 

First, two anecdotal snapshots: 

It was my return to the hobby, my first time GMing an RPG in decades. In hindsight, the adventure I created was just a linear series of encounters. But the boss fight really clicked! The PCs were in a partly-flooded underground chamber, fighting a hulking half-troll, half-giant-toad thing with big tusks...which kept hopping into the water and then bursting back out to attack a new victim. 

And then the monster extinguished the torch. Today, despite the many sessions and lessons learned in play and study since then, I still relish the look of sincere alarm (could I say fear?) on a player's face as we worked out the rest of the scene. 

Years later. Our stage now is on the inner plateau of the Isle of Dread, albeit hacked quite a bit to suit my own setting. The party's ranger had snuck into an unknown faction's watchtower at night to scout it out, with only moonlight to guide his path. Before long -- once he'd already climbed up into a belltower -- he realized that someone awake and equally stealthy was hunting him through the shadows. The ensuing cat-and-mouse play, with minimal visual description, was both thrilling and consequential -- a risky roll led to the PC accidentally bumping the tower's bell, signaling his location and confirming the party's interference at the site. 

Now, what stories haven't I told you? 

That time that the fighter wanted plate armor, which meant he couldn't carry as many torches as he'd like. That time that a wizard's "Light" cantrip nerfed the entire light-as-resource-management game. The many times that I shrugged and just thought, "well, I'm sure somebody is carrying a torch, let's handwave it and get moving" because I had a bunch of other GM-stuff to process that felt more consequential. I won't tell you those stories, because they're ... boring. 

But they're also far more common, and likelier to happen under the rules I've leaned on for years. 


I'm grateful for good gaming and fruitful game-thinking over the recent holiday season. My adult gaming group has just started a new ROOT campaign, which looks like it should be a blast. But I also decided I'd like to jump-start some D&D for my kids in the months ahead, so I started thinking about Knave, and how I might like to change things (perhaps I'll say more about that in future posts). After many a keyboard-clack, I sat back and realized that I'd basically just written my own heartbreaker game, with a revised combat system, streamlined core classes that look more fun than a lot of vanilla D&D options, revised encumbrance, and an updated version of dungeon exploration processes.

For each area, it helped to sit back and brainstorm what I really enjoy from a narrative and gamist perspective before returning to a list of common OSR mechanics. I feel like I have ritually eaten a few of my sacred cows over the past couple weeks, and I hope that my new ideas, developed in consultation with the wisdom of the blogosphere, might better provide the play experiences that actually make me happier -- that actually give me better post-game stories to talk about (I haven't playtested this stuff yet, mind you, so I shouldn't really get too excited about my bespoke house rules portfolio). 

In today's post, I'm fleshing out my current thoughts about dungeon exploration. Actually, this involves a fair bit: revised thinking about encumbrance and logistics, encounters, meaningful tactical choices, room/setting description, searches and investigation, and especially light and darkness. The ideas for procedures below are a refined version of my recent thoughts on "dungeon exploration stances," which you all seemed to find interesting but a bit too fussy. Well, they're simpler now. I've also chewed a lot on my response to a variety of other blog posts, some new and some old enough to threaten "classic" status:

Maybe come back someday and finish reading  my thoughts, please, after you've worked through those riches. :-D 

Before you read any further, here are the guiding design principles that have shaped my new proposed rules for dungeon exploration:

+ I think I'm tired of inventory management as a key part of gameplay. I imagine this one will be controversial; Knave-style inventory is key to ... pretty much everything (class archetypes, abilities, even Wounds) in many NSR/OSR systems these days. If I'm honest with myself, though, I think there are better ways to get to the emotional play experience I'm looking for - something that keeps logistical choices exciting and meaningful without bogging down play in bean-counting. 

+ I'm not that deeply committed to Gygax's advice about meaningful time records. I mean, they matter a lot when they matter, but sometimes they don't. A recent comment exchange on Noism's blog, with a link to an earlier post about arbitrary time-signatures for combat rounds in D&D, got me thinking about how the length of a round sort of only matters for tracking the logistics mini-game -- but what if (see above) one did away with much of that mini-game anyway? What if combat and exploration focus not on scientific precision for record-keeping, but on the bits of play that (my) players really get satisfaction from -- engaging with the actual adventure? [One might say there's a false dichotomy here, but I'm running with it]. 

+ For exciting play, trade information for risk/vulnerability. Fear of the DARK is intuitive and important, and I want more of it in my games. I'm not inventing anything new here -- on these issues, see that list of older blogposts by other writers, above. The questions that are "logistical" but which also excite me are NOT "did we bring enough stuff?" but "oh no, are we comfortable ignoring that shadow? But can we afford to use more light here?" 

Ok, that's some background on my approach. Now, details. On with the show. 

As a reminder, I am cobbling together all sorts of ideas from other writers, so please do note the blogs linked above as you think about these rules. 


All spaces in the dungeon have one of three Light states: Bright Light, Dim Light, or Darkness. 

When a party enters a new room/keyed area, note its Light state. Also, make a random encounter roll, with 12 on 1d12 provoking a random encounter (various factors, below, will make these more likely). 

The party enters a new room. 

GM rolls a random encounter check on 1d12, adding +3 for Bright lights if carried by the party, and +1 for each hireling [this does not include companions, who are limited by a PC's CHA modifier and who will fight alongside the party]. On a 12, there is a random encounter.

The GM describes the room. 

Light may be ambient -- already provided as part of the environment, as sunlight through cracks, torches lit in wall sconces, etc. -- or it may be carried by the PCs. This distinction matters. Most light effects occur no matter who put them there, but when PCs introduce their own light to a dungeon space, the dungeon is more likely to react -- random encounters become more likely. 

Lighting a held candle takes one full action. Digging through your bag to recover a new candle also takes one full action. If your party only had one light held, and a monster just extinguished it (which can be attempted using a Combat Stunt), you can count on at least two rounds until you can see again. Chomp, chomp, the darkness has teeth. 

There is no need to track how many little candles you brought, since the PCs aren't silly enough to come crawling without lots of them.

On Light states:

+ DARKNESS: The GM offers no new visual descriptions of any kind. ALL PC rolls are made with Disadvantage. Because Dim Light is the default, if the players get stuck in true darkness, they can always pull out another candle nub and produce Dim Light again -- if they aren't too busy fending off something with tentacles in the darkness. 

+ DIM LIGHT: this is the default state for moving parties, and adds no further risk to random encounter rolls. It requires 1-2 lit candles (or torches, or whatever; treat them equivalently - as per Dwiz's Advanced Darkness ideas). Every light requires the full use of one hand, which cannot carry a different item. The players must declare exactly who is carrying each light. They should expect that nasty things that prefer darkness may target those PCs or their lights. (hired porters may carry lights, but note that non-professional hirelings each make random encounters more likely -- see below).  In a space with Dim light, PCs take Disadvantage to all their Ranged attacks (but there's no penalty to shoot at somebody holding a light). 

The GM only gives a reasonably accurate description of things within ten feet of Dim lights. Beyond that, they just hint at the shape and layout of the room/space. They describe things in structural terms and as blocks of dim color, shadow, and reflective shapes. 

+ BRIGHT LIGHT: Bright light requires at least 3 lit candles/torches, each held by a specific character's hand. Adding such light is tempting the underground's oppressive darkness and its inhabitants: a +3 modifier to encounter rolls makes a random encounter happen on a 9+ on 1d12. Moreover, the GM makes a fresh encounter check as soon as the party 'switches' to Bright light. However, the GM now describes all outwardly visible features of a room -- what Anne calls Landmark information -- at least out to 30-40 feet (these ranges are for game-fun purposes, not for simulationist accuracy). 

Here is a contrasting description of a room encountered in Bright vs. Dim light:

Bright Light: “You have entered a columned hall, about thirty feet wide and perhaps fifty feet long, with a parallel row of stone columns holding up heavy-looking stone blocks at the ceiling. In the middle of the room, a pile of gold objects - cups, coins, etc.  — gleams in your torchlight, but so does a thin, wet ring of what looks like blood around it. On the south wall, a fairly massive bronze rectangular altar stands flush with the wall, its sides streaked with what might be dry blood. There’s a leering face with horns sculpted onto each side of the altar. Right as you enter, you see a flicker of movement, and notice a humanoid shape dart through an open doorway in the far wall. What do you want to do?”


Dim Light: “You see what look like columns rising, fading away into the dark ahead of you. An irregular lump of something, several feet across and high, lies on the floor halfway across the room, to the west; your candle-light reflects weakly off it, here and there. A large rectangular blocky shape, almost as tall as you, is due south. As you enter, you think you see a flicker of movement retreat away into the shadows to the east; now you can’t see anything there but darkness. What do you want to do?” 



Last March I wrote about some possible Dungeon Exploration Stances. These updated rules are an improvement, and tie into the Light rules above.

There is no "neutral" stance in a dungeon; the party is always focused on staying alert OR looking friendly OR hiding OR resting OR or figuring things out than they are on all of those at the same time. Pick one, the moment the party enters the dungeon, and treat that stance as in effect until the party tells you they are changing stances. 

These rules assume side-based initiative (roll 1d8 for the party and 1d8 for their foes; high rolling team acts entirely and then swaps initiative; polearms grant individuals first action even if their team loses initiative, unless the other side also has polearms or reach). If ambushed, PC with highest WIS rolls a save to prevent a surprise round. 


In Bright Light: PCs can't be surprised by (visible) foes. PCs automatically win the first initiative roll. Disadvantage to NPC reaction-table rolls.

In Dim Light: PCs get Advantage on a Save vs being surprised. PCs automatically win the first initiative roll. Disadvantage to NPC reaction-table rolls. [Don't forget that Ranged attacks are Disadvantaged in Dim Light].  


In Bright Light: Roll NPC reaction-table rolls with Advantage. PCs automatically lose first initiative roll if attacked. 

In Dim Light: Roll NPC reaction-table rolls with Advantage. PCs automatically fail any rolled saves vs. being surprised. PCs automatically lose first initiative roll if attacked. 


In Bright Light: If the party is carrying Bright light, they can't enter the Stealthy stance. In ambient Bright light, Stealthy stance benefits only apply against sightless foes. 

In Dim Light: PCs roll saves vs. being detected with Advantage. PCs may try to ambush foes with that Advantage, too. If the party is ambushed, the PCs roll saves vs. surprise with Disadvantage. NPC reaction-table rolls are made with Disadvantage. 


A short rest takes at least ten minutes (and, in my current rules, resets hit points as per Mark of the Odd games). When a rest is declared, roll a random encounter check (with a 9+ on d12 encounter if resting in Bright light carried by the party). An individual PC may elect to skip the rest (and its benefits) and stay on guard. Resting PCs automatically fail saves vs. surprise if attacked (unless a PC standing guard passes a save vs. surprise), and the party loses the first initiative roll of a combat during a short rest.  


 This one is connected to broader issues, so I'll flesh it out more below. 


Searching a room is tricky to integrate with stances, because you can resolve a search mechanically, but it's often more fun to just talk things through, inviting player skill to the fore -- until that takes too long and bores everyone. Generally, though, finding the hidden stairway because you asked a clever question is more fun than finding the concealed treasure because the dice saved you. 

Anne at DIY-and-Dragons (in the posts linked above) has some great thoughts about information detection and GM description. I'm riffing off much of that here (she recommends making "landmark" information freely available up front, "hidden" information available if somebody asks about it while risking interaction with the space, and "secret" info only if the player goes looking for it AND passes a dice check. 

I'm thinking of saying that once players have entered a room (at Bright or Dim light) -- and checked for any encounters -- they can choose to engage with parts of the room for as long as they want (that wording choice is deliberate - no need to track rounds/turns, other than assuming that an exploration turn is "roughly the time a party spends exploring one room if they aren't resting"). During that time, they can interact with objects -- opening the chest, stabbing the mattresses, trying on the spare cloaks, sipping from the weird fountain, etc. None of this is mechanized exploration, and whatever Exploration Stance the party was in when they entered remains in effect (as do effects of the light level). 

But perhaps the players want to skip past all that -- or maybe they've interacted with the room for a while but suspect they're missing something. Then, they may declare a shift to the Investigative dungeon exploration stance. This assumes that the party is taking all the time needed to give the full space a thorough shakedown, but they're also making themselves vulnerable to its potential hazards. Upon declaration of this stance:

+ GM rolls a fresh encounter check on the d12, with a +2 modifier for the more invasive searching (and also with a +3 modifier for Bright light carried by PCs, if relevant). If the party now decides to "upgrade" to Bright light, they may, but this triggers a third encounter check (but Bright light is more helpful...).

+ if in Bright light, ALL hidden (but not secret) information in the room is conveyed to the players. At minimum, this includes clues about secret doors and traps (but not necessarily how to open or disarm them). If a wizard is in the party, they might automatically detect magic items in the room, too. 

+ in in Dim light, the hidden information is revealed, but with the following caveats: there is a 4-in-6 chance that each trap, secret door, concealed treasure, etc., will be revealed or hinted at. A wizard in the party might confirm parts of a room that include magic objects. The party thus has incentive to risk Bright light, though they might prefer to play it safe and hope for the best (the GM makes hidden rolls here, btw). 


As noted, I still need to test these in play, but I'll blogify them in hopes they might inspire you (or lead you all to yell at me about problems I've overlooked). The key ideas are to cut out all the bean-counting around torch-carrying and duration, drilling right down to the interesting questions: what is that scary-looking shape in the shadows? Can we risk more light to check it out? Can we risk NOT checking? Why is the thing with all the eyes wrestling the wizard for the candle? Oh no, it's -- HELP!