I’ve had to start making dungeons for my players to explore. Unsurprisingly, that’s something that comes up with some frequency in a game called Dungeons and Dragons. There is lots of advice on this topic from people much smarter than myself, which I now collect conveniently in one place for your edification as well as mine.
Dungeon Design and Stocking - with examples! — Gus from Dungeon of Signs has a very thorough post outlining how he makes dungeons in a “naturalistic” way. He tries to imagine how the dungeon might end up in the state it is in when the players show up. He isn’t a big fan of funhouse dungeons and an over reliance on randomly stocking things.
Map Design Thoughts — Gus, being the hardest working man in the OSR, also has a blog post taking a look at how he approaches creating maps for his games in the first place. The discussion about map size and complexity as a form of time management is interesting.
Nitty Gritty of Dungeon Design — Patrick Wentmore, author of ASE, has a very mechanical approach to dungeon design, that feels like an interesting contrast to Gus’s approach.
Random Dungeon Stocking — Related to the above, Delta provides a good overview of the random stocking rules from the various editions of D&D.
Megadungeon Practices - Dreams of the Lich house gives a good overview of the things to consider when building a megadungeon you expect to be the main source for adventure in your game.
I do things like Patrick Wentmore. I have a little program that spits out what should be in each room using the rules from the Moldvay basic book. I’ll then try and think up what each “monster”, “monster + treasure”, etc might be. I’ll sometimes shuffle things around, or place important monsters or treasure ignoring the suggestions from the random rolls. Oftentimes it is fun trying to figure out how things might fit together, what the unguarded treasure might be, etc.
No doubt there are countless more posts on this topic out there. What do you suggest someone look at for inspiration or ideas?
Wife is now fooling around on the tablet I bought so I have email access when traveling. It has the Alice in Wonderland books preloaded on it and she is amazed.
Me, I’m suddenly struck by the idea of putting a young blonde in a blue dress on the cover of an adventure I’d call “Eat Me.” — James Raggi, August 23rd, 2012
A little over two years ago James Raggi mentioned in passing this idea of doing an Alice in Wonderland Adventure. Zak S replied with a phrase that became a bit of a joke on G+: “For a modest advance…” Presumably there was a modest advance, because here we are.
Zak would occasionally share bit and pieces of the book he was working on on his blog: artwork he had finished, or a table or set of rules he had written. I helped play test the module a few times: once with my OD&D group, a couple times with Zak himself, and most recently with Kiel just as the final layout for the book was wrapping up. Zak used a photograph of me as a reference for the Knave of Hearts, after asking for photographs on G+. I have been watching in real time as this book slowly came together. I bring this all up to try and highlight just how much I have been anticipating this book, how completely unrealistic and unfair the expectations I have placed on the final product are, and to suggest that I am perhaps too emotionally invested in this book to review it properly.
A Red and Pleasant Land is a setting book that describes Voivodja, the Land of Unreason. Rather than using the travel guide gazetteer format commonly used for these sorts of things—which, if we are being honest with one another, suck—A Red and Pleasant Land presents its world primarily via elements that are all usable at the gaming table: dungeons, monsters, new rules, and random tables. A Red and Pleasant Land is more about helping a DM build their own version of Voivodja than presenting some canonical version of the place. In this way is reminds me of Carcosa.
A Red and Pleasant Land begins with a brief overview Voivodja. It’s 18 pages long and is probably the only part of the book you’d be expected to read beforehand if you wanted to run things by the seat of your pants. The book starts off with a discussion of what makes this place different than your typical fantasy setting. The history, geography, and culture of Voivodja is examined at a very high level. Mixed in with all of this is advice on how to use the book and run a game in Voivodja: this is something more books should do. Much of this section of the book is adventure hook fodder. (Croquet, a staple of Alice in Wonderland, is presented as an obvious source of adventure: players might play to get an audience with the queen, be hired to track down a obscure wickets, etc.) Voivodja is a strange land where a king and queen have been waging war upon one another for time immemorial. Two other factions have decided to enter this fray, both deciding who to ally themselves with as the adventure begins. The setting is designed to support a game built around the conflict that comes from the players interacting with various NPCs with conflicting goals.
To go along with the new setting is a new character class, the Alice. The character is an interesting twist on the Specialist from LotFP. Every time the character gains a level a percentile die is rolled: this may lead to new powers or bonuses inspired by the events in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland rather than simply gaining more skill points or saving throw improvements. The Alice also has the ability to get exasperated. Doing so lets them roll on an exasperation table, which may lead to the sorts of strange events, again clearly inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a door appearing out of nowhere, something that normally wouldn’t be able to talk suddenly starts talking, etc. I played an Alice during the play test for A Red and Pleasant Land, but didn’t take advantage of this power—i’m boring I suppose.
A look at the new monsters and NPCs of this world is up next. There are 4 factions in Voivodja, led by: the Heart Queen, the Red King, the Pale King, and the Colourless Queen. Beyond your typical stat block, almost all the creatures in this book have relationships or alliances that could lead to adventure and conflict. This also helps present the setting to the players. Most of the monsters in the book are quite interesting. I particularly liked the Guests, which are basically demons. A Red and Pleasant Land features a great random demon generator that you could steal for any fantasy game. There is also a Brown vampire: trés fantastique! There is an illustration for almost every creature presented. Hopefully you know what a horse looks like.
There are two dungeons presented in detail in A Red and Pleasant Land: the Heart Queen’s palace, and the Red King’s castle. They are both fucking bonkers. Of the two I love the Heart Queen’s castle the most. The games I have played exploring that dungeon have been some of the most fun I’ve had playing D&D. I think they are both well executed and interesting: big enough and weird enough to support multiple sessions of play.
The book concludes with some new rules and then some random tables. (Of course it does.) As I mentioned in my last post about A Red and Pleasant Land, Kiel used these tables to generate an adventure for us to play more or less on the spot, without anyone really noticing what was going on. That seems like high praise for this portion of the book. My favourite title in the whole book is found in this section: “Idiotic Voivodja Filibuster Conversation Openers”. There are lots of great tables, many of which would work in other settings. All games need a “where have you been?” table for when a player shows up late or misses a session, and a good “I search the body” table can tell the players a lot about the world they playing in.
Like Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land is as much a book about a particular setting as it is a treatise on how one should go about writing and presenting a setting in general. Zak has clearly approached this problem from the perspective of someone sitting at a gaming table. How much information does the DM need to successfully run a campaign set in this world? How do you best present it all? What things need to be quickly referenced? These are questions that seem to be rarely asked by most authors and publishers, including Wizards of the Coast. This book is worth buying as an example of good graphic design, even if you aren’t interested in Dungeons and Dragons.
The two large dungeons presented in the books are a perfect example of this attention to detail when laying out a page of text. The map of the outer defences of the Red King’s castle, along with the descriptions of the rooms on the map, all fit on a two page spread. Most sections of this palace have cutaways maps along with descriptions that fit on one or two page spreads. Occasionally you will need to flip back a page to see a map, but this hardly feels onerous compared to the typical presentation of dungeons in most modules. Room descriptions are all bullet point rather than long paragraphs, making it easy to quickly figure out what’s going on. There is no superfluous text. This is true throughout the book. Blocks of text that might need to be looked at during a game are usually presented as bulleted lists, while sections of the book that will likely be read before or after a gaming session are often longer and more flowery.
This level of thoughtfulness permeates the whole book. There are next to no tables that don’t fit neatly on a single page, or aren’t part of a tidy two page spread. (The few tables that are too big for a two page spread are clearly marked as spilling over to the next page.) Beyond the dungeons and the rare monster, there is basically nothing in this book that would require you to flip a page to get all the information you need.
The layout of this book is really stunning. Jez Gordan has done an amazing job here. In addition to being so throughly functional the book looks beautiful.
This book is great. The artwork is amazing. The layout is amazing. The content is amazing. The physical book itself is amazing. I’m not sure why I even bothered writing this all up now. When it comes to gaming purchases this is a safe bet. Even if you have no interest in a D&D version of Alice in Wonderland, there is enough creativity here to steal or twist into something else.
Zak Smith made an art book that doubles as a D&D module. If nothing else it’d make a good coffee table book.
People, this box! This is the box I have been waiting for. If you could only see my full-body sobs for joy.1 All the way from Finland comes another box of goodies from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Because I have backed so many LotFP Kickstarters I somehow ended up with 4 extra books beyond the 2 I ordered. I will probably write about each in more detail shortly, but I thought I would say a quick word about the books after flicking through them really quick.
As I have mentioned previously, there is no one I am aware of anywhere else in the RPG scene make books as nice as James Raggi, including all the big name publishers: Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, etc. A Red and Pleasant Land has tiny print run compared to the new 5e books, but is comparable in price and is physically a much nicer book. The paper is nice thick and matte, and the binding of the hardback is actually signature stitched. (It’s disappointing how many hardbacks nowadays are essentially casebound books with hard covers.) A Red and Pleasant Land is actually nicer than the Penguin Classics reissue of Alice’s Advneture in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass that I recently purchased—and that book is pretty nice itself! All of the recent LotFP books are produced with a level of care that now seems to be lost in most of the publishing world.
Beyond book fetishism one can also appreciate LotFP books for their art. There is obvious effort put into sourcing good and interesting art. I can’t say I’m always a fan of the choices Raggi makes, but there is never a piece of art in his books that feels phoned in. His books have much nicer covers than most modern fantasy novels, and certainly most RPG books. Of this recent batch of books, I love the cover of No Salvation For Withes the most—the interior art is too gross and terrifying for me sadly.
I love books. It’s refreshing to see there are still people out there who love them as much as me.
Well no, there are no tears, but I am pretty hyped. ↩
I have been using ascending AC for my OD&D Carcosa game. Players roll a d20 to hit, add their attack bonus, and try and score higher than their opponent’s AC. An unarmoured combatant has an ascending AC of 10; plate armour and a shield confers an AC of 17. It’s a much simpler system for adjudicating combat in my opinion. People know if they have hit or not without having to look at a table, and the arithmetic is all quite straight forward.
What follows are the tables from the first OD&D book MEN & MAGIC redone so they work with ascending AC. (I am certain I am not the first person to do this, but there wasn’t an obvious hit when I looked on Google.)
The attack bonus progression for the Fighters is:
And for Magic-Users:
Monsters use the following table.
up to 1
up to 2
up to 3
up to 4
up to 6
up to 8
up to 10
The tables are simple enough to make. In a descending AC system a first level characters needs to roll a 10 to hit AC 9 (an unarmoured person), which we determine by looking at the attack table in MEN & MAGIC. To hit that same character who has an ascending AC of 10 by rolling a 10 (or more) implies a 1st level character has no attack bonus. A 4th level fighter only needs an 8 to hit that same character, so their attack bonus is +2.
Carcosa is not Tolkien, high fantasy, or mainstream fantasy. It is equal parts horror, science-fiction, and swords & sorcery. It is H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Robert E. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” and “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Lin Carter’s “Carcosa Story about Hali,” and Michael Moorcock’s “While the Gods Laugh.” — Carcosa, pg 3
I have read almost none of the source material that inspired Carcosa. As I am now in the middle of running a campaign set in that world, I thought I should try and remedy that—if only so I can better understand what a Cyclopean City might look like or what the hell a Primordial One is all about. Since we live in an age where you can basically ask anyone anything, I thought I’d go right to the source and ask the author what specific books he recommends one read to get in a Carcosa frame of mind:
Of the pure Lovecraft stories, read these:
The Call of Cthulhu
The Whisperer in Darkness
At the Mountains of Madness
The Shadow over Innsmouth
The Shadow out of Time
Of Lovecraft’s revisions, read these:
Out of the Aeons
Read the original five Elric stories by Moorcock:
The Dreaming City
While the Gods Laugh
The Stealer of Souls
Kings in Darkness
The Flamebringers (later retitled The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams)
Read R. E. Howard’s:
Worms of the Earth (a Bran Mak Morn story)
The Shadow Kingdom (a Kull story)
A Witch Shall Be Born (a Conan story)
If you can find Cthulhu Mythos stories by Lin Carter, read those.
Hopefully someone else will find this list handy. It seems like a good fantasy reading list even if you aren’t interested in Carcosa.
It’s been almost a year since I last checked in with all my Kickstarter projects. I continue to be a bit more wary about what I back, but mostly because I’m trying to buy fewer RPG books in general. My sense is that most people starting Kickstarter projects now are more mindful about being better prepared before undertaking them, and buyers are more cautious in general when it comes to parting with there money.
Dwimmermount’s development seemed to really pick up steam this year. Updates were frequent as Alex Macris started working on editing and revising the bulk of the text in the book. So after a lot of ups and downs for all involved, I received my copy of the book in October. It’s a beast of a book. Gus from Dungeon of Signs has written a thorough review of the thing. Domains at War also arrived at the end of the summer, which I think clears Autarch of all their crowd funding obligations.
James Raggi still owes me a few more books, though I have a bunch on the way from Finland as I type this right now. I’m sure he wants to tie up all these loose ends as much as I want him to. As I mentioned last time, the fact everything he produces transforms into something much more fancy by the time it makes its way to me certainly helps stifle any frustration I may feel here.
Several kickstarters I backed since my last report have already shipped. LotFP Free RPG Day 2014 and No Salvation for Witches from LotFP wrapped up on time. (Though NSFW ended up shipping their physical books late to coincide with the release of a Red and Pleasant Land and the other new books from LotFP.) Servants of the Cinder Queen arrived on time and was a lovely little adventure. The physical copies of the two DCC RPG modules I backed are still being put together, but they grew in scope due to stretch goals. I don’t expect them to be particularly late, and I have PDFs of many of the books already. And of course Scarlet Heroes RPG by Kevin Crawford would arrive on time.
The only big miss for myself this year has been backing The Great Kingdom. The project looks amazing, but has been sued by the people making another D&D documentary. God damn it.
Sorcerer’s in Carcosa are creepy and despicable, and the magic of the setting is totally horrific. I had originally assumed no one would want to play a sorcerer in the game I was running because they are quite villainous. Since everyone is using my random character generator to make characters there is a 20% chance of anyone playing ending up with a sorcerer. There are currently two in my game.
It only took two sessions before one of my players turned to cannibalism. The goal was to learn some sorcerous rituals, and eating the brain of your rival sorcerer seemed like as good a way as any.
Running Carcosa has been fun and lighthearted thus far—seriously.
Eating Sorcerer Brains
Sorcerers may attempt to learn new sorcerous knowledge by devouring the brains of other sorcerers. This isn’t an ideal way to learn ritual magic, but sorcerers are often quite secretive about their sorcery, and reticent when it comes to sharing what they have learned.
The player should roll under their constitution score. Success indicates they have learned some new ritual(s). The number you succeed by indicates how many rituals the player learns, which are selected randomly from those the dead sorcerer knew. Those who fail this check should roll on the I shouldn’t have ate that brain … table. Brains need to be harvested and eaten as quickly after the death of the sorcerer as possible: impose a penalty of 1 to the roll for each minute that passes after the death of the sorcerer.
Players who are not playing sorcerers, but decide to eat a sorcerer’s brain, should just go ahead and roll on the I shouldn’t have ate that brain … table.
I Shouldn’t have Ate that Brain
Maybe you ate it wrong? No ill effects, but you have learned nothing.
Your stomach feels terrible. Moments later you are on your knees retching. The character is completely incapacitated for one turn, and making a fair amount of noise.
That’s just not sitting right: you dry heave for one round and feel woozy for the rest of the day. The character is at -1 to all attack rolls and dexterity checks.
The brain acts as a mild hallucinogen. The character is has a 1d6 penalty to all Wisdom and Intelligence checks for the rest of the day.
The rituals trapped within the sorcerer’s brain are too much for your body to bare: you collapse on the ground as your body spasms. The character takes a dCarcosa of damage.
You hear voices in your head? Or maybe your stomach. The sorcerer’s personality has survived within the ritual magic burned deep within his brain. The characters decision making is impaired while his mind fights to push out the invading id: the DM may request the character re-roll any die rolls (when doing so will be most annoying) if the player fails a Save vs. Magic. This effect lasts for the remainder of the session.
I started writing what follows weeks and weeks ago. I have been waiting—impatiently—for A Red and Pleasant Land, the new D&D supplement by Zak Smith. It’s here now, which makes dragging my feet to post this seem particularly dumb.
Several weeks ago I attended OSRCon 2014. I saw some familiar faces and met some new people. The event was low key and a lot of fun. There are lots of old school gamers in Toronto, but we rarely meet up.
The game began as many do: a rich and mysterious benefactor promised the party riches beyond their wildest dreams if they would perform a series of tasks:
Clear out the knothole dungeon (an abandoned hangman’s post).
Map as much of Castle Cachtice as possible.
Ruin the hatter’s trial (“not guilty”).
The characters could make sense of the first task, as they were aware of the the location of the dungeon. The others were confusing: there is no Castle Cachtice and they had no idea who the hatter was. Still, what player is going to say no to tremendous wealth—especially when you are playing a one-shot?
Since this was OSRCon we began the adventure by carefully searching the area surrounding the entrance to the knothole dungeon. A dice roll later and the specialist had discovered a tiny key. Satisfied we were safe enough, we ventured down into the dungeon. We moved cautiously, coming upon a room with 3 dead bodies: two man sized, and one halfling sized. A few more dice rolls and we had discovered a few more curiosities.
As players we quickly realized that this module featured a pretty great “I Search the Body…” table. As the game progressed we could see that a lot of the work Kiel was doing as a GM in this game involved working with random tables and interpreting their results for us. Since he didn’t have an actual book, but a giant ream of paper, this would sometimes slow things down as we waited for him to find his place or look up a result.
This sort of thing can be a lot of fun if the players understand what’s going on, and the delay adds something to the game. Rolling for random treasure is enjoyable because there is some anticipation about what you might find. We were making the rolls as players, so the flow of the game rested with us. By the time we finished futzing around with our dice Kiel would be ready to read off the results of our roll. On the other hand, when Kiel was rolling on random tables himself he doesn’t have this wiggle room and any delay stands out. I suspect he would have been fine had he added a few more post-it note bookmarks to his binder of paper. There seemed to be a few tables he was using regularly in the adventure. (An actual book is also much easier to flip through.) Depending on what tables were being consulted, rolling results before the game or simply reading the tables as lists might work as well to speed things up. I don’t think anyone found the delays particularly distracting. Most of the game moved smoothly so anything that didn’t is noticeable.
Re-reading the above, I was curious just how much or how little preparation work Kiel did for this session. So, I asked him: “I actually ran that adventure with almost no prep. The first knothole dungeon before the castle was randomly generated on the spot.” Impressive! I thought Kiel was using a table here or there, that I was catching every instance of him looking stuff up. Apparently I was just catching those moments where he wasn’t looking things up fast enough. Amazing. I’d have never guessed that first dungeon was something he hadn’t written up ahead of time. Of course, this books isn’t going to automatically make you better at improvisation and ad-libbing, but it certainly seems to be a good game aid to support that style of DMing.
We explored the dungeon, ended up “through the looking glass”, briefly met the Red Queen, and did manage to sabotage a trial—mostly, anyway. A lot of crazy stuff happened in between, but I really don’t want to spoil this setting for anyone else. There are a few elements of A Red and Pleasant Land that are so much fun when you first encounter them I would feel bad if I ruined that experience for anyone else who plans to play in this setting. I participated in the play tests that were happening when this book was in development, and it was a great experience because I knew almost nothing about what Zak was working on beyond the fact it was set in an Alice in Wonderland world. There is another big literary influence on this work, but I feel like not knowing what it is makes that reveal in the game all the more fun.
Kiel ran a great session. It felt very much like something he would run crossed with something Zak would run—which makes sense I suppose. Zak has a very distinct style to his conception of D&D, and it really shines through in this setting. It’s a testament to the work he has done here that the adventure Kiel ran and the adventure Zak ran during the playtest both had a similar vibe to them. Zak’s game didn’t feel anymore genuine or official than Kiel’s.
All in all I have played 4 different sessions set in this world. As a player I have nothing but good things to say A Red and Pleasant Land.
At the start of 2014 I decided I would finally run a game of D&D, rather than always being a player. It was a sort of gaming New Years resolution. If you read this blog you can probably guess what I wanted to run: a game set in the doomed world of Carcosa! I started writing up rough notes for where the campaign would begin, and fleshed out a small region within the larger world map for players to explore. I then sat on those notes for 8-9 months.
Deciding what to run and how to run it wasn’t that difficult. My main stumbling point was getting over myself and actually running a game. I hadn’t DM’d anything in probably 20 years, if not longer. It seems weird to feel apprehensive about an activity little children do without much fuss. I’d talk about running a game, eventually, and leave it at that. Until yesterday.
Being on the other side of the DM screen was a strange experience. I didn’t find it as stressful as I had thought it would be. Because everyone I normally game with was busy it was just me and two players, Eric and Gus, but that was probably for the best. I found the logistics of managing players was probably easier. I decided to run an OD&D, a system so poorly fleshed out you don’t really have to worry about playing the game wrong. The nice thing about our group is that we all have a rough sense of how to play an OD&D game, and make the same sorts of assumptions when playing. The adventure we were playing was one I made myself. That familiarity with the material probably helped the game run smoothly.
I think the session went well enough, but I have been trying to reflect on what I need to do better. I want to run a Carcosa game with a healthy dose of He-Man, but this first session lacked anything that would suggest a Masters of the Universe vibe. I don’t think I did that great a job highlighting what makes the world weird. The dungeon I had made was supposed to seem mostly empty, with the big reveal being, “oh shit it’s actually full of Bone Men!” I think the actual result of the session lacked that critical, “oh shit.” From the game side of things, I need to firm up when I roll for random encounters. I was too inconsistent here, sometimes letting the players search without consequence or travel through larger chunks of the dungeon unmolested.
All in all it was a lot of fun. In hindsight there was really no way it wouldn’t have been. I think the people you play with really make or break this stuff.