Demo Games

A concept that I wish had existed when I was new to gaming is the idea of a demo game; that someone will show up and show people how to play a given game system, in the store that sells it. Admittedly, I’d have liked it if there’d been such a thing as a game store when I was new to gaming, as opposed to the occasional endcap or display set of RPG materials in a bookstore or comic shop.

As it stands now, however, both of these things exist; the closest FLGS* to my house is still over an hour’s drive away, but that’s better than it used to be. Given my own experience, it seems like it would only be fair to offer to run demo games to help people find games they might enjoy; given the Why Play posts I’ve been making, it seems a natural fit to take it to the physical world as well as my blog.

So with that in mind, I’ll muse a bit today on demo games, and what makes them different from a home game or a con game.

Home games can run in sequence; con games are one-shot. Demo games, on the other hand, are neither, not if you intend to keep doing them at the same location. You can’t expect the continuity of a good home game when each session the roster of players is likely to differ, at least by a few people. At the same time, you may have people who turn up to each session, so you can’t expect the ease of excusing mistakes that con games permits.

As a demo game GM, it falls to you to have a game that can stand a rotating cast of people without disrupting whatever plot might exist, while providing enough continuity for those who turn up regularly. Some game systems and settings lend themselves to this more readily than others; dungeon crawls and organized play setups both work well with this kind of ongoing-but-fluid game sequence.

I don’t think I’ll be running either of those, however; I recently sent a request to Monte Cook Games about joining their asset team, and so I’m more like to use the Cypher System to create an ongoing tale for the demo games.

Expect a variety of personalities around the table. Unlike home games, where you can select who shows up, you’re going to be stuck with whoever turns up for a demo game. This means that if you’re someone who can’t handle a wide range of strange people and potentially conflicting personalities, you probably shouldn’t be doing this. Run some con games first; if you can handle the eclectic mixture of people who attend, you have a reasonable understanding of what demo games will likely require.

You may also need to be firmer with people at your table when it comes to keeping standards in place. Running a demo game means being the face of that game during that time, and that alone means you’ll need to be something of a PR person on top of your GMing duties. While most people tend to behave relatively well in public, there are always problems; while the game store employees will likely involve themselves to handle most offenders, you may need to be proactive, asking people to tone down or drop some of their behavior while at the table.

You’ll need to know the game system in and out. This isn’t something you should do if you’re not expert at the game, or if you don’t have someone on hand who is that you can rely on being there whenever you need to check the rules and make decisions. The Rule of Cool is all well and good, but you still want to make sure the game is being shown to the best advantage.

This is, in large part, why I’m leaning toward Cypher System games over Pathfinder, Eclipse Phase, or Fate Core; while I love the latter three systems, they’re more complex than the CSR. I can hold the entire necessary rule text of it in my head, while Pathfinder often has complex edge cases even on simple-seeming situations, and Eclipse Phase can be intimidating to people not familiar with it.

The scheduling and group size isn’t necessarily up to you. You’re going to have to work around the store’s hours and those of the customers. You may end up sitting around at the demo table with no one turning up, or you may end up with a small crowd watching as the players have every pregen you brought plus a couple more. Be prepared to handle everything from a single player to twice what you usually play with.

This is another situation where running convention games first can be a great deal of help; you’ll rarely have less than a full table, and often you may find people looking to join in if they can squeeze in at a spot. I’ve personally run for a table of twelve at the last Paizocon I attended, running the Continuity module for Eclipse Phase. You learn quickly if you can balance the needs of the players or not. Try it and learn what your maximum capacity is.

Burnout is a risk you run for this kind of game. When you may be running for people with a wildly divergent personality and play style from what you’re used to, in a public environment where you’re essentially being PR for a game company, the risk of burnout is real and significant. Be prepared to acknowledge that the time may come where you’ll need to stand down from what you’ve been doing and at least take a break to recover.

GMing is something that requires a high level of investment to begin with; turning it into a spectator sport will just make it that much more draining. Be prepared.

That’s all for now; I’ll revisit this once I’ve run some demo games, to see how the lived experience will stack up with what I expect from my current experience. Hopefully I’ll be back to talk about what a fantastic experience it is.

* – FLGS is shorthand for Friendly Local Gaming Store. If you have one near you, do appreciate your good fortune and make sure to buy things through them. They tend to have a hard time staying open without the gaming part being an incidental sideline to another business.

Demo Games

Why Play: Eclipse Phase

If you’ve been following this blog, by now you’ll realize I have a few favorite game systems; today I’ll be talking about why you might want to consider giving Eclipse Phase a shot if you’ve never tried it out before. It’s a bit more complicated and esoteric than the the last system I looked over, but just as rewarding of a game.

First off, the authors of Eclipse Phase, Posthuman Studios, have offered the game up with a Creative Commons license. They even host PDFs of the books for public player use, so if you want to take a look, you can; they just ask that if you decide you like the game, you consider buying it when you can. I’ve bought the entire collection of books in PDF, and I have all the sourcebooks in hardcopy save the most recent one, Firewall.

Eclipse Phase is described as a post-apocalyptic game of conspiracy and horror, and this is an accurate enough one-line pitch, but it fails to really do the game justice. The rough of the setting is that a decade ago, the Singularity kicked off with the creation of recursively self-improving artificial intelligence – but then things went awry and in a terrifyingly short time period most of humanity was wiped out. Then the TITANs, as the evolving AIs were dubbed, went mysteriously silent and seem to have disappeared. Humanity has tried to recover from this, but even after the apocalypse the survivors are divided by ideological gaps large enough to sink nations.

So, what makes Eclipse Phase special as a game?

It’s post-apocalyptic without the post-Doomsday desperation. Almost every time you pick up a post-apocalyptic setting, there’s a question of scarcity and survival amid the desolate ruins of a fallen civilization. Not so here; humanity took a beating like nothing ever before, but we were in the middle of a transformation from mortals to posthuman gods at the time. Nanotechnology allows for the fabrication of complex goods from raw feedstock, smart non-sapient AI can handle complicated tasks, and neural uploading permits people to come back from death itself.

While some locations in the solar system certainly still have shortages of materials, the ability to digitize a mind and run it in a virtual state on the staggering amounts of processing power available make it so that no one has any real reason to stay dead during a game. Sure, there are huge numbers of people in cold storage, with no useful skills and no one to rescue them from the digital coffins, but the PCs are assumed to not be such unlucky souls. When you can build your own gear from scratch in a day or two, the scarcity vibe of most post-apocalypse settings just doesn’t exist.

Likewise, there’s none of the post-apocalyptic psychological mess. Yes, mental health is still an issue – this is still a horror game, after all. Sanity is a stat you have to worry about, and shit can get incredibly real incredibly fast. In most cases, however, there’s none of the chest-beating over-the-top angst that comes with most settings in a similar vein – and with good reason. Most of humanity may be dead and gone, but this is a future with psychosurgery and your very own pocket psychologist in the form of your Muse, an AI program that acts as your best friend, personal secretary, mental health specialist, and research aide.

As a result, despite the desperate situation humanity is in, sitting on the brink of extinction with all kinds of unanswered questions and unmentioned dangers looming, people are fairly well-adjusted unless they want to be otherwise. As a result, while plenty of people suffer from the normal range of mental health issues, no one is locked in the thrall of survivor’s guilt over escaping the apocalypse. It’s a quietly accepted fact that when the world came crashing down around those who were left, there wasn’t any time or space for people to work through their issues the slow way.

Put this together with the last point, and even with most of humanity gone, the future’s not so bad. You’ve got food (if you live in a biological body), shelter, and pretty much all your other basic necessities in place, which is more than can be said of the present world, much less other games with a similar genre.

Death is for chumps. Most horror-themed games rely on the threat that you can die in horrific and gruesome ways to help lay on the horror. Eclipse Phase can do more than that – with the ability to upload the mind comes the ability to restore people from death, so your players can actually have their players die in those threatened ways.

With it comes a few other interesting quirks. Not only are the dangers of the apocalypse still laying around, you might still be, too. If you egocast a copy of yourself to safety but didn’t leave your body behind as a mindless corpse, you might one day run into a very different version of yourself – one that has seen and done things quite different than you have.

And, with certain types of bodies being incredibly cheap, you can solve some issues by literally copying yourself into spare bodies to swell your numbers. It comes with a bit of psychological stress for the copy, of course, but if you need half a dozen extra sets of hands with weapons to deal with a problem, who would you rather have? Half a dozen people you don’t really know who agree to lend a hand for favors and credits, or half a dozen copies of yourself who know that their only hope of continuity is to survive long enough to be merged back into you?

Of course, sometimes you may find a situation where you’d like to be able to erase your mind and forget the last month – and you can, if you’ve got a backup of yourself from before the things you want to forget. Death comes in many forms, and some feel a lot like hitting Reset on a game console. It’s a little stressful to think of yourself like that, perhaps.

Augment yourself because you’re not entirely human anymore. A key point of Eclipse Phase is that there are still baseline humans left – mostly over in the Jovian Republic, bastion of all things conservative – but most of the minds in the solar system are now transhuman. They live in bodies that are improved or just transformed from the model we’ve lived in since the advent of modern man, no longer subject to things like evolution.

Some people now live in heavily augmented bodies, starting with genetically streamlined and upgraded Olympian bodies and adding bioware and cybernetics from there to become nearly godlike compared to us today. Others forego biology, living as software in robotic bodies, with some far enough from human that they’d fit well in a robot horror film. Some live in genetically engineered animal bodies with robotic brains, like the Novacrab. Some go so far as to ignore embodiment entirely, coming to dwell entirely on the ubiquitous Internet-equivalent of the setting, the Mesh. Some aren’t even human to begin with – several types of uplifted animals exist, as do limited Artificially Generated Intelligences (or AGIs).

In Eclipse Phase, you’re not stuck with what you were born with; you can edit your mind and change your body to become who and what you really want to be, with almost no fuss.

The Apocalypse may be over, but the fighting isn’t. The Fall, as the events around transhumanity’s near-extinction are called, may be nearly ten years in the past, but everything that happened then has left scars on the present. Mars has a massive Quarantine Zone. Luna lost an entire city, buried and nuked to try to seal the horrors inside away. Earth itself is completely quarantined, and everyone would like to pretend it isn’t in Luna’s sky, visibly scarred by the Fall.

And there are certainly plenty of horrors left over. The Earth is still soaked in hostile nanomachines, head-stealing hunter-killer drones, and titanic war machines. The TITANs let loose several strains of terrifying viruses that rewrite the mind on the fly, or corrupt and transform the body. Even robotic bodies aren’t safe – nanoswarms can rebuild them on the fly and reprogram the mind inside to the strange purposes of the TITANs.

Even with the TITANs gone, transhumanity isn’t safe by a long shot. And when you add in all the tension between the factions, it’s a wonder that the end of the Fall wasn’t those survivors wiping each other out to finish the job they started.

A wild new future with strange new concepts. Transhumanism itself is just the first concept that this game will introduce you to. While trying to remain hard science fiction, it does its best to speculate at the end result of technology as we know it. The habitats people live in are almost solid with sensors, recording audio, video, and more around the clock. This panopticon would be oppressive, were it not for the democratization of the process; anywhere public, anyone can access the sensor feeds. Many public officials broadcast live streams of their recorded experiences 23/7, to prove that they’re not up to anything suspicious. This sousveillance provides a safety net, as well, as even minor crimes are likely to be witnessed by someone.

In this future, even your identity is somewhat subject to public opinion, with reputation networks allowing people to vote you up or down based on their interactions. These networks can literally be more valuable than cash, potentially giving you the ability to ask for favors well in excess of what you can actually afford, as long as you continue to prove yourself to people on that network.

The only cost is any sense of genuine privacy, which can seem like a small cost when you almost went extinct a decade ago.

Conspiracies? Yeah, we got that covered. The default assumption of the game is that players are a part of an organization known as Firewall, which is a clandestine group grown out of several spy networks. It works to preserve transhumanity at any cost, hunting down existential risks that range from something as simple as a single terrorist who keeps forking his mind and sending those forks to different stations to orchestrate a system-wide mass bombing to fighting off squads of exhumans trying to assault the remnants of transhumanity to prove their superiority. Then, of course, there’s the biggest X-threat of all: the exsurgent virus that self-mutates to transform victims into servants of the absent TITANs.

Then there’s Project Ozma, the evil big brother of Firewall. They like to play with all the things Firewall wants to destroy, and they have both the wealth and the firepower to take things away from Firewall if they get there soon enough. Neither wants anything they deal in to reach the public, so occasionally the two groups cooperate in an uncomfortable fashion until things are resolved.

Other conspiratorial groups exist, and factions exist within each of them. Intrigue is a natural factor in Eclipse Phase games if that’s what you’re looking for.

And then there’s that thing over there. There are aliens in Eclipse Phase. One species of them is still alive: the Factors, a species of sapient slime mold. They’re incredibly coy, opinionated about artificial intelligence and robots, and they loathe the Pandora Gates. That last one is a series of gateways around the solar system with a level of technology well past what transhumanity is capable of developing, which can produce wormholes that connect to other gates around the galaxy.

And that’s where the other aliens come in. We’ve found a few thoroughly extinct species, each of them showing signs of having died during or soon after their own version of the Singularity. At least one, the Iktomi, also knew about the Pandora Gates, and colonized several other systems before they ceased to exist. Of course, some might say the exhumans are on their way to being alien, if they aren’t already.

All in all, Eclipse Phase is a deep and complex setting with a great deal of meat to sink your teeth into; if you’re willing to adapt to the mechanics of the system, which can be a little clunky at times, it’s an excellent game that I strongly recommend as one of the best sci-fi games I’ve ever played. If you’d rather have a simpler system, they’re planning to release a Fate Core adaptation in the near future!

So if any of this sounds interesting, I recommend dropping by Rob Boyle’s page and taking a look – and if you like what you see, buy the PDFs, at least, to support these clever folks in developing more for the system!

Why Play: Eclipse Phase

Dungeoncraft, Part IV

Dungeon games – particularly dungeon campaigns – can suffer from a sense of monotony; by the time you’ve hit the second floor, many games have already turned into a somewhat mechanical progression. Fights settle into a routine, occasionally disrupted by a new monster ability or the wizard learning a newer and nastier spell to use. This doesn’t have to be the case, and today I’ll discuss a few ways that GMs can keep things interesting.

Use the environment. Dungeons often have the downside of being an enclosed and stagnant environment. The stereotype is a cubic room, just large enough for the party and the monsters to duke it out, with a few bits of decor to make it look a little different before blood gets everywhere. Even areas with a potentially exciting aspect tend to end up with this problem; it’s easy to understand why, since making the rooms different on a combat level as well as a setting level takes up that much more effort by the GM with no promise of it paying off. It gets easy to skimp on these details.

The effort should be made at least part of the time, however. A room with a desk and some bookcases? Have an opponent knock a bookcase over onto a member of the party, or take cover behind the desk. A room with magical lights? Let the players and monsters break or cover the lights to change the lighting to get an advantage. Make the environment something to use a few times, with opponents taking advantage of it, and the players will quickly start looking for opportunities to do so.

You can also make the environment a challenge; if the opponents hold the bridge over a swift-flowing underground river (or a sluggish river of lava), include a set of potential stepping stones the more nimble characters can use to get across and flank the enemy. Let them knock opponents into the river to be swept away (or burned away). Same thing with a fight along a chasm-side ledge. Let them decide if they want to risk collapsing an unstable roof to crush their enemies, when it might mean blocking the way forward.

Intelligent opponents fight smart. Enemies who have reasonable levels of intelligence should use it. In Pathfinder, an alchemist with a spider climb mixture who knows the party is coming won’t be waiting in the middle of the room for them to turn up; they’ll be on the roof, ready to drop bombs on the players from out of melee reach. A wizard with summon spells will have a couple of beefy creatures to hide behind when flinging spells. A burly barbarian is going to go for the holy man first, in a world with divine healing magic.

Smart opponents will also work together, aiming to flank players and split the soft targets from the heavy hitters. Some will move to keep the heavy hitters engaged, but they’ll aim for the genuinely dangerous people – spellcasters, healers, ranged attackers. If they’re losing, they’ll try to withdraw, unless they’re defending something vitally important.

They’ll also try other tactics – using traps and ambushes, driving other, less intelligent creatures at the group before attacking the weakened party members, and trying to capture one or more members of the party to interrogate.

Unintelligent opponents fight with cunning. Animals, while not necessarily intelligent, also aren’t stupid. Pack animals will fight as a pack, moving to flank and herd opponents. They may not go for the spellcasters first, since they’re not going to be likely to connect the hand-waving and shouting to the exploding flames, but they’re not going to leap at the heavy metal-coated person, either. Soft targets are what will draw this kind of opponent – a rogue in leather armor, a wizard in flapping robes, and so on.

They’re also not going to fight to the death unless they’re actively defending something like a den or unless they’ve been cornered; bestial foes want to live as much as anyone else. Some may even try to play decoy, feigning worse injuries than they have and trying to lead the players away from their lair to let the others hide or run away. Solitary creatures are likely to avoid groups of characters if they aren’t defending something; if cornered, they’ll take the first opportunity to bolt, possibly getting in a charging attack on the way out.

The only unintelligent foes who can really be justified as fighting to the end without fail are the mindless undead and constructs; both of which will have relatively simple and specific orders as to what they should be doing. Setting the players up against a foe that they have trouble harming but which they can outwit provides for variety with this kind of opponent. A stone golem with orders to guard a doorway is unlikely to continue attacking if the players get around it and pass through the door; zombies that have orders to kill any living person can be fooled into thinking the party isn’t alive. Just be careful with this kind of thing; if the players don’t realize they can outwit and bypass the problem, they may get frustrated at not being able to simply defeat it.

The opponents aren’t going to just stand around waiting. Enemy soldiers will patrol areas. Guard shifts will change. People will be eating, practicing their craft, or sleeping at different times. Encounters shouldn’t be static, and if the players intrude into an area and then leave, their opponents should take measures to reinforce and fortify their position against another assault.

Pick a small number of the factions in the dungeon and give them goals with a timetable; modify it as necessary for the actions of players, but keep advancing down the timetable. This will give the sense that the dungeon is alive and not some static prop waiting for the players to come explore it – and give them a sense of urgency if they discover that their foes are acting on a plan that may result in more trouble for the players.

Lastly, when the players act, have the opponents react. One faction may exploit a weakness the players revealed or created in another; the kobold tribes may move in and occupy the catacomb once the players clear out the undead, or the gnomes might colonize the caverns once the aberrations are pushed back. If the aberrations push upward into weaknesses, the undead servants of the lich may follow suit, putting pressure on the aberrations to continue moving upward.

That’s all for today! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this set of posts about dungeons in gaming.

Dungeoncraft, Part IV

Dungeoncraft, Part III

Dungeons are part of the standard fare of most games – even sci-fi campaigns have situations that amount to dungeon crawls, be it exploring a derelict starship or making a raid on some futuristic prison. On the other hand, campaigns built entirely around venturing into a dungeon tend to be a lot less common – certainly not as common as they were in the early days of tabletop gaming. It’s understandable, since a dungeon campaign is going to be a lot more focused on traps, monsters, and treasure than usual.

Still, there’s something about the idea of a dungeon campaign that appeals at least a little bit to most people. A dungeon campaign is almost always going to be built around something long-abandoned and forgotten, filled with mysteries and dangers. The idea of being the first person to walk those abandoned halls and unearth those long-lost treasures speaks to the curious explorer in people. If it comes with a side of heroics, so much the better!

There are certain things necessary for a dungeon to fill an entire campaign, however, and that’s what I’ll be covering today.

Size matters more than ever. A campaign set in a dungeon needs something on the scale of a megadungeon – something akin to Rappan Athuk, the Emerald Spire, or Undermountain. It needs to be large enough that it feels daunting to try to explore it, with room enough for different groups of opponents to exist.  Most such dungeons tend to break the difficulty curve up by the floor the group is on, with the dungeon becoming more dangerous as the group descends.

Be sure to build the dungeon with an eye to the history you have in mind; most such places have had multiple builders over the years, each one adding to the existing structure. An original core of a human kingdom’s prison for the worst criminals around might be surrounded by kobold warrens at the top, additions by deep gnomes farther down, a cave network beneath it that part of the lowest prison floor collapsed into, and then the structured catacombs of a dark elf lich at the bottom. Put in enough room for some variety.

Variety is more than just spice. In the case of a megadungeon, variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s the meat of the thing. Nothing will tire a group out faster than fighting through an entire dungeon floor of nothing but goblins and rats at the top of the dungeon, and it gets tedious if an entire megadungeon is simply populated by advanced forms of the opponents from the first floor.

An example of this being done poorly is the initial area of the World’s Largest Dungeon; other than the ‘boss’ encounter, there are – if memory serves, as I don’t have the monstrous book with me right now – perhaps three types of enemies in the area. One of them is darkmantles. I assure you, nothing will get irritating faster than having darkmantles repeatedly drop on your head, even if it reinforces the trope about the relative experience of adventuring parties, and how true veterans check the roof and floor first.

More than that, variety means you can have conflicting groups in the dungeon; the deep gnomes of one area are fighting a two-sided war against the kobolds up above and the aberrations of the cave system beneath them, while the undead creations of the lich are harassing everyone. The more the merrier, and it provides players a chance to do something other than mechanically hack and slash through every single room of the dungeon.

Don’t theme the entire place. Individual area themes can be excellent; one section might be the masoleum of an ancient dwarven kingdom, now overrun by the restless dead, but outside of the masoleum and the areas directly adjacent to it, there shouldn’t be dwarven carvings and encounters with the bearded dead all over. Giving the entire dungeon the same core theme can get as monotonous as a lack of variety in the creatures; megadungeons are huge places, easily enough to support a full ecosystem and even competing nations with their own style of carving passages and artwork.

That said, you can get a little too crazy with this. The only genuinely unifying element in the Emerald Spire is the spire itself; each floor is essentially an individual dungeon that happens to share a few things with some of the other floors. A little more coherence would have added a great deal to that particular example. Variety shouldn’t trump the internal logic of the world.

Have ways to get around without a slog. Particularly if you intend to have the players go back up out of the dungeon, or at least return to the higher levels for things they missed, needed a plot key to access, or ignored, have an easy way to transfer between levels that have been discovered and cleared. A ‘living’ megadungeon’s cleared areas won’t be likely to stay that way for long, so allowing players to bypass areas easily (and thus give you an excuse to not repopulate every room or else leave them mysteriously empty) makes life easier for everyone.

Where the Emerald Spire failed on the last point, it does well here. The Spire itself is a transit hub, and the key for the different levels can be found in the dungeon to give the players an easy route in and out. It doesn’t matter what the secret is as long as you have one.

A base of operations is important. Players are going to want to sell their loot, buy additional gear, and spend time crafting magic items over the course of a campaign. Giving them one or more safe locations that they can do these things at will go a long way toward making everyone happy. If the players are stuck inside the dungeon, have friendly inhabited areas willing to trade with them and provide them a safe place to operate from.

A particular note is that if you allow the players to have a base of operations inside the dungeon itself, you’ll find that they’ll quickly grow possessive of the place. Not only are the likely to invest some effort into improving it, threats to it can shake them out of relative complacence and send them in the direction you want them to go. Additionally, NPCs in the safe area can ask the players to go on quests for them, seeking out rumored lore or items in the depths.

Not enough campaigns offer PCs a base of their own; it’s a simple and effective way to get them invested in a particular area. Use it well in a megadungeon.

That’s all for today! Come back tomorrow for more dungeoncrafting!

Dungeoncraft, Part III

Dungeoncraft, Part II

Today I’ll go over how a few details can make or break the feel you want when you’re making a dungeon. There’s a huge difference between a mini-dungeon hidden under the home of a demon cultist, a prison maintained by nobility, and a vault meant to guard a terrible ancient artifact, and while some of that comes down to the monsters, treasure, and size, a large chunk comes down to you, as GM, using sensory descriptions.

One of the things often given to writers as advice is to incorporate at least one extra sense in a scene beyond vision and hearing; it works for GMs as well, as the more information players have to process, the more effectively they can imagine the situation. It also helps disguise those moments where a designer has detailed something important, but left the rest of the area at a bare minimum. After all, if the players are used to 10′ x 10′ rooms with the occasional mention of a sound or cobwebs, they’re going to pay close attention when a room suddenly has a detailed mural on one wall because the extra information clearly makes it plot-crucial.

Putting in details where it isn’t vital. This is something important, as otherwise you’ll often have players zone out during generic sections of the dungeon, only snapping into focus when they hit a detailed room. While this can be fine if that’s what you’re willing to go for, it can have an extremely heavy-handed feel to it as you’re essentially spoon-feeding plot importance to the players. Including snippets of sensory information in other rooms will keep players active, as they’ll need to examine each instance to try to connect the plot-relevant fragments and discard (after enjoying) the simple pieces of atmosphere.

Don’t over-do this, however! If every room is a flood of description, players will end up tuning it out and missing the relevant tidbits. Each group is different, and so GMs will need to experiment to find what keeps their group engaged. It may work best to do this with a few small dungeons, each one with a different amount of detail, to see which one keeps the group active.

The most common piece of information is visual. Even sparsely described dungeons will mention basic visual information – cobwebs, whether the room is stone, wood, or something else, the presence of furniture, and the amount of light present. This tends to be the most heavily used sense, but even so what gets provided is sparse. Adding a little extra here can go a long way.

If there’s a light source, describe the light some; is it flickering and causing the shadows to dance, or steady? Is it a particular color, or reflected from something enough to case an extra shadow? Are there cobwebs? Light or heavy? Are the walls made of stone, wood, or something else, and are they rough, smooth, or carved? What’s sitting around in the room?

Sight is the primary sense we rely on, so most of what you’ll be telling your players will be visual. Use it to set the tone for a given area of the dungeon; a chamber with thick tapestries on the walls and a heavy rug with a writing desk against one wall will suggest a well-educated inhabitant; the same scene, but with a description of the tapestries being half-rotted and the wood of the desk being splintered will give a vibe that this room has been abandoned.

Hearing is the other sense we rely on. After sight, our next most dominant sense is hearing; it’s why being blind or deaf is such a big deal, while anosmia is something that almost never gets remarked on. Using a few touches of sound when painting the description of a room will add a great deal to how the room feels to the players. In the example above, a well-furnished room that’s dead silent will prompt the players to move quietly out of a concern for being heard, while one where they can hear the sound of metal on metal somewhere nearby will let them move around more freely. An abandoned, moth-eaten room where they can hear a distant wailing will make them more cautious than one where they can just hear the drip of water in the distance.

Most games have a skill for preception; put this to good use when it comes to sounds. Those who make a check hear something – a distant whistling or wailing noise, for example – with no real idea of what’s causing it. It’s just wind whistling around an arrow slit, but they don’t know that. Or, if you’re going for a creepier feeling, the players who failed the roll hear something, while the ones who quite obviously succeeded don’t.

You can also easily use sound as cues for things in the dungeon; hearing voices speaking what sounds like Orcish some distance down one corridor gives players a cue that if they’re looking for the orc guards, they should go that way. Hearing a low, feral moan on the other side of a stout door probably means there’s something like zombies or ghouls on the far side. The skittering sound behind them? Probably vermin following them in hopes of an easy meal.

The third most useful sense is smell. We don’t really pay much attention to our sense of smell when we’re in daily life, unless it forces itself into our attention with a powerful stink or a particularly pleasant aroma. The smells of daily life blend into a sensory background, helping inform us of where we are and what’s going on around us. In a dungeon, however, this becomes the best brush for a GM to finish painting a scene.

Again, with the above room, if it were occupied it might have the faint scent of burned beeswax from a candle, the smell of parchment and ink from the writing desk, and the hint of someone living in the room. (Or, if you want to introduce an alarming hint, the faint scent of decay instead; perhaps the person is alive and has a disease, but perhaps they’re some kind of intelligent undead.)

For the abandoned, decaying version of the room, the lingering scent of long-dried rot and a whiff of mildew amplify the sense of abandonment; again, an additional whiff of some more recent corruption can lay a hint that undead await the party. The smell of beef stew and fresh bread can make a mess hall’s ambiance clear, while the smell of oil and sweat give a distinctive feel to a military barracks or armory.

The remaining two senses can be useful at times. Taste is one sense that will almost never come up during a dungeon crawl, save for rare occasions when it comes as a warning; an acid taste to the air warns of toxic gas, the taste of mold and mildew warn that an area ahead is infested with fungal growth, and so on. Touch is more likely to come up, but can be hard to use unless a character somehow has incredibly sensitive skin. Still, letting players know if the stone in the walls feels worked, and letting them check for imperfections that might yield clues in seemingly decorative items can be worth it when it pays off.

Next time, I’ll be back to dungeons again to talk about campaigns set entirely inside one. I do hope you’ll join me.

Dungeoncraft, Part II

Dungeoncraft, Part I

With Into The Dungeon I went over reasons why GMs and their players might want to consider a dungeon delve. Today I’ll be doing Part I of how to craft your own dungeons – something that is, honestly, harder than it sounds if you want it to be something comprehensible. Randomly generated dungeons like the ones you’d get from the tables in the back of the old Dungeon Master Guides are an ugly mish-mash of nonsense. You can do better.

How long is this dungeon going to need to be? The absolute first question you need to answer when you want to build your own dungeon is how long you want your group to be in it. Will they be going in for a single encounter to deal with a threat or find a treasure and then leave? Will they be in there for an entire game session, working through the hazards of the dungeon to the eventual end, possibly taking the time to rest? Is it going to occupy a significant chunk of the campaign, such as if they take on the Maze of Baphomet, the Horned Lord of the Abyss? Or is the entire campaign going to be built around delving into this dungeon, with the campaign closing out once the PCs have discovered the secrets, looted the treasures, and defeated the dangers that lurk inside?

Dungeons are built with a purpose. Unlike the Adventure Pits you find in a lot of video games and old modules, a good dungeon starts with thinking about what the purpose of it. Was it built as a mundane prison? A treasure vault? A temple to some forgotten (or not so forgotten) god? Did it have just one purpose, or multiple? Maybe one portion was built as a prison by human hands, only to have them break into a structure hewn by deep-dwelling kobolds as a home.

The reason this matters is that the purpose of a given section of a dungeon will suggest a great deal about what the players might find there – both in terms of rewards and ‘dressing’ to give the rooms flavor and feel. A prison dug out by orc barbarians will have a much different feel than a treasure vault crafted by an elven king or a vault to hold arcane experiment made by an archmage.

How old is the dungeon, and is it still in the hands of the builders? If the dungeon is still relatively new and in the lands of the people who built it originally, the contents will be 100% theirs. On the other hand, a dungeon that’s been abandoned and left to the wilderness for centuries probably still has a few things from the builders inside, but time and nature will have changed much of the interior. Wild beasts and strange abominations may walk the halls, and leakage – both natural and not – will have changed the internal structure.

The dungeon’s age also impacts the treasures inside; sure, they may find a sack of gold coins, but if those coins are a different size and weight than those of the countries they call home, they may have trouble using them until they find someone to melt them down into trade bars. On the other hand, a sack of only a few coins may turn out to be incredibly valuable if they’re coins from the predecessor to a modern kingdom, giving them value as collectors’ items well in excess of their material value.

The question of direction. Most dungeons are of a given size and organized around levels; it’s sensible enough when you recall that the early dungeons of tabletop gaming were sketched out in pencil on graph paper. Going down, level by level, is an acceptable trope of the dungeon delve. Rather than build down, the creators of the dungeon may have dug out, building rooms a short distance under the relatively soft surface material. The present entrance to the dungeon might even be one of the once-buried rooms, exposed by erosion and broken open by events in the world, while the original entrance may be sealed by a collapse.

Alternately, they may have built up and created a tower, with the most valuable – or dangerous – things stored at the top. Captives in a tower prison would need to either find a way to get down the exterior surface, a way to fly, or fight their way down through multiple floors of guards; a treasure vault tower would likely store the most precious things a few floors below the top, in case of thieves trying to break in through the roof, while the floors above might be housing for the guards and perhaps some careful traps for the unwary.

The size of the dungeon defines the danger it can hold. We tend to think of dungeons as huge, sprawling affairs; Rappan Athuk and the World’s Largest Dungeon both reinforce this kind of thinking, as do the old megadungeons of early games, like Undermountain. A dungeon can be as small as a few rooms underneath a secure building, however. You’d be unlikely to find any great evils locked in such a dungeon, but you could still find someone’s stashed treasure from their days as a thief, or the pile of bones from the victims of a dabbling demon-worshiper, complete with an imp looking to find a way to break free from its master.

Most dungeons won’t be the kind to hold world-endangering threats or the lost treasures of gods; those are likely to either be at the end of truly immense labyrinths or small but hidden well away from the world. If you want to build a dungeon with a campaign finale at the end, keep in mind that size definitely matters for these things.

That’s all for today; tomorrow I’ll talk about the setting of the dungeon and how a few details can make all the difference between a generic stomp through an adventure and a delve into a creepy and dangerous place that might have best been left undisturbed.

Dungeoncraft, Part I

Playing Evil, Part II

Yesterday I talked about playing evil as an overall topic; today, I’ll be touching more in-depth on the players’ side of things, as this is often where things go wrong. For familiarity for the larger sum of players, I’ll be using the D20 alignment grid to explain things, and I’ll touch on things where it was phrased a bit poorly and has never been fixed up.

No one is the villain of their own story.

This is exactly what it says. Even when you’re playing a character with a big CE stamped in a box labeled ‘alignment’, remember that no one ever sees themselves as the villain, bad writing aside. Everyone has reasons for the things they do, everyone has justifications for why what they do is acceptable. ‘Good’ characters have a stricter set of guidelines that they follow, and feel a need to look after others. Evil characters are much more likely to look after Number One first – but they see it as justified and the right thing to do. They’re not Snidely Whiplash or some cackling anime supervillain.

So ask yourself about your character’s motivation. They’re evil, but they’re not going to see themselves as such. Why are they approaching life this way, and how do they justify the steps they take that would be horrific from another person’s point of view? Flesh them out so they’ve got three  dimensionality, and so that you can make decisions as them without it simply being “What sounds the most EVIL!?”

Law versus chaos? Or Control versus freedom?

This is the thing that bothers me the absolute most with the D20 alignment chart; calling one side Law and the other Chaos doesn’t have the same vibe as good against evil, and it leads to some of the most inane arguments among grognards. It’s better to think of Lawful alignments as those which favor control and organization, and Chaotic alignments as those that are biased toward personal freedom (and, if they’re inclined toward Good, personal responsibility).

Making this shift in thinking makes the alignments make a great deal more sense. The lawful alignments are about stabilizing things, and making sure that things work properly. A lawful good paladin is all about the greater good, but they’re not going to scrape and bow and observe every rule. A lawful evil inquisitor isn’t going to casually murder someone for defying them; that would open the way for anarchic despotism, which is not only distasteful, it’s wrong. A Chaotic Good adventurer isn’t going to look to the courts for justice; they’re going to hunt down the ringleader of the bandits personally and scatter the rest, while a Chaotic Evil thief isn’t going to take well to a rival gang of thieves moving in on their turf.

The D20 axis of evil

With these thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at the D20 axis of evil, and how these seeming caricatures of human personality can be brought to life without becoming a joke or a disruption to the game.

Lawful Evil: the alignment of the rules lawyer

At the core of it, the Lawful Evil alignment reads like it should be the alignment of a red-handed tyrant, ruling over everyone with fear and violence. This could be the case – although I’d argue that would be a Chaotic Evil behavior, as we’ll see – but the banal evil of rules and regulations suits this alignment much better. They believe in rules, order, and organization; these are the things that keep civilized life from sliding into barbarism and anarchy.

A lawful evil character is perfectly willing to bend the rules to the point that they’re almost impossible to recognize without forensic aid, but they don’t generally go and break the rules. Misinterpret them to their benefit, yes. Quietly try to find loopholes and annulments for the inconvenient ones, yes. Argue as to the intent and meaning each word in the rules, certainly. But not actually break them. That would be too far.

The soldier who advocates for razing enemy cities, the priest who sacrifices living victims for their own power, and the inquisitor who keeps a roster of ‘witnesses’ to condemn those who stand in their way are all examples of this alignment.

Neutral Evil: the alignment of the selfish

Selfishness is the purest distillation of the neutral evil alignment. This is the person who happily follows the rules until they can get away with breaking them to their personal benefit. Catch them at it, and they’ll overflow with apologies and excuses about how they just didn’t know and it was an accident and it’ll never happen again – until, of course, the next time an opportunity presents itself. Neutral evil characters generally don’t care whether or not anything can be justified, as long as it works in their favor.

The assassin in it for the pay, the mercenary with no scruples, and the necromancer who thinks that social mores about the dead are tiresome are all examples of this group. They’re fine with society and civilization as long as the benefits of it outweigh the detriments, and they’re happy to work in a group that offers them a way forward.

Chaotic Evil: the unrepentant justifier

Chaotic evil, the malign nightmare in the bottom of the bucket for GMs. Often referred to as ‘chaotic stupid’ and other names that are even less friendly, it has a well-earned reputation as being the alignment for puppy-eating monsters. For most relatively new GMs, the easiest way to justify an enemy as an enemy for the PCs is to make them a bloodthirsty Chaotic Evil killer.

And yet it can be quite a bit more. Unrepentant in their ways and uninterested in what others have to say, this is the alignment of the egocentric – the person who is firmly convinced that their way is the right way, no matter what. They happily justify any misdeed on their part by turning the victim into a villain, so the victim clearly deserved what happened to them. If anyone questions it, that person is part of the problem. They have no problems with existing in society and working with others, as long as no one crosses them; if they are crossed, the response depends on how powerful the offending person is. A weak ally becomes a new victim; a powerful one is still obeyed, but grudgingly and with an eye toward undermining them.

The murderer who hunts elves because ‘those long-eared freaks can’t be trusted, always going around like they know better than common folks’, the city watchman whose prisoners from a distant land always seem to make a break for it and force him to kill them, the red-handed tyrant who kills anyone who speaks against them, and the thief who goes out of their way to rob and murder nobles because they ‘deserve it for what they’ve done’ are all examples of this mindset.

Working it together

Hopefully by this point we can see that each alignment has a wide range of possible motivations and justifications for their actions, and that produces a grey area where they can work together without backstabbing. A trio of thieves, one of each alignment, can cooperate – the lawful one takes care with the job and attends to any rules that might exist, such as the bylaws of a thieves’ guild; the neutral one happily pilfers unattended valuables that otherwise would be ignored; and the chaotic one takes the time to specifically vandalize the wardrobe of the lord and lady of the house and destroy their priceless artwork before following the other two out.

It could easily go wrong; the lawful one could flip out at the pilfering or vandalism, leading to a fight in the middle of the manor or a poisoned drink back at the hideout; the neutral one could decide that betraying the others and fleeing is more profitable; the chaotic one might decide that murdering the staff is a better idea than avoiding or drugging them. The trick – and trial – for players is to avoid these back-stabbing moments without losing sight of your character’s personal goals. Each of these thieves is the hero of the story, in their own head; as long as they adhere to that instead of looking for chances to twirl a mustache and cackle, the game will go fine.

Playing Evil, Part II