Archive for December 1st, 2009


How I Rebuilt My Sewer Temple to the Chaos Frog

Procedurally generated content is a great way to prep for a game session in a hurry. Early D&D is rife with procedural rules; the earliest rulesets contained wandering monster tables for generating opponents and treasure tables to determine what phat loots those monsters have. The 1e DMG goes even farther by presenting a set of tables for generating a random dungeon map!

Computers, of course, are great for speedily generating random content. Community-oriented players have put up all sorts of free web applications for DMs. One such is “donjon”, a program that generates dungeon levels to your specifications in the blink of an eye. Not only can you set the parameters for how the place should be laid out, you can populate the place with monsters and treasures as well.

Computer-generated procedural content is not without flaws, of course. One is its lack of flexibility. If you’re sketching a dungeon map by making random rolls on a table, you’re free to diverge from the table results and interject your own ideas while drawing the map. A computer-generated map is not so flexible. Nonetheless, you can make changes—if you have the right software.

Map of 'The Temple of the Frog' (original)It was the day before the session and one of the players had decided to bite on a plot hook involving a group of Chaos worshippers congregating in the sewers of Glantri City. After a desultory attempt at sketching a map for a section of the city’s sewers, I decided to try an online map generator. After several minutes of fiddling with donjon and learning its settings, I came up with the map on the left. Since I wanted a short dungeon (as per David Bowman’s “One Page Dungeon”), I’d made a map with only a handful of rooms, but they were encircled by lots of winding tunnels to give that “lost in the sewers” vibe. (Click for a better view.)

But I was unsatisfied with the map as it was. It was too flat, too static. It also needed connections to the rest of the sewer system. So I started up Adobe Photoshop and started tweaking.

Map of 'The Temple of the Frog' (modified)First, I filled in the sewer tunnels with gray to represent sewage. Several rooms and corridors remained white to indicate that they were above-water cellars, and I added stairway segments where they connected with the sewers proper. With only a few more water squares, I joined up some otherwise unconnected tunnels and provided links at the borders to the rest of the sewer network. The dark gray gridmarks in the sewer system’s dead ends indicate street access points via drainage gratings. Lastly, I added a couple of new rooms, including a large “sump” room (#7 on the modified map on the right) designed for a dynamic fight scene against Chaos-tainted frog monsters, with a walkway around the edge of the water and a treasure on the stump of a big broken support pillar in the center.

The whole mapping project took less than two hours from start to finish. Another one would go faster now that I’ve gotten a feel for how to go about it. I think, though, that my next map will be completely procedurally generated, as I’m looking forward to being stuck with a premade map and having to find a way to use it as-is. Limitations and restrictions are important for any creative endeavor!


the OTHER Old School Renaissance

There’s been a lot of talk about the literary antecedents of Dungeons & Dragons, and TV shows reflecting the eclectic design ethos of the early days.  But (to my knowledge) there’s been relatively little talk about that other medium influencing and reflecting early Dungeons & Dragons play: interactive fiction, a/k/a “text adventures” like Zork, Wishbringer and A Mind Forever Voyaging.

To make a long post somewhat shorter, here are two points I want to raise:

  1. Back in the day, these sorts of adventure games were about as good as CRPG’s got, and they were a significant part of the Geek-geist, at least among those of us who began playing D&D with the B/X or BECMI stuff of the early 1980’s.  I think the feedback between tabletop RPG’s and these sorts of zany adventure games–primitive gaming tech that nevertheless required you to “imagine the hell out of it” or face sadistic peril–isn’t sufficiently acknowledged in the Old School Renaissance.
  2. This may reveal my shameful ignorance, but interactive fiction has been subject to an Old School Renaissance of its own!  These guys are still going strong: 25 years after these sorts of games ceased to be commercially viable, there is a thriving interactive fiction fan & writing scene!  They’ve got several contests, guidelines for how to write this stuff, and many of them are trying their best to push the limits of the form.  Obviously they’re doing very well for themselves and don’t need validation from the likes of us, but I had no idea they even existed and am very pleased that they’re keeping the genre alive.

If you’re curious about interactive fiction, either because you are a young whippersnapper or, like me, weren’t paying attention for the last twenty years, here are some of the ones that get a lot of critical acclaim:

  • Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, by S. John Ross.  If you’re brand-new to this, like I am, this is a decent place to start as it’s based on an Old School Role-Playing Game (Encounter Critical).  The full version costs $9.95 but there’s a free demo.  This is perhaps the funniest game I’ve played in ages.  If you ever ask yourself, “What’s it like to play with the New York Red Boxers?” the tone of this game comes very, very close, particularly to Tavis’s White Sandbox shenanigans.  (My score is 457 points in 1724 turns.  I imagine others can do better–but I scoff at your efforts all the same, poltroon!)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams – one of the classic titles from the heyday of IF, snazzed up in 2005 with graphics as part of a movie tie-in.
  • Anchorhead by Michael S. Gentry – a Cthulhu Mythos-inspired piece of interactive fiction.  Its appearance in 1998 seems to have reenergized the IF community.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches, by Jimmy Maher – an interactive fiction adaptation of a classic Call of Cthulhu module.
  • The Metamorphoses, by the prolific Emily Short, is a brief adventure game involving a wizard’s apprentice, notable for its evocative, dream-like imagery.
  • Galatea, another game by Emily Short, is more experimental: a very brief, dialogue-driven game with an exceptionally well-done NPC.

I’ve dabbled in these ever so slightly, but they’re every bit as retro, and as under-appreciated, as Old Timey RPG’s, and if you like one you might well enjoy the other.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2009

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