Posts Tagged ‘practice


Megadungeon Mastery III: How Large Was My Level

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire.)

How large is it? Relatively large, apparently.

As often happens when trying something new, when I decided to build my first megadungeon I said to myself, “I’ll try to be different and original and do things my own way!”

Naturally, this led to problems.

Right now I want to focus on matters of scale. Ironically, this sounds like a brief subject but actually covers a lot of ground. I’ll start with a few things I learned about designing and drawing megadungeon maps.

1) Don’t make your levels too large. In designing the dungeons beneath the Chateau d’Ambreville, I sketched out a huge, elaborate castle and decided to put entrances under various towers. In order to fit all these entrances onto one level, I printed out maps on 11″x17″ sheets of paper, then folded them in half so they could fit into my binder. But there were problems!

• 1a) If you fold your maps in half, they’ll fray and tear along the fold. This is no fun, and requires lots of fiddling with adhesive tape to keep them together. It’s better to make smaller sub-levels that each fit onto one sheet of paper, and connect them with long corridors.

• 1b) Large maps can get out of control. Once you’re trying to fill in a huge map, you may realize that now your themed level now has 200 rooms and after filling in 50 of them, you’re stumped as to what to put in the other 150.

• 1c) If your levels are too large, it’s hard to keep track of what’s where. This can be important when trying to figure out how nearby dungeon inhabitants will react to the PCs and their trail of theft and murder! (I’ll include more detail on these issues in a future blog post.)

Note that you can always provide more level-appropriate encounters by making an additional level — a “sub-level” — at the same depth, connected to the rest of the dungeon by a single stair or passage. Multiple themed sub-levels can be strung together to generate the effect of a huge dungeon level while avoiding many of the problems inherent in huge dungeon levels.

2) Use graph paper with large squares. Maps are about more than walls and doors! They’re an invaluable resource for marking down other details: furniture, whether doors are locked, tracks on the floor, light sources, odors, etc. And at five or six squares per inch, there’s just no room for those details. Even the traditional four squares per inch may feel a little cramped. Sure, you can note these things on your map legend, but if too much of this information is written in the legend rather than drawn on the map, it’s far too easy for key details to slip your mind in the heat of play.

* * *

I’ve mentioned that the number of rooms on a level is significant. This isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Rooms contain monsters and treasure; in a sense, they’re buckets of XP for the player characters to fill themselves from. Furthermore, each deeper level is supposed to have tougher monsters and bigger treasures (on average) than the previous level, so that higher level PCs are encouraged to keep delving deeper to get the XP needed to continue leveling up at a decent rate. So each level should contain enough treasure for all of your PCs to level up if they clear it out — plus some extra to account for PC death, level drain and hidden caches that they fail to discover. Too little treasure and they can’t level up; too much treasure and they’ll hang around on that level instead of going deeper. (The specifics of how much XP comes from monsters and how much comes from treasure varies by edition.)

The problem here is that the size of the level roughly determines the number of encounters, which take time at the table and increase the chances of losing XP to PC death. So if you make a really big level, you either need to add more treasure or reduce the number and/or intensity of the encounters.

Reductio ad absurdum: You decide that you need to put 20,000xp worth of treasure on the first dungeon level to ensure your PCs can level up. You’ll distribute this roughly according to the OD&D guidelines: 1 encounter per 3 rooms, half of all encounters have treasure, one-sixth of rooms without encounters have treasure. (This comes to treasure in roughly one-quarter of all rooms.)

• In one instance, you design a 4-room dungeon level containing a single treasure: a 20,000gp gem. Unfortunately, there’s no worthwhile combat challenge available for this purpose; either you’re giving away treasure like Monty Haul, or the monsters are strong enough to kill the PCs (so why did you put this encounter on the first level?), or it’s so well-hidden that no one will ever find it. Failure!

• In another instance, you design a 4000-room dungeon level with 1000 treasures, each averaging 20gp. Aside from the difficulties of designing over 1000 first-level encounters, it will take your players forever to wade through enough of these encounters to get an appreciable amount of experience, and they’re bound to lose PCs faster than they can bring in treasure to level up. Failure!

So the amount of treasure on a dungeon level needs to be enough to level up all of the PCs, as modified by the number of encounters required to obtain that treasure.

You should be able to calculate this by determining two key variables: how many sessions you want to run before the PCs level up, and how many rooms your group typically gets through in one session. The latter number will vary a lot, of course; sometimes the party manages to cover large expanses of the dungeon by wandering from empty room to empty room, while at other times the party runs right into a big set-piece battle where clearing out a single room takes up the entire session.

So if your party averages four rooms per session (for example) and you want them to level up roughly every ten sessions, if one in four rooms has treasure in it, then you want ten of those treasures to be enough to level up. Moreover, if the party tends to miss about half of the treasures they run across (because the treasures are well-hidden, or they use up half the treasure on raise dead spells, or whatever), you could ramp up the treasures further, so that only five treasures will suffice to level up.

And remember: what’s right for your group isn’t necessarily what’s right for other groups. Some players enjoy mapping complicated dungeon levels, seeking out carefully hidden treasures or unraveling intricate tricks and traps. Others don’t. Unless you have access to a sufficiently broad player base that you can find players who like playing exactly what you want to run, you need to adapt your dungeon design to the needs and desires of your players. After all, the fun is the thing!


Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base.)

“You are in a maze of… oh, never mind.”

Ah, the Great Underground Empire! What would the dungeons of Zork have been like without Emperor Flathead, the Zorkmid, or Flood Control Dam #5? Just a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Ditto for Moria without its dwarven halls, or Castle Timeless without its evil wizards and Great Old Ones. A dungeon is more than mere rooms and corridors, monsters and treasures; it’s an environment all its own, with its own character and context.

For now, let’s just look at the big stuff — the overall structure of the dungeon, its nature and its history. This provides essential context for play.

Every dungeon has its own underlying principles. For the sake of convenience, let’s divide them into the following two categories:

    • Those that developed and remain stocked in a naturalistic fashion: “Gygaxian Naturalism.”
    • Those whose inner workings are fundamentally illogical and occult: “Mythic Underworlds.”

Naturally there’s some overlap between these categories. But the distinction is a useful one, and choosing between them has an enormous impact on dungeon design and the feel of the resulting campaign.

“Gygaxian Naturalism”

Naturalism requires verisimilitude. This limits your options insofar as it requires some sort of explanation for all of your chambers and corridors, your monsters and treasures. But such restrictions are excellent for inspiring creativity! Filling a bunch of random rooms can paralyze you with choices, but if you know this section of the dungeon consists of a city slum that was paved over centuries ago, that section was dug out by dwarves following a seam of mithril and establishing a forge, and the other section contains a nexus of ley lines being used as a hatchery by a naga queen, you can work within those strictures to make interesting and engaging environments.

In addition, a naturalistic environment provides valuable context and connections for the players. Not only aren’t they wandering through the dreaded Dungeon of 10,000 Identical Doors, but they can analyze the environment to draw useful conclusions about areas they haven’t yet seen. You may choose to incorporate some of these ideas! (For instance, PCs may start investigating one area’s ventilation system, or they may take note of the lack of organic debris in another area and wonder as to the presence of a cesspit or sewage system.)

A useful tool for naturalistic dungeon design is the “How to Host a Dungeon” game, which provides a game-like semi-random procedure for generating the overall layout of a megadungeon by tracing its development — showing which regions were built, used, abandoned, invaded, captured or squatted in by various underground denizens and surface dwellers over the course of its history. Click here and here to watch the Mule’s own Greengoat use “How to Host a Dungeon” to build a megadungeon environment of his very own!

“Mythic Underworld”

By rejecting naturalism outright, you can establish your megadungeon as a place where anything goes. Perhaps the dungeon was created by a mad wizard or a vengeful god, or it’s some sort of living entity which spontaneously generates monsters and treasures, tricks and traps within its labyrinthine innards. Whatever its origins, the usual formulae of cause and effect don’t apply within its walls.

This offers lots of scope for gonzo weirdness! You can jam in monsters and treasures any which way, without having to worry about niggling questions like “what do the orcs eat,” “where do the troglodytes poop” or “why does this room hold a dragon that’s too big to fit through the door?” Likewise, you can design the most bizarre tricks and traps without needing to justify their presence. Who cares why this door has an elaborate puzzle lock or why that fountain has a fifty-fifty chance of increasing your Strength or turning you into a snail? They’re just there, that’s all, and the PCs must deal with them!

The downside here is a lack of context for the players. Some players may get turned off if there’s no context for their exploration. How can they take advantage of patterns in the layout of the dungeon if there are no patterns to be found?

So you’ll probably want to have some sort of underlying rules governing the place, even if those rules aren’t immediately obvious to the players. The dungeon environment spelled out in OD&D — a place where doors open for monsters but remain stubbornly shut for PCs, where everything but the PCs can see in the dark — clearly follows its own inscrutable principles. Figure out the how and the why of your mythic underworld, its “unnaturalism” if you will, and that’ll both provide you with simple tools for building the place and provide a colossal and inspiring puzzle for your players to decipher!

Valuable analysis regarding the mythic underworld style can be found on the site where — to the best of my knowledge — the term was coined in the context of OD&D and the OSR: Philotomy Jurament’s OD&D Musings.

Mix and Match

The two aforementioned themes can overlap, and there’s much to be gained by doing so. Weirdness is extra weird in a naturalistic dungeon, while bits of naturalism in a mythic underworld can provide a welcome change — as well as generating pathos for the poor suckers who tried to establish a rational lifestyle in the mythic underworld’s phantasmagorical environs.

An early example of this sort of fusion is the Underworld of the planet Tékumel, as found in Empire of the Petal Throne. (See “Developing an Underworld,” pp. 61-63 & 98-102.) It’s a morass of forgotten cities, buried necropoli, wizards’ lairs, alien hives and the eons-old ruins of a spacefaring human civilization. Everything has its own reasons for being there, but the place is nonetheless supernaturally hostile towards intruding PCs, with doors opening for monsters while holding fast against the party as per the OD&D rules.

Other offbeat settings like Arduin, Barsaive, Glorantha, Harmundia, Jorune, Talislanta and Uresia are worth investigating in this regard. Remember, one of the defining characteristics of old-school play is its catholicity. You can never steal from too many sources!


Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base

So this is what “urban adventuring” looks like!

I’ve been running adventures in my megadungeon, the Château D’Ambreville, for over two years now. In the process, I’ve made many mistakes and learned a number of lessons about why Gygax and his fellow old-school DMs made the decisions they did in setting up their own megadungeons — Blackmoor, Castle Greyhawk, Undermountain and the like. The following series of blog posts will be an attempt to compile those lessons into a usable format.

(While I wouldn’t say that I’ve achieved mastery of the megadungeon format, “Megadungeon Mastery” has some nifty alliteration going for it, so it’s my title and I’m sticking with it.)

NB: Anyone interested in megadungeon creation should check out this theRPGsite thread on megadungeon design, and this Knights & Knaves Alehouse thread providing an exegesis of an original Castle Greyhawk map.

The location of the megadungeon has a dramatic impact on play. Placing the dungeon in, under or adjacent to a major city doesn’t just allow for easy PC access — which is itself no small thing, as it can save time every session that might otherwise be spent on describing travel or making wilderness encounter checks. It also impacts on magics like floating disk, slow poison or raise dead which have a limited window of utility. (Slow poison is infinitely more useful if you have time to carry the victim upstairs to the surface and just down the street to a temple.) Lastly, it makes random encounters with NPC parties more rational — an important goal if you’re aiming for Gygaxian naturalism — as those NPCs can enter the dungeon as easily as the PCs.

Placing the megadungeon out in the wilderness, as with sites like the Temple of Elemental Evil, changes the equation. Now the party has to travel to get to the dungeon, which can soak up time at the table. (It’s often best to gloss over the trip, especially after the PCs have gone back and forth several times, though that does lose the sense of scale and distance involved.) It also makes tracking the in-game calendar of events more complicated; if, like some old-school games, you have different PC parties wandering the landscape, it’s much more likely that their timelines will get snarled up if each session takes days rather than hours of in-setting time. Meanwhile, NPC parties also have to travel through the outdoors to reach the dungeon, which can result in the PCs spending whole sessions tracking down and ambushing NPC parties in the wilderness — or themselves being ambushed by those selfsame NPCs!

(Either way, the dungeon should have multiple entrances, but that’s a matter for another post.)

Having run a megadungeon outside of civilization, I have to recommend putting one’s first megadungeon in a population center instead. There’s already tons of bookkeeping involved in running old-school D&D, and it’s worth keeping the dungeon right under the PCs’ home base in order to reduce that workload.

As to the home base itself, this can be anything from a peaceful village to a Gold Rush-style shantytown to a major city. The nature and scale of the place has a number of immediate effects. Smaller and poorer settlements may be limited in what wizardry and priestly magics are available to the party, and their merchants are less likely to sell unusual items, may have limited quantities of basic equipment, and may not be able to pay a decent price for some of the valuables pulled up from the dungeon. (This may mean lots of side trips to the nearest city, which you may see as an exciting diversion or an unwelcome distraction.) Meanwhile, larger cities are more likely to host rival adventurers to encounter the PCs in the dungeon or beat them to key treasure hoards.

In the longer term, the political impact of the PCs will also vary depending on the environment. Third or fourth level PCs may quickly become big shots amid an isolated rural landscape, while the same PCs may still be second-stringers in the politics of a metropolis. Again, your choice should be influenced by how closely you want your game to hew to dungeon delving as opposed to urban adventures.


non-violence (and slime gods)

As convention season approaches, New York Red Box Charter Member E.T. Smith made an intriguing remark while musing about convention games:

I barely even notice game descriptions [at conventions] anymore. They nearly always, to me, read like a variation of “Some dudes are doing something you don’t like. Stop them with violence,” so they don’t tell me anything about what might make the game interesting.

(emphasis added).

And he’s right.  It would be pretty neat to play some games where the primary conflicts couldn’t be solved through violence, if only as a change of pace.

Figuring out how to do a “non-violence” session of D&D:

  • Maybe violence is just a strategically dumb move, like if every monster in the dungeon is way tougher than you.  This becomes more of a stealth mission, either trying to creep into a place, or trying to escape.  For several years now I’ve wanted to run an adventure where PC’s are accidentally teleported into a much deeper level of the dungeon than they anticipated . . .
  • Maybe violence isn’t the focus of the adventure, though this begins to get into areas of play that aren’t well-supported.
    • A cross-country or oceanic race, for example, would offer the chance to overcome a lot of wilderness hazards.  (In D&D, most wilderness hazards take the form of monsters you have to kill; I much prefer Mouse Guard‘s approach to wilderness and weather hazards.  But I suppose with old-school “imagine-the-hell-out-of-it” principles players could try to cope with travel emergencies.)
    • An attempt to solve a particularly vexing problem by means of researching a new spell or magic item.  Spell research is one of those cool things that tends to happen away from the table, but trying to acquire super-bizarre metaphorical ingredients, like “the tears of the moon” or something, might require a lot of creative thinking from the players.
    • An attempt to build a stronghold.  I can imagine all sorts of stuff going wrong here: incompetent architectural design, labor trouble, low-key interference from neighboring powers who want to test the new guy on the block.  And of course the peasants are watching to determine if this new guy really deserves their respect.  Again this gets into social-style adventuring that isn’t always handled well by D&D rules, but would probably be an interesting change of pace.
  • Maybe violence is morally problematic – like, the whole scenario is caused by horribly wrong violence and its tragic after-effects can’t really be remedied by more of the same.

Some of this stuff, like magical research and stronghold-building, skirt pretty close to the carousing mechanisms that the New York Red Box uses between sessions.  (The workings of the carousing system has been pretty opaque to me as a player: Tavis uses some kind of Apocalypse World -derived 2d6 + Ability Mod system, where 10 is an unqualified success, 7-9 is a compromise somehow, and 6- is a bad failure; Eric I think is using something like a saving throw system.)

Anyway: as an RPG player I’d like to play in the occasional game that wasn’t predicated on solving conflicts by the application of superior force, that’s all.  (I am not saying that violence in gaming is bad; just that it’s boring sometimes.)

tax: 2e Slime Cult Specialty Priest

Been mucking around with 2e lately.  The 2e Cleric is ridiculously powerful.  Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this, the 2e Players Handbook introduces Specialty Priests, which are sort of like themed mini-Clerics.  The 2e Druid is arguably one example of this though they don’t explicitly say so in the text IIRC.

Anyway, specialty priest who worships primordial subterranean slime gods:

Restrictions: Constitution 15, Charisma 12.  Followers of the Slime God must be hardy to endure filth and ordure, yet they remain mysteriously compelling.  Alignment: any non-good and non-lawful.  The Slime God is indifferent to human welfare and scorns efforts at systematizing.

Weapons Allowed: Non-metal armor and weapons that are mostly wood.  Flasks of burning oil, acid, and poison are permitted.  The idea is to be immune from most Ooze attacks, while mimicking them in return.

Spheres: Major access to: All, Charm, Creation, Divination, Elemental, and Necromantic.  Minor access to Animal, Healing, Plant.  According to the cult, slime exists at the juncture between insensate matter and all living things–the protoplasmic goo is a link between plants, animals, and the raw elements, and the quintessence of life itself.  I’m throwing in Divination and Charm just because I like the idea of extremely charismatic priests driven mad by unspeakable insights.

Granted Powers: command Oozes, Otyughs and Fungi (as evil Cleric commands Undead).  At Level 7, transform into Ooze (as Druid’s shape-changing ability).

Ethos: To the anti-priests of the cult, we weren’t created by any gods in the service of a divine purpose.  We crawled into the sunlight after countless eons of muck for no discernible reason.  If you’re puzzled and confused by the world you live in, that’s perfectly understandable: it’s not supposed to make sense.   We’re just globs of muck, doing what globs of muck do: eat, shit, puke, ejaculate, and die.  There’s no relief from that: it’s the bedrock of our existence.  And if the social institutions of the surface world appear corrupt, hypocritical, and historically contingent–almost as if there was no divine plan at all–well, that shouldn’t come as a surprise .  If you’re expecing our society to be pure and wholesome, you’re misunderstanding who and what we are.  There’s no destiny.  There’s just the continuous consumption of rotting flesh to shit out nightsoil to keep the thing going.

Amid all that mindless biological twitching, there’s a lesson to be learned.  Don’t let people tell you to do stuff on the basis of some goofball ideology.  Here and now is what matters.  Being left alone, and leaving others alone even if it means they’ll drink their own piss, is a cardinal virtue: you don’t have authority to tell others what to do.  And that applies to yourself too.  You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that your life and its attendant suffering is pointless.  Don’t have hopes, or daydreams, or wishes for anything other.  Just this: over and over, just this.


What Made for a Successful D&D Birthday Party

Strangely less popular among nine-year-old boys than the unicorn.

This past weekend James and I ran a D&D birthday party for seven boys, all eight or nine years old. We had two and  a half hours allotted, so here’s how we broke it out:

1) Kids arrived and settled in. They all knew one another from school (third grade). Most were new to D&D, although one was in our afterschool class last semester, one is new to it this semester, and one was my son who I have not stuffed quite as full of D&D lore as James believes because the fanatic pursuit of Pokemon lore he shares with the birthday boy competes for brain-space.

2) Kids chose which color dice they want and which miniature will be their hero, both of which they got to keep as “goodie bags” from the party. We didn’t have them do any further character creation (all heroes had the same stats behind the screen) except for name. Lots of the kids who hadn’t played before had problems coming up with a name, so I asked if they wanted to roll for one. I didn’t actually have a table, I just used the time they were rolling the dice to think them up.

3) The scenario was that the heroes set forth from their stronghold to explore the surrounding wilderness in search of magical items to claim and Pokemon to capture. We had the kids construct the wilderness using Heroscape hexes, and the stronghold using wooden Kapla blocks.

4) While eating pizza, kids chose which one of the magic items their hero wanted to start with. James and I designed 14 these to define roles without having to explain classes (although many kids decided “my guy is a mage” or whatever anyways, either through previous exposure to D&D or videogames with class archetypes), and to do the D&D thing of having pre-defined powers that let you do a particular awesome thing and then find ways to try to apply it to whatever situation you wind up in. This worked really well with kids at this age and experience level; some examples were the Sword of Sharpness and the Wand of Wonder. Not every item got used in play but it really helped establish the tone of the game and made the kids feel that their heroes were chock-full of awesome.

5) The kids divided up into teams – one rides the unicorns that the stronghold has in its stables, the other group flies out on its griffons. They got to keep the miniatures for these too, and I used blu-tak to glom their hero miniature onto their steed’s base. James predicted that nine-year-old boys would shun the unicorns, which was a problem because this was meant to be the way we split them into manageable groups for each of us to DM. We gave the birthday boy the choice of which team he wanted to captain, and when he chose griffons that further stacked the deck in their favor. But in the end, we had four unicorn-riders and only three griffon aeronauts. James and I had decided that we’d try to counterbalance the unicorn’s potential pink-factor by saying that they were more reliable than the risky, hard-to-control griffons (as his PC had experienced first-hand in Delta’s superb Corsairs of Medero scenario at Recess). I don’t know if this was what made the difference, but I had a ton of fun roleplaying the balky griffons.

7) James and I then each ran a hexcrawl for our respective teams. We chose this because coming up with a more planned scenario would have required coordination, whereas a  purely procedural move to a hex,encounter roll, reaction roll, combat or negotiation, morale, etc. was something we could each wing. I got lucky with my first wandering monster – a griffon, which I decided was a riderless mount like one of my group’s. They used their horn of plenty to produce some horse meat with which to befriend this new griffon, and I had a great time roleplaying the reaction of the existing griffons to the interloper and to this bountiful cascade of meat. Some of the riders failed their control rolls, so one hero was wrestling for control of the meat-spewing horn with his mount while another was carried along on a dive after the steaks falling into the sea. The thing that really paid off in this encounter was that I decided that the newcomer’s saddlebags held maps to the likely locations of two of the magic items, the horn of the valkyries (which I’ll post about separately) and the cloak of shadows (which was being worn by a hobbit thief, who coughed it up after one of the kids successfully had his griffon swallow said halfling).  Choosing between which of these to go after, and then being able to count hexes to the location and plot a course, fortuitiously gave direction to the hexcrawl. Without this, James felt like his group was a little more aimless, so having or finding a partial treasure-map is definitely something to do for next time.

8) Cake, ice cream, and singing “Happy Birthday”. I was glad the parents remembered this part! Maybe our party services should include D&D themed cakes so that we don’t forget the traditionals. I was glad to see the kids were having so much fun they weren’t asking “when will we have the cake?” every five minutes like at many birthday parties I’ve taken my son to, but I would have caught hell from him if we left and then he realized there hadn’t been any.

9) Properly hopped up on sugar, the two teams return to their stronghold and find it’s been taken over by intruders! As they were eating their cupcakes, we set up the miniatures for this. A silver dragon and the skeletons he’d created by sowing his teeth into a field crouched on top of the block-castle, and fielded an army of lizard-men who were advancing on the siege organized by the gargoyles who’d been left in charge of the stronghold and the dragon-hunting Lord who had been befriended during another random encounter (which I used to foreshadow this encounter; he reported that the silver dragon was not sleeping in its lair like it should be, bum bum ba BUM!) . The kids knocked down these miniatures, and their own block-castle, by firing discs at it using crossbows and catapults. James and I were kept busy going “arrr!” and narrating the battle reports while sliding the disks back at the kids (having more ammunition would have been good!). This made for a dramatic climax story-wise, and as actual play it was really nice to let the kids do all the yelling, throwing stuff, and bashing miniatures that we spend so much effort in the afterschool class trying to prevent.

Doing all of this was enough fun for me that I’ve set up a company, Adventuring Parties LLC, to offer birthday parties, bachelor parties, events, etc. Its website is active now although still a little skeletal – click the link to check it out, or just email if you are in the NYC area and have an event you want us to do, or if you’re a Dungeon Master elsewhere and would like referrals to do parties in your area.


Roleplaying Artifact Use in Gamma World


Artifact chart

Gamma World artifact chart C


One of the awesome things about the original Gamma World is its system for deciphering the function of technological artifacts. This is a super fun part of play in both Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha, although I find the simple percentage chance Ward used in MA much less compelling than the flowcharts Ward & Jaquet provide for GW (and Gygax picks up for the Barrier Peaks AD&D module).

Although the coolness of all these boxes, arrows, and skull and crossbones is self-evident, the first time I used it in play was underwhelming. I love the mini-games within old-school RPGs, but this one is akin to Candyland in its total lack of choice; you’re simply rolling a series of dice with no guidance as to what each die roll means, until eventually you either master the controls of the Ronco Inside-The-Shell Electric Egg Scrambler or accidentally detonate its nuclear power plant.

Candyland is well designed as a boardgame for families with young children because of its competitive aspect. Its reliance on pure chance instead of choice means all players are equally matched, preventing more-skilled players from having to choose whether to handicap themselves and let the kids win, and thus teaching the important lesson that victory and defeat are fun parts of the game for everyone. But the competitive aspect of the Gamma World charts is erratic at best. I didn’t know until reading this pleasingly advanced-math-heavy essay at the Acaeum that you were only allowed to make five rolls on the artifact chart per hour, and I think there’d be a limit on the number of times I could GM-engineer a situation where the players were racing against time to decipher an artifact before something excitingly bad happened.

The first time I used the artifact charts, I laid them out in full view of the players, placed a marker on their starting square, and asked them to roll to see where they went. As their marker traveled to different squares, I’d try to provide some description of what was happening and have them tell me what they were doing to make the next roll, but it wasn’t very convincing; the players could see that it was all just a big abstract mechanistic flowchart, not a complex situation in which their decisions & my responses mattered. Also, no one in this original group had a PC with an Intelligence score or a mutation that would make figuring it out more likely, so there was a lot of going around in circles: 7, you go nowhere; 9, you’re back where you started. This repetition tended to make a further mockery of my descriptions and attempts to make it seem like the PCs had choices.

Here’s what I did in the most recent session of the New York Red Box’s Gamma Jersey campaign that I thought was much more successful in making the process of deciphering a complex artifact (a MAGLEV train) fun and immersive.

I started with a description of the artifact, emphasizing the parts I thought the characters could interact with: “You see a window of transparent glass. Above and below this are two sloping panels of dark glass.” When the players decided to try to figure out how to control the train, I had them describe what their characters were doing – “oh, OK, I guess I’m touching the upper panel.”

So then I wrote upper panel and lower panel on a wipe-erase board. “Go ahead and roll a d10, modified by your Intelligence and mutations.” The result was a 3, so I wrote this next to an arrow leading off of the upper panel. “You find that the upper panel lights up for just a second when you touch it, and then goes dark again.” I wrote this at the end of the arrow from the upper panel.


The final state of the diagram I drew to track the progress of the players' narrative description of figuring out the train controls


“Hmm, what if I try holding my finger on it?”

“It stays lit as long as you’re touching it. You see lots of different-colored boxes with symbols on them.”

Another player: “I’m going to touch the lower panel.” (Rolls dice: 4.)

“It doesn’t do anything on its own, but eventually you figure out that if you’re already touching the upper panel, the lower panel will light up too.” I draw an arrow from the panel to the result of this action, along with the artifact deciphering score – both to show the players that this was the result of a pretty good roll, not a botch, and to help me reconstruct where they were on my Chart C in case my marker got knocked off or something.

At one point the players asked something I didn’t expect: “Are there any controls near the seats in the train cabin?”

“Sure,” I decided, “there are some switches on the base of the seat to the right.”

“Cool, I’ll try those.” (Resulting roll is a 1).

“You find that moving the switch forward moves the seat forward, and visa versa.”

“Awesome, I’ll make some more room for Cosmo.” (Cosmo is a six-meter tall mutant with eleven arms, which was handy for touching both panels at once while also playing with the seat controls.)

Their progress through the Chart C flowchart (shown in yellow) was remarkably direct – these are some smart mutants. I think that making this version visible to the players, as I did in my first Gamma World game as an adult, would have been a lot less interesting than the narrative chart I drew for them in my second.

Here is why I think this worked:

  • It was purely improvised; all I did to get started was to think about what a few possible ways of interacting with a futuristic train might be.
  • It was concrete; the players experienced it as a set of things their characters could interact with, and being able to visualize what they were doing was invaluable in improvising a narrative description of their progress through the abstract flowchart.
  • It had unexpected consequences; the flowchart basically boils down to success or failure, but the way we visualized the situation allowed for lots of other meaningful intermediate results. Activating the train’s recorded public announcement might have attracted a wandering monster, for example, and at one point they were worried that causing the train car doors might sever a limb of the seven-meter-tall mutants they had stuffed back there (as did happen earlier in the session with a less-forgiving shaft access door).
  • It was open to player creativity, as in the case of the seat controls. In an artifact with a less defined use, the decisions the players make as they interact with it might cause them to figure out a use that’s quite different than the one you had in mind: you think it’s a bicycle whose tires have crumbled away, but as they’re asking “can we slot a rope along the front rotating disk?” the results of their successful artifact use rolls might mean they wind up deciding it’s a spinning wheel or a pedal-driven winch.

The New Red Box: Philly

Just in case you thought it was that other red box we're talking about here

I’m glad to share the news that the Red Box family of gaming groups is gaining a new member, Red Box Philly. Let’s welcome the new meatshield, I mean cherished offspring, by joining the site as a show of support, and also rooting through our collective store of hard-won experience points to see what we can pass on to help Philly level up!

I’ll brainstorm some categories of things I’d want to know if I were trying to seed a new Red Box in untilled soil; although we can give advice here, there are also related threads at nerdNYC and the NY Red Box to take advantage of the different functionality of a forum.

  • What is the best way to attract players? It seems to me that having a regular weekly night to start with might be a good idea, because you can list that in player-finders that assume regularly-scheduled games rather than just-in-time ones. Pen & Paper is the player finder that comes to mind; what others work for people?
  • What are the pros and cons of coat-tailing an existing gaming group? I know that NY Red Box owes much to nerdNYC for creating a thriving community of gamers that we can recruit from, and I think I’ve heard that the Vancouver Gaming Guild also helped lay the groundwork for Red Box Vancouver. So my inclination would be to start out by offering to do New City Red Box events within the existing structure of whatever local community exists, especially the D&D Meetup group and the D&D Encounters program at a local game store (I’d even go so far as to create an Encounters game if none exists yet). However, I know that NY Red Box also benefited a lot from the attitude we inherited from the nerdNYC community, which is different from the prevalent approach I’ve seen in our D&D Meetup group, and different again from the likely style of friends you talk into playing despite not being hardcore gamers. I’ve found it possible to bridge these groups and would consider it more important to have many players to seduce away from their old style & towards the enlightened wisdom of old-school Red Box than only one or two right-thinking stalwarts, but it bears thinking about.
  • What is the hook that people keep coming back for? Curiosity about old-school play may lead some to check it out, but let’s face that it can be an acquired taste to roll up a character who only lives long enough for ten minutes of play time and one insanely ill-advised act of  sociopathy ending in a Save-or-Die effect. I suspect that the real selling point is a drop-in, low-commitment game like Encounters, Living Forgotten Realms, or the Pathfinder Society, but unlike them in that your character’s actions have an immediate, visible, and lasting impact on the story of the campaign.

To capitalize on that last one, and roll these together, I think that what I’d do if I were in Red Box Philly’s shoes would be to run games in the campaign wherever I could find players – at cons, at gamedays, at D&D Meetups or game stores on the same nights as Encounters, at friends’ houses, whatever. Each time, I’d capture people’s emails, and after the session I’d make a session summary on the forum, a wiki page for each character, magic item, place, and proper noun like Glantri and Black Peaks do. Then I’d email all the players:

Hey, thanks for playing! A recap of the events from last session is here on the forums; become a member so you can comment and help plan the next adventure. I made a Wiki page for your character so you can drop in and play anytime, even if you don’t have your character sheet with you. You’re always welcome to join in; you can use the forums and wiki to keep up on what’s happened while you’re away. If you earned any treasure, you should visit the carousing thread; it’s kind of a play-by-post minigame where you can earn experience points by having your character lavishly spend their gold on wine, women, and song, or whatever other special interest they may have…

As soon as possible, I’d encourage other players to run their own games; lots of people want to DM, and as we’ve seen with Red Box NY’s Sudden Summer Gaming, one of the great things our kind of group can do is to provide a pool of free-associating players who can come together to do stuff without being locked down by it. I suspect these should not be campaigns yet; you’ll know when something that started as a pickup game has developed enough momentum to become a campaign, and you want to select for DMs who have fun playing in other games and being loose with their ideas rather than making people commit to their grand pre-existing vision for how their game will be.

What else have we learned about how to make a Red Box group successful?

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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