The Chemistry of Dungeons, or: help me I need dungeons and I just have an old organic chemistry book. Also, writing to Gary.

I’m going to write possibly the nerdiest post ever.

Suppose your players left the village of Somewhere Away and decided to pursue the Dodgy Villager That Secretly Is A Pawn Of The Villain: you need a dungeon where the DVTSIAPOTV and his boss can meet.

And you just have a chemistry book: opening the book for inspiration, you see  meaningless chemichy blabber about lignin. Wood and paper are made of this stuff. What if you could turn all that drivel that allows us to keep our lifestyles possible in a fantastic adventuring locale? Behold lignin:

Instant Dungeon! And a big one!

First of all, the theme: lignin is about wood or paper, so it could be something like a dungeon full of constructs and animated objects, or full of books, or a library, or a magical miniature castle made of paper that you can enter if you touch, or a network of treehouses.

Now, what do you do with this map? how do you read it?


And requires zero knowledge of chemistry:

  • the lines (bonds) that links atoms above are CORRIDORS: 3 in 10 are either hidden, closed by a locked door, closed by a door. To determine which room has the key, roll a dice on the map and that’s the room: It can be either hidden or held by a monster (50%).
  • C means CARBON and Carbons are rooms with four exits, or CROSSROADS. Roll content as per empty room. You should also come up with a small random monster table adequate to the location (6 entries are good, too many seem really random and nonspecific).
  • O means OXYGEN or OBSTACLE. It can be a room with some nastyness: usually to stop intruders; traps, guardian monsters, locked door, trapped locked room with monsters, or simply a cave in that makes the passage unsuitable. Oxygens have 2 exits, like a passage. If an oxygen is lonely next to a carbon you have a DOUBLE BOND (described later).
  • H means HYDROGEN, and hydrogens are room with a single exit. They contain stuff and nasties.
  • N means NITROGEN and also NETWORK: the (usually three) rooms connected to it form some kind of small cluster of logically connected rooms, like a guardpost with barracks, studio, den or apartment. Dress accordingly, and use for important stuff peculiar to the dungeon.
  • DOUBLE BONDS happen when you count the exits between rooms and some are missing, while in some graphs are displayed as a double line. Two distinct passages link the two rooms, usually one of them is secret/locked/hidden/trapped, or one of the two rooms is split into two parts by a chasm, bars or whatever you prefer. See it as an occasion for interesting tactical choices in combat or exploration. Also, read MinnenRatta’s comment below.
  • If you have other letters, throw in random stuff according to the atom, or not if you can’t be bothered: it’s just there to kickstart your imagination and its deconstruction it’s only for your benefit. If you see strange lines connecting stuff, treat as special/trapped/secret passages. If you see, like in the picture below,  three/four lines connecting, it’s a CARBON/CROSSROAD. If there’s a bend that bend is a carbon crossroad that has two hydrogen rooms next to it (unless double bounds are present, reducing the number of hydrogen/rooms adjacent). The bit to the right is a long corridor with 10 rooms spread between the two sides, and a room at the end. I guess the below dungeon is good for a drug smuggling hideout.

  • To finish, sprinkle secret doors that link more or less remote areas of the dungeon. And pick a number of exits.
  • Of course you might expand the meanings above to elements of the same groups. Halogens such as Fluorine and Clorine are EXTREMELY NASTY ROOMS, chalcogens like Oxygen ans Sulfur are obstacles and so on.

DONE. Ok, my nerd club membership has been renewed for the next 15 years or so.

And now the occasional tiny letter to Gary.

Hello Gary,

I know you’re dead and you can’t read me me. Also I guess you can’t read wordpress. I guess this makes me look a bit stupid, or romantic. Well, I wanted to thank you post mortem for having published my favourite game. I never met you and I can’t say much about you, but thanks for having given me such an empowering hobby.

That’s it. Ok, enough time spent writing to corpses buried thousands of miles away. Back to science!

a mind blank and improvisation

When I’m tired my language skills are terrible. I wrote this at 1:30 AM after a very long day. please forgive me.

It’s been a while since my last post here. About 10 days.

It also must be said that meanwhile I started about 10 drafts, but none of them seemed worthwhile enough. Possibly beause I’m very tired and feel very spent, possibly because (before sunday) I haven’t run a game since April 4th, when the party went TPK. I played Carlo’s GURPS fantasy sandbox a handful of times in the meanwhile, enjoyed a few games of Agricola, Sankt Petersburg, Carcassonne, San Juan. But no games run.

But Sunday players came over, rolled new PCs and decided to start over in a random campaign location. to pick the spot one literally closed his eyes and pointed at the map. Turned out the location was exactly one hex away from there the TPK happened. I could have had railroaded them back to the “main campaign” but they wanted something different, so I just came up with this village of hunters, loggers and shepherds, and unilaterally declared that their PCs are teenagers, a few months before their “coming of age” ritual.

I could have gone a bit further and, instead of let them pick a “normal” equipment, force them to look around and pick stuff up.

But they decided to go hunting, to show off. And stumbled in tracks, that ended at a cavern, smoked out what was inside and killed a bear. In the bear cave they found a dungeon entrance as well. They went in and did neat old school stuff. As in having their gender changed by a magic fountain, set a tapestry afire, which in turn made angry an ogre, which later was dispatched as it charged the spear-set characters. Enough loot was had to max-out level 2, mostly jewels (which are extremely valuable in B/X and BECMI), plus a +1 long sword, light on command (but they don’t know the command, and it’s switched on). Nothing too complex, but good fun was had, and later feedback was good.

Same setup as last time (at the Glasgow University gaming club), except I didn’t chicken out. Because, despite not having prepared anything, I spent some time preparing myself to improvise; decent “fluff” comes easy, but decent “crunchy bits” are a way, way harder for me. My mind was blank, but I had tools.

A few notes from the session:

  • d6 as oracle: simply put, if something is in doubt, a x-in-6 change is determined and a dice is rolled.
  • Kellri’s Old School Reference manuals proved to be awesome again, specially volume 4.
  • Dungeon was built using geomorphic tiles from A Character for Every Game. If a dungeon is needed it can be uncomfortably hard to come up with one. In this case tiles were pulled out randomly from a stack. I expected to see a 8×8 pattern of content but a mix of transcription errors and a bit of fudging made it more organic (and made the tiles reusable). Sure, it can feel a bit randomish, but most probably it was built by a number of different cultures/people over the years and not just by the current inhabitants, so there is the increased verosimilitude of both adapting the inhabitant needs to the living space and the inhabitants adapting the living space. Kobolds burrowed and the ogre kept for himself the bigger room. The magic fountain makes water available (the magic wears off if water is taken away).
  • Moldway suggestion to stock the dungeon with a few selected monsters and fill the rest with the dungeon stock table. Jeff Rients, in a great article in Fight On! #6, advices to split the population in “main guys” (say, a tribe of kobolds), a “lone wolf” (say, OGRE) and random creeps (snakes, fungi, etc): coming up with interaction between these three groups is up to you and, while technically not needed, can add complexity and depth to the dungeon (the ogre is fed by the kobolds so to keep him from going “OGRE SMASH”). Sham wrote on the topic of empty rooms and dungeon stocking a lot (also in more meaningful posts that I can’t find at the moment) so if you want to know more just follow the link.
  • Rients suggests also to create a random encounter table specific for the location. The tables provided in B/X has entries that probably won’t fit with your dungeon. My suggestion is to start with an empty table and fill it with random results from other tables, replacing entries that don’t fit with handpicked ones or with monster from the above three groups.
  • my GM screen (AC7) doesn’t have any table that I use in game. I prepared a list with 22 items I needed to refer to (more or less) frequently that my stupid screen doesn’t make available. I might try to consult Dragonlance DM screen (my favourite from AD&D) to to see if it has any good bits I missed.
  • take notes on what you create, so you can refer to them later. Running a campaign like this is like a flyweight: if it’s not moving, it takes effort to move it, but as you fill in the blanks it will be easier and easier to create material. In this case coherency can be both a great help and a really powerful tool, because if something is “wrong” you have an “instant mistery” (as in “why the caravans that left the village last week never made it to the city?”).
  • the biggest asset tho was to have no idea whatsoever of what would happen next. I often riff off my player’s ideas because, well, if it’s fun to “say yes”, it’s even funnier to run away with them.

For me, improvisation is a skill that needs practice and can be helped a lot by the right tools. It requires confidence from the DM and willingness to risk (both to be wiped out and to have a bad game) from players. It’s definitely thepart of running games that I prefer, and with practice it gets more and more effective and easier. It’s just a matter of getting started.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 2: your players are unique snowflakes a.k.a. psychographics are lame

All the posts in the serie here.

Picking up where I left last time

This post was supposed to be about players psychographics and what drives them and how to deal with that but the topic has been discussed, dissected & bled dry so many times I don’t feel the need to even go near it.

Instead I’d like to go meta on that and spend a couple of words on the relationship between your players and your game. If this sounds like utter poppycock to you, leave a comment:

  • they’re all different: different people means different needs means different things they get out of playing, and different ways of moving in social spaces. If you’re friends with them, cherish the thought that you know how to handle them in meatspace and realize that it takes great people to completely separate what happen in game and what happens around the table, because by its own nature of gamespace is subversive and used to behave in ways not possible in real life. Don’t pidgeonhole players in the usual G/N/S or whichever taxonomy they invented this month: as you have 5-10 people and not 5-10 hundred thousand, you can afford to treat them as unique snowflakes. This allows you to put treats and challenges in your game for all of them. It’s not so much work…
  • on a more general level, in all games, but in RPGs evermore so, every participant is perfectly able to spoil the fun of everyone else, so partially responsible for everyone else’s fun. Don’t play with dicks, and don’t be a dick yourself. This applies even more in sandboxes as there’s no shame involved with derailing the plot, killing important NPCs or torching villages.
  • ask them for feedback: what makes them tick and what ticks them off about how you and other players play. There are some games I’ve run lately which seemed totally lame to me but, after soliciting feedback from my players, were great fun. To get better you need to learn from your errors and your successes, but to tell them apart you need feedback. Also, when things happen at the table take a note (mental or otherwise) of how people react: feedback asked might be not totally genuine for a number of reasons, so understanding how they react to events is very important. Think ethnographer.
  • you’ll see patterns of behaviour: for example, my group never scouts any location. Never ever, and their retinue has a number of rogues. Yours might always scrutinize every corner of every room for treasure, or they might always play wiseguy with all NPCs. If and how you want to use this knowledge as DM is up to you: plot is a metagame element usually absent from sandboxes (at least in its traditional sense of “predetermined string of events that are the focus of the attention”) but you can always metagame in other directions.
  • knowing what they want is easy: ask them! They probably don’t need exactly what they want, but it can be a nudge in the right direction. In general in a sandbox they’ll pursue activities they like (think Pavlov’s dog) and avoid what they don’t, so if they never scout it might be because they don’t like it or because they don’t like falling back or running away (also known as: I’m insecure and I don’t want to fail also in gamespace).

So, yes, you created your world and it’s a shining and beautiful gem but to remember to think of how your end users will interact with it.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.