Friday, February 12, 2021

Thoughts On Making A Big Artsy Fartsy Megadungeon

So, I think I mentioned during my fantasy heartbreaker post I’ve been working on my Megadungeon for some time now. It feels like three years. Although more likely just over one. I take a long time to brainstorm, and then write stuff down. 

I initially told my friends in private about my idea in 2018 (I’m hoping to do initial play through this year), after having played a few sessions of another megadungeon, a big artsy-fartsy one. It was my first time playing both an OSR system and also first time playing in a dungeon in years. When WebDM says Megadungeon play is Mainlining D&D heroin directly into your eyeballs, I wanna let you know that’s exactly what it is. I’m gonna be chasing that dragon till I’m mouldering in my own crypt. It firmly solidified my love of old-school play and also dungeons. 

Since then I’ve constantly read about dungeons, watched videos, looked at crazy places for ideas. Copious research. All the while tinkering with this thing I decided I wanted to build. An epic, bloated, monstrous thing that cannot be wrangled or handled in one go. I’ve stuck world-ending monsters, primordial giants, celestial gods, and the foulest nightmares in the deepest parts of this thing. All the while learning, plotting, whetting my blades in anticipation of adventurers to devour.

Also it’s a giant pile of bullshit, and I cannot draw a map to save my ass.

So, I have done and added in all kinds of weird shit into this thing/place and invented levels and had “good ideas” left and right. Example: making one level a giant worm-god, who’s organs are the rooms of the dungeon, be speared in two by a fallen space ship, and thus wrapped around it like a needle/fishing-hook. 

That does not map well, at all. Nor does it, like, lend itself to super traditional treasures/etc. This makes it hard to steal liberally from other authors and borrow the usual kinda of things like coins and magic weapons from them. To say the least of things like the sheer availability of maps and such online. 

Don’t get me wrong: it’s beautiful, it’s different, it’s weird-ass shit man, but that has to be tempered with ease of playability. And I think that, when I make my next Megadungeon, that might take precedence. I might run with something pre-made like Barrowmaze, Arden Vul, or Castle Whiterock. Something that’s a little more forgiving in its design so that I can like... just grab a map pack and work on inventing monsters. 

Clearly, a cartographer, I am not. 

I wasn’t kidding about the world-ending monsters either. My players could intentionally or inadvertently let them loose. So much for my homebrew world. That being said, the danger being very real is a clear OSR concept I love to death, and I welcome having my homebrew wrecked. Others, like Cavegirl with her especially fantastic “Gardens of Ynn” have certainly brave enough to include some Horrific monsters. 

After I get through with this, I’m gonna be working on figuring out the various challenges and puzzles to perplex my parties that play through this place. Unlike combat, which has been a codified and mainstay focus of D&D and other TTRPGs for years, the design and application of puzzles is mostly anecdotal, limited to blogs and one book (which I’m not currently enjoying as it has too many combat encounters).

And and after that I get to make up all the treasure. Did I mention the map again? 

The point is that my last blog about holistic design in a dungeon and Megadungeon is taxing and can make your head fell like your brain is mostly runny eggs. It’s at this point in time (where I’m at now) that I’m mostly feeling a “Thanks, I hate it” element to my monstrosity as it wheezes in the various notes of my slush pile. I’m reminded of the advice of one of my favorite mini painters in that, as you work on a creative piece, you’ll eventually get to a point where you hate it, and you can’t stand the sight of it, and you think it’s garbage. But the answer is to keep working on it.

So in an effort to shirk my work on this thing, and also in the interest of writing just to see my words on screen, lemme tell you how I have made and/or am making this thing: 

  1. I brainstormed up a bunch of different levels with various “themes” or elements I loved, like giant psychic bees, or mixing Saturday morning cartoons with classic modules from ages past. 
  2. Completely fuck everything up by not knowing what direction to go in next. I’ve made dungeons before, but not nine levels of a Megadungeon with 30+ rooms a level.
  3. Decide that one level should be a 60+ hex grid crawl full of elves you have to write your own elf names for, which is weird cause you don’t even like elves. 
  4. Recycle old content from something you wrote years ago that’s only slightly incongruous to your current play style. Write some major NPCs for each level.
  5. Keep recycling. Use that slush pile, this is why it exists. Start naming rooms and figuring out what is weird and special about each level, things like magical forges and cosmic torture racks, etc.
  6. After idly and unfocused working on bits and bobs here and there, get yourself together and make this list: 

1) Map Each Section

2) Populate the areas afterwards, including cross pollinating from other areas

3) Take Each Area Through the Rule of 3

4) Go through Goblin Punch’s Dungeon Checklist

5) Playtest

This is actually where I’m currently at. I’m not even done with step one of part six, but obviously I’m gonna be including magic items and other loot for my players. I also need to revisit some blog articles to try and steal some better ideas to restate for my stuff. 

Some of you may be asking, “Crypt Thing, what’s the Rule of 3?” Well, it’s this:

Per 10 rooms Your dungeon should have:

3 should have NPCs

3 Should Have Interesting Things

3 Puzzles/Traps (all should have multiple ways of being solved)

3 Secrets/Knowledge

3 Treasure (2 mundane 1 magical, keep magic feeling like magic)

3 Combat (2 Potential and 1 direct, more if your party is especially warlike)

1 Empty

And I know what you’re thinking “What?! That’s way more than 3! That’s way more than the ten rooms! Your math is whack!” Well, duh. The idea is that... too many empty rooms makes for a dull dungeon. And all rooms become empty when you kill everything else inside. The concept is you want to keep dramatic tension and narrative flow happening. This can be done many ways, but NPCs are the primary means of exposition. Beyond that, it encourages good social role-play in the dungeon. And there’s nothing that says you can’t lump multiple of these things in the same room. Or that you can’t have the treasure or the monster be the interesting thing. Or that the NPC is the combat, or the Monster itself is the treasure. It’s kind of mix and match and loosey-goosey that way. It’s really just a guideline that I use to remind myself of how “busy” the dungeon should feel.

I think the most pertinent element of all this is: a Megadungeon doesn’t get built unless you’re working on it. Do the work. And my current method of building it wholly now ahead of time isn’t the easiest way of doing things. But I am working on it, and I think that my method is gonna pay off, it just doesn’t feel like it right now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Dungeon Design For Beginners 102

So, this blog post is gonna get a bit heady and we’re gonna move into some deep-think spaces. I’m also gonna reference several blog posts, YouTube videos, and books you may or not be familiar with. That’s ok, I promise to give the title and author, and trust that you are capable of searching out this info if so desired for a more rounded and complete understanding of my thought processes. 

So, like most of the things that provoke me to scream into the void, someone in one of my various social-media groups made a complaint the other day. It was about dungeons, and specifically about megadungeons, which are a personal favorite. 

So, their complaint was on megadungeons effectively being... procedurally generated or non-sensical in nature. I disagree with them heavily based off my own experiences with dungeon play, which is my favorite kind of D&D adventure. Not to say that I cannot or do not see where they are coming from. I think that for those who have taken the barest steps into dungeon creation (filling an underground labyrinth with monsters and traps before turning the party loose upon it) it can leave certain players perplexed. Asking not the usual questions of “what do they eat?” or “where do they poop?” or “how did these owlbears eat so much gold and +1 swords?”, but rather “why?”. Why the dungeon? Why are the monsters in this room? Why are goblins green (or orange)? And most likely “why doesn’t this make sense? What is missing?”

Now you may certainly be saying “Oh CryptThing! This is a simple matter is dungeon-ecology! And giving your dungeon and monsters an appropriate backstory!” But I think it is far from that. It is a matter of dungeon-ecology from a narrative viewpoint, but also a matter to be handled from a Game Board view, and also a matter of (likely) boring numerical combat for room after room with rolling dice to find and eliminate traps and search empty rooms rather than using descriptions to achieve the appropriate details to get adventurers to investigate.

A lot, and I mean a LOT of stuff has been written and said about Dungeon Ecology. Ben at Questing Beast on YouTube has a lovely series of videos he’s working on now and goes into detail on the subject, and it’s been outlined in the dungeon and Megadungeon videos by WebDM and Nerdarchy as well, all available for free online.

From a narrative standpoint, a room full of goblins has to have at least three, if not four other rooms. This goblins have to eat, sleep, shit, and occupy their time somehow. Not every monster is comfortable living in its own droppings, like a penned in rat. Not every monster just kills and eats adventurers (ok, maybe some dragons do, but only some!) all day with no vegetables. And beyond undead monsters don’t just sit waiting for adventurers for eternity. Monsters, like NPCs, should have wants, needs, loves, and hates. For a lot of NPCs, I improv it. For some though (even minor ones) I write down at least what my monsters want and love, so that I know what to do if Characters interact with them. So a good example is like this: 

“Fartfang the Goblin

Imagine the two smelliest people you know and imagine they ate runny eggs and raw garlic for lunch and are the size of a toddler, but skinny, green, and cranky.

Loves: stinky cheese, picked eggs, colorful bugs and trinkets, little knives, raw meat, limericks, secret doors, friends, sugary foods, the color red

Wants: To find his way out of the lair of the Weeping Minotaur, to make new friends, to play pranks on adults, red paint, to play hide and seek, to prank adults”

And like, this is just a random NPC. He’s not a leader of a group, who may or may not be concerned with their group as a whole. But you should think of them that way. Also, this isn’t new advice, but if your referee struggles here, I suggest asking leading questions to try to garner more information out of them. 

The next bit is trickier. We’ve talked about traps before, and how I think they should be treated as puzzles, for the variance in challenge that they provide for the players at your table. For more information on that, see my blog post “Your Puzzles Need A Bypass” and for examples see my post “Three Traps”. If every trap you have is a poison needle in a door or a tripwire that requires perception to notice, I’d say you’re handling traps wrong. 

I’ve also written about combat encounters before, and how to keep them fresh and interesting. But the big take-away there was from (the most excellent and recommended) The Tome of Adventure Design by Frog God Games: combat encounters are only ever as fun as they are game-boards. This doesn’t have to be done with minis, it can be done with theater of the mind. My prior examples of “ten goblins in an empty room” and “ten goblins riding giant wasps as you have to climb a lattice-work wall” still stands. 

Here’s the kicker where things get complex: you have to combine those ideas for some (at least your core) rooms. Meaning that, for a good, interesting dungeon, a regular number of rooms must be filled with weird terrain and interesting combat. I’d even go so far as to say, “the more you give your players to interact with, the more likely they are to get creative, and thus have fun.” 

The real trick here is that this requires you to have a little improv flexibility, sound referee calls, and the ability to encourage and reward off-character sheet thinking. This can lead to a dilemma I call “The Feast Hall Fight”, where every time I set up a feasting hall for my players to fight in, it immediately goes to swords and spells and players running around the tables instead of jumping on them or under them, or kicking food into the face of enemies. It never turns into a damned food fight with the barbarian kicking plates into hobgoblin faces like a 90s high-school show. These are basically two sides of the same coin: one being a lack of things to interact with within the world, the other being a lack of interacting with the world and just interacting with the system.

This is further complicated in that these combined skills must and will be tested more as you add in other elements to the dungeon. Dungeons and megadungeons will feel more real and more alive if you include factions and NPCs and include traps/puzzles and fully flesh out the inside of the area you’re planning. 

“But Crypt Thing!” You cry, “That’s literally just one extra step and then the rest of usual world-building!” Yes. Exactly. I think that’s the problem is that people don’t too often view the dungeon as it’s own world, or a microcosm. And the crux of the matter is that a lot of dungeons are just caves with giant rats rather than separate fantastic realities. 

I think that dungeons should have a holistic approach to their design. Goblin Punch’s “Dungeon Checklist” is mandatory for dungeons. I also think the design approaches in Patrick Stuart’s “Silent Titans” is another damn fine example of holistic dungeon design. 

Here’s what I really think is the root cause of boring games for other players: people design the games the way they play them. And I don’t think this is good or works well. I think part of that holistic design process is stepping out of your shell and making things in a way that thinks differently than you do. 

Firm Opinion: Good games are designed so that players that have fun or interact with the game in a different way than the designer are capable of having fun. You need to make your games fun for everyone. 

That goes for dungeons too. 

When I’m working on my current megadungeon, as I design encounters, I already have a step on my list of “make sure to include tactical engagement” because I have a friend who thinks tactically. I have a friend who loves to solve puzzles, so including those is pertinent to my design. I asked my friends what they wanted to see in my Megadungeon, and one told me “a love story” so I have one of those in there. Another said “a true friend” and there’s definitely the potential for those in there. 

The idea of the above examples is that, as a referee, I’m thinking of my players wants and how they choose to interact with the game first. And I think this is the key element to being a good Dungeon Master, or referee, or whatever you call yourself. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020


Goblinization is a plague upon the land, and one not often understood by adventurers until it is too late. All three predominant species of goblins (goblins proper, hobgoblins, and bugbears) have root cause in the same source: 


It is not unknown for those Devil-Witches Descendant to grow a third enchanted teat from which they naturally produce Witchmilk, a potent sorcerous elixir that transmogrifies those that drink it into bestial, horrific creatures of the Old Dark from which there is no change or escape. Their lives dramatically altered into the darkest mirror of themselves: Because all bugbears were once men and women of the world, hobgoblins youths and teens, and goblins children. 

Children are preferred, and this is oft why witches are fond of kidnapping and secreting away with babes in the night. This also explains goblins’ magic so very well: it is a mockery of the non-sensical wild imaginations of those very beings they once were. This also explains their love for malicious pranks, especially on adults or those who have wronged children, and also why goblins will never hurt a child: they see themselves as children still. This is also why they remain servile to their witchmothers and kindly Grannies as Hags. Often, goblins will grow lonely, and seek to bring children back to their granmama for cookies and witchmilk, because they desire to quite literally make a friend. The goblin-transformation is so complete it perverts even the simple childish desire for companionship.

Hobgoblins are a different matter all together. Teenagers experience a constantly changing world of rebellion, half of the fruition into adulthood, and the angst of what often feels like being in the wrong parts of those two. But a Hag can offer an escape, an answer to their twisted and maligned bodies and broken feelings, an order to the madness of life. Youth in revolt now become orderly soldiers, stoic spartan warrior-kin, loyal to their god-queens beneath. No one ever listens, and now via the magical nature of their voice, whole tribes of smaller goblin-kind and rank and file hobgoblins and bugbears fall underneath their command and they execute other’s will, just as they are told. 

Bugbears come from adults who fall prey to a Hag’s schemes, or worse: those who intentionally sought out a Hag for her power. Bugbears are brutish dunces gifted more of muscle than of mind, yet one has to wonder if this is a result of the transformation, or merely a common factor amongst those duped by those witchwork masters. No matter the case, their bodies now goblinized, bugbears are privvy to the ability to see in the dark and possessed of ogreish muscle and equally foul tempers. From their true goblin cousins they often learn to skulk and hide in the dark, and they are subject to hobgoblins’ commanding presence, often serving as shock-troops for whatever tactics they form. When all you have is a hammer...

This brings to mind the question of why Hags? And are all goblins servile to them? It certainly can seem that way, but isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes Hags make goblins just because they can and move on, and other times they seek to craft a personal army. Often times goblins befriend or become attached to other creatures in lieu of their makers. Often times this creature is worse. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

In Defense of Dinosaurs

So, a while back somebody had commented something or other about dinosaurs in one of the various RPG subgroups I follow, and all I really remember about it was apparently some people find the inclusion of dinosaurs in RPGs to be highly divisive. Well, I’m here to say that the detractors are wrong, dinosaurs are great, and I don’t care if you don’t like them, they’re awesome.

Too many people I find want to categorize dragons by the number of limbs, malign intellect, whether or not it breathes fire, or what have you. Damnable scientific categorizing seems impossible to escape in our reality: from Monsters by type in the Monster Manuals to the Witcher 3’s giant lists. I’m largely of the opinion of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” that “science kills the myth”. That’s the whole reason Van Helsing exists, that reason puts aside our cowering at superstition. 

In the faerie takes I read growing up, the lines between fae, devil, and ghost were often blurred, so much so that Old Scratch was replaceable by King Nuada or Father Christmas depending upon the tale. Which is much more in line with my homebrew and thinking.

Thus many may find it contentious, but I’m of the opinion that Big Reptile=Dragon. Wyverns are a kind of dragon, sea-serpents are dragons, Godzilla is a dragon, and yes, dinosaurs are dragons, thus “Dungeons and Dragons” means that Dinosaurs are included in that group.

In the words of the French death metal band Gojira, “Dragons are The Myth Alive in The Hearts of Men.” Dinosaurs are the first element we ever learn of as children that tells us that dragons are real, and we have a mythic world lost to us ages ago. This is pertinent in any form of storytelling, as it opens the gates of our imaginations from early on, and many fantasy tropes and settings are predicated off of the Lost Age or post-apocalyptic setting. Especially if your world has dungeons from a time before, it isn’t that hard to imagine your world once had an earlier Age of Fire, where true dragons and their dinosaur cousins warred for supremacy over the unbroken Pangea that once was. 

Further, Dinosaurs have a certain je ne sais quoi about them that sparks our imagination. Gygax himself was notorious for his use of the now-labeled “chinasaurs” that became monsters of icon and celebrity within our hobby, such as the Bulette, the Owlbear, and the Rust Monster. As we constantly remix and tell old tales anew, invariably we’ll seek to amalgamate creatures into new chimeras. I, personally think that Gygax was ahead of the trend with the little plastic beasts he brought to the table, and would encourage you to step off from this starting point as well. 

Here’s my take at remixing Lizardmen as a playable species using Dinosaurs that I made earlier this year:

Lizardmen/Dinosaur Men

You are descended from one of the great saurian peoples from the Age of Dragons, living weapons against the apes-who-became-men. Your Scaled hide is always treated as having leather armor. You have a tail that acts as an unarmed strike (you are proficient with your tail and any ancestry weapons/abilities) and are never unarmed. Choose your ancestry: 

Carnage Tyrants: Gain d6 bite attack, and advantage on STR checks made to grapple. You may Roar 1/day to inspire Fear in opponents (Save vs your STR score)

Pack Talons: Speed is increased by 10 and you may jump to attack twice with toe claws 1d4. You also have Pack Tactics ability (advantage in melee if enemy is engaged with allies).

Thunder Guards: Your head crest and horns always count as having a shield and you may gore with your horns on a charge for 2d6 damage.

Armored Sentinels: Your armored back plates always count as plate armor instead of leather, and your spiked and/or clubbed tail is considered to be a Warhammer/pick 1d8.

Skyview Behemoths: You count as one size larger for carrying capacity/grappling. Your massive neck lets you crane around corners and over objects to peer about with advantage to stealth. 

Swampland Rangers: You swim as fast as you move, and encumbrance doesn’t affect your swim speed. You can also hold your breath for constitution score in rounds. You may also bellow once a day as a full action, nauseating any non-swampland rangers around you (save vs your constitution score)

Friday, June 19, 2020

A Serious Note On Playing Pretend

So it seems inevitable that I’ll have to address this, as every other blog in existence is currently, and days of seeing it repeated across every nerd-ball and elf-games group I belong to has it entrenched in my brain. 

Wizards of the coast finally addressed the elephant in the room a lot of us have been talking about for some time in that some of their depictions have been racist. In this case, they focused a bit on orcs and drow, but the clearly racist Romani stand-ins from Curse of Stahd are the ones I was the most happy to see addressed. Frankly, the last of those was egregious and something I thought WotC would have addressed before 5e Ravenloft’s publication, but apparently not. 

Orcs’ origins with Tolkien have always had a problematic element. If you disagree, I encourage you to check out the Tolkien Gateway section on such, and read the article on The Conversation written by Dimitra Fimi. While I don’t think Tolkien was a bigot, I also don’t pretend he didn’t write some of the things he did about people that looked different. I also don’t inherently think D&D orcs are the same as Tolkien’s orcs, the same as Warcraft Orcs, and definitely not the same as Warhammer Orks, but that’s a whole separate post on the “our orcs are different”.

Drow frankly have been through the wringer. The earliest art I ever saw of drow depicted Drizzt as an old wrinkly white dude with purple eyes and white hair. It wasn’t until I read the book that I knew his skin was black, and the first art I saw depicting thus had him as a brown skinned elf. I thought it was cool that elves, like humans could be of every different skin color, and that anybody could be what Tolkien described as the “fairest of all people.” Representation is important, and people of color deserve to see themselves as part of a magical world as much as anyone else. But like... except for Drizzt, canonically almost all drow are evil. Which is, frankly boring as fuck and reads like race hate propaganda from the High Elves or Eladrin or whatever they’re called in Faerun these days. And then drow went from being like, black skinned to grey to bluish purple. It was a tacit “we know this is offensive to people of color so let’s change it” without a direct apology or admission that it was. 

I’ve also admittedly been too vague on this blog in the past that elves are among my least favorite elements of the game. They smack too heavily of tolkienic fantasy, and the lazy world building “race-as-monoculture” too often associated with D&D. I think the drow suffer the heaviest from this. I’ve stated before to others I see little difference between considering yourself better than another species and actually acting that way, which is definitely a feel I get from elves. This is why in my home-brew I often move all elves to True Fae adjacent, like Material Plane cousins to their monstrously extradimensional kin. But further and greater than lazy world-building, I think writing “all of X species are baaad!” is piss-poor writing, and I’ve seen so, so much of it in RPGs and LARP and other locations. Moreso, what you’re saying is that, even if it is fiction, you’re willing to entertain the idea that all people of X are evil. X in the previous sentence being whichever factor (ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, identity, etc) is most likely to get under your skin. Think about that for a few seconds.

Not that I think that evil cultures and societies can’t be written well, or don’t exist. I have a friend who models her drow society on Nazi-era Germany, which is absolutely horrifying and (in my opinion) thematically on-point for elves. I’ve spoken before in my blog about the inclusion of cannibal cults and moving away from orcs as Villain-employed Cannon Fodder. You can have bad-guys who are bad, just make them bad due to their actions not due to the way they look or their species. Don’t build lazy worlds. Don’t fall into the species=monoculture trap.

You may also note I’ve made it a habit to say species often here when talking about the difference between humans, elves, tree-people, or what-not. If you’ve read this blog before you know a heavy influence on my style of gaming is “Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville, which features a whole host of different peoples living together of weird, wild assortment: Ant-headed insect people, walking cactus people with wooden bones, gargoyle creatures that can fly and all kinds of not-human fantasticness. Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, The Justice League, all sorts of stories have fantastic non-human characters we love, and I believe that’s part of what makes fantasy so fantastic is our inclusion of non-human peoples. I’m largely of the opinion that the more the merrier with weird things to play, and that having an assortment of living beings makes your fantastic setting vibrant and bright.

Even then, “species” is only a temporary fix, as that puts the focus on biological differences. I’ve read some players opting for the term “ancestries” or “heritages” which I think is probably stronger. If I’m not mistaken, the second edition of Pathfinder works like this, but I admittedly haven’t touched the game in a few years. 

To this end, I think Holmes’s had it right: make your character whatever kind of person you want, skip any dumb “bonuses” and keep the dice and numbers small. This is also why I’ve mostly ran exclusively human games lately. Full Disclosure: this thought comes at a time when I just finished writing three non-human species for my own world, and deciding what bonuses both they and humans get (surprise surprise, no ability score bonuses). I’m wondering if I’m going to include species as a game-play affecting element now.

If you’ve made it his far, I really encourage you to track down The Public Medievalist and read their post “Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre”. It outlines, and links to even more, problems with a lot of the inclusions of the term “race” within the game and the malign stereotypes it’s yet to distance itself from, and does a great job closing on some inclusive modern fantasy. 

I think Wizards made the right call here by admitting they were wrong, and stating they’d work better towards a brighter, more inclusive future. I think there’s always more room at the table, and that a more diverse and strong host of fantasy worlds leads to a more diverse and strong real world, for all of us. I also hope that if you’re reading this, you too choose to do the same. 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Homebrew Happiness

Part One: The Perfect System Doesn’t Exist

So I’ve been reading my older Red Box and Holmes Blue book, and thinking a lot about what characters and what players get out of D&D (because they are very different things). 

Moreso, I’ve been thinking about the OSR in general, and am looking to reread my copies of Mörk Borg, Swords and Wizardry, and the monumental task of rereading DCC. I’ve also been playing a lot, mostly some 5e as well as some Wrath and Glory, which seems like a very re-skinned Shadowrun with some elements from Don’t Rest Your Head and World of Darkness. 

So I have a lot of systems in my brain fresh right now. And a lot of thoughts about various systems, but mostly pertaining to “General Fantasy” Gaming. Take your pick of high, low, or anywhere in between. All of them are great. All of them have flaws. A lot follow that cool new minimalist trend, which as a busy adult with a 40+ hour a week job, I’m grateful for. Some of them have EVERYTHING written down, which is glorious, especially when I can sink some real teeth in. None are perfect. And that’s ok. 

What I find troubling currently is my current habit of making the game fit my personal tastes in fantasy, some of my preferred mechanics that highlight character mechanical diversity (often through various plug-and-play options, though as time goes on I’m eschewing this for player creativity), and the tar-pit of making everyone happy. 

Finding the right mix of rules that reflect fluff and vice-versa is tough. My current homebrew world currently has only  humans as a playable option. Further, they don’t receive racial bonuses as described in the book. I get a lot of flak for this. “Is this a low-magic world?” No. “Is this low-fantasy?” No. “This is lame. 5e is baked-in high fantasy. There are other systems that do this better.” No. No no no no no no no. No. D&D always has been whatever kind of fantasy you want it to be. They wouldn’t have supplements for other, non-generic settings if it wasn’t. In my case, I want Weird Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Non-Tolkienic Fantasy. I want my world to feel “Vaguely Familiar, Yet Wondrously Fantastic.” And I do want my rules to reflect that. 

I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to have an entire party of X Class and have them all feel and play different. Conan and Fafhrd are both barbarians. Elric and The Gray Mouser are both sorcerers. All of them are swordsmen. None of them feel the same, I’m sure they don’t play the same either. The current option(s) put out by The Big Publisher are many-fold: class, sub-class progression, the option to include feats, etc. Also multiclassing, but honestly I’m so burnt on this from 3e powergaming, it just feels boring to me, narrowed down to niche builds and chicanery, one or two trick ponies. Plus I really like the party roles filled by the big 4 of classes, and dislike characters who are good at everything. A team of specialists is vastly better than one superhero, in my humble opinion. This has had several workarounds in the past, but I’ve yet to find one I like that other gamers do too. A lot of my friends have a power gamer or tactician streak and making their character mechanically is one of the most exciting parts of the game (which for me, is boring).

And as you can already tell, I want my friends to be happy too. A referee who’s players aren’t happy soon finds themself without players, as the age-old adage goes. But you can’t please everyone, and if I tried to make all my players happy, none of them would be. Even I have my limits, and I think that establishing firm boundaries within your homebrew world is a smart plan. Not that I’m not open to having my players influence my world. If a player comes to me with, say a homebrewed class or something they think would fit, or they just really really really really want to play an Elf, I’m always more inclined to say “yes, but” rather than “No.” 

This all hits home doubly hard when expectations comes into play. If I say I’m running a game of Shadowrun, you expect troll samurai and hacker wizards. If I say I’m running a game of World of Darkness you expect vampires and werewolves and dark alleys and horror. If I say I want to run a game of D&D... well, what most players expect likely isn’t  Fritz Liber meets China Miéville, let alone Darkest Dungeon meets Skyrim with a dose of Heavy Metal Magazine. And that’s just fluff, if you say you’re running 5e... then all kinds of mechanical and crunch expectations come into play. 

Which I suppose brings me to Part Two of this whole Mess:

Part Two: Frankensystem

That’s right, we both knew it was gonna come to this.

If I want my rules to reflect the fluff and vice-versa I’m gonna have to use my brain some, and not just cutting things out of 5e. I’m gonna have to start from the ground up and put together a Frankensystem. I’m 100% cool with stealing liberally from the various incarnations of D&D throughout the years, and likely most comfortable with AD&D elements, but maybe also some B/X and BECMI, mostly Holmesian stuff. Honestly, I’m stone cold stealing from other games’ systems or just making up rules, as I’ve done in the past. I’m heavily inclined to “Rulings, Not Rules” and most of my friend circle is fine with “Weird Hipster D&D” as they’ve called it, or at least they know I’m doing this.

Now why? Why this much work? Because I’m unhappy with RaW. Because I don’t want to tell a story about Tolkienic Marvel’s Avengers. Because the math is just terribly huge for my itty-bitty old-man brain. Because combat isn’t fast and I’m not scared no matter which side of the screen I’m on. Because the math is faster and easier when played on a computer instead of with friends. Because nobody does anything besides hit with weapons or cast their spells or sneak attack in combat encounters. Because the mechanics reward this. Because I go shopping for magic items instead of plumbing the depths of some crumbling ruin or an archaic deathtrap for them. Because I want my players to feel a sense of wonder and exploration. Because I want them to have a sense of genuine discovery. Because I want magic to feel magical again. Because I want to be 11 year old me sitting down in my friend’s house during a thunderstorm to play for the first time in every game. Because I want 11 year old me to be able to play the game, and love the world that’s built for it. Because I want it better than the games I was actually playing and running at that age. And because, in my experience, I tend to always run the games I wish I could play, and that seems to make my friends the happiest.

Now, Frankensystems can be pretty terribad and clunky, but I’m gonna try to minimize that. The simpler the rule, the easier it is to learn. May not be the better for X purpose, but that’s ok. Generally, simpler is better for me, as an adult. So I’m gonna try to focus on Ease Of Use without sacrificing too much depth. Personally I find Frankensystems (or regular systems) get weird and awkward and awful when they try to do too much, too fast; or when they focus on balance first instead of fun. “Balance” in a game can go out the window unless something is magnificently broken at face value. If the janky game-break requires your character to purchase a thousand shields kept in a bag of holding, the rule isn’t broken, your GM is too lax on the magical and mundane items they’re handing out, and your adventurer should be out adventuring instead of living in a tavern and waiting on their private smith to deliver their weekly dose of shields. Openly broken isn’t the same as stacking synergies either, and power gamers and munchkins are gonna find loopholes and gaps no matter what. I, personally, am grateful for their assistance in patching the bugs in the system.

A big advantage is that Frankensystems are extremely flexible, gloriously so. Especially if they’re just bolted together from other systems, blogs, rulings, and home brews out there. Dislike the skill system? Yeet it and pick another from a different game. Want to play a classless system? Let’s players choose either any “class” ability for that level or a feat every time. That doesn’t work? Try something else. If anything trying to make a Frankensystem will get you experimenting and home brewing on your own. I’d say be cognizant though that what works for one group may not work for all. So be open, be responsive, and be flexible.

I don’t know when I’m gonna be done with this, or if I ever will be, but I do know that as I progress, I’ll try to put a google doc up of all my homebrew rules for all of you all to steal and experiment on to your heart’s content. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

A Fistful of Woodland Hex Happenings

For those who don’t know my personal life, I have a younger sibling who’s going to be introducing their significant other to D&D soon. They’ve asked to play a game where they’re a woodland ranger type, and a gnome. My younger sibling asked me to help them craft a small hex crawl for their paramour, and knowing them I thought it best that it be kind of... fairy-tale-esque. While I do specialize in folklore type worlds, I imagine they are looking for something a little more idyllic than my usual fare. My worlds are a little less like Disney and a little more like The Brothers Grimm. I also know my sibling plays a bit more on the mainstream side, and is only really just now dipping their toes into the OSR. 

So this is largely taken from myself spitballing ideas, and once I hit a roll I asked my sibling’s permission to turn it into a really raw blog post. I can’t even figure out how to get my fonts the same size today.

Anyways, here is a hunch of hexes or points or squares and some content for a hex crawl for a gnome ranger in a more standard game. You could easily port any of this into your own world, especially if you were looking to do something a little less Elmore and a little more Froud.

So when doing hex crawls, I lay out my terrain with an event or two happening in the hex. Typically I list what players can see, hear, or otherwise notice (smell, magic, etc) from the hexes around them. This means they’ll go in one of those six directions.

I should also specify I tried to throw some hooks in here to more typical D&D fare, including a likely dungeon and some larger and nastier baddies where combat will likely be unavoidable, as well as a few gribblies. 

So I would start with the character’s home hex. Like, a hollowed our tree. Likely under the tree/stump is a home, similar to Gummy Bears/Hobbit homes

I would also describe the trees as huge. Redwoods. These are Primordial woodlands. Bumblewort lives under a stump with his family. He is a Knight Errant of Badgers. His father, King Brindlewood, and his mother, Queen Bramblewyrd, rule gently and strongly. They have an excellent pact with the local druids.

Bumblewort, Prince of All Badgers is a L/G Celestial Dire Badger who Rages 1/Day (Totem Warrior Bear Powers) and Smites 1/Day (2d8) his HD (d12) are double the PCs. At 4HD his powers increase to 2/day, 6 HD 3/day (max). STR 18 Dex 10 Con 20 Int 8 Wis 12 Cha 14. Proficient In Survival, Diolomacy, and Nature. AC 16

I’m thinking that the Badger family is a lot like the gods of Princess Mononoke. Something more than just physically large beasts, something Spirit-worldly as well.

The Druid Circle’s hex contains their Nemeton, centered with a menhir and a sacred Oak, and all their tree-house homes. One Druid should live outside the hex, and your character is on good terms with him. 

There should be a hex that’s a gnome village with like, civilization in stuff, but rural and pastoral.

You can use any of these NPCs for rescue ops, fetch quest contacts, or just flavor.

Two to three hexes should have a river passing through them. One should have a mill, whether for grist or for lumber is up to you. 

One should be home to a family of giant otters because those are adorable: Misses Fishes

One hex should be a Bog, and in it is a Hag’s Hut. The Hag doesn’t cause trouble for the forest, cause there’s humans with a farm closer to her. She IS causing trouble for them. But the humans just moved in, and haven’t invoked the protection of the druids. They likely don’t even know. It would be the character’s job as ranger to inform them. Magatha has been trouble from the start.

There should be a hex with a cave. That’s where the Nailbiter Goblin Clan lives. They recently had to boot out a bunch of their clan due to 1) Not enough food and 2) they caught ten of them or so cutting deals with Magatha for magic sticks.

Clan Chief Pewpsiedaisy Nailbiter the Second explicitly says only Refluxicus Farts the Shaman can have a magic stick. It isn’t fair otherwise. 

Refluxicus has lost his magic stick, as it was stolen by Giant Crows and put into their nest. Weird things might happen if it’s left there. Bad weird things. Or he could get a better magic stick from the the newly formed Handbiter clan.

There may also be a hex with a lake. This is pertinent because Athalariel the Water Nymph lives here. She desperately wants to fall in love, but insists she fall in love with a Knight. The only Knight available is technically Sir Scabzalot, a goblin paladin of (deity of love and poetry)... but he’s a goblin, he doesn’t count. That farm boy might make a handsome knight... 

She’ll likely drown him though unless someone can fix that. Maybe a Druid?

The farm has a pickle. And by a pickle I mean a lot of pickles. They win the blue ribbon at the county fair every year. They have enough to feed a small army, or maybe some hungry goblins. Especially if you swapped the cucumbers for fish heads.

The gnome village also competes in the county fair every year. And Ingleglitz Edgecutter is tired of losing to the humans. He’s willing to pay for “an accident” to happen to the pickles.

Fritz Glittergleam is a heartbroken gnome who just sighs and shirks work all day. He was in love but rejected. Maybe a date might help him back on his feet.

At the edge of the forest, where it meets the mountains, Garaz Skulltaker, orc Hunt-Master, has had several of his finest hunters go missing from their latest boar hunt. He fears they may have met a terrible fate seeking a glory hunt of the local Owlbear, Night-Scar, rather than Wild Boar. 

Far to the East and north of the farm, Captain Brighthelm of the Kingdom’s Leonine Guard has captured several armed Orcs he believes are raiders. He is mistaken. He has four armed watchmen with him, and three captured orcs. The orcs are no raiders, they can’t even hunt. They got caught inside of one of their own traps.

In the mountains to the north, just above the forest overlooking the near-frozen stream where most people fish for salmon and trout, lies the cave Night-Scar the owlbear calls her home. Inside is a clutch of three eggs. She must find a way to feed her young when they hatch, and boar carcasses are hard to find due to increased hunting by the Skulltaker orcs. 

Further north in the mountains, lies the sealed entrance to Doomsayer Crypt. 

At the bottom of the mountain, opposite the side of the Skulltaker Settlement, lies the secret entrance, now opened by a poor Dwarven spelunker, to Doomsayer Crypt. 

Once Men Dug the Earth for gleaming gold here, and a king arose among them. Through sorcery he took his throne, asking dark gods for power and sight beyond that of his mortal men. He was granted such, but only to see Ill-Fates, and began to prophesies the down-fall of the peoples who lived here. Not content to be a pawn of fate, he began to act as its instrument, commanding his warrior cult and spectral minions to bring ruin to the land. But among the folk that lived here noble gnomes, fierce orcs, and wise druids, and cunning elves banded together and brought forth their champions to defeat him. The last black fate the sorcerer-king was allowed to see was his own. But using evil magic, he swore to return a thousand years after his demise. This was why he was interred so deep in the mountains, and why his remaining lackeys carved the secret entrance themselves. 

Far to the south, in his tree-home of sculpted pale banshee-wood, rests and meditates the elven hero Keltois Lillarien, the same elven archer who’s ghost-touch arrows pinned the sorcerer king to his throne a thousand years ago. He is old, but vigilant. 

Three-hairs Twice-twined is a member of the Druid circle. He’s had a bout of insomnia and has heard that Rhess the Half-Elven has a mushroom poultice that will bring restful sleep. He can’t pay gold, but will happily trade herbs and offer what teaching he can in bird calls for a decent night’s rest.

In a hex to the northwest is an idyllic log cabin, the woods around it felled and filled with carvings, laquered and stained against rain. A woodcutter lives here, brawny and with a hefty axe. He was a warrior once, and now just wants to raise his family. His wife keeps calling for their daughter. It’s not like her to be late.

Frozenfang is a Winter Warg who has taken over the Western Brambles Pack. She longs for revenge against the woodcutter who slew her mate.

Rolled randomly in an adjacent hex is Annadell, a girl of seven who went flower picking alone, away from her father, the woodcutter. She is very lost and tired and hungry. She will be food for wolves if not found. 

There is a hex with a waterfall somewhere. Behind the waterfall is a cave, and inside of it is Rumbletrunks, a troll. He’s been asleep for a long, long time, and wishes to stay that way. If awoken rudely, he’ll be cranky. If awoken politely, he’ll be less cranky, but still want a troll-sized breakfast.

Brilly Grumplelumps is a gnome with a treasure map. All she really needs is a good forest guide and maybe some armed muscle to go deep into the mountain’s entrance. There, in the crypt, are the spoils of war and gold and gems from a thousand years before.