Of dungeons and crawling therein

20 September, 2008 at 11:21 am (actual play, dungeon crawling, game mastering) (, , , , , )

Previous Wednesday, me, ksym and wgaztari did some old-fashioned dungeoncrawling. I was the GM. A dungeon was one I had designed some years ago after having read about megadungeon mapping and map design. I had basically designed enough of it to keep running the game for several sessions. There is no map except the one drawn in play, partially be me, partially by the players.

The rules can be found in a wiki: http://dungeonsurvival.pbwiki.com/.

Style of play

A sandbox world; surface destroyed, players play a bunch of survivors trying to survive within a vast network of caves, or more precisely a small portion thereof. There are a total of 26 survivors (25 originally, one more joined in game), 5+1 of them somewhere around 1 or 2nd level in power if converted to D&D3rd, 10 1st level NPC or PC class, 10 first level commoners. Players can play any number of these at once, as suits the situation and their preferences.

The philosophy of play is adapted from a document called quick primer for old school gaming. Another influence is an old forum thread called megadungeon mapping.


This gaming is all about exploration. There were only two combats total in the first session, which was something of an introduction.

The shape of the dungeon and terrain it has are of great importance; they are the arena of play. Large rocks to hide behind as a small kobold warband chases after hooded and cloaked creatures, rocky terrain where centipedes have easy time moving and hiding, while people less so, a deep pond for a crocodile to wait in. And the player characters must divide their forces to watch all entrances they want to hold secure, which means that the activity level of different entrances is an interesting factor.

Random encounters are paramount, not only to keep the PCs threatened, but further to create cause and effect. Kobolds discovered the band of humans, so I will adjust the random encounter tables to reflect that; a much greater chance of kobold warband appearing, particularly. Not all random encounters are threats; rarely there will be a lone survivor who is only glad to find more people (the previous such survivor was mute, though).

It is all about resource management; right now, hit points, people, spells, alchemical ingrdients and torches are all pretty big deal. There is sufficient water, but food may become a problem.

Play summary

I started the game when scouts discover a place that looks promising; there is life and water. So, basically no option to choose another starting location. It is a large cavern with water, bugs, moss and mushrooms. There’s four exits plus the one they came from. Careful investigation, less careful investigation, a crocodile performing a surprise attack, soon dispatched (armoured monsters can take a few hits). One entrance is explored, some centipedes are fought, one character is reduced to 0 hp by poison, none killed. Main group arrives. An alchemist starts brewing poison, the wounded are resting.

The alchemist has completed the venom, which is fed to the centipedes using part of the dead crocodile as a bait. While the poison is (hopefully) taking effect another cave is explored; there are two skulls on wooden poles on the entrance. The maze-like location is explored a little, sounds of marching foodsteps heard, retreat made, whispers heard, kobolds shooting at small escaping hooded figures noticed, kobold party avoided.

Things to improve

Measuring time is difficult due to no sun. I’ll need to make random encounters less frequent and build the time economy more heavily around them. A chance of encounter per four hours, maybe.

Better random encounter tables. Just adding an option for wandering monster, which will include such fabulous beasts as minotaurs, rust monsters, orcish rampagers, giant scorpions, elementals, cave-dwelling versions of boars and big cats and wolves and bears and so on might do the trick. The cave is far too tame as of yet, and it is a place where there is water, so encounters ought to be varied and frequent.

Tools of the trade

Simple googling reveals any number of random dungeon generators, which are fun enough as toys. There’s How to host a dungeon by Tony Dowler, including a free version, which is basically a toy for generating dungeons.

Resources that give random room descriptions would be useful. Not that I would use them as such, but they would be good for inspiration. Do any suitable generators exist?

Another useful thing would be wandering/random monster/encounter tables. I can’t be the only one using them, and creating a wiki or something for them would be of little effort. Are there any such tables online?


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Old school (or not)

30 June, 2008 at 10:59 am (game design) (, , )

I created a fantasy game and played a session with Gastogh and Nakano. Here’s the somewhat updated rules. The combat rules were inspired by Tunnels and Trolls (which I have never played or read).


Starting characters have 10 points to divide among hit points, power and miscellaneous. 10 points creates potentially somewhat exceptional characters, but not powerful ones. (A random orc has at least 12 points in it.)

Hit points

All characters must have at least 1 hit point. More will be useful. At least 2 is recommended. Hit points are temporarily reduced in combat, due to some poisons and generally hurting oneself. They can be healed in town (or other fairly calm and pleasant location) at one hp per day, assuming a skilled healer is present. Otherwise one hp per week.


Power is used notably in combat, but also whenever something needs to be rolled. It is the generic competence and heroism of the character. Roll a die with sides equal to the power attribute. If you don’t have a d7 nearby, use a d6 instead (and so on). Using a die roller can get past such problems.


This is the actual meat of the system. Misc points need not be assigned at chargen and the unassigned ones can, at GM’s discretion, be assigned once adventuring. Use one point to get any of the following and feel free to develop new ones and get them okayed by the GM and other players who care.

  • A cohort: Character built on half the PC’s points. Reasonably loyal, wants money, slows advancement.
  • Followers: 3 characters, all built on one third the PC’s points.
  • Backstabbing: When attacking from surprise roll power twice. (E.g. d6 power => 2d6 when attacking from surprise.)
  • Archer: +2 power when using ranged weapon from distance.
  • Brawler: Suffer no penalty for fighting unarmed.
  • Tough: No penalty for being unarmoured.
  • Spellcaster: Start one school of magic as detailed below, with single spell known. Additional points give new spell each.
  • Hunter/Gatherer: Support one person in wilderness that contains sufficient food and water (not in desert, yes in forest). Additional points support one person each.
  • Heirloom: Start with a powerful, potentially magical toy. Negotiate details with the GM. Selling it is bad form.
  • Contact: Know a potentially powerful ally who can be negotiated with for favours, information and missions/quests.
  • Healer: Offer skilled healing: Stabilise someone dying due to loss of hp, allow recovery of 1 hp per day in good conditions.
  • Fast draw: Once a round change weapon without spending the entire round doing so.


In addition to the above starting characters have d6 copper coins, food and drink for 3 days, a knife, some clothes, tools for making a fire and a short pice of rope. Maybe some camping equipment. Also, each character can pick two options from the list below (selling these is bad form):

  • A poor weapon. If ranged, ammunition for 3 fights or one extended fight is included. Shield may be included but does not change the statistics in any way.
  • A poor armour.
  • Torches, rope, a ten foot pole.
  • A lousy horse not trained for war.
  • Spellbook or other magical implement.
  • Other stuff you get by asking the GM.


Each character has a profession/trade/class, which tells what kinds of stuff the character can generally accomplish. A scholar can know ancient lore, a woodsman can climb trees and track, and so on. It generally gives no mechanical benefits. (Namely, mercenaries and soldiers do not get extra power in combat.) The purpose of professions is to offer a way of knowing if the characters can or can’t do a particular task.

Actual rules

Character generation was above. In actual play the rules should be used in combat and maybe in other situations where there is risk involved and the outcome of events in uncertain. These rules do work for negotiations and playing hide and seek and whatever else, but using them for that is completely optional. I didn’t.


All characters take a -2 penalty (minimum 1) to power in combat unless they are sufficiently armed. Poor weapon from chargen qualifies. Gauntlets or a stone do not. Sharpened stick is an edge case. All characters take 1 extra damage during a combat round if they are not armoured and take any damage.

Process and example

I am assuming two sides fighting against each other. Example: Three goblins (3hp, 3 power) against two adventurers (3 hp, 2 power and 3 hp, 6 power). All are assumed to have proper equipment (of poor quality, but proper none the less).

Every combatant chooses one of the following actions during each round: Fight, run (screaming recommended), or do something else. Both sides can choose a goal related to positioning (like “We hold the door so only few can come in at a time.”), assuming the group considers them sensible. Specific targets to attack are not selected (but see surprise below). Example: People would choose positioning now, but this combat obviously takes place in a flat room with no interesting features. Every combatant fights.

All combatants who actually fight roll power. Both sides sum their totals. If the combat totals of both sides are equal, every combatant takes 1 damage. Otherwise one side is winning and has the higher result. Example: Goblins roll 3, 2, 2 for total of 7, adventurers roll 1 and 4 for total of 5.

The winning side achieves whatever positioning it was doing and deals damage to the losing side. If NPCs are losing, the GM chooses the order in which they take damage. NPC is reduced to 0 hp, drops and the next takes the remaining damage until all damage is dealt. If PCs are losing, players can divide the damage among their characters as they will (default: Everyone takes equal damage, rounded up if no agreement is reached). Any character reduced to 0 hp is dying and requires skilled aid within a few hours or dies. Example: Player chars take a total of 2 points of damage. Both take 1. Another round: Goblins roll 1, 2, 1 for total of 4. Players roll 1 and 6 for total of 7. One goblin (GM’s pick) takes 3 damage and falls.

Miscellaneous actions include combat magic, sneaking, shooting burning arrows at the oil pit, toppling statues to crush enemies, and so on. It is resolved after normal fighting. Magic and other tasks requiring concentration can be interrupted if the magus takes any damage.

Any fleeing character gets away if it has any hp left at the end of the round, unless pursued as per positioning (or after combat by other means).

A list of ways to spend a round

  • Fight
  • Run
  • Change/draw a weapon
  • Cast a combat spell
  • Keep watch over a handful of people
  • Wake up
  • Get up
  • Prepare heavy or improvised weaponry for use
  • Give an item to someone

Sneaking and surprise

To remain undetected a character must have two benefits: The character must be hiding and not actively searched for. “Hiding” means that the character must be hidden from sight, not make loud or uncharacteristic (wrt the situation) noises, have masked scent of approach from downwind when that is relevant, and so on. Active searching means exactly that and takes great attention. A guard watching a door qualifies. A lone guardsman at night in a forest can only keep a small section of the woods under active attention; two or more sneaks can surprise one guardsman. Keeping watch is a misc action in combat and prevents active participation in the fight.

A group of characters, or part of such a group, can do a surprise attack if they are undetected as per above. The benefits are simple: The surprising side can select the order in which their targets take damage. This is also true when the PCs are being surprised. It may hurt. Additional benefits: Opponents are often unarmed or sleeping or mounted or have some other reason for wasting actions.

Ranged weapons

Weapons are of 3 types: Melee, thrown or ranged. Melee weapons do good and reliable work at melee range. They can be thrown at -2 power. Thrown weapons work at short range. Round of fighting involves throwing such and preparing more to be thrown or using one in melee, which destroys the weapons or means losing it, requiring an action to equip a new weapon (or being quite good at drawing weapons or fighting at -2 penalty or being a skilled brawler). Ranged weapons work at long range (thrown ones do not), at short range and at melee with -2 power lost as thrown ones are.

It takes a successful positioning or relevant spell to move from long to short range or from short to melee.


There’s two kinds of magic: Combat and noncombat (ritual) magic. Combat magic usually takes one round to cast. It takes effect at the end of the round. Noncombat magic generally takes at least an hour to use, but often much longer.

Combat spells are either instantaneous or have duration of single combat (few minutes of noncombat). Combat spells should do damage or buff or curse. Ritual magic varies greatly, up to permanent and world-shattering events.

Schools of magic

All mages must select one school of magic. It defines the way they acquire magic, the magic they can acquire, the way it is used and the price for it.

Learning: From books and tomes and scrolls, by natural talent, through mentoring, as a natural ability (can’t learn more magic), by a deal with spirits, by dissecting ancient artifacts, …

Source of power: The fabric of reality, the very bones of earth, the deep oceans, the darkest shadows, death itself, …

Method: Chanting and drawing patterns into air, by brewing potions, by drawing (suitable) energy from the surroundings and releasing it, by inscribing actual runes on targets, by self-mutilation, through extreme concentration, commanding spirits, crafting magical objects, …

Price: Live sacrifices, lengthy preparation ahead of time, self-mutilation, hostile spirits waiting for the opportunity to strike, slow transformation into an undead of other monster, paralysing headache, …

The above should be mixed (and more created) so as to create flavourful and not too powerful mages. Namely, magic from reading is fairly hard to improve and can be powerful in other ways, natural magic can have quite low price (if any), crafting potions and such should be able to achieve great results as it is takes foresight and resources to achieve. Source of power should create mages such as elementalists and necromancers. The fabric of reality as a source of power should be more-or-less limited to book mages and those similarly limited. It is boring.


  • Healing: Ritual. Casting time one hour: Roll power, target heals 1 hit point but not above the roll or normal maximum. Two hours: Roll power four times, take the best. Target heals 2 hit points but not above the roll or normal maximum. n hours: Roll n^2 times, take the best. Target heals n points but not above the roll or maximum hp.
  • Strength: Combat. Casting takes one action, target gets +2 power to fighting. Duration: One combat or few minutes.

Some foes

Orc: 5 hp, power d6, armed with javelins, spears or axes, possibly poisoned to do 1 damage every hour for d6 hours. Sees in dark.

Hellhound: 10 hp, d6, can have nasty poison or unhealing bites of fiery bites or whatever. Sees in dark, through smoke and flames, good sense of smell.

Human soldier, professional: d4, 5 hp.


Characters get 1 experience point for every gold piece they acquire through adventuring and spend. The characters must divide the gold they spend and hence the experience they gain. Source: Brian’s Trollsmyth.

Once a character has a number of exp equal to current point value +1 (starting characters are worth 10 points and hence need 11 xp), they get one extra point to use as they will. It must be used immediately on power or hp (no justification necessary or can be transferred into misc points which can be used at will. Such expenditures must be explained. Downtime is a good generic explanation.

One silver piece is worth 3d6 copper pieces. One gold piece is worth 5d20 silver pieces. These ratios are specific to a town or other similar economic unit. They will likely change as time passes, too.

Food and drink for a day is worth a copper. A poor weapon is worth 10 to 15. Equipment of quality is priced in silver (or even gold). Gold is rare. Outside towns and such people usually trade goods for goods or favours. Money is not frequently used, but is generally accepted.

(I will accept criticism and advice on pricing things, but I also am too lazy to do research.)

Items of quality, perhaps of magical nature, are another assumed reward. Such weapons give bonus to power when used in combat (and may do something interesting, too). Armours reduce damage taken, but never below 1, so they can’t completely negate it. Healing potions work like the healing spell, varying parameters, foul taste.

Running and playing the game

The point of the game, for characters, is to get rich and powerful. For players it is to come up with imaginative solutions to presented problems. Avoiding fair fights is recommended. For game master it is to create a problematic situation, often a dungeon, and to adjudicate how the fiction works once players get their characters involved in it.

To be explicit: There is a lot of rules material focused on combat. This material is not very interesting to play with. The point is to allow characters who shine at combat and to heavily discourage attacking superior foes, while encouraging attacking inferior foes.

Skills it takes to run this game

Running this game actually takes preparation. I’m not used to preparing games. Namely, I think the following should be prepared ahead of time: The general nature of the problem, the motivations of key figures and groups, the resources they have and the information they have. Vague idea of a map is useful. Should a dungeon be involved, mapping it to some degree is advised. At least as a flowchart with some notable things placed where they should be.


An interesting dungeon should be constructed as follows: There should be internal schisms or outright fighting among the residents. It should be possible to negotiate with intelligent residents and to use the unintelligent ones. There should always be at least three ways to get to any place of importance, though some should be hidden or dangerous. This is a variant of the three clue rule, most recently written about by the Alexandrian.

Random encounters, dynamic dungeons, or other means of discouraging player characters from simply doing hit-and-run tactics, on foe at a time, are advised.

Getting player characters into the adventure

Some GMs may want to prepare several adventures. (Using prepublished adventures takes preparation.) Some will want to only prepare one. I recommend the following methods of getting player characters into the adventure:

  • I have prepared this adventure. We’ll play it or some other game. Here’s the plot hook.
  • As above, but replace the final sentence with “Come up with a plot hook.”
  • Schrödinger’s dungeon: Have the adventure be where the player characters go to. Take care to not nullify player choices; that is, if they specifically want to avoid an adventure or an encounter, let them have a fair chance of doing so, if it is at all reasonable. This is to avoid railroading.

Random, unrelated stuff

My sister shall, as of this autumn, be studying biology in the university of Jyväskylä, where I also study mathematics.

I will (very probably) be offline starting tomorrow, ending near the end of the week.

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