Rob the Dragon! A dungeon map drawn on patterned paper

Make your homemade dungeon maps come to life with patterned paper

For half a century, we nerdmappers (ie, Dungeon Masters) have used graph paper for our homemade dungeon maps. I’m still happy to draw square rooms on blue grids like when I was a kid. But I have this notebook that has inserts of patterns reminiscent of Renaissance coffered ceilings, maybe. I had the idea of using these pages to draw maps, following some of the patterns, as inspiration comes.

These are the ones I’ve made so far (click for full size photos).

I have found a few benefits to this technique:

  • Even if the map doesn’t make much practical sense, its organic appearance makes it feel more real to the players;
  • These maps end up being more interesting to explore (if more difficult for the players to map);
  • Tactical challenges gain in complexity and interest because of all the nooks and crannies;
  • In a team building context, weird maps encourage teamwork, as players want to use the quirks in the architecture to their advantage;
  • Drawing these maps didn’t take me longer than regular ones would have (as I was following the patterns and my inspiration), and it was way more fun!

I guess I like odd but believable maps, mostly because I grew up reading Casus Belli magazine. ‘Casus’ was the most influential RPG magazine in 1980s France — and it still is nowadays, despite having needed a few necromantic rituals over the decades. One fondly remembered column was Bâtisses & artifices (Buildings & Stratagems) that described a location with detailed maps, taking pains to keep everything medieval looking. Here are a couple of examples from that time, and also a more recent one. I remember the first column explaining that all castle rooms shouldn’t be 30’x30′ squares.

And while I’m on the subject of French mapmakers, let me mention John Grümph’s Des plans sur la tomette (I’m not even attempting to translate the pun), a lovely little book of medieval maps to use in your games – you should grab it, it’s cheap and contains very little text ; and of course Guillaume Tavernier‘s masterful work. Now this is someone else who works tirelessly to make fantasy middle ages look more interesting!

Do you draw quirky maps? I’d love to see them (and maybe steal them for my games 😉 Share links in the comments!

Edit (24 May): Mystery solved!

The Pattern Journals from Laurence King Publishing. I use mine to draw my homemade dungeons maps.

I’ve been asked by several of you where did the notebook came from. And my answer was “I don’t know” — I’d picked it up on a rubbish pile when the Fumbally Exchange was moving this winter. Turns out Helen had put it on a different pile (the donations one) but it ended up there in the confusion.
Now JammerJun found it on the Laurence King Publishing website (I’d searched there, but there is nothing on their UK site). The US site seems to have more choice than the German one.

d200 Classless Abilities

I extracted 200 of the 300+ abilities contained in Lunchtime Dungeons to use as a generic table of powers and perks. I plan to use them with a classless, d20-and-d6 version of the system that I’m thinking would work better at events.
In the meantime, I’m putting this out in case some of you would have a use for it.

System notes
LT
means once per (lunch time) session
DEF is Armour Class
Easy: treat as advantage
Hard: treat as disadvantage
Hit dice are a pool that you spend to roll against damage or to activate powers. Most abilities should translate if you just roll your hit die type to heal or lose hit points.

Art by Ray Rubin

Roll d200

  1. Adrenaline: feats of strength are Easy for you, but while your adrenaline is on, everything else is Hard
  2. Alchemy: make one potion every week (working at camp, you can adventure normally). Roll for the potion
  3. Animal feature. You have antlers, claws, hooves, fangs, a tail, or something. Get an extra attack (4 damage)
  4. Appraisal. You can always tell the market value of an item, and may have an idea of the powers of a magical item you hold in your hands
  5. Apprentice or assistant. Roll d6. 1-2 thief, 3-4 fighter, 5 haubitz, 6 trash gnome, batling, or some other weirdo.
  6. Arcane shield (LT). Sacrifice one or more HD to negate 5 points of magical damage per HD spent
  7. Armour destroyer (LT). Your damage applies to your opponent’s DEF
  8. Assassinate (LT). An unaware foe you hit must save or die
  9. Augury (LT). See your immediate future. The more time and resources (incense, drugs, sacrifice), the farther and more clearly you can see
  10. Average looking: you fit in most social situations
  11. Backstab: double your damage when surprising your target
  12. Bane of Chaos (LT). Save to dispel or weaken a magical effect that isn’t divine/clerical in origin.
  13. Battle master (LT). In a fight, whoever does what you say has Easy rolls until your next turn. Those who don’t have Hard ones
  14. Beast of burden: carry an extra 12 large items
  15. Berserker: double damage (LT). Always attack the nearest person. Save to end.
  16. Blackjack. You can choose to do no damage when hitting a surprised target. They must save to stay conscious
  17. Bladesong. Gain a random spell. I can only be cast along with a mêlée attack using a weapon. The referee may want to reinterpret the spell’s description.
  18. Blessed. The gods pay attention to you – they will save you, just the once
  19. Blessing ritual: affects 10 persons or square metres per hour spent (up to a maximum of your level in hours). Blessing effects vary
  20. Bloodthirsty: +1 to damage, cumulative, for every kill you made in this fight
  21. Boom! When using gunpowder, add +2 to the damage
  22. Brutal blow (LT). Add the result of a d6 to attack and damage
  23. Burrowing. You can burrow through soft dirt at half your walking pace. Also you can survive on rocks and water
  24. Call lightning/fire/ice/something once per week. Level times d6 damage, to be spread as you want
  25. Cat friend. A talking but untrustworthy cat
  26. Caustic blood: 1 damage to whoever cuts you
  27. Cave goat. Roll to keep your balance, run on steep slopes, and generally climb like a goblin.
  28. Chaos magician. You can memorise a spell called Xa0§. When you cast it, roll at random on the referee’s spell list
  29. Charge (LT). Run a small distance for double damage
  30. Charmer: bewitch someone (LT) (save allowed)
  31. Cheat death on one occurrence. Whatever the cause of death, you survived somehow. You were probably left for dead by your friends.
  32. Circle of protection (LT). Choose one between evil, chaos, an element, etc. Lasts until the physical circle is broken, or until you stop chanting
  33. Cleave: on a kill, attack again
  34. Comfort (LT). By putting people at ease, you let them make another save against an ongoing effect. If there is time for a cup of tea, the save is Easy
  35. Command element (LT). Choose one of air, fire, water, earth. A volume of it equal to your level in cubic metres must obey your one-word command
  36. Commander (LT). Give brief orders to your allies: one of their rolls this turn is Easy, as long as they do what you say.
  37. Connections: know someone in a settlement (LT)
  38. Convert (LT). Spend time with someone or show off your deity’s powers. They must save or convert on the spot.
  39. Cook. Your warm meals let people heal 1 HD overnight
  40. Counterspell (LT). The caster you target must save. If they fail, their spell doesn’t work
  41. Cower (LT). Your defence is doubled when you hide behind of under a hard surface: door, shield, table, knight…
  42. Cure disease (LT). Your touch can cure the blind, the lame, and the afflicted. They must save for it to work.
  43. Danger sense: saves where you can avoid danger are Easy
  44. Deadly brawler. Your unarmed attacks do 4 damage
  45. Defensive fighting: make a Hard attack and add d6 to your DEF until your next turn
  46. Dimension door (LT). Hop to a place you can see within 10 metres times your level
  47. Disarm (LT). Instead of doing damage on a hit, make your opponent drop something. Save allowed if they have more HD than you.
  48. Disguise. Roll to impersonate specific people
  49. Divine retribution (LT). An individual who refuses to follow a dictate of your faith is cursed (all rolls are Hard for a day).
  50. Dodge. Add d6 to your DEF when doing nothing else but dodging
  51. Domestic animals trust you. A save may be needed for vicious beasts
  52. Don’t shed blood vow. You attacks with all blunt weapons are Easy
  53. Drill sergeant (LT). Give an order to an ally: they get to take another action immediately if they do what you say.
  54. Drink a pint of hard liquor to heal 1 HD. Save to avoid intoxication (most rolls are Hard)
  55. Escape artist. You get to save to get out of bonds, and your knots are difficult to untie
  56. Ester. You are followed by Ester, an annoying but knowledgeable gnome
  57. Exorcism. This is a spell that takes d12 hours to cast. If the possessing or haunting spirit saves, it can attack you before the end of the ritual.
  58. Extra appendage (third arm, prehensile tail, etc.). Gain an attack
  59. Familiar: 1 cat, 2 raven, 3 toad, 4 bat, 5 rat, 6 something exotic or weird of your choosing. 1 HD, empathic communication, sense magic
  60. Fanatic: saves and attacks when fighting one type of enemies are Easy
  61. Far sight. You have eagle eyes, literally
  62. Fencing move (LT). Someone taught you a secret technique: double damage on one attack with a specific weapon
  63. Fey fletcher (LT). You can spend an hour to bless a missile or thrown weapon. It now does double damage and is considered magical
  64. Fighter’s instinct (LT). Interrupt an opponent – you get to act on their initiative as well as on of yours
  65. Footpad: you always walk silently when unencumbered and wearing light armour
  66. Footwork. When unencumbered and only using a one-handed weapon, you get +2 to DEF.
  67. Forager: find food (LT)
  68. Force of nature: +2 damage but break stuff on a 1 on the d20
  69. Former cutpurse, missing two fingers but your sleight of hand feats are Easy
  70. Friends in low places. You can talk with vermin (rats, cockroaches, flies, etc.)
  71. Gadgeteer (LT). Produce a small mechanical item (wind up soldier, drill, smoke bomb, etc.) you made in your spare time.
  72. Gain one extra attack with a weapon of your choice
  73. Genius musician: play an instrument to get Easy reaction rolls (LT)
  74. Glowing red eyes: you have perfect darkvision
  75. Glutton. If you eat d6 extra rations at camp, you recover that number of extra HD overnight
  76. Golemist: you give life to sculptures of stone or metal if you spend a week carving runes on them. This is permanent. You can do it once now, and once again every time you level up
  77. Good luck charm (LT). Get anyone to reroll any die. The referee can veto this power, but they must give you 100 XP per level
  78. Great swimmer, even when encumbered
  79. Group healing (LT). Your allies regain a number of hit dice equal to your level. Distribute them as you like
  80. Hard to kill. When you are out of HD, you can take damage once without having to save to avoid death
  81. Harmless looking. You only get attacked if you act menacingly
  82. Headshot (LT). If you hit someone on the head (adding 4 to their DEF) with a missile attack, they must save to stay conscious.
  83. Hex (LT). Curse a target with something gross: if they don’t save, all their rolls are hard for as many hours as you have levels
  84. Hide in nature. If you stay still, you’re only noticed on a 1.
  85. Hunter: find game (LT)
  86. Hyper awareness. You can never be surprised.
  87. I’m out! (LT). You can escape anywhere, possibly just you, probably at a steep price
  88. Identify. You can roll d6 to know the powers, and possibly the history, of a magical item
  89. Improved critical hit: double damage on an attack of 19
  90. Kick/trip (LT). After attacking a suitable target, they are pushed or swiped off their feet. Save allowed if they have more HD than you.
  91. Kleptomaniac (LT): find something mundane in your pockets
  92. Knife swarm (LT). Throw as many extra small weapons as you have levels (attack separately)
  93. Lifeforce blade: spend 1 HD before the attack to double damage
  94. Lifeforce shield: spend 1 HD and add +3 to DEF for the rest of the fight
  95. Linguist: roll when encountering a new idiom to understand its bases
  96. Lord over Nature (LT). Save to alter an aspect of the weather, the land around you, or a wild animal, making it tamer and closer to civilisation.
  97. Luck siphon: people next to you make hard saves, but you always have easy saves
  98. Lucky (LT). Roll any die again.
  99. Magic eater. You can heal by consuming the magic held in enchanted items. Recover 1 HD for a wand charge or potion, d6 HD if you cancel the magic of a permanent item for a year
  100. Magic parasite (LT). Steal a spell by taking life force from a target. They lose 1 HD
  101. Magic sight. Roll to see magic and identify spells and magical items.
  102. Magic weapon. Your relentless killing has made your favourite weapon magical. The referee decides how
  103. Magical item. One of your possessions turns to be magical. If you lose it, it happens again.
  104. Make a scroll once per week (working at camp, you can adventure normally). Roll for the spell if you don’t know any
  105. Mark/curse an enemy (LT): 4 ongoing damage until they make a save
  106. Marksman. If you don’t move during your turn, an attack with a missile or thrown weapon is Easy.
  107. Master bullshitter (LT). Convince someone of something – they get to save if the lie is too big.
  108. Member of a thieves’ guild. You know how to navigate the slums.
  109. Metamorphosis (LT). You force an inanimate item into the shape of another for d20 days. Its mass remains unchanged
  110. Mighty throw (LT). Any weapon you throw, balanced or otherwise, does double damage.
  111. Murderer’s curse: blood on your skin can only be washed with holy water.
  112. Mysteries of the Gods. You can roll to know obscure arcane subjects.
  113. Ninja trick. Using a smoke bomb or other major diversion, you can roll to hide or escape
  114. Noblefolk: two of your items are worth ten times their price
  115. Nomad: most physical feats are Easy when mounted
  116. Nose for evil. You can sniff evil magic
  117. Ogre slayer: attacks against ogre sized humanoids are Easy
  118. Omen. Come up with a vision, tell the referee. They will make it happen, at least partially. This only works once.
  119. On your feet soldier! (LT). After someone is wounded in a fight, give them a pep talk as your main action: they recover the HD they just used
  120. Once vs many: +2 DEF when outnumbered
  121. Opportunist: you get an extra turn after everyone else (LT)
  122. Para-ubiquity (LT). You found a loop in the corpus of universal laws that lets you appear anywhere for d100 seconds. Meanwhile, your original body stays where it is, defenceless
  123. Petra. You have a bodyguard called Petra
  124. Planeshift (LT). Open a portal to another plane of existence for as many people as your level. A save is required to get exactly where you want and/or avoid encounters
  125. Poison expertise. Roll identify and make poisons.
  126. Polyglot. You speak d4 extra languages
  127. Powerful ritual. Learn a spell you can only cast it as a ritual. Roll d20: that’s the number of hours it takes to cast, and the level at which you cast it
  128. Professional brawler: unarmed attacks are Easy for you (damage 2)
  129. Prophecy. A prophet named Ophelius follows your every step
  130. Protect (LT). Add d6 to and ally’s DEF
  131. Protector. You have a powerful patron. Talk to the referee
  132. Push your luck. On a 1 on the d20, you have the option to push the roll. A failure is always a catastrophe
  133. Raised by red goblins: all attacks with guns are Easy for you
  134. Raised in the worst of environments: immune to disease
  135. Rally (LT): use your turn to get anyone to roll anything Easily
  136. Read idioms. Roll to attempt casting spells from books and scrolls (a failure means a catastrophe).
  137. Read lies (LT). People have to save to lie to you convincingly
  138. Realistic illusions (LT). Make something appear that isn’t there. The illusion lasts d6 turns
  139. Regenerate. Recover 1 HD per hour. Mutilations grow back in d20 days.
  140. Reincarnation. If you die, you are reincarnated within the week. Save when this happens. The better the roll, the closer your new form is to your old one.
  141. Remove hex. A cursed individual who atones in the way you tell them to can save to get rid of any curse. Referee must greenlight the atonement act.
  142. Resistant to magic. Your saves vs magic are Easy
  143. Rêverie (LT). Spend 1 HD and receive a prophetic dream or vision. You get to ask the referee one question and they will describe what you see
  144. Riposte: once per turn, when someone misses you, you get to attack them for free
  145. Ritualist. You know one spell you can cast as a ritual
  146. Rune trap. Learn a spell you can only cast on a surface. It is triggered by touch or proximity, your choice
  147. Sacrifice. Spend an hour to ritually kill a creature before asking the gods for a miracle. Roll as many d6 as the victim’s HD. On a 6, something happens.
  148. Save your skin! You always outrun your friends when fleeing
  149. Scout out (LT). You can recon an area or room while avoiding attention, traps, or an obstacle (choose one)
  150. Second wind (LT). Recover half your hit dice if you spend a turn resting
  151. See auras. You can see magical auras on people
  152. Sense of smell like a hound’s
  153. Shadow ninja: disappear in shadows (LT)
  154. Sharpshooter (LT). One attack with a ranged weapon is Easy. No need to aim.
  155. Shield expert. Double the DEF bonus of any shield
  156. Sleepless in the dungeon. You only need 2 hours sleep instead of 6 to be fully rested
  157. Sniper. Take one full turn to aim and, on your next turn, your shot can’t miss
  158. Song of the ancestors (LT). Any ally within earshot gets one Easy roll this turn. Alternatively, you can curse enemies with a Hard roll
  159. Sorcerer’s tongue. You speak the tongue of one type of people, animals, plants, or even things (but not materials)
  160. Spider-friend. You befriended a dog-sized spider, shy but friendly
  161. Spider-person, spider-person! Roll to climb steep surfaces with no equipment.
  162. Splinter: sacrifice your weapon or shield to ignore the damage from one attack
  163. Spot the weak points in a structure. The referee will let you know what it takes to breach a wall, tear down a tower, collapse a bridge, etc.
  164. Stabbity stab stab. When wielding a dagger or knife, you gain an extra attack
  165. Stories of yesteryear (LT). At camp, tell a story related to where you are or where you’re going. The referee will answer one of your questions.
  166. Strong defences. Saves against poison and disease are Easy
  167. Stubborn endurance. You are never tired after a long effort such as a forced march or even a battle (as long as you weren’t wounded)
  168. Subconscious spell. Get a random spell: you can cast it very slowly while doing something else, as long as you are conscious. It takes d12 hours.
  169. Summon birds (LT): a swarm worth 1 HD per level helps for an hour. It’s not suicidal and may not fight for you
  170. Summoner (LT). Choose one type of a supernatural creature. Call one to your aid: it has as many HD as your level, minus one per ability (flight, exotic attacks, etc.).
  171. Supernatural empathy: you tend to pick up on strong emotions
  172. Tactics expert (LT). Gain insight on enemies’ weaknesses, routines, etc.
  173. Talk to the dead/spirits/demons/ghosts. Choose one type of creature who you can contact
  174. Talk to trees (LT). Roll to talk to wooden objects.
  175. Talk to wild animals. Choose between woodland mammals, water creatures, and all birds. You can now speak and understand their language.
  176. Tally. Add together the number of monsters of every type you kill. For every 10, you get 1 in 6 chance of predicting their behaviour
  177. Temporal shift (LT). You are less tethered to linear time and can phase out of it for a second. Use this to avoid a single attack or source of damage.
  178. Thick skin: defence 12 when unarmoured
  179. Thief master. Choose a thievery activity (pick pockets, disarm traps, sneak, climb, etc.) All rolls you make for this are Easy
  180. Tough skin. Get an extra hit die.
  181. Tough soul. When rolling on the wounds table, reroll all 1s on your hit dice
  182. Tracker. Rolls are Easy for you. When you find tracks, you always know the number or type of creatures.
  183. Trained acrobat: all acrobatic feats are Easy
  184. Trained fighter: attacks with a weapon of your choice are Easy
  185. Transmogrification (LT). You can assume another physical shape. Decide which one now. The more powerful it is, the harder it is to retain your own personality
  186. Traveller: you always know something about a place you visit
  187. Treasure sniff. Roll to detect precious metals and gems
  188. Trick shots. When using a missile or thrown weapon, you attack is Easy if you don’t do any damage. Instead, you can disarm, trip, pin, etc. The target may be allowed a save
  189. Turn. Choose a type of creature you can repel with a symbol and imprecations
  190. Two-weapon fighting: get an extra Hard attack with an off-hand weapon
  191. Visibly half-demon. Immune to fire and common folk sympathy
  192. War cry (LT). Force a morale roll.
  193. Way in (LT). You know or are able to guess an easier way to get inside a place
  194. Weird metabolism. You need one ration a week
  195. Welcoming parley (LT). If your offer good food or drink to a sentient creature, add d6 to the reaction roll
  196. Well educated: feats of knowledge are Easy for you
  197. Wild child: any action in nature is Easy, basic language skills
  198. Winged weirdo. You can fly, but people treat you like shit.
  199. Wizard. You know a spell – choose from the list the referee shows you.
  200. Word of command (LT). As many targets as your level follow your one-word order for d6 turns. Save cancels
Eric Nieudan runs Dungeons & Dragons for a table full of kids

Tips for playing D&D with kids

While I don’t run team building D&D games for children, I’ve had the opportunity to run a few kids games in the last few months. I thought I’d share my experience as a game designer.

Exploring the Caves of Chaos for Culture Night 2018 in the Fumbally Exchange

Play easy games

When I say easy games, I don’t mean they should be easy to win — I mean they should be easy to learn. Whatever your tastes in RPGs, you shouldn’t waste your time and the kids’ enthusiasm on learning the intricacies of a rules system. Out with Pathfinder and D&D 5E, in with Pits & Perils and The Black Hack (and so, so many others). Of course, nothing prevents you from hacking into your favourite system to make it more accessible. That’s what I do with Lunchtime Dungeons, but it may be more work than what you’re prepared to do.

Games with engaging and ‘gamey’ mechanics are certainly a plus when playing with gamers, but in practice these mechanics can be difficult to implement. Recently, I tried using a variant of my krâsses mechanic from Lanfeust / the dK System, and I found no one had any interest in using it. Turns out straightforward dice rolls brought all the tension we needed.

Play heroic games

If, like me, you are an ‘adventure gaming’ enthusiast (aka an old school D&D fan), you may want to make your ruleset of choice a tad more forgiving and heroic. The pathetic aesthetic we like so much may not work so well with 10 year-old kids. Give them cool powers, magical items, pets… All the stuff they’re used to expecting from a video game.

I’m not saying you can’t teach old school games to preteens. You certainly can if you have the time. I tend to run one-shots, so I’d rather give my players some instant gratification. And again, I am not trying to help people build better communication skills using Dungeons & Dragons. I’m just here to give a bunch of kids a good time and — hopefully — give them a taste for tabletop games.

Play with props

Like most newcomers, kids can get confused when dropped into a theatre of the mind environment. Having visual and tactile props is a good way to alleviate this and maintain focus. Have some miniatures or tokens, a battle mat, terrain pieces, spell cards, health counters, etc. Illustrations for places and people will also help with everyone’s immersion.

I don’t do acting props, but it strikes me that a hat, pipe, glasses, or other simple accessory would be great to establish important NPCs. Even with a table full of adults, it can be hard to keep everyone’s attention. I’m thinking this would spare you the “sorry who’s talking now?” question.

That said, NPC interaction probably isn’t going to be the focus of your game. I’ve never seen kids get involved in a long conversation with a character, so I tend to keep it to a minimum. I wait for them to set the tone of the interaction, make sure they get the info they need, and we keep going.

Play with a chill zone

If you plan to play a couple of hours, you can bet that some kids will get bored or distracted once in a while. This is especially true if you have a large group of players. Having something else for them to do can be a good way to keep the table engaged.

Now make sure your chill zone isn’t more instantly gratifying than your game. I’d avoid the TV or console for example. If you have access to a garden, a football or trampoline can be a good way to blow off steam while they wait for their turn.

Play with talking rules

Not all kids are well behaved, and happy to wait until they’re asked to. Especially if it’s a birthday party and they’ve been hitting the sugary treats. Under these circumstances, letting the table police itself when asked what to do can become a nightmare. Not only will you be leaving the game with a headache, but you may have had to shout to make yourself heard (bad), or left out the more shy players (worse).

I’ve handled this in two different ways:

  1. Have a caller. The caller is a player whose role is to communicate the party’s plans and actions to you, the GM. This rule comes from Basic D&D, which was published at a time when 8- to 10-player parties were the norm. With a table full of kids, giving that role to an adult (or a responsible teenager) will be a lifesaver. They will also take over the ‘herding cats’ aspect of GMing, and remind everyone that it’s a team game.
  2. Enforce a table turn. Only let the players tell you what to do when it’s their turn: you just go around the table and ask each player what they want to do. Do this during combat, exploration, travel, down time… From the beginning to the end of the session. If players want to talk between themselves, let them do it, but the conversation takes up the player’s turn… and the next player’s if it takes too long. I lifted this from Index Card RPG, a great resource for making your games fast and fun.

Play now!

As with everything else in tabletop roleplaying games, jumping in is the best way to learn. So why don’t you run a game for the little people in your life? If you have already done so, I’m sure everyone would love to know your top tips.

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes

Game conventions and team building

Running Dungeons & Dragons in a corporate environment isn’t something we nerds usually do.

Roleplaying games are traditionally something we play with our friends, and doing it with strangers for team building and wellness purposes is a bit of a leap. Fortunately for my self confidence, it turns out I’ve done this many times before. I spent the Easter weekend at a convention – the always amazing Trolls & Légendes in Belgium were I was invited to run my latest release, Macchiato Monsters. I’ve done this sort of thing maybe a hundred times in the last 20 years and I always love it, but this was the first time I ran at a con since I started Desks and Dragons. And interestingly, I noticed more than a few similarities between the ‘demo’ games you typically run at such nerdy gatherings and the ones I host in offices. 

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes
“Do you think they wrote gnomes here, or gnolls?

Playing with strangers

Only rarely will you know anyone among the players. So make sure everyone knows what this is all about — from RPG principles to fantasy tropes to social contract to old school gameplay – before you even start explaining the rules of the game. You need to ask questions and adapt you brief to your audience. Be wary of neglecting the shy player who doesn’t know as much as the others. During the game, you’ll have to pay attention to everyone and make sure no one gets bored. This is probably the main responsibilities of a game master.

Playing under time constraints

Furthermore, the players don’t know each other either – some of them will have come together, but it will almost never be a table-full of friends. These teams within the teams may create interesting dynamics during the game, but they may also become a problem. Your job as the GM is to create a group purpose, at least until the magic of imaginary team building happens. Very soon, the players will realise that they need to rely on each other if they want their characters to survive and their party to achieve its goals. This is where team building happens!

Let’s be honest: tabletop roleplaying games are always too short. Handling time is another skill of a good GM. You try to keep things fun, balancing player choice and narrative pace. In a convention, you have three or four hours for people to experience as much of your game as feasible. A demo session cannot afford to be slow or unfocused; there won’t be a next time to find out who killed the Duchess or to escape the wizard’s tower. The session must have a satisfying ending, an interesting middle, and a compelling start.

This is doubly true in office games. Even if most of my clients opt for a four-part game (the recurrence is key to team engagement), it isn’t a lot of time for a full adventure. Like other veteran conventions GMs, I use all the tools and tips I know to make every lunchtime session engaging and fun – the rules and the adventure framework I have designed help me a lot, but I keep learning from other referees and coming up with new techniques.

Playing with the format

Short games, new audiences, these are both opportunities to get creative. Have guests, have props, or simply play around with the story structure. Keeping a stack of index cards with tricks like in medias res starts or flashbacks is a good thing. Or you can let players come up with small parts of the game world, pertaining to their character or not. The list is endless, but I’ll have to try and post about it sometime.

To give you an example, at Trolls & Légendes I ran the same dungeon delve on both the Saturday and the Sunday. As the first group made it out with some treasure and a decent bit explored, I asked them if they would sell the map they drew to the innkeeper at the village nearby before leaving the region. The next day, I gave the next group of players the opportunity to buy this map. Here’s some of them, puzzling on some hand written notes.

This made the dungeon come alive for the second group of players and gave them a sense of persistence.  Little ideas like this will make a game memorable — make sure you always have some in your pocket!

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

Learning from Old-School Essentials

I am currently working on translating part of Gavin Norman’s Old-School Essentials into French. I wasn’t aware when I starting writing this, but OSE is actually on Kickstarter right now! Let me tell you about it and explore some of the reasons why it is such an excellent game for ‘old school’ play, and particularly as a team building exercise.

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

A short history lesson

If you don’t delve the same internet dungeons as I do, you may not now about OSE (formerly BX Essentials) : it is a masterful rewriting of one of the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. It was released in 1981 as two sold-as-introductory-yet-sufficient-for-a-lifetime boxed sets, the Basic and Expert boxes. These were the work of Tom Moldvay and David ‘Zeb’ Cook, who followed on the steps of the good doctor Holmes and his blue Basic box (another fascinating story – look it up or leave a comment and I’ll tell you). This edition is often called Basic / Expert, B/X Dungeons & Dragons, or sometimes Moldvay D&D (Tom and Dave collaborated on both boxes, but they each got the credits on one of them – and we seem to only remember the author of the Basic game). 

Games history digression over. I have a lot of tenderness for B/X. It was my first ever roleplaying game, the pit trap into the nerdy Wonderland where I’ve been living since I was eleven. But it is also a hell of a great game. Historically speaking, it was the first time D&D that had (mostly) cohesive rules that were (mostly) easy for beginners to understand. As I said above, it was also a self contained game that a lot of people chose over the more complex, more heroic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was on the shelves at the same time. Oops, that was more games history — I’m not even sorry.

Things we can learn from B/X D&D and OSE

 I’ve used BX Essentials as a reference for my lunch break D&D sessions in the office since the beginning, and I have had many an occasion to swoon over the amazing work Gavin has done. Old-School Essentials takes it one step further with better organisation and even more clarified layout. There is a lot of learn from B/X D&D and a few more to learn from Old-School Essentials

The balance is exemplary. The game has enough rules to function out of the box, but it leaves a good few grey areas that the referee and players will have to cover with their own rulings, thus adapting the corpus to their own collective taste. It can easily be played like a board game at the start (with easily followed turns and procedures) while the newcomers ease into the role-playing aspect.
 
If you are a game designer, you probably remember more than one rules writing related headache. We constantly try to make our written rules concise yet detailed, precise yet entertaining. One thing I had never considered was redundancy. If you have worked at or with a publisher, or if you are one yourself, you know that paper costs money, and that some people shy away from rules book that look too think or filled with complex procedures. So concision is your friend, and even if you put in a lot of cross referencing in your work, you try not to repeat yourself, at all.
But going through OSE word by word as I was translating, I found quite a bit of redundancy, which I reckon happened because Gavin spent a lot of time deconstructing and reconstructing the rules to make sure every bit was in the right place. And sometimes, I guess the right place is several places. Because a rulesbook is both a learning tool and a manual — we want people to find the information they’re looking for in a few seconds.
 
From the team building point of view, B/X is a perfect basis for running Dungeons & Dragons as a team exercise. As I said above, it plays like a board game and doesn’t require any gaming chops or taste for the amateur theatrics (as Gary Gygax would have put it). As an old school game, it lets players focus on problem solving in the game world rather than on their character sheet. Most of the time around the table is spent planning, arguing tactics, and trying to convince NPCs to help.
 
Of course, I’ve tried to keep this all in mind when designing Lunchtime Dungeons. But I guess this is a post for another time…

 

Dispelling ghosts with microwaves

I have an idea for your weird/post-apocalyptic/urban fantasy game. I was thinking of Americano Anomalies and The New Economy, Tore Nielsen’s post-normal hacks, but I’d use it in my regular D&D campaign.  

Below are some gameables.

Microwave items

Prices imply that microwave technology is fairly common. Feel free to make these items much more expensive if it isn’t in your setting. You can also make the reusable items difficult or expensive to recharge. 

Exorcism grenade. When triggered, this casts microwaves in a small radius (3m) for about a minute. All unbound spirits contained within must save or leave the area – in any case they take d6 damage. A possessed individual or creature has an opportunity to expel the spirit by making a save. Physical beings take 1 damage from superficial burns. One use, 50 GP

Ecto-pistol. This often jury rigged device looks like a dueling pistol with a holy symbol affixed at the end of the barrel. It works like turn undead from a 5th level cleric, but only against non corporeal creatures.  2d6 charges, 400 GP 

Firestarter. Aim this heavy plastic rod at a metallic item within 10m and sparks will fly. Any flammable material in contact with the metal has a cumulative 1-in-6 chance of catching fire every round. The beam does a cumulative 1 point of damage every round (1 on the first round, 2 on the second, etc.) to anyone holding a metallic item or wearing metal armour. 3d20 charges, 300 GP

Heat ray. This heavy musket deals 2d6 of very painful damage to a living target within a short range (25m).  Good ole fry-and-die would be more common if it wasn’t so unreliable in bad weather (half damage – maybe the reason why a lot of deadly spirits prowl our world in the snow, rain, and fog). 2d4 charges, 500 GP

Microwave barbecue. These portable ovens can be set up at campsites and come with their earthenware and wooden cooking implements. Not only do they replace a campfire, but they repel spirits, who must save to enter the area. Living souls don’t have a great time around MWBBQs: bad dreams and feelings of disassociation are commonplace around working devices. Also, magic potions have a 1-in-6 chances of losing their power. It is of course impossible to brew or cook anything magical on a microwave barbecue. 3d10 uses, 800 GP 

Mind fryer. This heavy gauntlet emits short range microwaves that only do superficial burns (1 damage) but can destroy any magical energy present in someone’s mind. Touch someone and they lose d6 levels of prepared spells (or the equivalent in mana points). The higher level spells are first affected. On a crit, the plasmic energy contained in the spells detonates, causing d6 damage per spell level destroyed to everyone in the area (save for half). 3d6 charges, 750 GP

Microwave spells

Protection from microwaves
1st level cleric and druid spell
No microwaves can penetrate a circle 5m in radius centered around the caster. Microwaves fields or beams emitted from within the circle are unaffected but cannot go through it. 

Summon the glittering doom
3rd level magic-user and lazermage spell
The caster opens a conduit to a giant cloud of microwave-emitting nanodiamonds. This causes a beautiful but deadly nimbus to appear in front of the caster. The crackling storm travels d100 metres in a straight line, inconveniencing everyone in its path, then dissipates in a gorgeous multicoloured mist. Roll d8 for effects on each target (d4 for non-magical creatures):
1. Gets vaguely uncomfortable and annoyed. 
2. Takes damage equal to the caster’s level.
3. Forgets what they were doing there. 
4. Loses touch with reality – catatonic for d4 turns (save to resist). 
5. Feeds off the storm and gains d20 temporary hit points.
6. Becomes corporeal, which may have consequences on its supernatural nature. 
7. Has its mind wiped and becomes susceptible to suggestion (save allowed).
8. Takes d4 damage per caster level. 

Microwave monsters

MELTAbee
This species of giant bees may or may not be of natural origin. On top of the excellent quality of their honey, the melter bees have a peculiar defence mechanism. By vibrating their wings in unison, they generate microwave fields that can be quite dangerous if they are in a large enough group.

Some druids have learnt how to domesticate them, and use them against their enemies. They can command one bee per level.

AC 7 (12), HD 1, Att bite (1) or special, ML 7, AL Neutral, NA 3d6 (5d6)

  • Swarm: It takes 3 bees to swarm one medium sized creature.
  • Heat field: swarming their victims, the bees cause as many points of damage as their number (save to jump away and avoid all damage).
  • Dispel magic: magical effects caught within the heat field may be dispelled as per a magic-user of a level equal to the number of bees.

Ambulatory cannon
How do you make a 3-meter long, 150-kilo microwave emitter useful on the battlefield? You surgically implant it in the chest of two freshly skinned zombies tied back to back. The one facing the barrel of the cannon is in charge of aiming, while the other one operates the firing mechanism, checks for microwave leaks, and watches out for backstabbing thieves.

AC 8 (11), HD 5, Att 2 claws (1d8) or special, ML 12, AL Chaotic, NA 1 (1d6)

  • Heat ray cannon: 2x50m ray; 5d6 damage to targets within 3 metres, 3d6 until 20 metres, 1d6 up to 50 metres. Targets can save for half damage.
  • Leaking microwaves: all 1s rolled on any dice on behalf of the ambulatory cannon (including damage dice) injure the creature. If these leals kill it, the battery explodes, causing 5d6 damage to everyone in a 3m radius (save for half).
  • Semi-intelligent: easily confounded by unexpected situations. Cannot speak.
  • Undead: Immune to effects that affect living creatures (e.g. poison). Immune to mind-affecting or mind-reading spells (e.g. charm, hold, sleep).

Old school damage and one-roll combat

Related to my last post, I was reminiscing about the old damage notation, before they systematically used the XdN abbreviation. 2d6 was noted 2-12, d4+1 was 2-5, etc. I remember it being a bit of a math challenge when I was a kid. But I was thinking, this min-max damage notation could be used in a one-roll combat system (like in Macchiato Monsters, or if you wanted to make your D&D fights much shorter).
“One of us is dead. Maybe both of us.”
Everyone loses HP
If you miss your attack, the monster hits you and you take damage equal to the higher value listed in their description. That orc bastard with the 2-7 (d6+1) scimitar wounds you for 7. Ouch. But you’re a badass adventurer and you get to scratch him for 4 (your modified damage is d8+3, or 4-11). That actually has a good chance of killing him (assuming your referee has good taste and rolls for her monsters’ HP).
If you hit, your magic sword does kill the orc with its max damage of 11. But fighting subterranean cannibal warriors is exhausting and you still lose 2 HP.
Of course, it’s a system that makes strong fighters stronger, but it might be worth a try. Think about it: your combat round would go from four rolls to just one. 75% less rolling and math, who wouldn’t want that?
Side notes
How do you handle non reciprocal attacks, like missiles and traps? Well, player characters attacks are the same, except the PC doesn’t lose hit points on a miss – maybe just 1 to account for fatigue. Monster attacks can be either rolled by the referee, or they can call for a save.
Critical hits could be a choice: either do more damage or take none from the opponent. Maybe throw a couple more options in the mix: break melee, trip your opponent, set up an ally for advantage next round, etc.
I’m thinking a system like this might need ablative armour… maybe? That would depend on what the odds of hitting are (do you use THAC0 or roll under?) and the overall hit points progression.
“I need you to start rolling better, okay?”
 In conclusion
It is really just an idea. I might try it if I was to run B/X or OD&D, but I’m too busy at the moment with Lunchtime Dungeons to pursue it further.  If you do, drop me a note!

Thinking about hit dice

For multiple reasons (one of them being my incorrigible tinkering tendencies) I keep refining the way Lunchtime Dungeons handles damage. Hit points are gone and gutted, but I want to keep hit dice. I  think hit dice can be a fun mechanic.

 

“I thought I’d always be given a chance to avoid combat?” (D. Trampier)
 
Currently: the Wounds System
 
This is how I’ve been running damage after the system I was using proved to be inelegant over the Christmas playtest.

Characters have the one hit die, d4 to d12 depending on class and progression. For simplicity’s sake, damage in Lunchtime Dungeons is a fixed number. A long sword does 6 damage, an musket 10, a dagger 3. A modified attack roll of 20 or more doubles that. Note that I’ve kept hit points for monsters. Fights can be over very quickly if the players are lucky.

Damage is measured in wounds. You die if you have more wounds than your level. Every time you are hit, you roll your hit die. If the result is equal or over the damage, you’re fine. Not even a scratch. If you don’t, you take a wound and we look at the difference (damage minus HD result) on this table:
 
1-2: Maybe a scar
3-4: Painful blow. Save to stay conscious
5: Bleeding. Roll your HD, you will take another wound in that many turns. Keep doing this until bandaged or healed.
6-7: Lose something, -d on some tasks. Roll d6: 1. Fingers (d4); 2. Hand; 3. Nose; 4. Ear; 5. Eye; 6. Looks.
8: Leg useless. Save to keep it when healed. Can’t run. -d on agility tasks
9: Arm useless. Save to keep it when healed. -d when needing both arms or if it was the dominant hand
10-11: Head wound. -d on all rolls. Save or lose 1 prepared spell
12: Dead man walking, 1 turn + Constitution roll to live
13+: Vital organs destroyed, instant death
 
You recover wounds with healing magic and rest.

This version is highly lethal, as even a high level fighter with a HD of d12 can roll a 1 and be insta-killed (a mere mace does 7 damage, and a crit is always a possibility). I like it on paper, but I’m only human and I’d be heartbroken if the badass Viking lady in our campaign got offed that way.

“I knew I’d roll a 1 sooner or later” (M. Gröber)
 
The Hit Dice Pool System
 
Another way would be to dump the wounds. Instead, I’d give characters a pool of hit dice – one per level makes sense, maybe with a maximum number of dice that depends on class.
 
Whenever you’re hit, you roll as many HD as you want and add the results together to beat the damage (still a fixed number). The hit dice are then lost. When you’re out of dice, any damage taken kills you unless you make a CON or WIS save (your choice).
 
The wounds table above is optional. You can play a lighter game where it’s all flesh wounds until you drop if that’s what you’re into. I like my combat gritty and dangerous, so I would keep using it (maybe tweaked a little to make sure it’s worth rolling a single d4 against a battle axe or blunderbuss).
 
You recover your HD with magic and rest. I might use the 5E rule: get back a number of dice equal to half your level for a night’s rest.
Now that’s on paper, I do like this better. As a player, you have more control over your health as a resource. A mid-level fighter can pretty much guarantee they’ll get out of the first scrap unharmed, but they’ll have to be careful after that. Also, this doesn’t introduce another concept in a game that’s supposed to be light and beginner friendly.
 
 
Any thoughts, or should I go edit my manuscript and print out yet another batch of character sheets?

Using the classic stats as skills in Lunchtime Dungeons

More controversial hackery from the Irish frog! Well, I need to think about this, and no one’s forcing you to read my internet brain.

Seriously, fuck this guy

The Context

For months now, I’ve been on the fence about a skill like mechanic in Lunchtime Dungeons. I need to keep the game simple and beginner friendly, following principles like always roll high and no modifiers to rolls, but I cant decently get rid of things like the dwarf’s underground lore, the cleric’s smite & turn, or (obviously) the thief’s skulduggery.

Let me be clear: I don’t think skills killed the game back in ’75, but I don’t want them to go out of hand. And when I find myself writing stuff like ‘Gain pastry chef d8‘ in the haubitz’s progression table, it’s clearly out of hand.

The Attempt

So I’m going to try and use the six stats as skills. I should mention at this point that LD doesn’t use stats at all for the sake of simplicity. But I’m kind of pleased about having these iconic words on the character sheet again.

The system is simple. Skills are a die, from d4 to d12 (with most classes starting with d6), and you need a 4 to succeed. I don’t intend to write rules on difficulties and target numbers, but I’m sure I’ll ask for a 3 or a 5 here and there.

Strength to carry, break down, break free
Intelligence to understand, recall, memorise
Wisdom to will, perceive, feel
Dexterity to dodge, sneak, manipulate
Constitution to resist, whether, endure
Charisma to lead, bullshit, persuade

I’m only giving one skill to each human class. Strength to fighters, Intelligence to wizards, Wisdom to clerics, Dexterity to thieves. There is even room for a barbarian and a warlock or bard (but additional places aren’t my priority).

The demihumans have two conditional skills: the dwarf gets Wisdom d6 and Intelligence d6 when underground; the haubitz has Constitution d6 to resist fatigue and Dexterity d6 to hide; and for the elf I’ll go with Charisma d6 to impress and Intelligence d6 for ancient lore. I know what you’re thinking: he’s introducing complexity just two minutes after pledging to KISS. Hey, it’s a work in progress.

Another thought while I’m at it: these six dice are probably going to be renamed feats. So you roll a feat of Strength to lift that gate, or a feat of Charisma to sway Old Pigface into betraying the goblin enchantress.

The Bonus

This is where I think this might end up working somewhat elegantly. As per the master rule in Lunchtime Dungeons, you only roll a skill die if a task doesn’t put you at risk. If there is a chance of you or others being harmed, you have to save. Saves are rolled with a d20 plus a skill die against a target number. (This is also how I handle combat – characters have a basic attack skill and can get weapons skills along the line.)

EDIT: Following some useful comments by Brian and Bruno on G+, I thought I should add that the d20 save comes with a range of results that let me describe various degrees of success and failure, offer choices, take away resources, etc. Here is the table I use: 

click to avoid damaging your eyeballs

Until now, characters only had one save die. Well now they have six. But they don’t have a fuzzy cloud of skills.

So, win?

Using the hit die as a soak damage mechanic in Adventure TTRPG

Two of my goal designs for Lunchtime Dungeons are: simple procedures for shorter sessions and deadly combat. With that in mind, I’m going to test the following hack. I’m open to thoughts and suggestions.

Pathetic aesthetic by Jim Holloway
  1. Damage is a fixed number (the max damage of the weapon). A modified 20 on the attack roll doubles it. Monsters (and maybe fighters?) add their HD to that. So a goblin with a club would do 7 damage, and a vampire with a greatsword would do 17.
  2. Characters have 2d6 Stamina* and one hit die**, ranging from d8 (fighters) to nothing (wizards). They get to subtract their HD from each blow, and the remaining damage is deducted from their Stamina. 0 Stamina means a roll on the death & dismemberment table.
  3. Monsters lose hit points as normal. I’m going to use d10s for hit dice so that some goblins can withstand a blow from a long sword.

 * You can use Constitution in your six-stats game.
** I’ll probably rename it to Soak Die or something.

d66 exploration and encounter table for The Lost City

Here’s a thing I’m playtesting for Lunchtime Dungeons.
(Click the pic.)

click to read

The exploration procedure has been working pretty smoothly for a few months now, but I was inspired by a peek Luka Rejec gave us of his d100 event-slash-encounter table a while ago. Earlier inspiration comes from the Hazard System by Brendan S and some parallel thinking by David Black and Chris McDowall a couple years ago (which had prompted me to work on the same kind of table for Macchiato Monsters).
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(Yeah, I made an HTML joke. I’m not feeling well today, okay?)

So for the next while I’ll be dropping the 2d6+1d6 random encounter model and try this thing out. The monsters are from level 1 of B4: The Lost City because that’s what I’m running this week. In your game, BOD points can be treated as hits or CON/STR, depending on how easy it is to recover HP.

The Neon Marsh is in alpha

It took me a while, but I’ve completed the text of the first setting for Macchiato Monsters. It’s not something I had planned to do from the start, but I hit a snag with the Build-your-own-setting booklets so when Paolo suggested a mini-setting to support the release of MM, I thought I could use the tools I intend to put in said booklets to create something. So here it is:

(quick and dirty homemade cover – proper art will be properly arted by proper artists)

I took some chances with this. It’s ten pages, including the cover and three one-page dungeons, so it is very terse. The world material is presented alphabetically, which may not be the best way to communicate it. And there are a lot of holes to fill in, DIY style. We’ll see what reviewers say.

In any case,  I had a lot of fun inserting as many 1980s sci-fi references into a pseudo-Arthurian plotline. Here is an extract from the introduction – well it’s about half of it. Told you it was terse.

The Neon Marsh lies south of the island of Freetannia, a fragmented kingdom whose folk forgot their past glory. People toil in the service or war dukes and petty kings, while bards still sing the prophecy of the Queen of Future Pasts, who shall unite the land again. People come to the Marsh running from the law, mining for Neon, or looking to understand the weird phenomena called GLITCH.

That’s one thing off my plate for a little while. Next up: Ford’s Fairies, aka the Henry Justice Ford Monster Manual Project.