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.

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!