Monday, January 21, 2019

Dark Souls and the Beauty of the Megadungeon

I used to think the idea of a dungeon, let alone a MEGADUNGEON, was boring. Going from stone room to stone room, fighting orcs. I was fourteen then, and it wasn't for another 4 years, when Dark Souls came out, that I learned the beauty of the Megadungeon.

1. Megadungeon as a style of play

  • In Dark Souls, you measure your progress in several things - areas cleared, bonfires lit, and bosses defeated. In Megadungeons, you measure your progress in rooms cleared.
  • Dark Souls uses the idea of a room as a metaphorical thing. A room is any place where a thing is located. Firelink Shrine and the NPCs are a room. The cemetery below is a room with the skeletons which do not stay down. Keeping it simple like this can make designing a Megadungeon much easier.
  • Dark Souls tells story through this process - each region has a tale told by the order of its rooms, and the encounters in those rooms. While designing your own megadungeon, think in these terms. How can the rooms and the encounters tell a story?
  • In this way, Megadungeon is a style of play, rather than a location. It's a style of play that focuses on the ROOM and the ENCOUNTER and how those are linked together to tell a story.
  • Continuing the war example: the battlefield region could have 1.) foxholes filled with terrified soldiers, 2.) a trench with wounded men clogging the route, 3.) front lines with constant machine gun fire and an incompetent commander, 4.) no man's land, with enemies charging with bayonets. This tells a story of the region, and the players that move through it will forward the story of the Party.

2. The Beauty of the 5e Adventure Day

  • Dark Souls is a game of attrition. Resources are your only way of survival. Health, Stamina, estus, spells, etc. This. Is. DnD.
  • In 5e, health, HD, spells, potions, etc. are the resources you need to continue adventuring.
  • In Dark Souls, reaching a bonfire is a goal because it means rest and replenishing resources. In 5e, this is the adventure day.
  • The adventure day - typically - says that a party can handle 5-8 encounters from easy-hard difficulty before needing a long rest. During this day you can have short rests to expend HD and replinish certain abilities.
  • You can use this in your Megadungeon game to create story. Nothing is more exciting and tension driven in Dark Souls than when you're running low on everything and having to decide whether you are going back or moving forward in hopes of a bonfire.
  • Take this example and place safe spots (bonfires) in your Megadungeon. Place them at the end of Adventuring days.


  • Taking a look at Dark Souls as an example of excellent design - From Firelink Shrine to the first bonfire, there are 5 necessary encounters: the undead on the stairs, the undead playing dead, the undead where the dragon lands, the crossbow undead, and the undead with the shields and spears. Each one takes place in its own "room", with the crossbow-men being able to fire down on you while taking on another encounter.
  • Not only this but there are 3 optional rooms for extra xp and treasure - the rat in the sewer guarding the humanity, the secret jump to get the treasure in the building, and the hidden NPC downstairs which sells stuff.
  • THAT'S the perfect example of how to design an adventure day. In DnD that entire thing might take a session, maybe two, depending. And when you start looking at Dark Souls like that, you can see that all areas are the same. And they USE the Adventure Day to build tension. Sometimes making them shorter, and sometimes forcing you to go 14-15 encounters before reaching the next one.

2a Adventure Day Continued

  • When designing your regions for your Megadungeon, use the idea of the adventure day to add another layer to the story. The layer which taxes the PLAYERS resource management. With this, you have both layer of the game engaged - the characters and their buy-in, and the players with their character sheets.
  • Continuing the war example: after crossing no-man's land, the opposing force is pushed back and the Party can finally rest before being awoken by artillery the next day.

3. The importance of NPCs

  • Dark Souls uses NPCs for very few reasons - covenants, buying/selling, and optional story. But all of these impact the world of Dark Souls, a lonely world where you make it on your own.
  • Let this influence your own NPC design. Let the theme of your world influence your NPC design.
  • Ask yourself what role they fill. Are they here to buy/sell? What would a buyer/seller look like in your world?
  • In this hypothetical war campaign, a buyer/seller would be the guy at the barracks, or a medic on the field, or the guy riding around in the jeep with all the bullets.
  • The other NPCs, keep their story on an optional level, but don't be worried about having NPCs reappear, like when Big Hat Logan shows up after being freed.
  • Have NPCs disappear, like the Cleric that stands near the back of Firelink. If this draws interest, then great, if not, then that's one less NPC you have to worry about.
  • NPCs as optional stories in the War Campaign could be a soldier that joins the squad, a tank sergeant that keeps needing help, a daring spy that is offering coin for info, a cartographer that needs help mapping the enemy territory. People that can enrich the world, but aren't necessary if the party isn't interested.

4. Locks, Keys, and Gates

  • Dark Souls has some backtracking, to say the least. There are doors that can't be opened, paths that shouldn't be traveled, creatures which can't be beat. These require you to go do some other shit then come back later.
  • When designing your regions, don't hesitate to put in rooms that need a key. Just like the room, the key can be metaphorical.
  • In the War Campaign, a key can be a new rank that gives access to new areas/information, it can be a commanding officer that you have to get in good with, it can be an injury that puts you in a new location for recovery.
  • 5e has some locked gates built in - certain spells such as Fly allow access to the air in a new way. Water breathing potions/spells give you access to new locations. Druid wild shapes could give access to animal areas previous unallowed. Paladin oaths can give you access to locations. Perhaps your wizard school gives access to a certain portion of the library others can't go to.
  • You can use both 5e's system and your world's theme to build your own series of locks/keys/gates and place them around your regions to have your own little secrets.
  • When someone finally discovers one and unlocks'll make it all worth it.

This is a continuation of my new series where I take a look at some of the things that inspired me and pull out the wisdom that has carried through. You can follow me on reddit by clicking on my name and going to my profile. I have an AMA on the 21st, my book "Haunted" is coming out soon. Got the proof back from the printer and just had to tweak some things. I'm excited for the end of this year and I think there's big things coming.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Hogwarts-on-acid: my next dnd campaign

I'm building out my new campaign, which is looking to be an entirely new system built on the bones of 5e.

The pitch is - Bully (the Rockstar game) meets studio Ghibli set in a Hogwarts-on-acid magic school.

Some things I've learned so far:
1. The secret service operates out of the school (inspired by Matt Colvile's worldbuilding streams)
2. It's more like a campus of schools interconnected by dungeons and made complicated by rivalries
3. Each student will level up by taking classes, so as you pass each semester you will be selecting the things you want to learn/be good at
4. Each semester will have a "project" which will essentially be a dungeon/pointcrawl/hexcrawl/some other adventure.
5. Death is the least likely thing to happen. Mutations/scars/dismemberment are more likely. Expultion is *most* likely.

It all takes place in my world, which means that they are in Endsville, the city at the end of the world. It rests on the back of a world snake. Her name is Ran. Endsville is set up like a hex map, where each hex is a scale on the snake. On the head of Ran is the MegaRave, a dungeon that is just one massive party.

The city itself is always in this constant state of cold war, as the Dread Lords try to push each other out of power without coming to direct confrontation. This is the last one wants to die.

It's all just a complicated web of kafkaesque politics and brutal, mind-altering dungeon crawls.

Here's how you make a character :D

Choose your race (might make this a roll table)
Human, Goblin, Tiefling, Drow are most common
Unseelie, Half-Elf, Homunculi are uncommon
Black Cat, Dwarf, Dragon Mutant are rare

Choose your Class
Wizard - visited/bonded with a familiar so that they can study magic. Familiars are alien and capricious.
Sorcerer - caught a falling star to gain magic and a wish, but if they use the wish they lose their magic
Warlock - traded hearts with a monster to gain magic, but pushing that magic makes them monstrous
Witch - married something to gain magic, like a demon or the moon or a god spider
Cleric - chosen by a spirit and thus haunted by it. They gain a point when something horrible happens to them and can spend those point to make the spirit do something cool

Choose your background - this is how you got into the school
Squallor - you were poor so you saddled this massive debt to get a chance at something greater. You aren't well known so your rival won't be super crazy, and you have access to your loving family and friends for support
Chosen One - You were part of something bigger than yourself which has put you in the limelight, OR you have shown some unnatural magical aptitude thrusting you into the limelight
Scholarship - you've proven yourself enough to be given some cash. Roll a percentile dice to determine how much of your debt is being covered and talk to your DM about *why* it's being covered. Could be an athletic scholarship, or a scholarship for you to develop homonculi forces for some distant king's army
Military - you were in the military or your father is a high ranking officer in the military. This gives you status, a weapon proficiency, and some skills, but it also puts a burden on you. Uphold your rank or your family status or have it all stripped from you.
Political - same as above except entirely social. You are the child of a politician, maybe even someone in the court of a Dread Lord, and you have a certain image to uphold.

Then you choose your school. All of these are works in progress.
Crystal Palace - fire elementals
Earth Elementals
Water Elementals
Air Elementals
The School of Lock and Key - door mages
Key mages - unlock metaphorical doors
Moth School - illusions/light
Some other ones

I want to aim for 20 schools of magic, 8 spells each. Seems like a good goal.

Hoping to run this campaign after my two current campaigns wrap early 2020 lol

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Banshee - redoing the 5e monster manual

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Today is the Banshee. I kinda like her already, so all I wanted to do was make getting rid of her interesting and unique. 

So, Banshee's are murdered queens and the only way to lay eyes on them to be able to slay them is to be a part of their court. So you have to find out what it took to become a part of this court, then see if you can even still do those things since the queen is dead. 

Banshees attempt to blind you by showing you their gruesome death. 

Then they wail to deafen you. 

This makes you their servant. Part of their undead court, so to speak. Then they *ask nicely* if you'd kindly kill those mother fuckers that let her die. 

So while all this garbage is going on, the party has to play Ace Attorney to bring the murderer to justice. I guess you can just kill them...but I'd rule that justice is more important. The banshee doesn't make sense. They are angry spirits who are really fucking mad that they died, but they were queens and believe in justice. 

If presented with any sort of contradiction, they'll probably just wail. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

3-Dimensionality in TTRPGs

I wasn't sure how to react to these comments at first.

People often talk about Story when I mention how I do something in a game. They mention Story like its something you as the DM bring into the game fully breathed out. The idea of an NPC that is not fleshed out is "BAD STORY" because they are one dimensional. The idea of an adventure location is "NOT A STORY" because I don't give them, in the adventure location, an explicit beginning, middle, and end.

It bothers me in a deep part of my chest because we are playing a game, not writing a fucking story. And the story that comes from playing the game is not one that I can write for you. All that we can do as game designers is create tools that codify our table experiences in the hopes that there is something universal about them.

That's why there are so many hacks, clones, and spin-offs of DnD. That's why some of them are more popular than others. It's why Dungeon World did (and continues to do) so well; it creates the kind of game experience that many, many other people *wanted* to have and related to.

So when someone comments on my Naruto post about how "these ideas create one-dimensional characters", I just want to scream in all caps, "THAT IS YOUR FAULT!". I as a creator am not responsible for bringing the life to your game. YOU AND YOUR PLAYERS are the two other dimensions that take what are just words on paper and turn them into a story.

You may have bought Curse of Strahd because you think Strahd is complex or something, or that his castle is beautiful, but all of that is one dimensional and means nothing until YOU as a DM use it at the table and bring it to life.

Everyone's Strahd is different. Every. Single. One. Every castle Ravenloft is different. Even if the rooms stay in their exact order with as-written text read aloud from the book to the player, the castle is now yours and what happens there has never happened before and will never happen again.

TTPRGs are unique in that way that other media are not. The story is created by the conversation of books/DM/players. And each is affected by the next. The same book/players with a new DM will have a new experience. The most common form of this is the DM/player and a new book.

As a writer, I cannot deny the power of words. It's communication. Transfer of information. In literature, a one-dimensional character leaves a bad taste in your mouth. The trope-ridden characters in film trigger the gag reflex. These are medium that rely on the written word to create those things for you. They are essentially taking the place of the book and the DM all in one, while you take the place of the player. You take in what they give you and react.

But that is not the case in games.

When I take in the information of a book (Curse of Strahd, just to keep it flowing) and spew it out to a player, I am making it three dimensional. The book MAY give me some feelings that PUSH me in a direction (sadness, or longing) but I am the one making Strahd a three dimensional, living, breathing character.

The way I interpret the words and react to them will be different than other DMs. The way I look at his loss and his role in it will be different. Even if the fucking book tells me "Strahd only talks in a whisper", my fucking whisper will be different than yours. Not just in sound but in meaning.

So when I write an article, or a book, I am not giving you a story. I CAN NOT give you a story. I am giving you tools so that you, as a three dimensional person, can hopefully create an experience closer to the fun I am having at the table while I and my players bring things to life.

That's why I give my NPCs just three things:
What they say - what they outwardly present
What they don't say - their subtext
What they actively hide - their secret

I do this so that maybe it can create a bit of faux-depth that makes you interested in a character. In my eyes, that should be all you need as a DM. Because YOUR experiences and thoughts and feelings and multi-faceted brain filled with all the various parts of you will fill in any gaps that I leave.

There SHOULD be gaps to let you do so.

So no, creating a clan of people based off of a trope, or a "gimmick", or any of the other derogatory terms people use when talking about anime, is NOT one dimensional. I give you the tools, your players and you bring it to life.

P.S. - I understand to a degree that most of these people are commenting on Anime as a medium and, more so, commenting on their disdain for anime as a medium. But then to just be ignorant of the things you can learn from things you don't like? Gross.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Cowboy Bebop and the Art of Controlling a Session

I like anime. Bebop is one of the best. And when rewatching it last month, I realized that I had been using tools from it. So here's a post about those tools.

1. Bounty of the Week

  • The key to controlling a session is to know your enemy
  • In Bebop, every episode (session) revolves around a bounty that the gang is chasing. 
  • Find your bounty. It can be a reoccurring villain or a Monster of the Week scenario. 
  • This is tied into your Theme. In the war example from the Pokemon post, the enemy is the opposing force.

2. Structure

  • To goal of knowing your enemy is to have a structure. 
  • Bebop's structure is simple: 1. there's a new bounty, 2. the gang goes after the bounty, 3. the gang doesn't get rich.
  • This is most feasible to plot in an episodic game, where every session can have an individual story
  • But **Bebop's structure comes from the Villains**. It comes from the Theme that there will always be another bounty to catch, they will always mess up, and they will always escalate. 

3. Villains

  • So to create your Structure, even in a serial campaign, you must only know the steps your enemy will take to succeed their goal
  • Continuing the war example: the enemy will always try to win the war. Doing this can be done in many ways, to create some variance, but we can make a list of three steps that all of the opposing forces see the world through: There's a new target, we send troops to deal with the target, we win the war. 
  • Ever need to know what the enemy force is trying to do? Wherever the PCs are is a new target. The opposing forces will send troops to handle this new target, either by destroying it, capturing it, planting a spy, etc. In the hopes that they'll win the war.

4. Pacing

  • Bebop tells a fulfilling and impactful episode in 22 minutes. You have 3 hours (or more) to be a part of something that is fun. Doesn't even need to be impactful. Just fun for the table.
  • If you watch Bebop, you'll see that, like in D&D, the gang meanders, wanders, gets distracted A LOT. They focus on the wrong things, follow the wrong leads, wind up at "dead ends" of the Bounty Hunt. 
  • The Villains always stay on track though. And this creates pace.
  • If your session feels like its lagging if it feels like your party is losing their place, if there is a big lull and nothing is happening and you feel the game slipping away...your villain is trying to accomplish their goal.
  • YOU can act in the face of party inaction. You, in the guise of the world, can act.

4b. Types of Action

  • The villain does something devastating nearby
  • The villain attacks the party
  • The villain takes hostages
  • The villain escalates the situation
  • The villain is spotted making an escape
  • The villain slips up and reveals their position

5. Communication

  • Cowboy Bebop communicates with its cast. The world, I mean, communicates with the gang to push the show along. Most episodes are started with a TV program giving the gang their new bounty. And when this doesn't happen, either they stumble onto a bounty wherever they happen to be, or the character's backstories come back to haunt them.
  • As a DM, I find a lot of joy in worldbuilding that communicates with the players
  • Bounty boards are a big example of this in a standard fantasy world. Open a session with the bounty board and you're off to the races
  • But you have the freedom to communicate in other ways. Quest giving NPCs that have a personality and depth can be a great way to open a session, which creates pacing but also allows for RP.

5b. Backstories

  • Spike has a personal villain that haunts him. And because of this past life, he has a lot of contacts. I'd say 1/4th of episodes have something to do with Spike's past, or someone from the Gang's past. 
  •  Matthew Mercer, DM for Critical Role, almost exclusively communicates to the party through their backstories. Their gods, patrons, past friends, enemies, etc. 
  • When your PCs hand you a backstory, it is a gift of resources that all allow you to communicate directly to your party through the game

As always, check out my book. It's in the right hand corner. This is my continued attempt to get my reddit posts onto the blog without just spamming everything all at once.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019


I'm finally working on MUCK!!
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My art-friend and collaborator Micah finished this beautiful fucking map of my new adventure location, MUCK. It's a fuckin' swamp. It's inspired by the metal music I love plus a dungeon I wrote a while ago called the Drowned Mountain

The gist is - if you want to travel anywhere, you gotta go through MUCK. 

So the party wants to go do a thing, this place is in the way.

I'm really excited to get to work on it finally, as my parties have been going to other locations and doing other things that required me to focus on them. NOW they are going here and I get to flesh everything out and get to work. 

This will be the fourth issue of Songbirds, my extra-planar zine. And yeah, only one is released right now, but that's because this is my first time self-publishing a physical book and it's a fucking bitch. I'm so bad at it. This is proof number 3 of Haunted, and proof number 2 of Inside the Giant's Eye. Hopefully, Desert Wind goes smoother and I'll have all the bits hammered out so that MUCK goes straight to print without issues. 

Maybe I should do a blog about my experiences with self-publishing...idk if anyone even reads this though. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Tonight's D&D Game

I run my IRL game today.

The session ended with everyone killing their sharks. That means today they are gonna open them up and see what is inside. Finding something they've lost.

I'm struggling a bit with this. There are three characters: Nix, E.D., and Khalil.

E.D. has lost her memories. So she's going to find a photograph/vhs with the names/faces of the people who created her. And maybe push her closer to an answer of what she is.

Nix lost a childhood. Nix was poor and worked his entire life. He looked up at the snake city and wanted to be there. To grow to power and never have to worry again. But what will be inside of his shark? A piece of his childhood? A compass guiding him on his quest so that he can overcome his childhood?

Khalil lost a lot as well. Free will. His life belongs to the Queen of the Mountain, who has a contract of his blood in order for him to get revenge on his old gang who betrayed him. Perhaps one of those he wants revenge on is inside... Or maybe another fae? The location of an UnBlade?

It's not what they *want*, it's something they've lost. What have they lost?

Khalil has given his soul to a fae to get revenge.
Could be his soul?
The location of his soul?
A bunch of money?
The location of a bunch of money?

What do I want it to do? E.D.'s shark is going to guide her towards dragons. Nix's should guide him to the sea. Khalil's should guide him to the moon.

E.D. finds her memories.
Khalil finds one of the things that was stolen from him by his team, and the dagger used in the attempt to take his life.
Nix finds the ring he gave to someone. That person betrayed him. Now he can give the ring again and regain his trust or he can wear it himself.

I think that will work.

This session is going to shape a big part of the campaign I feel. Or maybe not. We'll see.