Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why is the Secret Door Secret?

One way we could add details and logic to secret doors is to look at them from the angle of what was meant to be hidden.  I broke that down into four categories.  Here are some ideas on each:

Individuals hiding something from society
Probably more crudely built in easy-to-work materials since one person was doing it.  These might be more covered holes or dirt tunnels than true secret corridors.  Or they could be one of the other types of passages that have been forgotten by everyone, now found by this individual and re-purposed.

The peeper will have holes into the most private areas of the community and maybe a network of these.  The hoarder has a pantry hidden away with alcohol, preserved foods, anything the community is only allowed certain amounts of.  That and the Shirker's quiet hideaway could be nice finds for visiting adventurers.  Mania is where your celebrity stalker pastes up their pictures or the miniatures collector stores their armies.  Blasphemy is where dark idols are kept.  But, really, depending on the community anything considered forbidden could be reason to hide here.

Small groups hiding from society
Trysts allow for forbidden love and will usually span long distances, literally or culturally.  So the Montagues live far from the Capulets, or the king sneaks right next door into the maid's quarters.  These lover's passages should probably have secret doors on each end.  The rest in this category are the cults and secret societies.  These will be better built with warning bells and even traps.  They should lead to, not just more windy little passages, but hidden rooms, big enough for people to meet and scheme.  Could include small barracks, warehouses, or libraries.  Forbidden lore could include magics or heretical religious teachings.

Rulers hiding from society
These are the best quality, built with money, planning, and plenty of labor.  Probably have locks.  The peepholes will be not just into bedrooms, but places people might meet and talk.  Some passages could open into travel routes for easy disappearing of troublesome folks.  Fraud includes the hidden panels that allow priests to make an idol "eat" its offerings.

Society hiding from invaders
These are of similar quality to those built by the rulers, unless they are built after occupation and then they'll be more like the individual's crude attempts but full of traps.  Peepholes may function as murder holes.  The escape route may be one-way and much larger than the ruler's bolthole.  The flanking and guerrilla type should be located in tactically advantageous positions.  Most people in the community should know about these.


I have been messing about with this for several days trying to figure out the best way to present it.  I had an idea that you might use little icons in the table-- eyes, bells, and such-- to represent the features each category has..  But I figure I'll just post it now to share the ideas and revise it later. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Here's my take on a trap chart in the Roger the GS style.  If you read straight across you get a standard trap that should be easy to work with even at the last moment in play.  If you mix and match the columns you get weird stuff you need to interpret a bit and is intended more for pre-play prep.

A few notes.  If you are rolling to get something weird you can still get the straight-across result.  Rather than re-roll I put in to add insects or animals to get some Indiana Jones style snake pits or bug filled rooms.  The trigger column was the last thing I added and the fact that some are nouns and some verbs bugs me, but it should work.  For the chute being "revealed" I was thinking of staircases that flatten out, the chute was always there built into the feature itself.

Let's roll some and see how we might interpret them:

4, 3, 5, 4
shim, gas, swings, block
Whew, that's a tough one on the first go.  Okay, let's say a section of a hallway is a big pendulum.  Knocking out a wooden shim will cause it to swing, replacing the current section of hall.  It contains a gas that is heavier than air and makes anything in it float to the ceiling and get stuck.

 2, 7, 10, 9
latch, noose, (shoot out, open), channel
Hmm, okay, a chamber with four doors.  Opening the "wrong" door causes a noose to shoot out and land around the opener's neck and start, slowly, constricting.  Opening the door the designer wants you to go through causes the noose to go slack.

7, 1, 6, 1
touch, darts, jut out, wound
This one seems pretty straight forward.  The walls of an area are lined with tiny, sharp points.  Brushing up against them causes them to jut out and inflict damage.  I would say battles in the area would be at a negative because the battlers are being careful not to touch the walls.  Or maybe roll a save every time you miss to see if you've bumped into a wall.

Well, you get the picture.  Let me know if you have any suggestions or questions.  Hope this helps in designing your dungeons.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Secret Doors

Secret Doors in a Dungeon:
  • might be the ultimate exploration payoff, the exact kind of mysterious feature you were hoping to find when you set off into the unknown.
  • are simple machines that still function (unless they don't).
  • are the dungeon feature that has the most story built in; someone was doing something they wanted to hide.
  • are an important part of the genre trappings.
  • might assume players will make several visits to that dungeon and thus have more chance of finding them.
  • might assume that dungeon has intelligent factions that can use them as an advantage against a party and help tip off their existence.
  • can be a shortcut that makes travel between two spots in a dungeon faster and easier.
  • can lead to hidden rooms with treasure items that may never be found.
  • can act as "pinch points" that will open up whole new areas of a dungeon once found.
  • require thought and effort by the DM to create and place and might never be found.
  • are probably the best example of the difficulty of negotiating player vs character skill (well, along with traps).
  • might assume a more adversarial DMing style that is trying to challenge clever, persistent players.
  • might assume a search of the dungeon 10' by 10' by 10' by 10' section, and a particularly slow and laborious progress through the dungeon.
  • might assume players are making detailed maps.
  • might assume more experienced players that have been introduced to all these ideas.
This feels like an assignment from DM school: "Write 200 words on Secret Doors.  Due by Wednesday." Hahaha.  Now I'm interested to try these things:
  • Design a dungeon as I normally would and then roll randomly to determine which of the doors are actually secret, and then see how that changes the place.
  • Make a table of secrets people would want to keep hidden and think about how those might affect the shape / function / location of a secret door.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Every Secret Door a Trap

As a fourth level DM one of the things I still haven't mastered is relaying details to players from the abstract imagined world.  What I mean is, anything I mention specifically is assumed to be important because I mentioned it.  If I'm not careful an offhand detail for atmosphere will set players on long, goose-chase searches.  Or, on the other hand, an actual important trigger is easy as pie to find, because, well, again, it had to be mentioned.

This isn't a problem for me with traps because I try to make traps visible anyway.  But it relegates secret doors to either easy finds (if I have a specific trigger designed) or impossible finds (search every section of wall you suspect and roll to see if you find something).

I'd love to hear how other DM's negotiate this difficulty, but in the mean time I figured out a kludge of a fix.  Make every secret door also a trap if triggered incorrectly.

That way you can have your "There is a moosehead mounted on the wall here" type triggers but players that turn it the wrong way can run into trouble.  I'd want the trouble telegraphed the same way I do normal traps-- bloodstains, bones, body parts.  And that would mean the existence or (approximate) location of secret doors would not, in fact, be secret any more, but how to pass through them would be.

But then, if you have traps peppered about a dungeon, a trapped secret door might not be obvious.  Players seeing it might assume it's just another trap and avoid it altogether.  And only normal things that tip off secret doors ("hey, there's a blank spot on the map here!") would send them back to re-check it.

Anyway, here's an example of what I had in mind: a square room has a mosaic running hip-high around all its walls.  Each wall has underwater scenes with mermaids, shipwrecks and a single giant clam with a pearl in it.  There is a bit of bloody cloth jammed into the crack between floor and wall.  Pushing one of the pearls will 1) open a a pit trap below the whole room 2) open a dummy secret door to a dead-end hallway and shut the door behind you in 5 rounds 3) nothing 4) open the real secret door.

I guess that might be more of what people call a "trick," and it certainly makes more work for the DM to put in than a plain vanilla secret door, but it's another possible approach.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Saw these while work was busy and wanted to share them now.  These necklaces of human teeth remind me of the fingerbone necklace, though it would be easier to make one of these:
This spotted lake is an example of how the real world is odder and more fantastic than most of my imagined landscapes:
Finally, this opalised theropod tooth is an example of how, whatever treasure item table I come up with it will probably never generate crazy cool things like this:
I can't find the link to the post on TYWKIWDBI, but I swear I saw it there. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Simple Survival Rules II

I wasn't quite sure how to handle what happens if you get stuck out in bad weather or don't have food and water.  Here is a round up of ways it might work.  I'm assuming hours as the unit of effect.  If the party was in some sort of hyper cold dungeon room you might zoom in and make it turns or rounds (or in freezing water, hmmm, but we're getting ahead of ourselves) but for most things I think an hour will be good.  A turn would be too fine, a day too coarse a unit.

So, possibilities, every hour you don't meet the survival conditions you:
  1. Can't heal any wounds you have (thanks Roger)
  2. Can't rest or regain spells
  3. Take 1 hit point of damage
  4. Take one hit die of damage (what, you roll your hit die and subtract?)
  5. Lose some fraction of your hit points (1/4, 1/2) [but that would mean the distress affects you less and less]
  6. Save or die
  7. Save or one of the other possibilities here happens
  8. Save against your Con score or die
  9. Save against your Con score or one of the other possibilities here happens (thanks Zavi)
  10. Any of the other possibilities here but with accumulating negative modifiers
  11. Get negative modifier to all dice rolls (combats, other saves)
  12. Take damage multiplied by your level (this is related to 4 but simpler to do, again, thanks Roger)
  13. Become unconscious (this is built into my game when characters reach 0 hp, so a little redundant)
Whew, that's a bunch.  Can you think of any others?  I just thought, maybe a good way to talk about this is to say when a player is "Distressed."

I think it would be easy enough to remember that 1 and 2 apply any time you are distressed but I could do without them for simplicity's sake.  I think 6 and 8 are too abrupt to allow for much drama to build in the wilderness.  For many of these, higher level characters will be much better off but not for 4, 5, 8, 9, or 12.

I'm drawn to the Constitution save because it makes sense that tougher characters could survive better.  I'm also drawn to saves in general because every hour could be a little drama where players see if they will fall unconscious or not.  And it could be interesting to have the toughest characters trying to save the rest of the party by dragging them into a shelter (or Tauntaun).

So I'm leaning toward:

Each hour you're in distress, roll under your Constitution or take 1 point of damage per level.

Once you have that simple base you can add some layers on top.  For example, for the freezing water I thought about above, keep the same rule but make it each round you are immersed.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


One of my employees excitedly shared with me that she had tried roleplaying for the first time.  

They all know I'm into D&D and blog, though I don't think any of them really know what D&D is except something you laugh at on an episode of Community.

She went on to say they played Fiasco.

I thought, hmm, interesting that these indie games are getting some mainstream reach.  I wonder if part of it is that they avoid any stigma attached to D&D and its "basement" players.

Then she said they all watched some of Wil Wheaton's YouTube video to learn how to create characters.  Then, after creating characters, watched more of the video to see what to do next . . .

And my heart sank.  I've got nothing against Fiasco and if you play it and love it, that's cool.  But if I care about anything I care about making D&D accessible to folks who would otherwise never try it.  And the thought that the stigma and hermetic nature of old school rpgs is so strong that a fresh-face-of-a-game can be more attractive to new players, even though you need to watch a video to understand how to play it, is just depressing to me. 

Can you imagine any other game in this context?  "We're playing bridge tonight so let's all watch this video on how to play."

Of course, I'm assuming stigma is at play here.  One other thing she mentioned is that the DM for the night was big into D&D back in the day.  So I wonder if another thing going on with indie games is "games for experienced gamers."  You've played rpgs for more than 20 years and you want to stretch your wings a bit, try something more daring with more improv required, or maybe something more focused on one aspect of what can be fun about rpgs in general-- you play an indie game.  And then you invite your non-gamer friends to play too.  And maybe they'll have fun.  But it seems to me like taking a friend who has never seen a movie before to see a Bergman film or Fellini or something.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Simple Survival Rules

Do you have simple rules for exposure or hunger and thirst?

I'd like something simple enough that players can remember (important when they are making choices and don't require constant look ups) and that take as little bookkeeping as possible.  Here are some draft ideas:

A character needs a ration of food and a wineskin of water each day.

I think the week as a unit for rations is not fine enough-- how often do you get through a week in a single session?  That means you are going to have to track partial rations.  For water, a wineskin is quite a bit, but if you consider someone traipsing about in sweat-inducing armor, taking part in combat, and hiking for miles, I think it's plausible enough to use for simplicity's sake.

I need to look back over Talysman's simple hunting rules because I'll probably use them.  One idea I had this morning was:

Each hit die a game animal has can supply one ration of food.

Again, might seem like a lot of meat is getting wasted but it's simple and the warriors are hungry.  As for exposure, what if we keep temperature to 3 levels above or below the norm.  And have a few things that ameliorate them.  Cold is easier.  You could have heavy clothes, shelter, or a fire.  As it gets colder you'll need combinations of the three.  So, it would look something like this:

normal = nothing needed
cold = one aid
freezing = two aids
bitter cold = three aids

So, for stage 2 coldness you could huddle in your heavy furs and shelter, or dress normally in your shelter with a warm fire, or brave the winds with a fire and heavy furs.

What's the penalty for not having the appropriate gear?  Maybe -1 hit point per hour?  Or to make even high level characters fear the wilderness, - 1 hit die per hour exposed.  For heat I guess shade, a body of water, and maybe shelter too (underground or something) could work.  It might be okay to make the heat less survivable, seems to be true in the real world.

I would want to figure out food and water requirements for beasts of burden.  And maybe set a threshold of cold/hot they can stand.  Outside of it they take the same damage as players.  That way it would make llamas and camels equally interesting in different parts of the game world.

What else?  Those would go a long way to adding tension to exploring harsh terrain. 

The only other thing I can think of is sleep.  But that is much more complicated.  It often happens off stage, it is by default boring (nobody is making any choices), and fiddly to determine if sleep was good or bad: was there too much noise, is the ground rocky, did you feel safe enough to rest soundly.  Maybe a better way to handle it is you need to camp every so often or you get some penalties.  But that's pretty much the default for D&D now, no?  No camping, no healing, no spell memorization.  So maybe we don't need to worry about sleep at all.  The need to camp is built into the game.  And a party harried in the wilderness, trying to find shelter from the cold will probably not camp if they can't find shelter etc.

If you have ideas or know of good simple rules that add to the verisimilitude of characters trying to survive in the wild share them below.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Bridge of Crows

A wide chasm.  Riches rumored to be on the opposite side.  Murders of crows cawing and hopping about on this side.  If you sleep near the crows they form a bridge in your dreams that you can walk across the ravine.  If you wake while walking the crows fly away leaving you to fall.


The bridge of crows is from an actual fairy tale I haven't read.  I just saw an illustration of it as I hunted for silhouette material.  It showed up in my dreams chart.  I suppose it's more a location or feature than a monster.

I think I would make it so that one or more players would have to find a way to fall asleep near the crows, even with all the noise.  And it would take 1d6 turns for them to see the bridge and cross it.  Hopefully there is some encounter in the mean time to make things tense.  Maybe something lairs right next to the crow landing.

Crossing the bridge successfully would essentially teleport the character to the other side.

So, I think that's about the end of my fairy tale run.  I was trying to think of some more direct threats, monsters pcs could actually fight.  But from my experience fairy tale threats are either beaten by simple rules or gobble you up whole-- not much exciting combat going on.  If you've got ideas post them in the comments.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Russet Bear

The russet bear has reddish hair and likes the sweetest things.  It will follow you about hoping for more if you feed it berries or cream.  Whistle a song it will amble along and dance the happiest dance.  Any who see the Russet Bear dance will wish to join in (save at -2, fairy tale magic is powerful).  It has different dances for different tunes:

The twirling dance (twirling, dizziness afterward, prevents attacking etc.)
The hide and seek dance (all viewers flee while the song lasts)
The ring-around-the-rosy (all viewers come in close and link hands)
The single file dance (all viewers form a conga line and follow the bear which will follow the tune maker)

Set a simple tune that players might know like Happy Birthday or the Do Re Mi song, or the William Tell Overture for each specific dance.  That way players will have to experiment a bit to discover the different dances.  And have actually actually whistle the tunes they are trying, heh.  The song doesn't have to be whistled in game, players could use instruments or hum.  To clarify who is affected you could say anyone whistling along is not.  So the whole party can be safe as a dance starts and savvy foes might start whistling too.

The bear will usually wander off in the night unless the party goes to great pains to keep it stocked on lots of sweet foodstuffs.

So the bear is less a monster than an awkward magic item.  I tried to keep the dances whimsical but potentially useful-- say the players are ambushed and have the bear tagging along-- start up the hid and seek dance and the ambushers will clear out giving time for escape.  It might be more about hijinks too, like taking the thing to court and making all the nobles do the conga.  Or I suppose the Russet Bear could be following a troubador npc and be used against the party.

Update: After posting I'm feeling I didn't get the tone quite right here, it's a little too twee.  With the last two posts I was trying to get the creepiness and threat that seems to underlie the apparent childishness of fairy tales.  To get more of that here, I might make the dances more frightening - the twirling dance like the tarantella will dance people to death, maybe add London Bridge which will send dancers over cliffs like waves of lemmings at each chorus of "we all fall down." Something to make players a little afraid of the bear themselves.  Hmm, maybe if you don't keep it fed with sweets it will make you dance.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Milk Maid

A barefoot, young girl with a wooden pail of warm milk walks in a dangerous place.  Oddly unharmed, she says to the party "All worried and weary come drink from my pail.  Come drink this warm milk and feel hearty and hale."

Drinking the milk will always heal the drinker (2d6 hit points) but other effects depend on the kind of milk it is.  The milk in the pail actually comes from a local denizen, so it might be unicorn, dragon, or ogre (don't think too much about the specifics it's a fairy tale).

Refusing to drink from the pail means the next encounter will be with something that has.  (This will be obvious because of the empty pail nearby or milk dripping from its chin.)


So, this monster isn't really ready to run out of the box.  You'll need to decide what the milk of each of the creatures on your random encounter table would do (if an ogre drinks dragon milk?  If a unicorn drinks kobold milk?).  If players decide to drink the milk, have them roll on your encounter table what kind of milk it was (it seems funnier and creepier to know you just drank rot grub milk than to just feel the effects).

Also, I think this milk maid would work best with some foreshadowing.  Have the local village peasants arguing about whether you should or shouldn't drink from her pail with examples of what happened when their second cousins did etc.  That way, even her appearance is a kind of an event.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Wallers

Those who have seen them say they look like knee-high bearded men .  They build walls of dirty grey brick that appear to be made of cinders and ground bones.  Any tool used to break through these bricks will become useless or dulled (consumes tools and spikes / -1 to weapons until worked on by a smith).  Wallers work quietly and and quickly; blocking a 10' corridor in a as many minutes.   They will flee if provoked but will return again and again until the spot they were walling is walled.


This is my take on a fairy tale-like monster.  I was spurred on by this post.  I'll try to come up with some more.  The idea here is not that players will be tricked into losing their way ( the bricks look different than surrounding dungeon) or even that it will consume resources (eating up spikes to break through) just that it is odd and makes little sense.  It will hopefully give players the heeby jeebies and have them wondering what else might lurk in the underworld.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

2 Booklet Tips

It's funny to me how my hobby has actually helped me do things at my work (mostly using digest-sized booklets for training documents).  Today the job gives back.  These aren't earthshaking, but two things you can do with your house rule booklets:

Simple Sections
If you want a visual way to indicate sections in a booklet the simplest way I've come up with is to use different color paper.  Works best if you can break your booklet into 3 sections.  Make sure the middle section is an even number of pages.  Now, just print 2 booklets, one in color A and one in Color B and swap the middle sections.

Say you've got a booklet for players running down class abilities-- Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user, and you want the sections visually distinct.  You've got goldenrod paper and white.  Print a goldenrod booklet and a white booklet.  Then swap out the middle section and you've got one booklet with a goldenrod cleric section and one goldenrod booklet with a white cleric section.

If the former is what you really wanted you can keep the latter for yourself or just discard.  A waste of paper, but unless your printer handles back to back printing well (mine jams every time) and you want to carefully count out colored paper sandwiches for it, it's the only practical way I've come up with to do this.

QR Codes
QR codes are a fancy bar code that you can scan with your phone to take you right to a web page.  If you have a physical document in your hands there might be few reasons to have an easy link back to the digital realm, but I can think of two.

You might want to save precious space in your booklet by offloading less important information onto a webpage.  Names are a good example, I think.  During character creation some people have no problem coming up with an imaginary name others are stumped and slow down everything.  You could tell them "scan that code" and have it link to a page with a list of names. Like this one:
The other reason is to link to an automatic generator.  You could have a chart in your booklet and have players roll on it, but, and names are a good example here too; if you want tons of possibilities, don't want to have to stop and show players which dice to roll on a chart, etc, a qr code could help.  With a qr code linking to an automatic generator you can just say "Scan this code and the first result is your name." Like this:
From my experience the codes are pretty robust for size-- you can make them fairly small and they'll still work-- but not for contrast.  I like to de-emphasize information that isn't of primary importance.  One way I do that is turn black to grey.  But when I tried that only the codes they couldn't be read.

The codes are supposed to be able to encode text in the 1000 character range, which got me excited with the possibilities (think solo adventures, private notes, an alternative way to do this).  But again when I tried encoding small paragraphs the codes wouldn't scan.  Maybe I was doing something wrong and that's still a possibility.

note: After typing this up I found out Christian apparently has used qr codes like this in Loviatar.  I hadn't seen that, though, so maybe you hadn't either.

note 2: I just realized you can scan the codes off a screen!  So, if you're a DM that's using a tablet or notebook a lot having players scan a code off your screen might be faster than emailing or texting a link.  This all assumes a bunch of technology and I'd rather just have simple paper tools, but as a DIYer I'm also open to all possibilities.

Okay, If you've got booklet tips please share them in the comments.