The Dungeon Jog – How to keep a D&D session moving along

Hey guys, got a year to clear one floor of a dungeon? | Made with tools at

The new D&D campaign I’m running has wiped out all the DM burnout I was feeling, and it’s incredibly refreshing. In addition to taking some pressure off me by setting it in the historical Viking Age and populating it with Norse mythology – all of which requires basically no modification from 5th edition rules where things like monsters or magic is concerned – I’m also using this as an opportunity to try running the game in a way that is faster and gets to the fun stuff more quickly. One of the things I’ve found as a player in recent campaigns is that sessions just take too damn long. Time commitment, more and more, is what stands between players and having some fun. What I’ve found, in the last two sessions, is that I can encourage the game to move more quickly while still keeping player choice and exploration central to the experience, and we can get an adventure done in two sessions of two hours. Rather than a dungeon crawl, we’ll call it a “dungeon jog.” Read more…

The dice give a dark gift

From “The Secret of Kells”

I took a long hiatus from running my D&D campaign, and pitched a new idea to my players (among several): Set that shit in the 8th Century AD, the actual historical age of the Viking, but mythology is real. It removed a lot of the pressure on me to come up with some grand over-arching world-building and it also allows for tons of adventures with interesting angles.

I threw way more time and effort into designing modified rules for it, and then I warned my players that the world was going to be cruel, life short and sharp, and that they should have at least a couple extra characters on deck in case disaster befell them. Turns out that warning was valid: In our inaugural session this past Monday, one player died to a one-shot from a cultist (a very basic enemy) in the very first fight. He had rolled an Irish monk – that is, a scriptorium monk who learned Kung Fu from his Irish monastery, which as we all know is 100% historically accurate. I was looking forward to good times with this character, whose player really is a delight to have in the group because he really just puts his all into coming up with mannerisms and hang-ups for his characters. But no: his fightin’ monk bit the dust.

Fortunately, he had a new character ready to go, and as soon as the fight resolved, the party was astounded to witness a pooka (a child-sized rabbit fairy creature from Celtic myth) poof into being nearby, introducing himself as Sprinkle Honeystone (courtesy of a fantasy name generator program my group swears by).

Play needed to stop for like, five minutes for us all to laugh our reproductive organs off at this turn of events, and Sprinkle went on to spear a zombie to death and unleash a cloud of poison gas that annihilated a small group of enemies. It really is part of the black comedy of a D&D campaign run with maximum brutality and a group of players who are game to bury a player character or two. I’m hoping for such positive energy as we continue. I’m already altogether more excited about it than I have been in quite a while.

Presenting: Half Life 3!

So here I am, a whole year later. My father died Oct. 24, 2017, just as I was in the midst of the “Epistle 3” game jam. It was running until Halloween 2017, inviting anybody with any gaming know-how whatsoever to do a fan game based on Marc Laidlaw’s cheeky blog post entitled “Epistle 3.” Laidlaw was one of the lead writers on the Half Life game series, which, it has largely been speculated in light of more than a decade without a sequel and the departure of the people most interested in making it, is pretty much dead. Laidlaw’s blog post essentially spells out, with gender-swapped characters and knockoff concepts, the next chapter in the series as he would have liked to have made it.

Even with his disclosure, it remains basically incomplete, ending on another cliffhanger. I incorporated the main story beats and decided to make a text adventure game, since that’s all I’m capable of making, really. I have a terrible habit of not following through on projects that I start, and there’s also a very real part of me that’s bitter about my father’s death throwing yet one more thing into chaos. So I buckled down this weekend and I just plowed through it, figuring out what the old, frayed ends of code meant that I’d left dormant for a year, finding them and repairing them, making them work. Read more…

How a tabletop gaming framework can (and cannot) help you write a character

By Ramdlon:

I’ve managed to get back into actual gaming again, as in tabletop roleplaying, where I am not the DM. It’s a pastime which I’ve missed. I’m enjoying the campaigns I’m in fairly well, but mostly I’m glad to have gotten back to thinking up and inhabiting a character again. What I’m reminded of is how the process of making an RPG character both can and cannot help you as you consider how to create a character for a fictional work.

Players in campaigns I run tell me they like my characters and stories and scenarios. I know that creating a character for a new game can seem daunting when you’ve got the books in front of you, so here’s some of my wisdom on how to go about it. Read more…

Getting over despair the Dark way

Good lord, the news is depressing. Crushing. Utterly infuriating. It’s exhausting even to peruse headlines these days.

It’s odd that, in the midst of such persistent gloom, I’ve retreated to playing some of the absolute most crushingly depressing games. Dark Souls 3 and Darkest Dungeon are games that openly antagonize you – games that layer mechanic atop mechanic and, once you’ve learned those mechanics, they throw you a curve ball. I am, in the middle of the above video, outraged to find that an update has apparently added a “stealth” mechanic to certain enemies in Darkest Dungeon.

But, as you’ll see above, just as they introduced it, I quickly discovered the ways to circumvent it and destroy such enemies inside of a few turns. There’s always hope.

I also, stupidly, watched Devilman Crybaby on Netflix, which is just not advisable if you don’t want to become a crybaby yourself. It is simultaneously so-dumb-it’s-brilliant anime and a sobering reflection on the dark tendencies of humanity. As in, what you don’t need right now.

It’s why I’ve retreated to so much myth lately, I think, as I did in my latest for Paste magazine, which I’m proud of.

I’m going to defeat Darkest Dungeon, guys. It mocks me. It digs its claws into me. But I beat TWO bosses just sitting down last night, after months of throwing the game aside. You’ve just got to work through the fear, trust that you know what you’re doing, stay frosty, and don’t give up hope.


Project Dawn: Laying the cornerstone

A rendering of Ragnarok by Emil Doeppler. | Wikipedia Commons

So, I haven’t actually really elaborated much on exactly what Project Dawn is intended to be. Put simply, it’s my attempt at a dark fantasy game, put within a traditional JRPG framework (because that’s what I can currently program). I’ve been inspired lately by the copious amount of mythology and comparative mythology I’ve read, ancient world history I’ve studied, and games like Darkest Dungeon and Dark Souls. As I begin the long process of what I hope to be a fully playable, fully-featured game, here are some of the things I want to implement in it, and what it means for my process as I build this in the robust game engine that is RPG Maker MV: Read more…

Project Dawn update: The Oldest Stories

You’ve heard this one before.

One of the subject areas I come back to time and again is mythology. If you look at the various branches of humanity, consider how far apart they were, and then look at the similarities between major cultural mythological cycles. That they have so much in common, particularly the Indo-European mythological cycles like the Vedic, Celtic, Greek and Norse stories, seems to indicate that there’s something deeply similar across cultures. We’re talking about stories that came to their tellers in the time when the world was only what you saw, and the chilling nightmares you imagined.

The fact this sits at the root of works of fantasy like Tolkien’s Legendarium, the forefather of all role-playing games as we know them today, makes old mythology a sort of progenitor of the branch of gaming I’m interested in adding to. I’ve also been playing a bit of Dark Souls 3 again, and well… it does unhealthy things to somebody’s thought process where obsession over legends and stories are concerned. I think it might be why I’m incorporating mythology into my game. Read more…

My new year’s resolution in 2018: Project Dawn

The Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Via Wikipedia Commons.

I have spent the past few years back here in the United States wanting to produce some work of art, and various things keep getting in the way. The truth is that I let them get in the way, of course, and so my New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to actually finish making something. I’m honing in on that something being a game, since I’ve wanted to make one for a while and the various things I’ve learned and figured out how to make work have added up to what I think could be a solid game concept.

RPG Maker MV remains a great utility, and a great community that periodically unloads important updates and powerful plugins into the public sphere, ready for integration.

I’m going to try to catalog my ongoing developer project here, starting with the broader concepts at play in the game and then talking about how I go about problem solving and overcoming the barriers to the game being the way I want.

In my perfect world, I’d finish the game using vanilla assets – those assets which come with the game maker utility – and then, upon doing so, contract with artists and programmers to create the original assets necessary to make it its own unique game.

Somebody once told me I shouldn’t say “I hope I stick with it” because the one who determines whether I stick with it is me. So I’m going to say that I will. Stay tuned for more info as I get this project off the ground.

Am I nerdy? (Yes I am.) – A partial guide to building a good tabletop group


LARPers. Listed under fair use by Google Image Search. | Ralf Huels

So, this has crept up on me in the last year-and-change: I’ve been running a pretty successful, pretty fun, pretty interesting Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition campaign with mostly the same group of players since April of 2016. The anniversary came and went without me even remarking upon it. Our game sessions have been somewhat infrequent – usually once per month for just two hours a session if we can at all manage it, with the occasional missed month due to my propensity for travel and my day job’s propensity to suck during busy parts of the summer. And, amazingly, we’ve been doing this entirely over, which is a very good online tabletop application which you should totally get to know if that’s your jam.

I say “amazingly” because the main impediments to me getting into campaigns in the past have been pretty much what I’ve just exactly described: A new system (in this case 5th, which I am DMing with for the first time here), vast stretches of time in between sessions that allow my addled interest to flag and thus for me to stop caring about creating the adventures, lack of face-to-face interaction around a physical table, shorter-than-average sessions that make a longer dungeon crawl – the true meat of D&D – challenging to manage. Yet, this campaign and the great group of folks I’ve played with have proven mightier than these usual stumbling blocks, and our adventures continue onward. We’ve gone from Level 1 rookies to Level 6 heroes who are rolling with tough abilities and fantastical magic items.

So what makes a good group, and a good adventure? I’ve been participating in tabletop games now for more than a decade, and I’ve learned several things that work for me and groups I run or participate in. I gave it some thought today after we had another really fun session Monday evening, and, well:
Read more…

Darkest Dungeon doesn’t give a fuck whether you live or die

Darkest Dungeon. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

There was something about the oldest computer roleplaying games – I’m talking obtuse slogs like Ultima I or Darklands or even Fallout – that was just callous. You got the impression that you were a small person amidst a massive world that didn’t care about you. It wasn’t so much that it wanted you to die as it didn’t care whether you lived.

One day, maybe, I will defeat some of those titles. Darklands in particular is an inspiration for my own attempt at game design, one which is progressing as well as it can while I juggle a full-time job, ramping up responsibilities as a freelance writer, and, yes, a serious relationship. In the meantime, damn it, I refuse to give up in my quest to defeat Darkest Dungeon.

I want to talk about Darkest Dungeon because it’s a game that has systems. You will come to know those systems, or you will fucking die. I am somebody who plays more video games than some. It is the rare video game, even today, that asks anything of me beyond going from Point A to Point B or memorizing a pattern or two. Games, sadly, don’t do as much as they used to.

It’s a long read, but check out this article about the 1992 game Dune, based on the movie that was based on the book. Dune did all sorts of things. You needed to progress through a story, explore a whole planet, build an army, balance your need to mine the land for resources with your need to terraform it to win the loyalty of your rebel troops. Oh, and you also needed to fight a war and become a messiah to an entire people. The grandest console games are not remotely as expansive as this 25-year-old, VGA graphics game.

This is a lot of fucking shit. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

Darkest Dungeon kind of isn’t, either. But I give it points for making me think, making me agonize, making me strategize. The game’s story is not remotely important, but it’s a great framing device: One of your older family members has gone bumping about the family mansion and succeeded in waking up fucking Cthulhu. The entire countryside is overrun by hideous creatures and a pack of mostly interchangeable adventurers are volunteering to come in and stop it. You build parties, outfit and equip them, train them in new skills, and send them into the caves, forests, ruins and eventually the demonic mansion itself.

All death is permadeath (that is to say, no raising anybody from the dead). There is a harsh sanity mechanic that degrades as the party moves through the dungeon. And if a party member should reach the end of his or her mental rope, he or she will snap and become afflicted with some type of insanity. Characters who have gone loony will take actions without your say-so, pilfer treasure to keep it for themselves, heap abuse on their fellow teammates, or run toward or from danger precisely when you don’t want them to.

Each character is his own freaking spreadsheet. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

The systems within systems within systems keep you thinking at all parts of the game. Here are all the things I can think of, off the top of my head, that you need to keep track of:

  • The level and gear of each character
  • Each character’s “relics” or “charms” or whatever you call his or her stat-buffing accessories
  • Where you are placing each character in your party formation (as there are four slots)
  • Which of each character’s attacks will strike which parts of the enemy formation (this matters a lot)
  • What personality quirks each character has (which can affect gameplay in unpredictable ways)
  • What diseases might be afflicting a character
  • How many torches, rations, keys, excavation shovels, antidotes, and vials of holy water you can afford to bring with you
  • Which shop in town you are going to upgrade with the loot you scrape off the dungeon floor
  • Which character you are going to bench for the next foray into the dungeon so they can recover their freaking sanity
  • Which characters won’t abide together in a party because of their judgmental nature toward, say, your party’s lycanthrope or demon summoner
  • Which party members are so high in level that they refuse to dirty their blades on a low-level dungeon
  • How long a particular foray into the dungeon will be and therefore which campfire skills your party has and how they compliment one another’s
  • Should you press on through a hallway, not knowing what lurks beyond the door, or stay back and make camp?
  • Should you stun the enemy at the front of the formation to stop him from acting, or poison the enemy at the back of the formation so his life bleeds down?
  • Should you heal a comrade or attack an enemy?
  • Should you light another torch and increase visibility now, or save it for when you are more likely to get an easier fight in a room coming up?

There are more I’m not thinking of, I’m sure. That is, to put it mildly, a lot of stuff to be thinking about. And I do not exaggerate when I say that to ignore or fail to understand any of these questions will result in catastrophic death and the loss of progress.

Because of these interlocking systems, because life is fleeting and any of your hard work can be undone by intellectual laziness or carelessness in how you proceed through a dungeon, a session is addicting, exhausting, and has the potential to either be rewarding or utterly deflating. But here’s the thing: You learn. And if you learn, you get measurably better at it. And for all the complexity, the game graphically presents all of this to you as clearly and cleanly as can be asked. You will, before long, know how each part of this mad machine works.

I can’t hope to build a game so complex as all that, but it does inspire me. Or drive me mad. It’s hard to tell while you’re playing the thing.