Zines for megadungeons

(Being a review of Megadungeon #1, among other things.)

Since rediscovering fantasy roleplaying games sometime around 2011, I have followed the development of several home brew megadungeons. Some of my favorites include the taking-OD&D-seriously Dwimmermount, the Lovecraft-by-way-of-Vikings Black City, the Diablo-infused “precious shithole hellscape” Nightwick Abbey, the steam-age demonic fantasy cruise-ship-as-megadungeon HMS Apollyon, and the gleeful toybox-filled deity-haunted dungeon Numenhalla. These projects remain mostly unpublished1, present only as referee-musings, map-fragments, or, travelogue-style, as scattered session reports.

Numenhalla, however, is finally seeing (gradual) publication in the recent Hack & Slash zine Megadungeon, of which two issues are available as of this writing. This post considers Megadungeon #1, which contains a mix of referee advice, setting glimpses, some player-facing rules, and a couple intro dungeon areas. First, I will cover what I consider weaknesses, along with a few observations. Then, I will cover strengths and the promise Megadungeon (the zine) has for the practice of developing megadungeons for play.

The presentation has several weaknesses, the primary being transitions. Many of the sections began life as a blog posts, and it shows. This is only a minor flaw; in some ways, it even adds to the utility, creating a series of self-contained easy to reference nuggets, but it also makes the whole feel more like a grab bag than a carefully designed book. The amount of actual dungeon content in this issue is also rather small. While the two dungeon areas are wonderfully evocative, with beautifully hand-illustrated maps, they are also somewhat linear and detail only 15 keyed areas (dungeon content arguably occupies 5 of the 38-some zine pages). While I think it is a common mistake to attempt keying a giant sprawl of rooms when starting a megadungeon, rather than working with a more tractable map, I was still hoping for a bit more. That said, the creativity of the areas makes up somewhat for the quantity, and I realize that issue one also may involve more setting and play advice groundwork compared to future issues.

Crop from page 8

The biggest strength, apart from the obvious enthusiasm, is the art, which projects a sense of playfulness that is too often lacking in fantasy art. However, the playfulness never descends into explicit goofiness or self-deprecation, and at some points almost verges into a sense of the mystic (a good thing when attempting to capture the fantastic). The dungeon features themselves are often weighted with promise (see the pitch black door, for example). I have less to say about the various rules bits, such as the augatic class (a tin man style robot that gains new powers through upgrades), but they are well done and easy enough to drop into any game using a B/X type engine.

Though the last handful of years has produced several notable published megadungeons2, such as Stonehell, Barrowmaze, Castle Gargantua, and Maze of the Blue Medusa, I would still like to see more experimentation in different ways to present a megadungeon for direct use by someone that is not the dungeon’s author. To my knowledge, no existing megadungeon has used a zine format so I am curious to see where Courtney takes this. The closest approach I am aware of is the collaborative darkness beneath megadungeon published in the now-defunct Fight On!. Though there were a few standout levels, such as Sham’s level 2 and level 3, it suffered overall from a lack of coherent vision.

The zine format encourages zone-level publication, which naturally breaks down the task into more achievable units. While this might be less of a concern for Numenhalla, as I gather a large portion of the dungeon is already designed, it would probably be a good approach for any referee who wants to share their megadungeon. The major challenge using this form is that a good dungeon contains relationships between various areas, and this is difficult to pull off if one creates and publishes areas in sequences. How does one include a well-considered gate to level 5 in level 1 if level 5 is as yet undefined? Notably, the Numenhalla entrance halls do contain several (locked) connections to deeper areas, but we will need to wait for future issues to see if the dungeon can make good on this promise. 

Anyone interested in the idea of megadungeon play would probably get something out of this zine. As the text states:

Numenhalla lies beneath all cities,
All mounts and valleys,
And all lands.

As a disclaimer, I have gamed with Courtney both as player and referee. As with all my reviews, I attempt to review impartially, and always buy everything I review, never accepting review copies.

1. The ACKS-published extrapolation of Dwimmermount is the closest to publication for any of these dungeons, but ultimately completes a different project than the original idea behind Dwimmermount.

2. I make no attempt here to offer a comprehensive list of recent megadungeons, but the ones I listed stand out as attempts to push the form in various ways.

Considering short campaigns

Apocalypse World agendas (2nd edition, page 80)

In my experience, people tend to play tabletop roleplaying games as either one-shots or with the expectation of a perpetual, extended campaign. I have thought off and on about running games aimed explicitly at a midpoint between these extremes. The television analogue here would be the mini-series. Something like True Detective season 1 or a self-contained anime series like Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet.

The challenge would be to serve the agenda of play to find out what happens while also drawing the set of sessions to a close in a way that is satisfying. That is, how can one ensure the freedom necessary for fulfilling exploratory play while avoiding the mirror-image dangers of aimlessness and railroading?

Here is a first pass at how I might think about setting up such a mini-series game. First, determine a handful (say, three) of questions regarding the fictional situation, for which an answer (any answer) would constitute a satisfying arc outcome. Maybe one of these could explicitly be a win/lose condition, as in some tournament modules, but that seems like the easy way out. Then, lay these questions out explicitly before play so the players are in on the particular enigmas. Second, gear preparation entirely toward the details around the enigmas.

If other priorities emerge through play, or players end up more interested in other, unpredicted conflicts, that would be fine too. In my experience though, imminent uncertainty provides gravitation even without any other mechanical support, so just having a few big unanswered questions, such as the outcome of whether an invasion is averted diplomatically or by force of arms, may be sufficient. I might also consider something like building XP reward into advancing a countdown clock, but probably only after trying to run a something like this using an approach resting only on shaping player expectations.

Finally, it seems reasonable to work with the assumption that while some or most such mini-series arcs may connect to nothing else, they also may be continued in subsequent seasons if everyone is enthusiastic, allowing characters to sometimes persist. To have integrity, one would need to sometimes follow through on the promise of continuity, otherwise I suspect everyone would revert to mentality more characteristic of one-shots, which would not quite reach the potential I see for this kind of play. Depending on the particular rules, Flailsnails would be another reasonable approach, but that only works for some types of games.

Halfway houses

Most traditional resolution procedures are binary. For example:

  • Attack roll: either hit (inflict damage) or miss (often boring)
  • Saving throw: either success (maintain status quo) or failure (disaster)

This approach is simple and works well enough most of the time, especially at low levels where the damage from a single hit can make a big difference and missing can build tension, but can sometimes lead to boring slogs when results are chains of misses and the influence of any single action is low.

An alternative approach is to add an intermediate degree of success incorporating unintended consequences and complications into intermediate results. The Apocalypse World 2d6 +stat roll is one method like this that is easy to use:

  • 10+ = success
  • 7-9 = mixed
  • 1-6 = it gets worse

This works well but does have a few potential downsides. Using 2d6 means limited scope for adjustment, as +1 makes a big difference and each additional bonus makes an even bigger marginal difference. Consider (probabilities are approximate, taken from Anydice):

  • 10+ = success (17%)
  • 7-9 = mixed (41%)
  • 1-6 = it gets worse (42%)

Bonuses translated into effective probabilities are:

  • 2d6+1 yields 28% it gets worse, 44% mixed, 28% success.
  • 2d6+2 yields 17% it gets worse, 41% mixed, 42% success.
  • 2d6+3 yields 8% it gets worse, 34% mixed, 58% success.

While this might seem okay if you like to keep numerical inflation to a minimum anyways, it does, somewhat counterintuitively, make the marginal bonus (the next potential +1) always more influential, in terms of mechanical effectiveness, than the last +1.

2d6 is also incompatible directly with d20 systems.

It is easy enough to create a similar method using 1d20 though, and such yields a uniform distribution, meaning that each marginal +1 has the same impact on resulting probability (+5%).

Here is one approach which has some attractive properties:

  • 19-20 success (10%)
  • 10-18 mixed (45%)
  • 1-9 it gets worse (45%)

Single digits = bad is easy to remember; 19 or higher = extra good is also easy to remember. The outcome ranges could easily interoperate with standard ability or attack bonuses. Bonus increments correspond to 5% probability adjustments, which are easy to reason about.

This differs slightly from the approach taken by the traditional attack roll and similar resolution systems, where the roll, modified by properties of a character such as attack bonus, must attain a threshold determined by some external factor, such as armor class. In contrast, the Apocalypse Word target numbers (and these adapted d20 target numbers) are fixed. If the only modifiers to the roll are character properties such as ability score bonuses or attack bonuses, then this resolution mechanism is essentially solipsistic; the result is unaffected by things external to the character.

This could be an issue if you want success versus a dragon to be less likely than success versus a goblin. Using situational penalties could address this problem, but that way lies the hassle of adding and subtracting a host of potential bonuses or penalties. Used sparingly this works well enough, though it is less than ideal, and anyone that has played Pathfinder or even something like traditional AD&D should be familiar with modifier creep (1d20 + strength bonus + attack bonus + magical weapon bonus – odious magical aura penalty … and so forth). It works mathematically of course, but can be a mess.

Here is another approach, using tiers based on academic letter grades for shorthand:

  • 19-20 = A
  • 16-18 = B
  • 10-15 = C
  • 2-9 = D
  • 1 = F

This adds some complexity at first glance, but also supports slightly more granular outcomes that are also relatively easy to remember, especially 1 = F. The only threshold without an easy to remember association is the transition between C and B results, occurring at 16. Further, now it becomes easy to see how the tiers of this solipsistic resolution system could correspond to properties of a fictional world, if desired, without needing to worry about setting difficulty classes by challenge. For example, results of C hit unarmored opponents, results of B hit lightly armored opponents, and results of A hit heavily armored opponents. More generally, C = easy, B = moderate, and A = hard, assuming easy tasks still represent an uncertain outcome that is potentially consequential either way (otherwise why bother rolling at all?). Or: C = success with setbacks, B = success, and A = extraordinary success.

Ultimately, a graduated outcome like Apocalypse World is probably more interesting than succeed/fail systems (heresy?), so I am tempted to interpreting the roll as follows:

  • 19-20 A = extraordinary success/critical hit/overkill
  • 16-18 B = success
  • 10-15 C = success with complications
  • 2-9 D = it gets worse
  • 1 F = it gets much worse/catastrophe

What about the dragon > goblin issue described above? One could also model this difference through hit point totals and the severity of complications.

This set of outcomes is less sensitive to bonus inflation than 2d6 +stat but would still break with Pathfinder-scale bonuses of +15, so some consideration of bounded accuracy would still be required. Basically, just keep bonuses from growing too large. +10 means that a character would always be at least in the success with complications tier apart from the 5% chance of rolling a natural 1, assuming conventional interpretation of natural 1 results.

1-10-16-19 seems easy enough to remember and has the potential to be universal, applicable to anything that one might normally resolve by rolling a d20. I think I may give this a shot the next time I run something.

Optimal strangeness

I remember reading somewhere that good speculative fiction (including horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) takes a widely understood backdrop, whether that is modern day, Tolkien-style fantasy, or something else, and tweaks one, or at most a handful, of key factors, and then works out the consequences of the tweaks. I have forgotten the source, but the idea stuck with me.

Various traditions of vanilla fantasy serve as examples of potentially well-understood backdrops, depending on particular audience. The Tolkien-derivative or swords and sorcery in the Leiber/Howard style are two examples. There is something to the formula of a known baseline modified just enough to add interest without becoming overwhelming. Maybe unworthy of being considered an iron rule, but something.

This seems similar to the figure/ground distinction in Gestalt psychology. If everything is ground, nothing stands out, leading to boredom. If everything is figure, all is confusion and nothing makes sense. Also: to the neophyte, even vanilla fantasy can seem strange enough while the seasoned player may require excessive marginal weirdness to get a successful hit of strange. Of the people that play fantasy games at least partly for the pleasure of exploring an imaginary world, most seem to be between these extremes, wanting a bit more uniqueness than Tolkien sans serial numbers but a bit less than a setting which avoids all pop culture or mythological landmarks.

Rich descriptors

One of the more surprisingly effective character creation innovations I have come across during the last several years was when Ram decided to add a set of random appearance results automatically to the default output from his character generator. For example: Thief, Male, Child, in Uniform, Tall is so much more immediately intriguing than just Thief, especially along with STR 4 and WIS 5.

But there is nothing special about those particular appearance tables, and if anything they are somewhat mundane, apart from one third of characters being either children or decrepit, which is rare for starting player characters and so lends interest. Maze Rats characters have more unusual descriptions, but are still relatively literal and immediate: wiry, singed clothing, and so forth.

What if we tried for more suggestive descriptors, such as roles or life stages? In the following d66 table, I tried for a set of results that in a single word suggest gender and age, along with a dash of social status, without being quite as direct. And of course, one could interpret a role either more or less literally. Depending on campaign particulars, reynard could mean young adult trickster or it could mean that the character was an actual fox who somehow was transformed into a human. Or maybe it means halfling animal person foxling.

The entries perhaps still need some tuning, but the idea seems promising, especially if a few such rich tables could be constructed. I avoided more mundane pairs such as father/mother, husband/wife, king/queen, and so forth. I also tried to select pairs that were somewhat quirky without being ridiculously obscure and tried to avoid pairs that involved explicit hierarchy, though without complete success. Columns control implied gender, with odd male and even female. Rows control implied age, with higher number meaning older.

Though maybe unworthy at this point, here is a PDF of the table.

 d66 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 urchin waif prince princess naif ingenue
2 monk nun chad trixie reynard vixen
3 cicisbeo mistress satyr nymph gallant diva
4 swain wench dogsbody charwoman footman handmaiden
5 widower widow hermit hermitess courtier courtesan
6 alumnus alumna troglodyte hag codger crone

Table form inspired by Maze Rats.

Participants in a conversation on Google Plus suggested some of these entries (I generally post privately; you must be in my circles to see it).

Some other leftover pairs:

knight dame
patriarch matriarch
patron matron
hero heroine
pimp madam
father mother
boy girl
husband wife
magister magistra
seducer seductress
beau belle
??? vamp
adonis ???
popinjay ???
groom bride
actress actor

Hazard System v0.3

The Hazard System is a gameplay engine for traditional roleplaying games designed to facilitate fictional consequences of player decision-making while minimizing bookkeeping.

Find a full HTML version of v0.3 in this post below the divider.

There is also a PDF version.

Significant changes between v0.2 and v0.3:

  • Hazard die results now follow higher = better principle
  • Generalized hazard die:
    1 setback, 2 fatigue, 3 expiration, 4 locality, 5 percept, 6 advantage
  • Introduces free moves, full moves, and conditions terminology
  • Formatted PDF as two letter-sized pages for ease printing two-sided on one sheet
  • Included brief chronological further reading section for context
  • Included simple default subtables for several kinds of outcomes, such as haven shortages and disasters

The text below the divider is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Attribution: Necropraxis Productions Hazard System v0.3 (2017)

Hazard System (v0.3)

The six-sided hazard die deploys threats, manages resources such as light, and keeps time. It is the engine that drives gameplay forward, ensuring that choices have consequences while minimizing bookkeeping. To take a turn, have a player roll the hazard die and have the referee interpret the results relative to the current turn type. During a turn, each player may take one full action. The general form of the hazard die is:

1 2 3 4 5 6
Setback Fatigue Expiration Locality Percept Advantage

Hazard Die Interpretations

Haven Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Encounter (use regional table) or disaster (see below)
2 Fatigue Shortage (1 medicine, 2-3 drought, 4-5 famine, 6 trust)
3 Expiration Clear one or more haven conditions
4 Locality Advance season (or other local change)
5 Percept Foreshadow looming disaster
6 Advantage Full recovery

Wilderness Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Encounter (use regional table) or road/bridge out
2 Fatigue Rest and consume rations (1/person) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3 Expiration Expire transient wilderness condition
4 Locality Shift weather (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free wilderness turn

Dungeon Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Encounter (use zone table)
2 Fatigue Rest and consume rations (1/party) or suffer minor harm (1 HP)
3 Expiration Expire transient dungeon conditions (light, spell, etc)
4 Locality Shift dungeon state (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free dungeon turn

Combat Turn Interpretation

d6 Result Interpretation
1 Setback Opponents act first or additional encounter (use zone table)
2 Fatigue Suffer minor harm (1 HP) if engaged in melee
3 Expiration Expire transient combat conditions (light, burning, etc)
4 Locality Shift battlefield (or other local change)
5 Percept Spoor or clue regarding next encounter
6 Advantage Free combat turn
  • Some disasters (1d6):
    1 invasion, 2 insurrection, 3 fire, 4 earthquake, 5 flood, 6 falling star
  • Some dungeon localities (1d6):
    1 obstruction, 2-3 seal/open door, 4-5 divert water, 6 expose secret
  • Use common sense: ignore results that do not make fictional sense, but only the first time
  • Keep time abstract: quantifying the details precisely is rarely worth the hassle

Moves and Conditions

Moves represent actions relevant to the current fictional context, such as exploring a trackless stretch of swamp. Conditions represent persistence of a transient state, such as adventurer exhaustion. Conditions can apply to areas, parties, or individuals. Strictness tracking conditions is a matter of style. Tokens can help. The lists of moves and conditions below below are suggestive rather than complete. Improvise others as appropriate, according to referee ruling.

Haven turns represent several days or weeks of rest and recovery.

  • Free haven moves: advance/level up, prepare spells, recover, recruit, resupply
  • Full haven moves: craft gear, scribe scroll, conduct research
  • Haven conditions: curse, famine, pestilence, shortage, siege, winter

Wilderness turns represent travel and making camp, approximately one day and night. Making a wilderness move requires consuming a ration or taking the exhausted condition in addition to rolling the hazard die. If already exhausted, at the start of a wilderness turn suffer minor harm (1 HP). Determine randomly whether setbacks occur during day or night.

  • Free wilderness moves: access known landmark in current area, survey adjacent areas
  • Full wilderness moves: travel to adjacent area, search, explore, hunt, track
  • Wilderness conditions: exhausted, lost

Lost: Travel is no longer an option. Use search to locate a landmark, removing the lost condition on success.

Dungeon turns represent exploration at architectural scale, approximately tens of minutes or a few hours, assuming careful advance into hostile places.

  • Free dungeon moves: look under a rug, open unstuck door, pull lever
  • Full dungeon moves: climb, force a door, move to adjacent area, pick a lock, search
  • Dungeon conditions: candlelight, torchlight, overburdened

Combat turns represent tactical actions occuring over seconds or minutes.

  • Free combat moves: shout command, drop held item,
  • Full combat moves: shoot, spell, strike, throw, withdraw
  • Combat conditions: burning, defended, grappled, prone

Notes and Further Reading

  • Consider using a simple slot-based encumbrance system, such as one item per point of strength.
  • Locality results work best if you design areas with countdowns or aspects that can shift between states.
  • I replace traditional initiative with the combat hazard die.
2012-09-16 http://www.necropraxis.com/2012/09/16/abstracting-missiles/
2013-04-10 http://www.necropraxis.com/2013/04/10/solipsistic-hexes/
2014-02-03 http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/02/03/overloading-the-encounter-die/
2014-05-22 http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/05/22/proceduralism/
2014-12-23 http://www.necropraxis.com/2014/12/23/hazard-system-v0-2/
2015-02-09 http://dungeonofsigns.blogspot.com/2015/02/luceat-lux-vestra-making-light.html
2016-07-22 http://www.necropraxis.com/2016/07/22/tactical-hazard-die/
2016-09-19 http://www.necropraxis.com/2016/09/19/let-it-ride-or-push-your-luck/
2017-06-11 http://www.paperspencils.com/2017/06/11/the-haven-turn/

Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Typeset using Pandoc and LaTeX.

Attribution: Necropraxis Productions Hazard System v0.3 (2017)

Bricks and hexes

Hexes have a cartographic advantage over grids in that the center of a hex is equidistant from the centers all six adjacent hexes. In contrast, on a standard graph paper grid diagonal movement is more efficient than moving in a cardinal direction, assuming a destination other than cardinal-adjacent (that is, other than due north, due south, due east, or due west).

Recently I noticed that squares in a brick configuration are topologically similar to hexes in terms of adjacency. Each brick is adjacent to six surrounding bricks.

Bricks, however, are much easier to sketch than hexes.

To see another way how bricks are similar to hexes, consider the following image and imagine the orange brick overlay moving right until the center of the bricks is superimposed over the center of the hexes.


(This post is groundwork for another idea. To be continued!)

The Book of Monsters

AD&D 2E campaign elevator pitch, inspired heavily by Monster Hunter, Shadow of the Colossus, and Kingdom Death.

AD&D 2E core trilogy, personal photo

The holy books are three: the Book of Monsters, the Book of Rites, and the Book of Heroes.

The Book of Monsters recounts the first aeon, when people were few, gods unknown, and monsters preeminent. Within are details about the greatest monsters and their demesnes, along with methods of avoidance and appropriate tribute.

The Book of Rites recounts the beginning of the second aeon, time of the city-builders, when people found gods. Within are details about gods, particular rituals, and powerful spells.

The Book of Heroes recounts the end of the second aeon, when gods and heroes, working together, destroyed or banished the greater monsters. By the close of the second aeon, many heroes had taken up rulership and founded dynasties.

So began the third aeon. However, many heroes were unsatisfied by earthly reign alone. Pridefully, these upstarts petitioned for godhood, but they were denied or ignored. Undeterred, many heroes continued to seek exaltation, forcing civil strife among mortals, dividing usurpers from loyalists.

During the following conflicts, the greater monsters slipped their shackles. Loyalists claim that usurpers sought to use the greater monsters against the gods but lost control. Usurpers claim that the gods released the monsters as punishment. Whatever the truth, greater monsters return, reclaiming their demesnes, and laying waste to mortal estate.

Rules are some portion of AD&D 2E, as written, interpreted amiably, along with hazard system rules for resource depletion, and simple strength-based encumbrance.

Experience points are rewarded for defeating greater monsters or recovering treasure. No XP for killing minions or minor enemies.

The haven turn events table is basically the encounter table of all revealed greater monsters. (That is, the ones that I have gotten around to finalizing stats for and situating.) All the godzillas are going to keep stepping on things until adventurers deal with them.

Greater monsters will be based on entries from the 2E Monstrous Manual with some degree of Necropraxis gloss.

There will be dungeons. Though some of them might be on the large size, the idea is to think about dungeons as big monster lairs more than anything else.

The Book of Monsters itself serves as an in-game quest board full of particular marks and where to find them.

Shout-outs to the LOZAS system, the Library of de la Torre campaign setting, and various Final Fantasy hunt systems, which provide some structural inspiration.

Kingdom Death Lion God, personal photo

Fight off, dodge, or block

Some Dark Souls dude

Some Dark Souls dude

The combat system for my Stonehell Dark Souls game has drifted steadily away from traditional monster attack rolls toward monological combat (in short, players always roll, similar to Apocalypse World and Numenera).

Brief recap. In the initial December formulation, players chose between blocking or dodging (resolved using ability checks but also risking running out of stamina) or having the ref make a traditional monster attack roll versus character armor class. The trade-off was between relying entirely on ability scores or pitting character armor class against a monster’s potentially high attack bonus.

Making rules stick. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble getting combat house rules to stick because it is so easy to fall back on a familiar procedure, even when new rules result in more engaging outcomes and are advantageous to players. However, from the start of experimenting with the Dark Souls inspired active defense options, and across several groups of players with varying levels of tabletop roleplaying game experience, the active defenses seemed to remain top of mind. During the most recent session, players only ever defended actively, never letting the monsters make attack rolls, even with the risk of running out of stamina, which is punishing. I draw several lessons from this experience.

Choice prompts. First, the explicit choice prompt is an effective and low-maintenance way of communicating formal rules without needing non-referee players to read any rules (“zero homework” requirement). This is huge. Making such prompts habitual . This does place some constraints on potential rules, since the procedure must be fluent enough to survive being deployed all the time. That opposes complexity bloat which is positive more often than not.

Active options. Second, active options, assuming equal player effort requirements, have an advantage over passive options (such as submitting to a monster attack roll). Risking overgeneralization, I suspect this is universally true because players prefer a sense of control keeping all other factors constant.

Proposal. What follows is the procedure I am now considering, with parts that have not been play-tested in bold. Previously, armor class was a traditional passive defense score, but the approach below requires damage-reducing armor.

Resolve Monster Actions

  1. Determine actions for each monster.
  2. Match groups of monsters with defenders.
  3. Resolve defenses.


When monsters attack, to the defending player ask:

“Do you fight off the attack, dodge, block with a shield, or react in some other way?”

Resolve as specified below or by using the most relevant ability check.

Fight off. To defend using a melee weapon, roll the weapon’s damage and add the result to armor rating this turn, then suffer monster damage. In effect, this defends by comparing damage potential between player character and monster.

Shield block. To defend using a shield, make STR check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Dodge. To avoid monster attacks, make DEX check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer monster damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Suffer Damage

Add the damage from all monsters threatening a player character together, subtract armor rating from the total, and then suffer this amount of damage.


  • The fighting off procedure uses one roll per adventurer no matter the number of monsters. This means that the fight off option is more easily overwhelmed by multiple monsters, since the player character damage roll opposes multiple monster damage rolls added together.
  • Not needing to make tons of attack rolls for a host of enemies is a nice added bonus.
  • To simplify presentation for this post, I left out one small step, where player characters can intercede to block for an ally assuming the positioning makes sense fictionally. This can happen during the matching of monsters with defenders (step 2).
Playtest results

Playtest results

Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

Narrative control is the degree to which fictional authority is shared between referee and non-referee players in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is one of many properties useful for categorizing and understanding games. Traditionally, narrative control is centralized in the person of the referee but can also be shared either informally based on social norms or formally using game systems. For example, in the Fate engine players can spend fate points to establish facts in the fiction of the game world.

Spreading fictional authority over multiple people can lead to greater recombinant fictional potential. However, delegating authority also decreases puzzle complexity, challenge, and potential surprise (see Zak quote below for more on this dynamic). Spending a point abstractly to make a door be unlocked does not require any creativity or lateral thinking.

At one level, moving along the dimension of narrative control in game design caters to different player preferences. Some players are more interested in being challenged and solving problems while others are more interested in formally structured shared storytelling. Given a set of clear preferences, groups can tailor systems and practices. However, authority in games, just as in the broader social world, is continuously negotiated, even when formally addressed by laws or rules. That is, there are more settings or levers available for games regarding narrative control than simply picking a point on the spectrum.

Anecdotally, while I am generally more in the traditionalist camp of centralized referee narrative control, on reflection I have noticed that I often both explicitly and implicitly delegate fictional control to non-referee players. For example, see how ratlings became part of my Vaults of Pahvelorn. However, the way I find myself delegating fictional authority entails implicit veto power. Though all players, referee and otherwise, contribute to fictional game outcomes, the referee acts as steward. The responsibilities of stewardship in my games include balancing present play against future play and attending to the engagement of individual non-referee players. While this does not mean I adjust outcomes based on what I predict will give particular players more pleasure, it does control whether I linger on a particular fictional experience or work out fictional imperatives quickly.

Based on this understanding of stewardship, as referee I might ask a player what kind of farm a character grew up on or whether they might have relatives in the current town. It is not against the spirit of the game for a player to use this opportunity to gain some present problem solving advantage. However, the player has an incentive to restrain themselves. The more ambitious, far-reaching, or obviously self-interested the interpretation is, the more likely the contribution is to fall afoul of the referee’s steward responsibilities and be rejected. To clarify, this is not at all about protecting a static, perfect setting from the grubby hands of players or ensuring that a plot conforms to a desired narrative arc. Instead, the approach attempts to harness shared creativity while not sacrificing exploratory potential or challenge.

This process works like the ultimatum game in game theory. In the ultimatum game, two players divide some resources between themselves. Player A proposes how to split the resources. Player B decides whether to accept or reject the split. If B rejects the split, both get zero. Empirically, people in the player B responder role are more likely to reject inequitable splits even though such rejection entails personal monetary cost. After all, even one penny is greater than nothing. Because of this empirical fact, proposers have an incentive to not be perceived as too greedy, even though no proposal is formally defined by the rules as invalid.

Mapping this structure to gaming, non-referee players take the proposer role while referees take the responder role. Even this description oversimplifies, as in practice non-referee players may iterate proposals following referee rejection. That said, potential negotiation is limited in practice as groups will not tolerate perpetual renegotiation. Further, once new facts settle, offhand details may lead to surprising fictional consequences, potentially both advantageous and disadvantageous to player goals. This adds to the richness of the game as players incorporate the fictional logic of more inputs. Like butterfly wings shifting weather patterns.

Comment from Zak on the effect of narrative control locus on challenge:

the problem for me with a lot of player-created content ( as a GM ) is the fact that what I then give them then has less of a chance of being a surprise and less of the character of a puzzle. If what’s there has even a 25% chance of being what they decided would be there every time then that’s 25% less fear and dread and giddy anticipation.

The problem for me as a player is that I don’t get surprised, it’s less of a puzzle, it’s less challenging for me (the more info I have, the easier a challenge is), it bores me (I can create content whenever I want when I run a game, why should I do it when I’m playing?) and it robs me of the specific challenge of “If I want something to exist in the game I have to find a way to build it”.

When I’m asked “so, Zak’s PC, what’s over the ridge” my immediate response is “all the treasure int he world and the big bad’s head on a spike”–not because I don’t like making stuff up but because when playing I am conscious that I am trying to direct all my mental energy to exploiting every affordance to get specific goals done that could take years . Asking me to then turn to Author stance is just asking me to do a much easier job with much lower stakes that is consequently less fun.

(Click this link to return to pros and cons paragraph above.)


Forber, P., & Smead, R. (2014). The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1780), 20132439.