Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Efficiency Is Beautiful Efficiency Is Art


My design goal with Vornheim was to have a handful of pages describing the setting, a few complete locations which exemplified the Vornheim style described with maximum efficiency and clarity and then to have the remaining 30-odd pages be basically just one big GM screen for city adventures. Everything you need right there.

So: the 30-page GM screen.

I feel like there are really only 3 honest models for an RPG book:

1-The Weighty Game Tome--(hinted at in the AD&D DMG and Monster Manual, perfected by Games Workshop in their original Realms of Chaos supplements, and much imitated today by everything from DC Adventures to Mouse Guard)--an eldritch encyclopedia of absorbing madness that takes you completely out of the world and mundane understanding and immerses you entirely in the game's mythology.

2-The overfed GM screen--(almost achieved in early TSR but mostly abandoned afterward except by a few clever pdf merchants) which has what you need and makes it easy to find and does nothing else that would interfere with that.

3-The "For Dummies" model, where you explain the game as if to someone who has never played an RPG and has to be persuaded it will be easy.

(There are many dishonest models and most more-or-less involve either packaging the RPG product as an advertisement for itself or simple laziness.)

Model 2 is of special interest to DIY D&D because:

1-DIY D&D, by definition, rarely has enough money to publish Weighty Game Tomes, and

2-It's mostly the province of busy adults who were sucked in by Led Zeppelin-length Weighty Tomes rife with mythology long ago and need not be sucked again.

So here's my question:

Vornheim has, I hope, a decent 30-page DM screen for city adventures, Kellri's CCD pdfs provide a model for efficient coverage of monsters and spells, The One Page Dungeon Contest
is a master class in usable cartography for individual locations.

The gaps I see are:

-a "30-page-DM-screen" book for dungeons, and
-a "30-page-DM-screen" book for wilderness adventures.

The Dungeon Alphabet (which I own, operate and enjoy) comes close but that book is more about pregame inspiration than during-the-game-nitty-gritty. And there is a lot of space given up to pictures.

So, kids:

1. What tables or other stuff would you want to see in your "30-page-DM-Screen" for dungeon adventures?
2. What would you like to see in your "30-page-DM-screen" for wilderness adventures?

Who will be making these projects? Don't know, don't care, but the R&D needs to get done, so let's do it...

*Clutch quote, Ramones picture--confusing, I know. It'll be ok.


  1. I have to saw, I'm a Weighty Tome reader. I cull more from those then from the 30 pager. Still, that is neither here nor there. So...

    For both: lots of WHYS. There are plenty of goofy things I might want in a dungeon, but less REASONS for them. I don't even need them to be connected to anything, just generic whys for any particular feature. Dungeon ecology, dungeon geology, dungeon architecture?

  2. @mordicai

    I have been experimenting with "top-down" methods for dungeons: start with the factions and architects of the dungeon and THEN move into traps and treasures and vermin, so the rationale is sorta pre-loaded. More on that later.

  3. An Underground Air Quality Index:

    Nausea inducing vapours that cause penalties, and sweet, fresh winds that negate them.

    Torches burn slower/faster and shed less or more light.

    Smell of monsters could be diminished. (In both uses of "smell".)

    Casting fireball spells could result in less oxygen for party to breathe, or spell's area of effect being reduced. Maybe affecting featherfall/flying spells too...

    And something about using underground water sources/alternate exits/drinkability/etc.

  4. The book you need to generate the dungeon or wilderness is different than the book you need to run the dungeon or wilderness you've generated.

    Gen book: Tables, tables, tables, ideas, ideas, ideas.

    Run book: Abbreviated versions of the gen-book stuff for when you really have to wing it. Combat sequence and activities. Reaction charts, social mechanisms. Quick NPCs with personalities and goals. Almanac-like data; duration of torches, how to run a foot pursuit. Anything else that takes you from the line or two on the page to the fully realized encounter and all its improvised action.

  5. Non-standard features - For example, horizontal stalactites, floating rocks, etc.

  6. Actually, some table that did visibility in treed areas or fog would be handy.

  7. Quick NPCs and random encounter tables!

  8. To expand on what I said:

    For the wilderness Run Screen:
    Charts for weather, natural hazards, and their game effects
    12 quick encounters for each of 20 terrain/climate types
    20 quick mini-mysteries and marvels
    Lists of trees, plants, geology, undergrowth, birds; descriptions of these, and the atmosphere associated with each
    Rules for hunting, foraging, finding water and making shelter
    Quick lessons in naturalistic topography, ecology, and forestry
    Terrain effects on movement, possibilities for combat, and terrain as obstacles
    Encounter distances by surprise status, weather, and terrain
    Procedures for pursuit and tracking

  9. If I've already designed a dungeon then I don't need much. I need random encounters and magical effects.

    I started making a set of the latter but only finished minor malevolent. I figure you could have minor/major benevolent as well as weird/gonzo. I think they could be used for all kinds of things: character mixes two potions, drinks from magic pool, sets off trap, burns spell book, whatever.

    I figure that's about 6 pages for me. Also, I have little business-sized cards to hand players with those effects printed on them. So, if you wanted to include that in publishing, it would add a lot more pages.

  10. My Deskbook series (which is getting retitled "Ultimate Book of Adventure Design" by people other than me) covers both those areas -- but fails as a DM screen precisely for the same reason that the Dungeon Alphabet does, in other words, being geared for adventure preparation rather than for use at the table.

    One of the difficulties with making tables for use at the gaming table is that with fairly short tables there are so many different ways to approach it that I personally have my head explode trying to pick one. Tables for fast use need to use a multi-column matrix in order to avoid a multiple page table, but when you use a multi-column matrix it's really hard to engineer them so that the results are clear enough for immediate use.

    Hitting the right mix between a long, detailed, and very clear table as against a short, evocative table that yields some unclear results is a very difficult target.

  11. Do weighty game tomes include class and spellbooks, or grimtooth's traps? Otherwise, I'm not sure what some of the most useful and referenced RPG books I own count as.

    It seems like your categorization discounts books useful to DM's who do extensive preparation of environments, unless that's contained under your categorization of "Weighty Game Tome"

    As far as Dungeons go, I created my Tricks, Empty Rooms, & Basic Trap Design document to specifically address my needs during the preparation process - it is quite literally the crap I kept having to look up in 30 different sources and organized by idea in a way that works for me.

    I'm currently working on a giant tome of alchemy - is something like a list of equipment or 1000 alchemy items not useful?

    I will say I have plans to redesign the empty rooms document based off some of your design principles to make it more useful to _other_ people - I think very little of what I'm going to add will make it more useful to me.

    Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your characterizations of 'types of books'.

  12. Efficiency Is Beautiful Efficiency Is Art

    Obviously not the same album but Blast Tyrant has proved one of the most D&D influencing albums among my circles.

  13. A quick aside: I think a *lot* of this breaks down into differences by playstyle. For example, NPC's in play.

    I have a document linked on my site that has 400 NPC personality traits (2d20, read like percentiles). This is super-useful to me because I already know all the weird story stuff, and just getting an idea of who they are as people personalitywise is all I need to run with it.

    A awesome table like your 'things you didn't know were going to be important about this NPC table' is a literal nightmare to me, and not anything I would ever *ever* use in play.

    It is something I would review in preparation for pre-existing PC's, because it's full of a metric ton of awesome.

    Having seen your games, that NPC table sounds like something you'd roll on in the game, no? I think there are a lot of different books, because there are a lot of different ways these books are used.

  14. @Telecanter, have you seen "Random magical effects 1.2 & 2"

    Each table has 10000 entries.


    It's what I use.

  15. @-c
    a weighty tome has lots of pictures and prose and is not necessarily well-organized, type 2 has only game-useful material and is well-organized.

    you didn;t reallyexplain why the npc chart i made wouldn;t be useful in a game. is it that you;d have a tough time improvising off that stuff?

    the freewebs stuff looks good

  16. The following isn't a knock on your table at all. It's not like you have bad self-esteem, just figured I'd make it explicit. :-)

    Some of the entries "NPC is PC's Mother" "Smitten with PC" "Has same father" are not things I want to randomly come up on the table. (Our social norm PC/DM boundaries)

    Some things "is a fantastic barber, doesn't know it" are not so useful unless I know ahead of time, so it can actually come out in play. To improvise this into the story would make my game a little more wahoo then I'm comfortable with.

    Some of them ("vomits a lot" "alcoholic idiot savant thief") are one-offs or clear signals that cause my friends that I play with to avoid that person and that ends the usefulness of the NPC. Mostly, though long experience, my players will quickly cycle out of any NPC that acts like an asshole.

    Mostly, it's because if I introduce an NPC, I already know quite a bit about them - everything really, except who they are as a person. Some of this has to do with "Conservation of NPC's", some of this has to do with the way I lay out my power structures.

    Your table is the kind of table that gives me the first type of information which I use a lot in prep - as an idea bank, where as the other gives me what I need to know in play.

    Personally I don't use Complete Creative Result Generators in play unless I'm totally ok with all the results - I do consistently use them as idea banks for prep, but never during play. They aren't in my play folder.

    I should point out the table of personality traits, like many of the tables I find useful, is exhaustive lists of words, but boring. My play folder is *filled* with breeding generators (key/lock names for ex.) and simulation generators.

    The core reason, is what I need in play is not interesting weirdness (my mind is filled with plenty) but basic things like personalities so I avoid repeating myself. Evocative details.

    The boring table I didn't make that I am talking about:

  17. As I was writing that, I sort of thought "isn't this the FUN part of building a dungeon? Like, original purpose, layers of occupation, all that?"

    I guess what I want are like...academic dissertations on the history of subterranean structures. Anybody got any rec's?

  18. Thanks C, I want more precision with my charts, so I can say this pool is a boon for players, this one is bad mojo. I can always combine those charts for more random effects.

    But I'll definitely study those, print them, highlight different categories, and make some of my own.

    You know, part of it is I want to make my own charts just so I'll know my tools.

  19. @ Telcanter: Of course, I would expect nothing less (he says on the DIY-ingest blog on the web)

    Just figured that would give you *lots* of options.

  20. Wilderness: Chart for determining how many miles of terrain the party can see

    Dungeon: Distance that various activities can be heard; a Wilderness version would be useful as well.

  21. Unbound Adventures from Expditious Press has rules for on the fly dungeon play. It presumes one has the 3x DMG for additional charts. OSRIC may have compatible charts for 100% OGL material or one can find a 1e DMG, 3e DMG or perhaps Pathfinder tome for the relevant charts. It should work well with the material you sited.

    Mythic Game Master Emulator is a tool for replacing the DM. It basically a giant 8ball with some added complexity. Pretty cool.

    I second the recommendation for the Mythmere Deskbooks, rather inspiring. Even though Matthew states they are for out of game use, I believe they can be used on the fly to good effect.