In Praise of Legwork

A question: you ever try to run a campaign with a city in it? Not just a town or settlement or fort, but a proper city, one with an actual street map and whole neighborhoods and thousands of people living within the walls? I certainly have, many times. It’s hard! It’s really hard.

I live in New York—one of the biggest cities in the world—and the complexity of the streets and the depth of the city itself is just staggering. Every time I think I understand a neighborhood, or even a couple streets, I find new nooks and crannies tucked away. I often wonder, when my players reach a city, how I can best replicate that feeling. How can I create that particular impression of unfolding layers of people and places, where there’s always something new to discover just around the corner?

The answer, I think, lies in City State of the Invincible Overlord, the 70s-era Judges Guild city module. It depends a little which version you read, but more or less all City States share a common feature: huge lists of NPCs, in their hundreds and thousands. Crack open the PDF, and seemingly-endless quantities of people leap out at you, all sorted by their main locations—shops, apartments, temples, and so on—which in turn get sorted by the street and neighborhood.

On some level, City State overwhelms. Its ancient graphic design and information ordering certainly doesn’t help. But at the same time, once I started digging into the book, I found myself getting acclimated. There’s a learning curve to the text, but once I started climbing the curve, I realized the huge breadth of information and content available. Here’s an example, from By-Water Road (“PROB 60% Run Off Road by Horse Racing Pages”):

Three example locations from the 1977 Revised version of City StateThree example locations from the 1977 Revised version of City State

The horizontal line of numbers is the stat block: class, alignment, level, hitpoints, armor class, save level, strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, charisma, and weapon. Rhino Rudigore, the innkeeper of the Blue Dolphin Inn, is a neutral level 2 fighter—not particularly powerful in combat but quite physically fit.

Below his statblock, the book details the bartender, Koris Brightips, also with her compressed statblock (which you’ll notice, uncomfortably, includes an extra keyword at the start: FEM) and the note that she sings.” From there, it mentions the Blue Dolphin’s customers—freemen, sailors, and nobles (with stat blocks)—the contents and dangers of his chest, the prices of the food sold (snakes fried in bear fat!), and gambling rates. I admit I’m not quite sure what Legend of the Flying Citadel: Storm Giants Castle in Harridan Gap” is; I’d wager it’s a reference to another Judges Guild module.

Rhino, Koris, and the Blue Dolphin form just one entry of literal hundreds that the book includes. All this info is, of course, very geared for the particular sort of slash-and-burn 70s adventuring style, but even sans stat blocks, these entries contain loads of exciting information. Just look at the next two entries: Jolly Naben, the (chaotic evil) smith that works behind the Dolphin, is close to broke and thus probably happy to sell you his unicorn,” but also possesses valuable information about the Dwarven Mines; Squeaky Werter, the local racketeer, is the Thane of a Senator and thus mostly immune to prosecution, and so accordingly is loaded to the gills. The text could use a sharp editor’s pass, of course, but this is good stuff, ripe for adventure, all contained in just a few lines. Across an entire city’s worth, the book brings enough content to run a dozen campaigns, each unlike the other.

Which brings me to my original point: City State of the Invincible Overlord is, as far as I’ve ever seen, the closest thing to a city module that’s actually ready to run. GMs need to get through a lot of reading, obviously, and the book is more than a little painful to our modern eyes, but it does present a whole city. Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen, the two writers, really did just take the time and effort to detail more or less every street there was. I’m sure it took a breathtaking amount of time and effort on their part, and for all its flaws, I’ve never seen anything quite as large or as detailed as City State.

This is what I call legwork: the long, slow, detailed, sometimes painful process of going through to figure out and then write down all the important details of everything that’s supposed to exist in the imaginary world of the game.

Consider a starker example, using John Harper’s Blades in the Dark (of which I’ve played dozens and dozens of sessions over the years). In the original Blades, Harper included a map of Doskvol, the city in which Blades is set; here’s a lightly-interactive digital version of Harper’s map. It describes about a dozen districts, each of which includes a few key locations and the basic outline of the major streets.

A few years after the release of Blades, Tim Denee released his Detailed Doskvol Street Maps” with Harper’s blessing. Denee’s maps are huge: they include detailed maps of the streets, almost all of which Denee named, along with the canals, bridges, and rooftop crossings of each of the (also now named) neighborhoods within each larger district. A tremendous amount of effort went into these maps, but the difference at the table proves immediately noticeable. The ability to say Oh yeah, our gang runs Fishmarket, with our headquarters located on the roof of Pike Court between Sharktooth Alley and Roe Lane” and have those be real places on the map feels immensely cool and exciting. (In my old campaign, players would war with other gangs and redraw turf lines according to the canals and streets—“Who gets tolls on the Moon Bridge?” was a hotly-disputed question.)

You can, of course, just name the streets and neighborhoods in Blades yourself, without these detailed maps. The option always remains there. But that takes time and effort, the kind of time and effort that I as a GM maybe can’t or won’t spend—the legwork. I was more than happy to spend the $10 that Denee charges just to avoid doing all that legwork myself.

Legwork is hard. It’s basically all the boring or fiddly or tiring parts of writing up an imaginary place. It’s pretty fun and breezy to say Ooh, what if there was a city that was, like, on an island in a lake full of blood, and the blood came from the monster under the city, and the sewers, like, turned into its veins?” It’s even pretty straightforward to start coming up with names of important places and people in that city—the Fanged Gate, the Sanguine King, the Crimson Keepers—but sooner or later the going gets hard. Sewers that turn into veins is an exciting idea, but… what’s the map of those sewers look like? Which streets have manhole covers, and which buildings’ basements include access? For that matter, what exactly do the streets look like? And when the Crimson Keepers carve off chunks of the regenerating beast below, where do they store it, and how much do they carve per day? Once the text hits the table, cool concepts demand legwork, and legwork is a lot harder than dreaming up mere ideas.

In many cases, GMs who (quite reasonably) don’t want to do all this legwork just decide to wing it. I employed this strategy for a long time when it came to cities—draw a simple overview map, write down a dozen possible street names, then just slot them into place as needed when they came up during the session. This works basically fine, it’s enough to run a session or two (particularly if the players don’t spend long in the city), but it starts to fall apart when players start needing persistent details. And winging it really doesn’t work for dungeons, which, as more zoomed-in locations, demand a higher level of detail on a room-by-room basis. Unless you’re an expert improviser, sooner or later you’ll find yourself wanting the details that only legwork provides.

I come now to my sharper point: legwork is so hard that sometimes it feels like RPG writers and designers aren’t willing to do it at all.

A short list of some things that don’t take much legwork to make: rules; lore; character options; generators; inspirational” material; and faction descriptions. By contrast, a short list of things that do take quite a lot of legwork: hexcrawls; dungeons; cities; and all the NPCs that actually go in a faction. There’s obviously some gray area between these—monsters, items, spells, and so on—but take a quick glance through DriveThru or itch or Kickstarter and tell me which you see more of. Is it the stuff that takes a lot of legwork to write, or only a little?

Once I saw this pattern, this avoidance of doing the legwork, I started noticing it everywhere. In OSR-land, depthcrawls and other generators provide shortcuts to making huge spaces (megadungeons, labyrinths, etc) without needing to do all the legwork in between. In storygame-land, the onetime rallying cries of don’t write a story” and play to find out” have become code for just make the players (or GM) come up with everything themselves.” In trad-land, established companies and studios churn out books full of extraneous systems and new character-building options instead of adventures. All of these, one way or another, allow writers to skip doing the legwork.

I talked about all this a little with some friends, and they brought up an important question: is this actually an issue? What’s the problem with having lots of other non-legwork stuff on hand and just winging it? Is legwork actually all that useful?

The short answer to this question—and many others—is that a writer can afford to take the time and effort to come up with better content than somebody improvising it live at the table.

This isn’t true in every single case all the time (there are many great improvisers and even more bad writers), but in general, particularly when it comes to adventures, writers have the ability to work at a breadth and depth that GMs who wing it simply can’t. Yes, GMs can tweak things to enhance them for their specific table in a way that writers never can, but a GM can’t improvise a whole dungeon, let alone an entire campaign. When the imaginary world of the game brings a real breadth and depth, when there truly is something over the next hill and the hill after that and the hill after that, new dimensions of play emerge. Many campaigns and books claim to be a sandbox, but unless the world proves rich and detailed across the board, can players truly explore and do what they like?

Legwork proves its value to games even in cases that may appear less than obvious. Take, for example, solo games—a genre and form arguably about players doing the legwork. One of the most enduring and popular solo RPG books, Tim Hutchings’s Thousand Year Old Vampire, stands apart from many others in that it includes hundreds of prompts. And not just a random list of prompts, or prompts on any topic Hutchings could think of, but carefully-crafted prompts that nest and loop and feed into each other. The rules themselves of 1kYOV are simple enough; the juice, the reason that I and many others keep coming back to it, lies in its prompts—the legwork. If Hutchings hadn’t taken the time to write a couple hundred pretty good prompts, sure, we’d have a cool pitch and some neat vibes, but actually playing the game would be far more difficult and far less engaging.

Here lies the key message, the axiom I want to impart: the more legwork the writer provides, the less GMs and players need to do themselves.

It’s for this reason that I largely stopped buying RPG books that aren’t adventures. I can come up systems and vibes and inspiration myself, that stuff’s all exciting, but what I don’t like coming up with is legwork. In fact, I’m very happy to modify and adjust my own systems, or even my own campaigns, to accommodate a bunch of good legwork from another designer—like Denee’s maps. My Doskvol looked a bit different before, but suddenly acquiring an entire of Doskvol vastly more complete than my own made for an excellent reason to change those previously-established details.

My recurring example here, the city, proves only one case. Many recurring popular daydreams really can only be solved through lots of long, slow, fairly draining writing.

Ever wondered about a campaign of rusty space truckers who constantly need to swap and repair parts of their ship? You can of course just improvise it, or abstract it, but to really run that space trucker campaign, you need lists of hundreds or thousands of parts that interlock with each other—legwork.

Ever mused on a system of magic with different magical languages and mysterious components and complex rituals? You can do it on the fly and use a bunch of system math to simulate, but to really make that magic work you just need hundreds of texts, components, materials, and ritual processes—legwork.

Ever daydreamed about a real, proper heist, with guards and disguises and alarms and everything? You can retrofit and improvise it (like Blades does), but to really run a heist, you need guard patrol routes and workers’ weaknesses and camera locations and power lines and a million other tiny fiddly details—legwork.

The answer to my original question—how do you make a city feel like a city?—seems to have only one real answer: make a city, a big one, that’s broad and deep and includes all the pieces. There is, as far as I can tell, no other substitute.

Historically, we designers typically use clever math, rules, and out-of-character solutions to run these kinds of games. These work, sure, but they aren’t the real thing. To truly get down in the weeds of an imaginary world and still have it maintain consistency and excitement, you need a ton of legwork in the background to support your moment-to-moment play. You need the ironclad backing of a great deal of content, ready to hit the table without further preparation or improvisation. To play in a fantasy city, we needed City State of the Invincible Overlord; to play other dreams, we need more legwork.

June 19, 2024 design running the game writing

Pandemonium Megadungeon Session Report #7

Hello again! Sorry it’s been so long—life’s been busy. You can read previous session reports here: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6. This report comprises some eleven sessions.

8th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Today, two convenient new recruits appeared:
Zit, Fighter 1; a goblin burglar.
Khib II, Fighter 1: another goblin burglar (no relation, of course, to Khib I).

The two goblins headed down, bound for the second floor, and immediately ran afoul of some skeletons—skeletons who many other party members encountered many times, and often were friendly, but very much disliked goblins. The two fled and managed to find four other goblins, who they convinced to join them. Together, the now-six goblins defeated the skeletons and proceeded downstairs. One of the new recruits, passing by a conspicuous lever on the stairs, pulled it, causing the stairs to turn to ramps and sending the whole band sliding down.

From the second floor, the goblins proceeded directly to the fixed teleportation circle they’d heard about, and spoke the Celestine and Mechanian incantations correctly (very convenient that Zit and Khib just happened to read and speak each), teleporting all six goblins to an unknown location, which the circle simply called the Transgressor’s hidden respite.”

The goblins emerged into a large room plated with steel panels, with a chest in the corner and a pair of sealed sliding double doors (like an elevator). They immediately looted the chest, finding various treasures including a pot of Sovereign Glue. The goblins rejoiced with their newfound wealth, but discovered a problem: there was no way out.

Over the next several hours, Zit and Khib: attempted to pry open the doors (failure); watched the other four recruits descend into panic; killed the other four as they turned violent; unscrewed a steel panel and discovered stone wall beneath it; tunneled through the stone wall; experimented with various steel-door hydraulics; tunneled through another stone wall; and then eventually emerged into a new room, a wide semi-circular chamber made of stone, but with a flat steel opposite wall. Poking around, they found no exits, but realized that the flat steel wall was slightly elevated, like it was a raised piece of hallway running crosswise.

Brandishing their tools, they: spent the next dozen-odd hours carving a tiny tunnel through stone under the steel hallway-wall; boiled goblin carcasses in a steel-panel box for water; ate their former comrades; and eventually emerged into another, mirrored semi-circular stone chamber. This chamber, however, had another set of double doors, which the goblins knew how to get through (that is, by tunneling through the stone around it instead). Emerging into a new chamber for the first time in over 24 hours, Zit and Khib found a fountain!

They rushed forward, joyous and thirsty, splashing it everywhere and laughing, only to realize it was not water, but acid! The acid, unfortunately, melted off Zit’s leg, causing him to collapse unconscious, losing acrid blood quickly. Khib II, sorely burned, staggered from room to room, eventually finding another fountain—he drank, brought some back to Zit, fed it to him, and then started to feel sick—poison. In his last fleeting moments of consciousness, Khib staggered to another chamber and found a large upright cylinder decorated with images of a geometric skeleton, then collapsed. Thus ended Zit and Khib II.

9th Day of Month of the Imperium

Today, four familiar faces went down:
The Eldest Orphan of Forsaken for Eternity by Birth, Fighter 4; our classic mohawk’d noble, dressed in aristocrat’s boots, and a necklace of fireballs while bearing his miser’s flute and a ghostly right leg.
Sōt III, Butcher of Bugs, Roller of Rugs, Squandering Hugs, Fighter 3; our beloved haggard knight, still clad in bone mail-and-plate, still wielding his notched longsword Righty and a silver Pike of Warning, still carrying his dust of disappearance, trusty Polaris-demon camera, still bearing a ghostly left leg (but tragically missing his left ear).
Paparazzo Vetch the Orc-Breaker, Fighter 3; tourist-turned-chef, clad in duralumin mail, bearing his belt of cat imprisonment and an air elemental trapped in an oilskin bag.
Runpril the Crunty, Magic-User 2; a now-noseless translocator carrying a bag of poison darts.

The party descended down the recently-revealed staircase revealed beneath the ancient monument at the north edge of town. Below, in the darkness, they: tapped around with their poles, very cautiously; accidentally bumped a statue that screamed very loudly; fought some skeletons; and found a pit filled with magical darkness and scuttling sounds. Descending below, they discovered the scuttling sounds seemed linked to the magic dark, and the party retreated. Skeletons and more shadow-things ambushed them, and a savage fight commenced.

After the fight, they discovered the shadow-projection scuttlers were spider-like skeletal creatures, a human ribcage expanded to limb-like lengths. Runpril also took an axe-blow to the head, and so the party rapidly retreated, doing their best to get Runpril to safety. They survived, barely, but now carry a nasty scar.

Hours later, they went below again. They: advanced until they heard chains clinking and the whispers of Ghosttongue, so retreated; ran into a very rude decapitated ghost carrying its own head; slew said rude ghost; and eventually ran back into the chain-clinking-Ghosttongue-speaking being. In pure shadow, they couldn’t see it, but using Sōt and the Eldest Orphan’s psychic-spirit-telepathy (gained from defeating Goblinscholar Bolokhiv), they spoke with the creature: it identified itself as the Judge of Kings, and it desired judgement over the whole of the dungeon—and that it despised light. In particular, it wanted the crown of one of its hated enemies, the Cannibal King, who dwelt far below.

In exchange for a promise to retrieve the crown of the Cannibal King, the Judge of Kings granted a boon to the party: the location of a secret ladderway down to the third floor, accessed in the Judge’s territory. From there, the party explored a little ways further without light, found some treasure, and headed back to the surface.

10th Day of the Month of the Imperium

The Eldest Orphan and Vetch went out, joined by another:
Sriracha Ketchup, Magic-User 2; an exiled translocator (having leveled up in the background since last session.)

Taking the newly-gained information from the Judge of Kings, the party went down to its territory, to the newfound ladderway. After some negotiating with ropes and pitons, the party went down. At the bottom, they found a small chamber leading to a long, low wooden tunnel with an odd ridged pattern on the right side. They heard sounds coming from outside the tunnel, and quickly realized that they were, in fact, inside a long low counter—the ridges were cabinet doors. Stepping out, they encountered some unfamiliar faces: humanoids dressed in huge dirty robes cinched at the face, ankle, and wrist, skeletal appendages emerging, that sloshed like water; and huge suits of welded-together rusty armor carrying tower shields that also sloshed like water. The robed individuals had huge stacks of filthy paperwork they constantly sifted through; the armored tower-shielders did not speak.

Nobody in the party spoke Deep, but after some clever chalk-drawing, the party communicated that they were looking for the Cannibal King, and then Deep-speakers pointed them further into the dungeon. From there, the party discovered a large underground canal; stole some treasure from a shrine; found several huge cylindrical tanks full of eels; met a friendly wraith named Creon; and found some gross little crickets, black with too many legs. In a clever move, Ketchup used telekinesis to lift a full gnashing swarm of eels out of their tank and drop them onto the crickets, causing a two-sided feeding frenzy and buying the party time to run.

From there, the party investigated a little further, raided a shrine and found a map of the dwarves’ camp(!!!), and then headed back up to the surface.

11th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Once again the Eldest Orphan and Vetch went below, this time joined by:
Lord Tarkus Two-Fingers, Magic-User 3; an aspiring necromancer carrying his amber comb and Lagash sapling, still bearing a ghostly right hand with three skeletal fingers but returned from his brief jaunt as a ghost separate from his body.

Dwarf map now in hand, the party went below, straight to the second floor. They: raised some skeletons; experimented with a shrine reading Unkillable,” which seemed to turn a single blow when prayed to; passwall’d into a chamber with a ladder upwards(!) and angry earth elemental; barely managed to defeat the elemental, which had a load of gemstones within; and scrambled up the ladder. It led back to the surface, to the tailor’s shop of Forsaken—three bloody, dusty, heavily armed adventurers bursting out of a basement trapdoor the tailor didn’t know existed gave them a right shock.

Cashing in their gems, Vetch leveled up, becoming Fun-Guy Paparazzo Vetch the Orc-Breaker, in honor of his recent promises to the myconid Ministry.

Hours later, they went below once more, now straight to the dwarf territory. They: snuck through dwarf territory ambushing its denizens, their heavy armor masked by the dwarves’ loud machinery; lost some weapons to dwarf engineers casting shatter; avoided a large ceiling-crusher trap; and discovered the control panel to the conveyor belt that ran through the whole dwarf area, containing options like speed,” direction,” and heat.” Deciding to not alter the belt just yet, the party instead clambered aboard, using it to launch their ambushes.

In the midst of this violence, they: found a very scared dwarf hiding in a tunnel holding a hexagonal key and learned he went below;” questioned some dead dwarves and learned they had a sacred elevator leading down; killed the two dwarf leaders and claimed two more hexagonal keys (along with the leaders’ heads); looted some shrines, including a large free-floating shield shaped like a dwarf’s head, which Vetch claimed; and found the aforementioned sacred elevator, with three hexagonal keyholes, but declined to go down. Instead, they took their winnings and headed back to the surface.

Tarkus leveled up, becoming Lord Tarkus Two-Fingers the Treacherous. The Eldest Orphan leveled up as well, reaching level 5 and becoming The Eldest Orphan of Forsaken for Eternity by Birth yet Alive, and then retired to unlock advanced gear for sale—the Eldest Orphan now runs a new section of the general store, selling things like air bladders, dynamic rope, and chalk.

12th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Sōt, Tarkus, and Ketchup recruited two newcomers and a rookie for the day’s adventure:
Nouh, Fighter 1; an ex-butcher adept, believing himself to be cursed.
Nan the Black, Fighter 1; an ex-smuggler turned burglar, borrowing the phynox hauberk +2 from the community chest.
The Youngest Orphan, Fighter 1; a noble from same orphanage as the Eldest Orphan, recently having inherited most of his stuff.

Deciding to confirm an earlier theory, the party descended down Forsaken’s well, clambering down a rope ladder to a large lake. After deploying their folding boat, they sailed up a waterway they saw earlier, which they eventually confirmed was the same canal that Ketchup saw earlier with Vetch and the Eldest Orphan.

Exploring this watery domain, they: went a short distance up another smaller, branching canal, only for it to descend quickly into a closed pipe; met with one of the large watery skeletal robe-wearers, who insisted they fill out the proper paperwork (the Youngest Orphan speaks Deep, so this was straightforward); found a chamber with the signature blue blanket of a merchant, but no merchant; found a statuary of hollow statues and recovered some treasure from inside a few using ghost-limbs; realized that the canal-pipe they saw earlier must run under some dungeon rooms and hallways; avoided a poison-dart trap; and, by carefully tapping their 10’ poles, discovered an illusory wall.

A hall led past the illusion, leading to a large chamber. Sticky goo thinly coated the floor; at the far side stood a chest. Rather than gamble with whatever this devilry was, Ketchup used their telekinesis to lasso the chest with rope, and the party heaved. At this point, four gelatinous cubes fell from the ceiling and began moving towards the party. Tarkus attempted to inspire fear within them, but failed—instead causing the cubes to positively adore him. Working quickly, the party dragged the chest out and slammed the door shut, barricading it, buying themselves time.

Inside the chest, they found a deal of treasure and several magic items: a seemingly-empty pot, a pink saucy potion, a heavy wooden club, a pink potion, and a red candle inscribed with runes.

The party continued, and discovered a chamber filled with copper coins, tens or hundreds of thousands of them. Immediately, Ketchup began ritually casting teleport, and the party spent the hour carefully stacking copper in the circle. After an hour, they all teleported to the surface with tens of thousands of copper, emerging right outside the inn—at which point the copper pieces surged, forming into a huge bipedal copper-monster! A brutal fight ensued as they hacked off coinage; at the apex, Nan the Black took a giant coppery fist to the head, shattering his skull. Thus ended Nan the Black.

But the party carried the day, and (after being chided by the elderly innkeep for bringing monsters to the tavern) cashed out. Nouh, leveling up twice, became Humble Great-Eared Nouh; the Youngest Orphan, also leveling up twice, became the Youngest Copper Entitled Orphan; Ketchup, leveling up just once, became Sriracha Ketchup Aioli.

13th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Tarkus, Vetch, and the Youngest Orphan went below, grabbing two others:
Old Iron Grip the Dying, Magic-User 3; a veteran illusionist with a peg leg, cast-iron prosthetic hand, and a missing ear, now carrying a load of mushrooms from the myconid territory.
Jim, Magic-User 1; a goblin transmuter carrying a porcelain bow.

Before going below, Tarkus interrogated the dead heads of the lead dwarf engineers, learning some cryptic information about beings called the Titan Mason and the Tectonic Artificer, supposed allies of the Slumbering Clanweaver, the dwarves’ leader.

The party proceeded straight down the tailor-shop dwarf ladder, only to discover that the conveyor belt (which the passage directly connects to) was no longer running, and surged with heat. After the deaths of their lead engineers, the dwarves locked the area down. With some clever reduction from Jim to shrink the slats of the conveyor belt, the party moved forward, only to suddenly run into two dwarf-shaped metallic robots, who claimed they had come from below to investigate what was happening in the dwarf territory. The party convinced the robots to help them, and the robots opened a passageway through the walls, straight to the elevator. Using their hexagonal keys, the party descended.

Now on the third floor, the party found a rusted, broken set of rooms. Cables peeked beneath damaged iron panels; clay and mud coated in the corners. A high-pitched ringing echoed. Pushing deeper, the party: found and looted a shrine; discovered a huge machine-sculpture made from geometric blocks of metal that talked and, when body parts were inserted, transformed them into clay; met some odd misshapen clay-dwarves; failed to negotiate a few times; and discovered a huge room with a very large upright hexagonal prism standing in the center of the room, like a tower, cables feeding into the top and humming with energy. Three hexagonal slots, long as an arm, stood on every other edge of the prism. With some further questioning, they learned that this strange hexagonal column was indeed Naachtun, the Slumbering Clanweaver.

Exploring further, the party: discovered that the metal not-quite-dwarves inhabited one side of the floor while clay not-quite-dwarves the other; found a matched talking machine to the other, this one made of huge slabs of clay, that converted inserted body parts into metal (which took some convincing, along with the help of indigo empathy-mushrooms); and found a strange hovering orb in a room full of cables that the dwarves called a dream.”

Between the two great machines—metal, which turned parts to living clay; and clay, which turned parts to articulated metal—the party acquired several new parts. Vetch got a full metal arm; Old Grip replaced his missing hand and foot with new metal ones; Jim turned his entire body to metal; and the Youngest Orphan split himself down the middle, half-clay and half-metal. The machines took some convincing—the clay-dwarves and metal-dwarves do not like each other—but they managed it.

14th Day of the Month of the Imperium

After some deliberations, Sōt, Tarkus, Old Grip, and Nouh decided to take on the Judge of Kings, the shadowy many-bladed chain-clinking figure beneath the town monument, in a zone that hates light. Tarkus believes that he can take the Judge’s place as lord of the undead—this remains to be seen.

Going down into the dark, they went to the Judge’s maze-like catacombs (the secret monument entrance being quite close to where the Judge resides), and Tarkus asked to be judged. The Judge, drawing close, led Tarkus farther into the dark, glittering blades tracing along Tarkus’s body. The Judge named some of Tarkus’s misdeeds—including naming him an impostor from another world—then attacked. The party lit their lanterns fast, but struggled to maintain them as the Judge flickered in and out of shadow. Now, the party grew worried, as they faced the full wrath of Ny Varberg, Judge of Kings, a grandchild of the dungeon. The Judge’s blades whipped back and forth, materializing in many places, their lights winking out one by one. A golden knife scalped Tarkus, and the necromancer passed out. Realizing their foolishness, the party grabbed Tarkus and hastily retreated back upstairs.

After paying for Tarkus’s medical bills, the party took a different tack. They went down the ladder beneath the general store, to the myconid territory, now filled with a deep green haze. Advancing forward, they: talked to some mushrooms in a fountain in Imperial Common that previously only spoke Mycologue; ran into a giant brain-eating moth named Mothmothmoth,” who attacked them and was slain by Sōt; kept seeing bugs skittering at the edge of their vision; ventured into sleep-inducing blue haze; rescued a long-slumbering former adventurer named Pantaleon; and then realized that green mushrooms containing hallucinogenics, and perhaps some of what they were seeing was not real.

At this point, a being emerged from the fountain, a snake-like man with bright skin, who named himself Wisdom.” Wisdom, slowly extending from the fountain as he spoke, answered many questions: that the Judge of Kings held sapphires in his chest, that truth was written on the walls of the dungeon, and that diamonds were located just through the opposite wall. Wisdom, while very wise, also struggled to get names right, and kept referring to Tarkus as Torkus.” Eventually, the party retreated from the myconid territory to sleep off their possible druggedness, though they still wonder about Wisdom’s words.

That night, back at the inn, Tarkus awoke to a horrifically loud crashing and banging in his right ear, a catastrophic cacophony. After thinking he was perhaps dying, he tried sickle-cursing himself to no avail. After waking the others and trying several other attempts, Sōt eventually grabbed a pair of bellows and reversed them over Tarkus’s ear, at which point the crashing stopped. With some extrication, the party found a tiny pink fluttering insect, which the town magician identified as a brainwig”—a myelin-eating insect that chews through adventurers’ ears to get to their grey matter.

15th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Deciding on a different tactic, Sōt, Tarkus, Old Grip, and Nouh took the main entrance down, heading for the elevator on level 2 that, as they understood it, went to level 5—same as the myconid level—but in a different direction, in territory controlled by many-armed berserkers.

Before reaching the elevator, the party ran into a new merchant named Garbus, Master Armorer, who dressed in many fine clothes and many layers of armor, topped with a huge conical metal helmet.

Post-Garbus, they took the elevator down, to an area with stepped walls and fungal moss growing between the flagstones. They charged out and attacked the two berserkers in front of them, who proved fearsome foes—berserkers grow more deadly as they lose HP. Fighting the initial few, the party stumbled upon a very large chamber, where green torches burned and a huge many-armed figure stood. More berserkers attacked, and the party fought them in tight formation. After defeating the next round, Tarkus sent in his skeletons to attack the huge figure; the figure did not defend itself, just laughed and beckoned the skeletons onwards. The skeletons struck, blood sprayed, and suddenly they all turned on each other, slaughtering each other to a one. The figure laughed all the while, unfazed by the wounds.

Nervous, the party closed the door to that room. They interrogated a dead berserker, and learned the huge figure was Nidaros, the Bloodbound Brigand. Now worried, they only explored a little further—looting a shrine for some pink rage-inducing mushrooms—before returning to the surface.

16th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Tarkus, Vetch, and the Youngest Orphan went below again, aiming to continue their quest below the dwarf’s territory. According to the Harbinger Rock, the prophetic stone just beneath the Forsaken Inn, the party knows that they must awaken Naachtun, or ensure it never wakes again,”

Employing clever use of ghostwalk, they slipped past the dwarves’ super-heated conveyor belt, raided the last few dwarven treasure troves, and took the sacred elevator down. After some negotiation with the clay not-quite-dwarves (who don’t fully trust the Youngest Orphan, being half-clay half-metal), they met with the Clayshaper, the inhumanly tall and elegant maker of these clay dwarves, and thus their leader. After more negotiation—demonstrating Vetch’s magical freefloating dwarven shield, the Youngest Orphan’s half-and-half nature, promises to keep faith and cut down those who would break oaths—the Clayshaper reached inside itself, produced an elongated hexagonal prism of strange metal (about the right size for the slots on the side of the Clanweaver), and then dissolved into wet clay. Amidst the clay, mechanical bits of machinery clattered, wet and disused.

Slightly shaken at the sudden dissolution but feeling more confident, the party crossed to the other side of the floor and made the same deal with the leader of the metal not-quite-dwarves, called the Ironmonger. With the same assurances and promises, the equally tall-and-elegant Ironmonger produced another hexagonal prism, and then collapsed into iron parts—parts that, as they cracked, spilled out wet clay.

Neither Ironmonger nor Clayshaper knew where the third piece was. The party searched the floor, finding many treasures and secrets—Ekallatum’s muffin, which reverses gravity; a winged black cat held in stasis; a scroll in an unknown language—but no piece.

On their way back up, the three once again demonstrated their devotion to the dwarvish cause—magic shield, hexagonal keys to the elevator, secrets from below, half-clay half-metal forms—and made a deal with the dwarves: recover the third piece from the orcs, where the party believed in awaited, in exchange for safe passage in and out of dwarf territory.

With the treasure gained, Tarkus leveled up, becoming Dark Lord Tarkus Two-Fingers the Treacherous. He opted not to retire (and thus upgrade the company), instead sticking around to fulfill a grander scheme.

17th Day of the Month of the Imperium

The Youngest Orphan, Old Grip, Nouh, and Jim went down, bringing with them a newcomer:
Skira-na-Nog, Magic-User 1; a goblin conjurer fresh from the dungeons.

The party went back down the well in the center of town, to the watery dungeons below. They immediately ran into Curus, Master Peddler, buying several items: an indelible pen, a length of animate rope (which Nouh named Galvina”), four pairs of magic snails, and a portable hole.

Exploring further up-canal, the party found a little chamber with an ornate sarcophagus with the name Creon” written on it. While a few of the party had met Creon the ghost and found him friendly, they opted for treasure and looted the tomb, including Creon’s cursed silver greataxe.

Overcome with excitement at the portable hole, Grip persuaded the party to return to the surface (if only to break the curse on Creon’s axe) and then go back to the first floor to suss out additional hidden chambers using the hole. They did this for a time with little success; the rookies were growing bored, so Grip shelved his desire for total map-knowledge and they returned to the third floor.

There, they: met Huntus, Master-at-Arms, a weapons merchant, but didn’t buy anything; ran into another watery robe-clad clerk and were registered once again; ran afoul of Creon the ghost, now very angry, but slew him using the axe he wielded in life and a single lucky silver coin toss from Skira-na-Nog; and, poking around with the portable hole (Wall inspections!”), found a hidden room with a chest and a grille on the floor. Looking further, the party realized the grill led to one of the canal-pipes below, the pipes that lace throughout this whole part of the dungeon. Opening the chest, they heard a snap, the grille closed suddenly, and water began to fill the room through three new holes. Had the party not accessed this room via a portable hole and instead through the pipe, they would have been in serious trouble. But they weren’t, so they happily looted as water rose to their ankles, and then hightailed it out.

With the winnings, three party members leveled up: the Youngest Orphan became the Youngest Entitled Copper Deep Orphan; Jim became Chrome Jim (in honor of his metal body); and Skira-na-Nog became Princess Skira-na-Nog.

18th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Two newcomers, both duelists, fought to the death outside the Inn. Their names were Tiresias and Gazal—for a moment, it seemed as though Gazal would win, severing Tiresias’s wrist and hacking off an ear, but then Tiresias swapped to his left hand and scalped Gazal, leaving him to die in the mud.

Stepping gingerly around the body, Old Grip and Nouh went below, bringing with them another rookie:
Ohokh, Fighter 1; a goblin soldier, eager to join the winning team.

Grip, determined to read a spell off a dead comrade’s old spellbook, checked every merchant location he knew of. Merchants in the dungeon come and go, each selling different items. After a quick run down to level 2 yielded only Garbus, Master Armorer, they headed down the well once more, and there found Textus, Master Scrivener, who sells scrolls and translations. Grip paid Textus to translate comprehend languages into Elvish (which Grip reads and casts in), and then returned to the surface triumphant, suddenly learning many new spells.

Nouh, meanwhile, continued to teach Galvina, his animate rope, new tricks. Ohokh, bemused, watched as the two veterans engaged in their strange practices.

19th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Grip, Nouh, and Ohokh went to the third floor, exploring deeper, near where the others had found gelatinous cubes and mountains of copper. They: skipped a few hallways using the portable hole; met a large octopedal automaton, who served something called the Eight Tombs; fed the automaton an indigo empathy mushroom, causing it to feel feelings for the first time and have an existential crisis; discovered access to a water pipe via a fountain; found an armory full of giant snails that use helmets as shells, like hermit crabs; fled from a gelatinous cube; and found a shrine in a metal-paneled room, which, upon opening the altar, sent an electric hum throughout the room.

A great deal of planning and options ensued; the portable hole was the only means of access to this room. After flicking some coins in and seeing them arc with lightning, Nouh decided to dual-wield backpacks, shuffle in on a bedroll, and load the coins that way. As this happened, however, the gelatinous cube returned. Thinking quickly, the party grabbed a length of chain, jammed one end into the cube, fed the other through the portable hole to the electrified room, and dropped it. Lightning ripped across the chain, arcing across space, and detonated the cube. As electricity continued to thrum and the chain fell, however, it began to singe the black silk of the portable hole—the party almost panicked, but managed to save the hole with only a few singes (and recover a great deal of treasure).

20th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Sōt, the Youngest Orphan, Nouh, and Ohokh led an expedition down, joined by two others:
Snuffet the Twisted Pointer, Magic-User 3; long-absent but now returned. A transmuter, Snuffet’s hat bears a feather of Hieracon, which points towards danger.
Lady Thiana, Fighter 1; a new recruit, an old ally of Vetch’s, borrowing his magic floating dwarf shield and wielding two others for absurdly high armor.

Urged on by the Orphan’s hunch that the orcs held the last piece of the Slumbering Clanweaver, they set out to destroy the orcs. They went down to the second level and pushed deep into orc territory, ambushing a few, only to find themselves suddenly outnumbered. Orcs regenerate, and keep large hound-like collections of mismatched spawn matter as shock troops—roiling morasses of limbs, teeth, calcified bone, and hunger.

They portable hole’d into a secret chamber, nearly fell down a trapdoor, and began stealing treasure, but the orcs knew of this way (it was their treasure) and the assault continued. Panicking slightly—Sōt lost a foot to an orc magician’s spell—the party retreated. Snuffet used perspectival shift to enlarge a chunk of flesh to bar one door, but the orcspawn kept eating, and a party of orcs blocked the other way. Trapped, Ohokh attempted to negotiate, but it broke down; eventually, the Youngest Orphan used a fireball from the necklace of fireballs inherited from the Eldest Orphan to wipe out the orcs, and the party retreated back to the surface.

With the treasure gained, three party members leveled up: Ohokh became Ohokh the Spear; Nouh became Abu-Habal Humble Great-Eared Nouh; and Sōt, reaching level 5, became Sōt III, Butcher of Bugs, Roller of Rugs, Squandering Hugs, Home & Garden Department—but he opted not to retire (and thus upgrade the company), instead staying on the roster (at least after getting a prosthetic foot fit).

21st Day of the Month of the Imperium

A mighty party assembled to deal with the orcs: Sōt (F5), Tarkus (M-U5), the Youngest Orphan (F4), Vetch (F4), Nouh (F4), and Snuffet (M-U3).

They took an alternate path to orc territory, following a series of secret passageways near the dwarves. In their explorations, the party had recovered several maps, and they believed they held all of the maps of orc territory. Combined with Snuffet’s feather of Hieracon to point towards danger, it proved a fast path forward. They fought a few orcs, looted a few small hauls, and beelined for the leader of the orcs. Other than a brief run-in with an unexpected fire elemental (defeated via a droplet of water expanded with perspectival shift), they advanced forwards rapidly. Tarkus raised many corpses along the way, amassing a small army of undead to serve him.

After less than an hour, they emerged into a huge chamber: blood, offal, and twitching muscle coursed across the ground; orc magicians covered in ritual scars stood by. In the center sat a huge mass of flesh, some 20’ in diameter, blue-green like orcs, covered in appendages and wounds. Glittering chains draped across its form, jewels winking in the apertures. Periodically, an orc would emerge from a wound or aperture, fully-formed. This is Telja, the Allmother Brood, creator of the regenerative orcs. After a brief discussion in which the Allmother mentioned her hatred for other factions (and a briefly-considered option of joining her), a battle commenced!

Tarkus threw waves of undead forward, doing tremendous damage to the Allmother and carving her body to pieces, but her flesh re-knitted itself. Orcs began to crawl from the wounds, naked and bloody but full of fury, tearing the skeletons aparts. The fighters charged forward, hacking and slashing, but still the Allmother lived. Her claws gnashed and scythed even as they cut them apart, the skeletons and zombies began to die, more orcs crawled out of the offal, and the fight wore on.

The scarified orcs, the mages, suddenly returned, bringing with them two huge orc-giants, each standing 15’ high. Realizing that orcs thrive on attrition and that the Allmother’s flesh still healed, they opted for a new plan: they doused as much of her form as they could in oil, spilling it everywhere, then fled. As the orc-giants closed in, the Youngest Orphan threw his last fireball from the necklace, they slammed the door shut, and the room went up in a blast of flame.

When the smoke cleared, the giants still stood, but all others lay still. The fighters quickly dispatched the giants, and the party sifted through the burnt gore. They found a great deal of treasure and loot, including many valuable metals and machinery stolen from the dwarves—but no hexagonal prism. However, as they stood in the defeated remains of the Allmother, changes wrought themselves in their flesh: the party grew thick, broad, and strong; missing parts regrew as orcish parts, like Sōt’s recently-lost foot and long-lost ear; the start of new limbs emerged from their sides. The Youngest Orphan, half-metal and half-clay, shed his entire form to emerge as a whole new orc.

To carry all the treasure back, Tarkus raised more corpses, including the orc-giants, to lug it to the surface. After a long trek back past many orcs struck with fear and confusion, they returned home, flush with treasure.

Where does the last piece of the Slumbering Clanweaver lie? What lies in the steel-paneled chambers on the third floor? What secrets yet await?

Find out next time (hopefully sooner than the last!)

June 18, 2024 session report Pandemonium

Art Pressure

About four years ago, my friend and longtime collaborator nuclearobelisk and I made a campaign guide for running a West Marches-style game, specifically for 5e.

At the the time, we were game development students in college, seniors about to graduate. I’d been running a campaign that she played in (one of about a dozen players) for close to two years. We ran a Kickstarter and raised about $25,000, but really needed that cash ourselves and had lots of shipping and printing to pay for, so our actual budget for the project shrank fast.

But we wanted it to look good. This was a 5e book, which meant we needed quite a bit of art. Commissioning all the art we’d need—or even a tenth of what we’d need—was completely out of budget. While nuclearobelisk is a brilliant illustrator, she didn’t have the time or willpower to go draw a hundred full-color pieces.

After hunting around, we eventually found a solution: stock art. Go onto Adobe Stock or Shutterfly, sort by illustrations, and search for something like fantasy landscape.” There are hundreds of thousands of results, available for—when you buy them in large enough quantities—only a few bucks apiece. So, we used stock art. Dozens or hundreds of pieces, a couple on every spread.

(Most of these were by a single artist, grandfailure, the bedrock and secret unsung hero of RPG art for low-budget projects. Spend enough time looking at indie RPGs on itch, DriveThru, and the DMs Guild, and you see their work everywhere.)

The book came out okay! We had enough experience with Photoshop and InDesign to tweak and modify the pieces so they didn’t look too generic, and we spent a lot of time curating down the firehose of options that Adobe Stock offers. While certainly not a radical departure from the 5e standard in terms of visual design, it was definitely good enough. We got more than a few compliments on how well it looked compared to other student projects, or books of similar budget.

Stock art saved our project, basically. Without it, we would’ve either had to produce a book with very little art or gone massively over budget. But instead, we used a bunch of cheap stock art, paid for one nice big piece of commissioned art for the cover, filled in a few gaps ourselves, and walked away with a few grand apiece. As students, we counted it as a huge win.

Last year, more than three years after that book, I picked up a graphic design gig working on a third-party 5e project. This was not an official Wizards of the Coast project, nor was it from any of the biggest players just below them—Critical Role, MCDM, or one of their types—but it was from a significant and influential team, only a step or two further down. These were the kind of people who’d been making RPGs for decades, had an official WOTC sourcebook of their own, and made hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in revenue every year, mostly from the DMs Guild. If you’ve been in RPGs for a while, you’ve probably heard of them.

I met with their project manager and got the rundown: a big setting splatbook, standard 5e two-column layout, a mixture of key and spot art. All very standard stuff.

But then, we got to the interesting part: the project manager linked me to their Google Drive folders with the written plaintext and art in separate files, as normal, and I noticed something. While they had plenty of commissioned art custom-made for this particular project, there was lots of other art, too, more generic stuff.

At first, I took it to be recycled art from previous projects. WOTC does this all the time, especially from old editions, and many other publishers and studios follow suit.

But then I dug a little deeper, and I realized: it was stock art. Some from the DMs Guild, some from Patreon artists who license it out, and some from Adobe Stock and Shutterfly. This team, with a budget in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for this project, couldn’t afford all the pieces they wanted. Even though they’d sell thousands of copies in the first few months, they still had to use stock art.

This leads me to my next question: what are we doing here?

I mean it! How is it that we’ve gotten to the point, as a hobby and an industry, where one of the most successful and influential teams of the past 20 years, people worked on literal actual Dungeons & Dragons, can’t afford to pay for the art to go in their new book? How have we priced out full-time professionals making some of the most popular products in the world? What strange confluence of conditions brought us here?

The answer, I think, is one of culture, rather than medium. There’s nothing about an RPG book that demands more art; illustrations are nice, and diagrams are sometimes necessary, but ours is a written medium. It’s entirely possible to write an RPG book with no art (just look at your own campaign notes), while an RPG book with no words is more or less incomplete. Provocative and inspiring, maybe, but illustrations alone cannot sustain an RPG in the same way they can sustain, say, a game of Dixit. You don’t need art to play an RPG.

And yet, if you looked at, say, DriveThru, or Kickstarter, or even just your FLGS, I suspect it’d feel different. It’d feel like art was this vital necessity, something requisite to be an RPG. The popular RPGs you see for sale are filled to bursting with illustrations.

Why? Why is it like this?

Mainly, I think, because consumers expect it. Demand it, even. The best-selling RPG books are ones loaded with illustrations and overwrought graphic design. The RPG books that raise the most money on Kickstarter do so on the basis of their gorgeous visuals, not on the quality of their writing. Think about it: when was the last time you bought an RPG because the writing was great? When was the last time someone recommended an RPG to you because they loved the words themselves?

We, as the audience and market for RPG books, seem to consistently value illustrations and graphic design over everything else. Publishers know this, and are so scared of releasing an RPG book without art that they’ll load it full of discount stock art, stuff that looks wildly inconsistent from page to page and clashes heavily with the project itself, just so they can avoid the accusation of being a book without art.

I call this art pressure. The indelible and sometimes ineffable pressure that consumers place on publishers—and publishers place on themselves—to create bigger books with more art.

It is a consumptive desire; books with more art indicate higher budgets, more production value, more bang for your buck.” They look nicer sitting on your shelf and in the background of your shelfies;” books with more art are pleasant to page through, to skim over and daydream about rather than actually sit down and read. An RPG consumer who owns many beautiful books displays their dedication to the hobby, proves themselves a genuine fan, regardless of what they actually play—or, as the case may be, don’t play.

And it’s killing small projects. Commissioned pieces are expensive—rightfully so—but only gigantic corporations like Wizards of the Coast have the budget to pay. That small indie RPGs compete in the same market with largely the same expectations as corporate brands like D&D only enhances this pressure. If you’re an indie launching a project on Kickstarter, more better art is the surest path towards selling more copies, and all that art paid for ahead of time is a huge risk. You can use stock art, sure, but do you really want your book to like everything else? Is that what we want our medium to become?

This competition, this pressure to beautify the pages of your book more than you can afford, will continue until we as consumers decide to change. Until the audience for tabletop RPG books decides it is willing to pay for projects without illustrations and deluxe graphic design, the art pressure will continue. It will continue until drains smaller artists—and I say artists here in the broader sense, writers and designers and editors along with illustrators—entirely dry.

This is my challenge to you: go out and buy an RPG book with no illustrations or fancy graphic design, then read every word.

Look around and you’ll find them, on itch or DriveThru or the small online retailers. They’re cheap, cheaper than they ought to be, so you can definitely buy them at full price. Take the time to remind yourself what exactly it is that makes the games you play.

Some of my favorite RPG books with no or almost no illustrations, if you’re looking:

May 19, 2024 the biz

RPGs I’ve Played: An Oral History

In 5th grade, my first year of middle school, I joined the Dungeons & Dragons club. My first GM was my art teacher, Mr. Bennett. We played some odd hybrid of 3e and 3.5e, running through what I discovered only recently was, I think, an adventure by Harley Stroh—Tower of the Black Pearl. It lasted about three sessions.

In the months after, I tried playing some loose games with my friends and our Star Wars Legos, one on one, where I was a kind of undefined GM and they guided a single character through Lego maps and fought bad guys. I don’t remember if dice were involved, but they told me what their Lego Jedi did, and I said what happened, more or less. These only lasted one session” apiece, but I did this several times.

A year later, I tried playing in another after-school 3.5e game, which also fell apart in two to three sessions.

A year or two after that, I convinced my friends to try playing the 2002 Iron Crown Lord of the Rings game, which I ran. The book was a duct-taped together borrowed copy of a friend’s older brother’s manual. Here was where I quickly started realizing how fast genres can bend and how convenient that could be—this campaign featured black slimes and teleportation crates, none of which fit the Tolkien vibe super well, but did make for very fun, goofy dungeons.

It was around this time, about 12 or 13, that I started getting into Warhammer, with those same friends. For many, many Friday and Saturday nights after that, four or five of us would gather in my parents’ basement, eat pizza, argue about terrain sight lines, self-importantly check the special rules section to win arguments, and occasionally play the actual game. I played Tau, then Orks, then eventually Orcs & Goblins. We played through the edition change from 5th to 6th in 40K and WHFB during the last days of 8th edition, just before the switch to Age of Sigmar. We played regularly through the end of high school. I tried more than once to convince my friends to try a narrative campaign”—explained only briefly across 4 pages buried in the middle of the 5th edition rulebook—to little avail.

In early high school, at about 15, I was introduced to Shadowrun 4e at summer camp. We played only a session or two, but our GM sent me the PDF—the first RPG PDF I remember really scrolling through and studying in detail.

Later in high school, I ran a few short campaigns of Shadowrun for some vague friends I’d made doing theater and improv. For the longest one, there were only three of us, so they played two characters each. That game was set in a cyberpunk version of San Francisco—a city I’d never been to, and still haven’t.

It was also in high school that I (surprise surprise) ended up doing both improv theater and Model UN. Neither is quite the same as an RPG (jury’s still out on which of the three is most cringe), but both remain hugely influential in my style, especially as a GM.

When I got to college, I ran Shadowrun again for my roommate and his two friends, which lasted about five or six sessions. (It turns out that you when you go to a school full of dorks, saying yeah I’ll run RPGs for you” is a great way to insert yourself wholesale into existing friend groups.) Then, I went to the campus tabletop game club and played 5e for the first time; this was after not playing anything officially called Dungeons & Dragons for six or seven years. Our GM was a little raw, clearly improvising things on the fly and basing his stuff heavily on anime none of us but him had seen, but it was a reintroduction.

After a half-dozen sessions in the loud, messy club game, I decided to put together my own 5e game with four players—one from my orientation group, one from the club game, one person I randomly met on campus, and one person I knew vaguely from my one summer of summer camp who’d happened to go to the same school for undergrad. This campaign ran for the next two semesters, playing 8+ hour sessions on Saturday afternoons. It too was a bit of a mess—a lot of homebrew monsters that had to be adjusted on the fly, retcon’ing the odd accidental TPK, and NPCs that suddenly jumped in to the rescue—but I learned a ton, and we all got far more acclimated to 5e. Most of us were also watching Critical Role at this point, the midpoint through the tail end of Campaign 1, and were heavily inspired by Mercer and company.

In the background, the irregular game with my roommates swapped from Shadowrun to 5e, which was vastly easier to run and at this point significantly more familiar. I set this campaign in the same world as my other game, on the other side of the continent—I’d hoped the players would run into each other, but this never happened.

The next year, my sophomore year, I ran another campaign for my same long-term players, set in the same world. One player dropped out, but we picked up a couple more over the year. This was also the campaign where my style started to clash more heavily with some of my players—I was interested in complicated factions and dangerous wildernesses, they wanted big huge action setpieces. This was before I knew what the OSR was (we were all deep in the heyday of 5e, right as Volo’s and Xanathar’s released), but my tastes were changing.

Home from school for Christmas, I ran a few sessions of 5e for my old Shadowrun and theater friends, many of whom had started playing together.

Come spring, as now second-year game development students, we all started studying and making tabletop games in more detail. I talked my way into an RPG class meant for upperclassmen, and for the final project released my first ever RPG project on the DMs Guild, a 5e set of exploration and survival rules expanding on the stuff in the DMG. Late my sophomore year, I started running test sessions to see how these all worked. They were quite rough and crunchy at first, but moved forward slowly.

It was also at this point, in part due to the RPG course, that I started breaking away from 5e. For the class, we ran several games of Star Wars Genesys (my first time co-GMing), and my professor recommended Dogs in the Vineyard as an old favorite of his. After reading through Dogs and googling Vincent Baker, I discovered Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse books. This was the late 2010s, long after PbtA had been well-established, but it was all still totally fresh to me. Two semesters later, Avery Alder came to my school and ran an RPG workshop—the first time I really noticed myself starting to grate against some of the more cutting-edge storygame design.

Home from school that summer, I ran my first West Marches-style open-table campaign for my old Shadowrun friends and our expanding circle of 5e players. It was a bit rough—I learned many hard lessons in what we called the Test Marches”—but I discovered my love of more old school play, even if I didn’t quite know to call it that at the time: big sandboxes, competing factions, player-drawn maps, weather and travel systems, random encounters, all that jazz. A much more rough-and-tumble, unplanned, dangerous mode of play compared to the Critical Role-inspired neotrad we’d all been absorbing.

That fall, I began a new 5e West Marches game for all of my college friends—my regular players, my roommates, some classmates, a couple of (un)lucky randos—about a dozen of them in total. We played 2–3 sessions per week, usually 4–6 hours. We also had occasional raid” sessions, where I’d let them surpass the normal limit of six players to bring eight, ten, twelve players to defeat some big bad boss monster. After two years of playing, this was where I really honed my 5e expertise: we could have complicated exploration, run four or five combats, delve into roleplaying and investigation, and do it all inside four hours. I made dungeons every week, even if they were hasty, and I learned to prep quickly. This West Marches game ran for almost two years, with the highest-leveled PCs going all the way from 1 to 20.

At the same time, I started to get more into storygames. I got a copy of Apocalypse World and read it cover to cover multiple times, and started delving deeper. For another class, I and some other people released a messy, clunky system of our own—a multigenerational mythic Viking game—and that spring I ran my first Kickstarter, a lighter-weight almost-retroclone of Shadowrun, for the first ZineQuest.

That spring, my junior year, after some finagling, I ended up landing an independent study with two professors—in game design and creative writing—to run regular games of Apocalypse World for students writing game-based fiction. This was about 20 sessions total across the semester, usually one or two per week. I admit at this point I didn’t really understand anything the Bakers were talking about: I ran AW too adventurously, too close to D&D, too focused on problem-solving instead of letting players get into drama with each other. The class was a bit of mess.

Here, for various reasons, my West Marches group decided to start streaming our games on Twitch: my roommates and I built an incredibly jank set in our living room, bought a couple hundred dollars’ worth of podcast microphones and webcams to mount on beer bottles, and tried it out. We averaged about 4 viewers, at least a couple of which were our own laptops in the background.

From the spring of my junior year to the fall of my senior year, I bought, read, and ran a session or three of many PbtA systems and storygames—Blades in the Dark, Monsterhearts, For the Queen, Cartel, Scum & Villainy, Night Witches, Dread, Dogs in the Vineyard, Poison’d!, Bluebeard’s Bride, Urban Shadows, and others besides.

After a lot of tactical kicking and screaming, I also convinced my department to give me summer co-op credit for running another Kickstarter campaign and making an RPG instead of doing a regular internship. I ran many playtest sessions of the game that spring and summer, a PbtA hack about grungy sci fi space truckers, mostly oneshots. The first draft of that game was submitted as a final project for another game design course; at the same time, one of my oldest players submitted a draft of a West Marches guide she’d been writing based on our game, the one she played in and I ran as GM.

Home again that summer and writing my PbtA hack, a friend from my original Test Marches game began running his own West Marches game, which I played in. It was the first time I’d played more than a session or two as a player-character in years. I enjoyed it a lot—my characters tended to die often—but I also grated against how slow and mechanistic 5e could be. I played about 20 sessions that summer, churning through a half-dozen PCs or more.

I also went to Gen Con for the first time, in August, running sessions for Magpie Games.

The fall of my senior year, as these storygame oneshots and streamed West Marches sessions still ran, I scored the same deal as the previous semester: I’d run sessions, meet with my professors regularly, and do some writeups, all in exchange for independent study credit (this time in creative writing rather than game design). That fall, I was running Scum & Villainy; the students based their writing on Star Wars—fanfiction, more or less, set in our semi-canonical campaign. These sessions went far better than Apocalypse World, and included multiple combo” sessions in which different teams from different player groups would collide, including one final showdown that involved a dozen players, requiring” (lol) me to run it during class time. It was this fall, my senior year, that—between Scum, the West Marches, my own playtests, and other games—sometimes the number of sessions I’d run in a week would outnumber the days in that week. Most of these Scum and other PbtA sessions were heavily improvised—such is the style they advise.

This was also when I finally discovered the OSR, starting with Knave (not through the Questing Beast channel, oddly, but rather just by happening upon it on DriveThru), and branching out from there. We only played oneshots, but it kept gnawing at me. This was just after G+ had died, so I started trawling the blogs, following Twitter users, and trying to piece together what the OSR actually was.

I’d also started playing in a game run by one of my professors: four faculty, one as GM, and two students. I loved this campaign, despite its occasional issues, and got very into the characters and world.

At the end of the semester, I ran the biggest and greatest session of the West Marches campaign, a boss fight against a super-tarrasque. Ten players piled into my living room, and we managed to pick up about 15 Twitch viewers—our most ever. The session lasted some four and half hours, almost all of which was pure combat, careening towards catastrophe and evading it at the last second many times. This, tragically, turned out to be one of our very last sessions.

That spring, my senior year, I got the same creative writing independent study deal, this time running Blades in the Dark rather than Scum. My friend and I also managed to secure another independent study to work on our West Marches guide and run a Kickstarter for it, too. We also, naturally, each did ZineQuest again, and convinced many of our friends to run their own projects, too—a kind of seat-of-our-pants game jam with questionable funding.

Of course, that spring led to March 2020. My West Marches campaign died, the Blades independent study died, the professor game died, our sense of the future as seniors in college died.

But I did get into grad school, and my friend’s and my Kickstarter, for the 5e West Marches guide, did fund.

That summer, in the midst of the pandemic, I started running the first playtest campaigns for Seas of Sand—one with my roommates and the others online, three or four in total. These ranged usually between 3 and 7 sessions, iterating and expanding each time. It was in these campaigns that I truly got into the OSR, running Knave, GLOG hacks, and others. I played in an online half-PbP GLOG campaign for a few months before classes began.

That fall, 2020, as I was taking grad school classes online, I ran an open-table Blades campaign for the fellow grad students, which quickly fell apart. It’s difficult to run an open table where you as the GM don’t have a core of reliable players you already know at least a bit.

Instead, I started two longer-term Seas of Sand playtest campaigns as I kept working on the project through grad school: one with four of my undergrad friends, another with four of my grad school friends. These both ran weekly, online, until summer 2021.

Come summer, as one of my Seas campaigns wrapped up, I ran Band of Blades for some grad friends. We finished a whole campaign, about a dozen sessions, the last final battle played in our new apartment in New York (many of my new roommates being formerly-online players of the campaign). Band of Blades kind of works, but straddles an uncomfortable line between the improv of Scum or Blades and the more focused prep of an adventure. I changed a lot to make it work.

That fall, my online undergrad group swapped through a dozen hacks and new systems as I experimented with new ideas: storygames, PbtA stuff, ultraminimalist post-OSR shenanigans, weird systemic videogame-y ideas, aborted exploration projects, and others. I also played many newer storygames and itch projects for a class, some of which I’d already played and some I hadn’t—Lasers & Feelings, Dream Askew, Star-Crossed, Thousand Year Old Vampire, Fall of Magic, the Quiet Year, Ex Novo, You Will Be Liquid, Alone Among the Stars, Wanderhome, Beak Feather & Bone, and others. It was this fall, as I started reading game studies more deeply and exploring the limits of RPGs, that I found my favorite kinds of games, in the post-OSR” space. Most of my current fringe ideas started here, after playing many storygames and others.

In the winter, I started running a heavily-modified Blades in the Dark campaign, shifted into a much more OSR-ish street crawl” faction-y mindset, which ran for about 15-20 sessions in-person with three of my friends from grad school.

In the spring, as the end of grad school approached and my work ramped up, my online undergrad friends requested more familiar territory, something they didn’t need to learn all over again and could just play. (There’s an odd problem that comes from playing with game designers: as soon as someone makes a suggestion or critique, whole sessions can devolve into just doing game design instead of actually playing—fun, sometimes, but inertia-killing.) After discovering E5 and hacking it further, we went back to a now-almost-unrecognizable 5e, which we’d all played so many hours of back in the West Marches. This campaign, the Heresy campaign, still runs every week—we’ll hit our two-year anniversary in a couple months.

That summer, I tried to run an open table megadungeon campaign for my grad school friends, which faltered—I didn’t prep enough and was doing too much improv, I made some poor structural choices with regards to a castle and a dragon, and other issues. After a dozen-odd sessions, it died at the end of summer.

That fall, I started running games at a local-ish game store, mostly Mothership. I ran bits and pieces of Dead Planet, Pound of Flesh, Gradient Descent, Ypsilon-14, and others of my own making. Truth be told, this was among the first times I really ran an adventure entirely out of a book; I’d read plenty of adventures before, and stolen things out of them, but almost never was I running as-written from a book. (This deserves a longer post, but I think Mothership adventures have the somewhat-unique quality of being actually pretty good, and thus more pleasant to read than, say, a technical manual of 5e jargon.) I ran probably a dozen sessions of Mothership total.

Periodically throughout this period and to this day, about once a season, my roommates and I get stoned and play UVG. This game is messy, only half-remembered from the previous session, almost totally improvised, very off the wall, and extremely fun. In the fall of 2023, I started running what we called the Mean Game:” a vicious OSR hack using my own Lowlife, set in a fictionalized turn-of-the-century Appalachia, where players fought coal barons’ gun thugs and explored haunted mines. This ran for about a dozen sessions off and on, online, before ending.

This spring, 2024, I rebooted the megadungeon campaign from the summer before last, which is still running—Pandemonium.

There are other short-lived campaigns in here I’m forgetting, too: a drunken late-night college Gestalt 5e campaign, a PbtA summer playtest, a Lowlife test dungeon crawl, a gothic horror Victorian Mosh-hack, a 90s-trad style monster game, probably more I can’t remember.

I’ve been playing RPGs regularly since about 2016, and releasing my own work since 2018. I estimate I’ve spent about 2,500 hours playing RPGs, some 500-600 sessions, the overwhelming majority of which were as GM. I feel old.

May 10, 2024 running the game

Pandemonium Megadungeon Session Report #6

Hello again! You can read previous session reports here: #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.

2nd Day of the Month of the Imperium

Today, the party consists of:
The Eldest Orphan of Forsaken for Eternity by Birth, Fighter 4; mohawked noble with aristocrat’s boots, a miser’s flute, a necklace of fireballs, and a ghostly right leg to match Sōt’s left.
Sōt III, Butcher of Bugs, Roller of Rugs, Squandering Hugs, Fighter 4; a knight dressed in bone mail-and-plate, missing his left ear but blessed with a ghostly left leg, carrying a silver Pike of Warning, his nonmagical but heavily-notched longsword Righty, dust of disappearance, a cursed jester mask of Nidaros, and a camera from now-MIA comrade Erasmus Karl.
Snuffet the Twisted Pointer, Magic-User 3 (having leveled up since last session); a stoner transmuter with a feather of Hieracon, many new spells, and a ghostly left arm.
Old Iron Grip, Magic-User 2; an illusionist with an iron left hand, iron left peg leg, and no left ear.
Runpril the Crunty, Magic-User 2; a smiley translocator with a ghostly right arm, now clutching a pouchful of poison darts.
The Luggage, a chest fitted with magical wooden donkey legs (now wearing socks, to keep it quiet).

The party descended through the monument hole found at the previous session to a shadowy catacomb. Almost immediately, something snuffed their lights, and they had a spirit-telepathy (all but Old Iron Grip able to communicate telepathically with spirits after defeating Bolokhiv) in the dark. The creature was a servant of the Judge of Kings, and hated the light. Suddenly, after a flash from Sōt’s camera and a miscast invisibility, lights appeared and the creature was revealed as a shadowy ghostly skeleton wrapped in cloth: a brief fight ensued, and the thing scuttle-flew away into the dark. Chains were heard rattling in the distance.

After encountering walls of shadow and hearing scuttling things in the dark, the party retreated to the surface.

Using Runpril’s magic, the party teleported down to the far edge of the goblin encampment, skipping the stairs. They: ran into a merchant named Kitus, Quartermaster; descended the back stairs in the goblin camp to the dwarf territory; quarreled with dwarf traps; and got into a long slog of a battle—dwarves wear heavy armor and fight in defensive positions, using attrition to their advantage.

Retreating from the dwarves, the party: went back to the goblin camp; met a somewhat friendly multigoblin; got a voucher from a tour from Bokho, the Great Pedant, one of the goblin splinter faction leaders; tangled with some skeletons; and went down to the second level to find Tonus, Master Alchemist, a now-familiar potion merchant.

The party purchased a black bottle imp from Tonus, which answers one question: the party asked to learn the Celestine activation phrase for a teleportation circle nearby, which the imp told them, then vanished. The party committed this phrase to memory, practicing the choral Celestine phrase.

They sold some claimed dwarf heads to the local orcs, who paid a pittance, then retreated to the surface.

3rd Day of the Month of the Imperium

Completely turning over, the party today consists of:
Lord Tarkus Two-Fingers, Magic-User 3; an aspiring dark lord necromancer with a ghostly right hand (with three ghost-skeletal fingers), an amber comb, and a Lagash sapling.
Paparazzo Vetch the Orcbreaker, Fighter 3; a tourist-turned-chef with a belt of cat imprisonment and an oilskin bag holding an imprisoned air elemental.
Gunko, Magic-User 1; a goblin illusionist, a former pickpocket.
Ketchup, Magic-User 1; an orphaned translocator.
(Plus the Luggage, who accompanies most trips.)

Descending, Tarkus almost miscast death ward but managed to land it regardless; he then animated six skeletons to serve him. The party then: ran into Curus, Master Peddler, another merchant; triggered many dwarf traps; snuck into orc territory via secret passage; clambered over a paddock full of leather-eating worms; and found their way to orc territory proper.

After killing some orcs in a forge-tannery-hybrid, the party discovered a secret chamber behind a huge tanning barrel, holding coins, jewelry, ambergris, a prayer of the seal, and a +2 hauberk made from phynox (which prevents the wearer from being disarmored).

Moving further, they discovered a large ritual combat arena, where two orcs hacked each other to pieces, watched by a dozen more. Seizing the opportunity, the party ambushed the orcs, and a vicious battle ensued: the party slew most of the orcs, but all of Tarkus’s skeletal minions were slain, and at the last minute two orcs broke ranks and attacked Tarkus directly.

Tarkus collapsed, lungs punctured, dying. To buy time, the party fit Gunko’s air bladder into the hole while Vetch, a butcher, opened another hole between his ribs to drain the blood and fluids. So long as Gunko kept manually pumping Tarkus’s lungs with air bladder, he remained alive but unconscious. Hauling him back to Curus, they bought a vial of nightshade, which Curus explained would separate Tarkus’s spirit from his body. Pouring it down his throat, a translucent ghost-Tarkus emerged, and the body went into a coma. As a spirit, Tarkus only speaks the Ghosttongue, but all the party members who defeated Bolokhiv possess the ability to telepathically communicate with spirits, and thus can translate despite not understanding his spoken words.

Back on the surface, the party brought Tarkus’s body to the temple and paid a hefty fine, where the priest managed to save him—though his ghost remained separate.

4th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Sōt, Tarkus (still a ghost), and Ketchup ventured forth, now joined by:
Keviin, Fighter 1; a burglar and main tender-to of the Luggage.

Before that, though, Tarkus flew down the side of the cliff that the town of Forsaken sits on to examine the stone disc set into the cliff-face, which Vetch noticed a few days earlier. Sticking his ghostly head through the disc he (climactically!) found himself staring into darkness.

Descending to level 2, the party: ran into Tonus, Master Alchemist, again; went back to dwarf territory; triggered many traps via Tarkus holding a silver coin (as ghosts can touch and hold silver normally); and Ketchup miscast telekinesis, suddenly opening a teleportation portal to an unknown location beneath their feet. Sōt, unfortunately, fell into the portal: Ketchup and Keviin, unwilling to abandon a comrade, leapt in after him. Ghost-Tarkus, however, assumed that they were dead meat and stayed behind.

Tarkus, on his lonesome, decided to explore down the large pit near them. The party had seen this pit many times, and knew it was full of water, but never dared explore. Going down, he found an underground lake in a huge cavern. After scouting the exterior of the cavern—some two hundred feet across, with a few exits—Tarkus found a second, smaller hole in the cavern’s ceiling with sunlight at the top. Ascending upwards, he found himself emerging in the center of Forsaken, coming out of the town well. Before returning to town, though, Tarkus instead floated downwards, into the water of the lake, moving down further and further until there was no light. There, as he felt the water move through his incorporeal form, he called out into the water. He felt the waters churn, and something whispered back to him in Elvish, a strange slithering voice. Nervous, he flew back to the surface of the lake and back to Forsaken.

Meanwhile, Sōt, Ketchup, and Keviin emerged from the portal to find themselves in a familiar circular chamber: four doors, and a raised circle of polish stone in the center surrounded by seven concentric rings of writing. Poking around, they realized that Ketchup miscast teleport had taken them to the closest fixed teleportation circle—not far at all.

Backtracking to where they fell through the portal, the three failed to find Tarkus. Instead, they: contemplated opening a mummy sarcophagus; ran into some orcs (who hadn’t seen Tarkus); tried to talk to some skeletons (but nobody speaks the Corpsetongue); swung a lantern into the pit looking for Tarkus; and eventually headed out of the dungeon.

Back on the surface, Tarkus was immensely surprised to see his three comrades alive and well: he said he expected them to have gone to the Hells, or something even worse.

5th Day of the Month of the Imperium

Sōt, Ghost-Tarkus, Ketchup, and Keviin went down once again. They: smashed a skeleton; met Huntus, Master-at-Arms, and Keviin bought six lifestealing arrows made from porcelain (which lets the slayer learn the last thoughts of the victim); baited the mummy from its tomb so Tarkus could steal its most prized posession (“that which binds the universe together”)—a pot of glue.

Sōt tried dabbing the glue against his thumb and finger and immediately found them stuck together. Returning to the surface, he had the temple priest delicately saw his fingers apart, losing a millimeter of thumb-skin in the process.

As they were tired from the days’ adventuring, they opted for a different path: lowering Sōt down on a rope and using Ghost-Tarkus as a lookout, they hammered a series of pitons into the well-shaft and hung ropes between them, making a ladder. The last 40’ dangled freely, a rope-ladder that could be pulled up on their ascent.

Ladder installed, the party lowered down their folding boat and dropped it into the water, clambering aboard. Ketchup, excited by the idea mermaids,” convinced Tarkus to try to retrieve the Elvish-speakers from below. Tarkus went down again, and using a combination of ghostly hand-gestures and calling in the Ghosttongue, managed to lure the creature up to the surface of the lake.

Breaking the surface, it was a roughly humanoid creature, pale and clammy, with webbed hands and feet, long pointy ears, a slitted gill mouth, and smooth skull where the eyes should be—a pale elf, which the party had only heard rumor of but never seen. A second one, undetected by Tarkus, broke the surface as well, and the two swam in lazy circles around the ship.

Ketchup, excited, spoke with them, and they learned that the pale elves dwelt far below, at the bottom of the lake. They worshiped or followed someone known as the Deacon of the Dusk, and hated most of their neighbors—in particular a dragon called the Emerald Nexus. If the party were to slay the dragon, the pale elves might find themselves generously disposed towards them. At that point, someone said the possible name of the Deacon aloud and the pale elves grew furious—one nearly attacked, but they departed in peace.

Then, three bloated zombie-things swam up to the boat and tried to climb aboard. The party attacked them and were sprayed with filthy water. After, they returned to the surface.

6th Day of the Month of the Imperium

In the small hours of the morning, Old Iron Grip realized he had more cash than he thought and spent it all, leveling up to become Old Iron Grip the Dying.

He, Vetch, and the Eldest Orphan descended, joined by:
Donkers, Fighter 1; another brother of Chonkers and Bonkers, this one a disgraced champion long-jumper (he rolled an 18 for agility). Before going down, Donkers grabbed Bonkers’ backpack, still filled with a pack crab, now swollen to a nearly-spherical shape.

Knowing that Vetch’s scheduled appointment with the myconids was tomorrow, the party opted for something milder: they decided to test the teleportation circle. They headed down to level 2, spoke the Celestine phrase followed by the Goblinoid phrase (from one of the six other surrounding rings of text) to illuminate the polished disc with light. They stepped through and found themselves deep in goblin territory, a place they’d already been.

From there, they: cashed in their voucher for a tour with Bokho, the Great Pedant; slew a water elemental that laid in ambush; robbed a tomb too heavy for the goblins to open; met one(ish) friendly multigoblin; and accidentally miscast hypnotic orb onto the most spherical object around—the pack crab inside Donkers’ bag.

Tour completed, they talked with the goblins, learning that a nearby room held some monster that the goblins were trying to convert into a goblin (via psychosyringe through the ear), but kept killing them. The party made a deal: they get the monster to the point the goblins can syringe it, and they get all the loot in the room. The goblins agreed. After some investigating, the party realized the inside held a manticore; using the hypnotic crab and Vetch’s belt of cat imprisonment, the party threw the door open. While the manticore resisted the hypnosis, it did stay within the belt, and combined with an illusory barrier to hide their path, the party scouted the chamber while dodging manticore barbs—no treasure, only corpses. They emerged having suffered only one casualty: the hypnotic pack crab, which caught a barb as the Eldest Orphan held it aloft. Frustrated and feeling betrayed, they began arguing with the goblins—until some rival goblins showed up and the Great Pedant and its followers took off. The party took their leave, heading back to the surface.

7th Day of the Month of the Imperium

The party descended, not through the main stairs beneath the Inn but rather through the secret entrance beneath the general store, down to the mushroom territory. Speaking with a slimy sporous fountain, Vetch informed the myconid hive mind that he had arrived for his appointment. Two myconids arrived shortly afterwards to guide the party to the Council.

As they walked, they passed: another mossy fountain with a shrine in it; a room full of giant moths (which the myconids put to sleep); myconid mushroom-growth meditation circles; pits full of growing mycoslime (same as in the first fountain); a huge mushroom called a myconid titan; and eventually to another shrine, where the myconids stopped. As the party got deeper into the mushroom territory, a golden haze filled the air; Donkers inhaled too much of it and felt all his aches and pains fade away, totally blissful and numb.

The myconids began the ritual process of preparing Vetch’s brain to speak with the Council: painkiller and paralytic fungi for the surgery, trepanning the skull, psychedelic mushrooms, and an injection of slime beneath the skull to tap into the hive mind. Vetch felt his mind transcend, connecting slowly to an ever-expanding network of consciousness, a magnificent organization of cooperation and purpose. Seeing himself from many directions at once, he left the party (who sampled mushrooms and politely waited) and entered to commune with the council.

Inside were seven huge fungi, each different—an enormous cap, a sprawl of brain fungi, mycorrhizal fibers, and so on—with vines and tendrils interlinking with gold and treasures, forming one huge magical entity. This, the mind said, was the Council of Mehrgarh, the Magnificent Ministry. Vetch asked many questions, not so much speaking as simply communing in concepts and emotions, and received many answers: the Ministry had been growing for 900 years; they were once each something different than fungi; they had some allies (the Judge of Kings, the Castellan of the Depths); and many enemies (the Bloodbound Brigand, the Heart of Many Hearts, the Cannibal King); that the Magnificent Ministry truly was pacifist and would never harm anyone; and that to join them, which Vetch desired, he would need to expand and increase the power of his mind, and gain understanding of some subject or medium they lacked—they recommended animalia, flesh, non-fungal matter.

His transcendental high fading and his connection slowly ending, the myconids returned Vetch to his comrades, most of whom had now inhaled the golden spore haze to also numb their pain. Upon leaving, the myconids gifted them many other mushrooms: blue mushrooms to cause sleep, yellow mushrooms to cause cataplexy, and indigo mushrooms to induce heightened emotional awareness and empathy.

From there, the myconids guided the party back to the surface, and they returned to Forsaken.

Where will the party go next? How will Vetch expand and increase his mind? Will they ever find a big haul of treasure again?

Find out next time.

April 30, 2024 session report Pandemonium

Does the MDA Framework Apply to Tabletop RPGs?

Does the MDA Framework Apply to Tabletop RPGs?

No, it doesn’t. I’d argue it doesn’t even apply to videogames.

Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics is a self-professed formalist approach, a framework,” to games created by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek, three videogame developers; Zubek also teaches game design at Northwestern. Since its publication in 2004, MDA has been quite influential—4220 citations on Google Scholar as an easy statistic, at time of writing.

MDA, notably, has the same quirk that many game studies articles written by developers do: it’s very interested in practical problems. That is, MDA is extremely focused on addressing problems that appear in [video]game development rather than making more theoretical or philosophical claims about what games are or do. To me—granted, as someone who has never worked at a professional game development studio—it scans as a bit desperate, a bit cloying. It feels like the article appeals to theory in at attempt convince some producer breathing down the designers’ necks. Which is important! From the stories my friends in AAA tell, directors and producers often lose sight of what makes a game fun in pursuit of some grand vision.

While I can certainly appreciate game studies as a tool for fending off overbearing producers, I don’t think that makes MDA any more correct, nor do I think it justifies the acclaim the article has received over the years. If it can convince your producer to agree with you, godspeed, but I don’t think that means it must be right.

To begin with, MDA makes a pretty bold claim, one that’s baked in to its assumptions: that games are artifacts. That is, that games are a good, an object, something that can be created and consumed. The designer creates the game, and the player consumes it.

This is… wrong. It’s wrong on an academic level, and I think it’s also wrong if you just look at games we play as people.

There are basically two arguments in [academic] game studies about what a game is: that a game is an activity (held up by the likes of Abt (1970), Avedon & Sutton-Smith (1971), and Suits (1978)), something you do and actively engage in; or that a game is a system (from Crawford (1984), Costikyan (2002), and Tekinbas & Zimmerman (2004)), a set of rules and regulations that interact with each other. I happen to favor the former over the latter—a game doesn’t exist until it’s played—but I think there are strong arguments for both. Note that neither of these are an artifact or product: yes, you can charge people an entrance fee to play a game (paintball), and yes, you can sell a book with the rules written down (charades), but in neither case is the game actually contained in the thing being sold. I can play paintball for free if my friends bring their own guns; I can memorize the rules of charades and play them without the book.

This game-as-artifact argument also really starts to break down in the context of folk games: soccer is not an artifact. You use artifacts to play soccer (a ball, a net) but soccer itself is not actually any single object. I cannot put soccer”—whether as a played experience or as a system of rules—as a complete thing into a box.

What about videogames? You download a game off of Steam, surely that’s a game, right? Right? No, I don’t think so. Yes, you download a bunch of code, 3D models, audio files, and other stuff, but those aren’t the game. How can you tell? Because you can play multiple games with the same piece of software. This is exceptionally obvious with something like Minecraft, but consider a narrower example, like Dark Souls. I can play Dark Souls in a lot of different ways: I can just try to get to the next area, defeat the bosses, and see the credits; I can speedrun, to try to see those same credits as fast as possible; I can do an SL1 build, where I never level up and impose extra challenges on myself; I can do a low-level PvP gank build, where I don’t actually care about seeing the credits but instead try to murder a lot of helpless players and skyrocket my Darkwraith rankings. Each of these activities, each of these systems, uses Dark Souls-the-software, but each follows different rules—the intended” rules, the rules of a speedrun, the SL1 restriction, and so on. The game is the goal you set for yourself and the means by which you achieve it; Dark Souls is simply the software you use to do it.

You can do this with any game. I can play soccer, sure, but I also could use that ball and try to kick it as high as I can, and the winner is whoever kicks it the highest. I still need the soccer ball—much as a speedrunner still needs Dark Souls—but the game being played is fundamentally different. In the words of Stephanie Boluk & Patrick Lemieux’s excellent book Metagaming: There is no cheating in Super Mario Bros.” I can cheat at a speedrun and I can cheat at soccer, but I cannot cheat a soccer ball and I cannot cheat software. This is, I think, where a clear distinction between”mechanics” and rules” emerges (particularly when remembering that really we should be calling mechanics mechanisms): a mechanism is a physical property of an object, like a ball’s bounciness or a videogame’s health bar; a rule is restriction or other condition agreed to by players, like foul lines or going snipers-only. You can cheat at rules, but not mechanics; you play games with objects that possess mechanics, but it is the agreed-upon rules that define how we use those mechanics, and thus what the game itself is.

Okay, so, MDA thinks that games are artifacts, and I don’t. So what? What if we just pretend they didn’t say that, and move forward with the rest of the framework?

Next, they discuss the three components of games: rules, system, and fun;” followed by their design counterparts” of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. Here’s their diagram:

Diagram of game components, per MDADiagram of game components, per MDA

The article immediately elaborates on those three terms:

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.

Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.

Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.

As MDA describes it, designers create the mechanics of the game, which determine the possible dynamics of the game, which creates the aesthetic experience of the player. On some level, this makes sense: designer makes game, player plays game, that play informs how player feels. Nice. Tight. Simple.

Except that this doesn’t make any sense at all! A game is not the thing the designer makes, a game is the thing that the player decides to play.

Here’s an example to illustrate: imagine I boot up The Last of Us and then spend the next twelve hours jumping up and down in a corner. My friend does the same thing on the TV next to me, and we take studious notes to see who can jump more times in this twelve-hour marathon: whoever jumps the most times wins. Let’s call this game Jumpy Jumpy Joel.

Now think about playing The Last of Us the normal” way: the long journey from coast to coast, the fights and dangers along the way, the friends and foes met, the difficult decisions made, and the eventual goal of the player to reach the ending. Let’s call this Joel & Ellie’s Big Sad Adventure.

Both of these are games: they have a goal, they have constraints. Both of them use The Last of Us as an important game piece. The difference is that Joel & Ellie’s Big Sad Adventure is the game that Naughty Dog intended” to be played using The Last of Us, while Jumpy Jumpy Joel is a game that my friend and I made up together.

This is where the primary building block of MDA, mechanics, starts to break down. The article describes mechanics twice. The first is above—components of the game as data and algorithms (also like, oh my god, you can’t define a component of a game as component again?? huh??)—but the second a page later. Here’s what it says:

Mechanics are the various actions, behaviors and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context. Together with the game’s content (levels, assets and so on) the mechanics support overall gameplay dynamics.

So on the one hand, we have mechanics as the components of the game, the data and algorithms. To me, that sounds like software: it sounds like The Last of Us, or Dark Souls. But then, the article flips, and says mechanics are the actions, behaviors, and control mechanisms” available. To me, that sounds like rules, like system—the more conceptual set of interactions that exist as ideas rather than concrete objects, Joel & Ellie’s Big Sad Adventure or Jumpy Jumpy Joel. To use my earlier distinction, MDAs first definition of mechanics sounds like mechanisms, but the second definition sounds like rules.

The article’s odd double-definition becomes obvious in their examples: they describe the mechanics of shooters as weapons, ammunition, and spawn points” (which are mechanisms set by software), but the mechanics of card games as including shuffling, trick-taking and betting” (which are rules agreed to by players). These are two very different concepts being housed under one umbrella term.

This is a critical error. Mechanisms, the physical properties of an object (be that a beach ball, a chess piece, or Halo 3), are more or less ironclad. You can change them—pop the ball, mod the game—but until you do so, their properties are set. Rules aren’t. Rules are always murky, always mutable. As Stephen Sniderman writes, regardless of what game you’re playing, you cannot know all the rules.” There are a thousand subtle minor implied variations in any ruleset, and trying to nail down all of them is impossible. Players must agree to rules, while mechanisms exist whether you want them to or not. Conflating the rules of the game with the mechanisms of the object ignores essential differences between the two.

But it is very convenient. The article emphasizes iteration; the authors mention over and over again the value of playtesting your game to create its intended aesthetic outcome. If it’s true that the designer creates both mechanisms and rules, and that those now-united mechanics create dynamics which create aesthetics, then you only have three possibilities as a result of a given playtest session: the game working as intended (nice!), the game not working as intended (a problem to fix), or players intentionally playing it wrong (not your problem).

But in real life, there are myriad outcomes from a given play session: a player gets really excited about one part of the game and ignores everything else; two players decide to be rivals and spend the game trying to screw each other over instead of trying to win; all the players deciding to work together instead of competing; a player who gets bored and starts coming up with new games inside the existing one; a player who misinterprets some rule but in a way that’s actually much more exciting than the designer intended. Players constantly pursue subtly different goals while using a given mechanism-object, and assuming that the designers have any real control over that is folly.

(This is why, as a sidebar, my videogame-developer roommates emphasize gamefeel over almost all else—if the object is fun to play with and encourages players to make their own games, the developer’s intentions don’t matter and don’t need to. Make a fun toy, and players will have a great time more or less regardless of what they decide to do with it.)

From here, dynamics and aesthetics mostly fall apart or don’t matter. The article comes up with eight fairly-arbitrary aesthetics and discusses how various designer and player decisions might convey those. The designers’ decisions impact play” is, I think, such an obvious conclusion that it doesn’t bear much talking about (nor indeed, I might say, writing an article about. But again, if you need to fight your producer, go with god).

Okay, so. MDA makes a bunch of incorrect assumptions about what constitutes a game, and as such allots the designer far more control over the resulting play than they might have otherwise. What does this have to do with tabletop roleplaying games?

The short answer is that RPGs don’t actually have any mechanisms. There are rules, endless rules, but no ironclad physical properties. There’s no toy you need to play RPGs, no required object in the same way that soccer requires a ball or a Glitchless All Bosses run requires Dark Souls. You don’t actually need pencil and paper, or dice, or the rulebook—it’s entirely possible to play an RPG without any of those.

The physical artifacts that RPG designers do make, the rulebooks, are merely books. Those books contain some written-down version of an imagined ruleset, or a map of an imagined world, but they aren’t the games in their own right. I can memorize the rules of D&D and a map of the dungeon and play just fine without the book—or do neither, and play a different RPG, also just fine.

Okay, sure, but what if you take the assumptions of MDA as true (which I don’t) and hold that the rules of the game are also mechanics? Well, then there’s also the fact that most RPGs don’t have goals. Players play RPGs for lots of different reasons, and pursue endless different goals, even at the same table: slay the dragon; reach level 9; romance a hottie; tell the story of a tragic downfall; escape the dungeon; get to know the latest boblin; try to sequence-break the adventure; die in a heroic way; make one million gold pieces; act as your character would; finally learn astral projection; reach the city of dreams; whatever.

Each of these goals forms its own new game, and accordingly the constraints placed upon the player—be those constraints the number of hitpoints you have or the presence of the Imperial Wardens in High Falls—vary significantly in the degree to which they actually impede a player’s pursuit of a goal. We all might be using the rules written in the Player’s Handbook, but the player chasing the heart of the hottie prince is going to have a very different experience from the player trying to unlock fireball as quickly as possible.

(This is, of course, still ignoring Sniderman’s (correct) argument that no written ruleset can contain all of its rules.)

Okay, but what if you do give players a goal, and what if they really do all honestly genuinely try to pursue it? Unfortunately for MDA, you still run into the twin issues of indefinite state space and the GM. That is, RPGs’ state spaces are impossible to completely define: we can’t simulate an entire imaginary world, and thus exactly what is and isn’t allowed is quite flexible. I can pick up a flower in lots of games, but only in an RPG can I pick off a petal, rip that petal in half, feed one half to a dog and take the other to a lab, then examine the molecular structure of that flower petal. Basically none of those actions are in the rules,” but all are allowed because it’s possible within the imaginary world. Defining exactly where the state space of an RPG ends is basically impossible because of this flexibility; accordingly, designers lose a lot of control over what is and isn’t possible, what is and isn’t in the game.

In both of MDAs definitions of mechanics” and the eponymous dynamism of dynamics, there is an assumption of relative fixedness. The designer may not be able to control exactly what the player does, but they provide the playing field. In an RPG, this just isn’t true: an imaginary world is too big, too complicated, and too easily zoomed-in and -out of to be constrained by any one designer (assuming the designer even creates an imaginary world, which many don’t). Because a GM issues rulings, the game is played by an ever-changing ad-hoc ruleset, one determined perhaps partially by the designer but also by the imaginary world—a world which, again, cannot be determined in its entirety. Even if we take MDAs umbrella definition of rules and mechanisms together, those rules aren’t actually fixed. While you could probably make the argument that a specific table’s specific GMs specific ruling functions as a mechanic which informs dynamics and aesthetics, now we’re back to the designer’s decisions impact play”—a conclusion I don’t think we had jump through all of these hoops to reach.

To summarize, MDA mistakenly conflates the rules of the game being played with the mechanisms of the object used in that play. Because of this, it assumes that designers have more control over players’ behavior and play in general, which is false. Rather, players constantly determine their own games, both implicit and explicit, while using the same toy-object. In tabletop roleplaying games, this only becomes more true: RPGs do not have toy-objects or mechanisms, they lack goals and thus complete rulesets, and those rulesets are endlessly flexible due to the indefinite nature of the imaginary world. Thus, while MDA is perhaps occasionally applicable to videogames with multiple qualifiers and adjustments (though it usually isn’t), it is not applicable to tabletop RPGs, and we should look elsewhere to explain the aesthetics and ontology of the games we play.

Thank you. And thanks for sticking with me through this long-ass post.

April 19, 2024 game studies