Friday, May 20, 2016

Musings on Dunjon of Death

I've been busy busy busy.

I'm still collating my notes for the MEST 2.0 rules; lots of stuff for campaign games, and optional rules are being groomed for inclusion. To help inform me about how to present the campaign rules, I had been writing genre documents for various efforts. Sometimes its just settings information, and at other times its actually pondering the rules and the playability aspects.

Campaign Time
This is a key example of a problem with how the campaign rules need to work.  I've scoured many rules sets to figure out what is cool and what is playable.  I'm finding that many campaign rules for genres that are not World War II, which focus on small skirmish games within 5-12 heroes, all seem to be very fluid with how time is treated. 

To allow for character progression in the real world there needs to be ample time. Maybe to increase the proficiency of fighting ability (MEST "Fight X") may take 3 months for novice, but maybe 6 months for a trained individual, and then maybe even longer for a master; years? I remember being told that mastery of Tai Chi is about like 25 years. Wing-chun about 15 years.  I dunno; maybe the MMA stuff because it is more raw is something like 5 years.  Years.

I suppose simpler things like shooting (MEST "Shoot X") could take less time.  I remember USMC rifleman training got me from zero proficiency to per se "sharp-shooter" in a mere 3 months give or take a few weeks of marching drills and scrubbing toilets.  Maybe combat archery (as shown in this video by Lars Andersen) could take six months of dedicated training. Months.

Did you know that in most of the campaign rules I've seen there is no sense of time? It's just session followed by session. Maybe a few in-game days or in-game weeks could pass between the sessions. Or maybe just hours.  It is up to the players to decide. 

This is a problem for the Dunjon of Death genre.  The setting is a vast underground empire which the players will explore and raid using their heroes.  Presumably a campaign is a string of delves into the dungeon.  If the heroes end each mission at some resting point in that underground empire, the next mission begins where they've left off last.  Maybe it continues after an in-game rest period of 8 hours or 1 day or something.  Or maybe they exit the dungeon and revisit it in a few days. But this is thematically still in-game days instead of in-game weeks, in-game months, or in-game years.

So I'm thinking that character progression in Dunjon of Death needs to come from the overland travel period. You know; like between dungeon conquests when characters travel to the next infested kingdom to conquer yet-another portion of that vast underground empire from some other entry way.  If I do this, it lends to the amount of time that could pass ... probably months in some cases ... and allows the players to consider more keenly that the dungeon is quite huge.

Battlefield Size
This is another problem. Of the available "dungeon bash" or "dungeon crawl" games out there in whichever form; minis or boardgame; the dungeons are actually quite small. Just a few rooms per adventure.  There is no concept of a mega dungeon except via role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons and Dragons.  And most of that stuff is from the early days.

If a battlefield map for a given mission foray into a dungeon is with multiple doors, locks, traps, and rooms the game sort of starts bogging down for time.  The pace of the game changes. This is okay and is to be expected.  However, unlike an RPG which could take a 6-hour session to resolve one foray; a tabletop minis game session is meant to be resolved within 60 or 90 minutes.  That's the sweet-spot for tactical game-play.  After that the brain-burn starts causing fatigue.

A related issue is the size of the battlefield.  Characters in MEST cover about 8-inches (8 MUs) per game-turn.  One game-turn in MEST is somewhat flexible and measures from 5 to 30 seconds in length.  Crossing a 48-inch wide battlefield is going to take 6 game-turns.  If that battlefield has several doors, each one takes probably half a turn (one "action point"), or a full turn (two "action points") if it is locked.  And if there are corridors which fold into dead-ends or into trapped areas, about one game-turn for each of those could be wasted.  So, just to pass through a quiet area of the dungeon might take 6-12 game-turns.  Add in some combat, and it may take another 3-6 game-turns.

All of that just adds to length of real-world time to resolve a mission. You can imagine how this plays out; 30 minutes to set up a dungeon map for the battlefield, 30 minutes to traverse it with little interaction between the players until combat arrives. Then 30 minutes of terror to resolve combat.  It could be fun as a co-op thing. It could be fun as heroes versus "dungeon master".  I think it would be kind of difficult to make it fun across multiple sessions for heroes versus "dungeon denizens".

Magical Trinkets
This and spells are the big time sucks.  I mean; in a genre like "Pulp Heroics" or "Afghanistan Now" you just need to list out some common weapons, armor, maybe a couple of odds-and-ends like robots or vehicles, and you're basically done.  This is not the case for something like a dungeon crawl; players will expect "power-ups" and other sundries.  I mean; I myself want to be able to find that Vorpal Sword +5 versus Undead. It'd be nice.  Or maybe just some healing potion or Boots of Very Rapid (but not silly) Walking.

Furthermore, I'd want to have access to spell scrolls, magic wands, and other stuff.  All of a sudden a small genre document balloons from 48-pages into 216-pages. I think this is what happens when a designer decides to do the dungeon crawl the right way ... they inevitably come close to writing enough supporting material to create a role-playing game.  And like in real RPGs, most of that support material is rarely ever used. And like in real RPGs, even if the list of things to find were to be written, most players would want to add their own "home-brew" stuff. And so that'd be another section of crafting that I'd need to write. It's tricky to give just enough.

Any how, that's one of the channels of my musings. I've got more.


Here's the vision I had for Dunjon of Death which I started about a year or so ago.  I've since created three or four variations of this. You can see some of my reference assets in PDF here:

This is a game for two or more players played as a tactical miniatures battle upon a large play area ("battlefield") that is at least 36"x36" in size.  The terrain elements upon this battlefield are placed upon exploration of the dungeon.

One player becomes the Games Master (GM) and controls the exploration of a dungeon and the opposition forces against all of the other players. The remaining players are the Heroes and control one or more characters each to explore an unknown dungeon in order to loot its treasures.

Dunjon of Death is essentially a series of connected battles within the rooms that are discovered during exploration.  This series of battles forms a campaign that continues until all of the Heroes have given up, have lost all of their characters, or until they have left the dungeon itself.

The size of the dungeon is agreed to be Small, Medium, or Large in order to control game length.  This represents an area of exploration that ranges from 3x3, 4x4, or 5x5 tiles.

The structure of the dungeon is unknown to the GM and to the Heroes at the start of the game.  To assist the construction of the dungeon, the GM receives a Tile deck of cards each representing a configuration of corridors and rooms for which he has matching physical terrain assets.  As such, the GM will need to perform an inventory of his available assets.

The GM tracks the construction of the dungeon upon a grid map of 3x3, 4x4, or 5x5 tiles.  As soon as a Tile card is drawn, the GM notes its shape up the grid map and places the physical terrain board equivalent upon the battlefield rotating it as desired.  If there are not enough physical assets, or if the battlefield doesn't have enough space; all of the players should do their best to reposition and reuse previously deployed elements to ensure fidelity to the map.

Lighting throughout the dungeon is very poor and will have OR 1" unless Torches and Lanterns are brought into play which then increase to OR 8" or higher depending on the source.  Torches and Lanterns burn out.  

These players begin in an entry room at the center of the dungeon's grid map with a single stairwell exit to the outside world.  The entry room will have one or more Portals (doors, gates, passageways) that lead into the unknown interior of the dungeon.

Portals can be unlocked or locked, and perhaps guarded or trapped.  These are meant to slow-down the speed of the Heroes.  All Portals can be destroyed by attacks as well as blocked to prevent crossing.  These are tactical decisions allowed to the players.

When a Portal is opened or looked through, the next adjacent tile's contents are placed upon the battlefield and any contents are placed as well. If there are traps or opposing forces, they will be introduced and resolved using the MEST rules.

Treasure will be represented by a location within any room with a treasure chest, cache, or hoard terrain element.  All treasure is heavy and bulky.  Unless the Heroes brought pack animals or porters with them, most of the discovered treasure will not be something to be kept.  Treasure should contain wealth as well as artifacts which can be potions of healing, magic swords, cloaks of invisibility, boots of sprinting, belts of teleportation, etc.  

All of the artifacts should come with risks of usage such a poison, incidental illumination, exhaustion for use, lowering attributes like INT or REF, etc.  These make for interesting and thematic play and are assigned at random upon first usage.  Any scholars present will receive lore benefits to assess risks.

Traps will be represented by various physical assets.  Common traps are arrow, spike floors, mines, drop-hatches, boulder drops, etc.  Unless the Heroes are careful, traps will be triggered usually resulting in death, poisoning, Wounds, or at least a Morale Test.  Traps can be assigned to Treasure, Portals, and specific locations upon the floor of a room or corridor.

Due to the nature of how MEST is currently written, traps unless they cause death (elimination from play) anything else is a pure narrative element because the Revive trait removes Wounds and the Rally trait removes Fear.  And with each Turn becoming 1-6 minutes each we can presume that any wounds or fear tokens go away nearly instantaneously.  

That is because we have no rules for permanent simulation for long-term effects of wounds like becoming blinded, losing an arm, sucking chest wounds, or diarrhea.  We should introduce those otherwise we make all traps auto-elimination.

Movement within the dungeon areas follows the MEST rules.  However, it is presumed that the floors of dungeons are rife with traps and so there needs to be a modification.  Movement outside of battle is presumed to be slower and so each Turn is 1-6 minutes long instead of 5-30 seconds.  This also allows Torches and Lanterns to burn out quickly providing for "burn out" whenever Initiative Tests (single-sided) show dice with 1s in the same way we handle Out-of-Ammo tests; re-roll 1's as 4+ or lose a Torch or Lantern each failure.

Opposing forces available are dependent upon what the players together have available for models.  These are to be assigned to a Monster deck to be used by the GM.  When a tile is rendered to the battlefield, all adjacent tiles are noted on the grid map as well as any Monsters drawn and identified by the Monster deck.  This allows the GM to plan encounters with the opposing forces in a more natural, narrative manner.

  1. Build characters for exploration.  Divide between all Hero players 250-375-500 BP and up to 4-6-8 characters depending on the agreed game size of Small-Medium-Large.  We will need to introduce new Commons such as porters, thieves, guides, scholars, and fantasy archetypes.  This may be a good place to introduce the templating rules as well.
  2. Enter the dungeon from the entry room.  Explore Portals into adjacent Rooms and Connectors (corridors, turns, and tunnels).
  3. Look for treasure.  Assign good things to characters, other things to porters.
  4. Heroes must physically exit the dungeon voluntarily in order to keep what was found.
  5. Characters that are Eliminated from play because of Fear should instead be given to the GM for control.  This is a good time to introduce the Terror rules as well.  Essentially those that run away could instead be hiding in the dungeon.

  1. Maintain the grid map.
  2. Build the battlefield.
  3. Play all of the opposing forces.  
  4. Play the 'system' for traps and movement of opposing forces upon the grid map.
  5. Kill all Heroes' characters.

  • Introduce Magic Users and a large spell book.
  • Bring in a lot of the Advanced Traits.
  • Bring in a lot of the equipment lists including poison, torches, prayer books, etc.
  • Introduce the templating system for archetypes.

-- Presume this is a dynamic GM vs. player game.  Semi co-op.
   It is GM vs. Heroes.  There are various decks of cards (or tables);
   Room, Decoration, Monster, Boss, and Treasure.

-- Heroes start at the middle of the grid (attached) with a stairs up to exit.

-- The size of each Dungeon is agreed at the start to be Small, Medium, or
   Large; this allows 3+, 6+, or 9+ encounters to be drawn which is somewhat
   unpredictable.  The position of the rooms, the alert level, the security
   rating, and the dungeon level all factor into how much difficulty is

-- Pick a direction.  Note the security rating.  The further you are from an
   exit the higher the rating.  Security rating sets the encounter difficulty
   and the treasure reward.

-- Draw a Room card.  This card will be a set of possible room and corridor
   tile shapes.  The Heroes are expected to build a deck using just those cards
   for which they actually have 3D terrain.  Each tile card will note obvious
   exits and doors. Any traps will be noted as well.

-- Check the security rating for an encounter.  Draw from the Monster deck.
   Note the Lair type (if any) drawn.  Resolve combat.  If Heroes flee, and the
   encounter is intelligent, it will pursue the Heroes. In all cases, raise the
   Alert level (begins at 0).  The alert level increases the number of
   intelligent monsters in the encounter that will appear, as well as bring
   out the boss.

-- Whenever the Alert level is high, and sometimes depending on the Security
   rating and also if the number of rooms has been explored is maximized; the
   Boss deck is drawn in addition to any Monster cards drawn. The Boss deck
   contains custom characters armed with magic weapons or extra traits.

-- All Monster, Boss, and Treasure cards will have scaling factors noted so
   that it will balance out the Heroes' party composition.  It will note range
   fighters if the party has range fighters.  For example; if Heroes has 100 BP
   (5 models) then the encounters will adjust to match 100 BP (5 models +/-).

-- All empty and revisited tiles allow for wandering monsters.  These will be
   few in number but are resolved using "cinematic" play.  Heroes get a subset
   of their models to fight against the wandering monster.  Combat is extended
   during combat resolution; ties award nothing.  If the monster survives it
   will escape and increase the Alert rating.

-- If there is a possibility of Treasure, it is checked against the security
   rating and noted on the map.  Same with traps and other things such that the
   section can be revisited.

-- If there is a stairwell down, it will lead to a second or third dungeon
   level.  This is for campaign play.  More monsters, treasure, danger, etc.

-- Heroes can check walls for secret doors.  These appear randomly, but may
   also be designated on the Room card.  The GM needs to note this.

-- Heroes can decide to take a break. GM is allowed to perform yet another
   wandering monster check.

-- After a dungeon level has been cleared, players can return to the Town
   (above ground) for spending Treasure. If they are not near the start stairs
   going up they must move through the map and risk further wandering monsters.

-- In Town, there is basically just a pick list of things that can be done.
   We could follow Mage-knight or Runebound and have events that become anh
   adventure with its own maps and cities.