Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Random Dungeon

I’m returning to my Oracle System-driven roleplaying game design for Basic Fantasy Heroes as an occasional break from work on the miniature wargame rules for Panzer Kids. The rules went through several rounds of playtesting earlier this year, with solid input and good insights on fine-tuning the system and improving the presentation. But aside from running a few test encounters myself to see how combat worked out within the overall Oracle System, I’d not have a chance to run a small band of heroes through a scenario. So I turned to a solitaire alternative using a random dungeon system to generate an adventure in which I, as player, truly could not anticipate what the characters would face from one room to the next. Beyond offering a taste of the Basic Fantasy Heroes game system mechanics in an actual play setting (albeit solitaire), the experience helped me come to some conclusions about what I expect in random dungeon solo play.


I wanted to adhere to certain conditions in undertaking this foray into solitaire random dungeon adventuring, primarily to provide a realistic experience using the character and combat rules I’d developed in a fully unexpected setting. To this end I created three beginning characters using my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules: a priest, elf, and dwarf, each with their own specialties that would affect gameplay (primarily combat).

My main concern was generating a dungeon layout with interesting results for solo gameplay. I’m no expert on the various options available today for solitaire dungeon generation. Giving in to my nostalgia, I initially turned to the original material created on this subject, the Gygaxian system in “Appendix A. Random Dungeon Generation” of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide.

To vary my approach I also polled some folks on Google+. Several offered good suggestions on alternate, more recently developed random dungeon generation systems available. Thanks to John Fiore, host extraordinaire of the Solo Nexus blog, I picked up the No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 by John Yorio over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. (Though I’m also interested in eventually picking up the geomorph Dungeon Dice Clayton Rider suggested.) The discussion also covered TSR’s Cardmaster Adventure Design Deck, which I own but declined to use in this particular exercise.

In both cases I decided to create my own first-level dungeon monster encounter table based on the low-level creatures I’d devised for Basic Fantasy Heroes -- not all the creatures I’ve developed have corollaries in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide monster tables, and I didn’t want to outright translate that game directly to mine -- but they still ran the range from bandits and goblins to giant centipedes and slime. The presence of traps in both dungeon generation rules revealed to me that I’d not considered rules for traps in Basic Fantasy Heroes; so I quickly drafted some functional notes on how certain iconic traps worked within the Oracle System framework with an eye to developing them more fully later.

I intended to try two strategies in recording my solo dungeon-delving experience: creating an annotated map (somewhat of a necessity in these exercises) and writing an in-character chronicle describing events, encounters, and reactions (an idea John Fiore has featured over at Solo Nexus, though he recommends not writing in a player character’s voice). Experience with both random dungeon generating systems showed the map an obvious requirement and the primary focus of the game. In the course of rolling, mapping, and handling combat encounters, however, I regret the adventure diary chronicle fell by the wayside; I liked the character narrator, but it seemed a strain to catalog encounters in an engaging style, even in the most general sense (though I was quite happy with my introduction).

The Gygaxian Labyrinth

At first glance the byzantine tables in the Dungeon Masters Guide appendix seemed to lead one down the path to revealing a dungeon with all the complexities one expects: traps, monsters, treasure, secret doors. Slightly weighted tables favored some results over others, but not by much. The system seemed more attuned to taking into account every possibility within the dungeon layout and offering an unbiased result, giving almost every option the same chance of occurrence.

Amid all the twisting corridors and intersections my intrepid heroes came upon seven rooms, four empty ones and three containing monsters. For the solitaire play -- and in chronicling the adventure writing as one of the heroes -- empty rooms proved extremely boring. I found myself wishing I had some means of determining any descriptive features about the chambers just to liven things up and give some clue about their past use and the dungeon’s origins. Despite the tables for traps and treasure, the heroes didn’t encounter any. The random monsters they confronted had no theme to them other than “Level 1” and, typical for this kind of exercise, there seemed no rationale for them being there other than excuses I created for the adventure diary chronicle: obviously bandits were probably looting the dungeon like the heroes and the cave mantids made a nest in one of the chambers, but why kobolds were hiding behind an illusionary wall in one room is beyond me.

What also occurred to me as I tired of this exercise was the lack of any meaningful conclusion. My heroes simply reached a point where they’d had enough and back-tracked their way to the dungeon entrance. Assuming they returned to the nearest town to tend their wounds and cash in their treasure, they had little compelling reason to return to their subterranean explorations other than the promise of haphazard carnage and loot.

No-Frills Simplicity

The no-frills dungeon generator promised a far more simplified method than the Gygaxian model: roll 1d12 and consult the table. The 12 possible results included an even distribution for various corridor types and three kinds of rooms, those with monsters, traps, and the infamous ones with nothing at all. Asterisked notes included intuitive methods for determining corridor length, chamber size, and the number of doors in a room (though I modified these from 1d10 rolls to 1d6 rolls). .

My heroes began their delve and started exploring the catacombs with far more ease than navigating the numerous Gygaxian dungeon-generation tables. The results seemed more interesting, too; of four rooms they discovered, two held monsters and two traps…no empty rooms in this dungeon. That’s as far as they got because the presence of more traps wore down the party. Traps appear in locations (rooms or corridors) one time in six, with monsters appearing one time in twelve. The dungeon also remained void of any kind of thematic rationale aside from the fact that the bandits were probably looting the place, too, and the giant centipedes had nested in another chamber.

Between the two random dungeon generation systems, though, I liked the no-frills one over the more complex and time-consuming Gygaxian method. The no-frills system benefitted from both brevity and a better presentation, with each result illustrated by a mini-map geomorph depicting the dungeon feature. But it highlighted the need for separate tables for corridors and rooms as well as the variability of having even slightly weighted tables. Both systems -- one possibly the first in the adventure gaming hobby, the other a recent refinement -- left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Yes, they both certainly challenged me as a player to use character resources and specialties to overcome adversaries and survive traps, but they lacked even the most basic contextual story elements.

Themed & Skewed

Although I actually achieved my original mission of playtesting the rules and characters in the context of a solitaire random dungeon crawl, I can’t help but consider how to craft a more fulfilling solitaire play experience in a relatively random dungeon. I think adding both a basic theme and some skewed (or escalating) results might help add more intriguing narrative elements to elevate the experience beyond a completely random hack-and-slash delve. I’m envisioning a quick setting paragraph to put the dungeon entrance and its theme in context, followed by tables to generate corridors and chambers (favoring some results over others). I’d include a monster encounter table customized to the theme (vermin, goblins, magical creatures, etc.) incorporating an escalating mechanic to push future rolls up the spectrum toward a “boss” monster. It’s something I’ll think about as a possible solitaire random dungeon generation system when I next feel the need to explore some new game design territory.

My ultimate lesson learned concerns the nature of random dungeon generation as discovered by the necessity of gradually revealed solo play. Dungeon delves -- while the primal form of adventuring in the hobby -- remain a limited form, more so in the random dungeon generation style used for solitaire play. More involved campaign play, balancing wilderness, town, and dungeon encounters, offers more possibilities for a richer solitaire experience and hence more interesting narrative possibilities for chronicles recording adventures.

Next time I need a break and feel the need to test my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules in a more varied narrative setting, I’ll grab my sets of Rory’s Story Cubes (regular and Voyages) and send my characters through the paces of John Fiore’s The 9Qs Solo RPG Engine.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cutting Down to the Essentials

In adapting Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game for play with a three-and-a-half year-old preschooler I’ve learned some lessons about cutting down a game system to the essential rules, a task applicable to the kid-friendly tank skirmish game I’m developing.

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game

My preschooler son has reached a point where he’s voraciously absorbing everything Star Wars we allow (i.e., only original trilogy material), primarily inspired by the numerous Star Wars toys, games, and other images in my office. Over the past few months we’ve read him the pop-up book, listened to the soundtrack in the car ad nauseum, got out some old Playskool figures (and the Millennium Falcon) he plays with, and finally watched Star Wars: A New Hope together (the pre-special edition version).

We spent a day at Historicon this past July where he inevitably noticed and intently watched the last half of a Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game playing out, including such ships as Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and Darth Vader’s advanced TIE fighter. Between that and actually watching Star Wars he was hooked. Luckily I found a nicely discounted copy of the X-Wing Miniatures Game in the Historicon dealers hall; after adding a few more starfighters acquired in numerous quests to gaming stores near and far we were ready to play.

The game itself offers several levels of play, from the extremely basic quick-start rules to the main game and several more involved “additional rules.” The system includes some innovations on a style of miniature wargame “lite” popularized several years ago by the World War I aviation-themed Wings of War (an Italian game Fantasy Flight Games distributed in America). They’ve added several layers of complexity beyond the basic move-and-shoot system, including pilot actions (barrel rolls, focusing, evasion), pilot cards for each spacecraft to vary the pilot skill and actions, upgrade cards to enhance individual ships, and special eight-sided dice for attack and defense rolls.

Stripping this all down to the level of a three year-old seemed daunting at first, until I focused only on the quick-start rules, designed to get people playing right out of the box. These rules use the main ship stats, maneuver dial, movement templates, and dice in a very bare-bones game even young players can comprehend with a little adult gamer guidance. Gameplay focuses on the essential basics of movement and attack; no fancy actions, no dealing with pilot skill, no starship upgrades or special weapons. Granted, we play with lots of parental assistance using these extremely basic yet functional rules. From a parent’s perspective, it offers a chance to teach numbers using the movement and turn templates (“How far do you want your ship to move?”), counting dice to roll and their results, and direction (straight, left, or right; gradual turn or sharp turn). We also let the preschooler fly the Millennium Falcon, which, thanks to guns mounted on turrets, has a full 360-degree field of fire, so he doesn’t have to worry about lining up his target in a limited forward-facing fire arc. (It also gives him plenty of shields and hull strength so his ship has only rarely been eliminated during a game.)

We’ve played it several times, usually with Mommy flying Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fighter and Daddy fielding a pair of TIE fighters or the newly acquired TIE interceptors. With our help the preschooler has quickly mastered the basic game concepts (though his moves on the starfield don’t always make sense); so he’s recently asked for (and his parents desperately sought) some new additions to enhance his game experience. Although I thought he might appreciate the range rules -- allowing an extra attack die when firing on close targets or giving an extra defense die for those at long range -- my son saw the cardboard punch-out asteroid pieces used in some of the game’s missions and wanted to use those. Of course, they made the game harder for Daddy’s TIE fighters….

Panzer Kids Basic

My approach to a kid-friendly tank skirmish game takes a similar strategy as the X-Wing Miniatures Game’s incrementally more involved rules. I intend to release Panzer Kids in two stages, the free/pay-what-you-want PDF basic edition containing the barebones rules, several tank stat cards, rulers, and print-and-play top-down tank pieces (in lieu of miniatures kids can find or purchase from other sources). The for-pay Deluxe Edition would include all the basic rules plus tons of optional rules players can learn piecemeal and include in their game when they feel ready to add greater depth of play.

I’m in the process of drafting the core rules based on pages of notes and disparate paragraphs hastily written as inspiration came in the design process. As I write I’m finding a number of things to toss out of the basic edition. I knew I’d relegate many rules essential to complex miniature wargames to the more advanced deluxe edition -- hull down vehicle cover, static anti-tank guns, shots at close range, traversing difficult terrain, mine fields, and mission objectives -- but I’m still finding concepts I thought might work in the basic edition to move to the deluxe edition or even eliminate altogether. Here are a few I’d thought to include in the basic game that, in the course of developing a rules set for a younger audience, I ultimately decided to cut to stick more closely to the absolute essentials:

Variable Scale: I’d originally intended to include information (primarily speed and range, both measured in inches) for both 15mm and 6mm “micro-scale” tanks. I personally like wargaming with both, and have a small collection of tanks from the North African theater in both scales. But in considering what kids might have available to them, or what they might find in hobby, toy, and game stores, I decided to cut references to the 6mm scale. I’ll include some top-down pieces kids can print and play with in lieu of actual miniatures, but will relegate the 6mm information as an optional appendix in the deluxe version of the game.

Deployment Options: In determining how players set up games, I’d devised a few alternatives to the basic “put your tanks along your edge of the battlefield” strategy reflecting the terrain set-up and any slight disparity in the total unit point costs between Axis and Allied player forces. For instance, with cover terrain set up along the middle of the play area, the side with the slightly lower total point cost might deploy tanks up to 12 inches from their edge of the board. In writing these conditions out, however, I realized it might be too much for kids to comprehend amidst all the other nuances of miniature wargame rule. These options might go into a sidebar in the deluxe rules’ movement section, but they don’t belong in the basic game.

Unit Point Cost: The gamer in me insisted on rating each tank type with a “cost” to field it, a value reflecting its firepower, armor, and speed. Theoretically this helps each side build a force of relatively equal strength to make sure each has a fair chance of winning. But when I took a closer look comparing Axis and Allied tanks, I realized they had fairly close values. Rather than spend an entire section explaining the concept of unit point costs and balancing forces, I cut it and instead offered some suggestions for Axis and Allied tank face-offs (mostly from the North African theater). Most represent equivalent numbers of tanks (3 German Pkw IIIs against 3 British Crusader IIs), though the one exception proved the Pkw VI Tiger tank, which I paired against two M3 Stuart tanks.

Two miniature wargaming concepts remain essential to playing the game beyond simply moving and shooting in the open: line of sight and cover. Both might seem too complex to include in the basic edition, but through playtesting I realized they really form the core of tactical decisions for a small skirmish. Players need to maneuver their tanks around the available cover (mostly hills and oases in my desert games) to hide from enemy tanks and gain some small advantage from cover.

I also realize these rules remain bound to other constraints I’ve placed on myself, notably some foundation in the tanks’ historical performance (demonstrated in the tank stats themselves) and a desire to introduce young gamers to wargaming concepts one degree beyond simply moving and shooting. I have also, rather foolishly I might argue, taken on the challenge of trying to draft a set of miniature wargame rules intended for kids 10 and older to pick up on their own, learn, and play without adult supervision. Old Dominion GameWorksMein Panzer Junior offers a set of basic move-and-shoot tank rules with some slightly more complex stages; but it presumes involvement and supervision from a miniature wargames-informed adult. (Downloading these free rules requires registration at the ODGW website.)
We’ll see how my continued development and writing for the Panzer Kids rules challenges my ability to hone rules down to their bare minimum while still clearly and concisely explaining game concepts to a younger audience.

As always, I encourage construction feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.