Using Tanglegrams for Dungeon Crawling

EDIT: I honed in on that tree. I saw nothing but it and I heard nothing but the clacking of my keyboard as I typed up this post. Upon stepping back… Alas! I saw point crawls.

Dungeon crawling has been the standard game structure for many roleplaying games for a long time. During this time people have presented all manners of preparing them from a series of randomly generated encounter tables for every room or corridor to entire algorithms that generate the dungeons and its mundane contents. Some game masters run them with the notes written near each room, others have a separate sheet of paper and a key to match descriptions to rooms, and some game masters are mad and ad hoc the whole thing. I have tried each of these methods with varying degrees of success, but I was never entirely satisfied with how they played out. I recently learned of tanglegrams which are like mindmaps that emphasise the relationship between people and things – you can read more about them in my original post here – and I believe they would work very well for helping your dungeons feel more interesting.

Figure 1. A randomly generated dungeon from donjon.

I believe the greatest impact on my dissatisfaction was my misunderstanding of how a dungeon crawl runs and using a system that did not actually supply rules to facilitate them, so I defaulted to the absolute basics of the dungeon crawl structure outlined in the article Game Structures – Part 3: Dungeoncrawl by Justin Alexander. This structure works well, and a session run this way can prove to be enjoyable – after all, a narrative can still be spun, but it is lacking in defining how these rooms are connected in the dungeon. In more traditional games, rules are supplied for exploring a dungeon and it can often involve turns with random encounters or resource management that is influenced by corridor length. Corridors being the connectors of the rooms in a dungeon. Without those rules, the dungeon can fall flat and lose that sense of exploration unless a game master particularly accounts for the corridors. Tanglegrams can provide an easy way to prepare these corridors between rooms because the corridor between rooms, in a way, is how these rooms relate to each other.

How does this work?

Take the dungeon above that was generated using the donjon random dungeon generator. It features four rooms, three dead ends, an entryway, and stairs leading down. The first step is to convert this into a tanglegram that has each room and a line connecting them to represent the corridor – the relationship. You can see my interpretation of this below.

Figure 2. The first step in converting or creating a dungeon with a tanglegram.

Currently this tanglegram form of the dungeon is less interesting as it has less twists and turns, however this leads to a cleaner interface for the game master to work with. The advantage of this cleaner interface is now more detail can be added to those corridors as there is more space to work with. In Figure 2 I have included the dead ends as dotted lines and attempted to maintain the relative positions and size of the four rooms which are all connected with curved lines. The lines with arrows signify entrances and exits respective of the arrow direction. I suppose you could go into as much detail as necessary for this step but then you may as well map the dungeon in a more traditional way. The next step involves populating the dungeon. I am going to gloss over the actual rooms and begin to add in details for how they are connected, however when this is done the rooms should be considered as this allows the game master to foreshadow things from the rooms that are connected. You can see this below.

Figure 3. The next stage of the tanglegram dungeon with relationships mapped.

The tanglegram dungeon now looks a little more interesting with the included substance and more importantly: the relationships that connect the rooms and intersections. I suppose one could include more detail and even highlight encounters and the like in these relationships, but I elected to maintain the purity of the relationships between rooms. That first corridor connecting room two and three allows a game master to describe the feel of that connection and add a little bit of information for the players to consider – the splashing. This is further used in the connection between three and one and then one and four where the growing sound of voices becomes clearer. At a glance, it is easy to see where the party is heading and what hints you can provide them which should support them in their agency and decision-making. However, the greatest strength of mapping a dungeon in this manner is that flexibility to provides in what these connections can look like, for example I made the connection between one and four a shaft leading upwards instead of a corridor. Because this method does not care for geographical accuracy, the flexibility for connections increases. All a game master has to do when the party enters a room is check the connections it has and describe it as such alongside whatever else they had planned to occur in that room.

This method is not without limitations. Dead ends can still behave strangely with this approach as they are not necessarily rooms but still exist as an entity that is not just a connection. To get around this one might elect to treat them as such or use them as flavouring along the connection to break it up such as the raised platform in Figure 3. Lastly, this approach does not elicit the same feeling of exploration as the more traditional dungeon crawling, instead it provides flavour and more pseudo-choice for the players.

Overall, I think this is an approach that is worth exploring if you lack the rules for traditional dungeon crawling, you find that style of play not to your taste, or you want to adapt it to bolster the way you run corridors. Though this approach is limited with certain aspects of dungeons like dead ends and only working for theatre-of-the-mind games, it does provide an excellent strength in the form of flexible mapping in which a game master can include all sorts of strange and different types of corridors that connect rooms such as the ladder shaft above.

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Introducing Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game

This is an old post that introduced the original idea for GRIMOIRE. You can find the released version of GRIMOIRE at itch here.

As discussed, I have been developing a solo roleplaying game that has the player take the role of a wizard. By the end of the game, the player will have several randomly generated spells in the form of a grimoire and a brief journal detailing the life of the wizard that created it. It is my hope that this will be an enjoyable way for game masters to create new spells or entire grimoires for their campaigns. I have tentatively settled on the name: Grimoire.

Figure 1. Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and The Wretched by Chris Bissette: Two of my favourite solo RPGs.

During the development of Grimoire, I have been scouring the internet to find similar titles, adjacent subsystems, and more solo roleplaying games with the hopes to expand my palette. Today I found a gem, Sigils in the Dark by Kurt Potts, that does something similar to my fantasy spell generator I released a few days ago. There are several key differences, namely the manner in which the graphics representing the spell are created where mine has a penchant for more detail and variety. In spite of this, I have had a great deal of fun using Sigils and I recommend checking it out – though the journaling aspect of it is quite minimal.

This week I have also been exploring Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and The Wretched by Chris Bissette. Wretched was a quick dip in to explore some more solo RPGs, however I have found that its clarity of the rules to be helpful and it is making me consider whether or not I should reduce the thematic of the layout and design of Grimoire, as seen in the spell generator, in place of something more minimal that allows for greater reader comprehension. Vampire is whole other beast. It is a phenomenal game with a great deal of replay-ability and it is a huge inspiration for Grimoire. The system of multi-level journal prompts leads to interesting side plots throughout the course of your vampire’s life. In Grimoire I am now working on 166 different journal prompts. This is not as much as in Vampire but is a significant number that should allow for suitable replay-ability of this game.

The first draft of the rules for Grimoire is almost complete. Once I have created most of these journal prompts then I can begin playtesting and tinkering. As it stands, the game functions like other journalling RPGs with a management of resources such as Coinage, Wounds, and Corruption – what is magic without a healthy dose of twisting manifestations of magic? As cards are drawn, they provide journal prompts while allowing the player to generate spells but the game will also drive players to undertake a variety of quests to change how spell generation works and to support the management of the aforementioned resources.

I hope to begin playtesting next week which means that I will hopefully be able to release a public playtesting draft for people to have a tinker with. After that, I will likely release it onto itch.io.

DOWNLOAD GRIMOIRE

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One-Page RPG: Collaborative Taskforces

Collaborative Taskforces is such a tacky and cumbersome title but that is the exact reason it is so fitting for my first attempt at a GMless one-page RPG. My day job has been throwing around some buzzwords of late and in spite of my shown cynicism in this one-page RPG, I believe it is leading to something good. However, I still found that I needed to vent some of my frustrations with “office talk” so I made an untested one-page RPG that makes a mockery of it!

Figure 1. I think I had a nightmare like this

In this game players will be “luckily” chosen to participate in a new initiative at their corporate office job. It has them involved in working with people from other departments while tackling tough problems on top of their regular duties and to top it off, the employees that do not perform will be fired at the end of the day.

I am sure this kind of work may be suited to some people but I do not find any joy in it. I believe you will find this reflected in the primary resolution mechanic which has players on a downward spiral unless they can risk the whole project or ensure that they are seen when they do something positive. Is it bleak? Yes. Am I cynical? Sometimes.

I also thought this might be a good opportunity to practice using some graphics and laying out the page. I think it worked out okay though it was something slapped together. I had one issue with a particular image becoming jagged around the edges after export. I tried everything except changing the image but no amount of messing with DPI or rasterising settings seemed to fix it. I think it may have been caused by me inadvertently changing the size of the image when it was grouped with some other layer. Whoops.

Anyway, I hope you find joy in this whether that is snickering as you read the wonderful job title generator or if you play it with your pals and laugh about being fired at the end of the day. Let me know what you think!

This link will take you to itch.io where you can preview the game and download it for free: Collaborative Taskforces Download

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Fantasy Spell Generation

Spells that are esoteric, wizards that are deranged and corrupted by magic, and mysterious magical symbolism are all features of some of my most enjoyed fantasy in roleplaying games. For this reason, I have been working on a solo RPG that, by the end, will have the player in possession of a grimoire of spells and a brief history of the wizard that created them. I think this could have great results when porting the grimoires into other fantasy games, however I have yet to finish designing the game. In the meantime, I wanted to show off the spell creation process as it currently stands. WARNING: Some of the spell offerings here depict violent or aggressive acts.

Figure 1. A spell randomly generated using the process I developed for a solo RPG I am also working on.

The above image demonstrates the type of spells that can be created using my process. The spells are referred to as Opus Phenomena Vicissitude because I thought it sounded neat and mystical. Each Opus Phenomena Vicissitude includes a spell name to provide just enough information as to what it might do, a requirement of the spell that must be offered to cast the spell, and finally the glyph which is mostly just for show in the grimoire. Imagine handing a scroll or a whole tome of these to a player! I know I would be excited to delve into it.

To create spells like the one depicted in figure 1 you can use the process described in the download at the bottom of this post. It should be noted that I have taken aspects of the design out that related to the solo RPG for your convenience of generating spells without becoming bogged down in other details. For this, you will need a set of playing cards with both Jokers removed, some paper, a pencil, and a mind for the dark arts.

I know elements of this process can be a tad vague but that is by design to allow flexibility in the interpretation of spell names and glyph-making. Hopefully, I can find the sweet spot before releasing the solo RPG. In the name of the RPG community, I hope you find this helpful and I would be happy to receive some feedback as I do know that these things can be difficult to describe to someone else who has not been working on it and some of those tables are large which can make them difficult to read.

This link will take you to Dropbox so you can download the document: Opus Phenomena Vicissitude

Interested in reading more?

Using Tanglegrams for Planning RPG Sessions

As I facilitate more roleplaying games, I find myself leaning more towards sandbox experiences with a large cast of NPCs. I establish a starting scenario to introduce these characters over the first few sessions without much of an idea of what the narrative is going to be. This is not to say that I do not plan any story – I often like to have something happening at the forefront in a session but it is determined by player and NPC actions instead of pulled from a plan. To do this I maintain session notes to remind myself of who interacted with who and how it went but this becomes painful when I need to trawl through notes from multiple sessions. Here is where I believe a tanglegram could benefit my and your campaigns.

A tanglegram is like a mindmap except it focuses on the interconnections between people and things. It was originally proposed by Ian Hodder in his 2012 book, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, where he argues that humans live to sustain a material world. I believe this could be used to track the many NPCs, objects, factions, and PCs in a roleplaying game between sessions to aid with identifying story seeds and generating initial session situations.

Though untested, here is how I may approach this in future campaigns that I facilitate.

  1. Create a cast of characters (including PCs)
  2. Map the connections between the NPCs and PCs by using colour-coding or labelling to identifying the type of relationship and whether or not it is one-sided or not
  3. Add in various objects, locations, and factions of significance as independent entities
  4. Review the map and make necessary changes after each session and then use this in the planning process before the next session

Create a Cast of Characters

We all develop and create NPCs in a variety of manners and with varying degrees of depth. For the purposes of illustrating the use of Tanglegrams I am leaving each NPC at a single, brief sentence and only including a few.

  • Newt, an ancient witch preparing a blood ritual to revive her long dead sister and using Dr. Patella to gather bodies
  • Eye, Newt’s long dead sister who leaves the streets of Amberbrooke bloody
  • Residents of Amberbrooke who are working hard to establish a new life here
  • Meretah, a self-proclaimed detective who is often found nose-deep in a book or other people’s business
  • Chaypin Patella, a world-renowned doctor in the recent employ of Lord Amber
  • Rose, a local herbalist that tries to watch over Amberbrooke and its residents

Initial Mapping

To make use of these more easily then identifying the type of relationship between two entities is crucial but it is best to keep these brief. As you can see the relationships between each character is known and those who do not have knowledge of others is easily visible.

Figure 1. The initial map of the tanglegram demonstrating the relationships between various characters.

Adding in the Rest

In this step the locations, objects, and factions should be added in as separate entities with attached relationships. As you can see below, I colour-coded my blocks to distinguish between characters, objects, and locations. It may look something like this:

Figure 2. A tanglegram demonstrating the relationships between characters (yellow), locations (blue), and objects (purple).

Review and Planning

Over time these tanglegrams could become monstrously large but by displaying the relationship between all entities within a sandbox campaign it may be easier to identify story seeds or situations that players find themselves in. For example, the players may be out strolling at night and may see Chaypin Patella at the ruins or Meretah at the tavern. One evening the players may visit the doctor to find that Rose is banging angrily on his door and asking him to leave the healing to her. This could be left as a brief scene to introduce characters or it could blossom into something more.

An obvious limitation of this visualising method is that it represents a tangled web of relationships – I suppose that is the point. With the understanding that we do not require to understand or see every relationship at once, just those relevant, it becomes less of a problem. Some software could also reduce this problem by allowing a use to click on an entity and have the relationships to it highlighted or to select multiple and have the pathways between them highlighted. I do not know this exists, but it could support the use of tanglegrams well. In the end, this is nothing more than a tool to facilitate the generation of ideas and note-taking that I thought might be interesting to try out the next time I facilitate a game.

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Impressions of Hypertellurians

A system for playing science fantasy adventures in the future of old is the tag line for Hypertellurians. It is an RPG that conveys its sword and planet themes well through its use of flavourful character powers that, alongside the advancement system, encourage heroic play. However, the cohesion of the subsystems does not achieve a smooth-running engine for producing the types of stories it aims to help tell.

Hypertellurians (M)anvil Edition featured with custom dice from Ravensridge Emporium

Hypertellurians provides a method for ‘quick and dirty’ character generation that involves selecting:

  • An Archetype which is akin to a class and provides starting cosm powers that a player can call upon in the narrative like having acid blood or ignoring gravity to allow you to walk on walls.
  • A concept which is a basis for a character from pop. culture and it provides ability scores, affinity, a drive and weakness, and equipment with suggested advances.

The second method has the player determine all of the features of the concept manually instead. It is a direct and easy procedure of which the only interesting aspect to me is the drive and weakness. These work well to facilitate the conversation between a player and a GM because both know what two primary factors affect decision-making for the character. In my opinion, this supports a better narrative generation by both parties, and it will likely support the GM in the creation of locations, artefacts, and other such objects that drive advancement through ‘Wonder’.

Hypertellurians does not allow characters to advance through combat encounters, instead it has characters advance by discovering awe inspiring places, creatures, and vistas. This generates Wonder which is a party resource that can be used to activate Wondrous powers which range from bonuses in combat to flashback type memories to provide narrative advantages in the present. The more Wonder spent, the more the characters advance at the end of the session which include things like increasing ability scores or gaining new cosm powers. I quite like this mechanic of ‘double-dipping’ on experience points as it works like massive carrot for the players to pursue those awe-inspiring things by allowing them to use these powers and advance their characters.

To support the GMs through this Hypertellurians provides an adventure seed table, a sample adventure, magic items, NPCs and monsters, magic spells, and weapons. I find that this helps to elicit the themes and tone of the game, however it is lacking in one key area: locations and vistas. You know, the majority of what generates advances for players. Given that the system has lethal combat and encourages players to avoid combat it seems like a missed opportunity to have a subsystem for combat instead of including random tables or more sample awe-inspiring things.

Hypertellurians operates on the standard D20+Ability Score Modifier >= Target Number to resolve actions. It is nothing ground-breaking just like the round-based combat subsystem that has players taking turns to either do two actions or one action dependent on when the player would like to go in the initiative order. The change to initiative here at least adds an interesting choice for players and the system also provides a ‘cleave damage’ mechanic so that any leftover damage carries over to the next closest enemy which I think adds to the themes of heroic characters wading their way through mooks. Furthermore, the system has armour and shields operate differently to each other and spells and equipment have an exhaustive tag system that describe how they are mechanically different in combat too.

… A game about exploring the endless worlds of the Ultracosm.

Hypertellurians (M)anvil Edition, p.20

The more I read Hypertellurians the more I thought that this would be a great system for a science fantasy adventure filled with combat encounters. It is a fast subsystem with lots of character customisation and opportunity for shenanigans. This is not at all what the system describes itself as which is “… a game about exploring the endless worlds of the Ultracosm”. This is where I believe Hypertellurians falls short. It encourages players to explore and discover awe-inspiring things by providing advancements and access to powers for the characters but instead of providing tools for the GM to create these things it focuses heavily on a combat subsystem whilst discouraging players for engaging in it.

Hypertellurians appears to be a functional OSR-adjacent system, however the focus on combat feels like a missed opportunity to instead include different subsystems or tables to further the self-proclaimed goal of science fantasy adventure.

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Random Table: What’s in Their Pocket?

Figure 1: A random table

The use of random tables in my games are still predominantly focused on the before aspect of the game – the preparation. However, in my most recent campaign of Mutant: Year Zero I did return to utilising random tables during a session and I found that I very much liked the random aspects they can introduce while also allowing a modicum of control.

Though random tables are in the early stages of ruminating deep in the basting juices of my mind, they have provoked me to consider where different GM tools might lie on a spectrum of chaos and control. My preparations for a game session involve a couple of possible situations tied to each PC and the plots which is derived from the drives and goals of the NPCs – it is quite minimal, but it rests on the more control side of the spectrum. Then the players bring in their moxie to add a touch of chaos to drag my prep towards the centre and this is where I feel that random tables rest – I create them and the dice bring in that delightful chaos.

In the spirit of random tables and my endeavour to use them more here is a table to be used when you need to know what is inside a person’s pocket. I have tried to keep it thematically neutral but interesting so that it can fit in any setting while providing questions with each roll.

What’s in Their Pocket?

2D4Pocket Contents
2Tracked Orb: A small glass orb that rolls after the last person who touched it. When viewed by the wielder, it shows their reflection and then fades to black with a red ‘X’ that can be viewed from any angle.
3Rotting Finger: A shriveling lump of flesh with exposed bone depicts a decaying finger moist with infection. Near the base, where it has been severed, is half of a ring mark.
4Blue Stain: The pocket is empty but the sides feel powdery. The thief’s hand is now stained blue for all to see!
5Pocket Change: A small amount of currency either in a container such as a pouch or loose inside the pocket. It can be in pristine, polished condition (1/6); worn and used (4/6); mucky and smelly (1/6).
6Scratch Pad: A tiny notebook or pad for taking short notes with. In the most common language a series of three numbers are hastily scrawled on it, e.g. 32 1 15.
7Clockwork Device: A small device that begins to chatter when in the presence of heat. In the cold if the device is squeezed it prints out a sheet of paper with a series of dots and lines on it that translate to the noise around the device during its most recent chattering.
8Formal Invitation: A letter written on heavy card stock invites the beneficiary of this letter to a private soiree. The incredibly fine print towards the bottom reads “BYO sacrifice but food and drink is provided”. It’s signed “- The Dimaryp Opportunity”.

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Dungeon Crawl Classics Level 0 for The Black Hack

Figure 1 The Black Hack hardcover placed with artistic apathy on top of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Egyptian Lich cover

The first time I read about level 0 funnel dungeons in Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) I was smitten. After years of playing in games where the backstory of a character was either non-existent, a re-telling of yet more murdered parents, or something of the sort I was ecstatic to try out the process of the funnel – just for something different at the very least. However, I prefer running games with the Black Hack (TBH) so like many others I decided to hack the Black Hack by incorporating level 0 characters into it for the purposes of running funnel dungeons.

The basic idea of the level 0 funnel dungeon is each player controls multiple characters (around 3 to 4 each) that are considered level 0 (they have less hit points and no class). Each of these characters has some randomly generated occupations and equipment, then are thrust into a deadly dungeon for any reason from greed to bad luck. Only the strongest, luckiest, or most cunning will survive and reach level 1. The modified TBH character creation steps and D12 occupations table are presented below.

Character Creation for The Funnel Hack

Step 1. Follow the “Roll Dice for Their Attributes” (step A) step of the Black Hack character creation process

Step 2. Roll 1d12 on the occupation table below and note any weapon (considered usable even after the funnel despite your chosen class) or gear that accompanies it. This counts as the character’s first background so write a sentence or two that contextualises it

Step 3. Roll 1d4 for the character’s hit points

Step 4. Attempt to survive the funnel with the following rule adjustments:

  • If the character’s HP is reduced to 0 or less, they die without rolling for Out of the Action
  • All damage is either 1d4 with a weapon or 2/1 for improvised weapons/unarmed

Step 5. Your sole surviving or chosen character now follows the “Swap Two Attributes” (step B) step of the Black Hack character creation process. Remaining surviving characters go about their lives or perhaps they can be recruited as hirelings

Step 6. For your chosen character follow the “Choose a Class” (step C) step of the Black Hack character creation process except when you determine hit points for your level 1 character add the following hit points based on the chosen class to your current maximum hit points instead of rolling any dice:

  • Warrior: +6 HP
  • Thief: +4 HP
  • Cleric: +6 HP
  • Wizard: +1 HP

Step 7. Venture forth into the great unknown as a level 1 Black Hack character with one scarring memory that haunts your dreams

Occupation Table

The table below was derived from the D12 Inspiration table in The Black Hack for the purposes of this post. You can roll on this or any other occupation table – just remember that an occupation likely gets a weapon and some useful or interesting gear.

D12OccupationWeaponGear
1HunterWorn light bowArrows Ud6, whistle that emits a deep note when used
2Escaped PrisonerCrumbling ShivFraudulent papers, broken shackles
3DeserterRusty short swordCloth Armour AV1, wineskin filled with something black and sticky
4GamblerShiny DaggerFlask, letter of debt, papers of prepared “I owe you”
5Fleeing NobleDull KnifeSignet ring that draws the eye, 10 coins
6Indentured Wizard’s ServantInscribed StaffLocket with a picture of someone you don’t recognise on the inside, torches Ud4
7Forgotten SoldierSharpened Short SwordShield with a forgotten insignia
8SmugglerBloodied DaggerSack of contraband that has a strong smell, 4 coins
9Town DrunkBroken BottleBottle of booze, stolen holy symbol
10Professional Clinical Trial Participant10 coins, green potion (Single use. Heals 1d4 upon use and one of the following effects: 1 – you are compelled to move left for a minute; 2 – the sclera of your right eye permanently changes to a deep yellow instead of white; 3 – A fuzzy feeling causes you to be distracted; 4 – you are weakened for 1 moment)
11FarmerSharp PitchforkHen that responds to a name, 2 coins
12WoodcutterHand axeBundle of wood, chalk Ud6, iron spikes Ud6
Occupation table derived form the D12 Inspiration table for character backgrounds in The Black Hack

I hope someone finds this a useful tool for starting a campaign in The Black Hack or at least found it to be a somewhat joyful read. I intend to use this as a tool for running Tombs of the Serpent King as a funnel dungeon for my upcoming Black Hack campaign. Leave a comment (if you can?) with any suggestions or thoughts below.

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