Improvising Dungeons

A while ago, there was a reddit post seeking advice for improvising fantasy dungeons for a D&D or OSR-style game.

While I usually come in to each session with about an hour of prep, some of my favorite memories at the table are from RPG dungeons and adventures that I improvised with little-to-no prep time. It can be intensely rewarding to run improvised adventures, but self-doubt, faltering when unsure of what to do, and anxiety can lead to very unfun experiences at the table. After years of GMing, I have developed strategies for creating a simple, fun adventure when I don’t have time to prep like I usually do. Following these methods allow me to quickly come up with some ideas which I can riff off as we go through the adventure.

One of Dyson Logos’ amazing maps

Steps for running a dungeon on five minutes prep:

  1. Pull up blank dungeon map from Dyson Logos or another source. Print it if you want.
  2. Pick one or two interesting themes, such as the ones below:
    • drippy/slimy
    • fire/lava
    • insect hive
    • undead praying at altars to old gods
    • two rival factions
    • large marble statues everywhere
  3. Pick an important monster or type of monster that fits the theme. Give it a unique trait. This monster will play a central role in the dungeon.
    • Example: If we had the undead praying at altars theme, I would quickly find the stats of a moderately challenging undead. Then for its unique trait, I might decide that these undead carry large stone crosses on their backs, and use them as weapons.

  4. Pick a room on the map that looks important and place there the monster(s) that I chose in step 3.
  5. Usually, this is enough to start the game. At the table, describe the entrance to the dungeon based on the theme.
  6. As they start to explore the dungeon, present the players with some vague clues involving the theme, important monster, or anything else. Based on what the players interpret about the dungeon and how they react, improvise monsters and encounters leading to the important room chosen earlier.
  7. When in doubt, stop for a second, look at the map, and think back to the theme. Describe a single sensory input (feel, temperature, smell, etc) for the situation, then use vague foreshadowing of something nearby, which gives yourself time to figure out what is actually nearby.
  8. Then, keep going, filling rooms as you go and liberally steal ideas from the players – if they say “Oh, I think we should try kneeling with the wights to pray at this altar, maybe then they will let us through the locked door!”, then you as the GM should run with that idea and make it happen, even if it wasn’t something you had originally intended.
improvised_dungeon
After 30 minutes of play, the map might start looking like this.

Running a dungeon with half an hour of prep:

For a  30 minute prep dungeon, I do a similar process but I steal liberally from other sources.

  1. Pull relevant fantasy novels or RPG books off my shelves, flip through randomly and stop when you see something cool, jot it down on the map.
  2. Come up with lore as you go, leave lots of room for improvisation. Plan obstacles, not plots.
  3. Come up with one or two NPCs and what makes them unique, then place them on the map.
  4. Run the session loose, liberally deviate from what was planned, and feel free to rearrange things as you go.
  5. Keep the action moving, and make sure the characters always have something to interact with or a problem to overcome.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Everybody is here to have fun, try to have some yourself.

An Apple A Day – Map

An Apple A Day, my gross low-fantasy Shadow of the Demon Lord adventure is very close to being published on DrivethruRPG!

 

Click to expand the map to see it in its full glory.

 

Filth, swarms of biting insects, and strange dinner habits, Dribbleton is a place most would avoid. And then there’s that horrid smell. This town’s large rusty cesspool seems to be infested with biting critters called slickers which have a nasty tendency to eat all nearby plants and spread moldy feces around town. With crops being eaten and animals being chased away, food is hard to come by. The solution? Lovely insectoid creatures called expultrixes, which eat slickers and produce delicious apples, the only dependable food source in the area! As it happens, a wild expultrix has been spotted outside of Dribbleton and the villagers will pay heartily if someone catches it for them! Just don’t let it get too close to your face, a wild expultrix is a nasty bugger. And remember, an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

An Apple A Day details the small village of Dribbleton and the strange people who live in this foul-smelling town, and includes expultrix stats and a host of interesting NPCs who could easily become recurring characters in a campaign. It is a adventure for expert characters (level  3-6), but it is low-combat so it could probably be used for characters of lower level. It has gone through writing, editing and playtesting, and now is in its final stages of art and layout.

Expect a post when An Apple A Day goes live!

 

Creating a 3D Science Fiction Colony Map

To visualize the progress of my group’s science fiction colony that we have been building for 15+ sessions, I have been experimenting with creating a 3D map of our Hyperion colony.

We have been going through the excellent Siren’s Call published campaign for the card-based Shadows Over Sol RPG. The campaign is epic in scope, and follows the first-ever colonists who dared to venture outside of Earth’s solar system. It introduces a truly tremendous setting on the planet Siren, in the Alpha Centauri system, full of bizarre life forms and thrilling science fiction exploration. I wanted a way to visualize their fragile settlement on a dangerous planet. Download the 3D model here!

I used Blender, a free Open Source 3D modelling / animation software. It takes some getting used to, but it is very powerful.

The Siren’s Call campaign has a great colony building minigame, which allows the group to manage technology research, mining, nutrients and other aspects for the colony. As our campaign heads into its final chapter, we will see whether the colony manages to complete their research into orbital launches to put in place defenses against the incoming storm of solar radiation which threatens to wipe out human life on Siren.

I may take the floor plan from the 3D model and use it to create a top-down map showing the important locations within the engineered city of Hyperion.

Once we finish the Siren’s Call campaign, I will write up a breakdown of what changes I made to the published setting and adventures, and how I tailored the brilliantly-written campaign to fit our group style.

Urban map of Baltimore for Changeling: The Lost

My local RPG group just finished a campaign of Changeling: The Lost 2e. It was set in modern-day Baltimore, Maryland, and our campaign involved a lot of travel to and from the Hedge. The Hedge is a twisted magic realm that parallels ours in bizarre ways, and is tied closely to changelings and those that hunt them. For this campaign, our group was creating a variety of portals to this dangerous realm, and the GM asked me to make a map to keep track of all of the gateways to the Hedge that we were creating in Baltimore. So I did.

Baltimore City Map. The mask icon indicates a place associated with changelings, the door icon indicates a gateway to the Hedge. Other icons are meant to be interpreted. 
Map of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which contained some important locations to the campaign.

These maps were made using OpenStreetMap data with the free Maperitive program to create the maps, using my own custom Maperitive ruleset and scripts which you can find here.
Icons are from the excellent Game-icons.net and are released with an Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license.

Rite of Passage, the free adventure for Symbaroum is out!

Rite of Passage was the adventure written by myself and Mitchell Wallace that won the Symbaroum Adventure Contest. It has been given beautiful art and layout, and you can get it free in all its glory here!

The adventure is takes place in the dark fantasy world of Symbaroum; it follows a mostly unexplored side of the setting, the barbarian tribes in the dangerous Davokar forest. You get to explore the traditions and culture of the different tribes as the player characters go through the three trials of the barbarian coming-of-age-ceremony. (Watch one of the writers run Rite of Passage on Penny For A Tale!)

The adventure is pensive and meant to introduce players to the world of Symbaroum to start a campaign, and we are very proud of it. Enjoy!

Bogwalker – a creature for Shadow of the Demon Lord

Several months ago at a tiny RPG convention in Baltimore I met Laura Ketcham, a talented local artist. After talking with her at her booth, I purchased a print of her Pack of Horrors, a set of cards with unique, creepy system-agnostic monsters for tabletop RPGs; flipping through them fills my mind with ideas of using them in a game.

I may try using them as a form of in-game tarot cards. The GM would present the players with a eerie fortune teller or royal soothsayer. With some intricate-yet-meaningless showmanship (chanting, sorting the cards into seven piles and asking each player to focus their energy through the cards, etc), the soothsayer would place four face-down cards, asking two players to each select a card, which are discarded. The two remaining cards are flipped face-up, and an ominous warning is given about the nature of the creatures that they will soon encounter; the soothsayer thematically explains the info printed on the card, like “Witnesses claim sunlight kills them”.

Bogwalker

While you could easily substitute stats of similar creatures, sometimes its fun to make the stats. Above are the quick sketch and handwritten stats for the bogwalker, a mostly docile creature that can be mounted and ridden through the swamp.

You can get PDFs of Laura Ketcham’s Pack of Horrors here, I highly recommend them.

Kult – Legacy of Oakwood Heights maps

Kult: Divinity Lost is an intense modern horror RPG, with some of the darkest themes I have ever seen handled in a game. My introduction to the game was the disturbing quickplay scenario Oakwood Heights.

So of course I was excited when I heard that my good friends over at Penny For A Tale were releasing an unofficial sequel scenario, Legacy of Oakwood Heights (watch Penny For A Tale play a beta version of the scenario here). This scenario  exploring what happens as the corrupted child survivor from Oakwood Heights, William Bedford, grows into a man. So when Penny For A Tale approached me about making some maps for Legacy of Oakwood Heights, how could I say no?

Bedford_apartment
William Bedford’s apartment
Art Studio
Epsilon Art Studio

The Legacy of Oakwood Heights scenario is tentatively planed for free release sometime in January, so look for it then!

Dread RPG scenario – Why Does It Have Teeth (teaser)

Why_Does_It_Have_Teeth

If you haven’t heard of the award-winning survival horror RPG system Dread, check it out. It builds tension by using a jenga tower to determine who lives and who dies, and the characters are built by the players each answering a unique questionnaire.

Recently, I had an awful, vivid nightmare about being on a space shuttle, trapped with these small, awful teddy bears. Teddy bears with human teeth, who just wanted love.

So naturally, I made a horror RPG scenario about it.

“We were all excited for our simple voyage from the space station. But things fell apart when we found the first one of them. Dear god, why? Who gave this thing teeth?!”

If there is interest, I will develop this into a full Dread scenario and make it into a pretty PDF.

Player character questionnaires:

Researcher Artist Sickly Druggie
1. What was something that you are ashamed to have done during your time as a biology research assistant?
2. What achievement or skill do you have that enabled you to get a spot on CharnelCORP’s exclusive Jupiter Colony Research Internship?
3. Which family member do you regret not spending enough time with because of your work?
4. Does your work involve intense computer knowledge, or is it more focused on things that require rubber gloves?
5. Why does the phrase “it’s like pulling teeth” set you on edge?
6. What is your personal mantra?
7. What are you wearing for your internship?
8. What is your name?
1. What type of art do make for a living?
2. What art piece did you submit that won you the Jupiter Colony Living Art Scholarship?
3. Back on the space station, who are you in love with, and why do you dislike that they have kept their job?
4. What maintenance job do you do that requires you to don a space suit and traverse the hull of the space station?
5. What recurring nightmare do you have about teddy bears?
6. How would you describe your personality?
7. What color is a theme throughout your wardrobe?
8. What is your name?
1. Why are you slowly dying?
2. What technobabble science cure did the Jupiter Colony CareDream Medical Team promise would be able to save your life? (e.g. Telomere-erasing nanites, bio-genetic frequency emitter, etc)
3. Which worried family member came with you, on the CareDream Medical Team treatment shuttle, to make sure you take your medicine?
4. What career do you hope to go into, once you are no longer sick?
5. What gives you the strength to help others, when they are in need?
6. What is your personality like, and why do people always feel able to confide in you?
7. How would you describe your appearance?
8. What is your name?
1. What was your career before you were fired because of your addiction?
2. What are you addicted to?
3. Why did you agree to be a test subject for CharnelCORP’s Jupiter Colony Bio-adaptation Program?
4. When did your skill with electronics get you into trouble?
5. Despite your current situation, in what way do you want to make the world a better place?
6. What raunchy tattoo do you keep covered?
7. What name do you tell everyone, and what is your real name?

 

Two horrific spells for Call of Cthulhu

Spells in the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG are evocative, scary, and usually really, really nasty. Below are two pestilence-themed spells to use in your lovecraftian horror games which your players have never seen (and probably will never want to see again).

640px-maggot_debridement_therapy_on_a_diabetic_foot
Photo: “Maggot debridement therapy on a diabetic foot” by GRuban,  licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

These spells could be used by terrible things like the once-sorcerer husk of a Worm That Walks, or found sprawled in the notebook of a discredited entomologist who had bizarre theories of the true origin of arthropod species on Earth.

Dark magics of Pestilence:

Plague of Insects
Alternate names: The Eighth Calamity of Yahweh, Myriad From Above and Below
Cost: 30 magic points; 2d8 Sanity points
Casting time: 1 hour

This spell summons a swarm of flying insects (usually flies or locusts), either down from the skies or up through the earth. These insects crawl over every surface, eating all plant life, eating through leather and clothing, and crawling in the eyes and mouths of any living creatures unfortunate enough to be discovered by the swarm. The spell can only be completed as caster consumes the corpse of an animal that is infested with maggots and flies, while uttering the words to the profane ritual.
Living creatures take 1d3 damage per round spent unprotected from the swarm, which can spread as far as a 1 mile radius from the site of casting. 30 minutes after the spell is completed the ground is littered with twitching, dying, bloated insects as the swarm dies. Freezing weather instead causes the swarm to die 1d6 rounds after being summoned.
Protections from the swarm can include extreme heat, thick smoke, being submerged in deep water, or hiding in well-made buildings (provided that no windows are broken or doors are opened).

Hand of the Worm
Alternate names: Putrification From Within, The Fifth Bloated Digit
Cost: 10 magic points; 1d6 Sanity points
Casting time: 1 round

The caster bites the head of a large squirming maggot, uttering an ancient curse of putrefaction. The target rolls 1d6; 1-3 and the spell affects the target’s dominant hand, 4-6 it affects the non-dominant hand. The first round, the target permanently loses 1d10 CON as they feel something wriggling within their arm, squirming their way down through the arm to the hand. The second round, the target must make a 1/1d4 Sanity check as the bones of their fingers are swallowed by maggots, coming from within their arm. The third round, mouths open in each finger, which have each been replaced by a slimy, fat maggot within the bulging and stretched skin of the finger. The target cannot control the maggots, and the hand is permanently useless. The maggots are a part of the host’s body and any damage to them damages the host as if the hand was normal.

Creative Commons License
The text of these spells are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This means you can share them, use them in scenarios, port them to other games, even put them in commercial products, as long as you give proper attribution to Somniac Delusions.

Joneen The Untarnished: NPC for Shadow of the Demon Lord

SotDLRecently having finished a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, I have much content and several maps that I wish to polish and release online. Today, I released a one-page PDF that details a unique changeling clockwork-maker named Joneen the Untarnished. She refuses to hide her true changeling nature. Unfortunately, beastmen seek Joneen for a vile ritual. If she is kidnapped, she becomes the great and terrible Joneen the Tarnished and Defiled, a horrid fusion of demon and changeling. Enjoy the free PDF for Joneen the Untarnished! It includes the stats for the poor changeling’s great and terrible demonic form. Feel free to give feedback!