Friday, September 20, 2019

Walking Through Your RPG Map Drawings

TLDR: how I made a quickly-doodled map more interesting using a visual walk-through technique.

I doodled this map in my journal about a month ago. I had to plan for a game on the flight home from a week of working in another state. Long story short, I didn't end up needing this prep that night, but I liked where the idea was going and decided I might develop it as a short module in zine format.

As per my usual habit, I started working on the zine by setting up the format and styles. That seems backward, I know, but I like starting there for short zines because it allows me to size the content to the pages and work toward that ideal of control panel layout.  

Next I began developing areas, personalities, encounters, etc. I also started work on a better map by taking the photo above and importing it into Procreate, where I could trace over it and improve on it. I often switch things up like that, moving between analog and digital, and writing and art. It helps me not get bored and keep up momentum. Basically, when I exhaust myself in one area, I switch to another one that interests me. 

Anyway, the first time I redrew the map it looked like this:

It got a bit off-square due to an accidental stretch during image manipulation, which was the beginning of the impetus to draw it yet again. But in looking at it, I realized it had a much bigger problem than the fact that it was skewed. It was way too linear. 

I specifically forced my eyes to trace possible routes through the dungeon and found myself reversing a lot. No good. So next I kept the same room ideas, but sketched them out as a point-to-point set up. (Top half of image below.) Connecting some of the rooms that weren't connected before gave me the idea of developing it more vertically.

I already had in mind a long climb up to the observatory (top left) and a slow slope down to the river (top right to bottom right). But this time I decided to elevate the entire wizard's suite (bottom right cluster of rooms) to the level of the observatory and give him drop-down points into the other levels. (Why would a wizard use stairs when he can levitate!?) This elevation also makes it harder for characters to access his rooms. 

The map ended up like this. (It's rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the drawing above). More compact, more circuitous, more leveled, and generally more interesting.

The grungy dark layer is the lower level, mostly caverns. Players probably enter through the grandiose stairs down (middle of right side), and that whole grayish area is the main level. The unshaded area is the wizard's level and the circles are his drop-in points. They are just holes, but concealed below by minor illusions to look like the rest of the ceiling. 

The point of all this is that the map got WAY better when I decided to do a mental walk-through exercise: using my eyes to trace the routes in, through, and out. 

I'll let you imagine most of what is going on here as it will eventually appear in a zine, I hope. In the meantime, this visual walk-through technique can prove handy whether you are drawing your own maps or learning someone else's map, in preparation for running characters through it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Dice Minimalism

TLDR: You don't need any more dice. Love the ones you're with!

I have a lot to say on the topic of minimalism in RPGs and why I think it is an optimal zen-state for gaming. But I'll restrict myself to a quick reference and a little diatribe on dice today.

Point of Inspiration

The first is this cool little video from a DM showing off her minimalistic kit. She's zeroed in on the stuff that matters to her and her play style, and that's incredibly cool. It's an interesting watch.

My Minimalist Dungeon Master Kit

The Ups and Downs of Buying (More) Dice

The woman in the video above, Kelsey Dionne, gets it exactly right. Three sets of polyhedrals is all you need. Of course it depends on the game you play the most, but let me just say...

You don't need any more dice. 

You know it and I know it. You buy more dice because they are attractive and, most of the time, relatively cheap. They are a great impulse buy. You tell yourself that you want to match the dice characteristics to the game or to the character you are playing, and maybe you actually follow through on that. You tell yourself you are buying extras for players who may not bring their own. You tell yourself lots of things ... but let's not fool ourselves. After you buy about three sets of polyhedrals, more dice is gratuitous and all that stuff you tell yourself is consumer rationalization.

Is that bad? Well. It's wasteful. There are probably better places to spend your money. Let me ask you this, do you spend a lot of time with your dice – picking out just the right set, sorting them, "punishing" them, etc? If so, then I think you are in a zone where more dice really do matter to you. (There's still a sane upper limit, mind you!) If you have dozens of sets sitting around in drawers, have ever accidentally bought the same set twice, or occasionally think about "paring down" the collection, then you are probably just spending to spend. 

Some Things to Think About

Well-made dice get better with age. You memorize their characteristics and can find them/sort them out quickly. Some even take on a kind of patina (but mostly these are older plastics). Your dice gain that indefinable psychological quality of "stuff" where your stuff is worth more than everyone else's stuff, for no better reason than because they are yours. Ever have a favorite old pair of sneakers? Or a car that, even though it starts acting up, you can't bear to trade in for another? If you don't feel that way about your dice it may be because you change them out too often. Of course cheap dice that don't feel good in the hand or roll non-randomly .... those are shit and you should get rid of them. Buy quality dice to begin with and then hold onto them! The exception? Dice given by friends or kept since the early days are awesome, even if they are quirky or poorly made.

The best dice are easy to read, durable, feel good in the hand, and inexpensive. Speaking of quality... There is a kind of sweet spot in the current dice market. Dice that come in bulk sets on Amazon and cost $4 or less per set are usually terrible – inconsistent in size, poor rollers, poorly inked. On the other end of the spectrum are dice that cost more than $20, collector sets made of rare materials or with funky symbols or unique to a particular brand of game. A good set of polys should be around $5 to $15 (as of the date this is written, of course). My current personal favorites are the Chessex basic opaque dice. But I'm "boring." 

Side note. In 1975 TSR announced in The Strategic Review #2 that the price of dice were going up by 35% to $2.50 a set! In 2019 dollars that's just a bit over $12.  

If your game needs special dice or tons of dice, you've been "had," IMO. Games that force you to buy all kinds of dice, especially dice with special symbols on them, are operating in that cycle of artificiality that drives consumerism. This is how financial leaders in most industries operate; they lock you into a closed system. If all of your dice (miniatures, maps, etc.) are keyed to a particular game, then you are probably also locked into buying from just a few suppliers, maybe only one. Which in turn allows those suppliers to set market price for their goods. Avoid these games. The "hit" from them will be short-lived and in all likelihood one day you'll look back and realize that all that money you spent has no lasting value. 

Minimalist Dice Kits and Selection Techniques

For the typical RPG gamer, you need one set of polyhedrals with some extras in specific sizes. It's better if you can easily differentiate between them, so that you can quickly find your d20's, for instance, without accidentally grabbing a d12 or two first. Kelsey (above) had three sets of polyhedrals in three clearly distinguishable but complementary colors. Good choice. My personal carry-around kit right now is:

2d20 Color A 
3d6 Color B
6d6 (minis) also Color B
1d10 & 1d% Color C
2d12s, 2d8s, 3d4s Color D 

If you don't care about color differentiation, I highly recommend the expanded sets from Roll 4 Initiative. They contain 15 dice (3d4, 4d6, 2d8, d10, d%, d12, 3d20) tailored to D&D play. Not sure why they put in a third d20 over a second d12, but whatever. These guys make great dice that are slightly larger (25%) than typical polys. They are attractive, easy to read, and don't feel at all bulky in the hand or the bag. Be warned though, they may not fit right in your custom dice trays/towers.

My own current rule for picking out dice is that they should have either a common ink color or a common plastic color (within a range). This is my kind of "Garanimals" approach. (If you don't know about those, they are clothes for toddlers with animals on the tags. Like animals "match" – or at least they used to be that way. Helpful for kids who are learning to match clothes or who are color-blind.) 

Here is a great set a friend of mine, Guillaume Jentey, posted the other day. He keeps only purple dice. Notice how they are all different and yet they look great together? Also, in choosing "only purple" he has effectively limited his consumerism!


I hope the take away here is that you should be more aware of your dice buying practices. Avoid rationalization. "Love the ones you're with." (Do-do, do do, do do, do-do...) Make some rules for your purchases that give your personal collection a coherent look and help you curb your spending.

Until next time, travel light!

Friday, September 13, 2019

The 10' Square is Better – for Mapping

TLDR: [Read the title.]

The new norm for RPG maps is the 5' square. This is reasonable in terms of fighting, in fact this little meme is going around the net right now, illustrating a person in a 5' square, and I approve.

I also understand why most battle mats are printed as 1" squares = 5'. One human-sized miniature per square, obviously. I am going to make the argument, however, that when you are drawing maps, a 1" = 10' ratio is more optimal. My reasons are simple:

1) You can fit a lot more map onto a single sheet of graph paper. Which means a person looking at the map can get a bigger scope in one take as well.

2) A four person party can fight within that square in two ranks of two. So if you are using the map in play with tokens or abstract minis, you can just track the party's location with one pawn.

3) If, for use at the table, you blow up the map to 2" squares that represent 10' each, it's super easy for people to draw the extra lines in with their imagination - e.g. position their characters in a corner/quadrant of each space.

That's all I wanted to say. 10' squares. I love 'em. When I'm drawing in my 5x8" dotted notebook with 3/8" between dots, it allows me to draw a whole "level" of dungeon. It also somehow frees me up to not draw all the "furniture," as that would be impractical. I only note the big stuff, if anything: fountains, tables, etc.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Lords of Mars Debrief

TLDR: the post in which I talk about making Lords of Mars, a hack of Tunnel Goons.

Green martian on his thoat. Extract from an art by James Allen St. John from Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, McClurg, 1920

It has been a few days since I released Lords of Mars, my pastiche of John Carter of Mars novels filtered through the lens of Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons, with a sidecar of simple wargame instructions. You can get it at 


The following were my design goals.

  • Capture the flavor of Barsoom without becoming entangled in any of the particulars of the story (characters, cities, etc.)
  • Produce a short, landscape, quarter page zine – the same format as Nate's Caverns of Urk
  • Reintroduce the "old school" influence of wargames by including light rules for quick aerial and land battles on a large scale.
  • Make it cool...

Make it cool?

Yes. Seriously. When I make stuff I want the language and the look to be something that gets people excited. I sometimes wonder how often (or if I ever) succeed at that in the way I intend, but I try.

I'm a form follows function kind of guy, not the other way around. To me, that means I need to make the functions beautiful so that they can be formed into something beautiful. It's mostly about how you divide up material into consumable, useful bites and condense the language to get the most impact per word while remaining readable. If your game is all big blocks of text, your form will reflect that. If you have a strong outline and deliver punchy setting bullet points alongside well-articulated tables and focused instructions, the form will reflect that too! That's what I strive for.

I mostly succeeded with LoM, but I over-reached on the wargame section. Trying to cram the rules into just a few pages was probably a mistake. Those "bullet points" are kind of false. The divisions aren't as clear and clean as I would have liked and more of it could have been formulated as a table or steps. Don't get me wrong; I'm happy with what I got done in such a short amount of time, but...

What's Next?

The game has room to grow!

And that's a good thing. My next step is to play it with these goals for improvement in mind:

  • Ensure the wargame rules fully work and are fun and quick to play.
  • Interface the aerial battles, land battles, and the narrative game in such a way that one easily flows into and synchronizes with the other.
  • Develop a longer list of items and specials.
  • Perhaps add a bit more setting (like 2-sentence descriptions of cities and monsters).
  • Probably reformat into a digest sized zine of 24-32 pages. 
  • Add some form of political warfare metagame? 
  • Create some adventure seeds and/or a generator

This is going to take some time. I'm not even sure when how I'm going to get playtesting in. Perhaps online. But I would love to be 100% sure the game has legs for the long haul. 

Watch this space.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Rob Kuntz & Arneson's True Genius

TLDR: this book is a hot mess, but buried in it is an interesting, if IMO flawed, perspective. 


This is my reading of Rob Kuntz' book: Dave Arneson's True Genius. It was not an easy work to unlock. Any errors in representing it are mine. I am very critical of Rob Kuntz in this summation and review, even though I found some of his thoughts "interesting." I don't want anyone to interpret my dislike of this work, or its execution, as in any way devaluing Arneson's contribution to D&D. It has been established in very authoritative forums (like Peterson's Playing at the World) that Arneson contributed a number of critical, innovative, and formative ideas to role-playing in general and D&D in particular.

Who is Rob Kuntz?

Rob Kuntz, as a teenager, lived with Gary Gygax's family. He was there when Dave Arneson demoed Blackmoor to Gary in 1972 and was an early playtester, taking part in Gygax's Greyhawk campaign of the same year. He literally saw the birth, and a good portion of the evolution of D&D. Rob also worked for TSR from its founding through 1977.

Part 1: Assertions About Gygax

In Arneson's True Genius, Rob Kuntz makes the following claims:

When Gygax used Arneson's ideas to design D&D, he did irreparable harm to Arneson's legacy and the entire potential future arc of the hobby by:
  • "Redacting" Arneson's ideas. Gygax built a marketable system of rules by taking what was already established – wargame rules – and adding to them Arneson's groundbreaking ideas, which Gygax then neutralized through systematization. Kuntz refers to this as "enchaining" D&D and reducing it to a "market +1" state. Meaning Gary used Arneson's ideas to make the next predictable market thing. 
  • Setting the precedent for the industry. The fact of D&D's success moved the entire hobby community in one direction and defined the role-playing industry. This financially-proven groove meant that other possible futures were left unexplored, e.g. one that extended from Arneson's way of playing the game. 
  • Discouraging others from creating. When Gygax created AD&D, he moved D&D from an open system – which encouraged players to invent – to a closed system – an "official" rules set that discouraged innovation and established TSR's intellectual property. This was directly contradictory to an Arneson's open and flexible system ideas.
  • Doing all of this in bad faith. Gygax (like Arneson) never played D&D by the rules he set forth. In selling the D&D rules to the world, Gygax actively suppressed the true style of play in which he and Arneson indulged themselves and their players.

My Impressions of the Book and the Above Claims

Dave Arneson's True Genius is frustrating to read because of its poor organization, vague ideas, and ridiculously stilted and ornate language. Some paragraphs are so convoluted that I had to guess at their meaning after several failed attempts to decode them into English. The entire book has only about 55 pages of (widely-spaced, large font) text, and they contain the same half dozen ideas repeated throughout. 

The argument that Gygax sublimated Arneson's ideas, destroyed Arneson's future potential, and hoodwinked us all by selling us a set of hypocritical rules that falls short of the game Gary and Dave really played is expressed in faux-academic, rhetorical, and immature language. It boils down to crying over what might have been. This is especially silly when one realizes that Arneson had decades in which to re-present his original ideas, unadulterated by Gygax, or an original alternative. Arneson failed to do either of those things in any way that engaged or inspired a significant portion of the community.

In assuming that the move to a closed set of rules (with AD&D) was solely about denying the creativity of DMs, Kuntz misses that it enabled a more communal, common play experience and the production of adventure modules (some of which Kuntz helped write). Otherwise he makes a fair point about the shift in corporate attitude regarding extensive "home rules."

As for the accusation that Gary never played his own rules as written, I say "a designer designs." It's no wonder that both Gygax and Arneson sessions were more "R&D" in nature than "QA," meaning they were more likely to be fiddling than running the rules as written. But to say that what Gary was running didn't resemble what he wrote in the three little brown books is incorrect. There are a number of places where Gary's style is documented. It had significant departures from the rules, but it was still D&D. 

Part 2: The Garden of Eden 

When he is not blaming Gygax for putting D&D on the wrong path from the outset, Kuntz is lauding Arneson's genius, ascribing to him amazing feats of intellect without actually describing most (any?) of them. In trying to imagine what we missed due to Gygax's nefarious activities, Kuntz suggests that any forward trajectory from Arneson's conceptual model would essentially end in a recreation of "the human brain." Any "throttling" of the system would damage its potential.

If we were to indeterminately throttle his [Arneson's] conceptual model into the future what we would note as an end result would be akin to a massive array of information having multi-functional processes interconnecting at all points. Eventually we would have the workings of the human brain (Kuntz, 41).

It sounds like Kuntz is talking about artificial intelligence or perhaps a Futurama-like visualization of Arneson's brain in a jar. It's a game of passive-aggressive keep-away in which Kuntz tells us we have done/are doing RPGs all wrong while simultaneously telling us it's virtually impossible to describe the right way – the Arnesonian way. "... what system(s) organization transpires in their [TSR/WotC D&D] place would be anyone's guess (Kuntz, 40). [Emphasis mine.]

To read him in a more charitable light, the best possible role-playing system would be one that exists only in the heads of every DM running a game and would be entirely unfixed – free to evolve and iterate as needed. Kuntz calls this the "Garden of Eden" state. Mechanics are fluid and the hivemind of players both allows for expansive movement by invention and contraction by a general consensus of best methods.

To me, this is the real meat of the book. The thing I was waiting for. Perhaps the best way to read Arneson's True Genius is to just start on page 40 and end on page 48.

My Thoughts on the Garden

This Garden of Eden argument reminds me a bit of Dawkin's Selfish Gene (1976) in which he invents the term meme (with a meaning quite different than it has in today's social media) and discusses the way songbirds communicate ideas through imitation and innovation without losing an innate quality of sameness. I kind of wish Kuntz could have made his argument (only) along those lines. Had he simply defended role-playing as an activity owned by everyone – and left off blaming Gygax for bottling spring water – he might really have been saying something important.

As it is, Kuntz' writing reads like an academic fever dream that would be "like, really deep, man" after the joint has been passed a few times around the circle. He is reluctant (unable?) to quantify anything about Arneson's genius and leaves it almost entirely to broad, unsupported, and ultimately meaningless declarations.

Sadly, I would have to say this book is an embarrassment and possibly does more harm to Arneson's legacy than good. And yet, if you can get past all of its flaws, there is at least one clever thought in Kuntz' rambling manifesto.


The final few pages of the book are a clumsy and strangely-argued attempt to debunk Arnesonian D&D as a derivation of Chainmail and/or Brauenstein. The conclusion is that those two texts were influences, but not ingredients, and I'm fine with that. The argument isn't worth reading.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Lords of Mars

TLDR: I made a new game.

I made a new game.

I'm almost too tired to talk about it right now, so I'm just going to let you have a look! It's a pastiche of John Carter of Mars based on Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons. More on the making of it, and its future, on a future day.

Enjoy. Comments, typos, etc. welcome.

Get it here:

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Herbert Zamboni

TLDR: It's a monster, it's a puzzle, it's either one depending on how you approach it. Neat design.

This morning I played in an online game of Delving Deeper with Cody Mazza of the No Save for You podcast. (He and I talked about Delving Deeper recently in a two-part episode.) Cody was running Greg Gillespie's excellent megadungeon, Barrowmaze, so I don't know whether to credit him or Greg with this idea.

The party is following the tracks of a rival gang of explorers. (The Bogtown Bastards if you must know. Curse their rotten hides!) We came upon a room at the East end of a hall, with an exit to the North. In the middle of the room (and filling most of it) was a huge quivering mass of flesh and several dead bodies. We needed to get to the door on the other wall, but were understandably reluctant to try and pass this quivering mound. I suggested tossing a body (slain in another room) into the corner opposite the wall we wanted to move to. When we did, the mass grew legs, stood up, shambled over to the fresh corpse and then dropped down on it. While it was raised up, we saw faces of other dead people in its belly. Yikes!

I named it Herbert Zamboni – because we plan to come back with a monster charm spell and use it like a zamboni to clean out the hallways for us. Even this time around we used it to polish off dead bodies so that they wouldn't reanimate as zombies, which is something that seems to be happening in the Barrowmaze. After leaving the dungeon it occurred to me that it might actually BE the thing turning corpses into zombies. Like maybe it eats corpses and poops out zombies. We'll see.

Anyway, I liked the fact that this encounter was either a monster or a trap, depending on how you approached it. We could have tried to fight it or burn it, but instead we decided to trick it. (I only had 2 hit points, so you had better believe I wasn't going to try and fight this bugger.)

I drew a picture of Herbert later. At the last second I added some subtle/weird eyes. Or are they nipples? Or maybe both - eyples that lactate milky tears. Shrug.

Herbert Zamboni