Tag Archives: RPGs

Discussion involving role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder.

Tabletop Games for Children 2: Introducing Storyforge

Last week, I discussed creating a tabletop game for children. I wanted three main things: it to be story-driven, it had to be customization to whatever sort of story you want to play, and it had to be easy to learn and simple to play.

To that end, I’ve wound up with Storyforge. I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with the name… What can I say? I have a smithy theme going on.

I’m working on a full set of rules right now, but in the meantime, let’s explore the basic features of the game.

Description affects story, not mechanics

Like any RPG, there’s plenty of spot for character description, including things like race. However, nothing in the description is going to affect mechanics in any way. For example, whether you play a human, a troll, or a fairy, the actual mechanics of the game will not be affected, so there is no need to worry about game balance if someone wants to play something unusual.

Simple abilities make complex stories

Each character has four ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma. These four abilities are the key to any story action outside of combat. When a player wants their character to do something, they explain it and, if it’s something that the character can obviously do, they do it. If, however, there is a risk or chance of failure, they need to roll for it. Whatever they are doing is related back to one of the four abilities, they roll a d20 and add that abilities score, and check against the challenge set by the GM to see if they succeed.

Since we’re not assigning specific tasks to specific abilities, what ability is used is up to the player’s explanation. For example, maybe a player wants to intimidate someone with subtle threats; they want to use Charisma. On the other hand, if they intimidate someone by picking up a golf club and bending it in half, they want to use Strength. As long as the players and GM agree that using a specific ability for a specific task makes sense, they’re good to go.

Generating scores for these abilities is as easy as picking numbers. At level one, players give one ability at +3, one ability a +2, one ability a +1, and one ability a +0. (Having +0 doesn’t mean you can’t use an ability, just that you’re not exceptionally good at it.) Every time they level up, a player can add 1 to any of those scores. Things like magic items can also give bonuses to the scores.

Descriptive combat, customizable combat

Combat is similar to the story action described above. There are four combat scores: Melee, Ranged, Magic, and Defense. When I attack you, I describe which score I’m using (“I’m attacking with my sword, so I use melee”), and roll a d20, adding the relevant score. You roll your defense (a d20 plus your defense score). If I get higher than you, I hit you. If not, I miss.

After that, the details are all in description. Whether I’m attacking with a giant axe, or a whip, or two swords, I’m using melee. If you’re defending with your heavy armor, or by parrying me, or by dodging, its all defense. Melee works for any attack when you’re next to the enemy. Ranged is for any attack where you’re not next to the enemy (within a limit… Say, 10 squares). Magic can be either adjacent or not adjacent to enemy.

Everything else is set the same for everyone. Everyone starts with the same movement speed (for example, up to 5 squares per turn). Every successful attack does exactly 1 point of damage. Every player always has the same amount of health (I’m thinking 7). To add a little more risk, there can be a critical hit system: if you roll a 20 on your attack, you roll a d6 for damage, instead of just doing a single point.

Special abilities for unique characters

The final thing making characters unique will be their Special Abilities. Every character gets one special ability at 1st level, then one more at every odd-numbered level (3, 5, 7, etc.). Special abilities are picked from a list (I’m making about fifty of them).

Every special ability is different, but most are designed to give bonuses to certain rolls if certain conditions are met. Because I like rolling dice, bonuses to hit are met by rolling twice, and taking the higher result (as opposed to a flat number bonus, which I feel because less impactful when the overall scores get bigger). Bonuses to damage simply give you an extra point of damage (so 2 for a normal hit, or 1d6+1 for a critical). For example, one special ability might let you roll to hit twice and take the higher result if you make a melee attack after moving at least 3 squares in a straight line towards an enemy. Another might let you roll twice for a magic attack on a turn where you have not been attacked yourself, or roll twice to defend against a ranged attack.

There will be a few different special ability for each type of attack, for defense, and for general things like ability scores. There will be chains, but nothing more complicated than “you need to take this one before that one;” so no complicated, multi-point prerequisites. My hope is that, with special abilities, you can customize your character to a certain style of play – whether that’s investing really heavily in one tactic or taking a little bit in multiple tactics is up to you.

The final bits

That’s Storyforge in a nutshell. You’ll notice I didn’t say many rules for things outside of combat… That’s because I don’t have many. I know being too loose might backfire, but my hope is that it becomes a fairly open, group worked, story-driven game. If it makes sense, your character can do it.

The simple rules do have their downsides. I’m not sure how to do anything with healing, for example, except for simple potions. I also know there is a chance that some things are unbalanced… Since magic can be used both close-up and at a distance, why would anyone not put all their points into that? My hopes is that that sort of unbalanced metagaming will be countered by two factors. First, things like special abilities might help… Putting all your points in magic seems like a great plan until the enemies defend better against magic than anything else. I also think that the audience of a game like this (and remember, the genesis of this was for gaming with kids and people who want story-driven games) won’t think that way. After all, magic might be the “best” choice, but if my character is a half-crocodile pirate captain, you can bet it makes more sense for me to focus on my cutlass skills instead.

I’m going to finish putting together a small rule book soon, but in the mean time, what do you think? See any really obvious pitfalls that I’ve overlooked? Any suggestions for things I might want to change or add? Would you even want to play a game like this? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted by on April 7, 2018 in Homebrews, Role-Playing Games


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Tabletop Games for Children

So it’s been… Not quite a year since I posted, but close. What can I say? I got myself on a roll of a post or more every week, and then things changed. I got a full time job. Then another one. I had a baby. Did you know how much writing time having a baby cuts into? Apparently, holding a screaming, puking hobgoblin in one arm while trying to type with the other does not lend itself well to productivity.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my screaming hobgoblin. But maybe it means I’ll come back to blogging with a more manageable schedule than a board game review and RPG idea post every single week.

Actually, it was little Hob (that’s what I’m going to call him now) that made me want to come back to this blog. See, I want to be able to play games with my son when he’s old enough not understand that dice aren’t candy. But, while I love Pathfinder and such, many of them are not really geared towards younger children. Lots of them are pretty rules intensive and, even when you can simplify them, reward an in-depth approach to the material that a casual or young player may just never have.

Once I started thinking about the difficulty that younger kids might have with tabletop RPGs, I realized something else. Think about how games like D&D are always shown on television—as if your characters can be anything or do anything your imagination can create. It’s a nice idea. But how does D&D actually go? Your character can be or do anything you can imagine… So long as you imagine something taken from this list of pre-described possibilities. Magic systems are a real solid example this. You have your fireball, your lightning bolts… But what if you want to shoot a line of cold, instead of electricity? Make an explosion of acid instead of fire? What if you want to summon the powers of sparkles and love in a glittery shower of doom? Sure, you can homebrew small changes, but things like specific elemental weaknesses and limits to areas of spells are so entwined with the rules that it’s hard to do so without far more side effects than you expect.

So I started looking for a system that would better fit what I want from a kid-friendly tabletop. I wanted something simple, and I wanted something customizable to the max. I want a system where Hob can play a grizzled human fighter, wading into battle with a greatsword if he wants to… Or he can be a goblin riding a dolphin with laser eyes, wielding a three-bladed lightsaber. I want a game that I can explain in ten minutes, and can be fun and new every time. And I wanted a game with as much story as I could get.

Apparently, I wanted a game that didn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of tabletop games that are either aimed at children or will work for children. Fate Core has the customization I want. Dungeon World has the story driven idea I like. Even Wizards of the Coast got into it, publishing D&D for Kids. None of these systems were exactly what I wanted, though. The simple ones weren’t customizable. The customizable ones weren’t simple. They just didn’t click with me.

So I’m making my own.

My next few posts are going to be about my attempt at creating my own tabletop game. I’ve played with designing board games before (and, if this generates interest, maybe I’ll talk about them in the future), but never something like this. I’d love some feedback on it as I post.

In the meantime, have you ever tried RPGs with kids? What worked, what didn’t? What kind of systems do you like best? Am I crazy for trying to make a new one? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Posted by on March 27, 2018 in Homebrews, Role-Playing Games


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Dungeon Ideas: The Ghost Ship

The cloth sails hang in tatters, yet other sails, spectral things of blue light, propel the ship forward. On deck, it’s crew, seemingly unconcerned about the hideous wounds that mar their translucent bodies, work diligently, combating a storm that has long since broken, preparing for a battle that came and went years past. For them, it is not over. For them, it will never be over.

Who doesn’t love a good ghost ship? The Flying Dutchman. The Black Pearl. The… unnamed ship carrying Death in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner? I thought it had a name, but google is telling me I was wrong… Come on, Coleridge, we need details!

Oh well. Whatever the name of them, exploring a ghost ship is our next stop in dungeon ideas. (For the last idea for a dungeon-outside-of-a-dungeon, go here.)

The Ghost Ship

Large sailing vessels can start anywhere around 150 feet long and get up to twice that. At dozens of feet wide, and with multiple decks, that leaves you thousands of square feet of exploration space. The nature of the ship allows for these spaces to be used in unique ways, too. Do players climb the ropes in the rigging? Has the bilge flooded, necessitating swimming to find the lost treasure in it? How does the ship pitching and rolling affect the combat on the main deck?

Speaking of combat, the enemies inhabiting a ghost ship are as varied as the undead that fill most gaming systems. In Pathfinder, there’s even a fair number of specifically aquatic undead, such as Draugr and Brykolakas. Make them the crew, throw in a ghost captain, and you’ve got yourself some baddies. Of course, maybe you want to go further. Maybe “ghost ship” doesn’t mean a ship with ghosts on it, but rather a ship possessed by the spirits of the dead. With that mindset, the ship itself can be an enemy. Rigging ropes lash out to try to snare players. Deck boards become like water, players dropping into them, before solidifying again, trapping them in the wood. The bell that calls sailors to arms rings and rings and won’t stop it’s infernal ringing, and each time it does it drives the players one step closer to madness. Ok, so you might have to play with the rules a little bit to get some of those effects, but it could be well worth it.

A ghost ship as a dungeon really shines when it comes to the plot of your adventure. Unlike ancient tombs or deep caverns, your players aren’t likely to just randomly explore their way onto a ghost ship, so why are they there? Do they have to find a way to escape? Perhaps a cursed compass teleported them here, and they have to find it’s pair on the ship to get off. Has this ship been sinking merchant vessels? The ghost captain has to be destroyed to save innocent lives. Or maybe they have to find a way to break the curse that has kept the ship sailing? Deliver it’s last load of cargo, expose the traitorous first mate who sold them out to an ambush, return the stolen cursed treasure to the forbidden land from which it came. The nature of ghosts and undeath mean that simply destroying the ship and its crew may not be enough… They will just return the next full moon, or the next time an albatross is slain, or when a poor soul accidentally sails over the sunken wreck, or whatnot. “Winning” the dungeon could require problem solving outside stabbing the boss bad guy until it’s dead, then.

What do you think? How would you work a ghost ship into a campaign? Mechanically, what would make a ghost ship different from any other boat? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Role-Playing Games


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Deadly Decisions: Should a GM Kill Off Player Characters?


Ok, so I was once told that, when writing (specifically for school, but we’ll count it here), if your thesis asks a question that can be answered with only a yes or no, you shouldn’t bother writing it. So, with that in mind, I’m going to go into a bit more nuances than a straight no. But should, generally speaking, a GM kill of a player’s character?

No. Just… No.

I can hear the cry of RPG purists now. “The rules!” they yell. “If the dice say they die, then they should die!” I’ll remind those people of two things: (1) It’s a game; it’s supposed to be fun, and the rules of most modern editions of D&D and the like point that out; and (2) My blog has a running theme of fudging rules in order to make a game more enjoyable; if that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to much like anything that comes next.

Yes, in the rules of most RPGs (my experience is mainly in D&D and Pathfinder, so that’s what I’m going to refer to most), characters can die if things go badly for them. A bad decision, an unlucky roll of the dice, a particularly poorly-planned encounter… These things could kill you. And, yes, if you’re playing by the rules, characters will probably die, eventually.

But it’s a game, folks. It’s supposed to be fun. And do you know what’s not fun? Watching your roll to stop yourself from falling into a bottomless pit come up a one. Or, conversely, watching the GM roll a critical hit on you for the third time in a row. These things happen, it’s just probability. And probability can be a boring, vindictive, jerk sometimes. So there are times when it’s important to tell probability to go have a long walk in a dark, monster-infested woods, while wearing bright colors and beef-jerky flavored body spray.

In other words, lie. It’s sort of why those GM screens exist. That third critical? Aw shucks, it was actually only a 3. That bottomless pit? An illusion, tied to a reverse gravity trap that suspends your character helplessly in the air (real bottomless pits are expensive, after all). We’re all good. You don’t want to let your players get off completely free; you want it to feel like the game has risk, has consequences. But you can walk a line between making the game feel dangerous and actually making it deadly.

And again, the purists rail, “that’s not the point of the game!” Ok, if that’s how you like your game, fine. I have a friend who likes a quote that he heard… somewhere (neither of us know where; if you do, feel free to comment): In games like D&D, you treat a character like a car in Grand Theft Auto; ride it hard and, when you get bored, crash it into a wall. I disagree, not with the idea that you can play a character that way, but that you should. There’s no right way to play, really. If you want to play your character recklessly and to heck with the consequences, go for it. If your group wants to play hard ball with the rules and kill people, go for it.

But don’t force it on anyone.

If your players are attached to the characters (lots of people are) or otherwise don’t like them dying, don’t kill them. Even if you have to cheat, fudge dice, make nonsense up, don’t kill them. Threaten them. Hurt them. Make them think you’re going to kill them… But don’t kill them. And for the love of peanut-butter, as a player, don’t kill off your own character as a player by playing so recklessly you endanger everyone else. Your character diving headfirst into an unwinnable battle or making dumb choices can impact the rest of the party and, if they’re not ok with that style of reckless play and having to make new characters, there’s going to be resentment.

You want to drive your car into a brick wall? Don’t do it with the rest of your party in the back seat.

Again, I’m not saying you have to listen to me. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for player decisions or that you shouldn’t be somewhat beholden to what the dice say. But, if your players don’t like the idea of their characters dying, why put them through something that they don’t think is fun? It kind of ruins the whole “game” part of “role-playing games,” don’t you think?

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Posted by on May 24, 2017 in Role-Playing Games


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Dungeon Ideas: The Great Tree

A RPG adventure can take place just about anywhere you can think of. They can be social affairs, spanning the streets and back alleys of a metropolis. They can be sea-fairing escapades, rooted on the deck of a pirate’s ship. They can even cross the planes of existence, taking place in the depths of the abyss or in the realm of dreams. But the most common path adventurers take is probably though dungeons. Catacombs or caverns or underground labyrinths, dungeons are a frequent sight in RPGs. They didn’t name the game “Socializing and Dragons,” after all.

There a times when the standard dungeons, stone and gates and so on, just doesn’t cut it. It grows dull. Repetitive. Dare I say it, cliche? So every so often, you may want an adventure location to go beyond the dank and dingy underground.

Let’s look at some options for unusual dungeons, starting with…

The Great Tree

This massive landmark, centuries old, is more than 30 feet across at it’s base and stands some two- or three-hundred feet tall. It’s canopy spreads wide and thick enough that, standing beneath it, it seems as dark as night. Some say it was the world’s first tree. Some say it marked the spot where an ancient god, long forgotten, died. Still other’s say it was born of a rift between the very elemental planes, connecting this world to another.

The Great Tree has an ecology as unique as it is. Itself a living thing, it’s roots crawling through the land for acres, the Tree supports life around and within it. Burrowing insects leave tunnels through it’s core big enough for a man to walk through. Fey, and other spirits of nature, inhabit its wood. Its crown supports the nest of giant owls, who hunt anything, animal or man, fool enough to walk beneath the tree’s shadow at night.

Adventuring through a tree creates some unique areas for player exploration. Maybe the tunnels left by the bugs work as a series of caves (just hope the creatures that made them aren’t hungry). Maybe the branches are thick and tangled enough to create platforms players can walk across (but watch your step – it’s a long way down). How can players climb the tree to reach their goal at the top? Or maybe their problem is the opposite; stranded in the nest of a great bird of prey, how can they descend the tree before the bird’s chicks wake hungry?

Even if things like bug tunnels and animal bolt-holes end up being treated the same as underground tunnels and caverns, exploring a giant tree can allow for unique flavour and experiences. Consider the risk of weather-worn branches, or the amount of sticky sap a tree that size might produce. What happens when leaves or acorns begin falling? What sort of problems or opportunities does being entirely surrounded by wood and living matter create for players used to impassible walls of stone?

I’d be amiss not to point out that, if you’d rather, you don’t need to make a tree particularly large to achieve this kind of “dungeon.” You could always make your players very small. Small enough, perhaps, that the mice that live among the roots of the tree, the wasps that have a nest in its branches, become far more dangerous than the usual pests.


And that’s The Great Tree as dungeon idea. What do you guys think? If you like the idea of me posting the occasional notion for unusual dungeons, let me know.  Of course, if you’d like me to focus more on either the story of these dungeons or more mechanical ideas and aspects, let me know that, too, and I’ll focus more in that direction in the future. The comments are always open for any thoughts you might like to share.

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Posted by on May 17, 2017 in Role-Playing Games


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Remember That Guy?: Making Memorable NPCs

Some time ago, I ran a campaign that introduced early trains to a Pathfinder world. Though they ran more or less on steam, the villain of the piece found a rare, magical material that worked even better than coal for his engines, and would stop at nothing to harvest and refine it, in order to take over the country’s economy thanks to his rail lines.

The villain’s name was Chauncy.

About thirty seconds after meeting this railway mogul – before the extent of his villainy was even revealed – one member of the party took to calling him “Choo-choo Chauncy.” It stuck. And, a couple years later, it’s one of the only villain’s my player’s remember the name of.

That got me to thinking: I like making non-player characters (allies, enemies, randoms, whoever) that my players remember. If nothing else, it makes using them again later in the campaign that much easier and more interesting. But how can you make sure your players remember NPCs?

I’m glad you asked.

10 Quick Ways to Make a Memorable NPC

  1. Give them an interesting name (or a name players can make interesting, a la Choo-choo Chauncy.)
  2. Make them an interesting species (I once had a sentient cat work as a wise ally.)
  3. Give them a distinct physical feature (hook hand, prosthetic nose, multiple chins, etc.)
  4. Give them a distinct personality (afraid of one member of the party, paranoid of being overheard by spies, fascinated by a player’s injuries, etc.)
  5. Give them a distinct quirk (stutter, pick their nose, sneeze constantly, etc.)
  6. Make them hard to pin down (give them powers or abilities that don’t quite line up with a class the players know, make it hard to figure out what race they are, make their age impossible to guess, etc.)
  7. Make them important (player’s relative, mentor, best friend, etc.)
  8. Make them extra likable (everyone loves a cute kid that tries to imitate the cool players.)
  9. Make them extra dislikable (players will remember the first villain who kicks a kitten in front of them forever.)
  10. Make them active (NPCs can talk, not just respond with straight answers when spoken to; they can have personalities, desires for – or from – the party, and needs of their own; they can exist for more than just the time it takes the players to talk to them.)

Those are 10 quick, simple ways to make NPCs a bit more memorable. Of course, there are some caveats to all of this, too…

Remember: A lot of these suggestions are meant to make the NPC more unique and, as such, memorable. So they don’t work if you do it for everyone the party meets. Similarly, you don’t need to do every one of these things for a single NPC; there is most definitely such a thing as too much. And, of course, you don’t want to do so much that you overshadow your player’s. The game is supposed to be starring them, after all.

Finally, remember that these things don’t help if they exist only in your head. If your NPC has a unique look, mention it. If they have a unique quirk, employ it. A unique flaw, expose it. At least once in a while, that is. Again, a little can go a long way.

So what do you think… Can you add to my list? See any problems with it? Have any examples of NPC/PC interactions or relationships that went really well for you (or really poorly)? Let us know in the comments.

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Posted by on May 10, 2017 in Role-Playing Games


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Puzzle This Out v.2: Large Scale Puzzles in RPGs

In a previous post, I mentioned liking puzzles in my role-playing game. Sometimes, though, throwing a quick puzzle into combat- or social-based dungeon isn’t satisfying enough… Or worse, comes off as forced or cliched. So sometimes, instead of putting puzzles in a dungeon, I like puzzles that are the dungeon.

Rather than plopping a puzzle in the middle of a dungeon crawl, consider making the dungeon itself run as a puzzle. In each room or area, you can have your combat encounters or social encounters or what not, but the overall dungeon can be a puzzle, too. This can be done with how players travel through the dungeon, reoccurring challenges throughout the adventure, or making the whole adventure take place in a location or setting outside what players take for typical.

The advantage of this kind of large scale puzzle is simple: it’s different. It’s a change from the riddle-doors and puzzle-chests that could otherwise become common sights in dungeon. They make for a memorable dungeon, filled with unique puzzle challenges.

Of course, this kind of idea can backfire, too. If your players don’t enjoy the puzzle that you design your dungeon around, then they have a long, long time to slog through it. Worse still, if they can’t figure it out, the entire dungeon becomes nothing but one frustrating stumbling block after another. So, perhaps more so than with stand-alone puzzles, you need to ensure large scale puzzles aren’t too hard or abstract, or you need to give the players an out if they get stuck.

That’s all well and good for the idea of a large-scale puzzle, but what about the details? What do I mean, really? Well, here’s some examples of large scale puzzles in dungeons and adventures.

The Sliding Dungeon: This dungeons is composed of a number of square rooms, each identical in size. In certain rooms, there are controls that give a bird’s eye view of the dungeon layout. The dungeon controls work like those 3×3 (or bigger, if you want more of a challenge) sliding puzzles, where pieces are moved into blank spaces without any being lifted or turned. Doors only open when lined up with other doors, rooms that are inaccessible can become accessible by moving them, etc. If the players want to explore every room (or get to a specific one), they need to figure out how to arrange the puzzle to make a path.

The Spinning Dungeon: This is similar to the sliding dungeon, only rather than square rooms, the dungeon is built on concentric rings. Again, by accessing controls, the players can rearrange the dungeon, this time by spinning the rings to line up passages or change the layout of rooms.

The Living Dungeon: Remember the time you had to go into Jabu-Jabu’s belly in Legend of Zelda? (And if you don’t know Ocarina of Time, I’m sorry you had such a sad childhood.) Anyways, this is like that. Whether it’s in the belly of some massive beast, or in a building with living walls of eldritch horror, having the dungeon be a living entity (whether good, evil, or benign) can open up some unique hurdles players have to overcome, and perhaps even more interesting (or unexpected) solutions. What happens if you attack living walls? Or make the creature sneeze or swallow when you’re stuck at an impassable sphincter? (Any circular muscle is a sphincter, get your mind out of the gutter.) Once the players figure out some of their options that living dungeons allow, they can tackle obstacles in ways that they never could in a standard one.

Two-Worlds: Imagine a dungeon that exists in two (or more) states: this could be past and future, for instance, or different planes of existences. If the players have a way of traversing these two states, then obstacles can be encountered that can only be overcome in one of the multiple states. Impassable door in the past? Jump to the future, where it has rusted and rotted to the point of falling down. Ancient dragon guarding the treasure in the future? Hop to the past, where it’s a mere baby. I once ran a dungeon that jumped between the real world and the world of dreams; the goals were in the real world, but players could do things in the world of dreams that they couldn’t awake. Bottomless chasm that you have to get across? You can fly in dreams. Tiny doorway? Dream that you’re shrinking. All it takes is some consideration of how you want the mechanics of traveling back and forth between the multiple versions of the dungeon to work.

Portable Doors: What happens if you put a portable hole on a wall? Or the ceiling? Ok, so if you are following the rules, probably nothing interesting. But that’s boring, so make up your own portable hole. Think of all the fun that could be had with a door frame that creates a passage wherever it’s placed, or a hole that can be used to climb between floors and then moved. This kind of trick needs a bit more planning, I think (so the players don’t just carve themselves a path straight through whatever they’re going through), but with a few mechanical limitations to the tool, it could make for a unique type of exploration.

Those are just 5 examples of large scale puzzles or reoccurring challenges that you can shape a dungeon around. Can you think of more? Share some of your own ideas in the comments, or let me know what you think about using large scale puzzles to change up your adventures.

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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Role-Playing Games


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