2015-03-16 Writing a Dungeon Key

Ramanan Sivaranjan recently wrote a blog post about Dwimmermount’s Room Descriptions and started a discussion about room descriptions on Google+. The things that got discussed:

  • If you like to read a dungeon in order to get into the groove, to get a feeling for the thing, you might want to like long and elaborate room descriptions—but not I!
  • If you had studiously extended your vocabulary into ever more eclectic subject areas as a child reading Gary Gygax, you might like fancy words in your room descriptions—but not I!
  • If you liked traps and wanted your players to detect and disarm traps by interacting with the environment instead of rolling dice, you need more information about traps—and I agree
  • If you have noticeable things (large statues, dangerous monsters), make them stand out, put them at the beginning—and I agree (I like to use bold or color codes to make paragraphs and pages easy to skim)
  • But that doesn’t mean I need more words, such as the material of the floor or walls, unless it’s relevant
  • But I do agree that generic things are worse than nothing: “mystic symbols” is a wasted opportunity—alchemical symbols? astrological symbols? elven symbols?
  • Sometimes a bullet list works well, but recently I stopped using them in adventures I type up because they take up a lot of space; I want dense text with important stuff highlighted by bold typeface or color highlighting. I also think rooms should not contain more than three or four “things”. This is too short for a list.

Ramanan said that D&D modules needed to be written in Hemmingway’s style. That’s something I totally agree with. Rafael then proved the point by providing this gem:

That summer, we journeyed into many dungeons. We went down into the Crypts of Khaxa’Muuanda and the Forgotten Tomb of King Rheghrad and the Ossuary and the Cave of Dragons that was neither truly a cave, as it was a cleft in the mountains, nor did it have any dragons inside it, for the demons had driven them all out, and there was no gold in there either, damn it. That summer we visited them all, and we drank our healing potions in the sun and we slept on thin sheets on stone floors and thought ourselves lucky.

There are brave adventurers and there are foolish adventurers, but there are no old adventurers, because it is the kind of job that puts a man in the hot seat and then he makes a mistake, which is his last.

I walked away from that life, and I think of it every day, and my life now is no good, but then, what is?

– Rafael Chandler (ibid.)

In the same thread, Gus provided a very long description of a room and asked us all to rewrite it (ibid.). Here’s mine:

3 thouls (stats here) will attack intruders; one more (Gorzog) will drop from above with +4 on the second round. Gorzog may surrender and tell enemies how to activate the dry alabaster fountain.

Amidst cracked bones stand five sarcophagi, four smashed, one still intact. Above it rotates a blue jewel in a shaft of magical light (1000gp). The intact sarcophagus contains the mummified remains of Buffo the Stuntysmasher, according to its goblin inscriptions. The jewel is a treasure of the Mold Mountain Dwarf clan and they will take offense if the jewel is sold instead of being returned to them.

The walls of this burial chamber are covered in chartreuse grave moss sigils; read languages reveals prayers to Yeenoghu in his guise as overlord of ghouls.

When the conversation turned to other megadungeons, I said the following:

The reason I think I like terseness is because I don’t care about long descriptions when reading, when playing or when running the game. At the same time, the joy I find at the table usually involves monsters interacting with players, the things they know, the things they say, the friends they have, and so on. I haven’t yet seen a megadungeon that takes much of this into account in its descriptions…


Comments on 2015-03-16 Writing a Dungeon Key

Some nice tips here. It is indeed a challenge to create a key that is both robust enough to be of value at the table, and yet economic enough to be usable.

Tad 2015-03-17 16:30 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Thanks. :)

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-18 07:02 UTC

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2015-03-12 How To Create A Large Dungeon

I’m not yet ready to provide a procedure to write a megadungeon. What I can say, however, is based on my experience using Gridmapper and trying to create The Sewer Prison, a little dungeon of 30×32 (I actually wanted to keep it within 30×30) – six levels deep.

What I did was this: I started with the entrance, drew some rooms and corridors, started placing pillars, altars, statues, secret doors, rooms nearby, beds, chests, and so on. Sometimes stairs down. And I kept going through the dungeon, looking for dead ends, doors that didn’t lead anywhere, and I just kept on adding. Sometimes there was a local significance. An area hidden from the rest via secret doors. But if I went on for long enough, I’d forget and what started as a secret segment of rooms on level two would end up going down for a few levels, and then connect to the rest of the dungeon – without a secret door! Oops?

At the same time, I know that I connected all the stuff because I always began drawing stuff starting from an existing corridor, an existing door. And yet, now that I start keying the dungeon, I realize that I have two main problems:

  • Which areas go together, form a segment?
  • How to get from A to B – as in: “what is the main road from the entrance to the big temple on level five?”

In a traditional dungeon with few stairs connecting the levels, these problems don’t arise as quickly, I guess. But I was really trying to use the third dimension. And now it’s a big mess and I’m realizing that I’m slightly overwhelmed by my own dungeon map. Gridmapper has allowed me to jaquay the dungeon beyond my ability to handle it!

So, what would I do differently?

  1. Start with the main roads from the entrance to the deepest important destination.
  2. Label those areas that belong to a larger segment spanning multiple levels. Don’t just think in rooms.


Comments on 2015-03-12 How To Create A Large Dungeon

I had a similar experience while playing around and “We dig deeper” grow. Mostly I got confused whit the question if this stair is now going up or down or both and how far does it go. I was thinking about writing labels (UP and DOWN) for that but in the end didn’t to.

– Sam 2015-03-16 16:40 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Hah, I am not alone!

The stairs never bothered me much. I just add them on both levels and the direction seems to work well for me. With six full levels, my laptop sometimes takes too long to switch levels. It annoys me sometimes. Specially if I have to switch jump many levels, for example. Some speedup might be in order.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-16 22:31 UTC

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2015-03-09 Magister Lor

We played Magister Lor (PDF) and it went well. In general, I think most of us liked it. All except one would probably play it again in a few months. After the game, we talked about it some more.

The things we liked are the simple rules, the layout keeping rules and character sheet on a single page, this being a different situation entirely than Lady Blackbird…

When compared to Lady Blackbird, I noticed a difference in theme. The thing I like about Lady Blackbird is that the underlying theme appears to be love and friendship. Is the love between Lady Blackbird and the pirate real? What sort of bond is there between Lady Blackbird and her body guard? What sort of bond between the captain and his goblin? What sort of relation between Lady Blackbird and the mechanic? It’s interesting, it’s positive, and it goes into themes that my usual games do not.

In comparison, the theme of Magister Lor wasn’t as strong: revenge and forgiveness, the love and hate between siblings – somehow we couldn’t relate as much. The setup is also highly symmetrical. Master and Apprentice vs. Master and Apprentice. Brother vs. Brother. Magister vs. Demon. This contrasts with the multi-layered Lady Blackbird setup where bonds of various strengths relate characters to each other in asymmetrical ways. This made it feel a lot simpler, or it provided us with less guidance towards a complex situation.

One proposed solution was that we might start our next game without any pool dice, forcing us to start with refreshment scenes. Perhaps that would introduce some initial asymmetries and some “grit”.

Another thing we noticed in comparison with Lady Blackbird was that this is a clear player-vs-player situation, the game does not come with a suggested list of obstacles, events, and so on. These provided a lot of setting and inspiration for the game master to improvise upon. This is lacking in Magister Lor. A list of things to do in the Sanctum would have been nice – even if just a list of things to use against each other! Circuits? Elevators? Traps? Archives? Magical currents? Prisons? Names of demons and their characteristics? It would have helped, I think. Perhaps somebody else will write something like that?

When compared to our goto player-vs-player game, In A Wicked Age, we noticed that Magister Lor does not provide best interests for the characters. There is some guidance hidden away in the keys, but since these try to suggest various ways of running the game without offering a clear “win condition”, I think we all went with the simplest solution: Fight! Master and apprentice vs. demon and apprentice. In hind sight, not the most exciting development.

All in all, 4/5 stars.

★ ★ ★ ★

Here’s how I think about the number of stars: 5 is a recommendation, 4 is a good game with some very good elements, 3 is a good game that I’d play again, 2 is only for people who like a particular thing about the game and 1 is not recommended.


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2015-03-04 GM’s Day

“March 4th for GM’s day” or “March forth for GM’s day” – yes indeed, today is GM’s Day. Of course, every time we run a game it’s Player’s Day. Hah! But March 4th is GM’s day and as I was about to start running the game, Sam and Miae said that they had prepard a rap song for GM’s day! And then they launched into a rap in German, Celtic and Korean, about the person placing all the monsters, the person being so mean to players, Chorus: Who!? – the person that took our stabbing pencils and gave use a gold sword instead, Chorus: Who!? – it was hilarious.

Thank you! :-D

Tags: RSS

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2015-03-02 RPG Blogs

With blog rolls decreasing in importance and a lot of the RPG talk having moved to Google+, what are the blogs people recommend? I asked on Google+: If you were to recommend five RPG blogs to others, what would those be? If you want to recommend your own blog, please recommend five other RPG blogs, first! That’s how I did it. :)

Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

You’re welcome to the .ch top level domain Blogspot feels like adding because I live in Switzerland. No idea what this is used for.

Anyway. So many of my old favorites have fallen silent! I basically went through my blog subscription list, looking for names I recognized and checking whether the latest post was less than 100 days old.

Suggetions from the comments on Goole+


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2015-02-26 Gridmapper Library

Gridmapper can now save maps to and load maps from the Gridmapper Campaign Wiki. Perhaps we could start building a library of dungeon maps! :)

My current project is “The Sewer Prison”.

And since I didn’t find any new bugs and since I didn’t need to implement any new features, I decided to call it a day and tag it version 1.0! Not bad, from nothing on Feb 9 to release 1.0 on March 1.

Gridmapper makes me happy.

If you have questions about the code, extensions, features, whatever. Let me know! Plus me into a conversation on Google+, or send me an email (see Contact).


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2015-02-24 Gridmapper To Do

I think we’re getting closer to a version 1.0!

Thinks I’m still interested in implementing:

  • rubble, trees (that should be easy)
  • water (tricky? have a water tile? a blue tile? a blue tint over an existing tile? what about statues that rise above the water level?) ✓
  • Google Hangout app? (not sure how much effort I want to invest in something that will disappear sooner or later – I don’t have much faith in Google keeping infrastructure around)
  • Campaign Wiki Save? ✓
  • Campaign Wiki Load? ✓ (I will investigate scrolling and multiple columns when we that many submissions!)

The new help element no longer shows up in IE 11. :( I spent so much time getting moving from a pure SVG help to a mixed SVG/XHTML help that I don’t really feel like fixing this. This is frustrating. This also means that Text Import and Text Export won’t work. This relies on a XHTML textarea the user can edit. This also means that arbitrary labels (using " or l) won’t work. This relies on a XHTML text input field the user can edit.


Comments on 2015-02-24 Gridmapper To Do

Alex Schroeder
I am reminded of my lousy Google Wave bot experience. Following the Google Hangouts App developer Getting Started document. Uploading the XML to a public server. Registering my project. Enabling the Hangouts API, entering the URL for my project, clicking the Save button, clicking the “Enter a hangout in developer sandbox” link, and… “404. That’s an error. The requested URL was not found on this server. That’s all we know.”

Thanks. I think this will not be a Google Hangouts App. I’m already frustrated and I didn’t even get their Simple App to work.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-24 21:30 UTC

Alex Schroeder
As I’m turning to creating a dungeon, I’m wondering about “no floor” – how to indicate that this corridor is in fact a bridge? There currently is no tile for “empty”.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-24 21:52 UTC

Alex Schroeder
As I’m working on my dungeon, I’m noticing the following:

  • I need a fireplace: ▛▜ ?
  • I need a shelf: ◲◱ ?
  • I was able to express “void” by walling off a section—I guess that’s good enough?
  • drawing using Shift + Arrows was sometimes weird and Shift Down in particular selected the help screen, which is silly.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-24 22:38 UTC

Alex Schroeder
I was too lazy to add a decent form for saving so now I’m just reusing the text area for dungeon name, username and summary when saving to the Gridmapper Wiki. The link above, for example, now lives on as The Sewer Prison.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-25 10:49 UTC

Alex Schroeder
I think I want more stuff for walls, too: open archways, windows, arrow slits.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-25 16:41 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Implemented loading from the wiki.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-26 07:44 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Implemented water (and void)

– Alex Schroeder 2015-03-06 16:38 UTC

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2015-02-24 Gridmapper Maps

Contributions I’ve seen:

Gridmapper is a neat little classic-style dungeon mapping utility: It outputs to SVG, which is a vector format supported by many programs, including Blender, a 3D graphic program. I thought it would be simple to import one into the other, and for someone more experienced with SVG and Blender, it probably would’ve been easy. For me, it was messy, but I’m still happy with the results.”


“And I didn’t see any maps created with Gridmapper yet (expect for the test maps). So here is one of mine: The Aquarium.”


“Takie rzeczy wychodzą na szybko.” (Google translate: “These things go on a fast.”)


Please leave links to your contributions in the comments. :)


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2015-02-20 Gridmapper Variant Madness

A difficult decision! Many people had reported using Chrome on Windows and not getting the $ keypress. Sam’s patch finally fixed that. Now I’ve had reports of somebody using Chrome on GNU/Linux and not getting the $ keypress. What a mess!

So: Is it possible to get rid of $? Yes it is. But replace it with what? s for secret doors? What about s for stairs? The solution is to use variants. Place a door and cycle through the variants using v and you’ll get a secret door, a concealed door, a double door (a gate). Same thing for stairs: cycle through the variants using v and you’ll go from a 2×1 stair to a very short 1×1 stair, to a cramped 1×1 spiral staircase, to a large 2×2 spiral staircase, to a broad 2×2 stair fit for an opera house.

It’s a trade off. Any map symbol you are using multiple times on your map are better on dedicated keys. Are traps, pilars and statues valuable enough to have separate keys?

There is one additional problem I have. Such changes also break existing links. To give you an example, the sequence $$ would place a secret door and rotate it to the north wall. That needs to be replaced by ddv. Yikes!

  1. replace every $ by a d and append v
  2. replace every c by a d and append vv
  3. replace every g by a d and append vvv

I still feel that we’re early enough in Gridmapper’s development to make such changes, but still, it feels unfair to those who have maps with many secret or concealed doors, or gates.

Also, the help screen looks terrible, now.

In fact, I made further incompatible changes to parsing the link’s query string. The trap, pillar and statue no longer advance the position. Thus, if you’re suffering from that problem, you need to append a space (%20) to every t, p, and b in your query string.

  1. replace every t by a t%20
  2. replace every p by a p%20
  3. replace every b by a b%20

Why! Why!?

Well, I wrote a section in the README with instructions on how to extend Gridmapper and add variants for existing tiles! The example I gave was for how to add a well as a variant of a statue.

That’s pretty cool, I think.

An update on my todo list:

  • a text area for copy and paste of level data ✓
  • tablet support ✓ (somewhat!)
  • furniture? (shelves, tables, chairs, chests) ✓
  • rubble?
  • fountains or wells? perhaps just donut shaped things ✓
  • make sure you can place traps on top of stairs? (does this look good?)
  • quarter circle, perhaps in 1x1, 2x2 and 3x3 variants to create towers (as variants of diagonals) ✓
  • better labels (press a key to show text field) ✓

I decided to drop the PNG export. This would have required canvg to implement, it would have been tricky, people can already take screeshots, and I’m not sure how useful this would have been. It would never have been good enough to link to, for example. Without running some Javascript, this would never have worked.

If you’re curious about the code and would like to read blog posts about aspects of it, feel free to ask. I might write something up.


Comments on 2015-02-20 Gridmapper Variant Madness

Alex Schroeder
Example for quarter circles

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-21 12:27 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Trap variants: open pit, trap door in the ceiling, the floor, and a secret trap door. Redrawn from Moldvay’s B58.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-21 12:51 UTC

I love this thing! And every time I come back here, some great advance is done. I think the variants are a great improvement and it opens space for additional stuff. Thanks a lot again!

To bring my old maps, which I had just as links, back to live, I wrote a simple sed script:


Save these lines to “gridmapper_convert.sed”, the part behind the ? from the URL in “link.txt” and run: sed -f gridmapper_convert.sed link.txt

– Sam 2015-02-22 16:17 UTC

Alex Schroeder
I added altars, dais and a round dais. :)

Next up: curtains!

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-22 17:45 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Done. I really should use this tool to write a dungeon instead of improving the tool further!

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-22 18:21 UTC

How to add a layer above layer one?

This worked: Use “Text Export”, Copy the export to a new gridmapper, add “(0,0)fz” to the very beginning, hit “Text Import”.

And I didn’t see any maps created whit Gridmapper yet (expect for the test ones). So here is one of mine: The Aquarium

– Sam 2015-02-22 17:59 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Yeah, I would also use Text Export and Text Import. Was a simple “z” at the beginning not enough? I think that should have done the job.

And I love the Aquarium map!

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-22 18:35 UTC

Alex Schroeder
An interesting discussion on reddit.

Some ideas:

  1. Better mouse support: left-click on an icon on the right to pick an item and left-click on the map to place it. No dragging, no need to pick it again from a menu if you want to place something multiple times.
  2. Better text labels: no scaling, no word wrap, best for one liners and a small number of words (“orcs”). Would that be enough? The alternative would be to link the numberic labels we already have to wiki pages. Since I run Campaign Wiki, it would be trivial. Put the name of your wiki somewhere, and all the numbers will automatically link to it.
  3. Above ground features? Trees and mushrooms are the only ones I can think of. Maybe windows, arrow slits, archways.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-23 06:53 UTC

Alex Schroeder
I’ve noticed another Chrome problem. Assume the following script to draw a round 4x4 room: nvv nnvv[-1,1]nnnnvv nnnvv. Paste it into the text area and hit Ctrl Enter. One Chrome, this looks messed up. On Firefox, you get a nice round 4x4 room.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-23 09:15 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Added chest, bed, table. We’re getting to a size where I feel like we should increase the tile size!

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-23 10:30 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Added better labels.

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-23 22:04 UTC


> Was a simple “z” at the beginning not enough?

It got messy and the first layer didn’t work any more, but wen I try now whit a small map, it works…

– Sam 2015-02-25 12:11 UTC

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2015-02-16 Gridmapper To Do

With the extra layer – “the map below” – finally implemented, it’s time to look for other Gridmapper challenges. This little project makes me so happy. It looks cool, changes are fast to make. I love those early phases of projects that are going well. :)

So, here’s some stuff that I still want to do:

  • rewrite the internal data structure ✓
  • labels or at least numbers – I’m thinking typing a number key will start or append to a label in that square, backspace will shorten the existing label, I’m thinking of adding a little white background circle to those numbers to make it more readable ✓
  • export as PNG (will require canvg?) (also not sure how useful this will be)
  • furniture? (shelves, tables, chairs, chests)
  • rubble?
  • make sure you can place traps on top of stairs? (does this look good?)
  • investigate key issue involving $ and ? – Chrome/Windows only ✓ (resurfaced)
  • make it run on IE 11 ✓ (but no download of the data URI?)
  • multiple levels? A rolodex like interface where you can move up or down, a large level indicator somewhere, the ability to select an area and move it in any of the six directions (x, y, z). ✓
  • use v for variants: 1x1 stairs, 2x1 stairs, 2x2 stairs, as well as 1x1 and 2x2 spiral staircase? ✓
  • quarter circle, perhaps in 1x1, 2x2 and 3x3 variants to create towers ✓
  • fountains or wells? perhaps just donut shaped things ✓
  • tablet support ✓
  • a text area for copy and paste of level data ✓
  • making gates a variant of doors ✓
  • allow the rotation of variants; currently you can press s v to get a stair variant, but if you then press s again, you’re back at the standard stair ✓
  • stop using $ and c for secret and conceiled doors; instead, use door variants for these two ✓


Comments on 2015-02-16 Gridmapper To Do

What do you think about the option to hold the f-key and create multiple tiles by navigating with the arrow keys instead of pressing arrow-f-arrow-f-arrow-f a.s.o? I would find that useful.

– Stefan 2015-02-16 20:04 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Did you try Shift Arrows?

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-16 20:30 UTC

This is getting excitingly better!

– Enzo 2015-02-19 08:20 UTC

Alex Schroeder
Thanks! :)

– Alex Schroeder 2015-02-19 09:01 UTC

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