Pitfalls and the pathways that lead to them

With The Evils of the Illmire having been shipped out the door, I'm eager to start a new project. Finishing something definitely feels good, and starting something new is a great way to refresh your creativity and get excited.

So, I've dusted off the pages of my heartbreaker once again. This will be the project that consumes my brain for the foreseeable future.

The goal of the project is first and foremost to "make the game that I want to play" simply because I want to play it. But having it exist as a mess of notes and scattered documents is not fulfilling. Nay, this beast deserves a chance to fully form.

I've been on and off struggling with "my own personal take" on a classic dungeon crawler ever since I played John Harper's World of Dungeons in 2012. That simple mechanic was so inspiring to me. I knew I wanted it as the engine under the hood. But I also wanted to add all of my personal touches and expand a bit. So for years I've mish-mashed, designed, redesigned, and tested the heck out of it.

See, the problem with playtesting is: you discover problems with your design. And that means you have to go back and fix them. And this takes time, and it's sometimes hard. Especially when this isn't your day job where you can devote all your mental energy to it for 8-hours straight until it's fixed. So, needless to say, it's been a long and bumpy road.

Let's get started!

Art by Eric Lofgren

WARNING: This might get a little rambley. There are a lot of thoughts jammed up in my brain about this and if I try to perfect my elucidation, I'll never publish the blog post!

Let's start with some Project Design Goals (PDG's). These are generalized and overarching goals that specific rules/mechanics/expressions should serve.

Project Design Goals

1. Be simple, digestible, manageable. A simpler game is easier for me to create and easier for readers to absorb. I'm getting old and if the systems are too complicated I start to tune out. Plus I want to play this game with my 9 y/o and his buddies so the simpler the better there too.

2. Be classic, nostalgic, familiar. These are surprisingly important to me. While it would be fun to completely rethink the paradigm, I want my dungeon crawler to bring me back to my youth, and so there are some staple elements that aren't negotiable. I want to try to foster similar memories in my kid that I had when I played at that age. This includes art/layout.

3. Focus on the fiction. Mechanizing too many aspects of gameplay detracts from describing the cool fictional stuff that's happening. The rules should help encourage detailed description over reliance on mechanics. The less mechanical input to parse, the better.

4. Yet keep it gamey and grounded. We want to focus on the details of the fiction, but not at the expense of dungeon-crawly-ness. Some mechanics feel quintessential and worth the fuss. This is a balancing act and which direction any given author/reader/GM/player prefers to lean is a matter of opinion. I want to fill my personal "goldilocks" niche.

5. Make rules for useable and fun. Find a way to make "sweating the small stuff" manageable. Minimize fuss while maintaining the worth. Ignoring the struggles of dungeon crawling defeats the fun of dungeon crawling. To me, "OSR" really means focusing on crawling the dungeon again.

6. Designed for West Marches campaigns out of the box. It's the best way. P&P will assume an open and shared table with a changing party roster and a player pool.

Art by Dean Spencer

Some Rules/Mechanics/Expressions

And some specific rules/mechanics/expressions that are in place or in-the-works:

"Level 0" origin stories. Basically, you start as a classless level 0 before you level up and pick a class. Expresses all six PDG's I think.

Characters are quick to make, with a balance sought between too-detailed and too-simple. The solution is a big list of 100 semi-detailed, often familiar/classic character backgrounds (PDG#1-4). Enough to give you a good idea of who your character is without overloading you with too many details. Something like "escaped from a witch" or "raised by wolves" with a sentence or two of elaboration, plus gamey details.

Use of PbtA as the core mechanic, because PDG#3. Specifically the World of Dungeons minimalist approach, because PDG#1. Make that PbtA mechanic use a d20, because PDG #2.

Players do not have a big list of PbtA moves, just a single basic core mechanic to worry about. All moves are GM-facing only. Player moves are not visible to players - they act like "roll templates" for the GM to reference during play, if desired (PDG#1 and 3). From the player's point of view, this makes it hard to tell apart from traditional D&D (except that the GM doesn't roll), AKA PDG#2.

Minimize the amount of things that are player-facing. They should be focusing on their imagination first and character sheets second. Keep character sheets simple. (PDG#1)

Inventory management (PDG#2 and 4) uses slots (PDG#1), but those slots are fictionally linked to locations where items can be kept on a character (PDG#3). Design in such a way to make it interesting and manageable (PDG#5). Not too detailed - just enough.

Conditions are used to track all important status effects - They provide a bonus/penalty as the GM sees fit, on a case by case basis (PDG#1,3,5). There are still hit points and you still roll damage dice (PDG#2 and 4). But the hit points don't represent "mortal wound points" they represent "don't get killed or mortally wounded points" - meaning hit point damage is interpreted fictionally as not-too-serious harm that doesn't hold you back (PDG#3 and 5). When you hit o HP, you either die or take a wound that must be healed, depending on your "death check".

Kind is your character's fantasy species. PCs are assumed to be humans (at first). It makes things a bit simpler from the outset, design-wise. Elves, dwarves, and halflings effectively become things to discover, like all other non-human species. Also eliminates expectations of 'darkvision' and other dungeon-breaking abilities at game start. Instead, demihumans become 'unlockable' content in the West Marches  paradigm - that is to say, when the PCs create an alliance with the elven enclave hidden in Mossvine Forest, they can then begin recruiting elf hirelings and creating elf characters. This one seems to resonate with all six PDG's.

Multiclassing is fun and classic for me as I spent my youth playing AD&D 2nd Ed. Instead of being locked into a specific class, each time you level up you gain a rank that you can put into any class, gaining whatever abilities you get for the rank you just became. So you can be a specialist and stick with a single class, gaining more abilities for that class as you rank up, or you can choose additional classes to put rank into, gaining the benefits of those classes instead. This allows your PC to evolve throughout their career, stand out from other PCs, and mix-and-match archetypes to create unique character concepts.

Some things specifically to address PDG#6: Support for players/PCs to drop in and out. Flattened math so lowbies and heroes can party together. Downtime actions to handle time-passage in-between sessions as well as missed sessions. Domain play for high level PCs to stay involved. Second layer of asynchronous play to keep everyone involved and the wheels turning behind the scenes.

That's a decent summary, to start I suppose.

Download the Minimal Playtest Version

It's time to start another round of playtesting, this one to hopefully finalize the elements as much as possible prior to next year.

It's minimal because it only has character creation, equipment list, super-basic rules procedures, and simplified magic system. There is currently nothing in the document that goes into any deep detail and no classes or levels. Since the game starts at level 0, the idea is that it should be fully playable, tight, and fun with just the absolute basics.

Download the Playtest Document

Download the Printable Character Sheet

Download a Form-Fillable Version (Coming soon, needs updating)

Link to a Google Sheet

The google sheet is not pretty but kind of cool, because you as the GM can share a copy to each player and manage it in tandem. You can both be viewing and editing the same sheet together. As the GM, you can have a tab open for each PC's character sheet to oversee and advise.