Archive for Rules

Runic Magic in Fellhold

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, New Rules, RPGs with tags , , , on May 17, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Nota Bene: Pretty much this entire post is rules, but I’ve maintained the convention of bold italic type so that it will stand out if you’re scrolling up or down the page only looking for the useful stuff. 

Runes1 (1)

I’ve been wanting to come add magic runes to the Fellhold campaign for a while now, to get that delicious Viking flavor.  I contemplated a cool combinatory system with very modular runes, kinda inspired by sygalldry in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle books, but I decided that a) that would be a whole lot of work, and b) it would clash with the overall Vancian magical flavor of D&D the campaign has mostly relied on.  That being said, I’m a huge fan of different rule systems for Magic, and I fully plan on creating such a system for a campaign where it would fit better.  I also have an idea on doing something based off the way semitic languages have vowel roots and apply consonants in forms with loose semantic meanings to get words, but that’s way outside the scope of this here post.

So, I checked out the AD&D 2nd Edition Viking Campaign sourcebook, the Realms of Sorcery supplement for WFRP 2nd Edition, and wikipedia articles on runes mentioned in the Poetic Edda and sagas, and on Icelandic ‘Staves’.  Though I initially had high hopes for the WFRP runes, they were almost all blandly combat stat buffs.  Which is useful, of course, but not as flavorful as what I wanted.  WFRP’s heavily skill and talent based approach was also not the right answer for mechanical implementation.

I ended up drawing a lot more from the historical Viking Campaign sourcebook than I expected to on my first read through.  There were actually some kind of cool concepts about shaping the rune each and every time, because the nature of the thing inscribed and the specific circumstance and so forth all combined to give the rune a unique physical expression every time, and it had to be imbued with power.  So I took a little bit of that for my own so that just knowing how to scratch the symbol doesn’t give you crazy powers (even if I suspect that the historical basis for “magic runes” is at least a little tied up in illiterate people being impressed by literacy and what you could do with it – this is D&D, damnit, not a historical exercise).

I had a few basic concepts I thought would make runes interestingly flexible and open ended (the sort of magic I find coolest for games).  First, I struck on the notion that the permanence of the runes effect is related to the permanence of how it is inscribed.  Rather than flat out stating “runes must be carved into something”, I wanted there to be the option to hastily scrawl something with your own blood on an improvised surface, but it won’t last very long and it won’t be very powerful compared to a purpose made rune imbued with great power and cast into an armband as it is made.  Next, the power of the rune is effected by the quality and permanence of the item.  Both of these are for thematic as well as gameplay reasons.  Thematically, it makes magical thinking sense if more purposefully and permanently doing something to a thing of greater value gets you greater effects.  Gameplay wise, I don’t want players just chalking exploding runes onto every which surface they find willy nilly.  Which ties into another thing I knew I wanted to do with runes: make them not fire and forget.  You know a rune, or you don’t.  So the resource management aspect has to come in somewhere else than “times a day you can use them”.  You have to manage physical components, time to shape, et cetera.  Also, runes are heavily front loaded resource-wise.  You have to either spend a lot of time and money studying one, or else you have to give up a spell slot permanently.  The final thing I knew about runes going in was that I wanted them to be flexible and open ended and able to be combined by clever players (even if I ditched the idea of modular ‘programming’ style runes for build your own magic items).


Which is where I ran into some troubles.  See, the uber-specific rules given in the 2E viking campaign book left me cold, and they were largely written as a low-magic replacement for traditional D&D Vancian magic users for the purposes of genre emulation, rather than as a supplement to that system that provided different tactical, strategic, and logistical choices.  I was also running up against a time constraint, because my clerics were about to level up, and I wanted to fundamentally tweak their options based on their patron before they got too high in level and locked into the pseudo-Christian crusader baked into the cleric class as written.  So I ended up copping out a little bit.  I just gave the runes brief, qualitative descriptions, and figure I’ll adjudicate rules for individual uses on the fly.  Hopefully this vagueness will lead to creative and cunning uses devised by players and a lack of restriction on my part, but I worry that they will be so vague as to lose out in comparison to known goods like healing spells and the like.

The last thing I ended up stumbling into with runes as I was writing the rules for learning them was the decision that anyone can learn them.  I just a) let priests of Hrokr get them by prayer (but then its random), and b) made it so that Magic Users learn them faster by study than do others (studying arcane things to unlock their use is sort of their entire job).  But if Clerics want a specific rune, or if fighting men want to stray into more mythic archetypal territory, they have the option if they throw down a lot of time and (presumably) money.

Runic Magic

Runes can be granted to clerics of Hrokr through prayer, or they may be learned through intense study of from a talented teacher.  A rune is not merely a symbol with magical properties.  Rather, it is a physical distillation of the true nature of a thing in relation to the world.  So, a berserk rune will vary depending upon what surface and for what warrior it is crafted, and understanding the forces necessary to apply this to any object is a matter of some insight.

Runes impart abilities to the objects on which they are inscribed or to their bearers.  Usually, merely writing or painting a rune is insufficient to unite the energies of the rune with the item upon which it is placed, but some runes can grant a limited or weak effect when so temporarily marked.  There is a direct relationship between the permanence and craft of the object and the method of inscription to the power of the rune.  Thus, a sword crafted by a master smith, with the runes worked into the blade as it is forged and quenched will be a far more potent item with more permanent powers than a dagger with a rune hastily scratched into its hilt. 

Sometimes the release of the energies of a rune will damage or destroy the item upon which it is placed, and this is more likely the more hastily crafted the rune is.

Learning Runes

A cleric of Hrokr can learn a rune whenever he gains a new spell slot.  If he chooses to do so, he automatically learns a randomly determined rune and it permanently replaces one of his spell slots.  He may choose which spell slot, and it need not be the newly acquired slot.  Once chosen, it may not be moved to a different spell slot.  To randomly determine what rune is learned, roll 1d20 and consult the list below.  If the result is a rune already known to the cleric, he may instead choose freely, as he has been granted particular insight by Hrokr.

Any character may attempt to learn a rune through study if he has access to obscure runic lore, or to a tutor (these will probably take some finding!).  These sources will have information on only a few, specific runes, and access to them will probably not be cheap.  If the referee has not established which runes the source can teach, and he can’t decide, he may randomly roll 1d4 runes from the list below. Learning a rune from pure study (no tutor) takes 20 – the character’s level in weeks if he is a magic user, and 20 – half the character’s level (rounded down) if he is a fighting man or cleric. A tutor will reduce this time by 5 weeks.  The minimum time to learn a rune is 1 week.  However much time it takes, it is a period of intense study, and the character is considered to do nothing else of consequence during this time.  If there are any interruptions, he must start over and take the full amount of time.  At the end of the period, the character attempts to roll under his intelligence.  If he fails, he may retest in another week.  Continue retesting once a week until the character gives up or succeeds.  

List of Runes

  1. Victory Rune
  2. Opening Rune
  3. Ale Rune
  4. Wave Rune
  5. Heal Rune
  6. Curse Rune
  7. Ward Rune
  8. Fear Rune
  9. Berserk Rune
  10. Fire Rune
  11. Dead Rune
  12. Disease Rune
  13. Strength Rune
  14. Water Rune
  15. Earth Rune
  16. Air Rune
  17. Iron Can’t Bite Rune
  18. Fortune Rune
  19. Shield Rune
  20. Sealing Rune 


These descriptions are purposefully left vague in order to facilitate their creative application.  Referees should make rulings on their use based on the desired level of fantasticness and power they want runes to bring to their games.  Just remember the guidelines: the more permanent the inscription, the more powerful the effect, the higher quality and more permanent the material, the stronger the effect, the more temporary, the more likely the rune will damage or destroy the object inscribed, and the rune must be crafted by the casters own hand.

  • Victory Rune – Improves a weapons chance to hit and imbues it with magic
  • Opening Rune – Causes a locked or sealed portal to be opened – doors, windows, et cetera.
  • Ale Rune ­– Will destroy a vessel that holds poisoned food or drink
  • Wave Rune – Improves the handling and speed of a ship
  • Heal Rune ­– Increases a specified target’s ability to heal
  • Curse Rune – Inflicts a curse on a specified target
  • Ward Rune – Protects against spells and curses
  • Fear Rune – Causes fear in the enemies of the bearer
  • Berserk Rune – Causes the bearer to become a berserker
  • Fire Rune – Brings about fire in the thing inscribed or protects against fire
  • Dead Rune – Summons a spirit of the dead to answer questions
  • Disease Rune – Causes disease on a specified target
  • Strength Rune – Grants great strength to the bearer
  • Water Rune – Provides protection against water
  • Earth Rune – Imbues an item with the nature of the earth
  • Air Rune – Imbues an item with the nature of air
  • Iron Can’t Bite Rune – Reduces damage to the bearer
  • Fortune Rune – Allows the divination of a specified targets fortune
  • Shield Rune – Makes an item or its bearer more resistant to ill effects
  • Sealing Rune – Seals a portal of some sort



How to Make Sweet D100 Tables for Fun and Profit

Posted in New Rules, RPGs with tags , , on May 16, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Or: The FINGER system of faux-creativity

So, I’ve got a terrible confession to make.  As a self-described GM/Referee and creative person, I’m not actually that good at coming up with wacky creative ideas out of thin air.  I read stuff by Greg Gorgonmilk and Zak S. and Jeff Rients and so forth, and I’m always astounded by the raw awesome they seem to be able to pull out of the ether, and I greedily appropriate it for my own game.

On the other hand, what I am good at, if I may say so myself, is in selectively recombining things to get something new(ish) with a coherent feel.  So, a pastiche artist, if you will.  This used to drive me into fits of self-questioning angst, or launch me into pretentious justification of the inherent creativity of fitting together other’s works, but now I just accept it and try to have fun with it.  And keep my ideas for Thing A + Thing B but in Place C fantasy/sci-fi novels/comics/movies to myself (or realize the setting would be better for games anyway).


You know, this sort of thing

Recently, this tendency has been combined with my immersion into the Old School Renaissance/DIY D&D/whatever you want to call it.  I’ve always liked to tinker and house rule and design games, but specifically the habit of reading gaming material with an eye to ruthlessly tear out, appropriate, and modify any rules that I find useful is one that I’ve developed to a higher degree the last few months than ever before.  I initially got a bunch of retroclones and versions of D&D with the idea of soberly comparing, weighing strengths and weaknesses, and then selecting the one I liked best.  But now I look at all of them with the dispassionate eye of a black market organ harvester.  One of these days, DCC RPG is going to wake up in a bathtub full of ice, missing its zero level “funnel” character creation rules.

And then, last week, just as I was going to stat up some simple hydra teeth that turn into skeleton warriors, or a goat-legged Cyclops or something, I had a revelation.  I was reading the synopsis of “7th Voyage of Sinbad” and I realized how insanely D&D it was.  I checked other Harryhausen synopses and found that while the Sinbad movies were far and away the most D&D, everything had some stuff that was usable.  And I realized that I had started applying the pitiless scalpel of game material selection to creative stuff, fluff if you will, as well as to mechanics.  And the d100 table of random Harryhausenisms was born (by far my highest traffic post so far, so thanks folks).

I was thinking about it, and I realized that the actual procedure I used is replicable, and is in fact quite simple.  And that if you’re willing to be a little pastichey, you can cover a lot of setting ground with it.  This one’s going to be a little long, but you can probably get most of what’s here with the following list and the two examples at the end. Without further ado:

Jeff’s Guide to Making a Dwhatever Map Stocking Chart for Fun and Profit

(Okay, more likely just fun, but let me know if you figure out the profit part)

  1. 1.     Find an inspiring piece of media
  2. 2.     Identify the cool stuff in it
  3. 3.     Noun that stuff
  4. 4.     Genericize those nouns
  5. 5.     Expand their uses
  6. 6.     Ready your chart

(I figured out I could get a cute acronym about halfway through).

Step One – Find an Inspiring Piece of Media

Select a piece of media that gets your motor going or that fits with the milieu you’re shooting for.  Alternatively, if you’re looking to spice things up, purposely select something *outside* of your usual genre/world tropes, but that is still inspiring to you.  That’s the main thing.  You think it’s cool, and it’s something creative.  This is easiest to do with things that tell stories: books, movies, comics.  But you can do it with pictures or music or whatever as well.  I’ve started using heavy metal song lyrics all the time.  Examples to follow the explanation.

Step Two – Identify Cool Stuff in It

Go through this inspiring piece of media, and look for the cool stuff.  The easiest way to do this is to go to Wikipedia and read the plot synopsis (that’s what I did for the Harryhausen table), as this will by definition hit the highlights and moments of drama.  You could use back of book blurbs, internet reviews, whatever.  Or if you *really* like something, you can read through the actual source material and take notes or highlight or whatever.  Find the things that most scream “Gameable” and  “Awesome” to you. 

Step Three – Noun that Stuff

Once you’ve identified elements from your source material that are cool, you want to Noun them.  This is the opposite of Verbing things.  You see, verbs are the province of Plot.  Plot is not what we want here, because we’re all good sandboxy/player agency oriented referees, right?  Notice that’s big “P” Plot.  Yes, you can have a lovely picaresque plot emerge from the processes of play, and it probably will.  That’s in the future.  Because for our purposes, verbs are what *player characters* do.  Sometimes NPCs get to do verbs in *reaction* to player characters or because of some internal game world logic, but that’s not what our stocking table is for.  If you have a bunch of verbs on your list, then you either have to run an entire clockwork world in the background, for which there are better tools, or else have the artificialness that the zany, interesting action the players just walked up on just so happens to be going on right as the players find it, no matter when or under what circumstances they roll up. 

That’s why you don’t want to put the action in there, you want a person, a place, or a thing.  Maybe a scene or tableau if you want to push it.  The key here is that you present an element of the world, just like any other, that the players can act on and react to.  Making the scene into a noun makes it make more sense as a static feature, or even if it is a “this happens as you come upon it” (sometimes fun to include, I’ll admit) it doesn’t presume the player characters’ involvement.  It’s just there for them to interact with. None of this is to say that these nouns shouldn’t be ready to spring into appropriate action once the player characters poke it, just try to avoid things that are the other way around (that’s what random encounters are for).

Step Four – Genericize those Nouns

Now, here’s the tricky part, but the part that will help you find way more ideas: you want to take the cool nouned elements from your inspiring piece of media, and then you want to file off the serial numbers.  Got a reference to Mentok the Mindtaker? Turn that into “an evil mentalist”.  There’s a balance to be struck here: too generic and stuff isn’t cool or gameable. Too specific and your table becomes less useful to others, and also less useful to you.  If you want to use a cool specific guy or monster, don’t put it in a stocking table! Put it where you want it in your world, or else on a random encounter table.  The only thing gained by putting a specific person or thing in a stocking table is you don’t know where he or she or it will end up, and you can just do that by rolling once for the thing. 

Likewise, don’t get hung up on trappings or genre stuff too much.  For the Harryhausen table I made, even though most of the table came from the overtly fantasy Sinbad movies and Clash of the Titans, something like a quarter to a third of the entries (don’t quote me on that) are from movies set in modern America with fantastic elements (even aliens).  So, when you spot an evil wizard, consider thinking of him as just “an evil powerful guy” or “an evil guy with secret knowledge”.  Or if you find a story about hackers jacking some stuff in cyberspace (like the kids do), you can genericize it into “A highly skilled group of rogues pulls off an impressive heist.”  The key is not to lose the “character” of the person or thing you identify and make it so generic as to be boring, but to make it broadly useful and able to fit into whatever sort of world (unless the whole point is to introduce some gonzo weirdness or subvert genre tropes, in which case, have at it).

A variation of this if you’re only concerned with your own campaign world is to ‘reskin’ rather than genericize.  That’s basically what I did with the Harryhausen results from the 20th century America movies (and even the caveman movie) – I recast it in D&D terms (science becomes magic, aliens become generic invaders, et cetera).  Again, try to keep what was cool or striking about the thing, the underlying reason it will be a potential source of danger or excitement, but then make it so you can recombine it with any other damn thing.

Step 5 – Expand their Uses

Okay, I started stretching the names a little bit at this part so that I could make the acronym FINGER.  What I mean by “expand their uses” could also be described as analysis (from the Greek for “to chop up”, more or less).  So, you’ve got a cool thing, you’ve made sure it’s a noun, and you’ve made it so you can drop it into multiple places and situations in your world. You want to make sure that one entry on your chart isn’t being too greedy.  One of the chief values of charts is that like our old favorite sexual reproduction, you can recombine elements in novel and unexpected ways, and the end result might be a better fit for your environment than something you would have expected of planned.  The way to maximize the recombinatory potential of your chart is to try to make sure each entry is just “one thing”.  The way you get each entry to be “one thing” is to chop up an element you stole from your source.  So, if you find an awesome fight scene where a guy fights a wizard’s guard dragon by jerry rigging a ballista, and then the dragon falls on the wizard and kills him, you can turn that into 1) A wizard with a guard dragon, 2) A jerry rigged siege weapon, 3) A beast that kills its own master (that last one is a little verby, but hey). 

Step 6 – Ready your Chart!

This one is easy and was mostly in order to get the full acronym.  Just take your entries and arrange them into a chart.  Usually you’ll do this as you go, and the fact that, say, you only have 89 will spur you to find those last 11 so you can make a d100.  And you’re done! 

Well, you’re done with this chart.  But as mentioned before, unless your only goal is to make something for other people, or a crutch to fall back on in some indeterminate future, the process of making this chart could just as easily have been used to think up a setting.  Zak S. talks about this in his thoughts on types of random generators.  What we have above is kind of an incomplete results generator to spur creativity, but by itself that’s not very useful to you, since you made the chart yourself.  So, unless going through and making the table was a useful exercise for you creatively, or you just want to have on hand stuff that will surprise even you when the players go somewhere new, you need a little more to make your new chart super awesome.  For that recombinatory goodness, you could make a second chart, and make any locations of interest be Chart 1 + Chart 2 (a mutational generator, to use the terminology from the above link).  Or you could just make a d1000 chart or some other madness, so that you end up with things you stole from the Poetic Edda rubbing shoulders with things you stole from a Dethklok album which are a few days voyage from things you yoinked from Hellboy.

Connections are another good one: randomly determine two of the things you’ve placed on the map, and then make a connection.  You can either use a connection suggested by the nature of each entry, or you could randomize it.  Do enough of this, and there’s a lot of latent connections throughout your map that players can stumble across, and if you do need to do some background verbs, you know what they’ll be.  I think coming up with a good system to find relations between placed sites of interest is going to be my next big rules project after this one.

For bonus points, you can put your new chart in Abulafia and combine it with the work of others and save yourself time all at once.

With all that said, let’s do some examples! I probably should have just made the whole thing examples, but I’m a very verbal, explainy person, so there you go.

Example #1 – Wikipedia Plot Synopsis


I could just recap what I did with the Harryhausen movies, but that would be cheating, and I want to test out my method as explained.  So instead, let’s pick something else inspirational for D&D type stuff and go with everyone’s favorite hardass puritan, Solomon Kane! Let’s go with “Hills of the Dead” by Robert E. Howard.  Wikipedia has the following blurb:

“First published in Weird Tales, August 1930.  In Africa again, Kane’s old friend N’Longa (the witch doctor from “Red Shadows”) gives the Puritan a magic wooden staff, the Staff of Solomon, which will protect him in his travels.  Kane enters the jungle and finds a city of vampires.”

Step 1) Find an Inspiring Piece of Media: Was pretty easily accomplished by finding an awesome story by Robert E. Howard.

Step 2) Identify the Cool Stuff: is also not too hard, because REH stories are dripping with D&Dable material, even when summarized in two sentences: Solomon Kane, The Hills of the Dead, Africa, N’Longa the witch doctor, the Staff of Solomon, a jungle, and a city of vampires.

Step 3) Noun that Stuff: I kind of went ahead and identified the nouns in the process above, but if we had a more detailed synopsis and I wanted to pull an element out of a cool fight scene with the vampires in their city, this is where I would do it.

Step 4) Genericize those Nouns: To genericize this stuff, we could turn Africa into “a mysterious continent” or “an unfamiliar land” or whatever.  The idea is to get at what made Africa an exciting place to set a story to a 1930’s Texan writing about a 17th century puritan and pull it out for D&D (exotic, unexplored, dangerous creatures, magic, unfamiliar cultures, “savagery”, et cetera).  The Hills of the Dead is a nicely evocative name that you can lift and then decide what it means.  It could be a place full of barrows, the burial grounds of ancient dynasties, a hell on earth ruled by the undead, whatever.  Sometimes you get generic by taking a specific cool name and then making its use generic, rather than stripping the name off of a specific cool thing.  Make N’Longa just “A witch doctor”, make the Staff of Solomon “A Powerful Magical staff” or even just “An ancient artifact”.

Step 5) Expand their Uses: Expanding/analyzing isn’t super necessary for most of these elements, but here’s a couple of examples: take N’Longa giving Kane the staff and change that into “A witch doctor with a useful magical item” and into “A powerful artifact from ancient times”.  Or take the city of vampires in the jungle and break it out into “A City of vampires” and “An ancient city in the jungle”.

Step 6) Ready your Chart! :Take that cool stuff and slap it into a table! Here’s a lame tiny table smaller than is really worthwhile to make:

  1. A wandering religious warrior
  2. An exotic, unexplored land
  3. An old friend from a foreign land
  4. A witch doctor with a useful item
  5. A powerful artifact from ancient times
  6. An ancient city in the jungle
  7. A city of vampires
  8. The Hills of the Dead

Example #2 – Cover to Hellboy: Conqueror Worm

Rather than go the easy route and use a plot synopsis of this comic, let’s just look at the artwork for inspiration (okay, I’m gonna probably rely on some of my Hellboy knowledge here to provide context, but that’s only because Hellboy is so awesome).

Step 1) Find an Inspiring Piece of Media: This picture:


Step 2 Identify the Cool Stuff: Hellboy, gasmask guy, Lobster Johnson, giant worm, floating flame, golem, head in a jar, a saint, some skulls, the name “Conqueror Worm”

Step 3) Noun that Stuff: A lot easier with a ‘posed’ picture, so not much to do here.

Step 4) Genericize those Nouns: Hellboy becomes a half demon, or an investigator, or a hero fighting monsters (or in the next step, all of these).  Gasmask guy becomes the footsoldier of an evil regime.  The golem can stay a golem, the head in a jar can become a mad scientist, or an evil wizard, or a head in a jar, or a demi-lich, the conqueror worm can be a mundane giant worm, or a summoning gone wrong, or the avatar of an inhuman god, Lobster Johnson can be a vigilante, or a skilled warrior, or a man seeking revenge, the saint can be any old saint, or a painting of a saint, or the shrine to a saint.

Step 5) Expand their Uses: As mentioned above, Hellboy alone can give us three different people, and that’s without him even having any action to draw off of in this picture.  If we dig a little we can also say: the son of a witch, the possessor of a magical weapon, an artifact that is the key to the end of the world.  Our gasmask guy can be an evil footsoldier, undead menace, a faceless servant of darkness, a bug eyed, long snouted creature, whatever.  Sometimes you don’t necessarily want to completely parse out every aspect, or you’ll lose some of what makes that element cool to drop in.  You might prefer to have “a half demon who struggles to be good” rather than “a half demon” and “a warrior who struggles to do the right thing”.

Step 6) Ready your Chart! :So, let’s do another d8 weak sauce table:

  1. A half demon son of a witch
  2. The incarnation of an alien god
  3. The head of an evil wizard kept alive in a jar of fluid
  4. Faceless shock troops of an evil regime
  5. A vigilante that leaves his mark on his victims
  6. The defiled shrine of a saint
  7. A golem with a sense of self
  8. An enormous, disgusting wormbeast

First Fellhold Rules Post

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, Projects, RPGs with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2012 by Jeff Russell

Howdy folks. The bulk of this post will be the first actual rules I have written for Fellhold coming out of my reading “An Echo, Resounding” and “Dungeon World”. I was initially afraid I would simply be using pieces from each with no original material whatsoever, but in the process of figuring out what I really wanted to do, I ended up coming up with something more different than I expected, though the influences are obvious. Without further ado, here’s the section on creating a level for a megadungeon:

How to Create a Dungeon Level

These rules are presented to give you a toolbox for creating the levels of your megadungeon. They can also be used to make smaller lair style dungeons. The toolbox analogy is pretty fitting, though, because just as a hammer, nails, saw, and so forth are necessary to build a house, so too is the lumber and the time putting in the work. These rules are not a substitution for your imagination and creative work, but hopefully they are a useful guiding framework that limits your work to the fun stuff of coming up with what’s interesting, and somewhat mechanizing the more tedious parts.

Create a Level Front

Like the wider ranging and more amorphous sources of adventure of the surface world and wilderness, your preparation for the dungeon is organized as Fronts and Dangers, though being dungeon fronts and dangers, they are a little different in nature. You will follow a step by step process, and when you finish, you ought to have a living, breathing dungeon space ready for adventurers to stomp into and cause trouble.

1. Pick Tags for Original Purpose

Following is a list of tags that describe what the original purpose of any given area was broadly speaking. These don’t have any particular mechanical effect except to remind you what kind of hazards and monsters to put in there, how to lay out the rooms, and so forth. Somewhere between one and three is usually good for the level overall. Use these to capture a broad theme to guide you when maknig decisions about the level.

Arcane – Either built for some kind of Arcane experiment, or an area magical in nature.

Bandits – Brigands, human or otherwise, built or modified this area for their purposes.

Caverns – The natural forces of the earth opened these tunnels and chambers.

Chaos – Twisted by the intrusion of forces antithetical to reality, there is something deeply wrong with this part of the dungeon.

Cult – Constructed or modified for use by a secretive and sinister cult of some sort

Demonic – This area has received the attention of a demonic entity and reflects its twisted nature

Divine – When constructed, this area was imbued with some sort of divine energy – be sure to name the deity

Dwarven – This part of the dungeon was originally delved by dwarves. It is likely orderly and heavily decorated with dwarven designs.

Fungus – Extensive and large fungi grow in this area, whether wild or cultivated by underground denizens for food.

Gate – This area contains a passageway to somewhere else – a different environment, realm, or even world.

Mines – These tunnels were dug in pursuit of gold, silver, gems, or something else valuable under the earth, and are likely to be rougher hewn and less orderly than others, twisting to follow veins of precious materials.

Monsters – Some kind of intelligent monster made this place for its own use, it may be crudely done or well made.

Nest – This area was burrowed out by some kind of bestial creature.

Prison – A dungeon in the truest sense, this area was built to confine prisoners, and maybe worse.

Temple – This area was dedicated as a temple to some power, whether divine or profane, or something stranger

Tomb – Parts of these halls and rooms were built to serve as catacombs to house the dead.

Religion – This area was dedicated to some particular religious figure, you should specify which.

Volcanic – Whether active or dormant, this area was formed by movement of hot molten rock and gases from deep within the earth.

2. Pick Tags for Current Nature

Like the original purpose tags, these tags are meant to guide you in making decisions about crafting the level. You’ll notice that many of the tags are the same as from the original purpose section, even if their descriptions are a little different. The idea is that you don’t need to double up on something that is still true (If it was created divine and is still divine, no need for a separate current nature tag). Instead, these tags allow you to set up interesting contradicitons that show the way the dungeon has changed and developed. What was once the proud market place of the Dwarves may have become the scene of sorcerous displays by an evil cabal, and is now where bandits bed down their horses.

Ancient – Whatever formed this location, it was long and long ago.

Arcane – This location serves some magical purpose, or is imbued with arcane energies.

Bandits – Some kind of humanoids that prey on others have set up shop in this part of the dungeon.

Chaos – This part of the dungeon is twisted and tainted from the touch of something beyond any rational world.

Cult – A sinister and covert religious group uses this area for its mysterious ends.

Demonic – One or more demons maintain contact with the world in this place, and it carries their taint.

Divine – Blessed by some deity, name which god has bestowed his or her benefits on this section of the dungeon.

Fungus – Omnipresent and possibly huge fungi cover this section .of dungeon, whether overgrowth or cultivated by subterranean inhabitants.

Gate – This section of the dungeon serves as a gate to elsewhere – whether mundane or supernatural.

Mines – These tunnels are actively worked to extract the riches of the earth.

Monsters – Creatures, whether humanoid or not, infest this area. Use each significant monster type present as a tag.

Nest – Something monstrous and non-humanoid has made this area its home.

Prison – Captives are held or tortured here.

Religion – Some religion is practiced here. The tag should specify the deity’s name.

Temple – This section is used for worship of some force.

Tomb – Whatever its original purpose, this section now houses the burials of some intelligent group.

Volcanic – Active magma and hot gases can be found in this area.

3. Decide Total Treasure Number

As discussed in the Domain Play section, one Treasure is equal to 500 GP. A good rough formula for how much treasure a level should have is to multiply 10 times a number of D6s equal to the level of the dungeon (this is untested still!)

4. Create a Danger for each Section

This is where most of your work creating dungeon levels will come in.  Follow the steps below in the Create a Section Danger section in order to detail each section of the current level. Any tags you’ve selected for the level overall will apply to the sections unless you decide otherwise. Also, it’s important to point out that an entire level can just be one section. This is a great way to make either“lair” type dungeons, smaller megadungeon levels, or parts of larger megadungeon levels. In the original Fellhold campaign, most levels were divided into quadrants which were statted up as sections.

5. Create any level-wide monster assets

If you have any especially large monsters or wide ranging monster groups that you want to be prevalent throughout the entire level and not associated with any particular section, go ahead and follow the rules for creating a monster asset detailed in the chapter on Assets.

Create a Section Danger

It will be most regular for a level to represent a number of rooms and corridors roughly the same distance above or below ground, and for sections to be some subset of those rooms and corridors. This is not the only possible way to use these rules, however. You might have a tower that counts as all one “level” and each section is a floor, or even a grouping of floors. Don’t feel bound to create a new “level” and “section” just because the player characters will have to go up or down some stairs to access it. You could also create a sprawling ruin of a city and have each neighborhood be a section. The rules are purposely flexible.

The included Section Reference Sheet provides space for recording most of the decisions you make here, but all that’s really needed is a pencil and some paper (preferably graph paper).

1. Create a Ruin Location for the Section

This is fairly straightforward, and is mostly a content holder for all of the work you will do in the rest of the steps. If it is ever interacted with using the Domain Play rules, it will be a ruin with a Treasure value of whatever you assign from the overall level Treasure, a nature of whatever Original Purpose and Current Nature tags you pick, and any monster assets you create for the section. If you want to keep the dungeon feeling “alive” you can have each section function as a small domain and take domain turns using the monster assets and transfer treasure around and modify assets accordingly.

2. Pick Tags for Original Purpose

These are the same tags as for the overall level, but they allow you to fine tune a particular section of the level. Perhaps the level overall is an ancient Dwarven city, but this section was their fungus farm, yuou could add the Fungus tag.

Arcane, Bandits, Caverns, Chaos, Cult, Demonic, Divine, Dwarven, Fungus, Gate, Mines, Monsters, Nest, Prison, Religion, Temple, Tomb, Volcanic

3. Pick Tags for Current Nature

Just as with the Original Purpose tags, these are identical to the Current Nature tags for the overall level, but allow you to call out a particular section as different.

Ancient, Arcane, Bandits, Chaos, Cult, Demonic, Divine, Fungus, Gate, Mines, Monsters, Nest, Prison, Religion, Temple, Tomb, Volcanic

4. Assign portion of Level’s treasure to section

Use your own good judgment here, but unless you have crafted one section of the level to have more treasure than others (like, say, because a dragon has its lair there or an entire tribe of trollkin store their loot there) it’s just fine to split it up evenly among the sections.

5. Choose or Draw the Floor Plan

This part has always proved challenging to me, and so I remind you that you can repurpose sections of the many, many dungeon maps available for free or for purchase. It is satisfying in a different way to work within the constraints of an existing floor plan to find your vision than it is to think through the placement of rooms and halls and make your own decisions. Both are fun, and both lead to good dungeons, so honestly, go with whatever you’re most comfortable with, and feel free to mix it up from level to level, section to section.

The main thing you’ll want to concern yourself with, whether drawing or copying a map, is to make sure there is interaction with the rest of the dungeon. Make sure sections connect in multiple ways, have stairs up and down levels, and so forth. It’s especially fun and interesting to make multiple connections of different sorts, such that one part of level 1 leads down to level 2, but another goes to level 3, and still another leads to a sub-area of level 1. Layouts like this encourage thorough exploration and lots of backtracking, giving you the chance to showcase the dungeon as a living, changing place.

6. Create the Stocking Tables

The stocking tables are really where the section comes to life. It may seem dry at first to make a bunch of tables, but they allow you to combine your creativity and judgement and random chance in a way that really fosters a dynamic, living feeling for the dungeon. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you’ll be amazed at the way motives and plot hooks and history just pop into your brain as you work your way through the rooms with a random table. They also make it really easy to restock the dungeon after the adventurers have massacred their way through a section.

6a. Create Monster & Treasure Frequency Table

The Monster & Treasure Frequency Table allows you to determine whether a given room contains a monster and/or treasure. When checking to see if a room contains either a monster or treasure, you roll on this table. The default table, modified from the original adventure game is as follows:

Roll 1st Die Result Roll 2nd Die Result
1 Monster 1 Treasure
2 Monster w/Treasure 2 Nothing
3 Empty 3 Nothing
4 Empty 4 Nothing
5 Empty 5 Nothing
6 Empty 6 Nothing

If you use this default table, the procedure is to roll 1d6 to see if there is a monster with or without treasure, and then to roll a 2nd die if there is no monster to see if there is unguarded treasure. To save time, you may wish to roll 2d6 of two different colors, designate one the “monster die” and the other the “treasure die” and ignore the treasure die on a result of 1 or 2 on the monster die.

If you choose to create an alternate monster/treasure frequency table, simply choose a die size, how many dice to roll and then assign values. I’d recommend sticking with the default until you get a feeling for how populated a dungeon you want to face in play. Having a good mix of rooms that are genuinely empty and rooms that just need a little searching to find somethign of value, and rooms that represent a potential threat is necessary to keep the exploration aspect of the game fun and interesting.

6b. Create Monster Stocking Table

This table is where your section really gets the flavor that your players are going to notice the most. Monsters provide the most interactive part of what the players will face in a dungeon section, and so help define places. As you choose monsters for the table, don’t think only about how many hit dice they have, or how large a group they travel in, think also about how they fit together, and what they’re doing in this section of the dungeon. In a section of the dungeon you’ve designated as Hobgoblin controlled, most of your entries will probably be Hobgoblins. If you want a section of caverns to feel more wild and untamed, don’t put any intelligent monsters in your table. You get to exercise some discretion and taste in what you include and at what frequency, but then the random die rolls will give a pleasantly unexpected specific mix.

Another important consideration is the rate of refresh for your stocking table. The dungeon should be a living place, and just because the adventurers have been through an area before doesn’t mean it should be a barren, safe wasteland from then on out. Tweak your stocking table to reflect changes (maybe driving out the hobgoblins opened up the area to goblins now), and after the right amount of in-game time has passed, go through the stocking process again. A good starting point is 1 week, but up this for rarer creatures or lower it for especially prolific ones.

To create your table, simply select a die size and then assign an entry to each value, using the guidance above. Do yourself a favor, though: don’t go nuts on the die size. If you try to pick d100 monsters, or even d100 discrete entries for every single section, you’ll end up throwing your referee’s binder at the wall in no time. Now, if you have broad percentages that amount to 20 or less entries, that’s just fine. For starting out, D6, D8, or D10 gives you plenty of room to play with, but won’t leave you stumped on those last few entries.

6c. Create Room Dressing Table

Room Dressing is whatever random stuff you place in rooms to give them some character beyond their bare dimensions and the composition of their walls. It’s not necessary to have or to specify dressing in every single room, but you’ll want to be careful about only describing items in detail when they warrant being searched or flat out telling players a room is empty if it is. Let them explore! Try to include things that suggest something of the section’s purposes throughout the ages. As with the monster tables, choose a die size that seems appropriate and fill it with things that seem evocative of the tags you chose at the beginning, but that can be reused a few time without it being weird.

Depending on how frequently you use the room dressing table, you may want only things of especial interest or curiosity, or you may want a bunch of random nothing. Just remember that anything of value is treated under treasure, and has probably long ago been carried off by monsters unless hidden.

Maybe roll a D20 along with your monster/treasure frequency rolls and treat 1-10 as nothing, and then have results for 11-20.

10. Place any special monsters or treasures

Often you will have one or a few creatures or items that you know exactly what you want to do with – the troll chieftain, the dragon, and so forth. Don’t put these guys in your monster chart! They deserve to be treated as individual threats placed with care. So before you use any of your shiny new tables, place the things that are special to the section. Remember to deduct any treasure so placed from the available section treasure to be assigned using the stocking tables.

11. Run through remaining rooms using Stocking Tables

After having hand-placed the important monsters and their hoards, you identify any rooms that seem like they might contain monsters and/or treasures (I tend to leave out tiny storerooms or rooms that are extremely repetitive, or to only pick a few of them). Go through each in turn and roll on your monster and treasure frequency chart. If they indicate monsters and/or treasure, use the appropriate charts. Place treasure with monsters according to the monsters’ description, and when placing treasure randomly, it should be D100% of 1 Treasure (500 GP), and it should be well hidden and/or trapped. This is an excellent excuse to include a trap you hadn’t thought of yet!

As you go through placing monsters and treasure, you may find it easier to convert the sections Treasure total into a GP value and then assign the Gold Marks, Silver pennings, Copper Skillings, jewels, weapons, and so forth accordingly. If you reach the total treasure value for that section, then do not place any more treasure. If you have a lot of rooms left without any treasure, consider altering the level’s overall amount of treasure to better reflect what ought to be there.

12. Create Wandering Monster Table

This table will quite likely be fairly similar to your stocking table (sometimes they can even be identical), but you can add some nuance by having a distinction between the monsters that wander this area and those who actually reside there in a more permanent fashion. In addition to choosing a die size and assigning monsters (or evecn strange sounds or events) to each result, you need to choose how often to check for a wandering monster in this section. Once per hour (6 exploration turns) is fairly typical, but you can vary how dangerous and draining an area is not just in the difficulty of monsters, but in how often they show up.

13. Create Monster Assets

Follow the rules for Monster Asset creation detailed in the Assets section of the Domain Play chapter in order to create assets representing any large monster forces or particularly powerful individual monsters. Again, this will let you play out “domain actions” between dungeon inhabitants to keep the dungeon dynamic, as well as giving you the information you need if any enterprising domain ruler tries to deal with a dungeon through main force.

14. Place Traps

Go through the level and place any fiendish traps or puzzles you care to. Sometimes you’ll do this step as your draw the floor plan and see where traps would make sense. Other times you’ll being to see a sort of logic emerging from your stocking rolls, and you’ll set up traps that way. Give traps some thought: were they put there by the original constructors? Can they be reset? How do the dungeon’s denizens deal with them? On the other hand, don’t overthink them too much: dungeons have traps, they’re part of the territory, so if you think you need some, put them in there.

15. Final Touches and Tweaks

At this point you have an entirely playable dungeon section that you’re prepared to restock or have interact with other dungeon levels and sections as necessary. It’s helpful, though, to take a moment to look at everything together and make any final tweaks that suggest themselves, whether regarding monster placement, treasure amount, or just what makes sense or not, this is your chance to double check that the section actually makes good on the creative vision you codified in the tags you chose at the outset.