Friday, December 24, 2021

State of the Blog Year 3

Welcome to the third anniversary of A Distant Chime! I'm glad to be here another year with a great community, and hope to keep writing with you all for a long time! Happy Christmas Eve! Now onto this year's reflections!


I've posted fewer pieces this year than any year prior. I attribute this to my having only a limited time and energy budget for RPGs, especially since I'm back in school now, and that budget is taken up more and more by actually running the game. I not only finished the Castle Xyntillan campaign, but started an Icewind Dale campaign in 5e and brought it to a satisfying conclusion, and started and concluded a Legend of the 5 Rings 4e campaign for most of the same group. 

My notetaking for both these campaigns is terrible compared to that of my CX game. How terrible, you ask? I don't know for sure how many sessions each ran for, that's how bad. I'm not sure why my notetaking degraded so either. By the end of the CX game, I was having great difficulty remembering funny interactions between players, which I could do quite easily at the start. Still, I wager those two games combined totaled around 60 sessions, so I've run an excess of 70 total sessions this year. This means that I'm now well above 100 games run in my career as a GM. It's a big step up from the blog's early days, when my writing was more fiction-like, ungameable, and I had quite little GMing of playing experience. 

That said, I still managed to write a bit. 

The posts which I still recommend reading include:

Finally, my favorite thing I wrote this year was The First Rat Bank, a dungeon which I submitted to JB's Out of the Sewer! contest, and won one of the two top spots. You can find the first draft of it (which has some very notable formatting errors I didn't catch before I sent it in, special thanks to Melan for taking a look at it!) at Actually Making a Dungeon: The First Rat Bank. If you want to see the cleaned-up version, keep an eye on JB's blog for when he publishes the collection. It's for charity!


My stats page tells me that I accumulated some 50 thousand views in the last twelve months, and I no longer trust it in the least. At various times in this same period I've noticed quite strange behavior in my blog views, with various unlikely countries suddenly spiking with hundreds of views in a short period, apparently driven by a single viewer. This explosion in viewership, at the same time that my posting rate has dramatically slowed, was not at all accompanied by an increase in comments or followers. I have no idea what this is, but it's definitely not real readership. Some other bloggers, such as Sofinho, have noticed very similar behavior. I'm just not going to bother looking at these stats going forward unless I can figure out how to separate the real views from... bots? I have no clue.


I've stopped really advertising myself as much, outside of just posting links to the OSR server when I write a post. I no longer trawl the OSR Pit, nor the OSR subreddit. I feel like I'm missing so much there, but can't find the time. Still, I'm having a good time writing here for the followers I already have, so i've little to complain about.

The Index

Has not been updated in... oh my that's a long time. I suppose I'll have to hunker down and work on that, but not today.

Unfinished Drafts

I have... a lot of them. Some are posts which I started writing but got sidetracked on. Others are essays which I've come back to repeatedly, but haven't been able to bring into proper form. Others are less posts on themselves and more reminders to my future self to write something. Some I've just gone ahead and discarded, while others I do intend to one day finish. I list a few here. If any sound especially interesting to read, comment below and I'll prioritize them.

Politics in RPGs: A response to Prismatic Wastelands' post Apolitical RPGs Do Not Exist

Module Doctor: Oni Mother Okawa Part 2, in case you want me to torture myself further in the process of demonstrating how to cut down narration and description.

Parable of Smake-Hands Jimmy: Some dungeon poetry and kooky short fiction of dubious worth.

A post examining the differences in medieval and modern worldviews with regard to magic and fantasy. 

Reflections from my time as a player instead of a GM, and how they contrast,

The many kinds if 'inns' and their implications for your fantasy world. 


Thus ends another year! Stay safe and spend time with your families, and special thanks to frequent commenters Tamás Kisbali, Sofinho, Spwack and Melan

Friday, December 3, 2021

Actually Making a Dungeon: The First Rat Bank

Many of you will have seen JB's Out of the Sewer! adventure contest. TL;DR, it was a contest for the month of November to write a rat-themed adventure, with a shortlist of the adventures repackaged as an anthology to be sold for charity. I was a busy bee in November, but kept it in the back of my mind, and when I finally had time to spare during Thanksgiving week, I poured myself into it. 

And it turns out... I was one of the two winners. I did not expect this, but am quite happy with it. The other big winner is Vance A. with 'Clearing the Warren,' go show him some love!

Since JB enjoyed it, I figured I'd put my process out for others to see, since it was a good learning experience. 

The adventure I made is The First Rat Bank, a dungeon-based adventure with 27 rooms in 3 pages, plus 2 pages of maps and a page for notable characters and treasures (mostly magic items). It's a pretty slapdash affair, very basic layout with no frills, no art, maps exported from mipui, and without real adventure hooks or wandering encounters, just rooms and keys. So it's by no means complex, but I think it's fairly competent for what it is.

The Concept

At the beginning of the month, I did a bit of brainstorming, and settled on writing an adventure set in a tavern, where everyone within had been shrunk down through a magic ritual conducted by a swarm of cranium rats, such that the party would have to face ordinarily trivial challenges at 1/12 their normal size. A neat idea, but tough to pull off, and by the time the last week rolled around, an entirely different, and more executable, idea came up.

JB hates rats. I'm not quite so down on the little things, though I've never lived in close proximity (that I know of). Besides their association in western countries with plague, I was more taken with their eastern associations with industry, generosity and wastefulness (according to wikipedia anyway). In Legend of the 5 Rings (which is actually one of my favorite systems to run or play, though I've written almost nothing about it on this blog) rats are the sacred animals of Daikoku, the fortune of prosperity. 

So when I thought of rats, I didn't think first of disease-ridden warrens and plague pits. My first image was of a statue of a rat holding a coin. That first image turned into the basic premise; a bank, whose icon is a rat, making use of the above associations, whose (more literally than usual) predatory practices lead a team of adventurers to break in and ???. Maybe discover some secret, destroy them, steal all their goodies, what have you, it's not very well defined in the end result either. I imagined were-rats using their control of ordinary rats to comb the city, not just for information, but stealing small valuables, a lost earring here, a coin from under the couch there, etc. This didn't really make it into the final cut either.

The Making

My first stop for making the adventure was figuring out the level and treasure, as well as the system. I settled on Swords and Wizardry, since it's the retro system I have the most familiarity with thanks to my CX campaign, and I settled on a dungeon for a party of level 6. Why? Well, because I wanted to be able to throw some neat stuff in there and the highest level I've ever run is 6, since that's where the CX campaign ended. Plus, if I ever got around to playtesting it, I could get the old gang back together, dust off the Groomsmen with all their insane magic items, and relive the glory days (the glory days were less than a year ago -Ed). If Sabatini, Dave, other Dave, or Justin are reading this, hey! Maybe don't read the dungeon if you're interested, or be prepared for a memory wipe.

So I went to my regular resource for this stuff... B/X Blackrazor. Seriously, JB's posts on Stocking per Moldvay (especially part 2) are my go-to. Level 6 party, I wanted a dungeon that could get such a party halfway to level 7 if they found and fought everything (JB pins the size for something like that around 30-ish rooms, I went for 30 to start) and last two or three sessions. 

I calculated the amount of XP to put in there (about 60k for a party of 5) and since I play with monster xp, went for a 3-1 ratio of treasure xp to monster xp, smack in the middle of S&W's recommended range. 

With that down, I got cracking. I always start these things with a basic concept, and then fill in with monsters. 15k of monsters is a fair bit, and I split these up into packets for encounters. 1800xp of monsters can cover lots of things, from a single big bruiser to a truly massive rat swarm. I like smaller numbers of monsters usually, the most I ever put in a single room here is eleven, so no room full of 50 skeletons here. 

I just flipped through the bestiary and picked stuff at random, some because it made sense (wererats? Obviously! And what kind of bank doesn't have a vampiric manager?) and others that really didn't make sense (a medusa? A treant? a flesh golem? how do these fit? Don't know, I'll find a place) and filled stuff into the slots, modifying the plan at my whim as I went. 

Soon enough I had a list of monsters, and got to wondering how they fit together. I also followed JB's advice in splitting the treasure according to a power-law distribution (I think it is anyway? Oh, for the days I could rattle off the difference between heavy and light-tailed distributions! [those days were also less than a year ago -Ed]) where half the treasure was in one spot, and a quarter in the next, and an eighth in the next, and so on. 

Then I took the Moldvay stocking distribution, 10 monsters, 10 empty rooms, 5 traps, 5 'special' rooms, assigned treasure to a few of these, and just started placing. Some monsters were pretty easy to place, obviously the treant was above ground, and the vampire below. I had settled by this point on two floors, ten rooms on the surface and 20 below. 

I had not, by this point, done very much on a map, so I made a very quick sketch to organize my thoughts. The bulk of the work in the next session was a matter of seeing what ideas came up, figuring if they fit or not, and putting them in rooms if they did. By far the most difficult bit for me is in making traps. Even with a copy of Grimtooth's at hand I am woeful with them, and find myself unable to do good sideways thinking to come up with good concepts. The best one here is a derivative of the 'Roman Amphitheatre' trap, which in a characteristic display of punnishness I labeled 'Ratlas Shrugged.' It's a good day when you can squash the party with a physical manifestation of their own greed. 

Once this phase was over, I had a whole bunch of rooms, some well defined and some not, and nowhere to put them. So I sketched up a map on mipui and just started placing. Some rooms, especially empty rooms, became quite clear once I had a space in front of me. 

The rest of the work was a mix of creativity with tedium. The best is when I've got an idea and am figuring out how to put it in words, the worst is when I've got to write a trap and nothing is coming to mind. The end result here was 27 rooms instead of 30, and it came mostly out of my trap budget. 

I noticed this when I was doing my Depravities of the Dinosorcerer dungeon last year (very much the same process as this, but more ambitious, less coherent, and unfinished), I really love the craft of taking an evocative idea and figuring out how to condense and compress it with minimal loss so it fits in a few lines. I also love taking a mediocre concept and spinning out something evocative from its bones, it's so gratifying. 

The monsters especially went through a few versions before I got something that felt right. In the end result, there are some parallels and what I will tentatively call 'themes,' n.b. Eve vs Emptiness-Seeks-Form. These were not part of any plan, but once I saw them arising I put in some effort to flesh them out. 

However, a week isn't very long even with a lot free time, and I'm new at this, so near the end I still had a bunch of rooms , especially the empty and special rooms, which needed something and had nothing, not even a concept. I wound up taking some really basic stuff (mess hall, kitchen, evil shrine) and trying to make them fun and fresh without requiring too much 'content' with varying results. 

I outright stole one room from the dinosaur dungeon mentioned above, since I increasingly despair of it ever being finished. It was probably my favorite of those rooms I've made. 


It's worth noting that the layout/format for all this is effectively stolen from Melan's Castle Xyntillan, since it's very readable, dense and I'm comfortable with it. I've used it for so many of my projects that I largely no longer need to reference the original or my impromptu style guide. 


Didn't happen. I don't have an old-school group at the moment and getting one together for this is beyond my present circumstances. Fully testing, expanding and polishing this is a someday affair.
And on the pedestal these words appear,
'No playtesters are credited in this publication.'

Writing an adventure is time-consuming. Much more so than just making the framework for one for my own table. That said, the games I've homebrewed haven't depended heavily on dungeons. 

Without a deadline like this, it likely would have never gotten done. Not sure how to implement this for the future. 

I have a not-inconsiderable talent for coming up with fun ideas and applying them. I like this. 

I seriously need to work out my block with traps. 

This is fun, and I am inspired to do more. 


If you've enjoyed this rambling mess, there's more where that came from! Comment below, and be sure to follow the blog. Until next time, have an excellent week!