Category: Game Design

Last week I posted about running a grown-up RPG session that included some kids, and the insights I gained from that experience (insights that didn’t always mesh with the conventional wisdom about kids’ games). In the three days between that game session and writing the post, I had a second interesting kids-and-RPGs experience: I played in a session of Numenera run by my 11-year-old daughter.


Liv played her first tabletop RPG at the age of seven. (We have a photo of her rolling a die in a Cthulhu game when she wasn’t more than five months old, but I don’t think that really counts.) She’s familiar with the structure of the activity and has observed plenty of GMing action, so she was not a neophyte to the whole thing. She didn’t do the most awesome job in the world, frankly: She wasn’t great with the pacing, she didn’t circulate the spotlight particularly well, and she didn’t have a good sense for setting task difficulties. She brought the adventure to a conclusion in a way that wasn’t super satisfying, but I think that was in response to the players going off the rails a bit. (Which in turn was probably due to her inexperience at keeping us on the rails, which in turn was probably related to preparation, which I’ll get to in a sec.) In short, it wasn’t the greatest RPG experience I’d ever had.

But: Her errors weren’t out of line with what I’d expect from any first-time GM–the result of inexperience, rather than any inability to handle the fundamentals of GMing. Here are some of the things she got right:

  • She pictured the encounters in her head and then communicated them consistently and well to the players.
  • She gave her NPCs motivations and used them to derive reasonable and consistent actions.
  • She used the rules appropriately.
  • But she also relied on her own judgement when that was a more appropriate course of action. (In particular, there was one item in the text that was very ambiguous; she made a wise decision to simply pick a course of action and run with it rather than let it bog the game down at a key point.)
  • She remained in control of the session–she did a good job staying in charge.

If I had to single out one place where she really fell short (sorta), it was preparation. I don’t think Liv really “got” the idea that RPGs require a fair bit of prep. In the leadup to this, she expressed the desire to GM several times, and each time I outlined what she needed to do to make it happen. And each time she simply didn’t do it. We solved this problem by using an adventure out of the forthcoming Weird Discoveries–a book of adventures specifically designed to require virtually no prep. Even then, although she read the material in advance, I’m not sure she fully parsed how the whole thing was likely to play out. And that accounts, I think, for the less-than-completely-awesome adventure conclusion.

Following my experience running a game for kids I was really paying attention not just to the game itself, but to the experience of playing with a child GM. What did I learn? Surprisingly, not a whole lot. It frankly wasn’t a radically different an experience from playing with an adult newbie GM. I guess that’s something, so I’ll lead off my bullet points by saying that again.

  • It frankly wasn’t a radically different an experience from playing with an adult newbie GM. The same pitfalls apply.
  • While Liv was great at taking the reins in hand with a group that included her parents (a force that moderated the children in the group, while not challenging her GM’s role), I wonder what it would be like in a group of kids her age. How does an 11-year-old respond to the inevitable challenges to her authority that will come from other kids?
  • And then there’s the prep issue. How well can kids adapt to the need to come to the table ready to provide three or four hours worth of content? That takes a lot of dedication.

I suspect she’s taken the prep lesson to heart–it will be interesting to see what her second GMing experience is like. And I think that if she were to sit down with a group of kids, I might recruit a ringer–perhaps take her brother aside and quietly give him the job of moderating any uprisings from the other players.

The bottom line is this: We’ll definitely do it again! It’ll be interesting to see how her GMing style evolves as one of her players. And I know she has some friends her age who would be interested in playing, so I’ll encourage her to try an all-kids game. We’ll see how it goes!

I had an interesting gaming experience over the weekend: I ran The Strange for a group that included several children.

This isn’t really anything new: I’ve run games for my kids several times over the past three or four years. But those were always adventures I prepped and ran specifically as family or kids’ games. Slightly watered down versions of pretty middle-of-the-road fantasy tropes, along with fairly relaxed use of the rules, significant hand-holding, and no expectation of bringing a story through from start to finish.

This weekend’s game was for a mixed group of adults and children, and although I kept it PG (well, maybe PG-13), it was otherwise prepped and run like a real, grownup game. I’ve had some experience with kids learning RPGs in the past (focus grouping the D&D Black Dragon Basic Game, for example), so I was really curious about how the session would turn out. It turned out well–but I learned a few things I’ll keep in mind for future games of this sort!

First, here’s who we had:

  • Ryan adults: Experienced with RPGs and The Strange. I was the GM.
  • Olivia (aged 11): Somewhat experienced with RPGs, but mostly in sessions that were run specifically for kids. Played a guest session in my grownup The Strange campaign a few weeks back, though.
  • Rowan (9): Somewhat experienced with RPGs, but this was the most grownup session he’d played.
  • Adult friends: Not gamers, but familiar with the tropes. Both had read a bit of The Strange corebook.
  • Adult friends’ son H____ (9): Never played an RPG, but had previously rolled up a character under our supervision. A bit of a prodigy (OK, a serious prodigy); he’d read the corebook cover to cover probably multiple times. He knew the game rules and terminology better than anyone else in the room.

These children were all either a little experienced or extremely precocious—they definitely aren’t typical kids playing a game right out of the box, so while it was interesting to observe their reactions I don’t think they stand in for kids everywhere. It’s also worth noting that there was a 7-year-old present who simply couldn’t parse what was going on, so he didn’t participate.

But for the rest of them, the basic concepts of roleplaying, the rules, and the setting were never an issue. (There was sometimes a bit of confusion over these things, but not out of line with what you’d see in a newbie adult player.) And kids lack the level of life experience adults have, so they sometimes needed to have setting or NPC details spelled out a bit more.

A lot of games with a kids’ focus tend to go with oversized components or text, and that’s not a bad thing—but it wasn’t super necessary in our case. There weren’t any problems with reading dice or character sheets/books/cypher cards/etc. These kids were perfectly fine with adult-scaled text and components. (Heck, we were mostly using the Q-Workshop Strange dice, and while I love them they’re not the easiest dice to read!)

Time also wasn’t an issue. People think kids have short attention spans, and kids games are often designed to run short. We played through my entire adventure–a solid six hours, with an hour dinner break in the middle. The kids were engaged throughout (for the most part); the only issue we had was Rowan’s extreme distress that the adventure came to and end!

So if the kids grokked rules and setting and components as well as adults (more or less), where were the lessons? Definitely in the realm of game etiquette. Issues included:

  • Not understanding when to take the spotlight and when to give it up.
  • A frequent compulsion to over-describe trivial character appearance and actions. When a kid gets an exciting idea in his head (like, the pose he strikes before busting through the door guns blazing), he MUST MUST MUST tell everyone. In detail. Excitedly. Possibly several times.
  • Inability to sit in one spot; a tendency to drift along the sofa in front of other players.
  • Some (but not too much) bad behavior during a “boring” part (read: the spotlight is on other players).
  • No understanding of pacing—specifically, when something has been talked to death and it’s time to keep moving. Not just description, but also interpretation of clues, planning the next step, etc.
  • Not always paying attention to the order of events, even when fully engaged. Not reliable about managing who goes when in combat, for example.
  • One of the kids, although he reads like an adult, doesn’t write well and resists doing it. He almost always had to be reminded to mark points from his pool when applying Effort, for example. Not because he forgot or was cheating, but because he simply doesn’t like to write.

So what did I learn? What makes GMing for kids different than for adults? There are minor issues of having to present and explain things a bit differently, but mostly it comes down to the fact that RPGs fill their players’ heads with exciting flights of the imagination–and when a kid has an exciting thought, the compulsion to share it is overwhelming. So a good GM needs to:

  • Control the pace of the game.
  • Control the spotlight.
  • Control the blathering.
  • In fact, just control. Being the GM doesn’t change the fact that you’re still the parent (or at least the authority figure). Sometimes you have to be a bit more forceful about telling a player to sit down or stop talking.
  • And then look out for any needs particular to your child players–whether that’s imagining what a typical city block looks like if they’ve mostly lived in the suburb or reminding them to write down their pool expenditures.

I’ll definitely do this again. (Spoiler alert: I actually already have, sort of. But that’s a topic for another post.) In the mean time, if you have a few spare kids sitting around, maybe it’s time to start them with RPGs! And if you’ve already done so, what have your experiences been?

If you follow gaming news, you probably saw the Origins Awards nominations late last week. I’m very pleased that Monte Cook Games’s own Numenera is in the running for Best RPG. (And let me be clear: Credit for this lies in no way with me. The game was almost completely finished before I joined the company.) Congratulations to Monte, Shanna, and Kieran for the recognition of their incredible work.

How do ya like that logo, by the way? Yeah, I designed it.

How do ya like that logo, by the way? Yeah, I designed it. Back in the day.

(Also, congrats to the awesome Jeff Tidball, who’s Eternal Lies, which he ran for us as a campaign lasting more than a year (and about which I wrote in my last post), was also nominated.)

I ran the Origins Awards for five years. (I was the Chairman of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design from 1995-2000.) The process is somewhat different than it was when I was at the helm, but here’s something I often said then and which holds true today: It really is an honor just to be nominated.

In fact, it’s really a bigger honor, and here’s why: The nomination process culls roughly five titles from each category from among the dozens or hundreds of potential candidates. Although not always perfect, this process usually does a pretty good job of identifying the best releases of the category. And these titles are usually the standouts in the field–the games and products that really do stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Beyond that, though, it’s kind of a crap shoot. Among those five releases, there’s rarely a single title that blows the others out of the water. The decision of which is “best” becomes pretty subjective, and easily affected by which has the largest or most vocal following, has better distribution and visibility, or gets an uplift from association with a popular brand. This is not to say these factors overwhelm the issue of quality–just that, when the qualitative differences are slim, other factors become more influential.

And that’s the key: The qualitative differences between the nominees are usually pretty slim, whereas all of the nominees usually stand out in comparison with the rest of the field. Nomination is what really marks a product as superlative. It really is an honor to be nominated.

So congrats to the folk behind Numenera, and Eternal Lies, and 13th Age and Love Letter and FATE and all of the other nominees. It’s an honor to be counted among you!

Game mechanics are the operating system of your campaign. And like computer operating systems, they are built from thousands of lines of code that interact with one another in complex ways. Kit-bashing your system can be a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. And it can lead to unpredictable results or the need to improvise rules issues on the fly.

But not all rules are as closely tied to the overall system as others. In fact, sometimes even a signature rule or subsystem isn’t really wired tightly to the core mechanics at all. Call of Cthulhu’s sanity system can pretty much be lifted, lock, stock, and barrel, and used in just about any other game. Pathfinder with sanity? D&D? Hero system? Just plug it in. You don’t really need to bring anything else over from CoC, and you don’t need to add anything new to the core of the recipient’s rules.

I’m a big fan of taking great ideas from any source I can get them to improve my campaigns and GMing technique. So here are three rules sets that can make your game better today, with little or no kitbashing required.

GUMSHOE’s clue system: I’m playing a Trail of Cthulhu campaign now, and it’s pretty damn cool. One of the signature innovations of GUMSHOE, the game system under Trail of Cthulhu, is the idea that in an investigative campaign, finding clues should never be in question–it’s what you do with them that matters. If you go to a scene, and someone is so much as slightly trained in the relevant skill, and you look for the clue, then you get it.

This isn’t even a mechanic, per se. It’s really more of a philosophy, a GMing style, which makes it particularly easy to steal for your own campaign. That said, in GUMSHOE there are mechanics for finding extra, or more detailed, clues. So to make the most of this you’ll want to think about how you implement clues in your game.

If a Gather Information check at the seedy bar would have been the means for finding the pirates’ secret lair, that info is now “free” to the characters if they go into the bar looking for it. The successful Gather Information check (perhaps with a more challenging DC) also tells the heroes how many pirates to expect there, or their next target, or the secret entrance to the lair, or whatever. You’ll want to rethink your adventure design, so that the key clues necessary for moving the story forward are always destined to be found–but the information that makes things easier, or more interesting, or that unlocks cool subplots, still lurks behind the game’s mechanics and the players’ use of them.

D&D 4th Edition’s bloodied status: I was first introduced to the idea of a “bloodied” creature two years before the launch of 4th edition, when Rob Heinsoo and James Wyatt pitched the first concept draft of 4th’s (then code-named “Orcus”) core mechanics to the rest of R&D and the Brand team. I’ve used it in every game I’ve run since.

At its core, “bloodied” just means “has lost half its hit points” (or whatever measure of vitality your game uses). As such, if nothing else it makes a nice shorthand for that “it looks like it’s starting to get pretty badly hurt” line that every GM says on occasion. Adopting the concept will improve your game just with that use.

But you can also easily hang specific effects off the “bloodied” descriptor. Cowardly creatures (perhaps the word “sensible” is more realistic) might flee when bloodied. Ferocious ones might gain a +1 bonus on attacks. Bloodthirsty ones might focus all their attacks on bloodied characters. Creatures with limited-use resources (a drama point, or a single-use weapon) might be most likely to use them when they become bloodied. Groups might change tactics when their leader becomes bloodied. Et cetera.

And if you feel like kit-bashing, the “bloodied” state is a great trigger for specific bonuses, penalties, or powers. It’s pretty easy to implement without getting too tangled up in your game’s existing mechanics. Give that creature some unexpected ability–or weakness–that only shows up when bloodied.

Numenera’s XP: In Numenera, you gain an XP point if you make an interesting discovery, meet a goal of the adventure, or accept a GM intrusion (an unexpected complicating factor the GM tosses in to throw you off balance). You can spend these points to improve rolls or advance your character. The GM intrusion concept is a pretty cool twist, but the rest of it isn’t new–the Deadlands experience system worked almost identically 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure its ideas spun out of TORG and a couple of other games around at that time.

There are two components to this one: A system for advancing characters, and a system for granting bennies for clever or challenging play. The first is a bit tricky–you need an algorithm for advancing characters with XP points instead of your game’s native system. But you can skip that if you like.

You’ll get a lot of mileage out of just rewarding your players for accepting your plot twists, coming up with exceptional ideas, or even (as we often did back in my Deadlands days) just making the group laugh. Giving people the odd re-roll is a small price to pay for this improvement to your game. For best results, use some sort of physical token (Numenera uses cards; Deadlands used poker chips) to represent the points; it will make them feel like a sort of currency.

These are three subsystems I’ve ripped out of other games to use in virtually every campaign I run, in virtually any system. I’m sure there are plenty of others that could be lifted just as easily. What are your suggestions?

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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Getting all Maleficenty

In Sleeping Beauty (the Disney versions, at least), a princess is caught up in a conflict between two fey forces: 1. Good fairies, who lavish blessings on the newborn princess, and then raise her in protective secrecy from 2. The bad fairy queen, who is bent on her destruction. (I became quite conversant in this tale six or seven years ago, when my daughter was a preschooler and Disney princess tales were a staple of the bedtime story.)

Little motive is given to either of these fairy forces. The good ones are Good. The bad one is Bad. That’s apparently enough, as far as preschool concerns go.

But beyond the good-bad issue, there’s a broader question of motive: Why the hell do any of these fey folk care one whit about this earthly princess? Why are they involved in the kingdom’s affairs at all? What’s their angle?

Maybe Disney’s new movie will shed some light onto these questions:

I think that would be pretty cool, because if ever there was a fairy tale that implies something much bigger (and perhaps more sinister) going on in the backstory than occurs in the plotline itself, Sleeping Beauty is that tale. In fact, ever since those bedside storytimes (those many, many bedside storytimes—preschoolers have a high tolerance for repeat listening), I’ve often imagined running a game set against that backstory. What’s going on in the fey underworld that makes this kingdom—this royal family—this particular person—so important? What other storylines might play out against this conflict?

Too busy with other games (or other things in general) to chase this idea, it’s lain fallow. But that trailer has me thinking again. And mulling over what system would be just right for this. Hmm . . . I’m not married to Disney’s vision, but maybe there’s something to their vaguely-late-enlightenment-period setting. Castle Falkenstein, perhaps? What do you think?

Comment below, but first a word from our sponsor:

If you read my blog and haven’t checked out The Strange, run—don’t walk—to our Kickstarter and give it a look. It’s an awesome game from the fertile minds of Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook, and the stretch goals have turned the Kickstarter rewards into an absolutely amazing deal. Just click that sweet little logo:


Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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My first brush with game licensing was way back in–well, I’m not sure I remember exactly. 1994? 93? Something like that. Chameleon Eclectic pitched an RPG based on Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga. It was a beautiful pitch–well written, liberally illustrated, bound up, and with a color cover. (Color! in 1993!) We never heard a single word back from them.

Man, this would have been an awesome RPG. Anyone out there want to take it on?

Man, this would have been an awesome RPG. Anyone out there want to take it on?

Since then my career has been interwoven with licensing. Chameleon Eclectic published the first Babylon 5 RPG. Then I went to work at Last Unicorn Games, where Star Trek was our bread and Dune our creamy, delectable, sweet-salty butter. My first task at WotC was writing the bulk of The Wheel of Time RPG. I then went on to work on Call of Cthulhu d20 and Star Wars before I contributed to my first D&D book. When I was in Brand, I oversaw a number of licenses–the d20 Licesnse and OGL, the various computer games, and even the second D&D movie. Well, sort of–we didn’t have any approval rights on that. But Silver Pictures wanted to work with us on it, and among other things I once traveled down to LA to meet Joel Silver in his office.

That was pretty cool, but it’s a story for another time.

Today’s story is more closely connected to my time at Last Unicorn. We produced so much content for Star Trek that we actually paid the salary of a guy who sat at a desk in Paramount’s offices approving our stuff.

The history of RPGs is replete with licensed games that were disasters–books released months or years late; supplements taking forever or simply never getting made; promising licenses starting out strong and then fizzling for no apparent reason (and no lack of fan enthusiasm), taking their small or mid-sized publishers with them. Anyone who’s ever been in the kids’ clothing department at Wal*Mart knows that licenses in other product realms are quite the thing–so why are they so problematic with games?

Here’s why: To approve a T-shirt, a guy at the studio looks at a picture of the T-shirt on his computer screen, and says, “Yeah, that looks good.” Or, “Make the logo a little bigger.” Or, “Do you have to use green? I hate green.” And then he’s off for his daily half-caf double decaf with a twist of lemon.

That same guy approved your license for the MegaBrand RPG. You had a couple of conference calls, and signed the contracts and sent in the check for the guarantee. And then, a few months later, you send him the manuscript for the 320-page corebook. And he says, “Wah? What the f**k is this? I thought it was supposed to be some kind of game or something?”

He’d blocked out an hour or two in his schedule to review your licensed product. And you sent him an RPG corebook. He’s never heard of an RPG before. Congrats: You’re looking at a 4-month delay while he figures out what the hell he’s going to do with this thing. And he hasn’t even considered the idea that you’re going to send him a new book every six weeks!

Remember that guy at Paramount, spending his days poring through Star Trek manuscripts on our dime? That’s why LUG rarely ran afoul of approvals delays with Star Trek; we had actually insisted on him. Totally worth it. (Dune was another story–also a story for another time.)

(Fortunately, nowadays the bigger geek-oriented brands are a bit more savvy about RPG approval requirements (and are more likely to have folk on their brand staffs who are familiar with RPGs in general), so this issue isn’t quite as common as it used to be.)

A week or so ago Monte Cook Games released our Limited License for Numenera, allowing small-press publishers to put out Numenera-compatible products within certain, fairly confining, limits. As the internet (especially the internet of gamers) is wont to do, people began at once speculating about our motives. Why this limit or that? Why a fee? Are we trying to grow the community? Kill small publishers? Encourage licensed products? Discourage them?

The answers are complex, and many of them have been brought up in the online discussions, but here’s one that’s been widely overlooked: Approvals. As so many game publishers have been astonished to find out, approving RPG materials takes time. A lot of time.

And now I’m on the receiving end of that. Guess who has two thumbs and wants to give up hours of his copious free time approving third-party PDFs that might net us, like, fifty bucks in royalties? This guy! Not.

So the next time you’re wondering why MegaBrand’s latest release is late–again!–you now have a likely culprit.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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Learning How to Kickstarter

So, I work for Monte Cook Games now. About a year ago–well before I started here; in fact, before MCG was its own company–Mr. Cook set out to publish a new roleplaying game, and to generate funding he turned to Kickstarter. If you’re a gamer, or at all in touch with what’s going on with crowdfunding, you probably know the story: He set out to raise $20,000, and instead topped half a million. Along the way, Monte added stretch goals and additional rewards, and by the end of it an attempt to publish a single, relatively conventional book had turned into an entire premium product line with 5,000 paying customers already in-hand.

You've heard of Kickstarter, right?

You’ve heard of Kickstarter, right?

It also generated some interesting licensing, and one of those licenses, the Torment: Tides of Numenera CRPG, included two Numenera titles among the rewards of its own highly-successful Kickstarter campaign. And in the months following MCG’s campaign, the company received hundreds of pre-orders from people who had missed the Kickstarter but wanted their foot in the door when the game launched. So when the product was finished–about two months after I started with Monte Cook Games–we had a lot of stuff to send out.

The final tally:

  • Over 12,000 orders
  • Roughly 50 different products
  • 11,272 physical items shipped
  • Shipping to 59 countries
  • North of 40,000 digital items sent out

And that was just the first wave–we’ll have several additional waves of product over the year to come, though fortunately the rest are not nearly as big or complex.

And when I say “fortunately,” I mean it. The first wave practically killed us.

A Monte Cook Games staff member after the first wave of fulfillment.

A Monte Cook Games staff member after the first wave of fulfillment.

Because if that sounds like a big project, well, it was. The Numenera Kickstarter was a record-setter at the time, and it remains one of the most complex fulfillment processes in Kickstarter history. Through the entire process, we were hacking a path through the jungles of the unknown, charting a course through unexplored territory and creating new processes for ourselves and our fulfillment partners.

You see, we weren’t the only ones overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge. Our warehouse has served the game industry for a decade or more, and has shipped many millions of orders. But they didn’t fully realize the impact of a campaign this size. DriveThruRPG set up a mechanism for us to send out PDFs, but their servers couldn’t handle our loads. We created an iOS app, but despite the fact that there have been many iOS Kickstarter campaigns, Apple’s systems don’t yet support distribution on our scale. Even Kickstarter itself doesn’t have data management systems capable of supporting campaigns of our size and complexity. We had to develop workarounds, on the fly and with the clock ticking, in every case.

(Did I mention that fulfillment started while Tammie and I were on vacation (a family vacation that had been planned and reserved many months before MCG brought me on board)? While our children and their cousins and grandparents cavorted on the beach, Tam and I huddled in the rental house, working 16-hour days getting the initial waves of digital product out to backers. Worst. Vacation. Evar.)

We mostly got it right. We mostly came up with those on-the-fly workarounds and got product into backers’ hands mostly on time. We made a few mistakes along the line, though, and learned a few lessons. Fortunately, I’m good at learning lessons.

We’re into our second wave of fulfillment now, with our adventure book The Devil’s Spine currently winging its way around the world, physically and digitally, to our backers. This is a much less complex wave–only two products: a physical version going to around 750 people and a digital version going to 4,000 or so. We’re pulling out all the stops to make sure it goes off without a hitch.

In addition to that, we’ve also made it a policy to reach out to other large-scale game-related Kickstarter campaigns, to share what we’ve learned and let them walk through that path we’ve hacked through the jungle. To date, I’ve had conversations with about half a dozen other companies that have had large, successful campaigns and are headed into their fulfillment phases.

So the long and short of it? Four months ago I was, at best, Kickstarter-curious. I’d backed a project or two. Like many in the world of gaming, I’d seen what it could do, and started to wonder if I might do something with it myself.

Now I’m one of the world’s foremost experts on fulfilling large, complex Kickstarter campaigns.

Which just might come in handy should, you know, Monte Cook Games ever want to do something like this again. . . .

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

  • Receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right)
  • Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, where I post lots of game, writing, and geek news and can often be dragged into conversation
  • Follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan, where I post frequent short bits on the writing process and state of my current projects
  • Encircle me (is that right?) on Google+, where, like most people, I have no idea what I’m doing

The Medieval Kingdom

I stumbled across a conversation on a message board in which a guy was curious about a typical medieval kingdom’s resources—specifically, how many villages and towns a kingdom might encompass, and how big its army might be. Worldbuilding is a topic of fascination for me, both as a writer and a gamer, and this is a subject about which there are a lot of misconceptions that, at least for me, undermine the veracity many stories and games I’d otherwise enjoy.

The question isn’t simple: When you look across an entire continent, over half a millennium, there really isn’t a “typical” typical medieval kingdom. But we all have a sort of image in our head of what that term means (based I think, mostly on northwestern Europe in the period spanning the age of the Crusades through to about Chaucer and the Black Death), so we can work to that.

Here’s how it more or less was: Virtually all of northern/western Europe was settled. There were no vast expanses of wilderness or areas unruled by a recognized authority. “No land without a lord” was a Norman motto about the time of their conquest of England.

The feudal system was the way things were done. Local peasants toiled for a knight, the knight owed service to a higher lord. That higher lord might owe service up the chain to someone even higher, and at the top was the king.

This division was really from the bottom up, not the top down. The king didn’t sit down and divide up the map into duchies, then divide those up into counties, and then into manors and so on. Rather, the countryside was dotted with manors, and the county or regional authority was defined by how many of those manors a given lord was able to amass under his control. The duchy (or other next step up) was defined by how many counties and manors that lord was able to subsume, and the kingdom was defined by how many duchies and counties and manors the king was able to bring under control. (Obviously, these lands weren’t reconquered with every generation; the borders became somewhat traditional. But unlike modern national borders, they did change frequently through conquest and diplomacy. Land was the big-ticket currency of the medieval world.)

So, how many villages in a kingdom? Depends on the size and terrain. Given a productive agricultural region (like most of northern Europe), the manors are typically spread across the countryside about 2 or 3 miles apart. About an hour’s walk. So that’s 4 to 9 square miles per village. Call it 6 square miles on average, if you want a quick rule of thumb. (In a less productive area—say, an arid region like Spain—they might be somewhat farther apart.) Each village is typically ruled by a knight, though there are exceptions: Villages held by the church or the local monastery, or cases where a given knight holds more than one village and has a seneschal of some description running things at one or more of them.

The area controlled by a mid-level lord (count or margrave) can vary widely, but 10-30 miles on a side is pretty reasonable. About the distance that can be covered in one day, which makes this administrative level manageable without requiring subdivision. That’s 100 to 900 square miles, or 15 to 150 villages. 100ish, as a very vague rule of thumb.

These mid-level lords might answer directly to a king, or be part of another level of hierarchy, like a duchy. A given duchy might contain part or all of, say, half a dozen counties.

(Towns and cities are a different deal. They’re usually outside the feudal system. They’re created by an agreement with the lord that usually lets them rule themselves in exchange for a cut of the commerce. A town is definitely not just a large village—the latter is an agricultural settlement with no real commerce, while the former is a commercial center where the folk of the local villages all come to trade and buy non-local goods. Towns are usually about 5 to 10 miles apart (no more than half a day’s journey from the villages they support), which puts maybe 10ish in a middle-of-the-road county.)

So, you’re writing your story or building your campaign world. How many villages does that give us in a kingdom? Choose your kingdom size, and go with the above. A kingdom could be huge, but some were little more than a region the size of a small county. The defining factor isn’t the size, but the independence—a king does’t owe feudal allegiance to a higher secular authority.

The question of villages goes hand-in-hand with the size of the country’s army. Standing armies were very rare in the middle ages. Those scenes in the movies where a bunch of guys show up in matching armor and uniforms—forget about that.

When the king needed a force, he called up those who served beneath him. Basically, one knight for every village, usually along with a dozen or a few dozen foot soldiers (peasants with spears or bows) per village. Remember, though, that the king probably didn’t call everyone up at once; that would leave a lot of land undefended. Plus there were limits on how much service a lord could extract. If nobody’s working the farm, nobody (maybe all the way up to the king) gets to eat come winter time. . . .

The knight was a warrior by trade. The villagers might include a couple of yeomen who were trained to some degree in arms. The rest were amateurs—although in some cases, every peasant was required to have a bit of martial training. (Most famously the English longbowmen: In the late Middle Ages, every English male commoner was required to practice at the longbow, and this gave the English the ability to call up a large force of foot soldiers who were more than cannon fodder. Er, knight fodder. And thus you get your Crecys and Agincourts.)

But the trained peasant warrior is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of medieval combatants weren’t trained soldiers. And they weren’t paid (except sometimes in booty), didn’t wear uniforms, and served only as needed.

So the king might have some retainers and perhaps a personal guard, but frankly those forces were usually pretty small. In fact, many castles were largely unmanned, or held by a caretaker, when the country wasn’t at war.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about dungeons lately, mostly because of the work I’ve been doing for Dungeon A Day. It’s cool, after many, many years of mostly hitting dungeons in passing, to be spending a great deal of concentrated creative energy on dungeon encounters. The dungeon is a unique environment, and decidedly old-school.

You can find dungeon design advice all over the net, and one of the first things almost everyone says is to first decide what your dungeon was originally built for. Few of these site, however, offer more than one or two suggestions, so I started putting together my own list.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Bunker: A cataclysm was predicted, and someone built a shelter to survive it (this concept is the entire backstory of FASA’s old Earthdawn game). The dungeon is filled with the wonders (or horrors) of a past age. Or it’s been looted. Or both. This concept works fine regardless of whether the expected cataclysm ever actually occurred.

Cavern: The dungeon is made up of naturally-occurring caves and passages, which have then been populated with monsters or used for any of the other purposes here.

City: A race of underground-dwelling creatures (dwarves being the stereotypical example) built a habitation here. A creepier alternative: An above-ground city was buried in lava or sunk into the earth by an angry god. (Or it burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp.)

Farm: Something grows underground, and something else eats it. Might be a kobold fungus farm, or for a really cool example dig up a copy of Michael Shea’s Mines of Behemoth.

Gauntlet: This dungeon was created as a testing grounds, pitting its visitors against ever-fiercer challenges for their training or the amusement of onlookers. Jabba’s Rancor pit is a mini-version of this; the classic labyrinth, of Thesues and minotaur fame, is a larger example.

Hell: Well, why not: the classic Christian hell is, after all, underground, and it follows in the tradition of a body of pre-Christian myth. The dungeon—unless it’s really huge—is just a small part of it.

Hiding Place: Something or someone needed to be kept out of sight. Where better to do that than underground?

Laboratory: A mad wizard (or scientist) needed a place to pursue his or her studies away from prying eyes—or to keep dangerous experiments away from a vulnerable population. Or maybe it’s a proving ground, a place to test weapons or other destructive magics or devices.

Lair: Creatures lived here. The passages and chambers were carved or adapted by orcs by the thousands, or giants by the dozen, or a single beholder or dragon, perhaps with a cadre of servants and guards.

Mine: Long ago the dwarves sought elusive veins of mithril under these mountains. Or the desiccated body of a fallen god. Or the center of the earth, rumored to contain riches beyond measure.

Nursery: Someone wanted to grow monsters, perhaps as shoggoth-like servants, or perhaps to build an army of Uruk-hai. Where better to do it than away from that bothersome sunlight and all those nosy neighbors?

Pocket Dimension: The dungeon isn’t really a dungeon at all, but rather an incursion by some other realm or reality that has taken form underground. An Ars Magica regio fits this bill nicely.

Portal: A gateway to another dimension or location was built in this underground complex. Or the complex was built to give access to a naturally-occurring or long-forgotten gateway.

Prison: The classic dungeon, is, or course, a prison. But what was this one build to contain? A creepier alternative: An asylum.

Repository: Something of great wealth or value needed a home—some place secure. Perhaps a single, valuable object. Perhaps a library or collection. Perhaps something dangerous, from which the above-ground world needed to be protected.

Sewer System: This one’s as old as gaming. Beneath the city streets lies a network of sewers, used as an expedient travelway by thieves and assassins and haunted by ghouls and gators.

Stronghold: Someone needed a fortress, and a castle wasn’t exotic enough. (Frankly, a castle doesn’t make much sense in many high-magic settings, anyway.) If not a classic fortress, then perhaps a Helm’s Deep-style refuge, or a military outpost. Or even a Maginot Line-style border defense (a natural for an Eberron-style setting).

Temple: The dark god demands worship. Underground. An interesting alternative is a monument to a person or event.

Tomb: You can’t go wrong with this one; it practically writes its own script. From Tutankhamun to the Tomb of Horrors, there’s plenty of precedent in real life, fiction, and gaming. A less-explored alternative: the ossuary. Check out catacombs of Paris for all the inspiration you’ll ever need.

Transit Route: A haunted Chunnel. Someone built an underground route from point A to point B. Moria (though principally a city/mine) served this role in Lord of the Rings. An alternative is a sort of fantasy underground railway—a literally underground route designed to let someone move without being detected by those aboveground.

Undercity: This was once the street level, but the city grew up above it and the lower regions fell into disuse (or became a sordid and disreputable underbelly). Perhaps the city above has since been abandoned or destroyed.

These are just a few ideas, but they cover a lot of bases. And they can (and often should) be combined: The mine stumbled into a portal; the sewers are also a transit route; the temple includes a gauntlet for the torture of prisoners and a dungeon for keeping the next batch of sacrifices. Or they change in purpose over time: What was originally a tomb became a temple.

What have I missed? What other major categories might there be—or what additional variants might be spun from the categories here?

This topic is HOT! Har har.

Last month I was asked by my friends over at Dungeon a Day to design a little demi-level for them. I had a lot of fun doing it and it seems like it was well-received, so this month they’ve asked me to take up the reins on the complete Level 17, which Dungeon a Day subscribers will be seeing in April. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I mention that Level 17 includes the Halls of Hunger, which have been heavily hinted at in past material. It’s known, for example, that those who linger too long in the Halls of Hunger risk a curse that transforms them into a unique form of undead.

(I’ll get to the point in a second, but first an aside: If you haven’t checked out Dungeon a Day, you oughtta. Founded by Monte Cook, it’s a web-based subscription service that delivers a new encounter every single week day. Over the past two and a half years, it’s built a mega-dungeon with (so far) over 450 encounters, which string together as an adventure path leading to an incredible 20th-level finish. But the individual dungeon levels also work well when pulled out of context. You can check it out with just a one-month subscription, which gives you access to the whole thing for less than the typical cost of a single published adventure.)

The Halls of Hunger and their curse bring me to one of my favorite GMing techniques: The mini-game. As part of my work on Level 17, I’ll craft a set of rules that define how the curse comes to afflict those characters who linger too long.

So, first, what’s a mini-game? Really, it’s any subset of rules that are used to specific effect for a specific activity within the game. In a way, an RPG’s combat system is a mini-game: Initiative is rolled, and a whole bunch of special rules come into effect. A skill challenge is another sort. So the idea has a lot of precedent in RPGs.

The kind of mini-games I really love are those that put the players in a position to make certain types of strategic decisions—and particularly those that provoke tension. Let me give you an example:

When I was at WotC, for nearly five years I ran a weekly lunchtime post-apocalyptic d20 game (the campaign is actually still running—we usually get a quorum together every year at Gen Con and play a quick adventure). In the very first adventure, the heroes came into conflict with a cult that was trying to detonate a nuclear bomb. In the climactic fight, the cult succeeded in arming the bomb, and a timer started counting down.

The moment the bomb went live, I stepped up to the white board behind me (we were in a company conference room) and wrote “100d10” at the top. I explained to the players that was the damage their 2nd-level characters would take from the bomb. For every 50 feet they got from ground zero, I’d subtract a d10. (50 feet is one square at d20 Modern’s chase scale.) I might take a d10 or two off for cover, depending on how solid it was.

And the mad scramble was on! The heroes disengaged from the combat and dashed for their vehicles. They took off, hell bent for leather, using every trick in the book to boost their Drive rolls, pick clever maneuvers and stunts, and seek out the best routes and cover. At the end of every round, I crossed out the damage dice and wrote the new total below.


. . . and so on.

The players eventually made it down, if I remember correctly, to 4d10 before the bomb went off—a pretty serious result for battle-weary 2nd-level characters, but with the cover of their vehicles and some quick first aid, I think they all survived it. More importantly, the sighs of relief rang through the conference room as I crossed the last number off the board and picked up those paltry four dice. Shoulders that had been hunched over the table relaxed back into their chairs. For the mini-game’s ten minutes, the players had been fully, intensely engaged, with the tension building as the scene reached its peak.

Here’s what made it work:

  • The rules are clear: In any successful mini-game, the players are given, or can quickly suss out, the rules. If they’re shooting in the dark, it’s likely to become an exercise in frustration (and that’s exactly the opposite of the effect you’re looking for). In this case, the rules were simple and I spelled them out at the beginning of the scene: Put as much distance behind you as possible, and cover might help a bit.
  • The rules are not too restrictive: I didn’t say anything about how the players needed to achieve their goals. Quite the opposite—the players were put on notice that the problem was theirs to solve, and they got creative about how to do so. Just as you don’t want to tell the players how they have to win a combat encounter—you set up the environment, the opponents, and their tactics, then let the players approach it as they will—you don’t want to funnel them into a specific solution to the mini-game. What they come up with is half the fun.
  • There are still unknowns: While the rules must be clear, there can still be unknowns. In this example I knew exactly how much time was on the bomb’s timer. The heroes didn’t. This really added to tension.
  • The mini-game is no secret: Finally, I think it helps if the players know they’re in a mini-game. (This is why I  advocate always telling players when a skill challenge gets underway.) It helps them focus on solving the strategic problem at hand, and again helps build a sense of tension that makes the result so engaging and fun.

My example here was a pretty simple one. I’ve used the mini-game concept dozens of times (my post on the fog of war is a sort-of example), so maybe in future posts I’ll outline some other, slightly more sophisticated examples.

Or maybe you’d like to share some examples of your own?

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