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  • Writer's pictureThe Tactical Dungeoneer

The Dungeoneer's Atlas has been an incredibly fun and rewarding project and I'm thrilled with its progress even though production has been slow-paced, largely due to Covid-19. The pandemic has meant a delayed turn-around time for prototyping which is compounded by the iterative design process. On top of that, the virtualization of this year's gaming conventions and closure of play tables at game stores present a challenge for play-testing. However, the work goes on and progress is indeed being made!

As of this post I am working on the 4th iteration prototype for the atlas, each version better than the last! The final deck will be comprised of between 60 and 70 geomorphed dungeon tiles that can be used as a stand-alone product for on-the-fly dungeon creation, GM planning, or in tandem with one of our Dungeon Keys (re-playable adventure sets specifically designed for use with the Dungeoneer's Atlas). If you're the creative type, we are writing a Keymaster's Guide to provide everything you need to know for writing your own Dungeon Key adventures!

So where are we with the Dungeoneer's Atlas? Changes since the last prototype include improved iconography for cleaner representation, new dungeon furniture to reinforce a stronger narrative, and some dungeon layout considerations to make navigating the dungeon itself more interesting. This last item is a bit more difficult to quantify without actual play-testing but is extremely important when dealing with geomorphed cartography, which can often fall short in creating interesting pathways due to the stitched nature of each tile's conforming edges.

Differences in the example iterations above:

1) The archways were removed from the upper passage. They just added noise without serving a good functional or narrative purpose.

2) The lines on the doors are thinner. There were two reasons for this change - I wanted doors to be more distinct from the walls around them, and I want to be able to be place them close together at room corners without them touching each other.

3) Added a random encounter to a prison cell. This was to provide something of interest for the cells, something worth exploring.

4) Made the 'trap' icon smaller. Many icons were made smaller for cleaner presentation and less crowding for when they appear close to one another.

5) The secret doors no longer have a box around them. This makes it much easier to place behind statues, bookshelves, and other dungeon furniture, and makes the 'S' itself more readable.

6) The statues are slightly smaller. The two reasons I had for this change were to help facilitate a cleaner "secret door behind statue" scenario, and to occupy just a tiny bit less map area in general. In this case, to widen the space between the two statues in the lower right corner.

7) Created an icon for 'armory'. This is more pleasing to the eye and is more self-explanatory than the 'A'.

8) Played around with rubble and floor crack placements. Minor adjustments to the aesthetic of the tile which tend to get dialed in over time.

Note: I chose this tile specifically because in addition to some tangible changes, it also demonstrates what I meant by "more interesting pathways". Even though the edges conform to the geomorph, the player cannot access every direction from any position on the map. This promotes a more purpose-driven exploration, at the cost that there may be inaccessible portions of this tile if it happens to fall on a corner. A trade-off well worth it!

Each tile goes through its own iterations, the modifications above being a tiny subset of the changes to the deck in its entirety. The 4th version of this tile will add rubble back to one of the prison cells, remove the crack from the upper passage, stretch the alcoves in the lower right corner to open the passage up a bit more, and I might remove the random encounter from the lower left corner passage. If the printed version with those changes feels right, that will be its final state. Otherwise, a 5th iteration would be in order. The truth is that we really don't know how well it looks until its printed on its intended media.

Generally speaking, we're entering the refinement phase. Most of the tiles are in good shape, requiring only minor tweaks. I'm guessing by the 6th or 7th iteration we will really have something to be proud of. I'm not yet comfortable with declaring a release date, but as development enters its final stretch we'll be able to think about fun stuff like marketing and how to handle order fulfillment. Until then, thank you for your patience!

  • Writer's pictureThe Tactical Dungeoneer

When I approached the design for 1pd20, I resolved to take a fresh look at role playing games. I knew that I wanted a d20 roll-over system, and that I wanted the rules to fit on a single page to facilitate both ease of play and clean implementation for campaign settings. Hence, it's namesake.

Even though a d6 pooling system provides a better probability curve for "realistically" distributed results, d20 is more random and provides greater opportunity for surprise. Both underlying mechanics are great, and there is certainly a place for d6 dice pools in future TD games, but for this system I wanted to include the thrill of rolling a natural 20! In short, choosing d20 over d6 was a prioritization of surprise over simulation.

The impact of simplifying the rules and restricting them to a single page is really a result of the underlying pillar of accessibility. Ease of play becomes a direct result of simplified rules. Not only are there fewer rules to remember, but having all of them on a single page means every RPG built on 1pd20 can include the entire system on the back page. This makes look-up a breeze compared to the tome flipping of traditional RPGs! If by some far-out chance a situation arises and there simply isn't a rule in place to resolve it, always defer to the Rule of Cool. We'll talk about that later.

Ease of play is not our only approach to making the game more accessible. The simplified rules also serve to erode barriers, such as the availability of a Game Master (GM). Not having a GM can be a true game breaker for most RPGs, which brings us to our first sacrificial cow! 1pd20 does not require a GM.

Well, the GM only counts as half a cow, since if you have one you could still play in the traditional GM/player format. I personally even prefer it, but I want to be able to play without one. Heck, I want to be able to play this game solo, so on the altar it goes!

Another common barrier is the daunting amount of preparation required. This obstacle is not entirely the GM's burden, as character creation can often be intimidating for new players and introduces a lot of work before the game even begins. I want 1pd20 to give life to characters on the fly, and within minutes! I want people to pull the game from the shelf, with no forethought, and jump right in with either new characters or veteran characters with tales of past glory.

The real sacred cow here is Ability Scores. Most RPGs define characters using a half dozen or so attributes such as strength and intelligence, assigning numeric values to create a profile of sorts, eg. a scrawny but clever thief. These values form the basis for the character's skills and abilities, affecting how good or bad they are at certain tasks, like shooting a bow or picking a lock or sneaking past a sleeping giant.

Ability scores, the sacred cow on the altar of 1pd20.

Character skill and efficacy in 1pd20 is determined solely by their abilities and character level. Abilities are chosen upon character creation, the options determined by the player's selection of class and race. There are opportunities to gain abilities as the character advances, and most abilities grow in power as they level up. Who needs dexterity to improve your chances to hit with a bow, when your hunter has 3 levels in arching? This approach not only makes character creation a breeze, it brings tangible gains to every level of character advancement. There is no need to wait several levels for a bump in your proficiency bonus.

I never thought I would design an RPG with no ability scores, but I honestly can't wait to play test this one! The further in development I get, the more fun it's shaping up to be! I think it's ok to sacrifice a sacred cow now and then. Maybe even a sacred cow and a half!


A preview of some of the rogue's class abilities, which get more powerful as the player invests in them.

  • Writer's pictureThe Tactical Dungeoneer

OSR as a community and a movement is as heterogeneous as what the 'R' in OSR actually stands for. I'm fond of 'Revival', though 'Renaissance' is often used and is perhaps even more accurate. 'Rules' or 'Retro-clones' can apply but seem specific to games that celebrate old school mechanics or design, for example, treating demi-humans (such as elves) as classes unto themselves, foregoing the notion of a race/class combo. I prefer broader terminology so as to include additional aspects of old school games, such as play style, aesthetic, and table values.

Unique to OSR, I experience a flurry of wonder and anticipation that parallels the first time I saw Larry Elmore's red dragon on the Red Box of old. I'm the kind of gamer that can take pleasure in the mere reading of an RPG system and consequently own many that I've never played, if primarily because my friends are unsympathetic to my pleas and want to stick to systems they know!

Larry Elmore's cover art for the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983 Frank Mentzer revision)

Larry Elmore's cover art for the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1983 Frank Mentzer revision), known as the Red Box.

The marriage of players to systems was something my younger peers and self never considered as we moved seamlessly between games, with little to no prep, on a whim. This was largely a dividend of our play style at the time. For many, the rulings not rules and rule of cool play style is OSR essential, and discovering how rules affect the experience of play is a journey for every game designer.

Play style, rules and mechanics, aesthetic, and table values all contribute to the sensibility of an OSR game. It is the cultivation of an experience defined by mystique and the unleashing of imagination. Through the changing demands of the consumer and the maturity of the industry, some essential part of the classic experience was misplaced. This is what we seek.

But isn't that just nostalgia? you ask. Why not just play those old games?

The OSR movement has spawned a lot of games with a range of play experience, some using modern rules. No matter how heavily influenced we are by classic games, it's important to acknowledge that the old ways weren't flawless and that modern gaming isn't without its merits. There is plenty of room in the OSR movement for a modern approach to old school values.

Why am I rambling on about OSR? Is Heroes of Happenstance OSR? A critical design pillar of HoH is accessibility. It is meant to be light, fun, and approachable. That it can be played without a GM works toward that purpose but may affect its "old school" credibility. For now, it is described as having a "classic aesthetic". When development reaches maturity and we begin play testing, perhaps we'll revisit this question. For now, it's enough to say that the work and creativity of the OSR community is inspiring.

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