Crumbling UpKeep

Crumbling UpKeep: Who Put This Dungeon Here?

Many people see the dungeon as the corner stone of any good D&D game. It’s right in the name, for Rerox’s sake. Heroes go down into unknowable depths to kill things and get loot. The farther down you go, the more powerful the baddies. It’s a reoccurring trope. It’s also something I moved away from for a long time.

The game has evolved greatly over the years, largely in terms of play styles. D&D became less about about “kick in the door” and more about the story. As a game created by a bunch of war gamers, this was quite the transition. This was not Dungeons and Dragons original vision. There was a column Gary Gygax wrote for Dragon magazine that advised against becoming too much of an actor, as it would take away from the game portion of role playing games. I can’t find it for the life of me, but it was fascinating. If anyone has an issue number, drop me an e-mail.

As such, the generic dungeon that existed only to provide XP and treasure fell by the wayside. It certainly did for me as well. I found my players having more fun traveling the surface world and getting involved in intrigue than they did marching through room after room of random encounters. For a while, dungeons were dead to me.

Eventually, I found myself nostalgic for those underground romps. In many of my campaigns, players will go weeks without a combat encounter. The dungeon, full of nasty denizens, is a great way to equal this out. I couldn’t make dungeons the way I used to, however. It couldn’t be just a collection of monsters and traps. One of the reasons dungeons started to work for me again is I started to ask a very important question: why?

Why are those monsters in there? Who made those traps? I’ve lived with room mates that would put this sentiment to shame, but I don’t think most people spend time trapping their own domiciles. If there is treasure, why is it there? Who the hell keeps all their gold in a hole in the ground?

Answering the “why” question keeps the story aspect of the game running, even when the players are underground. Is the dungeon natural or man made? That is a great place to start. A series of natural caves is going to be different than sewer tunnels. If it is caves, why do the monsters live in there? If there are different types, how do they all live in harmony? Maybe they don’t.

Let’s go the caves route for a moment. A good dungeon needs a good pitch. Perhaps a slew of Owlbears have made the woods near impassible around a small town. Wood cutters can no long ply their trade. Travelers steer clear. Someone needs to do something about this.

The Owlbears came from a cave in a near-by mountains. Why are they leaving the cave? They’re being driven out, of course. When the characters get there to eliminate the threat, they find what looks to be a newly mined opening in the Owlbear’s lair. It goes deeper into the earth.

Obviously, we need more monsters now. How about goblins? They are the ones that have come up from below, displacing the Owlbears. They’ve brought pets with them: spiders, rats, and whatever else you can think of that makes sense. This can keep the PCs busy for a good few sessions. We should keep asking why, however.

Why did the goblins come up from below? Duergar have started to wage war on them. The deep dwarves want their “land” and resources. Great, now we have a reason for the goblins to have laid traps. As the PCs go deeper, they’ll eventually get into Duergar territory. The caves will start to get more ornate and the hallmarks of Dwarven craftsmanship will become apparent. They will be tombs and temples. These are great places to sprinkle in some magic items.

Perhaps the Duergar have their own domesticated animals. Perhaps another dwelling of underdark creatures is near that is involved in trade with the dark dwarves. That gives you yet another adversary, if not multiple. Soon you’re creating a web of peoples, cause and effect, and locations. Your dungeon has a history and a reason to exist.

Part of the fun of the dungeon will be how your players discover these things. Once they realize it is not just a random stream of events, they’ll want to know more. Any snippet of information they come across will be like treasure. The goblins screamed about the ones from below before they died. Everyone will want to know what that means.

Dungeons are cool and with proper preparation can have every bit as much role playing opportunity as the land above. That said, there is something satisfying about searching for traps and then kicking down the door. The trope has endured this long for good reason. Just take it and make it your own and you’ll fall in love with dungeons all over again.

Crumbling UpKeep

Crumbling UpKeep Presents: Terror without a GM

I’ve been on a bit of a roll when it comes to GMless games, especially of the solo kind. Last week, I talked about a dungeon crawl engine. This time, the game is more like a choose your own adventure book, but with dice.

And cosmic Horror.

And Existential terror.

You know, the good stuff.


Alone Against the Flames


Alone Against the Flames is a great way to get into the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. Designed as a sort of tutorial, this booklet will take you through making a character and the core mechanics of the game. You’ll soon forget what you’re learning, however, as you fight for your life against unknown and unseen enemies. Get ready to curse at your dice.

As mentioned above, Alone Against the Flames acts a bit like a choose your own adventure book. There will be times during the text that you have to make a decision about what to do next. Depending on your answer, you’ll be directed to different sections of text as your hurdle toward it’s finale. Other times, the text will direct you to make skill checks, the results determining where you go. Your wits will be taxed, as will your luck.

Early on in the book, it addresses fudging your rolls. Sure, it’s tempting to ignore what you roll on the dice, but you’re only cheating yourself. What good is victory without adversity? Things going wrong ultimately make the story better, giving you increased difficulty. I found I was most engaged when nothing was going my way and survival looked slim. Thankfully, that happened a lot for me.

I’ve played through the book twice so far with a several month break between session. Each time, my character didn’t make it. Just like the rest of the role playing game, Alone Against the Flames doesn’t go easy on you. You can expect madness and death to await you character. Even if you “win,” it’ll likely be a hollow victory. Sure, you might survive, but at what cost? In true Lovecraft fashion, you can never unseen what you had seen.

The PDF is currently free on Drive Thru RPG. That is a perfect excuse to give it a “roll.” Grab your ten sided dice, light some candles, and get ready to lose. Darkness awaits in the flames.

Crumbling UpKeep

Crumbling UpKeep Presents: Dancing with Yourself- Solo Play!

I’ve been doing a series of posts on GMless games lately. Lets take that idea one step further. What if you want a dungeon crawling experience but you don’t have a GM or even other players? Don’t worry, boo. I got you covered.


Four Against The Darkness

Four Against the Darkness has an old school feel to it. The mechanics are simple and you don’t need much to get playing.  If you’re looking for a game to tell you a sprawling epic story, this isn’t it. This game is more an engine for randomly generating dungeons, killing the bad guys, and stealing their stuff. Honestly, that is not my favorite style of play. For a solo adventure, however, it’s been really pleasing.

I’ve been playing Four Against the Darkness on my lunch breaks. As I shovel food down my throat for half an hour, I lay out some graph paper, get my 2d6 ready, and pull out the scrap paper I made my characters on. The party is simple: A fighter, a rogue, a wizard, and a cleric. There are a few other options, such as Elf and dwarf, but something felt right about that iconic foursome to me.

After writing down some simple stats and buying your gear, you roll some dice. Looking up their number, you draw the starting area on your graph paper. Every time you decide which way to go, you roll the dice again and draw the new area.

<Insert map picture here.>

When you enter a new area, you roll to see what is in it. Will it be treasure? Will it be a trap? Will it be a monster? The reliance on random dice rolls to answer those questions is fun. It gives a sense of mystery, as you never really know where your journey is going to end.

Encounters are handled simply. Each monster has a level. If you want to hit it, roll a d6 and add any modifiers. If you get over it’s level, boom: it’s dead, unless its a big bad boss monster. When it’s the monsters turn, you roll to defend, which is basically the same mechanic. Roll that dice, add your defense modifiers, and hope your wizard doesn’t get hit.

It can certainly get a bit deadly. I’d been skulking around in a dungeon for about a week worth of lunch shifts. I’d been really racking up the gear and was feeling pretty good about myself. A random dice roll put me into the lair of a chaos lord. I couldn’t help but think of the miniatures from the old hero quest game.

A few dice rolls later, and the rogue drops. It’s okay. I expected that. All I had to do was get out of the dungeon and I’d find a new rogue for the party. Everything is fine. This is normal. Then the wizard went down. I needed to roll pretty high to hit the chaos lord and the dice were not being kind to me. The fighter, wounded from an earlier encounter, fell next. It wasn’t long until the cleric gave into the eternal embrace of darkness. I had a TPK and I hadn’t even finished my leftover yakisoba.

While not exactly an full fledged RPG, Four Against the Darkness was a really fun activity. I’m going to make up a new party later today and give it another go. They have a plethora of quest books written up as well, though I’m not sure what they add or change. In any case, Four Against the Darkness is a decent way to pass a bit of time.

Crumbling UpKeep, Game Tips

Crumbling UpKeep Presents: The Game of Making Maps

This is the third in the series of articles about GMless games. This week’s game is pretty special and unlike anything else I’ve had the pleasure of playing. As you go, everyone works together to tell stories. They are stories of community and the triumphs and difficulties of belonging to one. Often times, it’s not tidy or conclusive, just like real communities and discussions. You don’t know much about it when you start. All you really have to count on is that you have one quiet year.

The Quiet Year


Created by the prolific Avery Alder, The Quiet Year is a game about an post apocalyptic community and what they build during one quiet year. We know they were locked into a struggle with the jackals before this and we know the frost shepherds will come at the end, but for now they have time to build and create. They will have their own difficulties, however. With luck, they will also have their own triumphs.

The Quiet year consists of a rule book and 54 cards. You’ll also need some tokens, an index cards for notes, a paper for a map, some pencils,  and a few six sided dice. To set the game up, you make some decisions about your community, including its basic environment and what resources are abundant and scarce. Then everyone gets to sketch them onto your map, creating a groundwork for what is to come.

On each players turn, they draw a card. The card gives them two situations to pick from. The player gets to choose which one is more to their liking and then gets to resolve it. For instance, one of the cards prompts you to decide what the most beautiful feature is in your community. Once the player in question decides, they get to draw it on the map. Because of this, the map is ever expanding, getting more and more fleshed out with new features and little symbols. It gets to be a beautiful little mess by the time you are done.

After the player in question attends to the card, they then get to take their turn. They have three options as to what action they can take: The player can discover something new, they can start a project, or they can start a discussion. Each one is fulfills a specific roll in the game and is governed by its own mechanics.

Discovering something new allows you to do just that. It can be a situation, such as monsters hovering on your boarders, or even a new geographical feature. Last game I played, we discovered wild goats. It was quite the happy time. Discoveries give you something to contend with.

Starting a project can be so many things. Building a house or starting a warband are all examples of starting a project. When the player decides on what project to start, they set a six sided dice on it which represents how many weeks the project will take. Once the dice ticks down to zero, the player who made the project gets to decide how it went. Did the house actually get built? Cool. Draw that on the map. Sometimes things don’t always go well, however…

Then there is starting a discussion. This was a particularly pleasing part of the game. The Quiet Year discourages meta game talk. If you want to discuss the future of your community, this is the action you must take. The player who starts the discussion begins with a proclamation or question. Everyone else gets to make a one or two sentence reply.

That’s it. There is no resolution. The game emphasizes that discussions in communities are untidy things. It certainly feels like it after having some in this game. While you can take everyone’s opinions into consideration when you start your projects or discover things, there are no mechanics of the discussion that means you must.

If you feel you’ve been slighted or not consulted, you can always take one of the tokens on the table. They represent hard feelings you have toward some part of the community. While they have no direct mechanical effect, the taking of the token is a powerful visual symbolic act.

The game ends when you reach winter and the frost shepherds card is drawn. Winter starts to feel like a frantic race as you try and finish your last projects and tie up loose ends. Often, just like in real life, you won’t get that chance. There is a great sense of finality to it all. When its done, you can pack it away. Winter has happened and all is settled.

This is a great game. Sketching crude maps and telling stories about your created community is a delightfully intimate way of role playing. There are times of great joy and times when the game feels remarkably heavy. Each time, I look forward to playing again, and meeting the new community that is created.

I always have hope that they can be more than the last one was.

If you are interested in the PDF of this game, click here.

Crumbling UpKeep, Game Tips

Crumbling UpKeep Presents: The Game of World Building

This is the second in a series of posts about GMless games. Sometimes you don’t have time to do the prep or someone can’t make it to the game. These are great substitutes for your ongoing campaign. Today’s game, Microscope, stands just fine on its own. It’s an RPG where you get to build everything.





While this game is billed as Gmless, I’d argue it is almost the opposite. In Microscope, it feels like everyone is a Gm. The group works together to build an entire history with nothing but some index cards and some pencils. Everyone gets to take ultimate control.

In a nutshell, you begin microscope by picking a beginning period and an ending period. Each one is written on an index card. These are your book ends. For instance, your beginning period could be something along the lines of “Human kind makes landfall on the planet Yulund, coming into contact with the Subelders.” Your ending could be “Yulund burns bright enough that the flames can be seen in space. No living thing survives.” Everything you create will be between these two eras.

So we know how the game begins and ends, which is different than most. What we don’t know is what happens in between. That is why you play Microscope. On each turn, the players get to fill in that info on index cards and set it in between any of the already established eras. The longer the game goes on, the more details you have and the more questions you want to ask.

You can also zoom in closer than the long eras to events. An event is more specific, such as “General Yerz guides his failing ship into the burnt sea of Yelund.” You can also zoom in one more time to play a scene. A scene answers a question, such as “What happened to Yerz’s ship that caused it to plummet out of space?” At that point, everyone gets to role play until you figure out the answer.

When does it end? Well, that is up to you. A game of microscope doesn’t have a set ending. You can play it as a one shot or you can stay with the same history for months on end. Its easy to pack up the index cards into a pile that can easily be laid out again next session to continue on the story. Since there is an infinite amount of space between each era, event, and scene, you can always add more cards between them. The stories you can tell in the setting you create are limitless.

There isn’t anything that restricts you genre wise either. You can do fantasy, scifi, western… you name it. In one particular off kilter game I played, there ended up being cowboys and dinosaurs with a romantic bent. Things got weird. It was quite the difference from the gritty science fiction microscope game we played the next time.

Microscope is big and expansive while simultaneously being able to be small and intimate as you explore the lifespan of civilizations as well as the triumphs and failures of individual characters. If you in anyway like world building, this is your game.

Interested in picking up the PDF? Click here.