On the Physical Space

Module designers, can we talk?

It's not me, it's you.

This is 2018, not 2000. Why am I still seeing modules with flat spaces, square rooms, and two dimensional thinking. Captain Kirk taught  us long ago that future people think in three dimensions when they fly their space cars. Not in two dimensions like those clones from the 1990's!

In all seriousness, let's have a discussion about vertical spaces and how they can be useful in play. You know why? You don't, but I'm about to tell you.

Because not just any three dimensional space is good for gaming! Some add nothing, useless complexity for no purpose. Let's not do that! What do we want? Not that!

Three Dimensional Spaces in Play

The Cliff:

The cliff is fun because I have a neat critical hit table for crushing blows, and I calculate damage the way hardasses do, 1d6 cumulative per 10' feet. 20' would be 3d6, 30' 6d6. At 40' I just pick up all the d6's and grin.

Also, the angle of the cliff; that's what the thief's climb skill is for, to move across that terrain at full speed.

It's fun if the characters are above, they can survey a situation (sometimes called an encounter!) with a "Monster". That's what we call the things that live in the places our characters invade to rob. So they are usually doing monster things like boiling peasants, paying taxes, and bitching about that snippy biddy down the hall with the fire breathing dogs. I also usually like to have a very small loud annoying thing in the room.

If they are below, did you know trying to dodge thrown boulders is a fun game? We played it on a hill with my friends as children, and the hospital bills weren't even that bad! It's exciting. Especially if you are the one throwing boulders! If you're reading this, you probably are, and let's be honest. That's awesome. So do it.

The Vertical Corridor:

You remember that scene from Don Bluth and Rick Dyer's game, written by Rick Dyer and Drawn by Don Bluth Dragon's Lair (TM) Laserdisc video system? Where the platform fell and there were all the corridors—wait this one? Too late! SPIKES!

I like to roll lots of 'to hits' with my spikes. I make sure as I roll all the dice that I let the player know I feel really bad that—oh! six of them hit. That's just, that's not good Todd. That's not good at all.

I don't usually have a falling platform, although hanging discs, rope, and other accoutrements really help the space. Also monsters aren't dumb. Well, not all of them anyway. We're not speciest here. They know this is a really good place to fire arrows at adventurers!

So it's super enjoyable as they begin to try to deal with Todd's unfortunate situation, that I'm forced to let them know that from the darkness—*Clatter* "FOUR of the arrows hit, guys, four. That's so many. I'm sorry. Where are my d8's?"

Some of the levels overhang each other, because seriously, damnit why would anything in life be easy? Additionally, monsters are just made for this. Harpies, ropers and cave fishers, piercers, and fungus beds glore. It's like a ball pit for saves versus death!

The Action Playset:

We can talk about bad dimensional spaces here. Like, the "vertical wall" challenge. This was popular in mid-wave third edition Dungeons and Dragons 'dungeon punk' where the challenges and encounters were becoming more mechanical and build focused. "This fight takes place on a vertical wall/ship in battle/earthquake!"

That sounds awesome, right? All you have to do is have a normal combat, except anytime anyone has to do anything, they have a 50% chance of failing their balance check and losing their turn.

So it's like normal boring combat, except half the time you lose your turn. I mean, maybe that sounds fun to you because it's brutal or realistic or something. But if it does, fuck you, you know? I'm here to play D&D man. My father told me one of my early board games designs (from the 4th grade era) that losing 8 turns just because you landed on a space was bullshit and no good game would make someone lose 8 turns.

I showed him though. I built a Magic:the Gathering deck that gave me infinite turns. Richard Garfield is a millionaire. That, among other reasons, is why my father wasn't a game designer.

Which is why the concept of an action playset is important. There can't just be an area that has a negative property, unless it's in context to other alternate spaces. This plays out in a couple of different ways depending on the game mode you happen to be engaged in: exploration, role-playing, or combat.

One thing that's intimidating about Dungeons and Dragons for newcomers is that its structure has always been very fluid by design, to fit the personality of the person running the game. But because that varies from person to person, it's difficult to not only clearly identify the je ne sais quoi of the structure, but to clearly encapsulate that to provide conceptual understanding to another person.

But essentially, Dungeons & Dragons is played by sharing a conceptual space filled with unknown and possibly highly dangerous or rewarding outcomes. It's important for emergent play, play that arises beyond the simulation of the mechanical, that multiple outcomes are provided simultaneously. When exploring you enter a room, there are items of interest weird object A, basic-looking object B, suspicious detritus object C. When in combat, there's advantage area A, cover-filled area B, and independent mechanical feature area C. When interacting a non-player character has personality trait A+B, and interacts with the party and its retinue.

This combination is the perfect balance of 7-9 interesting interactions that people can track. You have an advantage because 4 of those are the players. And you wrote things down. Unless you didn't and you're trying to impromptu everything off the top of your head. Why this is a really just shite idea was, no bullshit hashed the f&*k out. At length. Have fun down that rabbit hole. I lived it.

So the action playset is just that. A tower with two platforms, stairs, and a gem powering a ritual at the top. A floating disk filled with wizards. Areas with alternating magma flows (or lava flows if you're engaged in outdoor exploration). A group of victims perilously under threat of death. Get the things together, put them in the bowl, and stir the shit out of that pot.

"Are you surrreeee you don't want to dig through the filthy trash?"

Well, I was, damnit.

Did you like this? Did you also know that I have a vested interest in continuing to afford shelter? There are a group of awesome people making the world the way they want it to be by supporting me on Patreon to make more Dungeons AND Dragons.

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  1. This is a very good point. People do exist in three-dimensional spaces, after all. Or perhaps four dimensional spaces masquerading as three dimensional spaces.

  2. I think the primary problem with three dimensional combat is that its hard to 'demonstrate' on a 2d battle mat. One of the things that 3e brought heavily into the mindset seems to be the idea of the tactical grid map, and its hard to account for a group of heroes fighting around a honeycomb full of giant hornets hanging 70 feet on the ground, which has apertures open at certain heights and facings, while also dealing with the monstrous Rattatosk squirrels clamoring over the nearby branches.

    Its also quite obviously impossible to have your players fight from the inside of an Escher impossible building on a grid, and rather difficult for them to maintain an idea of where they are in relation to things without one.

    1. My Imagination game has to be flat! (Crosses arms and pouts)

      I think it's dumb, so I wrote the post and said so! Go tell it to the masses brother!

    2. Part of me wants to create an origami+felt battle map so you can stick your velcro minis in place while everything twists and turns. The other half just wants to make a d20 table of "Where do I start my turn in this hellspace?" with #19 being "tucked beneath a random targets armpit."

  3. I think Gygax set equating dungeon depth with encounter power stifled verticle thinking from the onset. Sad that, because even the most powerful fighter might feel vulnerable if attacked while climbing a ladder.

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