Dungeon Fog: Map Making Made Easy

Maps are an integral part of any table-top game. We love maps. We need maps. We obsessively pore over them, planning our journeys and (if you’re a DM) seeking out possibilities for adventures. And of course, we fight on them. A good map is pure potentiality.

There are a number of options available for those of us without the artistic inclination or ability to draw our own. Some are free. Most are reasonably affordable. A full survey is beyond the scope of this article, but I do want to share a map I recently made with Dungeon Fog, an online editor with no-cost, premium and commercial license plans. The image below is the product of about forty-five minute’s efforts, minus the hour or so it took to learn the program. It’s not an artistic masterpiece, but it’s functional, and professional enough looking to put in a published adventure. Check it out:

A map made with the online editor Dungeon Fog

As you can see, it’s not too shabby for less than an hour’s work, although the publicly available, non-exclusive assets mean that you’re probably going to see a lot of maps with similar iconography.

I’ve tried a variety of map-making tools. Campaign Cartographer CC3 is definitely the most powerful of the available software. It costs less than $50 and requires no additional subscription to use your creations in your products. But the CAD-based editor has a steep learning curve, and requires a fair amount of time to produce anything of real quality. I’ve also only had success with the “Overland” map editor. There are options for dungeon and city plans, but they are much harder to master. CC3 is the go to for a lot of professionals. Other fixed cost programs, such as Dunjinni, which makes–you guessed it–dungeons, strike me as a somewhat dissatisfying intermediary between CC3 and Dungeon Fog. It hastoo much of a learning curve to churn out maps at a reasonable pace. But isn’t powerful enough to match CC3’s potential.

What I like about Dungeon Fog is how quick and easy it is to use. I made the above battle map for a Fantasy Grounds adventure I’m writing. The interface is mostly drag and drop with options to paint with the variety of high-res textures available to premium subscribers. Painting these textures, which you can grade and layer by adjusting the opacity, is the crucial step in making the image “pop”. (You might make out the color variations around the walls, and below the trees–simple elements that make a world of difference, even if you aren’t consciously noticing them).

There aren’t many options with Dungeon Fog. It’s not a versatile tool-set. But I’ll say it again: it’s quick. Writing an adventure, even a short one, is an undertaking. There are a plethora of considerations and if you are the sole creator, and you likely won’t have time to cover everything.

One of the negatives is that Dungeon fog somewhat absurdly priced for the commercial license. This is available only by yearly subscription, which costs $90 or so dollars. It is basically a clone of the premium version, which is significantly cheaper. But you can’t use premium assets in any commercial product, which is a problem if you have ambition to sell your work. It’d be nice to sell something, right? That being said, creating your own assets is a time-consuming proposition, and artists do deserve to be reasonably compensated. I just wish there was an option to try the site out for a few months before slamming down the full ninety bucks.

Right now, there are a decent amount of icons available, and the site claims that they add new ones frequently. I did have a hard time creating these ruins, though. Ruins seem like they should have priority, but I had to go to the “jungle” category to find broken walls (which are hidden by the trees). The walls I drew using the “room” tool are nice, but they hardly look crumbling. Since, sunken, broken remnants of the past are a fantasy and adventuring staple, I feel this is a bit of an oversight.

Nonetheless, I’m happy with Dungeon Fog as an effective way to quickly make battle maps that I’m proud to include in my adventures. I haven’t tried the web-program to make an overland map, but so far so good. In a future article, I’m going to make a video demo of my process. But I hope this written account has at least piqued your interest. I’d recommend checking it out for yourself.

DnD Resource of the Week: Challenge Rating Calculator by Leugren

Image of mind flayer from Dungeons and Dragons

When brewing anything. but especially something my players are going to have to face on a somewhat even footing,–something that can kill them–balance is always an issue. Within reason, a “broken” class, weapon or magic spell is less likely to annoy the table  than a monster that one-hit kills the heroes without giving them a chance in The Nine Hells to fight back. Elements of a frustrating enemy can include:

  • One hit kills (I already mentioned this)
  • One-hit perma death (even worse)
  • AC or damage resistances that make injuring an enemy impossible (especially if the enemy takes a while to kill you)
  • Attributes that stop the players doing anything

Two Mind Flayers from Dungeons and Dragons


Balance is an element of design that I struggle with regularly, and I often have to post my creations on a site like reddit for feedback. It helps if you’re a math whiz who can quickly calculate all statistical outcomes and amend CR as necessary. But I am most certainly not a math whiz. Of course, this is where play testing comes in, but it’s nice to have some guidance  before you bring a beast to the table; that way you can focus on detail, flavor and narrative potential.

None of this is to say that you can’t include extremely challenging, or even near-impossible foes. But you should probably do so rarely, leaving such encounters for moments of high drama, when their impact is most significant.

This week’s DnD resource will help you create more balanced monsters before the play-testing phase. It’s

D&D 5E Tools by Leugren: Quick Monster CR Calculator

It achieves pretty much what the title suggests. You put in Average Hit Points, Armor Class, Average Damage Per Round (see the Dungeon Master’s Guide for info on how to calculate this), Attack Type (does it go against the AC or rely on a saving throw), and the save DC itself. Plug those in and hit calculate and you have your CR.

.Dnd 5e Tools


Is it perfect? No. Should you do the rest of the leg work yourself? Yes. Does it mean you don’t have to play test? Of course not. But it’s a good indication that you’re on the right track.



Avoiding Ego in Indie Game Design

        A wise man once told me, “Your ego is not your amigo.” After I shot him a contemptuous look, and decided he wasn’t that wise after all, I had to conceded that there was a certain truth to his statement, especially when it comes to running tabletop role playing games–or designing games in general.

As DMs or game designers, we want to create a world that people enjoy playing in. We want to tell a story, and paint memorable locations. We spend hours planning adventures, crafting characters, plotting elaborate story-line, and making up rules. Our adventures, levels and settings are our babies, and the temptation is to become overly protective of them.

But are they our babies?


Games aren't babies!!!


The thing about gaming is that it’s a shared experience–more so than other art forms. One shares a novel or film with the writer or director, but there is limited participation. When we sit down to make a game, we expect players to participate in an unfolding, ever-morphing series of dynamic events. Video games are becoming increasingly open-ended, with multiple routes through the game, and an emphasis on player choice. Pen and Paper RPGs demand “collaborative storylines.” Good DMs are encouraged to work player backgrounds into their narratives, and to adapt to player decisions. The idea of “railroading”, referring to a design style that forces the player down a set path, has become a big no-no, although it happens more often than one would think.

In short, you might have created the world in which the game unfolds. But you don’t own it–it’s as much the player’s as it is your own. Failure to recognize this can result in some seriously stale gaming experiences.

Indie Game Design involves a shared experience

Games are supposed to be fun. Almost every rule book I’ve ever read states this in its intro, and with video games it should be a given–so obvious it doesn’t need stated. But it does need stated, because designers can become so attached to certain high concepts that they forget to think about what their players actually want.

This requires a fine balance. I’m a firm believer that games are an art form, and as art they have the ability to challenge us. There’s nothing wrong with pushing people out of their comfort zone, or trying something new. But if people aren’t enjoying it, there’s no point.

Remember, not everyone at the table is there to have their mind blown by your amazing philosophical story line, or avante-garde game mechanic. Games are a serious time investment, and time is the most precious commodity. A tabletop session can last six or so hours, and these sessions often stack into campaigns that lasts weeks, months or years. Most video games take a similar number of hours to beat. There are many shorter experiences, but there are also longer ones. Much longer. Like over one-hundred hours longer.

When somebody goes to see an experimental film, it’s usually a night out and some food for thought. Maybe they decide they don’t’ like it. But they’ve seen it–finished it. If your game isn’t enjoyable, nobody will finish it. Nobody will see your part of the vision through to the end. Hours of material will have been wasted.

Boring Games--DnD


The truth is, that most of the DMs I’ve enjoyed playing with, seem to thrive on disruption–the unexpected subversion of their vision. Players will never do what you want them to do. Your story will never survive the player’s decisions. Sometimes it barely survives the first ten minutes of a session.

When I first began running games, this was a constant level of stress for me. The problem was two-fold. On one hand I was not yet experienced enough to “go with the flow”. When somebody deviated from my experience, I panicked. What do I do now? How can I get the players back into my story? The second problem was that I thought my narrative was cool, and that it would be a less rewarding experience to stray from the set of events I’d so carefully constructed. I didn’t realize that my story was not the story. It was simply a canvas for other stories to unfold.

As the campaign progressed, and my experience increased, I began to realize that I actually enjoyed the unexpected. Far from my formulation improving the game, it instead hampered it. And I learned to improvise. I’ve since come to the opinion that improvisation is one of the DM’s most important skills. I creates a sense of wonder. It opens up your world.

Indeed, the best settings, the greatest RPG stories, are supposed to sustain free-flow play-styles. Your world is best when it’s open. Being able to have the players explore a setting with the fewest limitations possible indicates that you’ve done your job–that the world-building has become powerful enough for people to roam it at will, without slamming into an invisible wall.

On one hand, this requires a tremendous amount of work. On the other, it simply doesn’t. Sure you have to spend time studying and memorizing your own creation, otherwise you won’t be able to improvise to the best of your ability. On the other hand, being able to “wing it” cuts down on the necessity of adventure prep you have to do. As long as you have a brief list of environments and encounters, and know your world well, you’re good to go. My adventures when from pages of detailed structure, to vague outlines. I gathered resources rather than linearities. And I was able to enjoy my creation grow and expand around me.

Numeneral, best setting

Of course, this doesn’t always mean your vision is improved by unexpected player actions. Not every gamer is a creative genius. They may stray into stereotype. They may also go the “murder hobo” route, and simply kill everything in sight. If a player does something especially stupid, or completely contrary to the spirit of the setting, often simply to show they can, or at a feeble attempt at humor, it’s frustrating. In these cases, I’m not afraid to kill them. Killing players is tough. I’ve argued that fun is the primary purpose of a game, and having the character that you’ve spent hours cultivating and getting to know isn’t much fun. But a game also needs boundaries. Collaborative storytelling requires that everyone, not just the DM, strive to construct an interesting narrative, and those who step out of this sometimes need to be reminded that RPGs have rules for a reason.

It’s a fine balance, and requires that one reads his or her players well. If people want an irreverent game you might have to give them one. But don’t be afraid to step away if the experience becomes miserable. Remember, the ‘fun rule’ also applies to DM’s. You’re supposed to enjoy the game as much as the players. You aren’t doing them a favor.

An effective way to ensure that this doesn’t happen, is to be honest with the players at the start of a session or campaign. You can talk about the tone and genre and what kind of thematic, rather than situational, boundaries the setting has. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to play. And frankly it’s rude to put your own wishes over everyone else’s.

The takeaway is to meet the players halfway. It’s everyone’s game. It’s everyone’s world. Don’t let your desire to have your vision dominate, detract from the wonder of an open, truly malleable world.

And if anyone ever uses the phrase, “your ego is not your amigo,” politely tell them that they are an idiot.

6 Ways to Diversify Your Gaming Experience

Play a lot of video games for Indie Development


Best Games of All Time, You Tube


When you want to create anything you need to know a little about what you’re creating–what has come before and how you can develop or improve on it. If you want to write, you read books. If you want to make movies, you watch a lot of movies. The same goes for game design. You need to play a lot of games.

Chances are this is far from a burden. With a few exceptions (mostly those looking for profit rather than quality), artists create what they love to consume. The trouble is, we live in an age of mass media. The more art that we have access to the harder it becomes to optimize our time. Time and effort are resources. If you want to succeed, you need to spend them wisely.

The video game industry has exploded in the last decade, and in the last few years indie development has only added to this explosion. This is true of both the online and offline markets, although the former is a far bigger industry in general. Not only are there hundreds of AAA titles that the would-be game designer needs to check out, but there are dozens of indie gems, many of them essential playing. You can’t possibly play through them all. What do you do?

When it comes to video games, you don’t need to have completed a title to take some important points from it–to understand what makes it tick. It’s tempting to want to “finish” every game you start. Nowadays some of the best titles take at least thirty hours to finish. You can triple or quadruple that amount of time if you want to do the side quests. The longer games, such as the Elder Scrolls series, can run into the hundreds of hours of gameplay, and if you like MMOs you might be looking at thousands of hours. Of course, these are extreme examples, but the fact remains, finishing any one game is a significant time commitment.

Similarly, when you play pen and paper games, you don’t need to slog through an epic campaign like Call of Cthulhu’s Horror on the Orient Express. Yes, to completely memorize the ruleset you’ll need a bunch of sessions. Most of the time, you don’t need to be a walking encyclopedia. That’s what the internet is for.

All that time playing one game, means you aren’t spending time playing others. You can’t keep up with what’s new, and you can’t familiarize yourself with canonic titles that you haven’t yet played. Here are some tips on how to diversify your gaming experience.


1. You don’t need to finish any one game. This is the most important point, and it was implied above. But I’ll restate it because it really is key. In an ideal world, you’d play every classic, old or new, from start to finish, and have a full perspective on it. (So many of these games are being re-released on platforms like Steam or GoG). But to do so isn’t practical. Give yourself a few hours with everything. If you play every day, as I do, sometimes for multiple hours–and I make time for this, even when I work–then take one hour off your preferred title to play something else that needs playing. Right now, for example, I relax with FFXIV, but make sure I put in some hours with an indie title like Terraria or The Binding of Isaac, both of which are a joy to play, and hardly a waste of time. (In general, MMORPGs are the devil. They’re insanely addictive, massive time sinks, and economically draining in terms of monthly fees that could be used to buy other titles). It only took me about an hour with The Binding of Isaac to understand why it is genius.

With pen and paper RPGs, this translates to running one or two sessions of a game without dipping too far in. Try and use published adventures rather than your own (there are tons of classics on Drive Thru RPG, including PDFs of titles you can’t easily get in print); you need to see how things work as the designer intended. (Although the ultimate aim, obviously, is to make your own stuff. Try adventures from a variety of settings or time periods. This way you can see how the ruleset translates in different situations.

2. Take notes and reflect. You don’t need to pause playing every five seconds to scribble an idea or observation; this would ruin the experience and immersion. But give yourself at least twenty-minutes daily to reflect on what you played and why it did or didn’t work.

3. It’s okay to prefer one game and one system and to master it. The hobby is supposed to be fun, and you’re going to lose your passion for it, and for creating within it, if you spend all your time playing stuff that you don’t like. But you should make sure to take some time to experience the new.

4. Be selective. It is possible to learn from bad games, especially what not to do. But frankly the problems with most of these titles emerge within the first twenty minutes (for digital) and a single session for paper. You definitely don’t want to waste time doing a full play through of a crappy title. Instead, choose the best games, the ones that are successful, the kind you want to create. These are your bread and butter; they’ll inspire you and keep you motivated. And related to this…

The wprst video games of all time


5. Get outside your comfort zone, but not too far. Learning about all kinds of games is vital; it will help you innovate. But again, if you want to create fantasy rpgs, play a lot of fantasy rpgs. SciFi? SciFi it up. Same with horror, sports games, strategy games etc.. You need to know what’s popular within your genre. There isn’t a fantasy game designer on the planet (whether paper or digital) who doesn’t need to have spent some time with Dungeons and Dragons, even if it isn’t your final choice. The same goes with Zelda or any other classic. Remember, you can’t innovate and create something truly unique or independent, if you don’t understand the mainstream. Otherwise, how do you know what innovation is?

6. Paper designers need to understand video games and vice versa. You can learn a lot studying the “other species”.

These are just some preliminary ideas. Whatever you decide, it all takes a significant time investment. But that’s the price you pay for any creative endeavor that’s worth doing well. And all creative endeavors are worth doing well. That being said, any time I think about “what I should be doing” I run the risk of paralysis. These tips are ideals, and progressing towards them is more important than fulfilling them to the letter; progress, not perfection.

And of course, eventually you’re going to want to create. You’re going to want to make your own game. During this process, you might not have time to do much else, let alone playing games. So do your research beforehand. Remember, quality is better than quantity. But definitely you need to know what’s out there, what’s selling, and why. At the very least, it will help you pitch your game or draw up a business plan when the time comes. Good luck!


Independent Game Design: A Pep Talk

Indie Game Development Dreams

(This is a space for would-be game designers. All the “insights” herein are based on an insatiable passion for games, and a deep desire to learn how to make them. That aside, I have no idea what I’m talking about. And yet I do. Because passion is everything. Probably. Oh, fuck-it; just listen to what I have to say. You’re on the site anyway. Sheesh.)

Any creative endeavor is fraught with self-doubt, especially if you’re developing something that requires you to do the prep-work, or first iteration alone. Is your idea good? Will people like it? Should I even tell anyone for fear they’ll reject it? The less people involved in a project, the more lonely these initial stages can be. Typically, you’ll sit by yourself working on that adventure draft for hours before you play test it. Sometimes people collaborate. But even then; self-doubt is not your friend, and even teams suffer from a lack of confidence. If you’re the leader or manager, you can’t afford to express your fear. You need to be the example, and this itself can be a lonely place.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff out there that frankly, and often needlessly, fuels self-doubt. People will tell you that you’ll never make any money, that the game design life is hard, that it’ll take up all your time. The list goes on. I’ve never really seen the point of such advice. I suppose they’re important ‘reality checks.’ But when does any creative type really care about reality? It’s not going to stop anyone worth their salt from creating something they want to create, because frankly those who want to make art do so out of need, or at least a very intense form of desire. Sure, there are those whose priority is money and success, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if that’s their driving force, they rarely make anything I care about. Consumers can smell disingenuous products a mile away.

Still, I find myself having a visceral reaction to negative perspectives, mostly because I struggle from fear and self-doubt. In the past these problems have stopped me doing things that I love to do, and have derailed my life in several ways. So, it irritates me when I bump into a naysayer. But that’s a product of my personal demons. And for anyone like me, I want to provide an alternative perspective on the perils and pleasures of being an indie developer. I’m not much of a “pep-talk” kind of guy, but I suppose that’s what this is. I’m arguing that despite it all, regardless of the obstacles, if you truly love something, you should go anyway–caution signs be damned. Almost every million dollar idea began with a host of people saying it couldn’t be done. Is that a cliche? Yes. Did I steal it from someone else? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Anyone Can Make a Game



In recent years, with the advent of new technologies and their falling prices–both hardware and software–it’s now possible for anyone to create and distribute a product without a huge team of employees and marketers. This hold true for writers of source books or adventures who can now self-publish their work in pdf format with little to no production overhead. Video game designers, providing they haul ass, have access to easy to use programs that minimize the need to code–check out Game Maker, for an example. And everyone can showcase their work online (see Drive Thru RPG for paper examples). This fact is what we need to focus on. We can make games! Relatively easily. We can do what no generation before us has been able to do. This is amazing.

But just because people can make stuff, does that mean they have any hope of reaching an audience? The idea of market saturation says no. It can and it can’t be done.

Market Saturation

The market is saturated. Just because there are now more developers, and more people able to make games, doesn’t mean the market has grown too. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between what’s available and what people can afford, both in terms of time and finances.This is a problem if you’re focused on money and success. No doubt. Steam games don’t sell that much. It’s harder to get noticed.

But let’s look at this reality from a more positive perspective. More products means more competition. Consumers have more options. Your shit needs to be good. Even though the market hasn’t necessarily grown, the number of quality products on it has. When I can buy an indie classic like Hyper Light Drifter for $20 or so bucks–less during a sale–and people are telling me it’s as good as anything out there, then I’m going to tempted away from paying $60 on a AAA title like God Of War. This means the AAA game has to be damn good. And it also means indie games have to be damn good. And all that damn goodness is going to translate to quality and innovation.  Both games I mentioned are awesome by the way). The need to stand out from the crowd puts impetus on everyone to do better.

So yes, the market is clearly saturated, but that saturation has a positive upswing. And the fact is, this article, and my blog in general, is aimed at people more interested in quality than quantity. That being said…

We All Want to be Famous

Okay, not all of us. But we do want to sell. Why? Because few people create without hoping that their creations will be experienced by others. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Emily Dickinson was ambivalent about being published, and Franz Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to burn all his work after his death. Thankfully, both writers ended up getting out there and literature was changed forever.

Most of us, aside from not being Dickinsons or Kafkas, are interested in being seen. This is especially true for game designers. Why make a game nobody will play, or a film nobody will watch, no matter how good it is. That’s why commercialism is so attractive. Sure I’m making crap, but I’m making crap people will watch.

We also want to make money–not for money’s sake, but because it enables us to what we love full time. If you offered me ten million dollars on the proviso I’d never work again, or one million to spend on what I want to do, I’d take the second option in a heartbeat.

It’s naive, and probably dishonest, to pretend a certain degree of success doesn’t matter. And thus the realities of the saturated industry can be daunting.

So, what if we want money and success, and hear we’re not going to get it. Why bother?

Necessary Existentialism


Why? Why are we here? Why is there something and not nothing? Why does God seem to enjoy fucking with us. Why do anything at all?

You can fall into the wormhole pretty quickly if you ask why too much. And yet any serious artist should ask that question a lot during the creative process–most importantly at the start. That’s my opinion. But it’s true. No arguing please.

Why am I making this? If it’s money and success, the negs have a good point. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen, and in the world of paper game making there’s next to no chance.  It’s less important to focus on this negative reality than on your motives to begin with. It’s a matter of definitions. What do you mean by money and success. Do you want to make millions off your indie project, and reach the same number of people? Or are you content making enough to pay the bills, or fund your next project, or even just put some extra cash in your pocket as a nice side product of doing what you love? And when you consider your audience, is it enough that a few good people play and see your game, or do you need mass recognition? Sometimes a single positive review, or an award is enough to satisfy the needs of the designer. These are reasonable goals, and they are attainable.

With paper gaming this is even easier. You can easily find play-testers for your project. Most gaming groups need DMs more than they need players–someone who puts in the time and does the heavy lifting. And usually they’ll be more than happy to test out your homebrew creations. A lot of people even prefer them to more conventional published material. The very act of having a group enjoy your stuff, even if it’s only five or six people, can be extremely rewarding. You’ll rarely lack an audience as a paper game designer. It might not be huge, but it’ll be there.

Bringing it All Back Home



This post has been somewhat unfocused. That’s okay. I needed to write it, just as I have a need to make games. And make no mistake, this is need, not desire. When I don’t do it, I’m unhappy. Regardless of my reasons, I hope I’ve inspired people to take a positive rather than negative perspective. Instead of focusing on somebody else’s expectations and definitions, forge your own. Instead of seeing the market as a daunting, over-crowded obstacle, view it as the impetus to get damn good. And that’s what this is about–making something your proud of. Unless you care about your product, nobody else is going to.

I also hope I’ve been realistic. At the start of this article I joked that creative types don’t usually care for reality. This is true to an extent. But fear thrives on unrealistic expectations. Positive thinking is pragmatic thinking. When your creating, stick your head in the sky. When you’re thinking about living life, dream big, but be practical.

And this is all, really, just a letter to myself–a personal pep-talk. Maybe it helped you. I hope so. This is my goal. It begins with the personal benefits of creating, and ends with the communal benefits–the hope that some way I can be useful.

So go anyway.

(Here’s a Rolling Stone article that’s a combination of positive or negative. There’s a lot of nay-saying here, but the final message is on point).


Things I Learned from: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

If you want to learn how to design games, you have to play them–a bunch of them. But playing alone is not enough; you have to think about what made the game good, bad or indifferent. This series does just that.


The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a reboot of The Binding of Isaac (which started as a flash web game), is good. Very good. It’s play for hours longer than you expect to good. And, maybe most importantly, play until you’ve squeezed the last breath of life from it good. (Much in the same way that Isaac’s mother wants to squeeze the last ounce of breath from her son). Yeah, the game is kind of messed up.

I’ll explain. It’s a rogue-lite indie title, in which the protagonist’s religious fanatic mother hears the voice of God telling her to kill her son. Isaac escapes into the basement of what apparently is the scariest house in the universe, and finds his way through some caverns, (because this house has caverns). Eventually he ends up against mamma herself. Who he kills. In your second play through, you climb through your dead mother’s womb and…

So, what did I learn from it?

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic


Aesthetics make your game stand out. There are dozens of rogue-lite, randomly generated games these days. Plenty of them are dungeon crawlers, and some of them are top-down shooters, in which you collect a bunch of power-ups to offset the insane difficulty that is a staple of the genre. But none of these games is The Binding of Isaac. Why? Because Isaac has a truly original, or at least less familiar, aesthetic. When I say aesthetic, I’m using a fancy word to describe the overall feel of the game, as rendered by the interplay of graphics, art design, and sound design. The Binding of Isaac’s aesthetic is twisted to say the least.

Isaac is a cute, wide-eyed, globular thing with a permanently terrified expression, which makes it all the more horrible when the grotesque enemies–including animated poos and sphincter mouthed flying things–kill him. The fact that everything is cartoonish adds to this effect. It’s funny and upsetting at the same time, and I can’t think of many games that have achieved this kind of off-beat horror. It’s the kind of title that won’t necessary scare you, but might give you nightmares.


The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic



Give the players inches. Like many games these days, those part of the post-Demon Souls, hard as nails renaissance, the monsters in Isaac’s basement will kill you. A lot. Puddles of slime will kill you. Flaming torches will kill you. Flies that are also bombs will kill you. The game requires practice. I’m not a particularly great gamer, so maybe the ten hours it took me to “kill mom” for the first time was an anomaly. But overall, you’re going to rack up hours finally finishing a run that in truth only requires half-an-hour of actual game time.

But The Binding of Isaac kept drawing me back because it gave me an inch on a regular basis. An inch, by the way, is not a unit of measurement used in many of the world’s societies. On the contrary, it’s an official gamic term for making enough progress to create the illusion that you are improving little-by-little, and are thus accomplishing something in life.

I’m ornery, and get easily frustrated. I’m also weighed down by the existential burden of life in general. The last thing I want to do with my free-time is experience yet another series of crushing failures through which I learn the ultimate meaningless of an indifferent universe that cares little about whether you live or die. I want something! Games like The Binding of Isaac give it to me, if only in small doses. But it’s enough to keep me playing, and to temporarily assuage the constant desire to cry myself to sleep.



The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic





Secrets are addictive. There are a ton of secrets in the game–secret passages you blow in walls, secret characters to unlock, secret items that appear once certain conditions are met. Explaining too much about this would ruin the fun. So, I’m not going to. From a game design perspective, all these hidden ‘achievements’ make the game infinitely replayable. As I said earlier, after the initial difficulty, it is possible to get through a play through in less that an hour. The randomly generated dungeon design helps keep things varied, but it’s the unexpected surprises you can unlock that add something. The game doesn’t give you many hints in this regard, and you often find things by accident, at which point the game will say “x (usually a vaguely weird or horrifying descriptor) has been locked in the basement or another level).” This gets you to wonder a) what is x, and b) where the hell can I find it, and c) what is it going to do to me when I do? There’s nothing particularly original about this design element, but it’s one younger gamers and designers might not be so familiar with. Before games had save points, beating them in one sitting was a necessity, and to get your bang for your buck you needed a reason to play the game again. Secrets were these reason. They continue to be this reason. And reason is good in an indifferent world.


The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic


You can make some pretty salient emotional statements without being heavy-handed, and/or allowing story to eclipse game play. The Binding of Isaac is most definitely a gamer’s game. More than anything else, it demands reflex, hand-eye coordination skills, and a good deal of patience. There might be a little strategy, but overall the game is of the old-school, learn how to play well variety. Iit still has a story, and it still deals with heavy subject matter–heavier than most heavily cinematic AAA titles.

This is about a religious fanatic wanting to kill her son because God tells her to. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ll know where this story comes from: The Book of: Wow! That’s Pretty Fucked-Up. The religious critique is inherent. As is the general feeling that abusing and killing children is wrong. Not that anyone but a sociopath needs this explicitly stated, but the game still makes you feel for Isaac. It’s funny, but it’s also heart-breakingly sad. Take the fact that Isaac shoots his enemies with his tears, for example. When you stop to think about it, that’s really sad, and it’s especially sad for me because, full disclosure, my two-year-old’s name is Isaac. Although, I assure you, God never told me to sacrifice him (yet), and he’s not a globular white sack.

Also, when you die, the game over screen is a crudely scrawled “will” that Isaac leaves to his cat. It details Isaac’s possessions (the items you found along the way), and a brief doodle of the ‘thing’ that killed him. Very sad. Kind of funny. Similarly, in the loading screens between levels you see that Isaac was bullied, and generally lived a kind of sucky life, which isn’t as heavy as it sounds, because the game definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it made me feel things. And feeling things is good. I guess?


The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic



Poo is terrifying. Seriously. There’s shit everywhere in this game, and for some reason it wants to kill you. (Oddly enough, there are few rats in this basement). But that’s beside the point. The designer definitely had some issues in the anal stage of his development, and he’s put them to good use. But the poo. Yeah.


The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic



Okay, the last “point” was a non-point. But I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to write.

The Binding of Isaac is a hidden gem. And since it’s 2018 most of you probably know this. I’m always late to the party when it comes to jumping on bandwagons. But once I jump I’m usually not disappointed. Except with Stardew Valley. That game put me to sleep.

So what’s the takeaway from this? I’ll go back to the first point. Aesthetic. A lot of games are good mechanically, and from a strict design perspective. Few games are truly memorable. They’re far from a waste of time, but after the title screen fades it’s onto the next thing. A great game has a great “feel” to it AND great mechanics. You need both. The game Lisa has an amazing “feel”, but I didn’t love the gameplay.

This truth applies to any game your making. Even if your working on a traditional fantasy or sci-fi setting, you need to find a way to give it that little something extra. And if you can make it deeply disturbing then you get bonus points. With me at least. Normal people will probably just assume you belong in some kind of institution.

So…Think of a way to make even tried and tested game mechanics seem different, even if it’s not: i.e. have the gun be a little boy’s tears. It’s basically a gun, but you won’t forget it. Make this mechanics jive with the concept in a cool away (again the tears). And when somebody tells you your idea is ludicrous–as ludicrous as a top-down shooter about a child trying to kill his mother, then you know you’re on the right track.

Sanity never did an artist any good.


NOTE: Ed McMillen, the twisted genius behind The Binding of Isaac, is developing a card game (non-digital) based on Isaac’s adventures. More information can be found at Kickstarter. Yup. Check out a couple of images below:


The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, by Ed McMillen

The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls




Dread, created by Epidiah Ravachol from Dig a Thousand Holes Publishing, is rules-light horror and supports any sub-genre–slasher, zombie, vampire, cosmic, weird, occult etc.. It doesn’t use dice, and instead of the traditional character sheet with lists of stats and equipment, players create their avatars by answering a list of questions prepared by the DM (usually a dozen or so). The questions afford a certain amount of freedom–enough for the players to feel they’re crafting something unique–but they also enable the DM to “lead” the party in a certain direction by establishing set parameters and interpersonal relationships before the game begins (I’ve included a sample questionnaire at the end of this post so you get the idea). The DM can decide the party is going to have x females and y males and that at least one character is a paranormal psychologist, as reflected in the questions he or she asks. Otherwise the rest is up to the players.  In addition to background info, the questionnaires also suggest skills the characters might possess, as well as weaknesses they suffer from. There’s no set inventory but the questionnaires often ask “what is in your pockets”, or “what items have you packed for the trip.”

Play proceeds much like any other RPG. The DM describes a situation and the players react by describing what they’d like to do. And this is where things get interesting. If the proposed task is simple enough–open a door, jump a short distance, apply a bandage to a shallow cut–then the DM usually tells the players that they succeed. But if the task at hand is more complex–something that has the possibility to fail–all eyes fall on ‘The Tower.’


Jenga in Dread the Indie Game

The Tower is a fully assembled Jenga set, placed in an easily accessible place on the table, but somewhere stable, where it is unlikely to be accidentally knocked over. To succeed on a difficult task the player makes a “pull”, which is exactly what it sounds like. They try and take a block from the tower and if it falls they’re out of the game. They don’t necessarily die. They might go mad, or have an unexpected accident, or find out a loved one at home is sick and have to rush away (I’m getting these examples from the rule book). But for whatever reason, they’re out of the scenario. If a task is particularly difficult, the players may be called on to make multiple pulls. The number of pulls can also be used to determine degrees of success or failure. For example, when applying first aid to a serious wound, more successful pulls means better treatment and less eventual impediment to the injured party.

The tower is not specific to any one character. The precariousness of each pull is necessarily predicated on the pulls made by previous players. In this regard the tower is a metaphor for the overall sense of dread and suspense that pervades over the scenario. Everyone is in this together, and the further they descend into the horror, the more tense and dangerous things get–for everyone.

It’s an astounding mechanic. No matter how far player’s attentions have drifted from the scenario, as soon as someone is called on to make a pull, everyone snaps back to the intensity of the present moment. In my game, one particular family member wasn’t taking things too seriously, and in any other horror game this might have ruined things. But thanks to the tower, the tense, frightening atmosphere persisted. The rule book gives suggestions for how to pace the number of pulls over the course of a given scenario, although it assumes that a certain number of players are going to die.

And that’s my only problem with the game. Early death. As the scenario progressed and I began to think about how the tower was suffering, and the player’s position deteriorating, it became apparent that someone might die long before the scenario ended. Like any other RPG Dread session can take hours, and the system has no mechanic to include those who are forced to sit out at an early–or even mid–stage. It’s true that it’s a fun game to watch, to participate in the tension of watching others work on the tower, but not so much so that one will be willing to do so for the two hours remaining in a long game.

One potential fix for this, I thought, would be to give each person their own tower–perhaps a mini travel Jenga–but I fear this goes against the core philosophy of the game–the metaphor of the tower as collectively applicable to the group. The other possibility is that in the early portions of the game, the falling of the tower doesn’t signal death, but rather a set of serious drawbacks which come back to haunt the players in the final act, when death is a possibility. In my game, I decided that the tower would represent either the “good” ending or the “bad” ending. In this case, it fell and the players experienced a bleak conclusion to the story I’d prepared.

Ultimately, it’s up to a skillful DM to time and pace the pulls so that the tower doesn’t fall at a point that would ruin the game for the afflicted player. And I suppose keeping the experience fun for players, as always, supersedes even fidelity to the philosophy of the system.

It also occurs to me that the tower mechanic might have a place in certain sessions from other systems. I can imagine a one-off DnD adventure when I could place players in a horrifying situation in which they might be driven mad, but instead of using the optional rules for insanity found at the back of the DM’s Guide, I’d employ the Dread mechanic. There’s a lot of potential here.

So how did my unsuspecting and long-suffering family like the game? I think they had a good time. As long as your non-gaming friends are okay with horror, Dread provides a perfect opportunity to introduce them to the hobby. Jenga is an immediately recognizable “casual” component, character creation is creative without being overly complicated, and the free-form nature of the rest of the rules allows a good DM enough freedom to craft the kind of adventure that can appeal to those unfamiliar with the particularities of the standard RPG experience.


Sample Character Creation Questionnaire


You are 35 years of age, female, married to player 2, mother of Emily (five years old).

1. What is your name?

2. Do you resent being a stay-at-home-mom, or are you proud of it? Why?

3. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done to Emily? How does remembering it make you feel?

4. List a precious or especially useful object you have packed for this trip.

5. Do you believe in the Devil? Why? Why not?

6. What part of your appearance are you most proud of?

7. What character flaw do you find most repugnant in others?

8. Why don’t you speak to your father?

9. What do you love most about your husband?

10. What do you resent most about your husband?

11. Name one physical strength.

12. What about Emily makes you most proud?

13. How did you choose Emily’s name?

The Birth of My Own Setting: World Building for DnD 5e

Map Made with Campaign cartographer


Building worlds for Dungeons and Dragons


I came to tabletop role playing relatively late in life. From what I understand, most gamers begin in college or earlier, but I was 33 when I rolled my first Dungeons and Dragons 5e character. I’d actually purchased a few rule sets when I was around twelve years old, living in England. They were old Star Wars and Lord of the Rings books and I poured over them for hours, dreaming of running a game. But my social milieu of the time simply didn’t dig the hobby and so I stuck to Warhammer and Magic the Gathering cards, both of which quickly became way too expensive, their business models far too ruthless. For years video games constituted my primary mode of role playing. And I read a ton of fantasy and science fiction novels.

About a year ago, when I attended my first Adventurer’s League event, I had one of those moments some people describe as “Ah-Has”, an experience of something clicking, of finding something special. I wasn’t just hooked on the game, I was hooked on the whole enterprise of creating a fantasy world for people to play in.

I didn’t wait long to start DMing—about three months, just enough time to have a rudimentary sense of the Fifth Edition rules. Part of this was born from being dissatisfied with many of Wizard’s published adventures and The Forgotten Realms setting in general (at least in its current form). Like everyone, I have a lot of opinions, but rather than take to the message boards, I figured I’d just circumvent the angst and start making my own stuff. And I really do love Dungeons and Dragons. I love the old source books, the sense of history, Wizard’s willingness to allow its license to be used for homebrew creations, and the homebrew community in general. Whatever problems I have with the current published adventures is more than balanced by the overall scope of the DnD world.

Of course, as I began to brew my first game, which was set in a world entirely of my own making, I had no idea what I was doing. The world didn’t have a name; the only race I’d really thought of was human; only one region was mapped out; I had no sense of history, culture or commerce; and the names I was using for cities and regions were ridiculous—for some reason the names really bothered me. All I knew was that I wanted something paradoxical—a unique fantasy world with races other than orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, elves, dwarves and other fantasy staples, which nonetheless could support traditional fantasy rulesets and sourcebook that were packed with orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, elves, dwarves and other fantasy staples.


How to build a world for Dungeons and Dragons


If I was building the world for a novel, this paradox may have stalled or killed the project entirely. But I wasn’t writing fiction. I was running games weekly and this meant I had to come up with content. There were deadlines, otherwise I’d have nothing to present to the six players expecting a story. This forced me to develop the setting, even when I was out of ideas. So things blossomed. The progress wasn’t always favorable. It really was a first draft, almost stream of consciousness, and initially the concept went all over the place. Over the course of seven months or so, my adventures grew tighter, my world more coherent. Perhaps unwisely, I even began to change details mid-campaign—nothing that affected what the players had done, mostly stuff on the margins. But occasionally the name of a city changed, confusing the players (I told you the nomenclature really bugged me), or I wrote out a major plot element that wasn’t working. The latter choice has proven to be prudent as it simply makes the games run better, and frankly the players haven’t cared—they just want satisfying adventures.

Over the summer, I finally named my world: S’Ae’Lien, the Orphan World, a living organism on which has developed a terrestrial crust capable of sustaining life like a planet. To allow other traditional fantasy races space on the otherwise alien plane, I made the setting interplanar. Unlike similar settings, however, I am more interested on who comes to S’Ae’Lien than who leaves it. It is, as the name suggests, a place of orphaned races—people who arrived from different worlds only to find their way home blocked off. The landscape is mostly bizarre. At its center is a world like our own. Travel from this slight sliver of civilization, however, and you find yourself lost in the weird. And although people seem to find themselves marooned there as if guided by an outside force, S’Ae’Lien, the organism that it is, doesn’t always like its guests—at least it doesn’t make it easy for them. It has a consciousness, and an oblique, but definitive sense of right and wrong. It’s not a fan of empires, and so the most populous races have never managed to make too much ground, although even in a limited capacity they have managed to accomplish feats of both beauty and despair. They are in constant struggle against the world itself, and the outcome is often miraculous.

I envision the setting to have enough civilization to enable campaigns or stories of political intrigue and desperate wars. But I am also influenced by the dark, stranger fantasies of writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, even H.P. Lovecraft. Monte Cook’s Planescape Setting for Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Ed. Remains a huge influence, and I’m currently reading through his more recent RPG—Numenera.

Presently, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t work on S’Ae’Lien in some capacity. Whether I’m preparing an adventure for my next DnD session, taking the first tentative steps to write a player’s and DM’s guide for the setting, scribbling notes in the dedicated journal I’ve started, or even planning and writing fiction for the world, I do something. I read source material from a variety of other RPGs for inspiration, trawl homebrew reddit boards and other similar online sites to see what the community is doing, and generally spend a lot of time daydreaming; it’s all-consuming, in a good way.

I’ve written this post because it’s about a year since I started playing DnD. Those twelve months have seen a radical development in my creative life. They are the reason I keep this blog and share my experience running games and immersing myself in the hobby.