Blog Posts

Adventures in Adventure Conversion

games on demand
role-playing game

This year, I’ve signed up to facilitate and/or run at least seven 2-hour time slots for Games on Demand at GenCon.  I’m planning on bringing Hollowpoint, Fiasco, Lady BlackbirdDungeon World, and possibly Durance.

In preparation for Dungeon World, I’m going to bring at least one adventure for a 2 hour time slot.  So this weekend, I began my preparation.

I decided to take this opportunity to review several of my old D&D 1E adventures. For the most part, these are adventures that I have not played in and have only recently acquired – traded for within the last 3 years. I’m likely going to convert one of these adventures.

I thought about going easy, and grabbing MJ Harnish’s conversion of U1 – Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, but decided I do a little work for the community and convert another module.

A1 – [Slave Pits of the Undercity](

The first adventure I pulled off the shelf was A1 – Slave Pits of the Undercity. It was originally designed for GenCon XIII (1980) tournament play.  I figured that would be a great start for reading.

The first section of the adventure is a very linear dungeon crawl, and felt very inappropriate for Dungeon World.  It was specifically designed for tournament play using D&D; Many of the set pieces were tightly dependent on the D&D rules.

One thing that turned me immediately off was the extremely linear map.  Dungeon World is about playing to find out what happens – exploration.  And plodding through a linear map is the anti-thesis of exploration.

Kingdom of Ghouls – Dungeon Magazine #70

For a brief moment, I flirted with converting this adventure. But quickly realized the scope of the adventure is too grand in scope to properly convey in a 2 hour time slot. That said, I may still consider a micro-conversion.

The challenge for this adventure is that the players are going up against an army of ghouls and need to muster troops to assault the growing plague. With the “War” Kickstarter stretch goal for Dungeon World, I may yet convert this.

T1-T4 [Temple of Elemental Evil](

I picked this up a month ago, and had yet to read it. I have heard numerous tales of the Moathouse, so I figured I’d give it a read through.

I love it.

It has a narrow-broad-narrow dungeon design, that is to see the front door is easy to find then things open up, but ultimately steer you towards the “exit.” There is room for exploration without loosing site of the final goal.

The random encounters feel very much like the soft moves described in Dungeon World – some are noises in the distances, others are monsters revealed.

There is more than one thing going on within the Moathouse, not quite factions, but certainly a handful of overlapping themes.  Each of the rooms provides

B2 – Keep on the Borderlands

With Wizards of the Coast releasing the Caves of Chaos for the D&D Next playtest, I thought “Well maybe I should spin this through the Dungeon World centrifuge.” For a 2 hour time slot, this looks like there are too many rooms to account for.


In reading these old modules, it becomes clear that exploration and clever play is at the fore front of earlier incarnations of D&D. The adventures are extremely compact, with little space devoted to each room. D&D 3.5 and 4E adventures change their focus and instead worry about creating “memorable” set pieces – placing monsters and hazards within a room.

Yes those conflicts are memorable, but as a whole can feel disjoint. Contrast this with an older adventure, where the dungeon is the set piece. Implied motion permeates the adventures – random encounters and alerting other areas – and as such the concept of a single room having a combat map is somewhat absurd.

In reading the adventures, it is clear that the adventures reward smart play. If you tip off the monsters that there is a strong force attacking, they flee, taking their treasure with them.  Or if you may choose to carefully explore a tangential place in hopes of grand treasure.  And remember, in older versions of D&D, XP primarily comes from treasure not slain monsters.

Old D&D rewards the “leave no stone unturned, so long as your turn it over carefully” kind of play.  Very different from the slash your way to victory that I have seen in so many later incarnations.

Even the texts of the adventures encourage exploration by the DM. There are subtle environmental cues – a greased door, a barrel of vinegar – that tell a larger story, but only if the DM explores those relations. These old modules have a minimalist approach with subtle flavors and textures.


I believe I will be using the “On Set Design” blog post from Hack & Slash’s blog as a template for the conversion.

Success and Failure in Role-Playing Games

burning wheel
butcher baker and candlestick maker
dungeon world
houses of the blooded
role-playing game

My go to campaign systems has been Burning Wheel.  I’ve written quite a bit about it, but I’ve still got more to write about.  This comes in response to my experience on both sides of the GM screen.  One observation that I’ve had about our Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker campaign is that failing “mental” tests do not have consequences – or more appropriately the consequence for failing a test is that the state of the game does not change.

Before I get to far, lets break down the types of tests into three categories.

  • Character vs. Environment – Climb a wall, jump a chasm
  • Character vs. Character – Dupe someone, sneak past someone
  • Character vs. Exposition – Search the room, research forgotten lore

In the case of Character vs. Environment and Character vs. Character, we as players intrinsically understand the potential complications that come from failure.  If we don’t successfully jump the chasm, we will fall and end up somewhere unexpected.  If we don’t successfully sneak past the guard, the alarm will likely be raised.

In the case of Character vs. Exposition, what are the potential complications of failure? As a person, when I don’t succeed at learning about something, I end up “back where I started” with one door closed. But this isn’t real life…why settle for a closed door?

I am a firm believer that anytime the dice are rolled, especially in Character vs. Exposition, that the state of the game should change. That is to say some new revelation should come to light even as a result of failure.  The nature revelation is fully informed by the success or failure of the corresponding test.

However, the Character vs. Exposition is the hardest one to negotiate. As a person, I am not aware of what my failures vs. Exposition are. I just don’t expose what I was after.  So perhaps we need a list of potential complications related to Character vs. Exposition.

Quick Survey of Game Systems

The Gumshoe system addresses this by stating that investigative skills always work…but it is up to the players to interpret these things.

In Houses of the Blooded, the tests are so easy to succeed at, but it is the wagers that quite literally define the investigations.

In Dungeon World, the game master gets to make a move.  Something is going to change when failure happens.

In Burning Wheel, every failed test should have a pre-negotiated complication. Otherwise, skills advance with little consequence.

What Got Me Going

In our Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker campaign, our group had access to a massive library that was created by the characters’ grandfather. The characters wanted to look up information concerning the magical portal that their grandfather had protected, as well as several other topics.

The characters attempted a handful of “Research” tests, and failed. The result was a frustrating “You learn nothing” and “Mark a difficult Research test.”

As a player, I was at the end of my patience concerning information.  We spent several days in the library to learn nothing.  I asked myself what was the point of the test? Why did some of the characters get to mark a test for her Research?

If I were at the helm, choosing the consequence for failed research I would have started with “Okay if you fail the test, you’ll learn how to find the portal, but you won’t like the price.”

With the failed research, I would’ve had them stumble upon a passage that said “To reveal the portal to the next generation of guardians, the first born of the new generation must be sacrificed.” Or some such ominous thing.  After all, every single characters’ belief is tied to protecting their family. The stakes are high so keep them elevated.

This is why the Adventure Burner beats it through your skull to separate Task from Intent.

Without consequences of failure in the Character vs. Exposition arena, test mongering becomes standard. In fact, I fired off a string of successive Astrology tests out of frustration and desperation, knowing that the consequences for failing even an OB10 test were going to be “And I mark a Challenging Test.”  In fact, without Astrology, we would be completely lost…but it is an unreliable means of story exposition.

A particularly astute reader of the Sorcery section will notice that tests already have backed in complications.  Especially when attempting a First Reading.

So, in an attempt change my micro-culture I’m going work hard to demand a consequence before I roll for a test. I ask that players in my games, be they Burning Wheel or otherwise, do the same.  I think this method of positing two outcomes before determining one is good practice as well as helpful in getting the creative elements going.  We build our narratives not only on the paths we take, but by those we’ve considered taking.

P.S. After enough closed doors and brick walls, most every player I know will eventually throw caution to the wind. In this case, my character recklessly sought out a poisoner, committed arson, and dangerously attempted to cast her first reading of Flame Breath. I’ve been playing games a very long time, and this kind of behavior is what leads to TPKs and wilting campaigns…as the players may very well be looking for sweet release.

P.S.S. VSCA’s hopefully upcoming Soft Horizon may address this in another interesting way. From Brad Murray on a limited thread on Google+ –

I am taking a more general approach: if you are rolling a simple check to succeed, then failure means a conflict in which you are at genuine risk. If a check is not worth a conflict, then you succeed.

A conflict could be lost, but the objective of the check successful (ie. you open the chest but the trap rips your arm off). My preference is for the more extreme: you fail to figure out the Machine and it tries to take over your brain.

Just Arrived – Skyward Steel and Darkness Visible

just arrived
role-playing game
stars without number

My first ever RPG was Star Frontiers.  And while I’m at it happy 30th Anniversary by the way.  While the bulk of my RPG experience is in fantasy settings, I continue to dabble with Sci-Fi.

“Darkness Visible and Skyward Steel” by Kevin Crawford

And at present, the options are glorious.

I’m sure there are plenty more – I’ve got several of the now out of print Alternity books on my gaming bookshelf.

So when a review at GameHead of “Stars without Number” stumbled through my Feedreader, I took notice. I had previously downloaded the free version of “Stars without Number” and was wondering if I should pull the trigger on purchasing the hard copy.

As a side note, I want my gaming material in hard-copy. As physical products I can pull them out, read them, legally lend them, and give them away.

The review, by Ian Williams, pointed out that “Stars without Number” is all about the sandbox style game.  And there were several supplements available for other sandbox style games – namely a naval campaign and an intrigue and espionage campaign.

I was hooked on the idea of sandbox tools for running a naval campaign and an espionage campaign.  So I purchased both “Skyward Steel” and “Darkness Visible”.  I’ve already put an order in to my locally owned book store to get a pricing quote for a physical copy of “Stars without Number.”

Other Reviews

And now for some other endorsements

  • Grognardia – “simple, flexible SF RPG that truly accommodates sandbox play like no other”
  • John Harper’s micro-review – “quite possibly the best sandbox-gaming RPG ever made”

World of Dungeons by John Harper

dungeon world
role-playing game
world of dungeons

John Harper has made some fantastic games; I’m familiar with Agon and Lady Blackbird, both of which are outstanding in their own fashion.  So when I learned that he was offering his “World of Dungeons” as a stretch goal for Kickstarter, I was super excited.

World of Dungeons is a complete short roleplaying game that answers the question “If Dungeon World was the latest version of a classic roleplaying game, what would the original look like?” – Dungeon World Kickstarter

Here we have a hack (Dungeon World is a descendant of Apocalypse World) that is being hacked such that it could stand in as the originator of the gaming hobby. This is interpolation at its best. I love it.

So what’s in it? There are two versions, the old blue print with aged paper look and the clean B&W for printing version.  Both PDFs are otherwise identical.  The PDF is 3 pages long.  The first page contains two character sheets. The second page contains  rules on equipment, hirelings, magic, character creation, and rolling the dice. And the final page has an old school drawing, an advancement chart and suggested names.

“These rules are yours to bend to your will! You may find it natural to expand, redact, and modify them as you your game goes on. We advise keeping an open mind and lively discussion of possibilities at the table.” – World of Dungeons

Is it enough to go from? Yes, if you are willing to improvise. These simple rules are a complete distillation of the player side of Apocalypse World and serve as an excellent foundation for building other hacks.

Mind you, there is precious little help for the Game Master, but then again, the originators of the hobby were making things up as they went along.

There is no discussion about moves, though John does provide an excellent post on regular and hard moves in Powered by the Apocalypse games – pardon the regular expression, as the Apocalypse World hacks are taking on a life of their own.

The rule are very light, because, most anyone that is downloading the PDFs are already intimately familiar with the various tropes and are likely part of the collective gamer memory.  And if you need some help on what the GM moves are, I’ve provided a handy translation from Empires Strikes Back to Dungeon World.

Vincent Baker, who started this worldly madness, has already blogged about concentric game design, and John Harper’s World of Dungeons codifies it to what is almost it’s most core element while still retaining the identity of a fantasy RPG. John Harper has applied a thin veneer on the core system…others could just as easily make a “World of Star Wars” or “World of Indiana Jones” by following John’s minimalist approach.

Is “World of Dungeons” enough of a reason for backing the Dungeon World Kickstarter? No, but it is some damn tasty frosting on this already decadent cake.


For those curious about adding more to your World of Dungeons, there is a fantastic wiki resource that is evolving over at story-games.

Kick In the Door…Dungeon World Kickstarter is Live

dungeon world
role-playing game

The Dungeon World Kickstarter is live…and is already fully funded. The game designers are working on creating their stretch goals.

I’m eager to get a physical copy, as this game is one that reliably ignites my imagination – both invoking memories of my early days of gaming as well as the excitement of a fantastic yarn.

Consider supporting this game; it is $25 for a softcover.  And as always, the text is freely available on Github – canonical source and my fork.