Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Advice from the Blogosphere 2020

So, last year, I started what I hope will become a tradition for myself by posting about my favorite links from the previous year. I built this collection of links as I saw them throughout the year, with an emphasis on saving posts that gave advice about how to do things.

Last year I also gave my take on the state of the OSR. My current take is that the label OSR seems to mean "small-press D&D-like roleplaying, not 5th Edition, and not Powered by the Apocalypse". If that sounds like it might encompass quite a lot, I think that's because it does. The OSR continues to enlarge and diversify, so much so that I wonder if it can continue to hold together. 

You've still got people playing the retroclone Old School Editions and neo-retroclones like  Dungeon Crawl Classics and The GLOG, but you've also got people playing Mork Borg and Mothership and Troika. You've got a proliferation of unique minigames via itchi.io and ZineQuest. You've got people fully committing to abandoning written rules in favor of ad-hoc rulings in the FKR, as well as more people than in past years (that I'm aware of, anyway) trying their hand at actual wargaming. 

Ultimately, the question of how well any of this holds together as a scene will be answered by many people cross boundaries and play more than one game. Everyone who sticks to just one thing builds up their circle, but also makes it more distinct. Everyone who splits their time between two or three or more circles builds bridges between them and brings them closer together into a more unified scene. It's an open question how many people are acting as bridges and will continue to do so, especially if we add any more distinctions into common circulation.

As with last year, please feel free to share links to posts that you thought were helpful from the past year in the comment section.
"Initial Sketch" by Luka Rejec
Luka Rejec, who in addition to authoring and illustrating his own books, is also an artist who sometimes works on commission, has a guide explaining How to Commission Art, which strikes me as a very useful guide for those of who might like to author a book but don't plan to illustrate it ourselves.

Thriftomancer from Dice in the North has advice about Writing Coherent Session Notes. You'll notice that this will be something of a mini-theme among the posts below. Either this was on a lot of people's minds so they wrote about it more than usual, or it was on my mind so I noticed more than usual. Thriftomancer also provides a nice Kilodungeon Definition for creating a space for delving that's much larger than a single-page dungeon, but much more manageable to design and explore than a full-on megadungeon.

Jason Tocci from Pretendo Games has advice from Pretendo's First 4 Months Self-Publishing on Itch.io. Jason talks about how he got started, and kindly pops the hood to see how much he'd made at that point from each of his minigames, both from payments and "tips". Since then, he's written the 24XX System Reference Document for science fiction games, which seems like his most popular game to date.

After years of writing and illustrating great, isometric, two-page spread mini-adventures, and giving them away free, Michael Prescott from Trilemma Adventures launched a successful Kickstarter to fund a hardcover print edition. Afterward, he wrote up My Kickstarter Task List to help other first-time publishers get their project funded successfully. 

I liked this year's piece of advice by Trey Causey over at From the Sorcerer's Skull so much that I actually wrote about it once already. Trey encourages us that Setting History Should do Something, and provides us both with three goals to reach and three pitfalls to avoid. It might seem obvious to observe that it's not helpful for setting history to "describe events that have little to no impact on the present" or "describe events that are repetitive in nature or easy to confuse" ... until you think about just how often setting history falls into exactly those traps. This was also a good year for Trey's writing about planetary and space adventures, and I was particularly glad to see his first Pulp Solar System Anthology and the follow-up about Pulp Uranus and its Moons.

This year, I most often find myself reading Jack Guignol at Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque for interesting book recommendations and Gothic actual play reports, but he did have one advice-y post early on about his recommendations for a possible 6th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. You can probably find a lot of people opining about what they'd do differently next time, but I appreciated that Jack's premise for a hypothetical 6th edition was basically "the good parts of 5th edition, but more so", while at the same time leaning into some useful simplifying mechanics.

I mostly stop by Stone Drunk Wizard to see his art, and I have to admit, this is not his original post, but something he re-tumbled. This is where I saw it though, and I find the genealogical process of tracking down the history of a Tumblr post to be at or past the limits of my internet skill, especially since there was a nice testimonial appended to this version of the post that I wanted to hold onto. Anyway, this advice originally comes from an artist called Xuu, who tells us How to Draw Anything.

RJD20 has advice for How to Build a Unique Culture for D&D, which he demonstrates by planning some yeti-taming glacier goblins. 

Advice for how to run traps is evergreen, but I thought Paul Hughes from Blog of Holding had good advice in How the "Odd Detail" Can Make D&D Traps Way More Fun. An "odd detail" is a clue, something to catch the players' attention, alert them that there's something to investigate, and a puzzle that possibly communicates the nature of the trap. This advice is especially pitched at 5e gamemasters, and Paul does a good job for explaining his rationale for rejecting the alternate advice that "traps are most effective when their presence comes as a surprise."

Also speaking to 5e gamemasters, DM David has advice for Using Experience Points to Make Your D&D Game More Compelling. David recommends using the recommended XP for non-combat challenges as an alternative to the standard monster XP. He identifies a few advantages. This reduces the XP award for fighting monsters (which has other advantages he discusses), makes calculating the awards simpler, and makes it easier for lower-level characters to "catch up" to the other members of their party. The non-combat XP system is technically optional, but I've had success using it for traps and other challenges when I've run 5e.
"How to Draw Anything: Step Six" found on Stone Drunk Wizard

John Bell from The Retired Adventurer has roleplaying advice for portraying a character whose actions will seem consistent, sensible, and thus predictable to other players. In Roleplaying, Decisions, Intelligibility, John argues against characterization via "quirks", which show up sporadically and don't necessarily convey a lot of information, and in favor of simple and clear motivations, which can be deployed again and again to create a character that the other players can easily understand.

In a year when all of us did almost all out gaming online, David Schirduan from Technical Grimoire has a great primer of advice for Playing RPGs on Discord.

Anxiety Wizard wrote Half-Organized Thoughts About Monsters, which lays out an approach to presenting information about monsters, both the way information about them is written on the page for the benefit of the gamemaster, and the way that it's spoken during the game for the benefit of the players. He recommends a way of writing up physical details, rumors , and encounters. He suggests an encounter roll that doesn't just produce the number of enemies, but also what they're doing when the players meet them. The full process is a bit labor intensive, so it's probably most worth it in an ongoing campaign, and for like, one of a handful of common recurring monster types.

Chris McDowall from Bastionland spent a lot of the year developing his own minimalist wargame rules. I liked his advice for Cheap Tricks a gamemaster can use to create particular emotional effects in the players, whether that's showing the impact of their characters' success or failure, or trying to get them to laugh or feel (momentarily) frightened. Chris calls these "cheap tricks", but we can also think of them as simple effective storytelling tools.

Daniel from Detect Magic offers a contrarian opinion in Dungeons are Irrelevant. Look closer though, and its also an argument about character motivation, what kinds of in-game events are impactful for players, and an argument about how best to spend gamemaster preparation time in light of those ideas.

Paul Beakley from the Indie Game Reading Club had a couple of pieces I really liked this year. In Whadday Know?, Paul lays out the different ways to decide what the characters know about their world, which turns out to be one way of thinking about how the gamemaster and the players are dividing up worldbuilding authority. In The Cudgel and the Contract, he compares rolling dice (the cudgel) versus coming to an agreement (the contract) as a way of resolving conflict between two players with different goals. I think you could also read this as a comparison of "rules" versus "rulings". What I like here is that Paul identifies several positive points and downsides for both methods, and talks about each way of doing things's vulnerability to bad faith.

Alex Chalk from To Distant Lands has some thoughts about gamemaster preparation, and the difficulty of prepping appropriately for a sandbox style game, which he shares in GM Anxiety and the West Marches. The heart of this post is a story about a time when he prepped 100 hexes for crawling, and his players spent their entire 2 ½ hour session trying to cross a single river. I really appreciate when people share stories of GMing gone wrong, and Alex is thoughtful about how a certain ideal vision of what good GMing looks like can easily lead to misadventures like the one he describes.

Arnold K over at Goblin Punch wrote something called Advice for OSR DMs, but really he lists out concrete advice for both gamemasters and players interested in trying out OSR-style dungeoneering.

Gabor Lux from Beyond Fomalhaut has an interesting method for looking at The Anatomy of a Dungeon Map. He turns all the hallways into straight lines, ignores all the rooms that don't have a second exit, and thus creates a diagram showing the routes around the dungeon. The idea is to be able to see the most basic pathways that will define how characters are able to move around, free from the any other set dressing that ordinarily obscures that view. Gabor also released Castle Xyntillan this year, which I've noticed showing up in several other bloggers' actual play posts.

Alex Schroeder also had some thoughts about session reports. Looking at the date just now, this is clearly an older post, but somehow I only saw it this year. (Perhaps it was linked somewhere?) In Session Reports are Read Just Once, If at All, Alex suggests writing session reports for your own benefit, without expecting a larger audience, and has advice for keeping them short and useful. Throughout the year, Alex has been posting about his Hex Describe, Text Mapper, and Gridmapper projects.
"Dungeon Graph" by Beyond Fomalhaut

Alcoops at Make a New Cult Every Day posted images of handwritten session prep notes, complete with hand-drawn maps, and invites the rest of us to do the same, asking How Do You Do Session Notes?

Jim Parkin from d66 Classless Kobolds posted back to back Simple and Universal Referee Advice and Simple and Universal Player Advice. Jim's referee advice is about how to communicate information that will be helpful to players, especially about the dangers their characters' face, the choices they have available, and the difficulty of each option. For players, Jim advises a mix of curiosity and caution.

Otspill from BAATAG introduces The Grand d666 as a way to quickly generate setting elements. They recommend filling a d66 or d666 table with the kinds of things you want to be in your campaign setting. Factions, species of monster, but also things like themes, moods. Then whenever you need help starting to write some piece of the setting - such as "what's in this dungeon room?" or "what's in that wilderness hex?" - you roll two or three times and combine the results to serve as your inspiration.

Rodongo from antiknez has written about How to Sandbox, with advice focusing on creating factions, setting them in relation to one another, and finding an entrypoint for your players into that situation.

Gundobad Games wrote On a Method for Handling Secret Doors in Dungeons, that I really liked. Gundobad suggests that players should be allowed to detect the presence of a secret door automatically, so that game time can be spent on trying to figure out how to open the door, rather than trying to figure out if it exists or not. It's one of those proposals - like I2TO eliminating the to-hit roll in combat - that feels radical at first, but also promises to speed up the game and refocus on the most interesting parts of the game.

Artist Donato Giancola (yes, that one) writes the Dweller of the Forbidden City blog, and honestly, this is a real unsung treasure trove for good GMing advice. In Running D&D Games - The Role of the Ref, Donato lays out what he thinks a gamemaster's job is, as well as what he thinks it is not. The three main pillars are creating the game world, deciding how the inhabitants of the game world react to the player characters' actions, and serving as an adjudicator whenever the rules alone aren't enough to decide how to do something or what its consequences are. In Randomization - It's Not What You Think, Donato offers a defense of letting the dice decide elements of the game, from monster hp and NPC reactions to individual initiative and the rewards found in a treasure chest. 

Gus L, now operating out of All Dead Generations, has some advice about One Page Dungeon Design. Gus identifies a few key dilemmas and recommends solutions. Obviously you need to write succinctly to fit on one page, but you also need to avoid saying so little that your dungeon is incomprehensible because you were unable to describe anything, or boring and generic because nothing needed to be described. Evocative imagery, both drawn and written, is your ally here. This year, Gus also started publishing small dungeons again.

Psionic Blast from the Past has a suggestion for Designing Content with a Hierarchical Graph in Sandbox / Hexcrawls. His basic argument is that you can build the sandbox as you go as long as you take some time to figure out what you players are able to reach in the next session and what they're likely to need several sessions to get to. Since in a hexcrawl you can't know exactly which path your players will take, he argues against over-preparing areas that might never be visited. Also, despite the title, he doesn't actually recommend making a graph to decide these things.

Rook from Foreign Planets has a set of tables for procedurally generating a dungeon, quickly at the table. Adrenaline and Spark Tables: Dungeon Generation During Play suggests coming up with some simple elements of set-dressing, common active elements, and common passive elements. Then in each new room, roll the dice and take inspiration from the tables. Sundered Shields and Silver Shillings was also inspired by this post to give some of their own advice for jotting down a quick coherent dungeon.

Ben L from Mazirian's Garden started the year with So You Want to Make a Zine: Printing, which goes over the pros and cons of using a photocopier, a home printer, hiring a print shop, and hiring an online printer. He ended with some thoughts about different approaches to writing and using notes about what happens in each session in Barker's Rolodex: Record Keeping for a Long Campaign. In between, he also had a nice series of posts about character downtime between adventures.
"Session Notes, page 1" by Make a New Cult Every Day


  1. I wish I'd seen that Tocci post a little earlier! A useful source, thank you.

  2. Thank you for another excellent round up. Session notes is something I need to be better at, so the posts you mention have prodded me during the year to write things up somewhat better. The post about Setting History should do something also reminded me of Gundobad’s post from 2019: https://gundobadgames.blogspot.com/2019/04/ — and both of these reminded me of the utility of things like the Gygax 75 challenge. So an interesting year of posts, and its good to be reminded of them.

    1. That is a cool post about building up a setting in layers. The Gygax 75 thing seems pretty popular! I've been keeping a list of the people I've seen try it.

  3. This is a great list, thanks for collecting and summarizing it all!

    1. Thanks, Justin! I'm glad to know people appreciate my commentary.

  4. These posts are always total belters, thank you - really appreciate it.

    Also may of let out a squeal of delight and surprise upon discovering I had been featured on one of my favourite blogs! Thank you! I'm still blushing profusely.

    1. Thanks for making me one of your favorites! I thought this was a cool idea, and I admired your willingness to share your notes with the world.

  5. Wow, this post is full of treasure! I now have a jillion tabs open and a lot of reading to do. Thanks for putting this together!

  6. Thanks, some good stuff in here.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you found some things to enjoy!

  7. I made the list! What? Wow! And my post made it on the list despite the (many, many) typos only being fixed in 2021. I'm pleased and motivated.

    1. I find your blog very interesting. Definitely keep up the good work!

    2. Thank you, that's very kind. I've got a weather system, mad science downtime rules and a couple of dungeons in the works. This exchange helped me push through and finish my first dungeon which I'll be releasing tomorrow, (it's a bit rough but) thank you.

    3. Nice! I feel especially excited about the Mad Science.