Tuesday, May 21, 2024

RPG Design Essentials: MSP's Collection as of May 2024

At MSP, we've only published one product so far, the Advanced Character Sheets for the DCC RPG, but we plan to publish more, including adventures, in the near future. In the meantime, here's a post about some of the most important design/inspiration products that have served as starting points and building blocks in our process as of May 2024.

General Resources

-The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG rulebook: Of course!

-The original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set: Having learned an actually readable version of old-school RPG rules in the DCC RPG, it's time to go back to the beginning. Know your foundations, and be prepared to take notes!

-The 1981 Basic/Expert (B/X) restatement of the basic D&D rules. Very similar rules to the three original booklets from 1974 but better-organized and with a smattering of additions from the original D&D rules supplements (Books IV-VII). Still, it would've been great for the original publisher, TSR, to have combined both volumes into one prior to the bloated Rules Cyclopedia (which also incorporated the lengthy and arguably unnecessary Companion, Master, and Immortals rules), but maybe that's what Labyrinth Lord and Old-School Essentials are for.

-The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, First Edition: It's filled to the brim with adventure design treasures, a true legend. You'll also need the Monster Manual for stats and descriptions unless you want to make up your own.

-The Fifth Edition Dungeon Masters Guide: Useful random generators and design tips in an attractively designed book. Again, you'll also need the Monster Manual for stats and descriptions unless you want to make up your own.

-Tome of Adventure Design: Many lengthy tables on a number of important topics, designed to get your imagination going. Incredible work!

-How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck: A wide-ranging collection of essays on adventure design, each with an example scenario, from many different authors. Some of the advice in this book clashes with typical OSR adventure design values, but reading it still can be useful as a meditation on what you value in an adventure, even if it's because you realize that you disagree with some of the ideas presented here. Joseph Goodman's article in particular is strong.

Specialized Resources

With just the above books, you already have more than enough to jump in and create amazing adventures. Here are some additional resources that are more topic-specific:

-The Encyclopedia Magica: 20 years' worth of D&D and AD&D magic items, compiled from every official source (core rules, modules, magazines, etc.), and published beautifully as a four-volume set. Perusing the EM will give you many wonderful magic item ideas, and it towers over basically all other magic item books.

-The Wizard's Spell Compendium and the Priest's Spell Compendium: From the same era as the Encyclopedia Magica, these three-volume sets, as their titles imply, compile all of the wizard and priest spells from 20 years of D&D and AD&D products, 1974-1993. Why reinvent the wheel when so much is waiting here to be tweaked and customized?

-Artifices, Deceptions, & Dilemmas: Courtney C. Campbell's Empty Rooms, Tricks, and Basic Trap Design is a great resource, and this work combines that info with even more great stuff for an extremely usable and inspiring design aid.

-The Big List of RPG Plots: Many OSR players feel that exploration/setting >>> plot, but when you need help navigating plot tropes, this is a handy aid, similar to a condensed version of TVTropes.org.

-Cities by Midkemia Press: It gets into a level of detail you may or may not go for in your games, but it's a great starting point for developing your towns and cities.

-The Dungeon Alphabet: Possibly the best "alphabet" product, with a lot of really useful and inspiring tables.

-The Wilderness Alphabet: Another useful "alphabet" product, less glamorous than "Dungeon" but solid.

-The Elegant Fantasy Artifact Generator and the Elegant Fantasy Creature Generator: Both are straightforward products specially tailored to aiding with artifact and creature creation.

-The Grimtooth's Traps series: On the one hand, these design aids do offer a lot of content. On the other hand, many of the traps are overly lethal and therefore of limited use in a game situation. Also, the tone of the writing, particularly the relishing of elaborate, improbable violence is more on the juvenile-edgelord side. (It's supposed to be written from Grimtooth the Troll's POV, but still, it's overdone.) Nevertheless, there some useful trap and design ideas in here if you can stomach the somewhat cringeworthy and grating presentation.

-Lethal Legacies: Traps of the World Before: An excellent traps book, far more grounded in tone than the Grimtooth series.

-The Metamorphica: DCC RPG has a rule of "no generic monsters," and here, the Metamorphica, a large collection of system-agnostic tables for adding customized features to your monsters, is incredibly useful.

-The Random Esoteric Creature Generator: Briefer and more focused than the Metamorphica and also very useful for creating original and unique monsters.

-Random Fungi: Various tables on a wide variety of subjects. Give it a chance as there's a lot to like (and use) here.

This Judge's Guild product has a lot of pre-gen magical weapons with pretty imaginative and detailed write-ups. They're usable as-is, or, even better, you can use the tables in the back (of course; it's Judge's Guild) to roll up your own. Very nice stuff.

-The DCC Monster Extractors: There are five of these, each themed differently, and they're great for coming up with usable, non-generic monsters.

-Making Monsters for Dungeon Crawl Classics: A useful set of tips from veteran RPG writer Daniel J. Bishop

Model Modules

Here are some exemplary adventure modules. MSP started out more or less emulating the style of the official, numbered DCC RPG modules (which, in turn, emulate classic Basic and Advanced modules), but as we continued to write, we found that we strongly preferred the more raw, very early design style of some of the Judge's Guild work from the 1970s and similarly early third-party work from Wee Warriors.

-Palace of the Vampire Queen: WOW. If, as a Judge, you prefer improv and don't like having to do a ton of prep, this is the product for you: super-simple explanations of what's in the room, with space left for you to make up the rest of the details as you go. Stumbling onto this, the first officially licensed D&D module was a turning point for MSP.

-Tegel Manor: After Palace of the Vampire Queen, this is perhaps the second-best module of all time, and it's due to the same stripped-down design that makes it incredibly easy to digest on the fly when Judging. Is it a somewhat haphazard "monster condo," with all kinds of crazy stuff thrown in without rhyme or reason? Yes. Is it a good example of sensible "dungeon ecology"? No. And it's great!

-Wilderlands of High Fantasy: Part module and part Dungeon Master's Guide, WHF is an amazing resource that's chock full of amazing tables and other design aids intended to help Judges develop their wilderness campaigns on the fly. Incredible stuff. Frontier Forts of Kelnore is another one in this vein.

Other Works

These resources don't necessarily go directly into game element creation (though sometimes they do), but they're important works that have added to the TTRPG knowledge base.

-The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide: You don't have to use all the extra rules provided in this 1E AD&D work, but it does have a lot of dungeon and underworld design ideas worth perusing. 

-The Wilderness Survival Guide: A companion piece to the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide above, it likewise has some rules you might never use, but it also a lot of general wilderness ideas that should help get your creativity moving.

-Ready Ref Sheets, Volume I: Some people love this work. You may or may not think it's gold from start to finish, but especially in the back half, there are many useful tables. It's especially interesting to read from the perspective that it pre-dates the first edition DMG.

-The Campaign Hexagon System: This Judge's Guild product, along with associated products such as Castles, Caves and Caverns, Temples, and Villages, really hit the nail on the head in terms of following out the stated D&D rules and instructions into the development of actually usable game products. Recall that D&D originally was just a set of rule descriptions and design instructions with no concrete examples of what you'd actually get if you actually tried to make something using them. Now, enter Judge's Guild, who actually built the things described by D&D, and now you see what they look like. Definitely worth a look, with tons of usable tables, too. 

-A Brief Study of TSR Book Design: This work by Kevin Crawford is a great help to anyone trying to emulate early TSR D&D works (1970s though 1980s/BECMI) or just to learn more about module layout design in general.

-Level UP!: The Book of Fantasy Gaming Lists: Courtney C. Campbell's Level UP! is a collection of lists relating to various TTRPG topics. Some of the lists seem to have been written as a goof, but others are very seriously usable from start to finish. Despite the unevenness of this work, it gets a nod here because it can introduce you to some pretty rare, old-school resources you may not hear of elsewhere.


So, there's a brief overview of the books we hit up for tables and ideas on a regular basis and that have expanded our background knowledge of the world of classic TTRPGs and TTRPG design. In the coming weeks, we'll post reviews and more extended discussions of some of the items in the list.

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