Review: Dark Explorations

In Short…

Dark Explorations is Tad Kelson’s game of exploring lost civilizations that came before the Long Freeze. A self-described “simulationist-styled” game, it is built on a modified version of the d20 system. While the system itself seems perfectly serviceable, I found myself disappointed that the hints to the background and setting were completely un-expanded upon, leaving me with little desire to play the game.

Incorporation Of Images

The image set that Tad received obviously inspired some kind of world in his mind for exploration to occur in; unfortunately, that world didn’t end up making it to the page. The images that he includes in the document serve to show glimpses both of that unexplained world and of the society that the characters come out of, but again, other than a couple of captions they are unexplored.

I wish that the images could have been used to seed game mechanical information that would both expand the range of options open to the players, and create “setting nuggets” for the group to wrap their game around. The city symbols and the map image both had enormous potential for this kind of treatment, in particular.

The game is clearly inspired by the image set, but fails to build upon it in a productive (to me) manner. I have some thoughts on how to do so, to follow the category breakdown.


As mentioned, the resolution system for the game is built upon the OGL d20 system, which is proven in play and perfectly serviceable. I was intrigued by the advancement system, which said something interesting about the game world (again, see below).

Unfortunately, the system pretty much leaves off at task resolution and stat advancement. [Warning: theory-type talk ahead!] In a sim-style game, mechanics can be extremely important and effective ways to communicate the “Dream,” or the actual thing that play of the game is meant to simulate or celebrate. The limited skill list that is presented to us, and the fact that there are more Physical than Spiritual than Mental statistics are both little hints to these kinds of things (i.e. the world of the game emphasizes Physical action over Spiritual and Spiritual over Mental, and so on).

So, the theme continues on – I have little hints to what I’m really interested in, but nothing meaty to sink my teeth into. While I don’t see any reason you couldn’t sit down and play this game (with experienced gamers, at least), I also don’t have a reason to want to play it, mechanically.


I was really sad when I was done reading this game! The first page and the images gave me tantalizing little hints of awesome adventure setting with underwater travels and crazy buried cities, but the text itself gave me nothing to latch onto! I need a couple of things in order to hook me into a game, in general; a strong sense of what the characters do in the game (“explore” is too vague, sorry); and/or a colorful and evocative environment in which they interact. I want to play the game that this game promises is out there, somewhere – but the game text itself isn’t that game.

Further Thoughts

Tad, you should check out Ron Edward’s Mongrel, if you don’t know it, as an example of a game that gives you mechanics that show you how the game world works just from how they interact with one another. I think that you can attach game system information to (for example) the images in your game in order to fill out the world without having to spell out a whole “setting chapter,” or anything like that. I hope that makes sense!

I know that you didn’t manage to get everything into your submission that was in your head, but I definitely think that it would be worth re-visiting and fleshing out in every dimension.


Published in: on March 13, 2007 at 1:39 am  Leave a Comment  


I’ve submitted my final draft to Nathan. Man, does it feel good to be done!

I doubt anyone cares, but here are some numbers:
The end product is 5 chapters, for a total of about 30 pages. I probably spent about 16 hours total actually writing the draft over the course of the last week, and an additional 5 hours or so polishing and formatting this afternoon.

Good luck to everyone still writing. Can’t wait to see everyone else’s games.

Published in: on February 26, 2007 at 2:17 am  Comments (1)  

The Idea Progresses

Working for a state school has its perks. Thanks to the winter storm that hit the mid-west this week, I was stuck at home Tuesday and Wednesday, free from any work-related stress or obligations. So I spent both days playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. Though it sounds like I squandered a boon of precious writing-hours in what will soon seem like a short two weeks, this was actually a good thing. With a mind free of distractions, doubts, worries, etc., I hit the ground running this morning.

Here’s some new (or at least, expanded) ideas.

Basic Idea:
The players are Shapers, human dreamers that have wandered so far into the world of dreams that they have forgotten their real identities. At the start of the game, the players appear at the outskirts of a magnificent dream city. The Red Lady, a leader among the Dreambarons, implores them to save the city from Impending Doom. In return, she will help them recover their lost memories and identity. (The nature of this bargain is a sticking point right now, bear with me.) As the Shapers seek a way to save the city, they unlock memories of their former selves, slowly discovering their true identities.

Game Structure:
The game is structured in three acts. In the first act, the player characters are introduced, as are the initial problems facing the city, and the nature of the city itself and its denizens. In the second act, as the players uncover more of the mysteries that surround the city, they will be confronted by the Snake Woman, an ancient, primal goddess that seeks the destruction and rebirth of the dream world. In the third act, the characters come to terms with their lost identities, formulate a plan to save or destroy the city, and carry out that plan. Hopefully, the game ends with the revelation of each character’s identity and a satisfying resolution of the fate of the dream city.

Role of Players:
The role of the players is two-fold. Firstly, as Shapers, they are agents of change, and must explore the dream world to learn more about the Dreambarons and discover a way to save or destroy the city. Secondly, as narrators, the players are in charge of revealing their characters’ lost identities to the other participants of the game.

Players may want to decide the identity of their characters at the start of the gamee, or they may optionally improvise their characters’ identities as they go along. The second option could prove more fun, as it allows the players to interweave the identities of their characters together. (As proof of concept: I ran a con session of Tim Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch where the players improvised their character’s Fates as we went. The result was surprisingly satisfying.)

Role of the GM:
The role of the GM is fairly traditional. Using the three-act structure as a guideline, the GM presents encounters to the players, drawing upon a small catalog of possibilities I will provide. The plot of the game could develop in several directions. For instance, the players could try to find answers within the city, where they may need to resolve conflict between rival Dreambarons, or conflict between the Dreambarons and their automaton servants, the Coglings (not married to this particular name). Alternatively, the GM could send them on a quest to find the first Shaper, an eccentric human dreamer that “discovered” the dream world and created the city and its denizens. Lastly, the GM may send the PCs searching for the Sun Stone, a lost relic tied to the original creation (and foretold destruction) of the dream world. For the most part, the GM’s job will consist of presenting and embelishing ideas in the text, adjudicating Shaping rolls (see below for more), and (most importantly) devising consequences for each action the players take.

Character Creation:
Rather than representing characters with a laundry list of skills and abilities, players create a personality to define their characters. A character personality is described by a series of opposed traits: Kind/Cruel, Carefree/Serious, Logical/Emotional, and Strong/Needy. Players have an arbitrary number of dice to divide within each pair (I’m thinking a base of 1 die for each trait, plus 3 dice to split within each pair). During the game, the character’s ability to Shape the dream world is determined by the traits most applicable to the situation (see Mechanics below).

In additional to personality traits, the character’s appearance will be an important part of of character creation. Since the characters exist in a dream world, they can take on any appearance the players desire. A savvy player will use her character’s appearance to convey hints about her character’s identity, or even use it as a red herring to mislead the expectations of the other players. For instance, is the man in the space suit an astronaut, or just a sci-fi fan? Or maybe the beautiful princess in the flowing pink dress is just six-year old girl, imagining herself as she’d like to be.

The game will have two major mechanics: Shaping rolls and a mechanic for regaining Memories.

For the most part, character actions should be resolved through narration. However, when a character attempts an action a) where the outcome is uncertain or b) that conflicts with or changes part of the dream world, the player must make a Shaping roll. It’s important to note that real-world skills are not applicable to the dream world. Even if the characters could remember their former lives, they interface (ugh, bad word) differently with the dream world. To some degree, dream logic prevails here. When the characters want to change something, they dream the change into existence. For instance, let’s say a character encounters a locked door. Rather than relying on locksmithing tools and knowledge of locks, she imagines into existence a machine that disassembles the lock, or a fantastic creature to knock the door down, or simply reshapes the building to suit her purpose.

A Shaping roll is resolved thusly: First, the GM decides which traits apply to roll, depending on what the player wants to do. For example, striking a blow in anger would be Cruel and Emotional, while organizing a library for a scatterbrained Dreambaron would be Logical and Kind. One or more traits can be used for a given roll, but only one trait from an opposed pair may be chosen. Next, the GM decides on a difficulty for the roll, which will probably remain secret to the player for the sake of drama. The player then rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the traits the GM chose, taking the single highest roll as the result. If the player rolls more than one 6, each additional 6 adds one to the final result. If the result is greater than or equal to the difficulty, the player’s action is successful. Otherwise, the GM concocts a suitable consequence that further complicates the scene. To take some of the onus of narration off the shoulders of the GM, I may put together a table of ideas for possible consequences. Though in most cases, the consequences will depending largely on the story the players are telling.

This is probably the fuzziest part of the design so far. As players progress through the story, they will unlock Memories that provide clues to the identity of their characters. Memories respresent little pieces of the character’s self. The stronger the character’s sense of self becomes, the more will they can apply to shape the dream world. So, when a character attempts an action in a scene that relates to a Memory, the Memory can be called upon to add a bonus (an extra die, or even a straight +1 to the total) to Shaping rolls.

Memories are rewarded to players in two ways. First, a player might receive a Memory from the GM as a reward for fulfilling an objective or completing a plot point. Second, a player may risk some sort of resource during a Shaping roll to unlock a Memory. The first option is mostly driven by the GM, which is a bit at odds with the players’ narrative control of their identities. I like the second option better, but it needs development.

I’m thinking about giving each character a pool of Self points. Self would represent the coherency of the dreamer as a person. It would be used in two ways. As a possible consequence of a failed action, a player might lose points of Self, commensurate to the difficulty of the action.

Additionally, it could be used by players as a resource to obtain Memories. During a Shaping roll, players may gamble any number of Self points. Each Self point gambled increases the difficulty of the roll, but also adds dice to the roll. In story terms, it represents the dreamer forcefully exerting his will on the fabric of the dream world, to which the dream world responds in kind. If the roll is successful, the player keeps the Self she gambled and earns a Memory, which she narrates into the scene. (Most likely, the Memory actually manifests itself in the dream world in a way that is visible to the other characters.) If the roll fails, the player loses the Self she risked, and the character becomes a little less “there”.

Finally, if a character loses all of her Self, then she simply fades to part of the dream world, becoming a permanent dream-denizen. If this happens, it might be important to have some way for the player to still participate in the game, even if her character doesn’t have a happy ending.

Okay, that’s it for now. Apologies for the inordinate length and self-indulgence of this post. If you made it this far, you deserve a cookie. No, an entire box of cookies. For my next post, I’ll simply cut & paste the entire text of my rules into the blog (kidding!).

Published in: on February 16, 2007 at 2:11 am  Comments (2)  

Initial Thoughts on Tad K’s Image Set

The images in this set paint a surreal world of contradictions: a country manor seated above a metro train station; impossible airships hovering over Victorian cityscapes; torrent skies raging over a stark, orderly skyline.

I’m imagining a world of dreams that exists somewhere on the edge between waking reality and unconscious sleep–the space Salvador Dali would visit with his plate and spoon before painting a masterpiece.

A city stands there, an amalgam of all great cities throughout history. Story upon story of mechanical wonders stretch across the horizon, home to the Dreambarons, a well-mannered people of refined taste and Victorian sense of decorum.

But the city is in danger. Fueled by the dreamstuff from which the world was created, the machines and devices on which the city dwellers depend are draining the life essence from the world, bringing the City closer to its fated end.

On the outskirts of the City dwells a primal entity, the Snake Woman, a fallen goddess far older than the city and its people. The dream world was once hers, and she means to have it back. To her, time is a cycle. What begins, must end. And what ends will be reborn.

Enter the Shapers: human dreamers from our reality who, unlike the living dreams that inhabit the dream world, have the ability to change the fabric of the world through the power of their imaginations.

Are the Shapers the hope for a new future, or the instruments of the city’s destruction?

In game terms, I’m envisioning a story that focuses on consequences. The players are given the role of the Shapers, which comes with the potential for great power. As the game progresses the characters will learn that every action they take in this world can have unexpected consequences, and they will soon find that the fate of the world rests in their decisions.

The game experience I’m currently imagining is a traditional RPG that focuses on exploration of a crazy dreamworld, development of the characters’ ability to Shape, and the position of open-ended moral questions for the players to wrestle with.

With only two weeks to put this together, I may have to trim down my ideas a bit, or possibly throw the whole thing out and try something else. I’m open to suggestions on either count.

Best of luck to all the other entrants!

Published in: on February 12, 2007 at 10:06 pm  Comments (1)  

10 Images [by Tad K]

This might need to be edited to make it nicer looking. [Done! – N]

Here are the ten images

From this page :

Aztec Sun Calendar

Aztec Sun Calendar

Original Source



Original Source

Salvador Dali pic

As You Like It Salvadore Dali

Original Source:


Hidden Cities II

Hidden Cities II

Original Source:

From this page :

Starry Night

Starry Night Tom Harper

Original Source:

Die Blumen des Bösen‘ (Charles Baudelaire) – Illustration by Carlos Schwabe 1900.


Original Source:

From this page :

Mechanical Drawing


Mechanical Drawing

Original Source:

From this page :

Flying Device One

Robida E
Original Source:

Red Lady one

Red Lady One

Original Source:

Turntable house

Turntable House

Original Source:

Published in: on February 6, 2007 at 6:09 pm  Comments (1)