The Dungeon Zone

For whatever reason my “weird little games” have gotten bigger and started taking longer to finish, moving from 10 pages to more like 60+ pages. On the plus side, I’ve been pretty happy with how they’ve been turning out. One of the big ones at the moment is The Dungeon Zone.

DnD Zone Cover
Planning to replace the art in the middle with something else, but still, I had fun making a pastiche of the OD&D box cover. I’m inordinately amused about “1-Volume Set.”

I have a weird relationship with D&D. Of course, the RPG scene in general has a weird relationship with D&D, but in particular I started playing RPGs with Palladium’s Robotech RPG, then didn’t really play any D&D until 3rd Edition came out (though I owned and read a lot of AD&D books and made a handful of faltering attempts at playing them), and then across 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions I played it for about a decade of regular play in all, before basically deciding that I’d played A Sufficient Amount of D&D. I have a lot of criticism of the game (I’m even working on a book that’s an extended critique of D&D, though it’d be a lot of work to actually bring it to fruition), though also a good amount of praise to go along with it. It can be a rollicking good time, but it’s a pretty specific game that excels at certain kinds of play and is mediocre to actively harmful for others. You can use it for stuff other than its core dungeon fantasy competence, in much the same way that if you’re determined enough you can put in nails with a screwdriver. The best D&D fiction and actual play celebrates how it’s a kitchen sink dungeon fantasy game about a band of weirdos flailing around and getting into trouble, and doesn’t try to ape Tolkien or other authors far removed from the dungeon fantasy genre.

One that particularly inspired me was The Adventure Zone‘s “Balance” campaign. The McElroy Brothers are best known for their My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast, but they do a kind of ridiculous number of other podcasts and other online stuff. TAZ is the result of them (and their dad) sitting down to play RPGs, and the Balance campaign (loosely) uses D&D 5th Edition (with a custom PbtA hack for one arc), and to me it’s pretty much everything that D&D play should aspire to. There’s also the fact that they apparently record for several hours and edit it down to a reasonable podcast length, cutting out the inevitable boring bits.


The Dungeon Zone is a game where you role-play a group of gamers as they sit down to play D&D (or a non-trademarked equivalent dungeon fantasy RPG). It’s very weird and meta, and I ended up devising a shorthand of “Layers” to make it easier to distinguish who you’re talking about, whether it’s the actual people playing The Dungeon Zone (Layer Zero), your fictional gaming group (Layer One), or the adventurers in a fantasy world (Layer Two). It’s kind of a silly pastiche of D&D play, and a tongue-in-cheek celebration of what makes D&D a fun game, in the vein of works like The Gamers and Knights of the Dinner Table.


The game runs on a relatively simple Powered by the Apocalypse variant, and condenses a lot of the stuff that contemporary D&D expresses through rather baroque means down to a few numbers, moves, and flavor text. It’s been a really interesting exercise to try to look at D&D play as it happens at the game table and create moves and such to encode that into game mechanics. That resulted in a game where the four stats are Clever, Loud, Lucky, and Numbers. If the DM calls for a perception check, you use the Just Roll move with your Lucky stat (which represents how well your L1 Gamer character tends to roll), and if you don’t like the result you have the option to use the Argue move, which is based on your Loud stat.

After the first playtest I did a pretty substantial overhaul of the basic moves, since there were just too many of them, and there were both things I wanted to cover and moves that I could combine (like Argue Over Loot and Argue With the DM, which got mashed together into a broader “Argue” move).

I also put in a possibly excessive amount of d66 tables for various things that come up in the game, from elements of character creation to monster encounters to NPCs to random treasure and such. (Also, there’s a “Rules to Argue Over” table.) It’s become a trademark of my RPG designs, and it’s also been just plain fun to come up with tables and stuff to put them in, to the point where I ended up adding appendices of nothing but more tables.


(Also, I’ve found that screenshots of Word make a good way to show off bits of games I’m working on to people.)


The aesthetic of The DnD Zone as a book is kind of a quirky mashup, with bits of OD&D, AD&D, Basic D&D, and a little bit of my own sensibilities. The body text is in Futura, a Bauhaus-influenced geometric sans-serif typeface that TSR used in OD&D and AD&D1e. It’s a beautiful typeface, albeit one with more of a retro-future/early modernist vibe (among other things it got used for the beautiful metal logos of some early mainframe computers), and while it somehow worked in AD&D, it’s not exactly a surprise that TSR later shifted to using serif fonts. For the headers I went with Souvenir, a friendly-looking serif font that was used in basic D&D, and also (if Wikipedia is to be believed) was massively overused in the 1970s, to the point where a lot of graphic designers came to detest it.


One advantage to doing a full-on dungeon fantasy game is that there’s a lot of stock art available on DriveThruRPG. The quality is mixed of course, but I don’t think any other game I’ve done has had so much usable stock art available. I still used some Noun Project icons here and there (like in the Layers chart), but it wasn’t remotely like the icon insanity of Kagegami High. I did emphasize the sillier dungeon fantasy stock art available (especially the really cartoonish art pack from a Brazilian publisher), but the only actual original piece I commissioned was cover art by Jason Thompson.

The Dungeon Zine

A while back a friend of mine was floating the idea of doing a zine with a collection of various witch-themed stuff. I had settled on doing a touching story about a modern witch coping with suddenly losing her cat familiar, but I’d also started on a piece called “Witchy Business” that was a collection of random silliness about witches, in the same vein as the catgirl section of I Want to be an Awesome Robot (though much shorter, because writing 700 names of anything is pain). Randomly opening the Witchy Business word doc led me to thinking about a sort of zine-inspired format for small RPGs, where the game would form the core of a collection of material about a topic. Even more so than independent comics, zines have this delightful miscellany to them. People will essentially pick a topic and put together an assortment of artwork, comics, and sometimes essays or most anything else that can fit into a printed booklet. The results are ephemeral and personal, and it’s generally a great medium.

Which isn’t to say that I’m some pioneer who figured out that zines could be about RPG stuff. Like everything else in RPGs, RPG zines are dominated by D&D, whether it’s the copious old-school D&D material in zine form or The Adventure Zine, a collection of art inspired by The Adventure Zone assembled and sold as a charity project. There’s also stuff like The Gauntlet’s Codex fanzine and Epidiah Ravachol’s Worlds Without Master.

But I’ve come up with a particular kind of “zine” that I think will work pretty well for me, and since I have a lot of miscellaneous stuff relating to D&D, The Dungeon Zone wound up being something of a test case. Given TDZ’s inspirations, it felt exceedingly appropriate to give the book a possibly excessive number of appendices, to the point where the section where I list the game’s influences is in fact Appendix N. These include:

  • A collection of random lists.
  • A 6-page coloring section (yes really).
  • The Baatezu’s Dictionary; a collection of sarcastic definitions of RPG terms, which if you’re not getting the joke, is inspired by The Devil’s Dictionary.

These have been a lot of fun to work on, and I hope that I’m making The Dungeon Zone into an amusing book as well as an enjoyable RPG, sort of creating a wider overall experience that puts the game at the center but also expands outward from there.


3 thoughts on “The Dungeon Zone

  1. I forced the issue with my group to play DD3 when it came out, because our group had been playing for 3 years at the time, twice a week every week, and it felt weird not to feel part of the “larger gaming community” because jokes about elves, dwarves, gelatinous cubes and beholders wouldn’t evoke anything to us.

    I GMed for two years until we were thoroughly disgusted with classes, levels, and having to ignore 75% of the rules (hello, attacks of opportunity) so that we would be able to do what we wanted. It just wasn’t the right set of rules for us, or even, the right “way of thinking”. I HATED how at some point one player got thrown out of the game and said “wait, with our levels, how come these robbers are giving us such a hard time ? If they’re as powerful as us, what are they doing robbing theaters ?” It was devastating. And true.

    But this, oh boy, I really want to play this. Will there be playbooks for rule lawyer, powergamer, passive aggressive, and the like ? Or is that concentrating too much on bad archetypes ?

    1. TDZ doesn’t use playbooks, but you do pick a Gamer Motivation for your character, and there are some moves you can take to do different things at the fictional game table, which can include stuff like powergaming and cheating. I’ve been trying to find a happy medium where my game represents some of the unpleasant aspects of D&D play without going too far and making TDZ un-fun to play.

  2. I just bought it. As soon as I discovered it’d been released (you really should say those things on your blog, man :D )

    Seems to me that I can even use some of the moves for my ongoing game of Dragon World. i’m thinking of “Travel” and “Carouse” specifically. Wondering what Stats to use.

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