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Gaming out of a Dark Room

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So last year I got addicted to the online game A Dark Room (couldn’t afford the app), and it got me thinking what a great Tian Xia RPG that sort of setting would make. I ended up planning out a couple of sessions, and while the campaign never got off the ground I thought I would share what I had to see if anyone could improve on the idea.

If you are not familiar with A Dark Room, Google it and become addicted!

Translating Mechanics

So I started out wanting to take the different levels of the game opening up and relating them to the intro of this Tian Xia game. Here is what I came up with:

Levels of A Dark Room:
* Stoke the fire – Fate Points
* Gather resources for building – Skills and Fate Dice
* Explore the map – Refresh and aspects
* Build a spaceship – Acquiring Stunts
* Flying off the planet – Learn a Kung Fu Form

Starting the Story

So start everyone off in a dark room with one fate point and no character sheet. Tell them that they can each spend a fate point to declare something about the room or themselves. These create aspects that tell everyone about the room and each other.

Keep track of who creates what aspect for later. If someone creates A DIM LANTERN, they may be UNCOMFORTABLE IN DARKNESS. If someone wants to have DELICOUS FOOD, perhaps they are an ASPIRING GORMET CHEF.

Once everyone has contributed something about the setting, fill in the blanks. The room should not have any furnishings that the players did not spend a fate point to create, and no one else is in the room. The way out should be surprising and not at all obvious in the dark. A secret door could be established, or there could be no ceiling, or perhaps the room is actually a quick shelter thrown together from branches.

Leaving the Room

Next comes the motivation for leaving the room. Have it start filling up with water or sand. Set the room on fire. Or send in monsters or slavers. The point for this encounter is to have the group roll the Fate Dice. A positive result means that they get away. A neutral result creates a little hitch. A negative result means that player does not get away without a serious consequence (CLAUSTRAPHOBIC, BLIND, TERRIFIED OF DROWNING, etc). Allow the party to share points of success to represent helping each other out.

I like the idea of establishing some relationships very quickly. Perhaps a beautiful woman comes to care for a PC, and they turn out to be their wife or daughter. Or perhaps an aspiring student of herbalism or acupuncturing wishes to experiment on a PC.

Actually, maybe I should work in the opposite direction and figure out the whole story before I figure out how to divide it down into smaller parts.

Ideas to Work In

Mythology ideas: Kakuen are the monkey people that steal women. Mogwai are the demon ghosts that mate during the rain. Shen is a clam monster that creates illusions.

So at this point I am thinking of having a powerful monster leading armies to conquer other lands. Or perhaps the empire has not yet united, and one of the clans is trying to unite them. Or perhaps the emperor died, and there is civil unrest in the land as each clan fights for power, fame, and the throne.

The peasants, of course, are uninvolved in these conflicts except for where is pills over on them, and one such spill over has happened upon a village. Two rival armies raided a village for food at the same time and ended up laying waste to it.

In light of the above, I think the progress of the characters should definitely start from the bottom so they can experience the consequences of actions caused by powerful individuals before they become powerful themselves.


In making a post-apocalyptic world for Tian Xia to be set in, I really wanted to be true to the feel of the material without actually having it set in the world. So I worked out tying the substyles to different types of people to give the kung fu feel an easily presentable form.

Forest – environmentalists, monks, gardeners
Ghost – priests, thieves, ninjas
Iron – soldiers, bandits, mercenaries
Lightning – women, duelists, short people
Stone – bodyguards, gladiators, wrestlers
Storm – sailors, strategists, performers

Crane – counterstrikes, fluid movement, misdirection, and redirection
Dragon – balances of power and speed, versatility and simplicity
Monkey – (unconventional distractions, acrobatic rolling dodges, and erratic punches and kicks
Phoenix – (grace) keeping and attacking balance, circular movements, feminine style
Serpent – (speed) and efficiency, multiple strikes to vulnerable areas, feinting and avoidance for defense
Tiger – (strength) peak physical condition, linear moves that focus on power, ferocity, and damage

What Actually Happened

So we will start the PCs in a catacomb, where they have been taken and hidden with other injured survivors found on the field of battle. No one can really distinguish peasant from soldier, much less who is from which clan. I guess that means the clothing will be plain or indistinguishable, or missing. NPCs will probably have no memory of who they are either, only flashes of the horror of war.

Next should be a choice option to branch out. Players can explore the catacombs further, help rebuild the village, or wander the world in search of answers. Mechanically speaking, the characters start with just 1 refresh and 11 skill slots (4 average, 3 fair, 2 good, 2 great). Feel free to explain that the other starting abilities (3 refresh and 3 free stunts) are worked into the mechanics and will reveal themselves as the game progresses (with an extra great skill as compensation).

Be sure to reward fate points for descriptive roleplaying. You definitely want to establish this as rewarding early on so it becomes more natural down the road. Spending FATE points for story declarations should also be encouraged. If a character wants to discover a specific weapon, meet a certain type of NPC, give themselves a distinct feature, invent a custom, or shape the landscape. Note that most of these suggestions will become aspects on the scene, the characters, or the world.

Whichever direction they pursue, the characters should discover more about themselves as they act. Dungeon Delving will emphasize Intuition, Investigate, Lore, Marksmanship, Will, and Wushu. Building the town will emphasize Allies, Artistry, Charm, Empathy, Fortune, and Trickery. Traveling will emphasize Acrobatics, Banditry, Luck, Physique, and Stealth. Chi, being the Tian Xia special skill, will not be featured until kung fu is introduced.

After their first adventure, the players will probably be close to finishing filling in their 11 skills and 3 stunts. If the group wants to do one of the other 2 tasks, let them. If they want another adventure in the same setting, go for it. It is important to get a feel early on for the type of adventures the characters want most. If there is uncertainty or disagreement, whip out a carrot.

The first carrot will be an NPC searching for the Temple of Wu Xing. The NPC will probably look different depending on what the party looks like. He may be a bandit if they are wandering, a scholar if they are dungeon delving, or a merchant if they are building up the town. He will have a map to the temple with a code and/or riddles about the dangers inside. Obtaining this item should be a conflict, where success gains them additional benefits such as supplies and failure ties them to obligations.

If the party does not need a carrot, then by all means teach them kung fu on whatever path they are pursuing. Building a town will probably teach them during flashbacks when another army comes to attack. Wandering around will probably find monks or spirits willing to bestow knowledge. Dungeon delving will reveal scrolls or books that the group can study and learn from.

It is possible that the group might learn an incomplete form first by discovering scrolls from elements and bodies before figuring out how to put them together. This is not optimal, but the possibility does exist.

Sandbox campaigns, from what I have read, require careful planning. Hooks and random encounters are good tools, but there has to be subtle clues that link together. Like in the Dark Room video game, when you first find a musket and then later an alien alloy. The game never says that there was a war, but you can easily imagine a story with these basic clues.

Ideas For Engaging the Players

  • Ask for a volunteer to start things off. Then tell them they are lying on their back in the darkness when someone runs them through with a sword. Give them one reaction: get the sword out, look at your attacker, check the weapon, etc. Then have the character wake up for real.
  • Leave a tattered journal for them to find with entries describing how a doctor found people wounded but still alive after ‘the battle’ and brought them into the tunnels to keep them safe. The journal should increase with desperate intensity. The doctor wanted to start a village again, to see life restored, but the outside world was mad and desperate.
  • Have a dragon pass by the group as it tunnels up to the surface. The party is beneath the dragon’s notice, for it is huge and powerful. If the size does not inspire the party to start moving, perhaps some loose coins or a scale will fall off as the dragon passes.

After the 1st Session

Now that the group has obtained their kung fu techniques, I need to come up with a good system for distributing them. Probably I will post 2 options for each character and let them choose which starting technique they want. After that I will need to award 1 stunt/technique in the following sessions and work to keep the group balanced.

Most of the caverns have been explored, but the one passage left holds some possibilities. The group is convinced that the hungry dead that attack the undead city are coming from the NEVER EVER GO HERE spot on the map, which is fine. Put some more exploding mushrooms in that cave (red stem, green cap). Maybe have a hungry dead walker set off the alarm that the group set up last time.

What is actually towards the end of the tunnel is a monk that has gone mad trying to stay alive. He devours the yang energy of animals in order to keep living. What remains behind becomes a yin-ruled dead walker that the group of undead in the city fear. Yes, they have been fighting hungry dead bunnies and raccoons. This would explain why they have fared so well so far.

If the party attempts to converse with the mad monk, he will insist on knowing the name of the catacombs. He will not take no for an answer, insisting that the group give him an answer (thought out or made up). When the location is named, give whomever came up with the name a fate point. This is to encourage the naming of places in the future as maps are explored.

The encounter with the mad monk should be quick and brutal. He will fight off attacks, figure out which of the group seems the tastiest, and then go after them. As soon as he has taken a minor consequence, he will withdraw, fleeing out the tunnels behind him to the edge of the swamp. To add to the drama, have the tunnels get narrower so that some of the group members risk getting stuck when they crawl through. The mad monk is frail and skinny, after all.

Random Encounters for Anywhere

1 A babbling sage 26 Dangerous Plants 51 Crumbling Structure 76 Landslide
2 Lost riding animal 27 Hungry Dead Animal 52 PC flashback with NPC 77 Shinigami
3 Wounded Amazon 28 Elemental Spirit 53 Sunken Fortress 78 Clan Storehouse
4 Lost Child 29 Holy Relic 54 Little Mind Flayers 79 Book of Spells
5 Silver key 30 Amazon Raiding Party 55 Natural Disaster 80 Damaged crystal
6 Tribe of Cannibals 31 Possible Pet 56 Riddle-sealed door 81 Slave Trade Caravan
7 Witch Brewing Potions 32 Magic Scroll 57 Hidden Door 82 Deadly Magic Trap
8 Summoning Circle 33 Dragon Flies By 58 Talking Animal 83 Abandoned Alter
9 Death Note 34 Dying Traveler 59 2 Groups Fighting 84 Sleeping Corpse
10 Cursed babbling brook 35 Flying Forturess 60 Cannibal Graveyard 85 Whispering Voice
11 Doctor’s Journal page 36 A single rose 61 Quicksand to Cavern 86 Powdered Jade
12 Kids fighting monster 37 An old tea set 62 Helpful Plants/Herbs 87 Artistry Tools
13 Large docile animal 38 Inhuman baby 63 An unmarked grave 88 Roll again twice
14 Nest with eggs 39 Religious book 64 Sneaky Thief 89 Jeweled Artifact
15 Old Statue 40 Mother missing child 65 Crumbling Bridge 90 “Come Find Me”
16 Tunnel Entrance 41 Angry Monster Mom 66 Zone of Peace 91 Enslaved Oni
17 An innocent dessert 42 Anti-gender Barrier 67 Luminescent Pool 92 Cursed item
18 Abandoned camp 43 Wandering Psycopath 68 Fading Spirit 93 Ransacked Temple
19 Oni Summoning Cult 44 Emerald Sealed Door 69 Infatuated Lover 94 Royal Family Member
20 Naga eating a steed 45 Poppy Flowers 70 Warlock cursing stuff 95 Dead Monster Corpse
21 Human cry for help 46 Traveling Merchant 71 “There is no cake!” 96 Repopulation Cult
22 Another undead city 47 Entrapping Urn 72 Wandering Ghost 97 Imperial Seal
23 Vague Treasure Map 48 Stuffed Teddybear 73 Flash flood 98 Intelligent Item
24 Gender Swap Fruits 49 Servant from Palace 74 Bound Djinn 99 Imperial Procession
25 NPC recognizes PC 50 Locked Chest 75 Fork in the Path 100 Yin and Yang


Making the World Real

One thing to consider would be planning areas in advanced, or at least random encounter tables. Or at least some general ASPECTS about each location as they build them. I want locations to feel unique, for players that are going to revisit areas to be able to recognize locations and learn what to expect.

The challenge of running a populated open world is that I need to make sure everything is cohesive without taking away from the feeling that the players only take consequences from actions (not inaction). So a bad monster is not going to settle into a cleared dungeon, for example, unless the party actually drives it into the dungeon without killing it.

It is important that nothing be lost in the shuffle, so keep great notes. Aspects on locations are huge! Also be sure to mark which character has the trigger for a plot or story quest. Reference points would probably be helpful so locations can be found on the main map or how they relate to other locations.

If I can keep a list of current hooks, I could probably lean on inserting more clues for them rather than building up to many new ones. Plus it will make it easier to reward player-made plots and quests.


Author: Burn Everything Gaming

Website that mostly produces Actual Play Podcast as well as game reviews and other musings on the topic. Hope you enjoy.

One thought on “Gaming out of a Dark Room

  1. Pingback: Game Design: Start With Nothing, End With Awesome | Burn Everything Gaming

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