Last week, Bob (who I am fortunate to know from the awesome Cyclopeatron blog and the equally awesome So Cal Mini Con) wrote me to ask:
I think I recall in one of your blog posts or comments you mentioned having run First Fantasy Campaign. I am struggling to understand how to make this dungeon fun – on the surface it looks like a horribly tedious nightmare maze. I can’t comprehend how players could stay interested in mapping and exploring a complex maze dungeon like this, especially if they’re mapping off of verbal descriptions.
The quick answer for how I made mapping non-tedious was that I bypassed verbal descriptions as much as possible by drawing the parts of the dungeon visible to the party on a wipe-erase TacTile. The party’s mapper then just had to copy my sketch and add it to their own map. I had graph paper available for each of my Blackmoor runs at Gen Con, and offered it to the players along with the suggestion that they designate someone to keep the map. Early on, one group said “we don’t need to map, he’s drawing it for us” and I was like “yeah but I’ll erase it as soon as you go off the edge of this tile…”
The first time I ran Blackmoor Dungeons was at the Arneson gameday I blogged about here. These players did a moderate amount of exploring, but the group included a number of players from the NY Red Box crew so we had a pretty smooth understanding of how to negotiate mapping together. I find that having worked out these procedures makes it much easier. When I tried to map El Raja Key at GaryCon II I had a hell of a time because I wasn’t used to the way that Rob Kuntz counted from the square we were in when he called out descriptions; I wound up getting a lot of help from Luke Gygax sitting next to me, because he was accustomed to Rob’s way of doing things.
Both groups that I ran at Gen Con this year wound up going down by instinct as soon as they realized that moving laterally tended to lead to many branching corridors and rooms that were often empty. I found this to have a cool psychological effect – all the odd angles created a sense of being somewhere strange and unsettling, and the tension grew with each time they entered a room and found nothing: when would the shoe drop? The tendency to make downward progress led to the party taking on encounters beyond their weight class with memorable and exciting results. I much preferred this to the urge to clear out everything on a level that you get when said level spoonfeeds you a steady drip of challenges and rewards, laid out in a neatly comprehensible way so that all you need to do to get out is follow the trail of enemy dead from one room to the next.
My first Gen Con group, the second expedition I witnessed, didn’t ever really need a player map. Their 1st through 4th level adventurers got into two encounters in the basement right after entering the dungeons, then hit the Orcian Way and wound up dining at a banquet held by two balrogs on the tenth level! There was no chance they’d fight these guys, backed up as they were by dozens of wights and a small army of orcs, so instead they convinced the balrogs to send the party after Sir Fang, who they killed. Their experience this party had was more like a modern lair dungeon – go in, get quest, fight boss battle – and although this result was wholly surprising to me, it shows that you could set up a conventional scenario within a nightmare maze megadungeon. Doing so would combine the advantages of new-school adventure design, like a focused goal and encounters pre-planned to be exciting, thematic, and meaningful, with the old-school benefits of massive freedom to go off the rails in interesting ways and the utterly convincing evocation of a dungeon environment that’s much too huge and inimical to care about your personal goals.
It was the second Gen Con group, my third overall, who showed what player mapping is really good for. First they figured out that lateral stuff was challenging, so they adopted an always-turn-left rule. Then they found that lots of rooms were empty(which I improv’d as being pirate quarters currently with no one home) and started looking for down stairs. At one point they found an apparently room with nothing but a little treasure, which I improv’d was the gilding on a weirdly carved gnollish floor covered in offal and maggots; this spooked them so much that they left it alone. Then
they realized that there were fewer down stairs than ones going up, and used their player map to contemplate where they might be if they went up.
The tension mounted with each time they went down and still found no encounters to tell them whether they were on a level whose denizens were way too tough for them. Then they found an unkeyed room with “ghost room” written on the map, which I improv’d in a creepy way. Then they encountered three high-level M-Us, developed a tactical plan to surprise them, and got away with it – gaining literally a ton of gold and ten tons of silver. So now they’re six levels deep, as burdened as they possibly can be, and with half an hour left in the session they’re hoping to get back to the surface intact.
What ensues is an enormously enjoyable process of mutual map consultation. They’re using their player map to tell me which way they’re going to get back. I’m following their progress on my DM map, watching to see if they take a wrong turn, and counting squares to see when I next get to check for a wandering monster. I roll these in the open, so there’s a collective cry of relief each time I don’t roll a 1. The players also cheer each time they work with the mapper to tell me which way they’re going and I begrudgingly acknowledge yes, you’re in an area you’ve seen before. When they successfully used their map to re-emerge into daylight, there was a tremendous sense of
There was also a real sense of discovery – I had no idea from looking at the Blackmoor Dungeon maps that this is how it’d play out, and there were lots of emergent properties that were deeply surprising and fun for both me and the players. Even the guys in the third group, who had lots of dungeoneering savvy like the left-hand rule, I don’t think had any
more experience with this kind of super-old-school nightmare maze. The very bare-bones key was also real satisfying for improvisation – I drew information onto the map (monsters, treasure) like I was talking about in this post, so it was very fast and free-flowing.
I had so much fun with Blackmoor Dungeons that I’m planning to run it again at Gen Con, perhaps as a pair of continuous 12-hour delves with players dropping in and out. I will eventually post maps of the areas players have visited before: presumably they have supplemented their loot by selling these maps to other would-be adventurers!