Archive for May, 2012

31
May
12

Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base.)

“You are in a maze of… oh, never mind.”

Ah, the Great Underground Empire! What would the dungeons of Zork have been like without Emperor Flathead, the Zorkmid, or Flood Control Dam #5? Just a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Ditto for Moria without its dwarven halls, or Castle Timeless without its evil wizards and Great Old Ones. A dungeon is more than mere rooms and corridors, monsters and treasures; it’s an environment all its own, with its own character and context.

For now, let’s just look at the big stuff — the overall structure of the dungeon, its nature and its history. This provides essential context for play.

Every dungeon has its own underlying principles. For the sake of convenience, let’s divide them into the following two categories:

    • Those that developed and remain stocked in a naturalistic fashion: “Gygaxian Naturalism.”
    • Those whose inner workings are fundamentally illogical and occult: “Mythic Underworlds.”

Naturally there’s some overlap between these categories. But the distinction is a useful one, and choosing between them has an enormous impact on dungeon design and the feel of the resulting campaign.

“Gygaxian Naturalism”

Naturalism requires verisimilitude. This limits your options insofar as it requires some sort of explanation for all of your chambers and corridors, your monsters and treasures. But such restrictions are excellent for inspiring creativity! Filling a bunch of random rooms can paralyze you with choices, but if you know this section of the dungeon consists of a city slum that was paved over centuries ago, that section was dug out by dwarves following a seam of mithril and establishing a forge, and the other section contains a nexus of ley lines being used as a hatchery by a naga queen, you can work within those strictures to make interesting and engaging environments.

In addition, a naturalistic environment provides valuable context and connections for the players. Not only aren’t they wandering through the dreaded Dungeon of 10,000 Identical Doors, but they can analyze the environment to draw useful conclusions about areas they haven’t yet seen. You may choose to incorporate some of these ideas! (For instance, PCs may start investigating one area’s ventilation system, or they may take note of the lack of organic debris in another area and wonder as to the presence of a cesspit or sewage system.)

A useful tool for naturalistic dungeon design is the “How to Host a Dungeon” game, which provides a game-like semi-random procedure for generating the overall layout of a megadungeon by tracing its development — showing which regions were built, used, abandoned, invaded, captured or squatted in by various underground denizens and surface dwellers over the course of its history. Click here and here to watch the Mule’s own Greengoat use “How to Host a Dungeon” to build a megadungeon environment of his very own!

“Mythic Underworld”

By rejecting naturalism outright, you can establish your megadungeon as a place where anything goes. Perhaps the dungeon was created by a mad wizard or a vengeful god, or it’s some sort of living entity which spontaneously generates monsters and treasures, tricks and traps within its labyrinthine innards. Whatever its origins, the usual formulae of cause and effect don’t apply within its walls.

This offers lots of scope for gonzo weirdness! You can jam in monsters and treasures any which way, without having to worry about niggling questions like “what do the orcs eat,” “where do the troglodytes poop” or “why does this room hold a dragon that’s too big to fit through the door?” Likewise, you can design the most bizarre tricks and traps without needing to justify their presence. Who cares why this door has an elaborate puzzle lock or why that fountain has a fifty-fifty chance of increasing your Strength or turning you into a snail? They’re just there, that’s all, and the PCs must deal with them!

The downside here is a lack of context for the players. Some players may get turned off if there’s no context for their exploration. How can they take advantage of patterns in the layout of the dungeon if there are no patterns to be found?

So you’ll probably want to have some sort of underlying rules governing the place, even if those rules aren’t immediately obvious to the players. The dungeon environment spelled out in OD&D — a place where doors open for monsters but remain stubbornly shut for PCs, where everything but the PCs can see in the dark — clearly follows its own inscrutable principles. Figure out the how and the why of your mythic underworld, its “unnaturalism” if you will, and that’ll both provide you with simple tools for building the place and provide a colossal and inspiring puzzle for your players to decipher!

Valuable analysis regarding the mythic underworld style can be found on the site where — to the best of my knowledge — the term was coined in the context of OD&D and the OSR: Philotomy Jurament’s OD&D Musings.

Mix and Match

The two aforementioned themes can overlap, and there’s much to be gained by doing so. Weirdness is extra weird in a naturalistic dungeon, while bits of naturalism in a mythic underworld can provide a welcome change — as well as generating pathos for the poor suckers who tried to establish a rational lifestyle in the mythic underworld’s phantasmagorical environs.

An early example of this sort of fusion is the Underworld of the planet Tékumel, as found in Empire of the Petal Throne. (See “Developing an Underworld,” pp. 61-63 & 98-102.) It’s a morass of forgotten cities, buried necropoli, wizards’ lairs, alien hives and the eons-old ruins of a spacefaring human civilization. Everything has its own reasons for being there, but the place is nonetheless supernaturally hostile towards intruding PCs, with doors opening for monsters while holding fast against the party as per the OD&D rules.

Other offbeat settings like Arduin, Barsaive, Glorantha, Harmundia, Jorune, Talislanta and Uresia are worth investigating in this regard. Remember, one of the defining characteristics of old-school play is its catholicity. You can never steal from too many sources!

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30
May
12

Ryan Browning, Mackenzie Peck, and Zeb Cook Talk Art and RPGs

Ryan Browning brings word of a panel on RPGs and art happening in Baltimore tomorrow:

We’ve got David ‘Zeb’ Cook coming to participate in a discussion about art and virtual + imagined worlds at the Creative Alliance TOMORROW, Thursday the 31st of May at 7PM. David is known for writing a lot of the 2nd Ed D&D material, including the core books. Additionally, he’s credited for being the lead designer of the City of Villains mmo.

Ryan Browning, Wallness, oil on canvas, 30 by 36 inches, 2011

The overall conversation we’re having will also include artists’ talks by myself and MacKenzie Peck, who is also exhibiting her artwork in the same show, and another local artist, Mina Cheon. The discussion will be more of a panel kind of discussion, and we’ll probably be ranging quite a bit in topic but the main theme is creating or envisioning imaginary worlds, and how each of us goes about doing this. In other words, I’ll be talking about games+art, David will be talking about games, and the other two will be talking about art, mainly. If you want to get some culture on and meet an RPG figurehead from the past, it could be cool! This will probably run for an hour, including time for questions.

Here’s a link to my artwork (the kind I make for exhibitions): ryanbrowning.com. In the RPG sphere, I did the cover and most of the black and whites for Adventurer Conqueror King.

My artwork is influenced in part by my experiences playing RPGs, so I’m looking forward to the discussion and meeting anyone who cares to stop by! MacKenzie, the other artist, is exhibiting some works that look a lot like artifacts to me – you can hold them and interact with them, though they are not game-related. The whole exhibit and talks are free, of course. The exhibit runs through this weekend.

I’m hoping some Mule readers are able to check this out, and further crossing my fingers that there will be video or audio recordings for those not in the area!

25
May
12

Not-so-Weird Tables: Starting Magic User Spells

Would you trust this guy to give your apprentice magic-user a proper education? (PS: I hear the movie is terrible)

This post on Planet Algol reminded me that my own game’s house rules for starting magic-user spells might be of interest to folks. (They’re derived from the Aquerra starting wizard spell tables, here.)

Note that one way of de-emphasizing the elf’s superiority to the magic-user at first level is to give the elf a single spell randomly rolled on a d12. (This also applies to homebrew hybrid casters like the thief-dabbler.) Watching the elf try to find a use for a spell such as floating disk or shield is an amusing exercise!

If these tables seem insufficiently dependent on the magic-user’s Intelligence score, feel free to allow additional rolls equal to the number of bonus languages the character receives for high Intelligence, or allow that many spells to be chosen by the player without resorting to a roll.

A starting magic-user begins play knowing three spells: an offensive spell, a defensive spell and a utility spell. Roll 1d6 on each of the following tables to determine which spells your magic-user has researched. (“Wizard’s Choice” indicates that you pick any one spell from the list you are currently rolling on.)

Offensive Spells
1: Charm Person
2: Light
3: Magic Missile
4: Sleep
5: Sleep
6: Wizard’s Choice

Defensive Spells
1: Hold Portal
2: Protection from Evil
3: Protection from Evil
4: Shield
5: Shield
6: Wizard’s Choice

Utility Spells
1: Detect Magic
2: Floating Disc
3: Read Languages
4: Read Magic
5: Ventriloquism
6: Wizard’s Choice

23
May
12

Megadungeon Mastery I: There’s No Place Like Home Base

So this is what “urban adventuring” looks like!

I’ve been running adventures in my megadungeon, the Château D’Ambreville, for over two years now. In the process, I’ve made many mistakes and learned a number of lessons about why Gygax and his fellow old-school DMs made the decisions they did in setting up their own megadungeons — Blackmoor, Castle Greyhawk, Undermountain and the like. The following series of blog posts will be an attempt to compile those lessons into a usable format.

(While I wouldn’t say that I’ve achieved mastery of the megadungeon format, “Megadungeon Mastery” has some nifty alliteration going for it, so it’s my title and I’m sticking with it.)

NB: Anyone interested in megadungeon creation should check out this theRPGsite thread on megadungeon design, and this Knights & Knaves Alehouse thread providing an exegesis of an original Castle Greyhawk map.

The location of the megadungeon has a dramatic impact on play. Placing the dungeon in, under or adjacent to a major city doesn’t just allow for easy PC access — which is itself no small thing, as it can save time every session that might otherwise be spent on describing travel or making wilderness encounter checks. It also impacts on magics like floating disk, slow poison or raise dead which have a limited window of utility. (Slow poison is infinitely more useful if you have time to carry the victim upstairs to the surface and just down the street to a temple.) Lastly, it makes random encounters with NPC parties more rational — an important goal if you’re aiming for Gygaxian naturalism — as those NPCs can enter the dungeon as easily as the PCs.

Placing the megadungeon out in the wilderness, as with sites like the Temple of Elemental Evil, changes the equation. Now the party has to travel to get to the dungeon, which can soak up time at the table. (It’s often best to gloss over the trip, especially after the PCs have gone back and forth several times, though that does lose the sense of scale and distance involved.) It also makes tracking the in-game calendar of events more complicated; if, like some old-school games, you have different PC parties wandering the landscape, it’s much more likely that their timelines will get snarled up if each session takes days rather than hours of in-setting time. Meanwhile, NPC parties also have to travel through the outdoors to reach the dungeon, which can result in the PCs spending whole sessions tracking down and ambushing NPC parties in the wilderness — or themselves being ambushed by those selfsame NPCs!

(Either way, the dungeon should have multiple entrances, but that’s a matter for another post.)

Having run a megadungeon outside of civilization, I have to recommend putting one’s first megadungeon in a population center instead. There’s already tons of bookkeeping involved in running old-school D&D, and it’s worth keeping the dungeon right under the PCs’ home base in order to reduce that workload.

As to the home base itself, this can be anything from a peaceful village to a Gold Rush-style shantytown to a major city. The nature and scale of the place has a number of immediate effects. Smaller and poorer settlements may be limited in what wizardry and priestly magics are available to the party, and their merchants are less likely to sell unusual items, may have limited quantities of basic equipment, and may not be able to pay a decent price for some of the valuables pulled up from the dungeon. (This may mean lots of side trips to the nearest city, which you may see as an exciting diversion or an unwelcome distraction.) Meanwhile, larger cities are more likely to host rival adventurers to encounter the PCs in the dungeon or beat them to key treasure hoards.

In the longer term, the political impact of the PCs will also vary depending on the environment. Third or fourth level PCs may quickly become big shots amid an isolated rural landscape, while the same PCs may still be second-stringers in the politics of a metropolis. Again, your choice should be influenced by how closely you want your game to hew to dungeon delving as opposed to urban adventures.

18
May
12

Bob Bledsaw’s Birthday

On this date in 1942, Bob Bledsaw was born. The author of many classic adventures that have shaped and inspired my White Sandbox campaign, Bob is best known as the founder of Judges Guild. Here he is talking about its formation at a Q&A thread at the Necromancer Games site:

Judges Guild was founded by myself and Bill Owen (Llangwellan the Blue) from my campaign. It was he and his friends which contacted me with the oriiginal three book set. They had reached me via Dave Petrowsky, my cousin, and the local gaming club. Bill Owen is renowned for running miniature games based upon WWII and his father, Ralph Owen, had founded a chain of hobby stores in Central Illinois (later founding the Franklin Mall and highly sucessful Franklin Travel Agency in Decatur). Bill has a real genius for graphics and helped with the developement of many of our first products including the Judges Shield and Dungeon Tac Cards. Bill and I continue to game together to this day although he is now the CEO of many of his family businesses today. I had asked others of my gaming group to participate such as an out of work printer but Bill took the risk with me. He helped with the paste up on the huge mylar sheet naming every shop in the City State of the Invincible Overlord and consulted some lawyers in his family to make the Crime and Punishment rules. Bill is one of my best friends and stepped aside when his family enterprises began taking much more of his time.

Bill Owen’s recollections of Bob can be found in Bob & Bill: A Cautionary Tale, which is highly recommended.

07
May
12

Dungeon! and the Invention of Old-School Play

In Eric’s original post about the original Dungeon! boardgame, he writes “It’s amazing how well the gameplay lines up with the OSR playstyle.” I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that this is because Dungeon! is where the original assumptions of play were first codified.

Level 6 of Dave Megarry’s original prototype for the Dungeon! boardgame

In my first post about Dungeon!, I talked about how the Blackmoor session in which referee Dave Arneson introduced roleplaying’s first dungeon inspired player Dave Megarry to create a boardgame which would systematize the idea of the dungeon as flowchart.

At Gary Con IV, Megarry said that he created the prototype of the Dungeon! boardgame shown at right over the course of about 72 hours in October of 1973. Most of this time was spent working out the right ratio of monster difficulty to treasure payoff.

The Dungeon! board is grouped into six levels, with stairs indicating a change between levels. Each level has its own set of monster and treasure cards. On the sixth level, you may loot the the King’s riches, but fantastic wealth is guarded by equally potent monsters.

Working out the appropriate ratio of risk to reward by level was clearly a priority for Megarry. Given that the law & economics of reward incentives is a major focus for Adventurer Conqueror King, causing me to put a ridiculous amount of effort into determining how much treasure different kinds of monsters should have, I feel a great debt to the first person to come to grips with these issues.

Playing Dungeon! feels like old-school dungeon crawling because you’re weighing the same risk-reward decisions. For my first character, I played an elf whose ability to move through secret doors would let me quickly zip down to the sixth level, where I hoped to score some game-winning phat loot. Unfortunately I soon found that I needed some magical help to take on the guardians on that level, and was on my way to find some on a more shallow level when I died. For my second character, I wanted to choose a more conservative approach but all the easily-reached low level treasures had been snarfed up by other starting characters, so I couldn’t engage in what players of roguelike games (another branch of Dungeon!’s heritage) call scumming and instead had to dive a little deeper than I might have liked. This kind of thinking was totally natural from playing in the Glantri campaign and elsewhere; it’s one of many ways that Dungeon! crystallizes the experience I know from old-school D&D into a fast-acting nugget of crack.

In my next post I’ll talk about another old-school mechanic whose genome I think can be seen in Dungeon! – requiring variable amounts of XP for different classes to advance.

EDIT: As shown in the letter below, Gygax and others added a number of monsters and treasures to each level of the boardgame when it was published by TSR. Doing so would have given him some hands-on experience achieving monster/treasure ratios by level as well. Letters I didn’t take photos of might confirm that this development process began before D&D went to press, in the period when Gygax was shopping the game to Guidon and other publishers.

Letter from Gary Gygax to Dave Megarry, dated April 18, 1975

04
May
12

Dungeon! and the Invention of the Dungeon

Dave Megarry showing a Gary Con IV attendee a variety of editions of the Dungeon! boardgame he created, including the original prototype

Eric’s post about the re-release of the Dungeon! boardgame reminded me that I still haven’t written about meeting its creator, Dave Megarry, at Gary Con. It was awesome and painful in equal measure, as I was torn between:

  • playing the game for the first time and coming close to winning the Guinness Book of World Records’ Longest Game of Dungeon Ever
  • picking Dave’s brain, and that of his wife Rose, both of whom were wonderful to talk to and quite graciously tolerant of my frantic inquisition
  • reading through a folder of correspondence between Megarry and Gary Gygax as the latter tirelessly shopped the game around a number of publishers before finally bringing it out as TSR
  • absorbing an invisible radiance from two artifacts Megarry brought to the convention – his original board for the Dungeon! prototype, and the ping-pong tabletop from Dave Arneson’s basement on which the original Blackmoor sessions etc. were played out. Both can be seen in the picture to the right.

As I heard it from David Wesely, the story of Dungeon! is inseparable from the story of Dungeons & Dragons. After a few sessions of the Blackmoor campaign, Arneson’s group had explored all of the parts of Castle Blackmoor that could handily be represented by the “Branzoll Castle” model on that ping-pong table. This was back in ’71 or so, well before D&D came into being, and – if I understand correctly – before they were using rules for Blackmoor at all; adapting Chainmail mechanics to provide more structure for the Braunstein-style game play came some time after the first dungeon adventure.

So Arneson decided to use pen and paper to map out the dungeons beneath the castle. (A possible inspiration might have been the siege rules in Chainmail, where the players use pencil and paper to track the progress of their sappers, but at Gen Con ’09 I also heard Arneson talk about using similar hand-drawn maps to deal with fog of war situations in their pre-Blackmoor, pre-Chainmail Napoleonics campaigns which were otherwise played with miniatures).

Apparently Arneson didn’t think that the invention of the dungeon was anything special, but after the session Megarry raved to him about what a great concept it was. For Arneson it might have been a nifty solution to the problem of not having miniatures to represent everything; Megarry perceived that it was an even better solution to the problem of endless free choice. On an unbounded tabletop, you could go off in any direction you liked. This was a difficult for the referee who had to be prepared for 360 degrees worth of adventure, and having too many choices made it hard for players to reach meaningful decisions.

Being a computer science student, Megarry saw that the dungeon acted like a flowchart, providing players a way to visualize the choices available from any given point and referees a way to present a manageable set of options. Excited about this conceptual breakthrough, Megarry proposed to Arneson that he would create a board game based on the dungeon idea, while always giving credit to Arneson for having come up with the concept. A handshake agreement was reached, and the stage was set for the development of what we now know as Dungeons & Dragons.

There’s a great deal more to be said about all this, which I will undertake in future posts; this is just the starting square in an multi-level exploration, not unlike the one in the prototype at right.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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