Author Archive for Eric Minton


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.


Dungeon!s and Dragons

I doubt it’s news to anyone reading this blog that Wizards of the Coast is reprinting the classic TSR board game Dungeon!

For those not familiar with the game, which first came out at the dawn of D&D in ’75, it’s a straightforward old American-style boardgame just dripping with old-school flavor. Players send colorful pawns representing various Chainmail-type characters (an elf, wizard, hero and superhero — note how we’ve got PCs of different experience levels adventuring together!) into the depths of a dungeon full of traps and secret doors. There they draw cards representing monsters encountered, roll dice to defeat them and draw treasure cards. Magic item cards help your PC win fights or explore more efficiently, but it’s monetary treasure which helps you win — you need treasures of a high enough GP value, and you need to escape with them alive!

It’s amazing how well the gameplay lines up with the OSR playstyle. Killing monsters is fun, but taking their wealth is the only thing that really matters. And while the PCs don’t form a party — you’re in competition with the other players — dealing with other PCs is reminiscent of dealing with rival adventuring parties or active dungeon factions in old-school Caves of Chaos-type play, where you watch NPCs fight each other and hope to swoop in on the weakened victor to make an easy score.

What really appeals to me about the WotC re-release is the price. Whereas other companies’ recent re-releases of classic 70s and 80s games, like Steve Jackson’s OGRE and Games Workshop’s Talisman, had hefty three-digit price tags, the new Dungeon! reprint is listed as a cool $19.99. This looks like a serious effort to market the game for a new generation of kids, rather than as a cash-grab from nostalgic fortysomethings. I hope this works; Dungeon! can’t compete with today’s best Euro-style boardgames for quality of play, but it’s head and shoulders above its “classic” American competitors like Monopoly or Sorry! or what-have-you. It’d be nice to buy a few copies for my various nephews… maybe it’d encourage them to play D&D with their uncles when they’re older.


One Page Dungeon: The Vault of Illusion and the Cube of Power

This is literally the only piece of the map I could post separately without giving away any important dungeon secrets!

I never seem to get my schedule matched up with the One Page Dungeon contest. In 2009, I drew up a dungeon, “Hilduin’s Vault of Illusions,” for the very first contest, but I got distracted and failed to turn it in by the deadline. Luckily the effort didn’t go to waste, since I was able to run my players through it for two sessions. And in 2010 and 2011, I completely lost track of the contest, finding out about the deadlines only after they’d passed.

But this year, fellow Mule author Greengoat posted his own doubtless-brilliant entry this past Friday. (I haven’t read Devil Gut Rock in hopes that I’ll actually have a chance to play it someday.) This gave me three whole days to produce my own entry! Fortunately, by recycling and updating my original entry — and with a brilliant artistic assist from Red Box New York player-cartographer Josh Krause — I’ve made the deadline and unleashed a horrid little package of tricks and traps onto the old school gaming universe.

For your gaming pleasure: The Vault of Illusion and the Cube of Power.

The Vault sums up, for me, a specific thread of old school play. It’s mean and unfair, but not in the sense that the referee has any personal animus toward the players. Rather, it’s structured to trick the players into getting themselves into trouble. While it’s not as vicious or deadly as the Tomb of Horrors, the same principles apply: the guy who built the place in-game (rather than the module writer, who built it out-of-game) did not have the adventurers’ best interests in mind!


The other OGRE

This announcement isn’t about D&D, but it is about as old-school as you can get.

OGRE Collector's Edition

It's bigger than you, smarter than you, and has more tactical nuclear warheads than you.

OGRE, Steve Jackson’s classic game of cybertanks slugging it out during WWIII, is finally being reprinted after… oh, years and years. It’s a brilliant little boardgame that deserves every bit of praise it’s ever received. SJG is running a Kickstarter project to gauge interest in the upcoming print run, and incidentally offering various goodies exclusive to Kickstarter participants, such as OGRE T-shirts, lapel pins and other funky stuff. (The new edition will also include the companion game G.E.V. — which is like OGRE only without the cybertanks — and elements of the Shockwave expansion set.)

My memories of OGRE/G.E.V. are like those of basic D&D, in that I mostly played solitaire. (So sad!) It’s a mark of the game’s quality that even solo play was more entertaining than many board games were with a full complement of players. I hope I can scrape up enough cash to cover the reprint’s steep $100 cost, because it’s a damn fine game that I want on my gaming shelf for purposes of actual play.


M.A.R. Barker Dead

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker, creator of the classic old-school D&D spinoff Empire of the Petal Throne set in his seminal role-playing setting Tékumel, passed away today, March 16, 2012. He was a key figure in the early days of the hobby; his work offered a solid base for development of both world-building and non-Western fantasy themes, and he continued to run games in the setting for close to 40 years, providing a window into the past of the hobby — yet another such window that has now closed.

His family has requested that donations go to The Tékumel Foundation.


Uncommon Tongue?

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich

—Men At Work, “Down Under”

The “Common Tongue” is one of many old-school D&D conceits: a single widely-known language that all humans speak. Depending on what historical era you’re using as a template, this isn’t necessarily far off the mark; Latin was certainly a world language in Roman times, the term “lingua franca” was coined for a reason in France’s heyday, and English is itself an effective common tongue. On a more regional scale, there have been dozens of languages that served as common tongues in some smaller segment of the world.

But what about non-humans? Do orcs know Common? What about gnolls, ogres and lizard men? Or the game’s eponymous dragons?

By the book, dragons capable of speech always know the Common tongue, while 20% of all other talking monsters also know Common. As such, any sizable group of intelligent monsters is almost certain to have at least one member that can communicate with the party. This makes knowledge of specific monster languages less essential to the party for purposes of communication (though still useful for listening in on their private conversations). It also makes negotiation a lot more feasible, providing a reliable alternative to combat for parties thus inclined.

(Conversational monsters also automatically know their alignment tongue. This is generally a better bet for purposes of communication, as long as you can trust your party’s interlocutors when they don’t share your alignment.)

All of this is important to keep in mind for DMs inclined to tweak the rules to match their ideas for their setting. If monsters don’t share a language with the player characters, negotiation becomes a lot more difficult. You’re more likely to see combat become the standard—indeed, the only—mode for resolving encounters, while the alliances with monster factions that are characteristic of Gygaxian play go by the wayside.


The Incredible Indestructible Halfling

In B/X, halflings are much like fighters, but with a slew of minor changes that seem geared to make them good ranged combatants. On the one hand, they get a bonus to hit with missile weapons, an initiative bonus and an Armor Class bonus against larger than man-sized creatures. On the other hand, they can only use weapons “cut down to their size” (limiting their offense in melee) and they use six-sided Hit Dice instead of the fighter’s eight-sided dice, making them more fragile than their human and dwarven counterparts.

But in actual play? It’s all frontline halflings in plate mail, all the time.

Your typical halfling warrior in plate mail, ready for action.

The reason for this is an emergent property of the B/X rules for ability score adjustment (p. B6). Characters can drop points from some stats to raise a prime requisite on a 2-for-1 basis. And who has Dexterity as a prime requisite? Halflings. So everyone who plays a halfling trades away Intelligence and Wisdom to get an 18 Dexterity, which is impressive when a natural Dexterity score is rarely higher than 15. Combine that with plate mail and shield and you’ve got a base Armor Class of -1, which goes up to -3 against larger than man-sized creatures. The resulting survivability boost more than makes up for having one less hit point per level than the fighter.

The first question here isn’t what’s to be done, but whether anything should be done at all. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with a party with a bunch of plate-armored hobbits anchoring the front line? If the players seem happy enough with the situation, it may be best to let them keep doing what they’re doing.

On the other hand, if the DM’s dissatisfied with the resulting flavor, there are a number of approaches to be taken:

1) Disallow ability score adjustment, so halfling PCs are stuck with their initial dexterity roll. The downsides here are that this may be a case of taking out a housefly with a hand grenade if it’s the only problematic situation caused by ability score adjustment, and that a player who rolled a high dexterity can still choose to play a plate-armored halfling anyway; this makes the situation rarer but does not abolish it.
2) Put a limit on how much of a dexterity bonus a PC can get from heavy armor, like in later editions of D&D. So plate mail might cap the wearer at a +2 (or even +1) AC bonus from dexterity. This meshes well with the movement rules; if metal armor slows you down, it’s reasonable to think that it also makes you less agile in combat.
3) Remove plate mail from the halfling’s list of allowed armor types. This may have an overly negative effect on the halfling’s survivability, and unlike some other solutions, it requires grandfathering in exceptions to the rule for existing characters if you want to let them keep playing as they have been playing. But it has the advantage of matching the race’s original Tolkienian flavor; they’re not the sort to dress up like knights in full armor.

Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2019
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