Posts Tagged ‘conventions



27
Jul
11

Stuff to Do on Gygax’s Birthday

Today marks the birthday of E. Gary Gygax, and I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge some of those who are helping make it a memorable one.

The first and most important is you. Your gaming, your enthusiasm, your participation in our community all help keep Gary’s legacy alive. What you’re doing is great – but if you’d like to do a little extra today, here are some suggestions:

  • Leave a testimonial at the Gygax Memorial Fund. Reading these ones that are already there is fun and inspirational too! If while at their site you feel like making a contribution to the Memorial’s effort to build a statue of Gary in Lake Geneva, that’s great too – updates to the site caused the donation button to stop working for a while, but it’s fixed now.
  • Take the world’s hardest Gary Gygax quiz and use the HTML code to share your results! Paul Hughes, editor of the “Cheers, Gary” book produced by the Gygax Memorial, put together this cool test at blogofholding.com. I use the fact that it isn’t legible against the Mule’s black background to conceal the fact that, even using Google, I only got 90%.
  • Play in the Tower of Gygax, an annual event at Gen Con capably organized by Chris Hoffner and Tim Weisser. This year it’s in JW Marriott, room 303, table HQ – it starts Thursday at 8 am, runs late into every night, and is easy to drop into with generic event tickets. Save versus Death aptly describes it as:

 a commemoration of classic D&D as envisioned by Gygax and his contemporaries; a game of wonder and danger whose currency is imagination and improvisation.

  • Visit the Old School Renaissance Group at Gen Con booth #1541. There you’ll be able to pick up “Cheers, Gary”, a book of his correspondence on the EN World Q&A threads and meet Gail Gygax, who contributed an introduction, and also editor and fellow-introducer Paul Hughes who may have some eyeball-kicking posters as well. Sadly not attending the con are Josh Roby, who laid out the book and its cover, and Erol Otus who did the awesome illustration thereof.
  • Plan to attend GaryCon IV, which honors his inspiration the best possible way: four days of old school gaming from Thursday, March 22nd, through Sunday, March 25th, 2012, in the place where it all began: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I’ll see you there!

Other people I’d like to thank not named above are Memorial Fund board members Gail Gygax, Jody Mikkelsen, and Jim Ward;  Mike Shannon, the civil designer who has volunteered to draw up CAD plans for the Gygax memorial site, and JP Robson who will be constructing it; Memorial Fund accountant Mike Buttleman; Jason Hurst, the webmaster for http://www.gygaxmemorialfund.com and all-around great guy; and Adjua and Erin at McNally Jackson, and Kim at 360 Digital, who helped us get “Cheers, Gary” printed in time for Gen Con.

And the final thanks, of course, goes to Gary; without you none of this would be possible.

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20
Jul
11

4E, OD&D, and Cheap Urine Gags

Back in ’09, when the OSR and blogging were yet kinda young, I played in a Swords and Wizardry game that Michael aka chgowiz ran at Gen Con to showcase old-school play for a bunch of folks who were mostly recent-edition gamers: Phil (The Chatty DM, no longer a stranger to S&W), Dave and Danny of Critical Hits, and Greg who was neither yet working at the Escapist nor one of my co-authors on Adventurer Conqueror King (although we had worked together on Goodman’s Forgotten Heroes books, and one of the seeds of ACKS was a conversation we had later in the con about how the 4E idea of tiers of play relates to old-school campaigns). Although even the current holder of the D&D name is no longer all that shiny and new these days, I thought that Mule readers might be interested in the reflection on the experience I wrote in an email to these guys afterward:

I’m pleased to be able to say that my 100 percent old-school player death rate is intact, and that it was very satisfying to die with all my pockets, sacks, and backpacks stuffed with treasure!

Given the unique (to put it mildly) characterizations and hilarious & inventive improv skills on display all around the table, I don’t doubt for a second that I would have had a great time with whatever game we played, or none at all. I do think, though, that the stark & elegant simplicity of the OD&D system makes it especially easy to both give in to every wacky impulse and opportunity for a cheap urine gag and also still get in adventuring, exploration, and pulp drama. The 4E group I play with has lots of laughs & also likes to kick ass, but the process of having to add up your initiative bonus, choose powers, etc., etc. makes it harder for me to switch between the two modes.

I think that the lethality and hilarity of OD&D go hand in hand, which is why Leiber is for me the truest inspiration – the situation comedy of Fafhrd as Issek of the Jug is the bright obverse of the doomed pulp grimness of Thieves’ House. For me, the original rules do this best both by letting you switch from one face to the other more quickly, and also by reinforcing the feeling that luck and wits may stave off Death for a little while, but quickly rolling up a new contender is part of the essence of the game.

I am interested to see that this idea perfectly prepared me to be blown away by Swords without Master‘s emulation of pulp adventure via a dice mechanic devoted entirely to whether you narrate things in a glum or jovial way; when Eppy broke Conan’s melancholy and mirth down this way and quoted Leiber from memory at the start of that session to back up his thesis, I’d entirely forgotten having once reached a similar conclusion via that source myself.

07
Jun
11

The Tower of Gygax Will Make You a Better DM

As I was saying around this time last year, the Tower of Gygax needs DMs to volunteer to run slots during Gen Con. If you are interested in any of the same things I am…

    • having a good time
    • celebrating Gary Gygax’s legacy
    • furthering the old-school reformation
    • making RPGs immediately accessible to those who have never played before, or haven’t in decades
    • promoting what we see as the truest spirit of RPGs to those who may previously only have encountered its dim reflections
    • trying out ideas for how DMs could engage and entertain audiences beyond those  who are participating as players in the traditional sense
    • exploring ways that the RPG industry could provide services and experiences rather than goods and products
    • becoming a better DM

Here I am, earning that remaining one experience point running my Tower of Gygax room at JaysonCon. Unfortunately, my new level title - Courser - is lamer than the one before.

… then I guarantee you will find that stepping up to do this yields enough experience points to level up, and be one experience point away from the next level, in whatever your chosen class may be. You can earn that one missing experience point by running a Tower of Gygax event in your hometown. This is easy if you contribute your own room to the Tower, which is to say that you design an enjoyable deathtrap that will thrill and delight players and spectators, while killing the former at a flexible rate according to the number of the latter who are currently lined up to take their place. Doing so is not required: a big black book of rooms designed by previous DMs, who include luminaries ranging from Frank Mentzer and Tim Kask to Lizard and Mike Mearls, awaits your perusal when you sign up. Also, Tim and I are working on putting together a DIY Tower of Gygax kit, full of rooms and the kind of hard-won expertise that you could other wise only acquire as a ToG volunteer DM. This kit will enable you to not only amaze your friends who couldn’t make it to Gen Con and earn that remaining XP in the process, but also raise money for a good cause – whether that is the Gygax Memorial Fund or your own fundraising project.

If some of the above apply to you, but not the part about becoming a better DM, you should take a couple of generic tickets and come play in the Tower. Those seeking the extra XP that come from participation beyond the pale will find many opportunities to serve in non-GMing capacities like collecting tickets, organizing crowd flow, helping coordinate, and so forth.

Although the Tower vitally needs your DMing or other services, in proper Gygaxian dungeon-design fashion it has not made it easy for you to enter its halls. You may or may not be able to get hooked up via the Tower’s website, which has been inactive for over a year, but why leave it to chance and what seem like entrances but will cave in upon the count of ten? Leave a comment or send an email, and the Mule will ferry you and your belongings to those who can provide you with your quest.

23
Mar
11

Dwarven Forge Saves the Gary Con Terrain Challenge

When I go to conventions, I love to DM; it’s a great way to meet new people.  At Gary Con III, I’ll be spending just about all my time running an event called the Gary Con Terrain Challenge #1: Treasure Beneath the Brown Hills, about which the program book says:

Who will retrieve the most gold from the Temple of the Elder Elemental God and make it out alive? Terrain Challenge #1 is the first annual D&D competition using the fantastic miniatures terrain contributed to GaryCon by Pana. This year’s adventure imagines a roleplaying spin-off of Gary Gygax’s classic 1971 Chainmail scenario, Battle for the Brown Hills. Third level characters will be provided; all ages welcome.

Unfortunately, as the event drew near, the happy expansion of Pana’s family interfered with the creation of the terrain around which this event was supposed to be based. As a parent I fully understand & support spending more time with a newborn than with dollhouses for boys,  but this did leave me wondering how I was going to make the show go on.

Enter Dwarven Forge to the rescue! Founder and chief sculptor Stefan Pokorny graciously had me over to his new studio in Brooklyn, where we used his personal collection to put together a layout to suit my needs. As I’d described it at the Gary Con forums, the idea for the scenario is as follows:

I started by thinking about the great Gygax modules and what elements of them we could pay tribute to. The idea of which monsters would make cool miniatures was in the back of my mind, as was choosing a module that wasn’t totally over-familiar. What this made me think of was Battle for the Brown Hills, a Chainmail scenario that Gary wrote in the pre-D&D days & Paul Stormberg ran at the last Gary Con. Although it’s a large-scale wargame battle, it has some very evocative elements that feel like a roleplaying game waiting to happen. The thing that caught my imagination is that the side that stomped my orcs spent a lot of time moving a wagon train behind those hills, which I believe held the army’s payroll. My idea is that this heavy wagon breaks through the ceiling of a dungeon in the hills. The human mercenaries are all topside, looking through this sudden sinkhole at a fortune in spilled gold…

Here’s a tableside perspective on the terrain Stefan helped me assemble:

And here’s the top-down view that I took to be sure I could re-assemble this in Lake Geneva, using the two Room and Passage sets and two Cavern Sets that Dwarven Forge president Jeff Martin arranged to have shipped to me at the convention (plus a couple of special pieces on loan from Stefan that I’ll be bringing in my luggage):

Because the event is short – two hours, including character generation – I think we’re going to start with the PCs having rappelled down to that central elevated structure, where the fallen treasure wagon has landed. The action of the game will involve them loading themselves up with as much gold as they want to risk carrying, searching for an exit from the dungeon, and trying to make it out alive!

Thanks to the generous support of Dwarven Forge, I will be running this event not only at Gary Con but also at this year’s Arneson Memorial Gameday in NYC (about which more soon) and probably at an upcoming Recess as well. I’m really looking forward to having the chance to play with so much awesome dungeon goodness!

15
Dec
10

The Taste for Gratuitous Difficulty

I’m postponing part two of my post about the DCC RPG and Castle Zagyg/Mad Archmage to talk about the results of last year’s Anonycon experiment. Unlike this year’s planned comparison of running the same adventure with different rule systems, this was an unplanned natural experiment: I played in two different games, D&D 4E and Time & Temp, run by the same GM, Kevin Kulp. As I’ve said elsewhere, Kevin is a fantastic GM with an arsenal of techniques at his control that I think could make any game sing, so it was really interesting to see how my experience varied according to the rules he was using.

The reason I’m revisiting this now is that this week’s New Yorker has a piece by Nick Paumgarten profiling Shigeru Miyamoto, the hugely influential Nintendo game designer. Miyamoto is an interesting guy, but what really caught my attention was something introduced in the background of the article, a synopsis of Roger Cailois’s 1958 essay “Man, Play and Games.”  According to Paumgarten,

Caillois also introduces the idea that games range along a continuum between two modes: ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty,” and paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy.” A crossword puzzle is ludus. Kill the Carrier is paidia (unless you’re the carrier). Super Mario and Zelda seem to be perched right between the two.

For starters, I love these terms – not the Latin roots but their explanatory phrases, which would make great names for Vancian spells.  More importantly, the idea that the important dimension for assessing a game is its relative admixture of “the taste for gratuitous difficulty” and “the power of improvisation and joy” precisely expresses what I felt about playing 4E and Time & Temp last year.

This year, Eric and I played in a session Emily Care Boss ran of her storygame of alien first contact, Sign In, Stranger. Afterwards we got into a conversation with Jim Crocker of Modern Myths and Time & Temp’s designer Epidiah Ravachol. Later I got to play his forthcoming Swords without Master,  and Emily was my first playtester for the DCC RPG & Zagyg/Archmage mix, which is why conventions in general and Anonycon in particular are awesome: you get to not only talk about different games but actually experience the way each of you plays them, which cuts past a lot of the usual noise to get to the heart of the discussion.

So during this conversation, I told the story of the two games I’d been in with Kevin as DM:

Each session had a climactic beat-down with a really compelling set-up in the fiction. In 4E, we were riding flying carpets in hot pursuit of the evil vizier who’d tried to have us exterminated during a diplomatic summit in the City of Brass, and now we finally caught up to him and could apply the much-deserved smacking. In Time & Temp, we’d set up an ambush to rescue Paul McCartney from an alien time-traveler who was trying to ensure that he “blew his mind out in a car” as per the coded messages in Beatles records, and how cool is that? So these were both fights I really cared about, but the systems we used to play them out made a big difference in how it felt to win.

In Time & Temp, the looser mechanics let us think of lots of awesome things to do, but somehow it didn’t feel like we had earned our victory; I couldn’t dispel the suspicion that Kevin hadn’t just let us win because it was dramatically appropriate for us to do so. The 4E  mechanics put up a lot of resistance to doing awesome things, but that meant that victory had a visceral feeling of accomplishment. I knew exactly how hard it had been to triumph, because I knew the difficulty of the rolls we had to beat, could track the dwindling resources of each side, etc.

I feel weird about this, because in many ways I don’t like the fiddly 4E approach. Part of the pleasure of the session was the display of our collective system mastery; we’d all put in the hundreds of hours necessary to step through the complicated procedures involved in our fictional smackdown pretty quickly and integrate reporting what we were doing at this mechanical level with narrating our characters’ heroic exploits. I don’t want RPGs to require this level of investment, but I have to say that it was more satisfying for me to win only after going through a lot of intrinsically boring little steps to convince myself that yes, we really did come out on top.

Caillois’s continuum between two modes lets me boil this down: 4E gratifies my taste for gratuitous difficulty, which Time & Temp couldn’t (in this scene) due to its greater power of improvisation and joy.

Some further implications:

  • Gratuitous difficulty in games can be usefully subdivided into the kind that involves a risk of failure – that you won’t be able to think of a word in a crossword puzzle, or roll high enough to hit a target DC in 4E – and the kind that just involves procedural work, as in calculating your attack modifiers or crossing out the clues you’ve already answered.
  • Engaging with the gratuitous difficulty of procedural work can make joyful improvisation more satisfying.  Eppy pointed out that, in Time & Temp, working out the Sudoku-like puzzle of the Matrix allows you to feel justified when you narrate that of course, the precise item you need to save your bacon is under the chair, because you the next thing you’ll do will be to back in time to put it there. Part of this is just that the game gives you rules you can follow to decide whether or not that’s possible in the fiction, but that could also be true in 4E (did your DM agree to let you research the time-travel spell, can you meet the requirements for casting it, etc.) Having stepped through gratuitously difficult procedures makes Bill & Ted gimmicks feel earned in Time & Temp the way that WWF smackdowns do in 4E.
  • Players with a taste for gratuitious difficulty may be disappointed in a game with no risk of failure, even if it offers a lot of procedural work. The sense that my character’s life isn’t in danger is often my complaint when I play otherwise-gratuitously-difficult 4E, and its reintroduction is why I like George Strayton’s Legends & Labyrinths 4E houserules.
  • The risk of failure can be entirely fictional. Sign In, Stranger and Swords Without Master are games strongly focused on the power of improvisation and joy. Both brilliantly use mechanics to add some procedural work to the process of collaborative roleplaying (the use of colors to constrain and guide re-incorporation of player input in SI,S; the shifts of tone and phase in SWM), and neither involve the risk of mandated failure you get from a bad roll in 4E. Ultimately I found the latter more satisfying because we were telling a swords & sorcery story about how my character’s life was frequently in danger; imagining this to be true satisfied my taste for gratuitious difficulty in a way that the less visceral stakes of a science fiction story about my character’s struggle to learn did not.
  • All the kids in the afterschool D&D class put a high value on difficulty. My guidelines for making an adventure involve deciding whether the DC for a given obstacle is “easy” (8+), “medium” (11+), or “hard” (14+); one week one of the boys accused another of stealing the idea of “difficult” (19+), and I had to step in to say no, it was an independent invention. When I asked them what they wanted from the adventure I’m running for them tomorrow, the #1 request was that it be “really hard”. All this has always mystified me because they hate it when their characters fail, but now I realize that they’re expressing a taste for gratuitious difficulty – which I suspect has been even more acutely unsatisfied due to my attempts to strip away the procedural work of the 4E rules we’re nominally using and introduce more of the power of improvisation and joy.
  • Dice are great tools for RPGs at both ends of the continuum, as they can create a risk of failure and also provide unexpected results as a spur to improvisation. Sign In, Stranger uses an impressive array of diceless tools to do the latter, including exquisite corpse, Mad Libs, and drawing narrative elements from a cup.
  • The dungeon beneath Blackmoor Castle is, for me, the first and still the greatest example of the form because like Super Mario, it exactly hits my sweet spot on the game continuum. All dungeons provide the rigid flowchart structure to constrain and direct player input, but Arneson’s horribly tedious nightmare maze adds a heightened degree of gratuitous difficulty to the process of negotiating the party’s movement through the dungeon, and the contrast makes it especially joyful when you finally get into a room where group improvisation brings the inspiringly sparse dungeon key entries to life.

Finally, here’s some more from the New Yorker piece that I think is worth thinking about as a counterpoint to the discussion of what’s lost when underground exploration is codified into standard operating procedures*:

Miyamoto recognizes that there is pleasure in difficulty but also in ease, in mastery, in performing a familiar act with aplomb, whether that be catching a baseball, dancing a tango, doing Sudoku, or steering Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on Goombas and Koopa Troopas. His games strike this magical balance between the excitement that comes from facing new problems and the swagger from facing down old ones. The consequent sensation of confidence is useful, in dealing with a game’s more challenging stages, but also a worthy aim in itself. “A lot of the so-called ‘action games’ are not made that way,” Miyamoto told me. “All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?” In his own games, Miyamoto said, “You are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that itself can be a joy.”

* I know I read some good blogging on this recently; if someone can post the link in comments I’ll edit it in here!

03
Dec
10

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG & Castle Zagyg at Anonycon

This weekend at Anonycon I will be playtesting the forthcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as part of an interesting experiment in which Eric G. and I will put the Forge axiom “system does matter” to the test. (That’s Eric the White Sandbox player of Bartholomew Honeydew, not any of the other Erics that New York Red Box has been fortunate enough to accumulate in numbers large enough to be confusing; let’s not be thrown off the scent by Mr. Honeydew’s many in-character aliases.)

The plan is that Eric and I will both do runs of Gary Gygax and Jeff Talanian’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, leading into Joe Bloch’s Castle of the Mad Archmage.  We’ll do the same things that were so much fun when Joethelawyer and I ran it at Fal-Con:

  • a convention-long competition to see who can reach the deepest level and escape with the most treasure
  • a persistent world in which each session’s adventure changes things for the next party, and players can return to play the same character in a later run
  • player-created magic items whose effects are unpredictable and descriptive instead of mechanical
  • the likelihood of horrible PC deaths as parties bite off more of the castle and dungeon’s enormous environs than they can chew
  • and, if we have enough players, dividing players into two separate parties which are exploring the ruins at the same time and may clash with one another, as so memorably happened at the end of the first Fal-Con run.

The thing we’ll be doing differently this time is that Eric will be running Zagyg using his own AD&D house rules, while my runs will be using the playtest rules for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The differences between one edition of D&D and another are endlessly rehashed, and the DCC RPG has a number of unique twists that I’m quite excited about. But what effect do these rules variations really have on play? I think it’ll be fascinating to get some data on this question by trying two different systems in the same mega-dungeon environment over the course of a single convention weekend.

Courtesy of Wizards of Ur, this is one of the cartoons that will illustrate the DCC RPG rules, inspired by those in the AD&D DMG

The big uncontrolled variable, of course, is that Eric and I are different DMs each with our own styles, and we’ll have different groups of players each of whom has their own approach. I’m pretty sure that these differences in what each person brings to the the table always has a bigger effect on the experience of playing a roleplaying game than differences in the system they’re using; in fact I think a lot of what seem like important differences between this RPG and that one are actually second-order effects, caused mainly by the fact that different groups of players are attracted by aspects of each RPG (which might include rules and mechanics but are equally likely to include the game’s artwork, its image among gamers, the ways it’s marketed, the environment in which it’s usually played, etc.)

However, I think that the tournament format may funnel everyone into a common set of goals and approaches; certainly Eric and I have spent some time talking about standardizing our procedures & playing in one another’s games, and at Fal-Con the goal of getting deeper and finding treasure did prove effective in focusing the kind of play that arose out of the enormous Zagyg/Archmage sandbox.

Since much of this post is promising stuff that’ll happen this weekend – and appearing too late for most of y’all to decide “hey I want to go to Stamford this weekend and play games” (although you totally should, since Anonycon = awesome), I’ll end with some places you can read more about the DCC RPG:

Joe Goodman running the DCC RPG at the So Cal Mini Con III, courtesy of Cyclopeatron

Jeff’s Gameblog with images and notes

Cyclopeatron with a playtest report & interview at a Dead Gamers’ Society meetup

Beyond the Black Gate with a playtest report of a session run by Rob Conley

Bat in the Attic with a three-part report of that session from Rob’s perspective

One thing that’s worth noting about all of the above is that they’re discussing adventures written specifically for the DCC RPG, which in my experience so far have tended to be more or less linearly structured tournament-style adventures that have been fun because of their atmosphere and hideous death toll, in the mold of Tomb of Horrors/Tower of Gygax. I will be very interested to see how the system handles a mega-dungeon sandbox experience that’s more in line with the way my regular group plays; I expect that it’s going to be awesome, and think some of the unique things about the DCC RPG rules will stand out better against a more plain basic-D&D background. Cue discussion of where the adventures published for a system fall into the “system does matter” equation!

13
Oct
10

Blackmoor Dungeons: What Mapping is Good For

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
accomplishment.

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!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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