Posts Tagged ‘old-school

24
Jan
13

Gygax Magazine Unboxing and Beyond

If you’ll be in Brooklyn this Saturday I look forward to seeing you at the Gygax Magazine unboxing! If so be sure to RSVP via their website, if not there will be streaming video of the event and some other online goings-on that’ll make checking the site that day worth your while.

Gygax unboxing

To the right is the flyer from the event, reusing an illustration by Ryan Browning – the PCs to the right killing orcs with ventriloquism belong to him and Zak, plus my elf Locfir from the original Dwimmermount PbP. Here’s the text on the back:

GYGAX MAGAZINE

PREMIERE ISSUE RELEASE

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

1:30 PM

* Magazines available for purchase at 2:00 PM

Join us for a full day of gaming: D&D, Savage Worlds, Marvel RPG, and more

Plus 1st edition AD&D with Dwarven Forge!

I’ve had the pleasure of helping the rebirth of TSR from the start – I think only founder Jayson Elliott and Games Content Editor James Carpio are senior to me. For a while my title was Guy Who Introduces Jayson To Former TSR Employees which was a lot of fun, but around the time that the magazine emerged as the most promising thing TSR could do as its launch Jayson got sucked up actually making that happen and I became busy with other stuff too.

Once the magazine was thrust into the spotlight the title I chose for myself was Events Coordinator, although something with outreach in the name would probably be better. The reason I’m excited to be part of an ambitious, old-fashioned print magazine is the opportunities it affords to draw gamers together the way the letters column in wargaming zines did for guys on the magazine’s masthead like Tim Kask and Ernie Gygax, and to be the mystique-laden physical artifact that draws outsiders in the way zines like Factsheet Five did for the generation Jayson and I come from.

To be an Events Coordinator is well and good, except that I have twins on the way next week (I didn’t commit to running anything at the event in case they were early) and a day job and a hobby job with Autarch so I do not lack for interesting times. Thus if you want to see Gygax Magazine become a force for making cool events happen you should not expect me to do it all for you. Specific ways you can help:

  1. If there is something happening that you think the kind of people who’d dig Gygax Magazine would enjoy, let me know and I’ll add it to the calendar. Eventually we’ll have a more formal way to do so but for now you can comment here or email/G+ me at barnar.hammerhand@gmail.com.
  2. If you are in the tri-state area – which is the low-hanging fruit we can use to demonstrate “here are the kinds of things Gygax Magazine thinks its audience might enjoy” – is Bushwick outside your comfortable travel range?
silent barn

This shot from the DIY Dungeons @ Silent Barn is fan service for the kids in my afterschool class who’ll excited to see the Minecraft creeper. Also pictured: Inna from Butter the Children, who headlined the show later that night.

This Monday DIY Dungeons put on a successful event at Silent Barn, a DIY space that’s just opened in a bigger location, 603 Bushwick Avenue, at the beginning of the year. They’re also doing a Babycastles game jam so are clearly our kind of peeps.

The thing Jayson and I were thinking is missing from our local gaming scene is a purely social gathering. We’ve got convention gaming with nerdNYC’s quarterly Recess, Organized Play and the self-organized kind with the world’s biggest D&D Meetup group, plus groups predominantly focused on actual play like New York Red Box. The thing we don’t usually have (and NYRB always seems eager for more of) is a chance to hang out with one another and other gamers and our friends who maybe aren’t gamers yet but are open to having a good time. This kind of get-together is easy to organize when it’s nice outside, but in the winter a place like Silent Barn is ideal. However, nerdNYC’s Terry, for whom I have mad respect, thinks that Bushwick is one subway transfer too many for most of the folks who come to Recess.

If you have an informed opinion on these matters I am eager to hear it. If not, I encourage you to think about where you might want to get together with folks in the place where you live, and then make it happen and tell me about it so I can put it on Gygax’s calendar.

13
Aug
12

Playing at the World: A Nuclear Weapon in a Hand-Cart

I just got my paperback copy of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games from Amazon. It is impressively huge, and after checking out some of its 698 pages at random, I was compelled to track down this quote from Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

Sometimes I’ll be blathering on about the early history of roleplaying and people will say “hey Tavis, you should write a book about this stuff.” In the past I’d feel bad that this was unlikely to happen, but now I no longer have to worry about it. The position has been taken by Jon, who (to extend the Snow Crash analogy) I firmly believe has a tattoo on his forehead consisting of three words, written in block letters: EXTREMELY THOROUGH RESEARCH.

I first heard about Playing at the World back in March, when Emily Melhorn contacted me for help in trying to get Mike Mornard’s permission to reproduce in the book a map that he’d drawn for the original Greyhawk campaign. She said that Jon had purchased the original of this map at an auction many years ago, and that “he would like to use it to illustrate how the secrecy of a dungeon map was a fundamental design innovation of D&D, which he then further describes how “secret information’ was used in previous wargames.”

This sounded like a pretty cool thesis, and at first glance it looks like Playing at the World is going to take it to lots of interesting places. But Peterson’s killer app – the nuclear warhead on a dead-man switch that he’s carting around to discourage any would-be bad-asses – is his degree of access to primary materials. Just hinted at in this original email, it’s on full view at the Playing at the World blog, where he began busting out a fantastic assortment of ur-texts beginning with Domesday Book #1 and the Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger #1.

In the comments there, early D&D scholar Daniel Boggs writes “For Pity’s sake Jon, why don’t I know who you are?” I think the answer is that the wings of the OSR devoted to rediscovery of original approaches through actual play, and self-publishing of retroclones designed to support such play, have gotten the lion’s share of attention in the circles (like the OD&D boards) that I hail from. The community efforts of roleplaying collectors, like the Acaeum, represent equally vital and dedicated wings of the OSR cathedral. Previously I’ve only sensed the scale of those wings via echoes at places like the North Texas RPG Con which seem to bring out a lot of collectors. Playing at the World is proof that I’ve been missing a lot. It’s an achievement even grander in scale than OSRIC, and like the first retro-clone I expect it will be the foundation for a lot of further expansion by fans and scholars. As Jon says in reply to Dan’s comment:

One of the reasons why I took on this book project was because, as a collector, I have access to some obscure resources that haven’t gotten a lot of prior attention. If you glance through the book, you will for example find a reproduction of a pre-D&D Blackmoor character sheet, with the original names of the abilities and so on. I also have some circa-1974 letters from Arneson, including material that sheds light on which ideas from the Blackmoor system Gygax rejected. Having the big picture from Corner of the Table really helps as well. In short, there are a lot of resources that the community has lacked to date. Expect that as people start assimilating what’s in the book our picture of early Blackmoor will probably shift a bit.

This is exciting stuff! If you’re at all interested in the history of this thing we do, you owe it to yourself to follow the blog and buy the book.

Rob Conley mentions that Playing at the World “doesn’t have much in the way of personal stories about the individuals of the early days.” Although this would seem to leave an un-filled position, I am glad to report that Mike Mornard, a badder motherfucker than I could hope to be, is taking care of it with a memoir of those early days titled We Made Up Some Shit We Thought Would Be Fun. That work is forthcoming; given the dense goodness of Playing at the World, I’m hoping it will take me long enough to read it as it does Mike to write his reminiscences so that I can put down one and pick up the other.

20
Jul
12

Watch Out for that Fjord: More on Wilderness Encounters and Spotting

Yesterday I talked about wilderness encounters I had while hiking along the Naerøyfjord during a recent trip to Norway, and how the experience matched up with the rules for spotting distance and terrain in the Adventurer Conqueror King System. Today I’ll continue this investigation and look at how creature size affects when creatures become aware of each other.

My second wilderness encounter came maybe ten minutes after the previous wandering monster (three sheep). The local terrain changed as the trail emerged onto one of the infrequent areas of flat land – in most places the ground rises sharply up from the water of the fjord. Here’s Rudy’s picture of a similar area:

As I walked out into this expanse, the cry of a bird alerted me to its presence; looking up I saw it already taking wing. ACKS would say that the bird achieved surprise on me, made an “unfriendly” reaction roll, and used the advantage of surprise to flee. I paced the distance to the rock on which the bird had been perching: seventy paces or about 60 yards, a plausible result for the 4d6 x 10 yards specified for mountain terrain – especially if we imagine that the bird’s more adventurer-like spotting abilities had me pegged some time before its decision to flee gave me a clue that it was there. In my defense, I’ll note that I am man-size but the bird was not.

ACKS notes that “Larger creatures can spot and be spotted at greater distances”; rules are given for increasing the spotting distances for larger than man-sized creatures. Judges could easily reverse these rules to account for the difficulty I experienced in sighting a smaller creature. (ACKS also points out that having a higher vantage increases spotting distance, such that adventurers in a tower can see farther than those on the ground. In clear terrain, a giant’s ability to see above obstructions in the landscape, further over the horizon, etc. will counteract the fact that its height will also make it easier to be seen, increasing encounter distance bilaterally. Rough terrain which gives concealment to smaller observers might enable them to spot the giant’s head standing out of the landscape well before it was able to see them in return.)

A deeper issue is that it seemed to me that the bird reacted first not merely because it was more alert (as a city dweller I likely suffer a penalty on wilderness surprise rolls) but also because I was easier to spot. In ACKS, the determination of surprise and spotting distance are separate and unrelated procedures. Especially in cases where one party is larger (bigger, taller, or more numerous), it might make more sense to roll modified spotting distances for each side separately. The group that achieves the greater distance would then effectively have surprise, which would last until the other party closes to the spotting distance rolled for their side – so long as nothing changes like the first party hiding, making noise, etc.

Using this rule would cause surprise to happen more often – since ties for spotting distance will be infrequent, it’d basically mean that almost all wilderness encounters start with only one side aware of the other. I think it’d be wise to roll the usual surprise checks. This would make characters’ modifiers to those checks meaningful, and allow for the possibility that both sides are distracted and bump into each other at the standard spotting distance rolled once, rather than once for each side. If neither side achieves surprise, instead of going to initiative, have each roll for spotting distance. The group with the larger distance will act first, with the other side still unaware of their presence.

I think that having disparities of awareness (like you normally get from unilateral surprise rolls) happen more often in wilderness encounters is beneficial. Setting the distance at whichever of two rolls is greater would mean that most wilderness encounters will happen much further away than in the dungeon. I’d rule that most things that could be done to take advantage of first awareness – closing with the foe, casting spells – would make enough noise to potentially alert the other party, going back to the regular initiative procedure.

In old-school D&D, wilderness encounters can be famously lethal, and ACKS is no exception. Unlike the dungeon encounter tables, which are scaled to the depth at which the encounter occurs, the possible results in the wilderness are all over the map. Having the small adventurers spot a large dragon before it sees them can generate suspense and (perhaps) avoid a TPK. Contrariwise, a wandering monster that is too puny to hope to challenge a large and well-prepared party can, if it can spot them first, avoid combat; this is both sensible and avoids wasting time at the table (since the Judge can quickly resolve the monster’s attempt to bugger off unseen, without invoking initiative and all the other standard encounter procedures).

And in new-school D&D, wilderness encounters are infamously hard to stage as a combat sporting event. The ability to set up an interesting battlefield full of the sorts of hazards and opportunities that make detailed-resolution combat fun is limited by the randomness of the encounter, and the wilderness situation makes it susceptible to the party “going nova” and firing off all their resources, confident that they’ll have time to rest before the next encounter. Making unilateral awareness more likely can help with this situation. If the party spots the monsters at a greater distance, they can plan their approach, making the encounter a more satisfying example of “combat as war”. If the monsters become aware of the party, they can retreat to a fortified position and send out a few of their number to lure the party into an ambush, while the others go for reinforcements. The result can be a encounter with the kind of tactical depth and multiple waves of enemies that you normally don’t get from a wilderness wandering monster.

02
Jul
12

Megadungeon Mastery III: How Large Was My Level

(Continued from Megadungeon Mastery II: Rise and Fall of the Great Underground Empire.)

How large is it? Relatively large, apparently.

As often happens when trying something new, when I decided to build my first megadungeon I said to myself, “I’ll try to be different and original and do things my own way!”

Naturally, this led to problems.

Right now I want to focus on matters of scale. Ironically, this sounds like a brief subject but actually covers a lot of ground. I’ll start with a few things I learned about designing and drawing megadungeon maps.

1) Don’t make your levels too large. In designing the dungeons beneath the Chateau d’Ambreville, I sketched out a huge, elaborate castle and decided to put entrances under various towers. In order to fit all these entrances onto one level, I printed out maps on 11″x17″ sheets of paper, then folded them in half so they could fit into my binder. But there were problems!

• 1a) If you fold your maps in half, they’ll fray and tear along the fold. This is no fun, and requires lots of fiddling with adhesive tape to keep them together. It’s better to make smaller sub-levels that each fit onto one sheet of paper, and connect them with long corridors.

• 1b) Large maps can get out of control. Once you’re trying to fill in a huge map, you may realize that now your themed level now has 200 rooms and after filling in 50 of them, you’re stumped as to what to put in the other 150.

• 1c) If your levels are too large, it’s hard to keep track of what’s where. This can be important when trying to figure out how nearby dungeon inhabitants will react to the PCs and their trail of theft and murder! (I’ll include more detail on these issues in a future blog post.)

Note that you can always provide more level-appropriate encounters by making an additional level — a “sub-level” — at the same depth, connected to the rest of the dungeon by a single stair or passage. Multiple themed sub-levels can be strung together to generate the effect of a huge dungeon level while avoiding many of the problems inherent in huge dungeon levels.

2) Use graph paper with large squares. Maps are about more than walls and doors! They’re an invaluable resource for marking down other details: furniture, whether doors are locked, tracks on the floor, light sources, odors, etc. And at five or six squares per inch, there’s just no room for those details. Even the traditional four squares per inch may feel a little cramped. Sure, you can note these things on your map legend, but if too much of this information is written in the legend rather than drawn on the map, it’s far too easy for key details to slip your mind in the heat of play.

* * *

I’ve mentioned that the number of rooms on a level is significant. This isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Rooms contain monsters and treasure; in a sense, they’re buckets of XP for the player characters to fill themselves from. Furthermore, each deeper level is supposed to have tougher monsters and bigger treasures (on average) than the previous level, so that higher level PCs are encouraged to keep delving deeper to get the XP needed to continue leveling up at a decent rate. So each level should contain enough treasure for all of your PCs to level up if they clear it out — plus some extra to account for PC death, level drain and hidden caches that they fail to discover. Too little treasure and they can’t level up; too much treasure and they’ll hang around on that level instead of going deeper. (The specifics of how much XP comes from monsters and how much comes from treasure varies by edition.)

The problem here is that the size of the level roughly determines the number of encounters, which take time at the table and increase the chances of losing XP to PC death. So if you make a really big level, you either need to add more treasure or reduce the number and/or intensity of the encounters.

Reductio ad absurdum: You decide that you need to put 20,000xp worth of treasure on the first dungeon level to ensure your PCs can level up. You’ll distribute this roughly according to the OD&D guidelines: 1 encounter per 3 rooms, half of all encounters have treasure, one-sixth of rooms without encounters have treasure. (This comes to treasure in roughly one-quarter of all rooms.)

• In one instance, you design a 4-room dungeon level containing a single treasure: a 20,000gp gem. Unfortunately, there’s no worthwhile combat challenge available for this purpose; either you’re giving away treasure like Monty Haul, or the monsters are strong enough to kill the PCs (so why did you put this encounter on the first level?), or it’s so well-hidden that no one will ever find it. Failure!

• In another instance, you design a 4000-room dungeon level with 1000 treasures, each averaging 20gp. Aside from the difficulties of designing over 1000 first-level encounters, it will take your players forever to wade through enough of these encounters to get an appreciable amount of experience, and they’re bound to lose PCs faster than they can bring in treasure to level up. Failure!

So the amount of treasure on a dungeon level needs to be enough to level up all of the PCs, as modified by the number of encounters required to obtain that treasure.

You should be able to calculate this by determining two key variables: how many sessions you want to run before the PCs level up, and how many rooms your group typically gets through in one session. The latter number will vary a lot, of course; sometimes the party manages to cover large expanses of the dungeon by wandering from empty room to empty room, while at other times the party runs right into a big set-piece battle where clearing out a single room takes up the entire session.

So if your party averages four rooms per session (for example) and you want them to level up roughly every ten sessions, if one in four rooms has treasure in it, then you want ten of those treasures to be enough to level up. Moreover, if the party tends to miss about half of the treasures they run across (because the treasures are well-hidden, or they use up half the treasure on raise dead spells, or whatever), you could ramp up the treasures further, so that only five treasures will suffice to level up.

And remember: what’s right for your group isn’t necessarily what’s right for other groups. Some players enjoy mapping complicated dungeon levels, seeking out carefully hidden treasures or unraveling intricate tricks and traps. Others don’t. Unless you have access to a sufficiently broad player base that you can find players who like playing exactly what you want to run, you need to adapt your dungeon design to the needs and desires of your players. After all, the fun is the thing!

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!

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.

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.

03
May
12

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.

30
Apr
12

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!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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