Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sample Dungeon Showdown: Battle of the Basics

All right all you Mentzerites and Moldvanians, I get it.  Your Basic D&D was way more accessible than the dense text blocks of Holmesian Basic.  Your rules were generally more concise, systematic, and clearly stated, and, of course, there were affordable options for expansion ($12 for Expert D&D set, vs. $39 for the 3 AD&D books) that allowed you to move beyond 3rd level without resorting to prostitution.  And as a result, you felt no qualms about playing-on with your red books which, admittedly, offered a somewhat sleeker version of D&D than the oft-byzantine rules of Gary & Gygax that awaited.

But I still pity you.

Sure, we Holmesters viewed our dice-deficient Basic Rules as nothing more than a set of training wheels to be cast aside as soon as we could save up enough money from our paper routes (remember those?) to buy those hard-covered, bad-assed tomes that would teach us the ways of Advanced D&D.  But what we did have on our side was a small labyrinth of tunnels underneath the ruined tower of Zenopus.

Zenopus: There's a tower in here somewhere
You see, whilst the red-clad tomes from which you learned your D&D included either the uninspired Haunted Keep or the nearly-as-bland Group Adventure/Castle Mistamere/Ruins of Gygar* we Holmesters had as our maiden voyage into D&D the dungeon now generally--though misleadingly--known as the Tower of Zenopus.**  Amongst the highlights of this subterranean fun house were catacombs littered with sarcophagi (each one its own adventure), a magic sundial, an underground river, pirates harboring a comely damsel in distress, a maze of rat tunnels, and those niches inhabited by skeletons that became a staple of my dungeon-making for years to come.  And all this crammed into 4-1/2 pages.
*seriously, what's the preferred name for the Mentzer sample dungeon? 
**There is a tower associated with the dungeon (see room S), but it belongs to an unnamed thaumaturgist. The actual tower of Zenopus was pulverized with a catapult some 50 years back.

Mentzer: Group Adventure
Moldvay: Haunted Sleep
Meanwhile, in the Red Book sample dungeons you got to pillage compact little forts manned by populations of goblins (Haunted Keep) or kobolds (Group Adventure).  But I'm sure you had fun.  Right?


As you can see from the map above, Zenopus was an amateurish hand drawn affair, it looks like something my kid could draw... in a few years.  Which is good, 'cuz if you want to show someone how to make a dungeon of their own, is it better to impress them with the drafting capabilities of your professional staff of illustrators or would it be more helpful to offer new players an example that looks like something they could actually make themselves? 

Furthermore, Zenopus uses the underground setting to its greatest advantage: unhindered by things like a building footprint or notions of structural integrity, its long corridors, enormous chambers and raging underground rivers meander improbably all over the graph paper in such a fashion that one has no idea what might be beyond the next door or around the next corner. This is fantasy.

By comparison, Haunted Keep's more professional-looking map was clearly drawn using drafting equipment that few gamers were likely to have access to.  Presentation aside, the author chose to confine the adventuring space within a rather obtuse looking tower--15' thick walls!?  Not only did this adventure fail to take advantage of the freedom of movement that underground settings provide, it also cut off a lot of above-ground options--climbing over walls, sneaking through windows--by sealing all the action into a confined space with but a single means of egress.  Room 8 does have that cool looking pit with a bed in it; that's pretty intriguing. 

And Group Adventure's even slicker looking castle looks like it was produced by a cyborg with a ProtoCad chip jacked into its cortex.  Only the above-ground portion of the dungeon is described in the text; the underground level--room after identical-looking room laid out in a monotonously rhythmic fashion--is unfinished.  The general feeling is one of ennui, not adventure.  I'd be surprised if even hardcore Red Box fans would disagree that these maps are unappealing.   

Would you like a glass of lemonade or a packet of yellow, water-soluble powder?
Zenopus is a complete adventure.  A brand new, never-played-D&D-before kid can pick it up and run it to the best of his understanding right out of the box.  I think that's pretty important for an introductory rules set.  Extremely important even.  Once the DM has run an actual adventure, he or she will have an  idea of how dungeons flow and how to set up an encounter, or at least a burgeoning desire to learn more.

Meanwhile, the two Red Book sample dungeons provide merely an appetizer to some further adventure that the aspiring DM is expected to come up with on his or her own.  Fine in theory, but it's as if M&M were saying "Here's this cool game that you can play... as soon as you finish your homework."  Screw that!  This is an introductory adventure, give me something short, complete, and fun so that we can jump right in and see the potential for ourselves before we set out to make our own dungeons.

To be fair, the Haunted Keep is really a step-by-step demonstration of how to use the dungeon stocking method provided in the Moldvanian rules.  For this I suppose it deserves a break, though I would also argue that, flavorless as it is, it doesn't provide a very flattering endorsement of said method.   

Group Adventure, meanwhile, is presented almost as a choose-your-own adventure book.  Several of the keyed encounters are not actually distinct encounters but different outcomes or actions that might occur depending on whether your players cast a sleep spell on the carrion crawler or fire arrows at the kobolds or what have you.  What results is a verbiage-laden adventure with deceptively less action than the amount of text might otherwise indicate.  This much hand-holding seems more than a bit patronizing.

I'm not saying that Tower of Zenopus is a flawless example of dungeon design--even though it is--but I am saying that compared to the two other options presented in the later versions of Basic D&D it clearly shines.  It presents a wide range of encounter types in a classic underground dungeon format, what more could you want in a dungeon primer?  Haunted Keep and Group Adventure, on the other hand, are snooze-inducing exercises in pedantry.  My guess is that many a Red Booker skipped their respective sample dungeon entirely and ran Keep on the Borderland or whatever module came with the set.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mega-Dungeon Design: Badass stairs

Check it out: that's not a rollercoaster, it's freakin' stairs.  Work a set of these into your next dungeon.

See the original story for more cool stairs.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Top 6 Reasons I am a Crappy DM, or: How to score an empty-net goal

Like me, most of you think I'm pretty awesome.  It's my modesty, I assume, that leads people to this conclusion.  But truth be told, I also suck big-time at a lot of things, and most of those things relate to being a Master of Dungeons.  So here are a few of the ways in which I suck:

6. I don't like killing characters:  I'm not a big dice fudger or anything; if the PCs die in a fair fight or by their own stupidity that's fine.  And, since it seems to be a hot topic lately, save-or-die situations do arise from time to time.  But if the players are unwittingly walking into a situation that I think will leave their twisted, lifeless corpses strewn about, I will bend time and space to get them out of there.  This sometimes leads to run-ins with jocular purple worms, cushy pit traps, and misunderstood demon princes who, it turns out, are just a little sensitive about their weight.  The situation is only exacerbated by my another flaw of mine:

5. I don't like my monsters getting killed:  Again, in a fair fight where they've fought to the best of their capacity, fine.  But I don't like it when the players wade through a pack of kobolds as casually as if they were sifting through trail mix to find all the M&Ms, so I bend space and time to give the little schmucks some sort of advantage, or at least a chance to escape.  A frequent result of this is the infamous mid-game houserule, see below: 

4. I tinker too much:  I probably introduce at least one house rule per session, usually two or three, and usually on the fly, so that no one knows about the impending change--not even me--until it's gone into effect.  Because my players are folks I've known since the 90s, they know what kind of a doofus I am and I can get away with this.  Seasoned players without foreknowledge of my idiosyncrasies, I think, would probably cold-cock me every time I tell them that the AC value of their ringmail has changed. But my tinkering isn't confined to rules:

3. My maps are way too convoluted:  I hate the 2-dimensionalness of single-plane dungeon levels, so all my dungeon "levels" skew wildly up and down the z-axis with galleries laced with sky-bridges which overlook chambers that are pockmarked with tunnels that are linked by a spiderweb of twisting, sloping corridors that wind underneath and over each other...  Most rooms require a few section drawings to really get the point across.  Mapping is hell for everyone involved.

2. I am a horrible administrator: Tracking monster hit points, spell durations, encumbrance, blah blah... blah.  I just can't do it.  So either I don't bother and the players manage an entire 3 day dungeon excursion without ever refilling the lantern that no one is actually carrying anyway, or I hunker down and keep a detailed log of time elapsed, resources used, monsters slaughtered, tailors humiliated... and the next thing I know we're all gathered around the TV watching the Canucks give a clinic on things you shouldn't do when you just pulled your goalie.

1. Funny voices:  I like doing funny voices as much as the next nerd, but the problem is I can't seem to maintain the same silly voice for very long.  Fer instance, the PCs are trying to secure safe passage through a stretch of dungeon held by a group of  bandits.  So, like DMs everywhere, I give the bandit leader a Chicago accent for flavor.  A minute or two into the negotiations my Elwood Blues impression has morphed into a leprechaun and my players are smirking and offering tribute in the form of yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers--inevitably followed by a chorus of "They're magically delicious!"

I wanted to go for 10 reasons but I didn't have time to review the lengthy submittals on the matter from my players.  If they really had anything important to say they'd learn to be more succinct.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Language and Magic

Read Magic you say? Try reading this. 
Everyone who's seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer or read the Harry Potter books knows that you can't get very far in the magic world without learning some Latin.  And everyone whose played AD&D knows that powerful Magic Users always have a ton of extra languages under their belt.  Is it too much to assume, then, that decoding linguistics is linked to the conducting of magic? That magic is created by communicating with arcane forces in a mundane way?

The notion is supported by at least a couple of verses from AD&D scripture:
"Illusionists do not need the spell Read Magic or anything like it in pursuit of their profession.  All illusionist spell books and scrolls are written in a secret tongue which every apprentice learns from his mentor." --Gary Gygax, DMG pg. 39
"At 10th level (Master Thief) thieves are able to decipher magical writings and utilize scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of the clerical, but not druidic, nature." --Gary Gygax, PHB, pg. 27
Likewise, druids "have their own secret language" though it is not made explicit that it is essential to the conducting of Druidic spells.  

So why not make Read Magic a language instead of a spell?  Say, you have to learn Latin to cast magicky spells.  That's just one language; what's a smart Magic user to do with his other bonus languages?  Learn to speak Pixie?  Ha!  How bout he picks up a few more dead languages.  Why not give each magic type (i.e. abjurations, Alterations, Divinations, etc) a different language to be learned?  Let's say you need to learn Gothic in order to delve too deeply into the world of greater summonings.  Or Tocharian to really get the hang of them phantasms. 

In this way you can attach whatever magic limitations you prefer via the language learning ritual thus guiding the way magic is expressed in your game.  Say Manx, the language of Necromancy, is only taught by a cult in the Lortmil Mountains, and members of the cult hold bludgeoning as the highest form of injury; edged weapons are considered crude or too lenient or whatever.  Or the utterance of the  Aramaic language--the tongue of evocations--causes a resonant force around the spellcaster's body that is interrupted by the presence of significant amounts of ferrous metals.  Elves are default magic users in your game?  That's 'cuz they all learn to speak Avestan, the language of Enchantments.

Advanced studies in a particular language might allow characters a benefit.  Burning 2 extra languages on a magic language--a specialization if you will--allows you to cast spells of that type normally not available to your class.  Your Spell caster double-majors in Tocharian, the language of Phantasms, he can now cast all phantasm spells, including those normally reserved for Illusionists and Druids; thus effectively eliminating the need for an Illusionist subclass.  In this way, a "cleric" might just be a Magic user with fluency in the languages of divination, abjuration, and necromancy.

I'm pretty sure that third line says "Magic Missiles"
This flows much better with the thiefly ability of to  read scrolls; under AD&D rules, not even magic users could read scrolls without first casting read magic--a rule that was perhaps as widely ignored as weapon speed factors and psionics--and yet thieves of a certain level had a chance of reading the same scroll without any spell casting ability.   Of course, the arcane forces have been pre-channeled and imbued in the substance of the scroll, so all that the thief has to do is read the magic words in a reasonably competent fashion and voila!  Magic be happenin'!

Language-as-magic widens the potential for other characters to get in on this scroll-reading bonanza as well.  Say your character is an Elf and, though not an MU, he or she is familiar with Avestan.  Now say your elf finds a scroll written in Avestan.  S/He reads it over, says I think I get it, and gives it a whirl.  He or she may attempt to cast the spell, though not being fluent in magixcersizing, they run a risk of spell failure.  Maybe give 'em a  percent chance of success equal to 5 x Int.  Or, if you'd rather roll a 20 sider, d20 + Int must be > or = to 21.  [Alternatively, AD&D-nards might like to use the "Chance to Know Each Listed Spell" from Intelligence Table II on page 10 of the PHB as the base chance of success].  This would not work in the case of non-spellcasters who read from spell books because, unlike scrolls, the book itself does not contain the magic that is to be channeled.  The second part of performing magic--channeling the energy once you've communicated with the arcane forces--would remain the purview of trained spellcasters.

The effects of a failed scroll-reading might look something like this: 

Scroll Failure (roll on d6):
  1. Nothing happens whatsoever
  2. The spell functions as normal but takes effect 1d6 mile(s) away. 
  3. The spell takes effect as normal at the same location but not for 1d6 hours. 
  4. The spell affects the least convenient of the following: you, the person or thing best equipped to use it against you, anyone who isn't you.
  5. A curse befalls your offspring; all of your future characters suffer -3 to all ability rolls until the curse is lifted.
  6. The soul of every player within 3d6 feet of the scroll-reader is inexorably drawn into the dimension of Hades to suffer eternal torment.