Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Highfell Review

HighFell, Monochrome Version
HighFell is a megadungeon, written and designed by Greg Gillespie, Kickstarted in 2019. In fairness, I think it important to mention that Gillespie hired me for layout (and for subsequent projects as well). I hope that my relationship with Mr. Gillespie or work on the project does not bias my opinion of this dungeon. 

HighFell is available in Labyrinth Lord (OSR) and 5th Edition. I will be reviewing the LL edition. If you are looking for a copy of Highfell, find it here

Gillespie typically sprinkles enough backstory into his books to make it interesting, but little enough that there is plenty of room for the DM to make their own stories.

HighFell has a hex map (15 x 15), the Principality of Brine, with 16 keyed locations. Besides this, Gillespie has slowly been fleshing out a world over several books. In them, he has a pantheon, which shows up here as well. 

All of these books also have a home base, in HighFell, this location is Thatchum. A small map of Thatchum appears at the top of page 13. Sixteen locations are keyed within the town. Besides the locations, 10 NPCs have portraits, and the culture has about 1/2 page of discourse. Each of these personalities gets 1-2 paragraphs describing physicality, some motivations/fears and a stat block. For an old school game, there is enough information, without becoming unwieldy. A modern game may suffer with some of the lacking information, however. 7/10

Next, HighFell delves into how to begin the campaign. It lists several basic level adventure hooks. The author begins by telling the referee that they should design their own adventure hooks. Largely, these plot hooks are very generic. It is obvious that the referee is expected to read the entire megadungeon before starting play. A 20 entry random rumor table is also included in the Beginning a Campaign section. 5/10

Moving into the Running HighFell section gets into the uniqueness of HighFell. HighFell's subtitle is the Drifting Dungeon, named because it drifts across the sky northwest to southeast, eventually teleporting back to its original location.
Because of this, the referee is encouraged to create sidequests before the characters enter the dungeon. Finding a way up to the dungeon is the first real puzzle of the dungeon. Gillespie lists 7 possible ways to ascend to the dungeon. 6/10
(I had a hard time scoring this. I really like the puzzle. I just wish the first one was a "freebie.")

Hexcrawling HighFell is the next major section to cover. I hate the fact that it is on page 23, and the map for the hexcrawl of HighFell is on page 240-241. That said, let's dive into the text. Gillespie's roots show here. Highfell's hex map is a well designed one. In addition to the random monster encounters he gives a "Random Natural Hazards" list. Each are detailed in a paragraph. Additionally, there are Special Patrols (which take up a couple of pages with charts). Besides these, there is a "Random Hex Special Encounter Table." This table is really cool, and can create flavor in addition to suspense. 

Decay and Collapse is a sub-heading within the Hexcrawling section. This adds a bit of visimilitude to the dungeon. It explains tremors and some collapses/opening that the DM may want to implement. Also, it is noted that HighFell planeshifts (to pocket dimensions by default) occasionally. This adds another dimension to the basic hexcrawl bumping it up a notch. 8/10

Dungeon Exploration covers a lot of the tropes of, well, megadungeon exploration. Wizard Towers and marks are clues that astute players pay attention to (and a great clue system). A note on resources for PCs takes up a paragraph (which feels like it should be a player primer, not in the main book). The tropes of Teleportation Pads, Pits and Moon Doors (pits that fall all the way through HighFell and back to Terra Firma), random monsters, silence (and disturbances), light, sight, and time are all touched on.

Besides these, we see Gillespie's additions to the megadungeon ethos: bricked up walls and bookshelf lists. There are new spell components mentioned, as well as a new treasure: Wizard Hats. 8/10

Next up are the Factions of HighFell. Four are listed and I don't want to spoil anything here. I would have liked another couple of factions, largely because of the composition of HighFell. The last precursor section is "Endgame." It's a good (short) primer on how to run and end the campaign. "Highfell is [the players'] sandbox adventure, not mine, or yours, Let the players choose their own path." 7/10

Next up are the Towers of HighFell. This is where the adventure really begins to shine. 20 towers dot the skyline of HighFell,  All of them have a matching illustration. The maps are great: functional, readable and quickly convey information. The illos give each of the towers character and often hint at what is inside. Each are unique, and all give a fun exploration area. 8/10 

The Dungeons below the Towers is the next section. Gillespie had a tough decision to make with the layout of this book. Should the dungeons be in the same area as their towers or in a separate section? He decided to do the later. I understand the decision, as the dungeons connect and are closer in theme. This makes an interesting tidbit, though. The "final boss" doesn't appear at the end of the book. The dungeons, however, are exactly what I want in a megadungeon. 

I want exploration, discovery and combat within a dungeon. And these all show up well within the dungeons. The factions show up in places, and some magic items are amazing (Libris is my favorite. Look for her). The maps are just as good as the Towers maps. 7.5/10

(Not) Appendices We get 7 new magic items plus the new Mage Hats (27! of them) 8/10. We also get 14 new spells (some of which are familiar, like transmute ice to flesh) 8/10. The "boss" gets a special entry, and is followed by a new monsters section. Several of the monsters are familiar or re-writes from other games (aarakocra and bodak), but that's not a knock. Gillespie balanced the creatures well inside of Labyrinth Lord (and I have run some S&W with minimal tweaks to his creatures). There are a lot of monsters within (over 100!). 9/10

There is a pre-generated characters section. It is nice, but again, I think a separate players section or booklet may be in order. 6/10

Rival Adventuring Parties are plentiful and unobtrusive. 7/10

Character Sheet these are always cool. 8/10

Random Tables: random restock, book and scroll titles and a patron generator make up this section. The book and scrolls list will particularly be useful to any DM. 7.5/10

Illustration Book is great. All of the artwork is outstanding. 10/10

Final Thoughts

Artwork: 10/10. Gillespie consistently knocks artwork out of the park. HighFell is no different. 
Layout: 8.5/10. Putting the HighFell hex map in the hexcrawling section would improve the book significantly. And, I didn't realize how much a player section would help this book until I wrote this review. *I was the layout artist for this book.*
Cartography: 9/10. The only knocks are the hex maps. The Principality of Brine map is a bit simple but functional. The fill on the HighFell hex map is repititious.

I really enjoy HighFell. It is a fun adventure with lots of old school exploration, I enjoy this type of megadungeon immensely, and it fits my play style. There are a lot of great ideas within, and it is a far departure from Gillespie's other works. But, it is still similar enough to feel the author is the same as Barrowmaze.

Final Score

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Dwimmermount (LL) Review

Dwimmermount was a Kickstarter project that funded in 2012. James Maliszewski is the author, and he was plagued with problems after the KS concluded. Those are documented elsewhere, and I want to focus on the dungeon.

Dwimmermount (C. 2012-2014) released for 2 games systems: Labyrinth Lord (LL) (the version chapters I own) and Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS). Today it can be found in PDF at DriveThruRPG. The LL version clocks in at 408 pages, with the OGL being added to that total. Twenty chapters (in 2 sections) and Appendices A-G (Section 3) make up the bulk of the pages.

Chapter 2 covers the history of Dwimmermount, and is 11 pages. It covers a lot of ground that an "exploration party" can use. JM is clever enough to use a numeric system that he refers to in the dungeon itself. Overall, its a standard several-eras-of-control history. Overall, I give the history a 6/10.

Chapter 3 has my favorite part of Dwimmermount: the dwarves. They are unique, in that they are all male, and they are carved by their fathers from stone. Kobolds and Gnomes are both "twisted" dwarves, that had a mistake in the carvings. The rest of Chapter 3 covers other races and classes, rumors, starting knowledge and adventure seeds. I give this section an 8/10 overall, with the dwarf variant a 10/10.

Chapter 4 covers the overland hex map at a macro level. Nothing extraordinary stands out here.5/10

Chapter 5, Muntburg, covers the home base of the Dwimmermount campaign. 28 numbered locations and over 20 NPCs are listed within. A moneychanger and gemsmith make changing wealth relatively easy. The NPCs are a bit under-developed. A simple map starts the chapter, showing the locations of the keyed areas. A short "How to Use" section follows, suggesting how to "power up" Muntberg. 7/10

Chapter 6, Overview, covers entrances, dungeon materials, a rough history, and environmental factors. They cover "key Labyrinth Lord rules" and house rules. The LL rules seem unnecessary today (monster entry breakdown, and wandering monsters). The house rules (dungeon restocking, disturbances by rival parties, and XP for treasure) are also standard megadungeon rules today. There is a small (and useless) "Customizing Dwimmermount" section within. The section ends with a Mysteries of Dwimmermount chart and a several page cross section map of the dungeon. 4/10

Chapter 7, Factions, lists all of the published factions, their general location, leaders, origins, allies and enemies. Overall, this 2-page chart is pretty well done. Each faction then has 2-4 paragraphs fleshing them out. There is also an "Activities of the Factions Before Play" which touches on some information the PCs may stumble across/use later. 5/10


Section 2 covers all of the dungeon levels and rooms. 9+ levels make up the dungeon (map taken from Dwimmermount, pg 108). Chapter 8-20 each cover an individual level within Dwimmermount. The level names are as follows:

The Path of Mavors (1)
6/10 standard low level faire

The Laboratory (2A)
6/10 standard low level faire

The Reliquary (2B)

The House of Portals (3A)
8/10 real introduction to the uniqueness of Dwimmermount

The Reservoir (3B)
5/10 The obligatory lake level. Some secrets within the level.

The Halls of Lesser Secrets (4)
8/10 The real Dwimmermount starts showing here. I enjoy the teleportation maze.

The Hall of Greater Secrets (5)
7/10 Library of Great Secrets is key for exploring Dwimmermount. It is designed to make sure that information isn't missed by the group.

The Ossuaries (6A)
6/10 Statue of the Iron God is a nice touch.

The Manufactory (6B)
9/10 Probably my favorite level of Dwimmermount. Well laid out, with interesting rooms.

The Deep Hollows (7)
6/10 Other than the discovery of Dwimmermount secrets, a fairly routine deep megadungeon level.

The Prison (8)
8/10 I like the cliché prison level being this deep, with particular rooms designed for dealing with prisoners. The layout of the map also makes sense, keeping the prisoners centralized. 

The City of the Ancients (9)
5/10 A literal (small) city to wrap up the campaign. Room to flesh it out, that could have brought this score higher.

The Divinitarium (Level 0, a "hidden level")
6/10 Although I don't like the higher level "hidden area", at least it is a large puzzle to open it up.

There is a massive layout error between page 243-247. Although these pages are part of level 6B, the margins and headers list them as part of chapter 17 (level 7). This repeats on page 280-281 (level 8).

The real meat and potatoes of a megadungeon is within these levels. As such, I don't want to deep dive them. Instead I will talk generally about the overall feel and flavor of the dungeon. 

Overall, the megadungeon is well Jaquaysed, with many looping and branching paths. The early levels use standard dungeon inhabitants, including undead, humanoids, insects and some other surprises. Overall, as the dungeon gets deeper, the mysteries are slowly unraveled. Dwimmermount does this adequately. Dwimmermount seems to lack puzzle encounters, however. There are a few, but they do not seem numerous enough. 

Finally we have the Appendices. 

Appendix A covers new magic items
5/10 A lot of rehashed magic items.

Appendix B covers new spells
3/10 Only 3 spells are unfamiliar to me (out of 21). 

Appendix C covers new monsters
8/10 Several new monsters are here. Overall, they vary in roles for combat. 

Appendix D covers rival adventuring parties 6/10 Fills the roles, but uninspired.

Appendix E covers the Four Worlds 8/10

Appendix F covers Azoth (a precious, magical substance) 8/10

Appendix G covers the secrets of the primary antagonist (to preserve secrets I won't cover this section) 8/10

Artwork is average at best. A lot of it is sub-par. 4/10
is bad. Lots of white space make the layout below average for today. However, 10 years ago, it was average. Some decisions really confuse me (1.5" margins with dungeon maps within, for example). Several images go into these margins too. All in all, it is strange, but mostly functional.  4/10
 (book only, I am not discussing the separate map pack) Most of the maps are functional, and remind me of the 1970's/early 1980's. 7/10

Overall, Dwimmermount is one of my least favorite megadungeons in my collection. It is largely uninspired, and basic. The layout mistakes drop a point off the overall total too. 

There are a few bright spots, the Dwarven Origins, the Manufactory and the Prison. 

Final Score (including 1 pt deduction for layout issues)


Next week, Highfell (in theory).

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Megadungeon and RPG Terminology

This list will probably evolve for a few weeks, as questions get asked. I intend to refer to this list when discussing megadungeons.

Megadungeon Terminology
There are several types of megadungeons, and they need to be defined before I can begin reviewing the genre. But, even before that I need to begin with my definition of a megadungeon.

Megadungeon Criteria or Definition
The following is from DungeonsDragonsFandom

A megadungeon is a massive dungeon consisting of multiple separate layers. Megadungeons typically have long and complex histories, with different levels constructed in different eras by different groups of people. Such a dungeon naturally develops an elaborate system of interconnected ecologies.[1]

Unlike a standard dungeon, where it is plausible for an adventuring party to kill all monsters and recover all treasure, a megadungeon is so huge as to make this impossible. The size of the dungeon is so great that even if adventurers clear out a large section, it will be populated by new inhabitants before they can finish clearing out another. Megadungeons are commonly deadly.[1]

<end quote>

The following is taken from RPG Museum

In Philotomy's MusingsJason Cone associates megadungeons with the concept of an underworld, which he describes as "a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer."[3]

He lists nine common characteristics of (underworld) megadungeons in the game world, as follows:

  1. It's big, and has many levels; in fact, it may be endless
  2. It follows its own ecological and physical rules
  3. It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
  4. It is not linear; there are many possible paths and interconnections
  5. There are many ways to move up and down through the levels
  6. Its purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend
  7. It's inimical to those exploring it
  8. Deeper or farther levels are more dangerous
  9. It's a (the?) central feature of the campaign[3]
<end quote>

I want to dissect the list.
1. By definition, the megadungeon must be big. I think that Greg Gillespie re-wrote this rule with the release of Barrowmaze. (Barrowmaze is a single, sprawling level).
2. I largely agree with this, but these rules need to have a logic too them. This logic can be internal, but that makes it more difficult to make a good dungeon.
3. This is an absolute must in a megadungeon. Inhabitants in particular must be restocked and changed. 
4. Although not technically a requirement, a non-linear megadungeon is much less likely to become stagnant and boring.
5. This must be true. Even Barrowmaze has something like 15 entrance/exits.
6. I don't think this has to be true. Often the original purpose can be known (Castle Greyhawk's dungeons were created to house magical experiments). Even the Temple of Elemental Evil is pretty straightforward in its purpose.
7. (Inimical means obstructing). This is true in the first time through. But, as the dungeon gets explored, the areas should become more familiar and less inimical. Otherwise, the players will become frustrated and not wish to play anymore.
8. From a design point of view, this is the easiest to make a "balanced" dungeon. 
9. In order to fully experience such a vast area as a megadungeon, it must be at least one tentpole of a campaign.

So, my definition of megadungeon
Megadungeon (noun): A large section (typically a dungeon, but could be a forest, space ship or other structure) of a game world, with limited entrances/exits. Within, the rules of the game world may be altered. Cleared areas refill and the section lives and changes. This section cannot be cleared. The section should initially be challenging to traverse, with greater dangers further from the entrance.

Megadungeon Types 

Funhouse Dungeon:: A dungeon that is rooted more in lighter aspects of gaming. They typically have little "realism" with everything within being based instead on fun. 

Exploration Dungeon: A dungeon that is primarily created for exploration. Typically, these dungeons have many secret doors, traps, secrets and histories to uncover.

Nodal Dungeon: A dungeon without a set map or layout. Instead, it runs much like a flowchart, moving from point to point.

Other Terms

Beer and Pretzels Game: A game that is light hearted and easy going. Generally light on story and strategy, these games require low buy in and concentration.

Jaquaysing the Dungeon: A style of map design, wherein there are multiple paths through a dungeon area, often having loops in the flow of play, and able to hastily move from one area to another, non-linearly. Named after its creator, Janelle Jaquays, who pioneered the idea in the 1970s, while working at Judge's Guild.

Railroad Game: A point to point game, with a set storyline or encounter list pre-planned. It's called a railroad because the game is "on the rails." 

West Marches Game: A style of game, wherein the sessions are episodic (instead of serialized), with players (and characters) changing from session to session.

Hex Crawl Game: A style of game where characters explore an overland (or underground) hex map.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Comprehensive (?) Megadungeon List - 2022

Five years ago, I tried to collect all of the megadungeons into a single list. Here's the link. It was received well. Now, 5 years later, I think the landscape changed significantly enough to do another list. 

Before I begin, let me state my credentials. I am Jayson "Rocky" Gardner, 1/2 of Silver Bulette. I have been playing RPGs since the 1980's and have always been fascinated by megadungeons. Matt Finch interviewed me on the topic (here). I have been writing my latest one (Mord Mar) since 2012 (taking breaks as needed for health and being dad). I have been the layout artist on Greg Gillespie's most recent projects, Highfell and Dwarrowdeep, giving insight and suggestions as I thought the were relevant. As you can see, I don't look at the megadungeon casually, but instead critically. 

These are megadungeons not available. Castle Blackmoor and Castle Greyhawk specifically are the home versions of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax's dungeons. Someday these may see print (or a reprint in some cases)

Amaron Castle (recommended by Grodog, but cannot Google-verify)
Castle Blackmoor
Castle Greyhawk
Doomvault (moved from the Truth. Mentioned in Dead in Thay)
The Hobbyshop Dungeon (see Marmoreal Tomb)
Maure Castle (spread throughout Greyhawk publications)
Ruins of Kwalishar (Tim Kask . . . maybe someday?)
Skull Mountain (Holmes Boxed Set)
Underworld of Jakalla

These are megadungeons that are available on the 1st party or second-hand market. You can actively buy these from Drivethrurpg, Ebay or other sources.

ASE (Anomalous Subsurface Environment) *How do I not own this yet?*
Castle Gargantua
Castle Greyhawk
Castle of the Mad Archmage
Castle Triskelion (all links go directly to a PDF)
DCC #51 Castle Whiterock
Castle Xyntillan
Castle Zagyg *This may move to the Myth category if it keeps not being republished*
The Darkness Beneath <Fight On!> (can anyone provide a link, google returns too much noise)
Dark Tower (search Judge's Guild or Goodman Games for a physical copy)
Depths of Felk Mor
Dungeon of the Mad Mage
El Raja Key
The Emerald Spire
Eyes of the Stone Thief
Forbidden Caverns of Archaia
The Grande Temple of Jing
Greyhawk Ruins (Expeditions to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk) (Castle Greyhawk)
The Halls of Arden Vul
Frank Mentzer's Lich Dungeon
Lost City of Barakus
Maze of the Blue Medusa
Rappan Athuk
Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil
Roslof Keep
Ruins of the Dragon Lord
The Scarlet Citadel
The Slumbering Tsar
Tegel Manor
Temple of Elemental Evil  
World's Largest Dungeon

These are live play games, either at conventions, in blogs, on Youtube or other places.

Felltower (looks unpublished, but check out the link)
Grodog's Castle Greyhawk
Megadungeon Magazine
Mines of Khumar (again, can't find a link for sale)
My Own Private Jakalla
Mythrus Tower (may be defunct with Matt Finch moving back to Mythmere Games)

These are dungeons that don't fit my criteria for one reason or another, but they do fit other people's criteria.

Crypt of the Science Wizard (currently one level. Get to work Skeeter!)
Caverns of Thracia
Dragon's Delve 
The Lost City (5E/1E by Goodman Games) (Original in POD version)
Palace of the Vampire Queen
Tomb of Abysthor

As always, I know I am missing some. If you know of a megadungeon that fits this list, but isn't included, hit me up on the Silver Bulette Facebook Page or leave a comment here.

Here are other lists of megadungeons from around the web. If you have one, shoot me a message and I will add it here!

Grodog's List