Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Classes within the megadungeon (OSE Classic)

Having a well mixed group of classes is essential for survival within a megadungeon. Each of these classes must fill a role for survival of the group. Although I don't typically like to leave the 5E players out of the discussion, today I need to. Simply because their characters often no-longer fill the same roles in a party. I have my OSE Classic Fantasy book near me today, so these will be the classes discussed. OSE Classic is a Basic clone, so Race as Class is a thing. The classes listed within the book are: Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic-User, and Thief. Nearly all of these can be valuable additions to the delve. 

Clerics, the devout servants of gods, are undead controllers, protectors (not healers), and back-up fighters. Turn Undead is a very useful tool in most megadungeons. Undead are "eternal" (they do not need to eat, sleep, interact or generally be alive) monsters. As this is the case, they are found within most megadungeons, and a large amount have entire floors dedicated to undead. Clerics make these fights more manageable to the group.
As protectors (not healers) the cleric's secondary role is to use their spells to keep people alive. Looking at the spell list: Cure Light Wounds, Detect Evil, Detect Magic, Protection from Evil, and Purify Food and Water, Remove Fear, and Resist Cold are all spells designed to protect the group. Even the 1 spell (Light) I didn't mention in the OSE list could be considered to protect the group. Most OSR lists will draw the same conclusion. Healing is an afterthought to protection for early edition clerics.
Finally, clerics are the secondary fighters to the, well, fighters. Clerics can use any armor so they are ideal front line defenders. Their to-hit-bonus progresses slower than the demi-humans and the fighters though.

Dwarves, the stout bearded friends are great scouts within the megadungeon. They have several 1 in 3 abilities to help explore: Detect Construction Tricks, Detect Room Traps, and Listen at Doors. Besides these abilities, they can see in the darkness.
Dwarves can wear any armor, and use most weapons. As such they are almost on par with actual fighters. They have a good to-hit progression also. Largely, a dwarf can substitute for a thief or fighter in a pinch, but have the ability to gain information that other classes cannot.

Elves are a fun class that can fill many roles as they get access to all weapons, armor, and most arcane spells. As such, they make fine front line fighters. They also have a solid to-hit progression.
They have three abilities that help them scout: Detect Secret Doors (1 in 3), Infravision, Listen at Doors (1 in 3). The arcane spell list allows them several additional information gathering abilities: Charm Person, Detect Magic, Read Languages, and Read Magic all help with puzzle solving and exploration.

Fighters are the most straightforward class. They have no special mechanics, instead use weapons, armor, and wit to outbattle foes. They can however participate in riddle and puzzle solving, map making and other fun activities.

Halflings are also great scouts and explorers. They have a hide ability (1 in 3), initiative bonus (+1) and the ability to listen at doors (1 in 3). They can also use all weapons (size restrictive) and armors, making them good fighters as well. 
Although fun to play, a halfling's role in a megadungeon is often overshadowed by the other classes. Without infravision, they are weaker at scouting than the dwarves and elves. Their size limits their damage output in combat.

Magic-Users are the Swiss army knife of the group. Using their spells to overcome obstacles is where the magic-user shines. They are not good at combat (relative to the other classes), but can make quick work of other problems. Magic-Users are problem solvers.

Thieves solve the other problems that magic-users cannot. Their skill list: climbing, find/remove traps, hear noise, hide, move silently, and open locks all help within the halls of a dungeon. Only pick pockets is not useful in nearly every delve. When they hit higher levels, read languages takes some pressure off the magic-user's spell list too. 
In combat, the backstab ability can end a fight in moments. In my humble opinion, the thief is the most necessary class in an old school megadungeon. 

Ranking the Classes 

  1. Thief
  2. Elf
  3. Cleric 
  4. Dwarf
  5. Fighter
  6. Magic-User
  7. Halfling
Magic-Users are simply overshadowed by elves in OSE. They have the same spell progression and Elves get armor and weapons and more HPs and better saves.

Sometime in the future, I will look at S&W, LL and other OSR games. Eventually, I will combine all of the OSR games class list into a composite.

Art found on Deviant Art, and not owned by me. Please follow the link and support artists.
*edited to move ftrs down the list. I don't know why I had them 3rd.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Megadungeon DM Overview

As I have said before, running a megadungeon is fundamentally different than running other types of campaigns. As such, it must be approached differently than a city adventure or a story driven location campaign. Let's look at how best to facilitate the megadungeon in play.

1. Choose a system that works best for the environment. 
  • Combat needs to be quick (you may have 7-8 in a 4 hour session). In a modern game, this can be difficult. Don't let players debate during combat. They should have a plan before swords are swung. At first, keep them aware they must move quickly, and by session 3, impose a turn time limit (1 minute?)
    In OSR games, the rules facilitate the quick movement of combat. Still, letting them make a detailed plan while monsters are attacking with halitosis breath may not be the best time. Keep them moving.
  • Using a skill system needs to be handled with care. If you use a game with a robust skill system, bonuses should be given for good description: "I search for traps" should be a Investigation check with no bonuses, while "I lead the party slowly ahead, rolling ball bearings down the hallway then prodding for pit traps with the 10 ft. pole." should garner a +2 or better bonus to the roll. Always give good description a reward. The players quickly realize the description matters.
  • Healing needs to be a resource. Giving all HP back for resting makes it difficult to pressure the players to leave the dungeon. In a modern game, I would change the mechanic to 2x level HP are healed upon long rest.
  • XP should always be used for leveling. Milestone XP does not work because it removes player agency. It should be feasible for the party to reach levels 3-4 on the first floor of the dungeon (even if it is slightly boring). This should be feasible on any level. Milestone leveling also squashes exploration. Why go exploring when there is not a reward? (Also, if playing 5E find the 3.5 XP tables and use those for your characters).
  • Know how to handle Save or Die. In modern games, this is problematic because character creation is a time consuming process. Instead, use a system like Exhaustion in the modern games. But, hit them hard with it. Make them feel the repercussions of that failed save. (Also, have them make 2 characters at session 0, so another is ready to go).
  • I DM best in OSR style games: Swords & Wizardry, OSE, BECMI and the like. Knowing where my strength is, I most often choose these. Familiarity is important to keep a game moving, and you should be able to adjudicate quickly. Don't jump into running a megadungeon in a game that you are unfamiliar with. 
2. Understand how megadungeons work mechanically. They use some tropes over and over again.
  • Exploration is the primary motivation within a megadungeon, and the DM must find ways to motivate the group forward. This could be treasure, a kidnapped NPC, a rival or enemy drawing them forward. Maybe an NPC needs a rare alchemical component from deep within the dungeon to make a cure for the king? Use mcguffins often, but make almost none of them
    The Great
    Winged Gargoyle
  • Factions are the RP areas of the megadungeon. Often factions are at odds with each other, and the PCs need to choose which one they help. This is probably a lesser of two evils scenario. Let the PCs choose, though.
  • Combat (as mentioned before) needs to be quick. It is noisy and attracts other denizens to grab whatever is weakened (or dead). Keep it moving. Make sure the group knows that more dangers are watching and ready to pounce on the weak.
  • Traps are often deadly. Save or Die is common in megadungeons. 
  • Riddles and puzzles are fun side-bars. They should be noticeable, but not stopping advancement. (The Great Winged Gargoyle in Barrowmaze is a great example of a puzzle that works well). Reward the solutions!
3. Keep the dungeon fresh. If the players think they are just slogging from corridor to corridor and combat to combat, they will get bored quickly.
  • Factions break this up well. Make the NPCs more interesting than NPCs in town. The NPCs in the dungeon have esoteric goals. They are (probably) strange and alien to the group. 
  • Rival adventuring parties can add a pressure to find the mcguffin. Use them to motivate and frustrate the group.
  • Vary combats. Make some rooms have 2-3 (or more) levels to approach and attack. Have skeletons bust out of a wall in the middle of another combat. Make sure wandering monsters show up (and maybe even attack the creatures the PCs are fighting). Have falling walls or debris. Don't let combat be static.
  • Make sure that the group has access to puzzles and riddles. Finding a solution to one of these could be the serotonin dump to keep them motivated. It also gets them to backtrack and discover missed areas.
  • Design levels to be thematically and visually different. A huge cavern of mushrooms with shadows moving just outside of the torchlight is an interesting change to the claustrophobic quarters that led there. Adding a lake makes for interesting choices: cross? find water breathing and explore underneath? Avoid? 
Megadungeons are an art form, and can be painted with any medium. I prefer the OSR brush, but there are a lot of people out there who use the 5E paint set successfully. Even with the differences, we all enjoy stabbing the monsters in the darkness.

Are you enjoying this series? Is there a topic you want me to cover? Let me know, either here in the comments or on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Exploring With Spells in the Megadungeon

Found at Angry Golem Games
Continuing the thoughts from last week, I thought I would discuss some of the more versatile spells in a megadungeon environment. With literally thousands of spells designed for D&D and its relatives, some are obviously going to be more suited to dungeon environs than others. 

I am using the Labyrinth Lord spell list primarily today. I am not looking at combat (or role playing) applications for the spells, instead, they must be useful within the exploration phase of the game. 

Most "exploration" spells fall into a few broad categories: Blocking, information, movement and resources.

  • Blocking spells protect your flanks (like Arcane Lock)  
  • Information spells give you the ability to make smarter choices (like Light, Commune and Clairvoyance).
  • Movement spells allow access to areas that would be difficult or impossible to reach without them (Fly, Invisibility, Lower Water, and others)
  • Resource spells protect or gather more resources to more efficiently explore the dungeon (Purify Food and Drink, Dispel Magic, Floating Disk).

Clerical Spells
Commune: Any spell that gives you information is useful in a megadungeon. 
Continual Light: Light is possibly the most precious resource in the dungeons. This spell is possibly the best spell that a group can have access to. It is most useful when cast on several object (that can be easily concealed) before entering the dungeon. Even if everyone in the group has darkvision, Continual Light allows for reading script, discerning colors (possibly solving a puzzle or trap)and seeing discoloration (like where a secret door may open). Light  is useful in the same way, but not permanent.
Detect Spells (Evil, Lie, Magic): Information is always useful. When interrogating a prisoner, know if they lie. Detecting evil behind a door may just save a life. And knowing what is magical garners too many benefits to list here. 
Dispel Magic: Too useful in all aspects to ignore. Remove illusions, Arcane Locks, and other hazards with relative ease. 
Find the Path: Know how to get out. Guaranteed.
Find Traps: This name speaks for itself. Don't fall prey to the insidious traps that kill so many adventurers. 
Locate Object: Unless you are close to the exact object you seek, and you have seen it before this spell is less useful than it seems. It is best used to find things like water, food or ways to bypass obstacles (like a lever to raise the portcullis).
Lower Water: With some research and fore-knowledge this spell can grant access to hidden parts of the dungeon. Just do your research before memorizing this one.
Purify Food and Drink: A low level party often has low level resources. This spell stretches those resources, and can often be useful in tempting situations (like walking into a fest-hall with a fully furnished table).
Resist Cold/Fire: These spells allow access to dungeon areas that are difficult to reach without them.
Silence 15' Radius: Most people try to silence spellcasters with this one. Instead, try sneaking past the orc barricades, or that room that drops boulders on your head when any noise is generated. 
Stone Tell: Anything the local stone has seen, it can tell you about? In the right place, this spell can gather more information than any other.
True Seeing: A true get-out-of-jail-free card. Know what is what around the character. Illusions? Pshaw! Secret Doors? Nope. Invisibility? More like no-ability. Once access is gained to this spell, it should always be memorized in a dungeon environment. It has uses in all three pillars of the game (exploration, combat, and role-playing).
Wind Walk: Another spell that allows access to places that were beyond reach. 
Word of Recall: Get-out-of-the-dungeon-free. Sure, your friends probably aren't coming with you, but that's why the Magic-User memorized teleport, right?

As a 1st level cleric, I would enter most megadungeons with Light memorized, with Detect Evil, and Cure Light Wounds as solid options as well. (If I am playing a character with darkvision, that switches to Detect Evil).

As a 5th level cleric, my spell list would be: Detect Evil, CLW, Protection From Evil, Find Traps, Silence 15' radius, and Dispel Magic.

Arcane Spells
Arcane Eye: An information gathering spell that keeps the group (relatively) safe.
Arcane Lock: Make sure nothing is sneaking up on you. Or have a safe resting place. Either way, it is a bargain for a 2nd level spell.
Clairvoyance: Like Arcane Eye a spell that gathers a lot of information at little risk.
Contact Other Plane: Akin to Commune, only take this if the cleric didn't take the other.
Continual Light and Light: See clerical descriptions.
Detect Spells (Evil, Invisible, Magic): Same as the clerical spells. Detect Invisible is less useful in the exploration phase than in combat, but can still see some play (for example a key may be invisible that allows access to a treasure hoard.)
Dispel Magic: covered in the clerical list
Fly: There are often huge drops in caverns and crevasses. Fly makes it easier to navigate.
Hold Portal: Keep the door shut for a couple of hours. Long enough to get away.
Infravision: As has been discussed ad nauseum sight is a primary resource. Infravision may allow for seeing heat radiating from behind a wall or within a chest. Any unexpected heat source should be investigated.
Invisibility, Invisibility 10' Radius: These spells allow bypassing of a potentially dangerous encounter, similar to Silence. Just make sure that you have a plan to get back out.
Levitate: Vertical movement is often the most difficult. Levitate makes those high and low areas more accessible. It may be negated with a rope and grappling hook, though, depending on circumstances.
Limited Wish  and Wish: No brainers. Spells that give you a wish-come-true are useful no matter where you are or what phase of the game you are in.
Locate Object: See clerical version
Lower Water: See clerical version
Magic Jar: This spell can allow unfettered access to areas that are controlled by creatures hostile to the caster. Use it to map out and explore these areas before the assault. Just make sure that your fellows protect you while you are away.
Passwall: Shortcut through the dungeon. It only stays open for 30 minutes, so be quick. But, it can bypass traps, groups of enemies, puzzles, and other hazards.
Phase Door: Similar too Passwall, this spell has the added advantage of being difficult to detect. It has the drawback of being very limited (6-10 uses in total). 
Read Languages, Read Magic: Often while exploring, the party will come across strange glyphs that have information, if they can be deciphered. Having these spells available has the potential to gather a lot of information at little risk.
Telekinesis: Think something is trapped? Use this to manipulate it. Can't get across the portcullis to pull the lever to raise them? TK is your answer. Any time something needs to be manipulated, this spell is potentially useful.
Transmute Rock to Mud: Another shortcut spell. 
Water Breathing: Water features often hide great treasure. Be the one with the ability to recover it.

When entering the megadungeon as a 1st level magic-user, I would prepare Read Languages. First delves almost always come across some writing that will be useful to the group. 

As a 5th level magic-user, my spell list is: Detect Magic, Magic Missile, Arcane Lock, Web, Dispel Magic (unless the cleric has it) or Clairvoyance.

Having the correct spells available for exploring the megadungeon can be the difference between life and death. At the least, using exploration spells allows you to make informed decisions on where, when and how to fight.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Tools of the Megadungeon

I am running a bit behind on the blog. Between the Kickstarter and Totalcon, I have been busy. I am hoping to start catching up. Today I am going to talk about how PCs use equipment in the megadungeon. I have included Swords & Wizardry's  equipment list for reference. (S&W is now published by Mythmere games, with a new printing upcoming).

A lot of the items listed in the rules are there for dungeon exploration. Some are ubiquitous, but some are pretty specific to the dungeon environs. Parsing the list:
  • Bell
  • Chalk
  • Crowbar
  • Lamp (and Lanterns)
  • Mirror
  • Pole (10 foot)
  • Spike, iron
Are all specific to the dungeon environment. Players can use these (and other items) in a variety of ways to increase their survival rate within a dungeon.

Bells are excellent for alerting the party when they would be otherwise unaware. Tying one to a door that the group didn't open may alert them to a danger coming through that door behind them. Doing the same in a room where they are resting may just wake them in a timely manner. Timely enough to avoid a TPK, anyway.

Chalk is most commonly used to mark where the party is going and has been. It works well on stone and metal, so it is great for the dungeon. It's also not heavy like paint or liable to destroy a spellbook like ink. Other uses players have used in my games include: using chalk dust to find invisible creatures (also done with flour), and using it to mark a large area (to see if/what kind of foot traffic flows through).

Crowbars are almost a necessity in dungeon environments. Stuck door? crowbar. Chest won' open? crowbar. Reach into a hole to pull a lever? Nope. crowbar. 

Lamp and lanterns (torch

Lewes Bonfire, used with CC

es too)
 are light sources, a very necessary thing within dungeon environs. Modern D&D allows nearly everyone to have darkvision. In the early games, only demi-humans had the ability to see in darkness, and even that was flawed (depending on the edition). Light = life in the dungeon.
Further, the lamps and their ilk are ready-to-go fire sources. Great for lighting that flask of oil or the strange fireplace within the depths. Fire is often the best friend of the adventurers, they should never leave home without it. 

Mirrors are one of the most important items an adventurer can have. Besides making a Medusa less deadly, mirrors allow adventurers to see around corners without sticking their neck out (literally). They can be used to trick opponents (by placing them where the enemy will see the reflection, as in Clash of the Titans).

10' Pole

Pole (10 foot) is the trap finder. Tap the floor, ceiling and walls ahead of you. The hope would be to set off any traps while you are still 10 feet away. Also useful for opening doors, chests and other things from a distance. Use to dry out clothes when they got wet. Truly an awkward miracle solution to all of the adventuring problems. 

Spike, iron are useful for keeping things open and shut, as the party finds necessary. Drive a couple into the plane (usually the floor) closest to the item in its desired position. 

Besides the items listed in the S&W book here are several more that my groups like to use when delving Mord Mar, Barrowmaze, Rappan Athuk and other megadungeons:

  • Sledgehammer (sometimes that wall has to come down)
  • Marbles or ball bearings (is this floor sloping up or down? Can I trip the monster?)
  • Small animal (canary in a coal mine. Used to detect dangerous/deadly air)
  • Grease (to quiet doors, or to make a slippery escape)
  • Wax (to clog holes, seal disturbed sarcophagi, use to block sound from the ears)
Old School D&D relied heavily on the dungeon. The equipment list shows just how much. Exploration was key to the game, and the tools players used facilitated that.

A quick reminder, Fantastic Geographic #3 is live on Kickstarter until March 14th. If you enjoy my blog articles, please take a look at the zine.

*While looking for a 10' pole image, I found it on this site:
It may also be of interest. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Travelling in a Megadungeon Game

Travelling to, from and within a megadungeon is a major design decision. It affects every aspect of play. The further from a safe place the megadungeon is, the less that can be carried to and from. Travelling a half day means that rations must be used before even arriving at the entrance. It means horses and mules need food (and water) of some variety. It allows for less time during daylight hours to explore and safely egress from the dungeon. All of these factors alter the player's decision trees before the game even begins. Rappan Athuk, Barrowmaze and Highfell are examples of far megadungeons. 

On the other hand, a megadungeon close to the safe area allows for travel quickly (and more daylight), possibly even leaving pack animals behind. A nearby megadungeon allows for fewer ambushes and brigands to relieve the adventurers of their gains. Adventurers can attempt to bring more back, as the road is shorter. Undermountain and Ardun Vul are examples of near megadungeons.

Both near and far megadungeons are acceptable forms of play, and both are fun. When determining distance between safety and the megadungeon, find out what the players enjoy. My preference is for the danger to be within the dungeon itself, but this can become stale quickly, as there is no above-ground adventuring to break the monotony of the dungeon.

Travelling within the megadungeon is a different matter, though. There are many ways to move within a dungeon. 

Horizontal movement is the most common: exploring room to room, corridor to corridor makes the bulk of the exploration within the dungeon.

But, vertical movement is arguably more important, whether that's to gain a height advantage in combat, or to descend to greater treasure, or ascend to relative safety. Vertical movement (largely, with exceptions like Barrowmaze) defines danger level.

There are points within good megadungeons where there are multiple height levels (not DUNGEON levels). For example, there may be a mansion level within a megadungeon, where the entire mansion is a single dungeon level. There may be stairs leading to an upper height level (like a landing above a dining room) but the difficulty does not increase. Another example might be a small ledge 20 ft. above the floor in a dragon's lair where the archer can take up perch and be away from the brunt of the breath weapon. These points make combat more interesting, and should be used as such. 

Vertical movement through dungeon levels is more within the purview of this article, though. Many megadungeons have a central something that facilitates quick movement between levels. Sometimes this is a chasm, sometimes a large stairwell, sometimes it is something much scarier like a lake or river. But, nearly all megadungeons have this feature. It is necessary to keep the game moving as it matures into a longer campaign. Keep this in mind when designing (or running) your megadungeon. 

There are also other, smaller vertical transition points: slides, side stairs, traps (like "bottomless" pits), chimneys, water wheels, rivers (that connect fewer levels than the above mentioned central transitionary), mine shafts or anything else that you can imagine going between levels. These small transitions are the bulk of what is used for the early levels of the megadungeon, transitioning 1 (maybe 2, if the group feels particularly powerful) levels. 

Bulette by Jeremy Mohler
of Outland Entertainment
Transitioning vertically is extremely difficult with the few pack animals that might join the group underground. Stairs, especially uneven ones are dangerous for mules. The various pack animals of the dark realms probably grow too large for the small stairwells and chimneys that transition between levels. Getting these pack animals to that 100,000 gp statue is a puzzle that many players find fun. When you reach that point, always remember to make sure that the fun comes first. If they spend hours devising a plan between sessions, I suggest that you allow it. However, there may be a bulette near that heavy treasure just waiting to eat the lizard they bought from the drow a couple of sessions earlier. 

Finally, there are "weird" or "fast" transitions. In my personal megadungeon, Mord Mar, I use a lot of these. I have teleportation circles, elevators, teleportation traps, fast-moving (uncontrollable) rivers, dumbwaiters and updrafts. Fast transitions allow for mid-to-high level groups to rapidly move to a point of the dungeon of their choosing. 

Elevators often take experimentation to work. In Mord Mar, the mystical elevator has 100 buttons, each with a dwarven rune on it. The alphabet, as well as ancient symbols for ideas appear on the button grid. Through experiments, the players can go to almost anywhere within the dungeon, with a couple of button presses. My elevator appears at a door transitionary, and all the doors (archways or doorways) where this is possible have the symbols needed carved on them somewhere. Originally, this was accessible only to the king and his guards, but now anyone who knows where it is can use it. (This is a fun twist when several parties explore the same dungeon, but that's a different blog post.)

Teleportation circles in some form are nearly necessary for a megadungeon, at least a vertical one. Rehashing the same, underleveled areas is boring. Teleportation circles are reusable, reliable transportation to any number of pre-determined destinations within the dungeon. These should appear near entrances and exits, as well as major points of interest, especially ones that may need multiple attempts to solve (like a door that requires the King's Crown to open). Some should be easy to find, and some should be difficult. And always, there should be a key that needs to be discovered before use. Some dungeons allow keys to be re-used, and others make them one-shot. Both are acceptable and fun, but one-shot keys should be replaced easily at mid-high levels.

Finally, there are one-way "fast transitions." The fast moving river that sweeps away the weak magic-user, the unknown teleportation trap that moves a party to an identical-looking corridor two levels lower and the updraft that flies them to the red dragon's lair are all great ways to get the group lost. However, these are dangerous if you use the must leave the dungeon at the end of the session rule. It can unfairly punish those players. But, the excitement of being lost and having to explore a new way out often outweighs that risk. Use these sparingly, but use them. They add an unparalleled level of excitement.

Fantastic Geographic Issue #3 is still live. If you enjoy my blog posts, please give it a look. We funded in about an hour, and it is full of fun things for every type of game and gamer. This issue is about language and includes several articles about usage that apply broadly to RPGs, but also to megadungeons specifically.

If you want to meet me, I am a special guest at Totalcon this weekend. I will be there, at the IPU booth and running a game or two. If you're in the area, look me up!

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Megadungeons and Language

Before I begin today, I am going to shill. We launched our 6th (5 under the current account) Kickstarter this morning. It is all about language in RPGs. Take a look. $7 gets a PDF, and $21 gets a PDF + Print copy delivered in the US.[end shill]

Languages in megadungeons is a tricky thing. It must be accessible to the players, but immersive enough not to break suspension of disbelief. Should the paladin who was suspended in time 500 years ago be understandable? The short answer is yes. The long answer is . . . more complicated. 

The game itself gives us tools to deal with language barriers:
Characters with a high intelligence gain bonus languages, and non-humans often have multiple languages known to them, even without high intelligence. 
Thieves' cant was designed to allow thieves the ability to communicate over language barriers (often through the use of universal symbols).
Wizards, scholars, and long-lived races populate the game worlds we explore. Any of these may be able to interpret the conversation (for a price of course).

The following spells (and others I am forgetting) appear in various OSR books: 
Comprehend Languages allows the caster to understand auditory language around herself (and some versions allow writing as well).
Read Languages is designed to understand written language they read. It does not decode cyphers or the like.
Tongues allows the caster to both speak and understand languages in their presence for the duration of the spell.

If the adventurers have access to the magics (or a long lived language, like Elven), there is near immediate understanding between the time displaced paladin and the party. But, what if they don't have access to these knowledges? The adventure becomes a bit different.

Do your players like puzzling out solutions to problems? If so, then I would leave the paladin unable to communicate effectively. However, many groups get frustrated at multi-step problems like this, in which case, the DM should just hand wave it so the paladin is understandable.

A different problem is the communication between orcs, goblins, the characters and other denizens of the dungeon. Do different neighboring factions communicate? Often in my games, the answer is yes. I use an interpreter in each of the groups who communicate in several languages. They are nearly always found with the leader of the group.

The position is an esteemed one, and often comes with perks for the NPC. They are likely spell-casters and avoid physical combat whenever possible. The king protects the interpreter, even though they may be weaker than the other orcs (goblins, whatever). Does every fiefdom have an interpreter for all languages nearby? No. Which allows the PCs to be hooked into the politics. 

Here is an example of an adventure scenario in Mord Mar:
Talen Taak, the troll queen, requires an interpreter for a diplomatic mission to the Apes of the Citadel. A war has raged between the groups for long enough, and a cease fire needs to be reached. Both sides want peace, but the trolls cannot understand the sign language of the Apes. Anyone who accomplishes this without giving up resources gains a permanent private quarters within the troll's domicile. (The Apes may also give a separate reward). Language can facilitate adventure, when used as a motivator.

Language within megadungeons is a massive topic. It affects information given to the party, where they can explore, whom they fight and nearly every other detail when dealing with the denizens. It is easy to gloss over, but occasionally accenting language can lead to exciting results.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Gunderholfen Review

From what I can gather, Gunderholfen released in June of 2019. It does not look like it was crowd-funded and just dropped onto Drivethrurpg. G. Hawkins is listed as writer, illustrator and cartographer. Including the OGL, the book totals at 415 pages. 

The ToC lists 10 levels (and several sub-levels in the form of 1A, 7A, 8 East etc.), 8 appendices, with the 8th being the map pack. The Introduction section is pages 3-9, with "a brief history" taking up 3-4. The Brief Overview of Gunderholfen reads: "Gunderholfen consists of three main sections: levels 1-4, which are not connected to the Central Shaft; levels 5-10 which are connected to and lead off from the Central Shaft; and the Floating Level which is a separate demi-plane accessed through the Duergar settlement on Level 7."

History: The long and short of the history is: Gunderholfen was a dwarven city. One day they all disappeared. For one thousand years, evil creatures fought over the stone halls, while men forgot about them. Eventually a human wizard consolidated power in a large portion of Gunderholfen. He found a demon and imprisoned it. The wizard died (?) in the process.

The rest of the intro section covers general knowledge (non-locals, locals, and educated), a 15-entry rumour table (rolling 16-20 indicates no rumor), an incentives and patrons entry. This brings me to the most useful piece of the whole book: Tasks, Rewards, and Possible Patrons chart. The chart lists 14 possible tasks that can be easily imported to any megadungeon (just change macguffin names). Next, Hawkins gives advice on integrating plots and NPCs. Largely, this is useless, because every entry directs you to a different part of the book. A short section for notes for the GM follows next, with a welcome abbreviation list.

Hawkins lists their Entry Layout (which seems unnecessary), followed by a design philosophy before diving into level 1. In the introduction, the town of Longfelt is discussed, but there's no real write up until Appendix 4. Longfelt should be close to the front of the book, and set up as the home base. Having it as an appendix is a weird choice.

NOTE TO MEGADUNGEON DESIGNERS: Put a map with your chapters for your levels. Especially in the same book. There are exceptions to this (Barrowmaze), but for the most part, the map and key should be together. Print the map twice if you need to (like Castle of the Mad Archmage) but keep them together.

Also put your wandering monster tables with the level they correspond to. Don't make an appendix at the back of the book. I don't want to flip through 300 pages to get to a chart. Using the PDF is even worse. A 400 page PDF should have bookmarks, especially when the information is disjointed.

Level 1 (A-C): Each level begins with a common description (in this case: "Unless otherwise noted, the walls are made of roughly hewn sand-colored stone. The ceilings are 12’ high in passages and 18’ high in rooms. Doors are of heavy wood with iron pull rings set on the right side of the door. They open outwards from rooms.") (Gunderholfen pg 11). 

I am not sure why the author decided to break level 1 into three parts. I am guessing it is primarily to facilitate the maps being standardized. Level 1A is the domain of kobolds, and they pervade the majority of it, with rats, a ghoul and a fungus forest being outside their influence. Level 1B is full of goblins, including the entry where they have a nasty trap set up. I get the feeling that the goblins and kobolds fight for territory, but it is not stated. Level 1C is separated by a portcullis and leads to a hobgoblin area. 

The routes to the next area for the kobolds and goblins are quick (>5 encounters) but if characters make a wrong turn they are stuck in a loop that dead ends or circles itself. (However, there is an alternate exit of the dungeon in the goblins area.) The hobgoblin area is similar (5 encounters to the stairs). The route through the hobgoblin area requires going through their jail. Another dungeon exit is near the stairs (whew!). These maps don't facilitate exploration or verisimilitude. Overall, the entire level lacks imagination and feels like 3 smaller dungeons lashed together.

Level 2: Largely, level 2 is your standard low level cave adventure, with stirges, bugs, giant fauna, flora and a few unique NPCs thrown in. Overall, the map is slightly better than level 1 (at least it is a single level). 

Level 3: Finally some choices in exploration! There are 3 main veins through the level, and they had the ability to be more interconnected but were not. (If running this book, I would fix that.) Level 3 starts in a room with 3 exits, and has several monsters within. Notably, the kiigoths (new monster) and ogres are engaged in long term warfare within the middle of the level. Largely there aren't a lot interesting dungeon defining areas (puzzles, traps, lore or other unique features). The Sun Face (a puzzle that gives rubies and fire gouts) is the sole exception, in my opinion.

Level 4: (Why are there 100' between levels? Seems weird.) Level 4 is broken into 4 parts: A-D. It is massive, including a defunct dwarven town and an active "monster" village. Ogres, "impoverished orcs," some demonkin, and a few of the common dungeon denizens (bats, lizards, etc.) populate 4A. Again, all of the rooms are basically encounters or empty.

4B is the defunct dwarf town, now full of undead. Now, I like the concept. And it is passible. But, it is all standard fare. There's no artifact powering the undead, there are no boosts. It's all what-you-see-is-what-you-get. The one exception is the Hall of Animation. It's not often that a wight just watches the party and refuses to move. . . 

4C is the "monster" village. Dark stalkers, creepers and their like inhabit nearly the entire sub-level. 

4D is an area that archmage used frequently. Out of all of the levels in Gunderholfen, this is my favorite. It still isn't laid out well (map-wise), but there are several interesting rooms and secrets to find. A library, a hall of many (magical) thrones, a room of crystals and others finally make the players think through some rooms (opposed to brute force). There are plenty of combats too including gnolls, owl bear (monster condo!), otyugh (5 pages after their artwork), and a grell (called a grold). 

Level 5 introduces the Central Shaft (finally a quick-access to multiple levels). Level 5 is 200' below level 4. (for those of you keeping track, it is now 560' below ground.) These levels really begin to blend together. Very little makes them stand apart from one another. Minotaurs and a different wizard populate areas here, with hill giants nearby (again, 500' below ground.) There is a crypt section that houses a bunch of undead and some treasure.

5 East: Overall, the level is more of the same with doppelgangers being the "faction" of the level. A few more undead, vermin and little else that's exciting. Although there is a 1-way teleporter to get the group into deeper trouble, so that's nice.

Level 6 has two ingress points (thanks to the Central Shaft). We are seeing a bit more agency for the players' exploration. The spawn of Sethid is a contingent (on time) encounter that might be interesting. They appear only at night (even 660' underground). In order to stop them from re-appearing night after night, all of them must be slain on the same night. It's a fun mechanic that is wasted so deep in a dungeon. 
Overall, Level 6 does a much better job of making rooms interesting (a candle that never goes out and prevents turn undead and a sacrificial gong are two examples). 

6A: Back to everything ready to kill the party without negotiation or nuance. A few humans (leveled party) and a derro band reside here as well as zombies. It again feels like everything is just waiting for the adventurers to show up. 

6B: Troglodytes! Deep ogres! Qeel men (eel peeps)! At least the map is cavernous to break up the monotony. 

6C: Lizardmen, troll island, more qeel men and argoyles (aquatic gargoyles) live here. Also a kraken.

All of level 6 feels disjointed. It could have been an interesting level, with qeel men populating all 3 areas of the level. Instead, there are a lot of small factions that just feel ... haphazard. The qeel men should be a dominating force, with a walled tower and the ability to move through water and on land easily. Instead, they feel like the largest group of terra cotta soldiers.

Level 7 this time the book does not list the descent distance, but I will assume another 100'. Thrones on the exit to level 6 (at the Central Shaft) teleport to thrones here (and vice versa), so that's cool. Vines also connect the two areas (and level 8), so there's a non-magic way to move. 

It is noted in the introduction to the level that the PCs could eliminate the leadership of the duergar on the level without raising an alarm (if a secret door is found and used to access a demi-plane). It's an interesting dilemma, but unless the party gets lucky (by finding a teleporter on 7A) they'll likely miss it. Instead they will probably engage in guerrilla tactics with the duergar. There are probably close to 200 duergar (I stopped counting at 130). The duergar have an arena that might be an alternate angle to deal with them. 

7A is a level filled with ghouls, and tunnels throughout, but it is self-contained. Besides the ghouls there is a death mist and several altars. The only reason to adventure here is the loot that the death mist holds. 

The Floating Level is an "air-filled, egg shaped demi-plane that contains several land masses." There are two ways out of the floating level: a magic item held by the duergar and a magic item held by a dragon within the Floating Level. Glak is a city established by the ubiquitous wizard at the top of the level, and is populated by humans and demi-humans. At least the inhabitants here have motivations and appearances listed below their stat blocks. 

The remaining isles (in order):
B. The Demon Isle: an entire island of random encounters with demons.

C. The Faerie Isle: malign faeries and evil halflings (with a weird gender-split society) reside here. 

D. Isle of the Cyclops: a cyclops and many "cyclopians" (basically cycloptic hill giants) live here.

E. The Hunting Grounds: another entire island of random encounters, this time with standard fare megafauna (buffalo, rhino, etc.).

F. Isle of the Dragon: is pretty self-explanatory. Jithax (the black dragon) has minions, and at one point attacks with a fly by breath weapon. From there, Jithax returns to her layer and prepares for the battle. She has a flame of scrying that allow her to watch the party's approach. She uses enlarge on herself and waits. This is a dangerous encounter and should be understood by the DM before running it, as Jithax has a lot of possible strategies and actions (and minions that join the fight). And the PC's almost certainly must face her (to get the McGuffin to get out of the Floating Level).
It also feels weird that there is a gate back to the first island within her lair. Why isn't she terrorizing the inhabitants of Glak on a daily basis for riches?

Level 8: This level is primarily controlled by the Suleb Darn, an organization of "powerful anti-heroes." There are a few neat tricks here: moving a statue part to disarm a magical fear effect, pushing another statue part to open a secret door (it's always nice to know the secret door triggers). There's a great illusionary trap too. 

The humanoid anti-heroes are back to having no listed motivations, but they have mostly well thought out tactics. It is weird that the fighters are together, the magic-users are together, etc. It seems like these could become very boring fights.

Level 8 East: Queue obligatory cult level. Snake cultists are so 1982, and they don't even have James Earl Jones. They even have a medusa ("gorgon"), naga, and not-yuan-ti (serpent men). And there is a small werewolf area. Because those two groups won't wipe each other out. 

Level 9: The wizard's library is held here, as well as "the Beings of Nahr." The later has a monster entry that is about 3 pages long and can use up to 7th level spells. The guardian of the library is a foo dog, and a neat NPC. 

The true threat of the level is the Beings of Nahr. They control a significant portion of the level outside of the library. 

Level 10 A: is a not present demi-liches' lair (a deathgazer, the creature on the cover, has moved in). The deathgazer actually has text detailing how it would parlay with the party, and it has an interesting combat (an artifact that can be attacked to weaken the deathgazer). 

Level 10B: is the final revelation of what happened to the ubiquitous wizard. I will just leave this level at that.

So, my honest take: this is the worst megadungeon on the market. It is largely because G. Hawkins assumes where the party will fight, and where the party will negotiate. Further, there are a lot of group politics that just don't feel fleshed out to the point of believability. 

Most levels feel like rehashes from other sources (snake cult level, demi-liches lair, goblin warrens etc.). This is fine if it feels sprinkled in. But, in Gunderholfen's case it feels like that's the majority of the levels.

There aren't enough unique encounters for the size of the book. A few levels stand out as interesting, but for the most part, it is all stuff that I can find in Undermountain, CotMA or other kitchen sink dungeons that do it better. 

Layout is bad. Put a map somewhere accessible to the text it relates to (even a small one like CotMA). Why are the wandering monster tables an appendix in the back? A lot of illustrations were not near their rooms. It just is sloppy. There are 3 player handouts. They are all on the same page.

The flow of the maps is poor. They need some additional interconnectivity. Player choices feel stale currently. Additional points of ingress to the dungeon would be helpful. 

All that said, there are some strong points to the book too. I love the artwork. It truly evokes the early days of the hobby and I would absolutely love to make a book with that aesthetic. There are a few unique rooms that should be highlighted (and I did). 

I commend G. Hawkins for putting this into the world, even if I think it misses the mark. It is difficult to put something out there, and 400 + pages even more so. 3/10

Even with that low rating, I love megadungeons, and do not regret buying this one (although I don't think I ever will regret buying a megadungeon). I will never play it in its full form, but I will poach for my home game and enjoy it for what it is. If you get it, buy it on sale, or grab the PDF and skip the dead trees.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Megadungeons: Unique Rooms and Encounters

Before beginning, I must state that all artwork used in today's blog is owned by the publishers. I do not claim ownership of any of the art within. I have chosen each piece to represent a part of the topic today. If you find it to your liking, check out the book it is associated with. Links are found within the article.

When designing a megadungeon, a few things will make it stand out as exemplary. First, an evocative name makes it enticing: Barrowmaze, Undermountain, and Rappan Athuk all immediately grab your imagination in different ways. That's your hook.

Second, having a strong theme that pervades levels or even the entire dungeon itself allows the players and DMs to become immersed within. Barrowmaze's undead theme isn't a new one, but Gillespie uses it well to highlight the corruption and dread of the concept.

Finally, having "tentpole" rooms that make your dungeon unique and have people talk about that encounter make the dungeon legendary. Today, I am going to discuss these tentpole rooms. As I read through and review my collection, these are one primary factor in how I view the megadungeon.

Fans of megadungeons know certain places within dungeons that they have never delved: the Font of Snakes in the original Castle Greyhawk, the Well in Rappan Athuk, the Great Chained Doors within the Temple of Elemental Evil are a few examples. Typically, these rooms are a puzzle instead of a combat, although sometimes they are a combat (like the Well) or both (like the Font of Snakes). 

Rappan Athuk's Well

What makes these encounters transcend from a common puzzle to a tentpole, legendary one? Sometimes, it is marketing (like the Well in Rappan Athuk). Other times it is truly a legend from the past (like the Font of Snakes). Others have been played by so many that the location becomes a shared memory (Great Chained Doors).

But, we dungeon masters have one important criterion above all others. It must be fun and interactive. In this, I would like show some shining examples from modern megadungeons.

great winged gargoyle of Barrowmaze
Great Winged Gargoyle
 of Barrowmaze
1. Barrowmaze's Great Winged Gargoyle. When Greg Gillespie released Barrowmaze, he had the forethought to add some artwork from the character's point of view. Largely this is still not done effectively, but Barrowmaze (and his subsequent books) pull it off well. 

The gargoyle itself is a fetch quest, with a decent reward. Simply find and reattach the arm for the prize. This is simple, and the type of puzzle would not typically move the needle for me. But, it is early in the dungeon, so many people who have explored Barrowmaze encountered it. It has great artwork that helps immerse the players in the game.

Dung Monster from Rappan Athuk

2. Rappan Athuk's lair of the Dung Monster is hilarious. A mimic that acts like a bathroom is legendary just based on the concept. Throw in its "unkillable" nature and you have a great encounter. Although it feels like a combat, it is actually a time sink and puzzle. It moves slowly (and can be avoided) but it always reappears when it is inconvenient.

3. The Grande Temple of Jing's Jing Statues. These statues aren't a single encounter. Instead they are pieces of information, puzzles and rewards within the dungeon. Often they have a riddle associated with a particular statue and if answered give a reward. Sometimes it opens a secret area, and others it is wealth or knowledge. Repetition allows the statues to be thought of more frequently, and therefore discussed by groups.


Many megadungeons miss the mark when creating a legendary encounter. Most of these become forgotten on the heap of books in my corner. How do we avoid this fate?

These encounters should not be immediately solvable. In the case of the Gargoyle, you must seek out its other part. Dungy cannot be defeated, only foiled. The Jing Statues can be solved, but there's always another one not too far away. The encounter is talked about between sessions. It becomes a driving goal (either short or long term). 

They must be fun. Opening the Great Chained Doors in ToEE causes a whole new level of chaos. It's fun! Dungy slowly creeping up on you while advancing down a deep level of RA is fun. Finding and completing the Gargoyle quest is exciting (and fun). 

These encounters must be almost immediately recognizable as what they are (Dungy being an exception, based on the type of encounter). With all of this in mind, let's look at making an example.

As many of you know, my home dungeon is Mord Mar. It is a dwarven city destroyed by chaos. With that in mind, I begin to design. If your dungeon has its own theme, start there. 

Now, dwarves are famous for mining, making great cities underground, blacksmithing and other tropes. Any of these could be the basis of the encounter. Blacksmithing is calling to me today, however. That gives me the room description: a small forge completely ready to smelt and shape up to the wood and charcoal within the hearth. However, there is no metal to to work within the room. 

Throughout the dungeon, I can sprinkle ingots of different metals for the characters to find. Once the forge is lit, and the ingots are in place the tools then begin working themselves. Depending on what is put inside the forge, different items or hazards can be output (any items are +1 magic):
adamantium = ring of protection
aluminum = small magma elemental attacks
bronze = a jet of liquid metal sprays the room, doing 3d6 (save for half) to everyone inside
copper = a 6-sided die that always rolls 4
iron = helmet
mithril = thieves' tools
steel = dagger

And as I continue to develop the dungeon, I can add more varied materials to allow experimentation. I can add layers (after the 3rd time, a guardian may show up for example). 

Using your own themes, you can develop a fun room too! Just remember:
Don't immediately gratify the players all the time
Make it fun
Make sure it evokes the imagination

And above all, remember that not every room can be legendary! The must punctuate the area or level that they are within. If everything is special, then nothing is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Empty Rooms in Megadungeons

This week I won't be doing a review of a megadungeon. I am finding doing one weekly is difficult and unable to sustain. I will shoot for every 2-3 weeks instead. Next up is Gunderholfen. 

Megadungeons largely follow a rule of 3. 1/3 of the rooms should be empty, 1/3 of the rooms should have a monster or trap, and 1/3 should have a treasure of some sort. Today I am going to focus on the empty rooms.

From a gameplay standpoint, empty rooms seem boring. A good DM changes this, however. Because megadungeons are huge, it is necessary to leave out unnecessary information. This is why rumors and dungeon dressing are often relegated to tables. Tables convey a lot of information in a concise space. However, a good DM with time will take these tables and assign things to empty rooms (or particular NPCs). Dungeons like Rappan Athuk and Dwimmermount give a lot of history that can also be incorporated into these "empty" rooms. 


When adding details to the empty rooms, look to the creatures that reside nearby. A smart DM can use these as foreshadowing of what's to come. Make one of the skeletons ahead missing an arm, that is laying in the empty room along the way. Put a broken tooth in a hastily drawn circle near the orc territory. Add humanoid shaped shed scales in a room near the kobold lair. 

Dungeon graffiti is another category that is often added by the authors of megadungeons. Often they intend for the graffiti to be used in these empty rooms. Taking this a step further, you could use the rival adventuring parties to add personalized graffiti. I often will leave notes like "The Brotherhood of Iron beat Tarina Wakelain to this spot on 12 Diven 128." It motivated players in ways that treasure hunting could not. Make the messages personal, but not attacking. Using both the author's graffiti and the personal messages makes a megadungeon feel alive, have a history and moving pieces in the present.

The hardest part of adding these parts to your empty megadungeon rooms is keeping track of them. In the 1990's I had to use index cards to keep track of the changes made. Today, we have OneNote (and OneDrive), Obsidian Portal, MS Word, Google Drive and Docs and a slew of other modern solutions. 

Notating the notes should be consistent. The following information is necessary (and should be concise) Dungeon level, room number, and page number. Adding a sub-room may be necessary as well. 

For example, in (I probably should have used a multi-level dungeon for this, but Barrowmaze was at hand.) Barrowmaze's file I would label the room: 

163 (pg 96): Blood on the north wall: We found our way here, but the clattering of bones is close by. I fear we shall soon join them.

59 Chamber 2 (pg 52): Stricken the Halfling (Blondie's character) took the studded leather but broke the sarcophagus lid in the process.  

Monday, January 16, 2023

DNGN Review

DNGN is a Kickstarter that funded on March 18, 2022 and delivered in September. It is published by  Singing Flame and written by Vasili Kaliman. It is for sale on DrivethruRPG. (Singing Flame dropped 2 PDFs, one in spreads and one in pages.) Singing Flame has the risograph copies on their own website. (From their Kickstarter: Risography is a print process that will give the zine a retro, hand-made look and feel. It will also make the zine very collectible. The risograph process will print solid colors on stunning vellum paper, and is an environmentally friendly way to produce printed matter. The company we are working with uses soy-based inks and stencils/masters made of natural fiber.) 

DNGN is written in Old School Essentials, and a beautiful book. Kaliman (he doesn't list a layout person) does a good job keeping each dungeon level and key to 1-1 page layout. His indigo blue and cherry red look beautiful on the vellum. The book does a great job on saving and using space, starting with the inside cover. A 20 entry random encounter chart evokes imagery immediately upon opening the book "19 Carcass Crawler with entrails dripping from its mouth."

A table of contents is noticeably lacking, with the early pages covering:
Title Page
Full page artwork
Pg 3: What is DNGN?
    Old School Essentials
    The Hook & Rumor
    The Maps
    Writing Style
    How to Use This

Then, on page 4, it dives into Level 1. DNGN immediately reveals its nature with a cybernetic corpse in the very first room. The level is also 6 rooms long. And here's the inherent flaw with this layout, system, size and design. A six-room level in a megadungeon feels very out of place. But, the positive is that Kaliman gives just enough to tease the imagination of the DM. 3/10 (The score is due to the lack of size and being forced to 1 page of text per level. More on this at the end.)

Level 2 doesn't feel "mega" either with 7 whole rooms. Room 2F is my favorite of the lot here, with ice that melts into a poisonous gas. 3/10

Level 3 we are up to 9 rooms. The problem with so few rooms is that everything is linear, or dead end. With so few rooms, it is almost impossible to Jaquays the dungeon. 3/10

Level 4 holds 11 rooms. My favorite is the "hourglass room" where an hourglass slowly drains, with a deadly monster appearing when it is empty. (no spoilers here!) 3/10

Level 5 brings the room count back down to 9 rooms. Vasili's first room on this level is 5A > Drunken Nomad. "Nomad (sitting against south wall) with rusty metal wings haphazardly sewn to his back (is drunk and slurs his words) <stat block>"
As an experienced DM of megadungeons, I can successfully run this encounter, but someone who is brand new to the job is going to find it really difficult. I get why stats are included, but the nomad is lawful. The 1-1 page layout really does a disservice to rooms like this. 3/10

Level 6 is again 9 rooms. I find it hard to reconcile the difficulty here with the levels of the characters. Walking down 1 of the two transitions from level 5 to 6, the PCs will immediately walk into a fire elemental battle. (Okay, technically they need to touch a statue . . .) On a typical Level 6 of a megadungeon, this wouldn't be abnormal. But here, the party is probably level 2-3. In comparison, the other two encounters are a doppleganger (125 xp) and 4 skeletons. The fire elemental's treasure (2 crimson gems) doesn't list a gp value either. 2/10

Level 7 is 13 rooms. Encounters are back down to a realistic level (even if difficult like a wraith). 3/10

Level 8 is 8 rooms. There is a room with a shrunken head holding a gold coin in its mouth. Otherwise, a fairly bland level. 2/10

Level 9 is 8 rooms, largely cavernous. Vasili likes severed heads (there's another interesting one on this level). 4/10

Level 10 is 8 rooms, and finishes the DNGN for the book. The most dangerous monster on this level is a gelatinous cube. (In comparison see the fire elemental on level 6 and there's a purple worm on level 2. Yup.) 3/10

There's more to the book, that I will get to shortly. But first I need to address the low scores on all of these levels. Vasili Kaliman has made a beautiful book. And I mean gorgeous. What Singing Flame hasn't done is make a compelling megadungeon. Largely, I think it is the format that was chosen for the layout. They have some really good ideas, but the format does not work for a megadungeon. That said, I have already chosen 3 rooms to steal for my "best of megadungeon" event at Totalcon. And as you will see when I score the book at the end, I think it is a worthwhile purchase and addition. I am really looking forward to issue 2.

Back to the review . . . 

In the vein of Gillespie, Kaliman next adds an (unmarked) illustration section. Jacob Fleming, Huargo, Ken Landgraf, Chris Malec, Diogo Noguera, Stefan Poag, and Andrew Walter all deliver on the art. Again, where the artists use it, the red and blue is a striking visual combination. 10/10

Husk is a separate add-on dungeon, added due to the success of the Kickstarter. @skullfungus did these beautiful maps. They are striking in comparison to the DNGN levels.  The Husk is "A deserted research lab of a cult that experimented with the artifacts of the star gods." Largely, though, it suffers from the same problem as every level of the main DNGN. 4.5/10

A comic follows the Husk adventure, then a Loot the Body table, with the OGL on the inside back cover.

Overall, I really like some of the hidden gems of this adventure. OSE layout is great for some things, and abhorrent for others. This is definitely the later. 

Before I give my final grades for the book, I want to highlight some other pluses. 
#1: Every map has notes on the floor, and there are some unique ones (like covered in wax). The maps also point out explicitly where there are lights.
#2: Vasili is crystal clear on the state of every door in the dungeon.
#3: Even with the limitations on text, there area lot of really neat encounters.

Now my list of negatives. 
#1: No motivations for any NPCs. Additionally, no factions. Singing Flame, you really need to correct this moving forward. 
#2: The DNGN is tiny.  82 rooms in the main dungeon. Bloch gets halfway there in his first (surface) level. 
#3: I have no idea what levels PCs should be where. Everything is low level encounters except for a couple of super-deadly monsters. Now, I don't mind an over-leveled encounter on an upper level of a dungeon. But, the format doesn't allow for telegraphing straight from the text, and this will be a problem for newer players and DMs.
#4: There is no information on the "star gods," why they built the DNGN, nothing making the place an interesting delve. Sure, I can do all of that back work, but there are better dungeons out there with it done for me. 

Even with these negatives, I love this book. Here's my final thoughts.:

Artwork: Singing Flame did an amazing job getting artists for the book. There is not a single art piece that I don't like, and the aforementioned colors really pop. 10/10
 I am going to have a tough time grading this one.  Knowing what style of layout to use is an important part of the job. Overall, the 1-1 layout style just limits a megadungeon too much. We, as customers, lose too much in translation. Every individual level scored low because of the layout.
On the other hand, it is flawless in its execution, and that deserves credit. And I am sure that other DMs will just fill notebooks with the bits begging to be extrapolated. So, while I graded each level low, I am more generous in the actual Layout category. 6/10
Cartography: The maps are flat, but functional. The addition of notes (like door position/state, floor composition and lighting annotation) helps the flatness a lot. @Skullfungus's maps make the main maps pale in comparison however. And the limit on size really damages the exploration and adventure feel. Without playing the adventure, the maps just look like a straight line slog, with some dead ends along the way. 5/10

This time, my final score is greater than the sum of its parts. The presentation of the risograph style gives a huge boost to an otherwise underwhelming book. I hope that Kaliman can upgrade these problems and make a truly spectacular book. Just make sure to get the physical copy, if you can.


A note to Singing Flame. Instead of doing a separate dungeon as a stretch goal, give us some history, factions (and motivations), and the things that make DNGN different from every other megadungeon in existence. You don't have to ditch the 1-1 layout if you can improve your maps and add lore sections outside of the actual dungeon levels.

I can see the genius within the book, but I don't want to do the exhaustive work to make it shine. I will back the next Kickstarter eagerly, but without improvements, I don't think a third would be in the cards. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Castle of the Mad Archmage - Review

This was expected to be finished last week, but due to holidays and family commitments, it is a week late. Happy New Year, everyone!

Castle of the Mad Archmage, a megadungeon by Joseph Bloch, was released in 2014 and is currently available on drivethrurpg. I am reviewing the Pathfinder version (mainly because I can't find my OSR version). This version is 164 pages with two additional books: a map book and an illustration book. 

As this was an early OSR megadungeon, it begins with an intro for the game master that includes a short history. The section shows Bloch's love for the genre. A note is made about "funhouse dungeon" and this is an important concept, because CotMA is exactly that. 

(For refresher, here's my definition):  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. 
And from Bloch: "which has as its central conceit some vehicle to explain the unexplainable, to give a rationale for situations that defy a more naturalistic justification. In such cases, one need not ask why there are monsters crammed together in mazes, large piles of treasure guarded by riddles and puzzles, or the like. They're there because the Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants them there, and that's all the rationale is required." <This introduction intentionally not graded.>

The first real piece of the book is the "General Information" section. Again, I think it is important to mention this is an early megadungeon. Bloch covers making sure that the megadungeon isn't static (to the point of keeping track of fireball singes), He mentions what happens to dead bodies, teleporters (including undetectable ones), "standard rooms and corridors," a lot of Pathfinder information, humanoid lairs, and that there is little or no backstory for the rooms/creatures. Also within this section are the following sub-sections:

Location (how to place the dungeon in your world)
Overview of the Dungeon Levels
Entrances (four are listed here)
Camping in the Dungeon (don't do it)
Dying in the Dungeon (including a chart of what kind of undead may arise)
Quests within the Dungeons (a full page and a half)
Tournament Play
The Greyheim Construction Company, LTD. (why the dungeon changes, including the ability to add new sub-levels) 
Introduction for the Players (a 3 paragraph boxed text). 

Overall, this section is sparse on lore. But, it is in the vein of the early OSR. 6/10

(I found my OSR Copy! I will be using that moving forward. 152 pages)

Getting into the meat and potatoes of the book, we start with the Surface Level: The Upper Ruins. 41 keyed areas are listed within this section. (I am spoiled by Gillespie boldening the monsters within rooms. Bloch should revise and follow suit.) Bandits, giant rats, wild dogs and other common low level faire live here. The deadliest encounter is probably the harpies (but Bloch notes them in the Great Hall, when they are listed in the Gallery adjacent to it).
Overall, the Surface Level is pretty bland and standard. (That's what a low level entry should be) 8/10

Level 1: The Storage Rooms is a very unique and fun-looking map. Immediately I am drawn to "Room" 70, The Maze of Doors: 47 10' square rooms with doors going every direction. When playing this, I remember it being a pain-in-the-ass because our mapper sucked. And our DM wasn't great at glossing over things we had done dozens of times. The first 3 times or so, this was a great encounter though.
Bloch has 110 room listings on this level, giving an idea of the true scope of the dungeon. There are 4 factions on the first level: elves, dwarves, kobolds and zverts. There's also a surprise dragon hiding within this level!
Overall, you really get the funhouse sense of the dungeon here, and the well designed map, paired with several unique factions and even better unique encounters makes this level a really fun one to explore. 9/10

Level 2: The Deep Cellars is 184 rooms, with 6 factions, including rival orc factions (isn't that fun!) Bloch sneaks in a legendary encounter from the original Castle Greyhawk, the Fountain of Snakes, a fun pi puzzle (using the Greek alphabet). There's also room #104 "CLOWNS. The walls of this room . . . with drawings of clowns.  At first they seem normal, but if studied, a more sinister appearance can be noted." I really want to know what the author envisioned here, There's literally no explanation of the sinister appearance. 
More of the Funhouse aspect comes out, but this map weirdly feels like quadrants. 7/10

Level 3: The Dungeons: 202 entries, so the definition of Megadungeon already qualifies in 3 levels (running total: 537 rooms already!) The Bloody Axe Orcs (one of the factions from level 2) controls a significant portion of this level, including the area directly around an entrance to level 2. Having a faction split across 2 levels is great design, and makes the dungeon flow a bit better. The first "mini-boss" (Brekk, the dwarven pain) resides here with a small group of followers, Including those two factions, the level holds 5 total factions (again, the same two orc factions as on level two).
Room 172 is another Clowns room. "Spending more than 1 turn in this room will cause anyone to grow uneasy; a successful WIS check is required to remain longer than that, although nothing overt is causing it" I never ran into these rooms as a player, and if I read them as a DM, I do not remember them. Now, I am getting curious.
Room 196 has 16,807 keys within, and a riddle to solve which reveals the proper key. Bloch does make some clever puzzles.
I really liked the addition of the faction overview at the beginning of this level. 8/10

Level 4: The Lower Dungeons: 152 rooms, with a lot of long hallways and a few interesting geomorphs comprise this level. He should have called this level "the Arena" however. My group had a lot of fun interacting with (and eventually taking over a faction) the groups here. We made a lot of money fighting in the arena.
Arena levels are a bit schticky for megadungeons, but this one is a lot of fun with the right DM. 6/10

Level 5: The Deeps: this is where the dungeon transitions to "lower levels". There is a chasm here that connects levels 5-7, and the threats amp up significantly.. Bugbears, trolls, ogres, wereboars (?!), gnolls and flinds (one faction, with the flinds being leaders/aristocracy) are the factions listed within. (Where is the faction breakdown??? It was great on level three and four, but it is gone again. Instead we have a relationship guide, that doesn't cover the wereboars).
The flumphs have a room within the level, and a not-a-beholder shows up as well. 
Overall, I want more consistency with faction breakdowns. But, with some work, it is still a fun level.  6/10

Level 6: The Labyrinth: Bloch says it best in his intro to this level "corridors are boring." I have no time as a player or a DM to make this level enjoyable. 
Oh joy:  Level 6a: The Sub-Labyrinth. I will pass on both of these. It may be someone else's cup of tea though. NA/10

Level 7: The Crypts.
(I really wish that Bloch would put the mini-map in every level. It makes a very easy find-the-page marker. There is plenty of room on the previous page or at the end of the chapter to make room for it,)
I love undead. I love undead levels. I also like cults, and this level has the "Chapel of the Reaper" and a few others in the complex. A chirurgeon dissects bodies on this level too. Rats and ghouls are apparently waging a war over the bodies on the level. 7/10

Level 8: The Lesser Caves the map lists the following: Temple of the Rat Lord, Trolls, and Shadow Dragon as controlling areas on the map. One way doors get a paragraph as well. A sudoku puzzle shows up on one of the doors here. The rats/rat lord feels out of place here (too weak for the level). 7/10

Level 9: The Greater Caves my favorite part of this level is the hidden shrine to the goddess of love and beauty. Hill giants and vegepygmies are the main forces in this level (along with ants, bees and other insects). Overall 6.5/10

Level 10: The Lesser Caverns is a Planar Nexus. Everything else seems humdrum in comparison. 8/10

Level 11: The Greater Caverns (the mini-map is back!) Apes, trolls, mushroom men, jinx midges and a demonurgist are listed as the factions (but the demonurgist keeps to himself).This level is dense. It packs in a demon, wizard, a couple of factions, the demiplane of Sugarland (not described), a teleporter to Bitterbark's Circus (I think this was an expansion printed later with clowns), and a gate to a Red Planet. This level is probably the most gonzo in the dungeon, with a lot of stuff left for the DM to flesh out. The prompts are enough though. 9/10

Level 12: The Catacombs 8 dragons and their followers make up the majority of this level. They plot and scheme against each other and with others. Sub-passages dot the underside of this level, implying false levels below. This level presents itself in many ways, so no two groups who reach it will have the same experience. 8/10

Level 13: The Maze is the smallest level of the dungeon, but it truly is a maze, with teleporters bouncing the PCs around. At the center is the mad archmage himself. It feels very Gygaxian, eventually sending the characters to the other end of the world. 6/10

Final Thoughts

Artwork: 9/10.  I don't have my physical copy nearby, so that is based solely on the PDF.
Layout: 4/10. Lots of white space. Inconsistent mini-maps, inconsistent faction information. I would like the images from the illo book reprinted in the main book. There is a lot of white space, so it should not increase page count
Cartography: 6/10. Simple, but effective maps. The glaring mistake is the side view map, showing the chasm on 6-7 instead of 5-7.

I think that using every level's score is skewing my overall grade. I think the things in final thoughts are the most important parts. Moving forward, I will be tweaking this grade equation until I feel it is right. This time I am averaging the artwork, layout, cartography and lowest and highest level scores. Overall, CotMA gets a