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.