|If memory serves, this is level 1a from Khunmar.|
Yesterday I posted about megadungeons, then I read the Mule Abides “Defense of the Megadungeon” and followed that up with Bliss Infinite’s post about “empty rooms” and all of this makes me want to get into the game of talking about empty rooms on my blog, too. I can neither confirm nor deny Joe the Lawyer’s negative experience with dungeoneering in Dwimmermount; I haven’t read or played it. I’m looking forward to reading it because I like a lot of the things that James writes on Grognardia; based on what he has already written about D&D, I want to read Dwimmermount.
In my own megadungeon, Mines of Khunmar, (which people are probably sick of hearing me go on about), there are a lot of empty rooms (I’ll get to those later). There are also a lot of the ‘fuck-a-diddle’ type rooms that are probably the equivalent of the room with the ghost chess players in Dwimmermount that Joe the Lawyer didn’t like. For clarification, in my lexicon, a ‘fuck-a-diddle’ room/encounter is one in which the author says, “Here is an X,” but probably doesn’t provide enough or any explanation for that thing being there (whether it be a ghost, a mysterious magical effect, an illusion, a pile of old shoes, etc.). If you like ‘fuck-a-diddles’ you can see it as an opportunity to improvise or even just toss a red herring in the mix and see if the players chase it. If you hate ‘fuck-a-diddles,’ you will roll your eyes in annoyance and shout “LAME!”
One example of a fuck-a-diddle: I remember there is a room in Khunmar where the ghosts of dwarves drink beer and sing songs on level 4 or 5 — if I recall my intentions correctly, I thought that if the players sat down and drank beer they would eventually fade away and become ghosts themselves. No one ever entered that room, so I can’t say that I ever had the chance to ‘test drive’ it. One of my favorite published ‘megadungeons’ (Tegel Manor by Judge’s Guild) is pretty much one fuck-a-diddle after another. I’d love to play that thing. There used to be a few pages on the Wizards.com site where one of the authors from the book division talked about using Tegel Manor to teach a group of non gamers how to play D&D on their lunch break, and, as I recall, the campaign sounded like a hoot (edit: still there…link). It’s been years since I poked my nose inside my copy of Tegel, but as I recall, the descriptions were pretty short on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of all of the different weirdo and unexplained encounters in the manor. I don’t know if that would irritate people who don’t like vague descriptions or hate the ‘feel free to improvise here’ style of dungeon keying.
Speaking of empty rooms, I always hated the whole ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ thing. I know I’m probably missing the point because it is the equivalent of the physics student’s Zen koan to declare that the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead because we don’t know, but I always get stuck on thinking, “What kind of sick fucker puts a cat in a box with poison?” Free associating from Schroedinger’s cat to trees falling in the woods to whether or not empty rooms can truly be empty if there are a bunch of adventurers walking through them, I have to declare that I don’t find empty rooms a ‘dealbreaker.’ I suppose that an adventure buyer/reader might think he was getting more value for money if the author and publisher used a lot of words and ink to describe each and every room whether or not anything of any substance was in it, but I’d probably be just as happy at this point in my life with less to read when and if I ever actually use the adventure behind the GM screen. One of the things I liked about Barrowmaze and Stonehell (2 different published megadungeons) is that the descriptions were not overly long and adjective filled. My feeling is that if I want a novel, I’ll read one. My own ideal is that a dungeon location description be pretty short so I can scan and find the info that I need at a glance rather than hunting through massive paragraphs of prose to find out whether the kobold chief wearing the headress made of human ears has seven or eight hit points. Similarly, I’d be prefectly happy if a dungeon author said a chest contained ‘clothes’ instead of detailing exactly how many socks or shirts or jockstraps are in there. If I need specifics, I’m confident that I can invent them on the spot (and I would actually prefer that). Another big dungeon I liked, Rappan Athuk, has a lot of empty rooms with tables to let you decide if there were bones, rusted chains, discarded torch stumps, etc., in the room. And I thought that was fine.
I suppose the other alternative is just not to have any empty rooms — each and every chamber can be jam packed with monsters, monsters, monsters, but that makes even the vaguest sort of dungeon ecology seem improbable. Assuming the ‘dungeon’ is a series of tunnels, rooms, etc., that are the former lair of a mad wizard or whatever which has been abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin and then various groups of bandits, kobolds, orcs, etc., have moved in, then a certain amount of ‘buffer zone’ between different factions makes some sense. One of the more interesting levels of Khunmar has a harpies and gargoyles fighting over the territory… one end of the level is claimed by the harpies, the other part is claimed by the gargoyles and in between are some empty caves and tunnels (some with dead harpies and gargoyles).
An alternative is to have your dungeon ‘not be abandoned,’ but that makes it less likely that the players will get anywhere since if it were MY castle, I’d have guards and traps and pits full of poisoned spikes at every fucking entrance and archers and trained maticores and boiling oil and hobgoblins with AK47s… need I go on?
I won’t assume that everyone should love megadungeons — that’s as unreasonable as automatically hating them. Sometimes, though, I think some of the people complaining about them miss the point. Reading about the NYC megadungeon campaign in ‘The Mule Abides,’ (see link above) makes me envious, however. I wish I could live in NYC for at least some of the week so I could take part (and get decent pizza).
|Is that ‘Webberan of the North’ checking out the pit?|
“In Search of the Unknown” was probably the first ‘published’ adventure I ever played in. Before that, we used “Monster & Treasures Assortment” and “Dungeon Geomorphs” or, more usually, we just made our own dungeons — usually frantically drawing level 4 right after the session where the players almost finished exploring level 3, etc. There were hordes of creatures living in 10×10 rooms that shouldn’t have been able to fit it 10×10 rooms and levels full of a hodgepodge of creatures without a toilet or any food and water in evidence (well, no food other player characters I guess), traps that were probably as much or more of a hazard to the dungeon residents than the adventurers and gelatinous cubes sweeping the hallways clean after every expedition. And, right or wrong, that was how we did it. I’m inclined to say it was the right way, because we kept on playing.
We explored “In Search of the Unknown” with Bob W. as our DM (as opposed to my friend Bob C., who was the guy who asked me, “Have you ever heard of ‘Dungeons & Dragons?’ and probably ruined any chance I ever had of living a normal life). Bob W. had bought his own D&D set, and, instead of the geomorphs and treasure assortment, he had a copy of a newfangled thing called a ‘module*.’ We rolled up characters and in we went. Compared to what is available today, it was probably pretty tame stuff, but I remember thinking it was cool because there was a certain logic to the dungeon… here was a kitchen, there was a food storage room, etc. There were also things that you could interact with; I remember the ‘room of pools’ that had perhaps a dozen different wells, each of which contained a mysterious liquid that might heal or harm your character, so there were things to do other than just fight monsters and take their stuff. I began to incorporate that ‘logic’ and inspiration into my own dungeon designs. And, naturally, the temptation was to think that if a two level dungeon like Mike Carr presented in ‘In Search of the Unknown’ was good, an eight or ten level dungeon had to be better (OK, my logic was flawed, but, in my defense, I was a kid).
After a brief period of recently being ‘in vogue’ among the cognicenti of the OSR community, it seems as though the ‘megadungeon’ may be once again falling out of favor. This is the impression I get when I kibitz in online forums or read the usual blogs and what not. A few years ago people were raving about 100 room dungeons, now they are patting back their yawns and saying, “That is so 1975! And not in a good way…”
Part of the problem seems to be that when the online community talks ‘dungeons,’ mostly they talk about things to buy (i.e.: a book or a pdf with descriptions and maps). And the biggest complaint from ‘adventure buyers’ is whether or not an andventure was ‘worth the money.’ (This leads me to another thought: maybe the complainers should consider building their own rather than buying, but that is probably the subject for another post). There has also been, I suspect, a ‘lifestyle’ shift. When I was a pimply dork and first put pencil to graph paper to draw a dungeon, video games were in their infancy. Today, the idea of pretending to kill orcs, find treasure and gain XP (and thereby go ‘up’ in level so you can kill bigger orcs, etc.,) are concepts that most people know through video games or online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The idea of exploring a dungeon by drawing it out on graph paper seems as ludicrous as rolling a hoop down the street for ‘fun.’ The people I currently play with are completely uninterested in the idea of having ‘the dungeon’ be the campaign. They tell me it just sounds boring. It does not fit with their current life style. Unlike my 15 year old self, these people have families and jobs and kids to take to dance practice or soccer camp. Playing D&D is a twice-per-month extravagence (if they are lucky). They can play World of Warcraft or a similar game after they put the kids to bed; whent they manage to get away to play D&D, they want to have fun, joke around, drink beer and have a few interesting encounters that we can laugh together about. Then two weeks will pass before we can gather again and what happened last session might not be particularly fresh in their minds. Perhaps, rather than a map with 100 discrete encounters and dozens of different tunnels that need to be methodically explored, they want a ‘D&D’ session that plays out more like an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ or a similar TV show. The player characters will have a goal in mind, they pursue that goal, bad shit happens, dice are rolled, you try to prevail and bring as many player characters through the session as you can and then you end the session. Next session will probably start with another short term goal, perhaps new player characters to replace whomever they lost and off we go for another few hours of escapist entertainment and wisecracking. I’m not seeing how a multi-level dungeon with hundreds of rooms fits into that. Even adventures from the ‘golden years’ of Gary Gygax at the helm of TSR are going to fail to please people who have so few hours to devote to a very time intensive hobby. Something like the ‘Slaver’s Series’ (from the late 70s or early 80s, where the players had to figure out who was kidnapping citizens to sell as slaves) is probably too ‘complicated’ and long for the modern player. The hobby is changing because, maybe, the people in it are changing. I’m not saying that is a good or bad thing; but I think it may just be the truth.
So where does this leave the designer of megadungeons? I’m not sure. I don’t pretend to understand the market for anything, especially not for ‘hobby’ stuff that we are supposedly doing for our own pleasure. A few nights ago, however, I took out the maps and handwritten descriptions of one of my original megadungeons. I turned the pages and looked at the maps and remembered some of the encounters we had played out there in the old days and how much fun I had putting it together. I don’t think I can logically (or economically) justify any part of my hobby — if I wanted to make money, there are easier ways of doing it, but I have a hard time logically or economically justifying the things that bring me pleasure — and my own megadungeon has certainly been a lot of fun. I enjoyed playing it back in the day. I enjoyed designing it. And I still enjoy reading over the notes. If ever I manage to get it to the point where it will be ‘shareable,’ (a lot of work would need to be done), I’ll be interested to see what kind of reaction it gets. I can’t rationalize it as either a ‘waste of time’ or ‘time well spent’ because I think that kind of thinking misses the point. And maybe megadungeons are going to go the way of dancing the Charleston or the Lindy Hop — become something that people ‘used to do.’ I don’t know. I don’t think I care, either.
Also, check out this article on ‘Top 10 D&D Modules’ (yes, he uses that word) from `2 years ago on Wired.com.
*The term ‘module’ always made me think of ‘nodule’ (one of those tumors under the skin), which is not a good association.
OK, whenever I ask people on the Internet, “What kind of blog entries do you like?” I always get people saying, “Write more about gaming and don’t write about politics.” However, when I look at my blogs statistics and see who looked at what and how often (and count comments), gaming is always dead last and my posts about the US election or Rush Limbaugh being a douche bag or the fact that I am irritated over some computer issue are first. Maybe I just write crappy gaming posts… and when I talk about a ‘lot of page views,’ I’m talking an average of 100 views in 3-4 days or so (more views if I post during the week), so I’m not claiming to be creating ‘Grognardia’ levels of interest with my paltry 160 followers. Page views are relative to the obscurity of this tiny corner of the Internet.
I used to think that google+ made the difference, but out of deference to ‘gaming’ followers of the blog who said they didn’t want to read about my political views, I only post blog links to google+ when I am writing about games (and I limit that to my ‘gaming’ circle on google+), so at this point it seems that posting on google+ actually might get me less page views than not posting on google plus — how does that work? If blogger gives a breakdown on who views a page via google+ versus some other source, I haven’t seen it. but other than occasionally looking at the search terms people use to get here (mostly because some of them are so damn weird), I haven’t delved too deeply into blogger statistics. And I don’t know if blogger differentiates between a ‘click through’ and someone spending an hour reading blog posts — I suspect to blogger, a click may be a click.
I’ve gotten a couple of emails asking about Khunmar. I’ll probably try to finish it after I finish Exquisite Corpses v2 (which will be released by LotFP. That project is creeping along right now, due in part to me being really busy (yeah, I know I’m writing this blog, but my boss doesn’t mind if I use a little downtime here and there for writing on my blog) and also me being undermotivated and a bit of a loser when it comes to finishing things. Sorry, internet.
Current conception is that Khumar will be released by ME as either a print-on-demand piece of shit or maybe I’ll print up a ‘collector’s edition’ where everyone who orders one gets 1 piece of orginal artwork chosen at random from the many 1/2 pagers I will be doing for Khunmar. But that waits till after E.C.v2 is done.
More monsters for my upcoming Mines of Khunmar project:
Kobolds are small, dirty and dwarf-like and keep giant rats as pets:
Cave worms are natural predators, clinging to cavern walls and ceilings and using their chameleon ability to surprise prey:
Some kind of brain-eater thing. Click to enlarge:
I posted about this on aldeboran, but, since it is ‘art related,’ I figure I better post about it here, too.
Below is one ‘corrected’ drawing for Khunmar Level 1 (kobold caves) which may get corrected again. In version 1, the kobolds are dwarf-like (which I like) but look too big. In version 2 I have replaced them with the dog-headed kobolds of the AD&D monster manual. The size is better but I like the shabby-looking dirty dwarfs better. There may be a 3rd version in which I have shabby looking dirty dwarfs of tiny size. The good thing about this is I don’t redraw the whole thing — just the part with the kobolds in it — and then make it into one image via photoshop magic. The 2nd (or 3rd, depending on how you count) picture is some feckless dude in plate armor getting the shit blasted out of his gizzards by a lightning dragon as his comrades look on. (Click any image to see bigger)
As time allows I’ve been working on some pictures for the Mines of Khunmar project here and there. If all goes as planned, it will be a pretty art-heavy book because that is where my interest is.
Earlier, I presented this drawing of an encounter level on level 1 (the Kobold Caves) (click to see bigger):
I noted that in the drawing I had taken the original D&D at it’s word that Kobolds were ‘dwarf-like’ rather than dog men… but in the drawing they just look too big. I think my assumption in making the drawing is that foreshortening would cause the humans to look smaller and the kobolds to look bigger, but it just doesn’t work. So I decided to fix that by drawing a new set of kobolds (and making them dog-men this time) and scanning them and them putting them in the drawing via the magic of photoshop like so (again, click to see bigger):
The people have spoken! If all goes well, Mines of Khunmar shall hit the presses sometime next year and be availible for you, dear reader, to read, adventure in and fold, spindle and mutilate for your own pleasure. (Well, three or four people have spoken, anyway (thanking Austrodavidicus, Anonymous, Matt Finch and Geoffrey — plus some others I may have forgotten/missed between messages)).
Part of the impetus for this is the fact that I recently realized that next year it will have been 30 years since I started designing Khunmar. I haven’t worked on it non stop since then (for most of those 30 years it sat in a box in my parent’s attic). It’s a bit of a milestone. There might also be some cake.
M.Finch encouraged me to think about retaining a ‘bare bones’ feel to the description entries, which is in line with my own desires because I am lazy and I don’t think I am that good a writer. The short and succinct entries of things like the ‘Stonehell Dungeon‘ by M. Curtis impressed me — both because I am lazy and impatient and looking at a big block of text and thinking that I have to read it all (or write is all) makes me tired AND because I think it suits a style of play that I like — one requiring improvisation, reducing prep time for the DM, and, finally, it recognizes my own thought that a published adventure is not really a novel — it’s just a skeleton that the DM makes come alive. One of my favorite dungeons, Badabaskor, had the briefest blocks of descriptive text that referenced all sorts of things that were not described in detail. One entry I remember involved a room with a bunch of potted plants and a little gnome with a watering can who was puttering around the room, watering the plants. If characters entered the room, the plants would attack them and the gnome would use the bodies as compost. No ‘who, what, why‘ for the situation was given, allowing the DM to use this as a simple ‘one off’ encounter, or, potentially, it could be the lead in to some sort of ‘Day of the Triffids’ adventure if you wanted if the players follow up on this mysterious gnome and his carnivorous plants.
What little work I have done so far, in between other things, has been to try to correct obvious errors (like maps that don’t match up with each other, etc.). I’d also like to include some of my thoughts and musings on megadungeons in general and Khunmar in particular in sidebars (or some similar format). The dungeon itself does not have an overall plan (other than the fact that things get harder as you go down). There are some areas that are controlled by factions, i.e.: the first level is ‘mostly’ controlled by kobolds, parts of the lower levels are controlled by goblins who are at war with orcs that control another part, etc. The mines were founded by a clan of dwarves (and some of their treasures are still hidden away in there) and another level has been overtaken by a Balrog (Mines of Khunmar is a rip-off of Mines of Moria (except Khunmar is not a shortcut to anything but an early grave — hah hah hah)). I also used to have this idea (I’m not sure where I got it) that a dungeon should have a ‘master’ of some kind who could eventually be encountered by the players. There are some ‘hooks’ and references in the current text (transcribed by Geoffrey) that will need some explaining; there were references to a ‘City of Mind Flayers’ (ripped from Gygax’s D-series) and gates to the dungeons of other castles that will be probably left for the individual DM to flesh out… but I’ll at least try to indicate what I had planned for the curious.
The maps are all going to be redone. I am drawing them by hand. There will probably be a lot of corrections and some renumbering in this process plus I need to standardize my symbols.
I’ll probably use Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry for the ‘rules’ (although I plan to include my house rules for traps, finding secret doors, etc., as suggestions). Some creatures, like ‘Beholders’ and ‘Mind Flayers,’ which are not released tot he public will need to be replaced/substituted. My thought is to create or use similar knockoff creatures (like ‘The Occulist’ (which is actually an obscure word for an eye doctor) instead of ‘Beholder,’ etc.
I’m going to try to come up with wandering monster tables specific to the different areas. Back in the day I just used wandering monster tables from the TSR books (I found a photocopy of them in my Khunmar binder) for some levels and then had tables for others. Although I kind of like the idea that one might meet the occasional completely incongruous creature wandering around (what are a group of pixies doing in the middle of the basilisk’s tunnels?), perhaps that element could be built into the table — say, each table allows a chance for ‘referee’s choice’ creature which could be selected by rolling on the tables from the rule books rather than the tables from the dungeon itself. Thus, yeah, you ought to have an extreme outside chance of encountering a unicorn wandering through the ghoul’s catacombs (“I got lost — do you kind people know the way back to my rainbow? I’ll fill your backpack with Skittles if you help me…”).
The part I’m most looking forward to is the art — I’m going to try to do an original drawing for each map/level (I don’t remember how many there are— 30+?) and then maybe scatter smaller drawings here and there in the text. It’s probably going to be kind of gonzo-weird because that is more fun for me and this thing is my baby, my ‘magnum orcus’ of D&D Dorkery. There will probably be at least one picture of a guy with a Village People moustache getting attacked as he sits on the crapper because that’s just the kind of guy I am and I already drew it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Anyway; look for it next year some time after LotFP releases the new version of Exquisite Corpses.