Forsaken Lands Maps of Mastery review

Maps of Mastery creates poster and cardstock maps scaled for miniature battles. About two-thirds of their maps show space stations and other science-fiction locations. The rest feature natural encounter locations on a 1-inch grid, a perfect stage for fantasy battles in Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.

As proven by my map galleries, I collect printed battle maps, so when Maps of Mastery kickstarted new and reprinted maps in their Forsaken Lands series, they tempted me. I tried to remain sensible. At $12 per poster, the price seemed high compared to Paizo’s plastic-coated flip-mats. The pictures looked nice, but many outfits sell poster battlemaps that consist of geometric shapes flooded with coarse patterns. Many look better than I could do, but still appear homemade. After weighing my choices, I ordered 3 posters rather than all 4. I should have purchased them all.

Maps of Mastery - Forest Glade

Maps of Mastery – Forest Glade

The online pictures fail to capture the color and detail of these maps. These Forsaken Lands maps look stunning.

Forsaken Lands DUNGEON ODYSSEY

Forsaken Lands DUNGEON ODYSSEY

The Forest Glade ranks as the best. At 22×34 inches, it offers a feast for the eyes. I love the rays of sun crossing the glade and the mist rising from the waterfall. For encounters call for a smaller venue, the maps feature distinct areas like glade’s waterfall and faerie circle. On your table, you can frame the area in play. Plus, five of the maps join edge to edge to create a 170-inch-long odyssey. I need a bigger table.

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Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain

In his notes to the dungeon master, author Gary Gygax promises that the Tomb of Horrors “is a thinking person’s module.” He warns, “If your group is a hack and slay gathering, they will be unhappy.”

tomb-of-horrors-4e-coverTo back his claim, Gary starts the Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a 19-line poem that promises to lead through the dungeon to the tomb of Acererak, the demilich. In a bit of wishful thinking, players tend to hope that Acererak plays fair and that his clue will help them. They hope that Gary gives thoughtful players a sporting chance to evade all the death traps.

The promise of the adventure seems appealing, but do not feel tempted to play Tomb of Horrors. The adventure defies much of what we consider fun now.

Acererak’s poem tests the player’s puzzle solving ability less than promised. Gary’s son Luke Gygax calls the poem as much a trap as a clue. It tempts players deeper, but contains so many ambiguities that some lines remain unclear even to students of the dungeon’s text.

Rather than testing puzzle-solving skill, the tomb tests other skills: painstaking caution and a psychopathic disdain for hirelings’ lives. It works as resource management challenge, where the resources are henchmen and divination spells.

tomb-of-horrors-1e-coverGary did not design a tomb that let a clever group destroy the villain and survive intact. He devised the tomb so an ingenious group could win a battle of attrition and escape richer.

When Gary first introduced the tomb to his own group of players, they relied on masses of disposable hirelings to shield their player characters. “Rob Kuntz, in his game persona as a 13th-level (evil) lord [Robilar] went through the entire tomb in four hours actual time. He took 14 orcs and a couple of the low-level flunkies with him. He lost all the party, but his character personally looted the lich’s tomb and escaped with the goodies.

In those days, adventuring parties included many more characters than now. When Gary used the Tomb for a D&D tournament in 1975, each party of 15 played with the same characters, ranging from a level 12 magic user to a level 4 fighter.

tomb-of-horrors-2e-coverOne of the tournament’s players, Mark Swanson, wrote a first-hand account of the event for the September 1975 issue of the Alarums & Excursions fanzine. Mark’s war of attrition began when two of his party’s fighters died before they even found the true entrance. Thanks for playing.

Divination spells represented another resource to manage. Many of the traps in the tomb seem capricious. The poem invites players to seek “night’s good color,” probably black. So how could players know that jumping into the black maw of the green devil face leads to annihilation, while stepping through nearby arch teleports them deeper into the dungeon? These challenges tested players ability to use spells wisely. For instance, after one henchman gets sucked into the maw of the green devil face, a wizard might cast Locate Object to determine if his employee’s red shirt remains near. Players in that 1975 tournament could gain help from spells like Find the Path, Locate Object, Divination, Find Traps, Clairvoyance, and Commune. By the time the adventure reached print, many more spells offered aid.

Even with unlimited spells and henchmen, the tomb demands a lot of painstaking investigation to see the end. Locating Acererak demands finding 15 hidden and concealed doors. Those secret passages make as much of a barrier to claiming the gold as the traps. Mid-way through, the tomb tries to fool players into thinking they reached the end. (Today, trying to trick players into dropping out of the story seems unthinkable.)

When Gary wrote Tomb of Horrors, nobody thought of D&D as a way to make stories. Players aimed to beat the dungeon and they kept score in gold. The tomb defies our newfangled expectations of story.

The adventure makes destroying the arch-villain Acererak nearly impossible. (See “Player skill without player frustration.”) When Ernie Gygax’s PC Tenser reached Acererak, he scooped all the treasure he could bag and he ran. That qualified as good play.

Mark Swanson lamented the effort his party wasted preparing spells for wandering monsters that never appear. Unlike most dungeon crawls, Tomb of Horrors lacks wandering monsters. Potentially, Players can use their unlimited time to counter the tomb’s traps with painstaking caution. This winning strategy accounts for the Tomb’s reputation for slowing to a punishing slog. While some players may enjoy excavating the Tomb like archaeologists, for most players, such caution amounts to pure tedium.

Gary never battled slow play. Players in his home group honored a social contract to keep the brisk pace that let Rob Kuntz finish in 4 hours. Later, players explored under the real-time pressure of a D&D tournament.

In Mark Swanson’s account, he draws a sharp contrast between the emerging play style evolving in the pages of Alarums & Excursions and the play style shown in the Gygax’s tournament. “Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors, and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A&E if you prefer monsters, talking/arguing/fighting with chance-met characters, and a more exciting game.

tomb-of-horrors-book-coverEven though I consider Tomb of Horrors unplayable by today’s standards, I still love it. I am not alone. The tomb’s popularity led to official third- and fourth-edition updates, the boxed sequel Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a hardcover sequel that shares the original’s name. The tomb appears in my DMDavid banner.

While I don’t want to play the tomb, I love the dungeon. I love the atmosphere. I love the inspiration it provided. Gary admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations.

The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so we encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.”

Long before I ever read the adventure, I knew the tomb by its reputation and by those illustrations.

Tomb of Horrors features the best villain in Dungeons & Dragons. The villain isn’t Acererak’s jeweled skull. The villain is the tomb.

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

The great green devil face from Tomb of Horrors

This villain issues a challenge that reaches the real world. Even in the late 70s, a legend for killing characters surrounded the tomb. Among my circle of players, no one dared risk a character to it.

The tomb greets intruders as the skull face on the hilltop, then appears in the guise of the great green devil face. The tomb flaunts a menace and cunning that matches any other villain in the game. When the tomb offers help, it taunts and teases. “Acererak congratulates you on your powers of observation. So make of this [poem] whatever you wish, for you will be mine in the end no matter what.” The poem is more trap than clue; this villain deceives. The soul-stealing skull is only the end of the players’ battle.

Gary called the game Dungeons & Dragons, and the game’s greatest villain is a dungeon.

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You roll for random encounters wrong (and so do I)

Original Dungeons & Dragons made rolling for wandering monsters more a core part of play than rolling a d20 to hit—d20 rolls were in the optional combat system that everyone used. Over the years, as D&D evolved, random encounters fell from favor until they neared extinction. In second edition, DMs emphasized story and saw random events as an unwelcome distraction. By fourth edition, battles consumed so much time that one random encounter could devour a session.

Random monster

Random monster

The designers of fifth edition recognized the value or random encounters: The threat of wandering monsters gives players a reason to hurry and to avoid the 5-minute adventuring day. Random encounters make distance and travel meaningful. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Traditionally, dungeon masters roll for random encounters during a session, behind the screen.

With players accustomed to this secretive approach, a DM can ignore die rolls and script every wandering monster in advance. Their players will never know.

I have a confession. Sometimes I roll random encounters before a game session so I can grab the monster miniatures that I need. By rolling in advance, am I diminishing the game? What if I just skip the rolls entirely and choose “random” encounters that suit me?

I my last post, I considered the advantages of using random rolls to shape your game. One benefit is that die rolls separate the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. This benefit only comes if you make die rolls in the open and if players have a sense of what the rolls mean.

Few rolls swing the course of the game more than those for random encounters, so making these rolls in plain sight makes sense. But unless the players know what a roll means, the DM may as well pretend to read tea leaves. The chance of an encounter qualifies as secret information for the DM, so rolling for random encounters conflicts with the benefit of open rolls.

Nonetheless, a DM can reveal enough to make open encounter rolls meaningful without spoiling secrets.

Player characters exploring a dungeon or wilderness probably have a sense of what inhabitants they could encounter. Underground, investigators notice either dust and cobwebs or signs of traffic. In the light, rangers and druids know an idyllic path from monster infested wilds. Some PCs bring backgrounds or skills that give more insights. PCs may know a place by reputation. As a DM, you can rely on all these factors—and possibly on some checks—to gauge what to reveal about potential random encounters.

In the past, I would relay such information purely in terms of the game world. “As you travel the Stranglewood, you see signs that confirm its reputation for monstrous predators.” Now, I might add some game mechanics to the flavor. “For each day of travel, you could encounter wandering monsters twice. I will roll on a D20. Higher rolls lead to encounters.” These details help players decide strategy, and players enjoy strategy over guesswork. Plus, players endangered by wandering monsters will  act with urgency.

Some dungeon masters worry that revealing the mechanics of these rolls spoil too many secrets, or that it foils the players’ sense of immersion. I used to agree, but a Living Forgotten Realms adventure changed my opinion. In Agony of Almraiven, players face the challenge of freeing a brass dragon from a net as Thri-kreen harass the beast. The encounter combines a skill challenge with a combat encounter. Before I played this encounter, I disliked it. I hated the mechanical artifice of skill challenges, and this one came with a handout that let players check off their successes. Still, I dutifully handed out the sheet and let the players tackle the skill challenge as a game within a game.

Players loved it.

I ran Agony of Almraiven six times, and every time the players relished this challenge. The experience did little to improve my opinion of skill challenges, but it reversed my opinion of occasionally letting players glimpse the nuts and bolts of an adventure. Players enjoy immersion, but they also enjoy playing the game as a game. For example, players can immerse themselves in combat encounters even though they know all the rules behind them.

The original D&D game exposed the mechanics of wandering monsters without making play less compelling.

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Don’t show your encounter tables, but do explain that an hour delay leads to another roll, and that if you roll a 20, they will probably meet something nasty. Then roll in the open.

Have I dropped my practice of pre-planning random encounters? Not entirely. I strive for some transparency, rolling in view to see if an encounter occurs. As for the specifics, I might roll and prepare a few options in advance. During the session, I let the dice choose among those I prepared.

Note: The random encounters in an upcoming Adventurers League Expedition inspired this post and the last one. Will this adventure benefit from its randomness? I don’t know. In a convention setting, time and pace pose the biggest challenge, and random encounters make pacing harder. On the other hand, I always learn something when I run something new, and I’ll be running the final version of that Expedition a few times at the Winter Fantasy convention. As always, I hope to see some friends of the blog at my table.

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3 benefits of letting die rolls shape your game world’s reality

The other day, I read a playtest version of a Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Excursion. Instead of the usual linear series of encounters, this adventure introduced an unprecedented element of chance. From the start, random encounters lead players onto different courses. The final showdown can occur in a randomly-determined location. Much of the combat comes from random confrontations with 1d4 of this or 1d6+1 of that.

dice_oldThis unusual element of chance led me to consider the benefits of giving the dice control over much of a role-playing game characters’ fate.

Random chance increases replay value. From the seeded worlds in Minecraft to the random dungeons in Diablo, replay value concerns video games more than tabletop games. In D&D, only the most devoted organized-play participants replay adventures. For those folks, letting the dice shape the game yields variety from a single adventure.

Random chance creates surprises for the game master. The dice can add unexpected ingredients to the game master’s plan for a session. This can add to the fun. Plus, adding the unexpected—or just working to make sense of it—leads GMs to inspiration. For example, during a session where my players traveled by boat, the random combination of a waterfall and drowned ghouls forged a memorable encounter.

Nonetheless, when I serve as game master, my players’ choices create enough surprises for me. If your players never surprise you, then you probably haven’t given them enough freedom.

In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from weighing choices. Before you let a die roll plot an adventure, ask whether the players’ decisions could provide the same spin. For example, rather than having the players randomly meet a faction in the dungeon, let them uncover enough clues to choose which faction to pursue. Or on a small scale, if a charging demon faces many ripe targets, ask if anyone wants to taunt the creature. Arrange choices so that even you cannot imagine which the players will select. Practice by splitting slices of cake to share, and then giving your kid brother first pick.

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the GM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the game master wants the dice to take the blame. To assure my players that I don’t meddle with their characters’ fortunes, I roll dice in plain sight. A good GM acts as a facilitator and impartial referee, not as a Fate who controls destiny.

As a game master, do you ever roll a die to check which player character a monster will target? Years ago, as I plotted my monster’s tactics, I left the players to figure out the creatures’ motivations. If I rolled a die to choose a target, I did it secretly.

My secret approach led players to complain that I singled out their characters for attack. Apparently, all the players felt singled out, and they were especially singled out when they rushed into a crowd of monsters. (I never single out players. Unless they boast that they never take damage. Then maybe a little.) So I switched my approach. Now I help players understand why they get targeted. Sometimes the clues come in character. The monsters say, “You hurt Grog, so now you die,” or “Slay that accursed priest first, so he cannot heal the others.” This peek into the monsters’ choices gradually improved the players’ tactics.

When monsters lacked an obvious target, I started rolling in plain sight to decide. The die roll may cost a bit of immersion, but players cannot accuse the die of playing favorites.

To impartially settle questions about the game world, many GMs use die rolls. For instance, when the player of a drow asked whether burning wreckage on the battlefield made enough smoke to shroud his PC from the sun. I rolled. “On a 1 to 3, then yes.”

Random rolls reduce the GM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite game master and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

Next: Random encounters

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The difficult origin of Blackmoor, Dungeon & Dragons Supplement II

In my last post, I explained how Temple of the Frog, the first published dungeon, failed as a dungeon crawl and baffled the first Dungeons & Dragons players.

To unlock Temple of the Frog, players needed to treat it as a James Bond villain’s lair to be infiltrated. And after their spying ran its course, they needed to follow Bond’s playbook and call in the commandos, ninjas, or their men at arms. Players needed Chainmail for that endgame.

How did an adventure that did not work as a dungeon crawl—or even work with D&D’s rules—become the first D&D adventure in print?

Dave Arneson’s creative energy shined during his games. Gary Gygax lauded him as “the innovator of the ‘dungeon adventure’ concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeonmaster par excellence.” A session of Dave’s Blackmoor game proved so compelling that Gary staked his TSR Games on a foreign and untested game concept. (For more on the scale of D&D’s innovations, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”)

The bet paid big.

BlackmoorIn the wake of D&D’s release, players hungered for more material. Supplement I Greyhawk delivered treats from Gary’s campaign, and players loved it. TSR planned the obvious follow up: a book from D&D’s other creator.

In spring and summer of 1975, Dave wrote and gathered notes. His rules for hit locations, diseases, and his concept for an assassin class would land in Supplement II Blackmoor. His megadungeon under Castle Blackmoor hosted the first dungeon crawls, but those early dungeons changed as adventurers explored them, so they resisted capture in print. See “Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons.” Instead, Dave submitted another Blackmoor location, the Temple of the Frog.

TSR’s first employee, Tim Kask, drew the job of shaping Dave’s “50-odd sheets of mostly handwritten material and charts” into a supplement. By then, the long-promised Blackmoor supplement had been offered for sale in the Strategic Review. Gary and TSR co-owner Brian Blume gave Tim six weeks to produce a manuscript.

I tried sorting the stuff; I re-sorted the stuff. I cataloged, alphabetized, prioritized and sanitized, all to no avail,” Tim recalls. “This was a file folder full of repetitions, contradictions, duplications and complications. But not a supplement. I found three different versions of one idea, and two different approaches to another that are at odds with each other, as well as previously published guidelines.

Dave always struggled to capture the spontaneous brilliance of his game sessions on paper. For a purer sample of Dave’s campaign notes, look to his First Fantasy Campaign, published two years later by Judges Guild. After decades, Blackmoor fans still debate how these raw notes translated into play.

The Blackmoor campaign used different rules than the guidelines Gary published for D&D, so the assassin needed reworking to match Gary’s rules. The hit-location tables fit awkwardly with D&D’s abstract combat system, but they came from Dave, so they stayed. (For more on abstract combat, see “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points.”)

To complete the supplement, Tim drew from several sources. In the Monster Manual (1977), Gary credited a fellow named Steve Marsh “for devising the creatures for undersea encounters which originally appeared in Blackmoor.” Brian Blume championed the monk, which either came from Dave or from Brian after they were inspired by either the Kung Fu TV show, or the Destroyer novels, or the hit song. In 1975, kung fu action appeared everywhere.

Tim cites the Temple of the Frog as the part of Blackmoor that Dave delivered nearly ready for print. Dave even drew the published maps. As co-author of Chainmail, Gary surely understood the temple better than D&D’s new fans. Tim recalls that Gary liked offering an “example of how to construct a major edifice in a campaign.” Gary overlooked the site’s challenges. Meanwhile, Tim welcomed the temple’s pages, but he does not call the edifice an adventure. Although the temple would baffle players like me, it became the first dungeon to reach stores.

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Why the Temple of the Frog, Dungeons & Dragons’ first printed dungeon, seemed unplayable

In the winter of 1977, the Dungeons & Dragons basic set introduced me to the game. Hooked, I sought everything I could find for the game. The new Monster Manual delivered a treasury of creatures—with pictures! The white box gave spells to 6th level, and then Supplement I Greyhawk raised spells to 9th level.

But Supplement II Blackmoor disappointed me. My dungeon had no room for aquatic monsters. Monks broke my notion of fantasy. Assassins invited trouble. A strange dungeon obsessed with frogs stole half the pages. Anthropomorphic frogs belonged in children’s books; not in this daring new game.

I resolved to overcome my bias against monstrous frogs. As far as I knew, no other dungeons were in print, and Temple of the Frog came from the creators of the game. Surely the temple showcased the best of my new passion, and I decided to run it for my friends.

Temple of the Frog begins with pages of backstory. Eager for a peek at an dungeon from D&D’s creators, I skipped past the dense history to the underground’s room key.

So my trouble started on that first level, where the party could easily stumble into an encounter with 200 soldiers, part of an army housed in connected barracks. On the next level, the breeding pool contains over a 1000 killer frogs. Few of these rooms include interesting content, just hordes of soldiers, frogs, and coinage. Even if my players could handle the threats, I saw no way to make it fun.

I kept setting the temple aside and then returning to it, hoping to unlock whatever secrets enabled D&D’s designers to play this adventure. I never cracked it. I did not realize you couldn’t play the temple as a D&D adventure, because it still fit the style of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and the Chainmail mass-combat rules that spawned it. Even some of its terminology reached back to Chainmail, with creatures who “take 3 hits” rather than “have 3 hit points,” and trolls who “fight as” ogres.

The temple vexed me, but I had skipped the introduction, so I never even saw the strangest parts. The high priest, Stephen the Rock comes from a sci-fi version of our world. His +3 flying battle armor and +3 shield combine to grant 18(00) strength, 18 dexterity, invisibility, and protection from any magical, mental, or energy attacks. His +3 sword shoots lightning. He enjoys instant communication with 179 ring-bearing henchmen. Blackmoor’s version of Kang the Conqueror has a medical kit that heals any damage short of an anatomical jigsaw puzzle and a communication module that teleports to anywhere on the planet or to an orbital scout ship.

Blofeldpleasance67The high priest is a super villain. The Temple of the Frog exists as a lair fit for plotting world conquest. Like any villain’s lair, this one comes with a messy way of disposing of Mr. Bond and the henchmen who fail to kill him. Rather than piranha, alligators, or laser sharks, the temple’s trap door leads to killer frogs. Add a monorail and Blofeld could move in.

Between his wish-fulfilling gear and ordinary name, Stephen the Rock shows his origin as a villainous Mary Sue.

Dave Arneson’s campaign started as miniature battles with the players taking all the sides, hero and villain. In 1973, he collaborated with Stephen Rocheford to create a nefarious persona for the game. Pronounced Rockford, Stephen’s last name gained him the nicknames Rocky and the Rock, which led to a name for his baddie. Stephen recalls, “Dave approached me to invent an evil character that would be different from the norm in this world. Ergo, I thought and settled on a character that was not of this world of Blackmoor. My inspiration eventually was from an old episode of the original Star Trek television series. In it, Captain Kirk found a planet of Nazi’s and found the earthling, an historian, who founded it in the hope eliminating it’s excesses and organizing this society for the betterment of all in the name of efficiency. I told Dave Arneson and he was delighted.

My character was a soldier (I was an Army Officer) who crash landed in Blackmoor with several others from a spaceship. He found a village organized around a group of monks. They and the villagers thought the stranger was a very powerful wizard; in fact he was a man who used a phaser and so overawed the indigenous people that he was proclaimed the High Priest of the Monks of the Swamp.

Dave Arneson’s friend from the era, Jeff Berry, thinks H. P. Lovecraft inspired the frog theme. “You just had to have frogmen and other servants of the Old Ones infesting the [swamp],” he writes. “It gave the players something to do when they weren’t exploring the dungeons.” Dave’s exact inspiration may be the frog-like deity Tsathoggua, as described by Clark Ashton Smith in his story “The Seven Geases.” Plus, legend says that Dave used a ceramic frog from his mother’s garden as a game prop.

As Stephen’s account continues, he seems like someone playing a character in a one-on-one role-playing session. “I set about to organize a theocracy based on the worship of frogs, which were in great supply in the swamp. These frogs were bred and genetically improved over time until some special breeds grew to enormous size. A temple was erected and an Order of Monks reorganized around this hall of worship.” Stephen’s Roman Catholic upbringing led to the temple’s Catholic flavor, complete with a pipe organ and papal robes.

Eventually, rumors of a secret society in the swamp led the heroes of Blackmoor to investigate, but they came unprepared for a confrontation with the “weird guy in the robes who shot an immensely powerful lightning bolt.” They woke later in the swamp with gaps in their memory.

Blackmoor’s heroes probably never returned to the temple, but if they had, the rules would have changed—literally—to Chainmail and its mass-combat scale. D&D historian Jon Peterson explains, “How could a party of adventurers be expected to assault a temple with twenty men at its gate tower, thirty at its main gate, ten men per corner tower and a thousand guards in reserve in case of trouble? Or to deal with the first level of the dungeon, where a given barracks room might contain hundreds of men? The answer of course is to bring an army, and stage a wargame rather than a dungeon crawl.

To unlock Temple of the Frog, players needed to treat it as a James-Bond villain’s lair to be infiltrated. And after their spying ran its course, they would need follow Bond’s playbook and call in the commandos, ninjas, or their men at arms. Players needed Chainmail for that endgame.

No wonder this adventure vexed a generation of players.

Next: How did an adventure that did not work as a dungeon crawl—or even work with D&D’s rules—become the first D&D adventure in print?

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Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less

If you are a game master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought game masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (Hint: Don’t do that.) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the GM’s attention. A GM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features as you describe them.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an NPC might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the NPC’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tracking conditions. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons loyalists can benefit from letting one player mark figures suffering from conditions such as bloodied, dazed and so on. If the player consistently remembers when conditions lift, then they keep better track than I ever could.

Tallying experience points. I haven’t recruited a player to keep track of experience rewards yet, but I should have started last night. After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the GM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage, yet that data never vaulted us into first place.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. This player can keep track in plain sight: in dry erase on a white board or the edge of the battle map. If that proves impractical, then when a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe the kill. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the game master. It belongs to everyone at the table.

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Megadungeons in print and on the web

Perhaps few people play megadungeons, but my look at the era when megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons and why few people play them anymore revealed great interest in vast underworlds. So in this post, I present the megadungeons in print or on the web.

To qualify for my mega-list, a dungeon must meet three qualifications. It must be…

  • in print or on the web in a form close to playable.
  • suitable for the focus of an entire campaign from low to high level.
  • too big to clear of traps and monsters, even as the focus of a campaign.

Most of these products attempt to recapture or update the play style of the original campaigns that launched D&D, so many use rules that emulate either original D&D or AD&D. If you prefer advantage, concentration, and armor classes that go up, you can play these dungeons with fifth edition. Just use the monster stats in your new manual and make up any difficulty classes as you go.

Barrowmaze product page
Barrowmaze System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Barrowmaze is a classic, old-school megadungeon.
Typical reviews: “This is a multi-year campaign in a book. It is an obvious labor of love. If this product doesn’t deserve five stars—easily deserve it—then no product deserves it.” – Greg W.

Barrowmaze is nearly a textbook example of how to make a compelling, well-presented dungeon module. – Grognardia

Rational: Underground tombs infested by chaotic cult
Snap reaction: With an emphasis on undead and dungeon factions, will Barrowmaze prove too much of a good thing?
Castle of the Mad Archmage product page
Castle of the Mad Archmage System: Adventures Dark and Deep, other games with the same initials, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Constructed to match reminiscences of Castle Greyhawk.
Typical reviews:Castle of the Mad Archmage is a lot of fun…The problem is that so much of feels either random, unexplainable, or silly.” – Dungeon Fantastic

“Serious old-school aficionados should put the Castle at the top of their shopping lists – Roles and Rules

Rational: The Mad Archmage, an insane demigod, wants it so.
Snap reaction: A tribute to Gary’s game that is best enjoyed through heavy nostalgia.
Dragon’s Delve
product page
Dragon's Delve System: d20
Tagline: Created by Monte Cook (co-designer of 3rd-Edition D&D) and written by Super Genius Games for dungeonaday.com
Typical reviews:Dragon’s Delve hits most of the right old school notes. There is in fact a great deal to like about it and I’m not ashamed to admit I may even steal an idea or three from it.” – Grognardia
Rational: Ambient magic? Insane wizards? The mysteries of Dragon’s Delve remain locked from my gaze.
Snap reaction: A mountain of interesting content locked behind the dungeonaday paywall.
Castle Triskelion
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triskelion System: First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Tagline: Come and get a free dungeon room every day.
Typical reviews: None. You could be the first to review this product.
Rational: A feuding family who practiced abominable sorceries.
Snap reaction: A labor of love offered for free.
Castle Whiterock
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Castle Whiterock System: d20
Tagline: The greatest dungeon story ever told.
Typical reviews:Castle Whiterock is an epic endeavor that is the best adventuring product released by any company this year.” – Nathan C.

“The adventure features great encounters, adventure to be had, wonderful villains, great twists in the tale, and many hidden secrets waiting to be uncovered. On the down side, there are some tedious bits.” – Peter I.

Rational: Traps, magic, and monsters accumulated over the castle’s 1200-year history.
Snap reaction: No mere list of rooms, this product builds a campaign with numerous quests around a megadungeon.
Darkness Beneath
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The Darkness Beneath System: Original D&D and similar rules
Tagline: A multi-author megadungeon released in installments in Fight On! magazine.
Typical reviews: “The community megadungeon ‘The Darkness Beneath’ has turned out some very good levels, with a single exception.” – Ten Foot Pole
Rational: Undetermined.
Snap reaction: A strong but uneven anthology that ranges from inspired to silly, just like the old-school dungeons it emulates. The cutaway map calls me to adventure.
Dwimmermount
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Dwimmermount System: Labyrinth Lord, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: With Dwimmermount, the Golden Age has returned.
Typical reviews: “The very size of Dwimmermount may also be its enemy, a few forays into the place won’t discover much, and the levels get consistently weirder, but start very classically D&D.” – Dungeon of Signs

“Pages upon pages of minutiae.” – Binkystick

Rational: A dungeon set atop a node of primal chaos
Snap reaction: An attempt to recreate a golden-age play style that resists capture in print.
The Emerald Spire
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Emerald Spire System: Pathfinder
Tagline: An all-star superdungeon.
Typical reviews: “The superdungeon might feel like a long series of Pathfinder Society dungeons.” – 5-Minute Workday

“Two levels of the Spire really stand out for me and made me want to slice them out of the megadungeon and run them back to back as a one-shot or mini-campaign.” – Tor.com

Rational: An insane creature of immense power living at the bottom level.
Snap reaction: This collection of levels created by all-star contributors probably plays better if you divide the levels into separate dungeons.
Eyes of the Stone Thief
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Eyes of the Stone Thief System: 13th Age
Tagline: The Stone Thief rises. Enter it, find its secrets and defeat it–or die trying.
Typical reviews: “A very, very clever idea executed very well.” – The Other Steve

“The book as a whole also gives you the tools and tips to customize [the campaign] for your players.” – Addison Recorder

Rational: The dungeon is alive.
Snap reaction:  A promising example of the living-dungeon concept, backed with advice on running and customizing parts or as a campaign.
Grande Temple of Jing
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Grand Temple of Jing System: Pathfinder
Tagline: The dungeoncrawl that rules them all!
Typical reviews: None. This product hasn’t been released yet.
Rational: A temple to a trickster god
Snap reaction: With a catch-all concept and many contributors, expect a trap- and puzzle-filled dungeon loaded with ideas.
Greyhawk Ruins
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Greyhawk Ruins System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: Enter the infamous ruins of Castle Greyhawk, the most formidable and expansive dungeon on Oerth.
Typical reviews:Greyhawk Ruins may not be a particularly inspired example of a megadungeon, but it is a megadungeon and I give it points for that alone.” – Grognardia

“A classic, illogical ‘gilded hole’ dungeon.” – Lawrence Schick, Heroic Worlds

Rational: The wizard Zagag’s mad experiments
Snap reaction: The product every player dreamed of in the 70s, released in 1990 when our expectations had changed.
Rappan Athuk
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Rappan Athuk System: Swords & Wizardry, original D&D, or Pathfinder
Tagline: Nothing more and nothing less than a good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl.
Typical reviews: “A TON of interesting encounters and levels. It’s also maddeningly confusing in places” – Ten Foot Pole

“I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by a couple of levels, but at the same time, I’ve really, really liked several ideas herein.” – Thilo G.

Rational: A complex created by refugee priests of Orcus
Snap reaction: Suited to old-school DMs who somehow recruit the rare players who enjoy dungeon-only campaigns, high body counts, and unwinnable final encounters.
The Ruins of Undermountain
The Ruins of Undermountain System: Second edition AD&D
Tagline: The deepest dungeon of them all.
Typical reviews: “The dungeon itself is barely detailed, with only the major level features written up.” – Dungeon Fantastic
Rational: Another insane wizard
Snap reaction: An outline for a DM determined to create a megadungeon in the Forgotten Realms and willing to dream up the details.
Stonehell
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Stonehell System: Labyrinth Lord and original D&D
Tagline: Enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time.
“Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is probably the best megadungeon published to date in any form” – Grognardia

Stonehell takes a curious middle ground between detailed set pieces, and leaving some room descriptions sparse to allow for DM improvisation.” – Dreams in the Lich House

“This is certainly one of the best works to come out of the OSR. It’s a megadungeon and it’s close to perfect.” – Ten Foot Pole

Rational: A prison where the pain and suffering attracted a powerful, chaotic entity.
Snap reaction: Highly touted by old-school fans. Adopts a concise presentation inspired by 1-page dungeon design.
World’s Largest Dungeon
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World's Largest Dungeon System: d20
Tagline: Over 16,000 Encounters – A mammoth dungeon unlike any other! Every monster in the SRD – And a few you’ve never seen before!
Typical reviews: “Nothing remarkable or all that memorable about it” – Jeremy Reaban

“They don’t expect you to actually run the World’s Largest Dungeon as one big dungeon. Considering that’s the only reason that anyone would actually buy the product, I find that pretty stupid.” – oriongates

Rational: A giant prison for evil.
Snap reaction: Not so much an adventure as a publishing stunt.
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The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

In 1974, dungeons tried to kill you. More than just the creatures inside, the walls and stone wanted your life. Dungeons changed when you looked away. (See page 8 of the original, brown book, The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.) Doors closed on their own accord, and then you had to force them open. The dungeon helped its monstrous allies kill you. Doors opened for them. “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.” (See page 9.) Dungeons had one-way doors and gently sloping corridors that lured prey deeper and closer to their deaths. Did the architects of these dungeons aim to foil explorers, or do the walls themselves bend to snare them? Was the door you went through earlier one-way or just gone now.

dungeon table at Gen Con 2015

Decades after the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor launched the game, players grew interested in recapturing the style of those old megadungeons. But D&D had matured. Even players bent on remaking the past wanted to drop or explain the most preposterous elements: Monster populations that defied any natural order. Walls that changed between visits. Doors that opened and closed to frustrate intruders.

So gamers looked for ways to account for the weird essence of those classic dungeons.

Jason “Philotomy” Cone popularized the idea of a mythic underworld, which justifies the strange things that happen in those old dungeons by embracing the unreal as part of a place’s nature.

There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should ‘make sense’ as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn’t necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through). None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld. There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should, be the centerpiece of the game. As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it.

For more about Jason’s concept, see page 22 of Philotomy’s Musings, a PDF that mimics the appearance of the original D&D supplements.

When Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo created their “love letter to D&D” in the 13th Age role playing game, the mythic underworld probably inspired their notion of living dungeons.

Other special dungeons, known as ‘living dungeons,’ rise spontaneously from beneath the underworld, moving upward steadily toward the surface as they spiral across the map. Living dungeons don’t follow any logic; they’re bizarre expressions of malignant magic.

The game charges heroic adventurers with the goal of slaying living dungeons. “Some living dungeons can be slain by eliminating all their monsters. Others have actual crystalline hearts, and can be slain by specific magic rituals whose components and clues can be found among their corridors and chests.

The concept even explains why a living dungeon might offer adventurers clues to its secrets. “More than one party of adventurers has observed that most living dungeons have some form of a death wish.

Adam Dray gives the best sense of the concept’s flavor.Like any good monster, the living dungeon wants to kill. It’s a mass murderer, gaining more and more power as it takes life. Like a clever virus, it knows that it can’t just instantly kill anything that enters it. It seduces and teases. It lures people into its depths with the promise of treasure.

If you like the living dungeon concept, in “I, Dungeon,” Mike Shea gives more ideas for a living dungeon’s motives and vulnerabilities.

Some 13th Age reviewers found the living dungeon concept too fanciful. For them, the biological whiff of the concept of a burrowing dungeon felt too dissonant.

For me, I think the mythic underworld resonates when it feels less alive and more haunted or cursed. Not cycle of life, but living dead. Stones that echo with so much hate and hunger and chaos that they mock life.

To make such a dungeon frightful, avoid putting a face to the wickedness. The evil cannot manifest itself as a ghost in a sheet or as a personified “Dungeon Master” working controls at the bottom level. For inspiration of a haunted place look to 1963 movie The Haunting, which never shows ghosts but proves scarier for it. Or see the 2006 movie Monster House, which my kids couldn’t bear to watch through to the end.

Imagine a place, perhaps one haunted by a massacre or some other legendary wickedness, perhaps one abandoned by god. This site devours all that is living and good that intrudes. It hungers to snuff more lives, so perhaps it pulls gems, gold, and lost treasure from the depths to lure more victims. Imagine a place that seems to summon—or perhaps even create—malign horrors to infest its halls. Imagine a place that waits to test the boldest heroes.

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Why Dungeons & Dragons players stopped exploring megadungeons

In my last post I wrote about how Dungeons & Dragons creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built their campaigns around huge dungeons that grew and changed. These megadungeons enabled Dave and Gary to run campaigns for dozens of players. On any day, they could host games for whoever happened to show up for a session.

Even though the megadungeons under Greyhawk and Blackmoor became the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons, such dungeons rarely see play anymore. Why not?

Players never saw any examples. Originally, Gary thought that players would never pay for published dungeons. After all, players could easily make up their own. Despite this belief, TSR distributed the first published dungeon, Palace of the Vampire Queen. Strong sales proved Gary wrong, and so he set to publish his own dungeons.

But Gary’s megadungeon under Greyhawk Castle seemed impossible to capture in writing. As adventurers explored and plundered, the dungeon changed constantly. New monsters wandered in to take empty rooms. Whenever the players’ attention turned, the layouts of old levels subtly changed. Entire new levels appeared. Most of the content lay in one-line descriptions, or worse, locked in the heads of Gary Gygax and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz. Decades later, Gary wrote, “If we handed over the binders containing the maps and the notes, I don’t think even the ablest of DMs would feel empowered to direct adventures using the materials.”

So rather than attempting to capture Greyhawk Castle, Gary opted to publish adventures that he had created for D&D tournaments at conventions. For instance, the official D&D tournament at Origins ’78 ran the G1-3 adventures. The choice to publish such adventures changed the development of the game. D&D players everywhere saw Gary’s published adventures as a model. Instead of patterning their games after a megadungeon like the one Gary played at home, players imitated adventures created for a few hours of competition.

The Ruins of UndermountainIn 1991, TSR finally published The Ruins of Undermountain, its first megadungeon in print. Undermountain appeared in a box with maps and with booklets that sketched out encounter areas. This outline mirrored the terse descriptions and evolving notes that Gary Gygax used for Greyhawk Castle, but the sketch failed to satisfy DMs accustomed to publications ready for play.

Perhaps locking a megadungeon in a box kills it. Printed pages cannot capture the dynamic essence of those original levels.

The ecology and rational of megadungeons seemed ridiculous. From they start, players struggled with the logic of megadungeons. Where did all those monsters get their food or leave their waste? Where did the creatures and treasure come from? Every dungeon master invented an insane wizard as an architect for their game’s underground sprawl until the notion became trite.

In the little, brown books, Gary suggested dungeons with layouts that always changed and grew to “maintain freshness,” but that made the megadungeon even more implausible.

Then Gary published adventures that featured a logic sometimes called Gygaxian naturalism. Monsters had lives of their own that involved feasting, scheming, sleeping, and everything but waiting for heroes to come kill them. Rather than wandering monsters living in defiance of reason, we saw giants and drow in their steadings and vaults. For many players, the giant- and drow-series adventures set an example that killed the megadungeon.

Soon, any DM peddling a megadungeon had some explaining to do. For instance, The Ruins of Undermountain kept to the insane wizard trope, then added magic that continuously gated in fresh monsters from across the Realms, and deep entrances that allowed creatures from the Underdark to well up.

Play styles expanded. Sometime in the middle of the 70s, for the first time ever, a party of adventurers visiting the inn met a hooded stranger with a job that needed doing. D&D expanded beyond a series of dungeon expeditions aimed at claiming treasure. Players began to favor games that mixed action with story. Kicking in endless doors to fight and loot turned from fresh and thrilling to a tiresome slog. Today, avid D&D players can claim that they don’t like dungeons or can say that their best games lack any combat. Even those of us who like dungeon crawls want to see some daylight and a plot.

Computers do megadungeons better. In 1979, computer games like Akalabeth and Temple of Apshai took gamers into megadungeons and started an electronic-gaming genre. Dungeon crawls limit players’ options, so they offer an easy premise for a computer game. See “How the dungeon crawl’s advantages propelled Dungeons & Dragons to success.” With a computer DM, players can explore anytime. Digital dungeons offer faster play and better graphics. For players who just want to visit a sprawling underworld to kill monsters and take their stuff, electronic games probably offer a better experience.

Can a megadungeon work today?

A clever design can avoid the problems that pushed megadungeons out of play.

A story-centered game can take PCs into a megadungeon to accomplish more than looting. For instance, when Monte Cook created his superdungeon The Banewarrens, he paired it with overarching plot. Players don’t raid the Banewarrens just to loot. Instead, the story leads to objectives that require missions into the place.

Many megadungeons avoid monotony by introducing levels or zones centered on unique themes such as crypts, flooded sections, or fungus gardens. Even the levels under Castle Greyhawk followed themes that grew more exotic at deeper levels.

A megadungeon design can add intrigue by borrowing a page from The Keep on the Borderlands and adding factions of monsters. Players can join a side or play one against another. Factions under attack will bring reinforcements, creating more interesting battles, and giving players a reason for caution. The stories “Red Nails” by Robert E. Howard and “The Lords of Quarmall” by Fritz Leiber helped inspire the concept of dungeon exploring. Both yarns centered on feuds and intrigue.

A world of fantasy offers plenty of possible justifications for the strange things in the underworld. More on that in my next post.

A megadungeon (and a live DM) can create player agency and tests of ingenuity that no computer can match.

Although good design can yield a megadungeon that proves fun to play, ordinary dungeons can being the same advantages. Today’s gamers tend to create megadungeons to foster nostalgia or to enable episodic play.

Next: The dungeon comes alive in the mythic underworld

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