Friday, January 9, 2009

Dwimmermount Begins


Last Sunday I began my Dwimmermount campaign. I'd intended to begin it before the new year, but a big snowstorm prevented that and it had to be postponed. Unfortunately, the postponement made it impossible for one of my players to make the first session, so I had to make do with only three characters to start, which wasn't my preference, particularly since two of the three were demihumans. That said, I vowed that I'd run Dwimmermount every Sunday like clockwork provided I had at least two players. One of my growing beliefs is that, for old school gaming to work, you need to play not only consistently but also regularly. I'd venture to guess that one of the big reasons why old school play isn't as popular as it once was is because gamers meet a lot less often than they used to and because they don't stick with a single campaign -- or game! -- long enough to let it find its feet and properly establish itself. With very few exceptions, the best campaigns I've ever participated in, either back in the day or more recently, were ones where we played weekly (as close to it) without fail. Anything less and you quickly lose the "thread" from which an old school campaign is spun and you might as well be playing a board or video game.

The three characters who began the campaign consisted of a cleric of Tyche named Brother Candor, a dwarf named Vladimir, and an elf named Dordagdonar. I decided to keep background to a minimum, preferring to let evolve through play. I made one exception: I stated that Brother Candor's now-deceased master had spoken to him of a "hidden" entrance to Dwimmermount beneath some Thulian ruins on the slopes of the peak. I did this for the simple reason that I wanted to vaguely plausible explanation as to why the first few levels of a renowned megadungeon located a day's walk from an outpost of civilization (Muntburg Keep) hadn't been picked thoroughly keen by throngs of adventurers. It's a bit of "poetic license" on my part, but I don't regret it.

We were using Swords & Wizardry as our baseline rules, with quite a few tweaks. I was, for example, using Greyhawk's weapon vs. AC tables. I also used the morale rules from Moldvay, because they remain the best treatment of the topic in any edition of D&D in my opinion and because I think D&D combat only makes sense if you assume the use of morale. Other house rules will evolve through play and I very much look forward to that. One of the joys of using a simple rules set isn't just the ease of house ruling but the necessity of doing so. This is how the game stays fresh over months and years of continued play. It also ensures that we never treat the game as a mere consumer product, prefabricated and "ready to eat." To me, that's anathema and it's frankly that attitude, far moreso than things like thieves or demihumans or even story, that separates the old school from its wayward descendants.

I had already prepared maps for several levels of the dungeon. One of my design principles was to include lots of lateral movement options, both within a level and between them. One of the problems with most modern dungeon design is that there are too few avenues of exploration and the layouts are too logical. I wanted to avoid that, so I made sure that there were rarely cases where a room had only a single exit. Likewise, though my players didn't pursue them, there needed to be ready access to sub-levels, side-levels, and so forth. Exploring a megadungeon is, on some level, a descent into the Underworld. There's room for other types of dungeons, of course -- the type Trent Foster calls a "lair" -- but a megadungeon is special. As the requisite anchor to an old school campaign, its design must follow slightly different rules and those rules must be reflected in its maps.

Beforehand, I placed a few of what M.A.R. Barker calls, in Empire of the Petal Throne, "Saturday night specials." These are set piece encounters -- weird tricks, devious traps, unusual monsters -- that are meant to be memorable or in some way significant. The contents of the rest of the rooms, though, I rolled up on the fly, using the dungeon stocking rules from OD&D Volume 3 and the Monster & Treasure Assortment. I was a little wary of this method to start with, because I'd never done it before, but, in the end, it worked very well, resulting in a very memorable encounter with some crossbow-armed kobolds who nearly killed the entire party, as well as a poison gas trap that claimed the life of henchman, Lars, whose skill with a sling had saved the bacon of his employers during said kobold encounter. When the PCs returned to Muntburg to rest, they buried Lars to ensure he wouldn't return as a risen ghoul later -- curses! -- and they hired his brother Lorne (along with Henga, the shield maiden) to replace him.

As you can see, we used miniatures -- plastic, prepainted ones, alas -- and dungeon models. They were there mostly for show, but they did help me with my descriptions somewhat, since I often have a hard time describing physical locations without props. The party also employed a mapper, which was nice to see. They quickly learned the benefits of doing so, since it enabled them to ferret out the likely locations of secret doors, pit traps, and visualize how unexplored corridors likely hooked up with one another. As noted, they also quickly understood the importance of retreating. They returned to Muntburg to re-supply and rest for a week between forays, which I found eminently sensible. I then used the dungeon restocking table I saw first on Sham's Grog 'n Blog to determine if a room previously cleared had been repopulated while they were away. While they were in Muntburg, we all agreed to adopt the Dave Arneson-inspired rule that XP is only given for gold that's taken from the dungeon and spent. Everyone agreed it gave the thing a very swords-and-sorcery feel, which is what I wanted.

All in all, it was a good start, but it was only a start. I don't consider a campaign to have "taken" until we play at least three sessions consecutively. Session 2 should be this weekend, barring any problems. I see promise in this game, but I admit I also have some concern it'll be stillborn. Life is pretty hectic for most of my players, so it'd be easy for something to derail this. Likewise, we're all out of practice when it comes to a megadungeon-centered campaign and I think it's going to take some getting used to its nuances. Right now, people are enthusiastic, because it's new and different, but there's a reason why many gamers moved away from dungeon crawling in the first place and those same dynamics will come into play with Dwimmermount as well. I have the benefit of at least being aware of them, which puts me ahead of many referees of old, but I also realize that there are some inherent limits to the megadungeon and the key to running a successful megadungeon-centered campaign is to find clever ways to transcend them.

Can I do that? Time will tell.

21 comments:

  1. I see your mostly using flat-edged dice. ;)

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  2. there's a reason why many gamers moved away from dungeon crawling in the first place and those same dynamics will come into play with Dwimmermount as well. I have the benefit of at least being aware of them, which puts me ahead of many referees of old, but I also realize that there are some inherent limits to the megadungeon and the key to running a successful megadungeon-centered campaign is to find clever ways to transcend them.

    James, this was a great recap, thank you very much for sharing. Would you mind talking a bit about those 'dynamics' or are there discussions elsewhere I can search for?

    Are those cardboard models or the Hirst blocks?

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  3. Congrats on actually starting play - my personal bugbear is that many of my projects never get to that stage.

    I don't consider myself a generally old-school player (though neither am I all Indie and stuff,) but I've long felt that campaigns not played on a regular weekly schedule have a much harder time building up momentum even in the mid-term. You can do it bi-weekly, but it's harder, and monthly isn't really a campaign but a string of linked one-shots. I'm not saying that to be purist, but I find it MUCH harder to get and maintain a game's flow playing monthly.

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  4. I get this great, but kind of frosty feeling the day of the first game of a new campaign. You just put so much work and thought into a game, you can't wait to see how it pans out in those short hours. And you see so much in that first game that let's you know how things might turn out for later games.

    I think the thing I look forward to the most is seeing how these different characters work together when they form a group in that first game. Will there be friction between any of them right off the bat? Will they work well together facing the challenges you present, or will they stumble through things like some tragi-comic train wreck?

    Momentum is so important. In the 90's I'd run 7-8 hour games, but we would only play once a month or so. There was always a half hour of recap, and, frustratingly, there would always be a player who remembered things differently "Hey, I thought we killed that orc shaman last time!"

    I worry about being able to get all the players together game after game, but I am usually happy to get that first game in the can. Make it fun and interesting for them, and you'll get them there again.

    I've recently started a blog about a campaign I got going after a few years off, and I describe some of my own hopes and fears a bit besides talking about the sessions themselves. I really mostly started it to keep role play notes and thoughts to myself somewhere other than a bunch of notebooks.

    I'm new enough to blogging (especially about gaming) that I don't know if it's bad form to advertise another blog in comments, James, but If you want to see a bit of description about a somewhat rusty DM trying to get characters leveled up for an eventual mega-dungeon delve, I'd love to hear your comments. I don't really get into the emotion of it, but it was a giant thrill for me to have players stomping around in the world I created as a kid, especially after a long time off!

    Great work getting your campaign off the ground, the first game in the can, and I look forward to hearing how the adventures in the mega progress.

    http://acheronlives.blogspot.com/

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  5. Good luck with the campaign. I completely agree that a regular schedule is of great importance in establishing a campaign, particularly when a new game is just starting out and you want to define how things will run.

    I'd be interested to hear more about your experience with miniatures and such. I've considered trying to merge D&D with something like Warhammer Quest, but I don't think I have the time to make anything useful out of it.

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  6. good luck with campaign. I agree with the idea that a good campaign need to be played regularly, and with the same players if possible.

    All the good campaigns I have played were weekly games, and currently after some years of drought im starting a campaing in the savage coast of mystara playing most of the old D&D modules. We had to stop for a few weeks for the Christmas and I want to play as far as we can to not lose the good pace.

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  7. Kudos on getting this kicked off James!

    You know, it's funny, it seems to me that often times you can't find a group to play with, or when you can, they don't want to play what you do. "sigh"

    I'm one of the lucky few though, I've got daughters who are very much into role playing games and they'll happily play LL with me.

    It's always seemed a shame to me that guys like you didn't have a game going. You're so prolifically creative that it's almost a crime NOT to share.

    I'll eagerly await to hear how future games go.

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  8. Er...let me be a bit more specific:
    "that it's almost a crime NOT to share."

    -through playing.

    ;-)

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  9. Congrats on actually starting play - my personal bugbear is that many of my projects never get to that stage.
    This describes my story pretty much perfectly.

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  10. congratulations!
    pretty much the only time I get to play is around Christmas and then it's usually one-on-one with my younger brother (who is now all grown) and then we play almost every other night. this time he wanted to DM and that's been interesting. he understands the rules from a player's perspective and is very comfortable to just rely on what makes sense, rather than look up a rule, which is a great way to get away from the meta-gaming aspects. the other interesting element is that he does rely on me for some stuff that I would normally expect a dm to do. like, "okay, in the past year since we last played, you've made two friends in the city-- what are they like?" and I answer, based on the kinds of people my character would seek out (a young widow and a tolerant priest) and he takes it from there. I don't know if I could give up control like that, personally, but it made it a lot easier for him in that these important NPC had vivid personalities for me as a player as soon as they walked on stage.

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  11. Awesome, lots of new games starting I'm getting jealous. Congratulations on Dwimmermount even if it hasn't "taken" yet.

    Nice terrain and miniatures. Pre-paints rule! Why waste time painting that could be spent playing instead is what I say.

    Back when I did 1st ed they were for marching order and maybe occasionally to get everyone's position before trap/ambush was sprung. Never had monster minis. Combat was lots more fun to narrate than to work out tactically with minis.

    Curious how and how much you use minis in old school play?

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  12. @Chgowiz Are those cardboard models or the Hirst blocks?

    Those appear to be Dwarven Forge sets to me. Just my guess.

    James, I'm THRILLED that you're doing the Dwimmermount posts. It's not only very inspiring, but I'm really learning a lot. Thank you! And thanks to fellow commentors--that's one of the biggest reasons I visit this blog!

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  13. I agree that the secret to a fun campaign is regular weekly meetings. Otherwise people do tend to lose the thread.

    One variation of the Arneson method is to give XP only for gold spent for that purpose. That is, a cleric sets up a shrine and sacrifices to the gods; a magic user starts building a laboratory and library, and a fighter spends the money in training in a fighting school (or eventually sets up and runs one), and maintaining and improving his gear (reputation, don't you know). I found that this works very well.

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  14. I'm pretty sure Chris (the guy who cast them) used Hirst Arts blocks. I know he actually casts them and they're not from Dwarven Forge.

    Kevin (aka Vladimir)

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  15. Would you mind talking a bit about those 'dynamics' or are there discussions elsewhere I can search for?

    There are probably many discussions of these topics on places like Dragonsfoot or K&K Alehouse, but I can't recall them offhand.

    For myself, the biggest issues to bear in mind are two:

    1. Though the megadungeon is the center of the campaign, that implies that there are other things that revolve around it. Don't skimp on making those things as vital to the campaign as the megadungeon itself.

    2. I'm not a big fan of "story" as a driving force in a campaign, but neither do I think aimless wandering is a good foundation for long-term success. Make sure to introduce mysteries, puzzles, and other things that give the players the means to invest their explorations with meaning above and beyond mere looting and mayhem.

    Are those cardboard models or the Hirst blocks?

    They were Hirst blocks.

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  16. I've considered trying to merge D&D with something like Warhammer Quest, but I don't think I have the time to make anything useful out of it.

    Or you could just buy 4e.

    Yeah, yeah, low blow ...

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  17. It's always seemed a shame to me that guys like you didn't have a game going.

    I usually do have a game going, but the majority of 2008 didn't really work out in a way that allowed my friends and myself to get together as regularly as we wanted to keep a campaign going. That was an exception rather than the rule.

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  18. Curious how and how much you use minis in old school play?

    I used them sporadically back in the day. Some of my friends loved to paint and others didn't. Depending on whom I played with, we either used them or we didn't. In all cases, though, they were primarily props rather than essential. That is, they were "illustrations" of what was happening in the adventure rather than necessary to adjudicate the rules. That's still pretty much how I use them to this day.

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  19. One variation of the Arneson method is to give XP only for gold spent for that purpose. That is, a cleric sets up a shrine and sacrifices to the gods; a magic user starts building a laboratory and library, and a fighter spends the money in training in a fighting school (or eventually sets up and runs one), and maintaining and improving his gear (reputation, don't you know). I found that this works very well.

    The same thought occurred to me as well. I might consider revising the house rule in this fashion at some point.

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  20. @James - thank you for the comments and the confirmation on the Hirst Blocks. I see some of my future funds going their way - I'm quite amazed at the quality that seems to come from their molds.

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