Friday, January 9, 2009
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.