Friday, March 20, 2009
Short version: Much better than I'd expected but also much pricier than I could justify spending (which is good, since Monte Cook very kindly gave me a free month's access).
Now, for the long version.
As people should know by now, I am very -- how shall I say? -- protective about the term "old school." I'm one of those rare birds who strongly believes the term is both meaningful and useful, which often puts me at odds with some of my fellow gamers, who, for different reasons, would prefer that it be banished to the terminological netherworld. Ironically, this fact hasn't stopped lots of people from throwing around "old school" to describe games and products that, by any reasonable definition, are nothing of the kind.
But I readily admit that I'm an eccentric among eccentrics on this score. So, when Monte Cook conjoined the words "megadungeon" and "old school" when announcing his latest project, Dungeonaday.com, I was among only a handful of grognards who took it as an affront (a "hissy fit," one ENWorlder called it). There are several reasons I felt this way, the main one being that the old school renaissance is really hitting its stride right now. Lots of gamers are taking notice of our little corner of the Net and engaging our ideas in a way they never did before. "Old school" and "megadungeon" are now regular topics for debate and conversation on forums and blogs and I don't think there's any question it's because traditional gamers have done a great job of showing their continued relevance to the hobby.
The second reason I felt as I did was because it wasn't someone I strongly associated with old school D&D who was launching this site but Monte Cook, whom I primarily connected to the decidedly not-old school Third Edition and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, a module I both disliked as an adventure and that I felt misrepresented Greyhawk lore. To be fair, Monte did a lot of stuff I did like, such as his various Planescape products, but I don't consider Planescape "old school" by my definition. Finally, I was miffed by the subscription model, which I think is problematic when you're dealing with an electronic product. I realize that most professional game designers aren't going to follow the approach of the old school renaissance and give things away for free, but there's something about paying for the privilege of having a product parceled out to you in small pieces over many months rubs me the wrong way.
Combined, my first reaction to Dungeonaday.com was probably irrationally over the top, even if it was understandable. Having now had a chance to explore the site at much greater length over the last week and a half, I'm in a much better position to evaluate it on its actual merits and flaws rather than on what I presumed it would be like. What I found was something that was decidedly more old school than we've probably seen from a big name designer of the 3e era. By that I mean that, if Monte Cook is a poser, he's doing a very good job of it. Dragon's Delve, the megadungeon he's constructing, 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. At the same time, Dungeonaday.com also highlights how much WotC D&D has strayed from its heritage, both mechanically and philosophically.
Dungeonaday.com is a very straightforward and easy-to-use website. Navigation is simple and intuitive. Each page is nicely presented, with just enough graphics to be useful but not so many as to create visual clutter. I know some people have expressed disappointment at its relatively "bare bones" look, but I personally find it refreshingly elegant. The pages load quickly and I never had any trouble figuring out where to find what I was looking for. There's also a built-in search engine in case you still have difficulty, along with forums to which Monte regularly responds with answers, even to technical questions about the site.
All dungeons live or die by their maps and Dragon's Delve has some nice ones. First there's a side view map of the place, which I just love. Not only does it remind me of the best old school dungeons, such as Stone Mountain from the Holmes set, it's got a lot of flavor in its own right. I love each level of a dungeon having a name that describes it and apparently Monte Cook does as well. Level 1 is so far the only level to have its own map, which is to be expected, since the site is detailing Dragon's Delve a couple of rooms a day. Level 1 is fairly small by the standards of truly old school megadungeons, but Monte has indicated that deeper levels will be bigger. Personally, I think size is a fairly small quibble, although I do agree that it would have been nice if Level 1 had more obvious room for expansion, since near-infinite expandability is an important quality of the megadungeons of old. On the other hand, the map doesn't strike me as too obviously linear, with lots of options for meaningful decisions.
Each room receives its own page on the site, complete with an image of a bit of Dwarven Forge dungeon terrain constructed to represent it. I think that's a great idea, actually, first because it provides the referee with a better idea of what the room looks like, and second because it keeps the level map uncluttered with too much detail, a flaw common in many modern dungeon maps. As you can see by looking at a sample room, the descriptions are exhaustive, far moreso than I generally like. This is true even of otherwise empty rooms, since Monte has stated that, "Each [room] will have something of interest, and most will be fairly elaborate." This is a case where I think the realities of his subscription model -- providing something "meaty" every day -- has trumped old school dungeon design principles, which demanded not only a large number of otherwise empty rooms but empty rooms without much of interest in them.
Looking back at the sample room, you can see a few features that I think are telling. As noted, they're highly detailed, meaning you can just read the description and run with it; there's little need to wing it. Whether one considers this a good or a bad thing is a question of taste, I suppose. The information is presented very clearly and is well organized, however. You'll also immediately notice how unwieldy 3e D&D is, since game mechanics, particularly the stat blocks of unique NPCs take up a lot of space. You'll also see that pretty much everything in the dungeon is quantified, with Difficulty Classes aplenty, not to mention formulae for calculating the effects of spells, etc. I recall Monte Cook stating that he was amazed at how "light" the mechanical component of Dungeonaday.com felt to him, but, from my perspective, I found it the opposite, but then I play Swords & Wizardry these days. Many rooms also include a "Revisit" entry, which explains what the room will be like once the PCs have cleared it of its original inhabitants. That's a nice touch and one that goes a long way toward conveying that a proper megadungeon isn't a static place. There are also wandering monsters, for which I give Monte bonus points.
Overall, the site is extremely slick without being soulless. It's easy to use and has lots of nice features, like the ability to download every page (or print it off) as a PDF, as well as hyperlinks to the D20 SRD and other useful outside sites. I hope there will be an ongoing compilation of the entire dungeon, as the Greyhawk Grognard is doing with his The Castle of the Mad Archmage. That would go some way toward making up for the lack of a print product associated with the subscription, since those who let their subscriptions lapse would still have something to show for the money they spent beyond some disjointed PDFs. In addition to the aforementioned forums, Monte also has a blog where he discusses the design of Dragon's Delve and related topics. A lot of it would be of interest to old schoolers, I think, but much of it is also well known to us and there are also times when it's clear Monte has very different interests and priorities than we do, at least some of which stem from the design philosophy behind 3e.
Dungeonaday.com is a very ambitious project and a good enough idea that I'm going to be imitating it in broad terms. I would still balk at calling it "old school" without qualification, since both its native rules set and the nature of the subscription model demanded compromises I don't consider wholly congenial. Despite that, there are many nifty things in Dragon's Delve, as I said, and, in most cases, you can "retro-fit" its contents to make it more amenable to the TSR editions of the game. And there are times, such as in the presentation of puzzles, where Monte seems to understand the limits 3e places on play and so abandons mechanics entirely to make it a challenge to the player rather than his character. This isn't revolutionary to old schoolers, but I imagine it might be to a lot of younger gamers, for whom 3e is the first D&D they ever knew. In this way, Dungeonaday.com might prove an unexpected ally to the old school renaissance, by disseminating its ideas outside of the narrow confines of our community, but it's too early to tell.
In the end, my biggest beefs with Dungeonaday.com are the price and the subscription model. At $10 a month ($8 a month if you subscribe for 12 months, reduced to $7 a month if you do so before the end of March), it's too rich for my blood, considering that I already have my own Dwimmermount, not to mention Urheim, and a host of other megadungeons available for next to nothing. That's a shame, because I do think Dungeonaday.com shows great promise and hope its possible success will prove beneficial to the Old Ways. However, I'm not sure I can justify the cost in my particular case.
Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10
Buy This If: You're a fan of Monte Cook, are looking for a new megadungeon, don't mind a subcription model for content and/or don't find the 3e rules a distraction.
Don't Buy This If: You can't stand 3e rules, already have a megadungeon of your own, and/or dislike content being parceled out in small chunks over time.