Friday, March 20, 2009

REVIEW: Dungeonaday.com


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.

19 comments:

  1. I truly wish Mr. Cook all the best, but that sample room was so wordy it made my balls hurt.

    Even before reaching the statblock at the end.

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  2. Yeah, the wordiness of the room descriptions is a big turn-off to me as well.

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  3. Interesting review; it pretty much confirms what I was able to glean from the sample offerings on the website.

    I'm still a tad put off by the attitude the whole thing seems to be pushing; namely that Monte has somehow invented the megadungeon, and am not a fan of his design work by any stretch (Return to the ToEE went over like a lead kielbasa with me). So, short of viking a few ideas and particulars here and there, I probably wouldn't get much out of it. Certainly doesn't seem worth $7 a month from my chair.

    Still, I do hope the subscription idea works as a business model; it could open up a lot of interesting possibilities in a variety of quarters.

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  4. Ultimately, I think the cost is much too high for what you get, especially considering that most of us in the old school community can come up with comparable stuff without much difficulty. If the price were a fair bit lower, I might consider keeping a subscription to keep abreast of the ongoing design and to swipe the best ideas from it, but, as it is, it's too expensive, particularly given the work I'd have to do to convert it to my use.

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  5. Personally, I think size is a fairly small quibble...


    I think it's a flaw. There is a good reason that an old school megadungeon has a very large first level: first level PCs tend to die. While any PC of any level can die through poor play and bad decisions, it's also true that first level PCs are more subject to the whims of fate (and the dice), because they are more fragile. In an old school dungeon, it's likely that one or more first level PCs will die during the exploration of the upper levels. These PCs will very possibly have already gleaned treasure and XP from the first level. With small upper levels (and small first levels, especially), it's likely that you'll run into a "low level XP shortage." Also, the first level is going to be the most explored level, over time. More than one group may be nosing about, in addition to replacement PCs from the same group. And a large first level immediately reinforces one of the primary themes of the megadungeon: that it is so large that it may be impossible to explore all of it. (Incidentally, I thought Monte's list of assumptions was pretty good, with most of them matching up with my own thoughts on megadungeon assumptions -- I was pleased to see that.) In a nutshell, a large first level helps to support repeat and continued long-term play, which is part of the point of a "campaign dungeon" or a "megadungeon" in the first place.

    Oh, there's one other good reason for a large first level, again related to the fragility of low-level PCs. They need some room to run. The "density" of the first level should allow for tha, which means there needs to be some space. There should be quite a bit of empty space, too. And the keyed encounters on the first level should, for the most part, be isolated. That is, they should not typically result in calling down a whole "complex" of encounters on the PCs. That's not a hard-and-fast rule, of course, but those kinds of encounters are better suited for the lower levels.

    For what it's worth, I put up a new musing on my site about creating old-school megadungeons. I tried to make it a fairly brief summary of some of the ideas and approaches that we've been talking about and practicing in the old school community. For example, I talk about the need for "extra" treasure on the first level to help make up for low-level PC attrition.

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  6. Interesting stuff. Hope it works out for him, though I thought Ptolus was a pretty mighty D20/3e megadungeon. As far as kind words towards WotC editions of D&D go, I will also say that I thought the D20/4e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was rather good in a semi-old school way. Reminded me of the presentation of the D20/3e Wilderness of High fantasy...

    ...it turns out I also rather like Death Magnetic, so I should probably just admit to being a neophiliac right now. :D

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  7. I checked the free stuff at Dungeonaday and I think this is a really fair review. As I said on another comment, I really liked Monte's Banewarrens (set in Ptolus). I also grew tired of 3rd edition's huge statblocks and room descriptions.

    I'd really like to check Dungeonaday's blog so as to understand some of the design decisions... I guess it would be the most valuable part of the "product" for me.

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  8. I read the free stuff and my reaction was almost exactly that in your first paragraph. Mind, it would still be too costly even if it used "my" edition of D&D (4:th).

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  9. But the real question is:

    How does it measure up to your "Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines"?

    Carl

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  10. 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.

    I'm not sure that "empty...without much of interest" is an old school principle. I see empty rooms as being empty in the sense of "no monster and no treasure," but don't equate that with "nothing of interest." Instead, the empty rooms are places I might place mysterious features, or make a couple of quick rolls on "dungeon dressing" tables to spice it up.

    I guess it's true that I don't always do that beforehand, though. Dungeonaday's approach to keying lots of detail is definitely different from my approach. I'm not sure if I like it or not. Delivered in bite-sized chunks, I guess it would work fine, but it's not an approach I favor for a complete work -- especially a large one (by the time I read, understand, and absorb all that detail during prep-time, I could have created my own). Interesting -- for a bit-at-a-time subscription model, the extra detail might be okay.

    (Thinking out loud as a type -- sorry)

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  11. Just wanted to raise one point:

    The Machine-that-Grafts-Demon-Parts-To-You in _RttToEE_ seemed quite old-school to me. Sure, the rest didn't, but when I got there and I saw that you could roll a d6 and end up with an Evil Extra Face, that was pretty Dave Arneson, really.

    Adam

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  12. Response too long for this space, posted on my own blog:

    http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2009/03/monte-cooks-dungeonadaycom.html

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  13. Well, novel-length room description aside (uhhhh), I would differ that there is one set example of old school design for a first level dungeon. That seems to shovel the whole idea of creating anything into a category or lock it down in a box (just as Monte did in his review of Prisoners of the Maze for Necromancer Games, the second edition of mine).

    Greyhawk Castle had a first level that was not complicated for "newbies". It occupied the 8x11 map space but wasn't too tough to negotiate. I just feel that there can be a wide range of designs not limited by published designs but indeed embracing all types that work within the designer's conceptual range. So I embrace an OPEN & not closed design ideal in this regard, looking for the nuances and how these might fit in unique ways into the scope of each design and design idea.

    As for my estimation of value of DaD
    it will no doubt fill some sort of niche, as all things do on whatever level. My first impression, as this is my first from Jame's excellent review: not worth it to me on many levels as James noted, and for personal ones.

    Looking forward to Jame's/Other's dungeon and to contributing a level
    if it can be squeezed in at some future time.

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  14. 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.

    Just curious, James: which outside sites is Monte referring to most?---that might also help folks who may be interested get a handle on his design approaches.

    Allan.

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  15. Joseph wrote: I'm still a tad put off by the attitude the whole thing seems to be pushing; namely that Monte has somehow invented the megadungeon...

    I'm not clear on how you could get that impression.

    I'm a big fan of Cook's, but I can't figure how to justify the cost. I'm also curious about what happens if I decide to subscribe in 6 months. Do I get access to all the information that's already been posted? But, if so, why wouldn't I wait a year before subscribing? And if not, what do I get? Access to the current information that relies on material I don't have? Or am I just stuck in a perpetual 6-months-behind schedule?

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  16. How does it measure up to your "Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines"?

    Reasonably well so far, I'd say. I think Monte's done as good a job as is possible in translating the old school ethos to 3e rules. That's still a lot less than I prefer, but I can't fault him for his effort. As I said, if the price weren't so great, I'd probably consider maintaining a subscription to see how the project unfolds, but, as it is, it's just too expensive to justify.

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  17. I'm not sure that "empty...without much of interest" is an old school principle. I see empty rooms as being empty in the sense of "no monster and no treasure," but don't equate that with "nothing of interest." Instead, the empty rooms are places I might place mysterious features, or make a couple of quick rolls on "dungeon dressing" tables to spice it up.

    That's a fair point and I should correct myself here. I did mean "without monsters or treasure."

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  18. Just curious, James: which outside sites is Monte referring to most?---that might also help folks who may be interested get a handle on his design approaches.

    The Hypertext D20 SRD, Wikipedia, Dwarven Forge, and Reaper Minis all get lots of links.

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  19. I'm also curious about what happens if I decide to subscribe in 6 months. Do I get access to all the information that's already been posted? But, if so, why wouldn't I wait a year before subscribing? And if not, what do I get? Access to the current information that relies on material I don't have? Or am I just stuck in a perpetual 6-months-behind schedule?

    Those are good questions and I have no answers to some of them. I do think, though, that a subscriber six months hence gets access to all that's been posted up to that point, just like a subscriber to an e-magazine gets access to a back issue archive.

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