Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Retrospective: Greyhawk Ruins

Normally, I restrict these retrospectives to products produced within the first decade of the hobby, but I occasionally make exceptions. Today, I'm going to talk about one such exception: 1990's Greyhawk Ruins by Blake Mobley and Timothy B. Brown. I don't want to discuss it because it's a particularly stellar product -- it's not -- but it is a rare example of a published megadungeon, which makes it worth discussing. With 26 levels and more than 1000 rooms, it's probably the largest dungeon the hobby had ever seen at the time of its publication. As I've noted many times before, this hobby was born in the megadungeon, which is why it's so surprising that, even now, we've seen so few published examples of the form.

Greyhawk Ruins, despite its name, doesn't have a lot to do with the real Castle Greyhawk of Gary Gygax. On the other hand, it's also not a bad joke in module form. I'm no scholar of Greyhawk and its minutiae, so I can't speak to whether there's anything in Greyhawk Ruins that owes its existence to the original Lake Geneva campaign except in a general way. Thus, there are lots of references to Greyhawk figures and places, particularly Zagig Yragerne, as one might expect. However, there's little discernible Greyhawk "feel" to the place Mobley and Brown describe. One could easily change all the names and identifiers and no one would be the wiser. The vast dungeon this 128-page product describes is actually pretty generic, branding aside.

Whether one views its generic nature a virtue or a vice is a matter of opinion, of course. If one wishes to drop the dungeon into one's own campaign, it's pretty easy to do so. On the other hand, I suspect most of the people who purchased this module were not looking for a generic dungeon. They were looking for Castle Greyhawk, whose publication had been promised at least as far back as 1980, if not longer. I know I was, which is why, until recently, I held Greyhawk Ruins in very low esteem. I've recently re-evaluated my opinion and have come to the conclusion that, while pretty dull in many ways, this module isn't worthy of the disdain I heaped upon it. Don't misunderstand me: it's still not a great module by any estimation. But it is, as I say, a rare example of a published megadungeon, which makes it worthy of some respect, even if it doesn't engender much affection.

There are some things that Greyhawk Ruins does right. Firstly, it's big. I mean, really big. This is not a dungeon one could ever hope to "clear," even if one spent many months playing through it continuously. That's an important aspect of any megadungeon. Secondly, while there's a backstory that provides some context for the dungeon, there's no overarching "story." Some rooms and levels have a certain connectedness, while others don't. Wandering from place to place, there's a great deal of variety, with factions and power groups local to some areas but not others. Thirdly, the dungeon's levels aren't neatly stacked on top of one another. Instead, there are multiple, parallel ways to enter the dungeon and the relationship between the levels isn't straightforward. Finally, there's a lot of weird -- and occasionally goofy -- stuff in the dungeon, as befits "a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses." All of these things work together to produce something that has more in common with the earliest dungeons of the hobby than the tournament-style "lair" dungeons many gamers raised on a diet of prepackaged modules see as the norm.

In short, 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.

30 comments:

  1. Its one of my favourite 2nd edition modules.
    It has many interesting ideas and locales.
    I must have nicked oodles of ideas from this publication,with a little work dozens of sub quests could be created to make use of all the
    various dungeons, caves & lairs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm with Atom on this one. Plus it is just full of all kinds of little nooks and crannies and weird things. I know that Greyhawkers think of it as a 'slap in the face' but the mine at the bottom, weird traps and gold weapons that degrade as you use them? My players would have loved that shit back in the day.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It is interesting you can count the published megadungeons on two hands....Greyhawk Ruins, Ruins of Undermountain, Rappan Athuk, World's Largest Dungeon, Castle Whiterock, Stonehell Dungeon...and yet it is the most commonly referenced type of dungeon exploration. There really should be a dissertation written somewhere about why old reworked tournament modules became the norm rather than megadungeons in the earliest days of the hobby.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even more interesting is that nearly all of the examples of megadungeons you cite were published in the last decade and many of them were explicitly intended as callbacks to the Old Ways (which is ironic, since we saw so few genuinely old megadungeons published).

      Delete
    2. One more reason to emphasize the "renaissance" part of the OSR.

      Confucius also claimed to be channeling the ancient sage kings when what he was really doing was innovating.

      Not that there are not historical influences, but there is a lot of new thought going on too.

      Delete
    3. I don't think it's very mysterious. Tournament adventures are short and self-contained -- i.e., modular. Economical to write up, publish, and easy for DMs to drop into their own games. Megadungeons, by virtue of their size alone, take a lot more effort. I take Gygax at his word when he said it would take a great deal of work to transform a collection of personal notes into a presentable work that other gamers could use.

      Delete
    4. @James, There are several reasons we are seeing megadungeons now' the open gaming license and the diversity it causes, computer technology (PoD, desktop publishing, blogs, forums, etc), and finally some of us been doing this for 40 to 20 years.

      Think what it would take to publish Dwimmermount back in the 80s compared to today. It still a lot of work

      Delete
    5. I believe this is because most of the time, megadungeons are very personal creations. A dungeon of this size often reflects a DM's personality, his favorite themes, and maybe his personal eccentricities and obsessions.

      "Professional" adventure writing done in the past 30 years or so is almost the antithesis of that: modules are written to appeal to the "largest audience possible". Not only does this affect quality, it also means there's less room for more personal designs.

      As a result, magadungeon modules like Greyhawk Ruins were written especially for publication, and are a bit bland. Also, writing a megadungeon of this size is a lot of work. If you don't have a personal version from your home campaign to fall back on, it's almost undoable.

      Delete
  4. Perhaps a bit off topic, but bear with me anyway. You stated, "This is not a dungeon one could ever hope to "clear," even if one spent many months playing through it continuously."

    I have not done this, but as I read your post, the idea did strike me. Has there been a campaign published or otherwise, which the focus was to clear the dungeon of all its levels and reoccupy it?

    Arguably, this was the intent of what was supposed to happen in Moria, but failed. And I suppose there may have been some advetures that just occupied a dungeon of 1 or 2 levels. Rather, I'm talking about occupying a mega-dungeon by design. Where a ruler sends in adventures to clear out levels. Subsequently the ruler sends in occupying troops to make sure that the tunnels, warrens, levels, etc. remain firmly in their hands.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It hasn't really been a focus of my players, but one of the implications of things found within my own megadungeon is that, yes, there was a group who at one time not only tried but succeeded for quite some time at clearing out and occupying the megadungeon. Ultimately, they failed, but the pieces are all in place for an ambitious party to try again...

      Delete
  5. The idea of the Dwarven band tolling adventurers on treasure gained in the Tower of War mad me laugh too!
    The schemes players came up with to avoid paying the fees!
    All the various areas have different themes & feel to them.
    I really liked all the ruined levels, overun by undead & monsters.Limpey's right, the Gold mine area rocks!

    ReplyDelete
  6. The dwarves and elves guarding the towers is straight from the original campaign. The falcon statue seen on the cover is meant to represent the Enigma from the original campaign. There are probably other examples, but that's off the top of my head.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A wrote a post about this one last week. http://gnolltrain.blogspot.com/2012/02/how-game-was-played-part-ii-megadungeon.html

    When this came out, a friend of mine ran this for a group that met at the local comic book shop. The dungeon itself was nothing special, but we had fun with it. We had a large group, with many players coming in and out of the game, and it was well suited for that sort of group. There wasn't much of a story going on, but that was fine as not everyone was going to be there to keep up with it.

    As I recall, we adventured in the tower of War. Each of the 3 towers had a bit of a different theme. The war tower seemed the most simplistic. If I recall it was mostly monster focused, as opposed to tricks and traps. As a megadungeon, it worked just fine, but the setting wasn't memorable. However the things that the players did were memorable, and that's what really counts.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm not sure about this module, and my opinion of it keeps changing between liking it or not. On the one hand, I agree with James that most of it is pretty bland and dull. On the other hand, there are some really good ideas in there, especially in the lower levels, and I like how the dungeon is presented as a living thing with it's own history, inhabitants actually doing something other than waiting for adventurers to kill them.
    Also, the levels feel a bit small, but maybe the large number of levels (24) makes up for that.

    ReplyDelete
  9. One big pain in the ass about this module is that they decided "hey, let's just not put a grid on any of the maps, just, you know, because fuck you."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hahaha, but it's all so clear! 1" = 60 feet!

      But seriously, my players love knowing at least BASIC room dimensions for mapping, and the lack of a grid was one of the biggest reasons I never used any of the maps from this module!

      Delete
    2. Yeah...those non-grid weirdly-colored maps drove me apeshit back in the day. I much prefer good old black and white maps. The blue-shaded maps in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks killed my eyes.

      Delete
  10. So while it is "pretty dull in many ways", "this module isn't worthy of the disdain" you heaped upon it because it fulfills a few formal criteria of being a "correct" megadungeon? Let me disagree: it is absolutely worthy of whatever disdain you might have heaped upon it precisely because it is dull and devoid of enthusiasm. Ruins of Undermountain, another attempt at producing a 2e megadungeon, is flawed to heck and back, but it shows imagination, style, and looks like the writer had fun creating and using it. That's a tremendous difference.

    To resort to a Gygax quote, "It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important". He was right, and it applies perfectly to adventures like Greyhawk Ruins.

    ReplyDelete
  11. How are the maps presented? Are they in books or are they awkward poster maps? Based on the comments, this actually sounds pretty good (and I'm not up on my Greyhawk lore, so I probably wouldn't be disappointed).

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm with Melan on this one. 'Ruins' is a disjointed mess; giving it an A for effort based on number of rooms needlessly fetishizes the concept of the megadungeon-as-immense, as opposed to megadungeon-as-campaign-theme. 'Ruins' is big, yes. But it's big and bland, and only its size (which, as you note, is unusual for its time wrt published stuff) is of any note.

    "Hey, check this out, it's the world's largest slice of white bread!" "Yes...yes, I suppose it is."

    ReplyDelete
  13. Given that Gary has passed on and his (copious?) notes have yet to be compiled (maybe Ghul has more insight on this), what concrete work do we have from the back in the day Castle Greyhawk? Castle Zagyg comes to mind of course, but what other items can we use if we were assemble the closest facsimile we can? Rob Kuntz had some module I believe, and there were some others but could someone please spell them out for me.

    As a late comer to CG, I would like to know what the fuss is about.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Joeseph Bloch's "Castle of the Mad Archmage" is a high-quality effort at a fan-made CG. The Troll Lord boxed set? I think it's very good, but it also sells for hundeds of dollars.

    Anyway, I'd score GR like so:

    Average quality dungeon: +5
    Huge: +1
    Terrible maps: -2
    Mangling/ignorance of Greyhawk lore: -1
    Total: 3/10

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm a massive fan of Greyhawk and was disappointed in my cursory look through CG precisely because of the point Will made in that it neither added to nor seemed to acknowledge the copious details about Greyhawk presented in the boxed set.
    So, is there actually a good example of a megadungeon or a module that actually adds to the Greyhawk mythos?

    ReplyDelete
  16. I think this emphasis that most old school play involved mega-dungeons over other forms of adventures, published or not, is generally flawed.

    The roots of the game may have been in megas that will never fully see the light of day, and in all likelihood do not exist in any written form anymore, but my experience and that of many of my gaming associates was more a hodge podge of custom created dungeons and wilderness crawls, with the occasional published adventure slotted in.

    The lack of published megas seems to indicate that the form was less common during the 80s old school and is more a modern attempt to capture the first campaigns of the 70s.

    As far as the difficulty to publish notes most early non-TSR products were little more than typewritten notes. Look at the first 1976 Lost caverns of Tsojconth or Wee Warriors Vampire Queen and especially the Judge's Guild materials.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The relative lack of mega-dungeons in the first few decades of the hobby probably had to do with printing costs. However, the current shift into electronic form (PDFs and formats for e-readers like Kindle) creates opportunities for this in the future, only limited by the interest of the writers and editors behind the project.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't buy this argument. The printing costs of the megadungeons I have seen are not very high, and would have easily been produceable by companies like TSR. Stonehell, for example, is just a perfect-bound paperback. Also, megadungeons easily could have been released serially (as seems to be the practice now). If TSR could produce the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, I think they could have produced megadungeons if they had prioritized them.

      Delete
    2. I agree - A megadungeon does not imply that the document is large at all. A mega implies multiple levels, not necessarily huge single floors. Most designs would probably have fit on one or two sheets of normal graph paper per level.

      Most early dungeons would have been maps and sheets of room contents with a touch of description. Effectively printing costs would be map sheets with a small booklet of notes, not large box set like say Ruins of Undermountain.

      The maps could be printed very cheaply, witness Judge's Guild maps. Or they could be formatted to 8 1/2 by 11 sheets, which would correspond to the graph paper that the DM would have used in the first place for the original design.

      I think that if TSR had published a mega from the early days it would be in a format almost exactly like the first Greyhawk folio, ie a mapsheet or two and a booklet.

      Delete
  18. Another interesting tidbit I found on the Acaeum site...

    the original City State series maps that were 17" x 22" and done in dark brown ink cost $0.27 each to print.

    So pretty cheap even with largish maps.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I fixed the maps up in photoshop and added a grid when I Dm'ed it a few years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I never, ever, throw out a module, no matter how bad it is. Truth is, I always find something of interest to use in my campaigns and that counts for something. Truth be told, I'm quite flexible and there are few things I consider really bad.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.