In the four years since I created Dwimmermount, I've played with quite a few different groups of players. There's my home group, of course, but there are also gamers I've met at OSRCon and through Google+ (where I'm still running sessions biweekly, when real life doesn't prevent me from doing so, as it did recently). Though there are some players who carry over from one group to another, there are also a lot of new players, so they're experiencing the dungeon for the first time. So, not only are its chambers and monsters and traps fresh to them, they're also bringing with them different expectations about what Dwimmermount is like -- and those expectations color the way the interact with the dungeon. Those expectations also color the way I present the dungeon.
You've probably all seen this photograph of Gary Gygax's map and key to the first level of his Castle Greyhawk dungeon, right? What's noteworthy about that photo, aside from how labyrinthine Castle Greyhawk appears to be, is that Gary's key is incredibly sparse by the standards of published dungeons. I suspect (never having had the pleasure of playing with him) that Gary probably used that key as a starting point for describing Castle Greyhawk rather than as a definitive presentation of the dungeon itself. It's a combination of snapshot and mnemonic device to aid him in his refereeing. And while I am sure that many details of Castle Greyhawk remained the same no matter who Gygax was running through it, I also suspect that some details changed, or were at least presented differently in response to how his players reacted to what they encountered.
This has had two interesting side effects. Firstly, I never run Dwimmermount the same way twice, at least not exactly. The key says that Room 62 is an "audience chamber" with "throne, etc." and nothing more. In play, I always expand upon this description, adding as much detail as I think the current players desire. So, I'll almost always say that there's a wooden throne upon a dais in the room, along with some other trappings of authority, like rotting tapestries and the like. How much more I say beyond that depends on how interested my players seem to be in the room and its contents. In some sessions, I've described the throne in great detail, talking about the carvings upon it, as well as its current state of repair. In other sessions, it's the tapestries that get this kind of treatment, while in others still I may make note of something else entirely, like some broken spearheads in the corner of the room or a shattered shield. In each case, though, my description is based on my perception of the players' level of curiosity and interests. My various descriptions are probably all consonant with one another, but the words I choose to use vary, often considerably, from group to group.
Secondly, the process of converting my key into something useful as a published product has proven a far more irksome one than I had ever imagined. Mind you, I'd anticipated this problem years ago and so have no one to blame but myself. But the point remains: translating sparsely worded notes into something that not only makes sense to others but is thoroughly usable by them is harder than it looks, particularly when one has, as I have, come to appreciate firsthand the benefits of sparseness. Having run many levels of Dwimmermount numerous times with groups of different gamers has taught me to find liberation in a certain degree of vagueness, as it gives me flexibility to tailor the dungeon to whoever is currently sitting at the table with me.
Though I have no proof of this, I have begun to suspect that a sparse (and flexible) key is the sanest way to run a megadungeon, unless one is possessed of a uniquely powerful memory. With so many rooms on each level, many of which will be empty or at least without any contents of significance, does it even make sense to have highly detailed descriptions? I think the same can often be said of many rooms with inhabitants or other contents of significance. Needless to say, the process of turning my own megadungeon into a form for others has been -- and continues to be -- a learning experience.
|The Art Gallery on Level 3A: The House of Portals ©2012 Eric Quigley|