Friday, March 23, 2018

Real D&D

Okay, let's face it. If we had the chance most of us would step through the magical gateway into a real D&D world.

Or would we?

I have often played this thought experiment over and over again with myself, and as is usually the case, fantasy is much more appealing than reality. Even the reality of fantasy world made real. The first obstacle is general fitness to even be considered a capable adventurer, and the second is the training to be anything more than a liability.

This little daydream is really nothing more than that. But it's one I think bears fruit for gamers for a number of reasons. It also helps elucidate some of the reasoning behind old school D&D. You see the original game had players roll 3d6 in order for your stats. In fact the DM actually rolled them, but that changed early on. The idea here is that you are randomly inheriting a character born into the world, by and large average by the 3d6 bell curve. This simulates reality in our world, where most people end up being more or less average within a certain range. in other words not particularly exceptional. And if they were exceptional they weren't exceptional in more than one or maybe two areas. This is life.

These rather normal people simply chose to become adventurers. This premise implies a number of facts about the whole idea of fantasy adventure. That you could be normal and go out and have an adventure. The other premise of the game is that by taking a class, you were only slightly better than average in some set of skills--that of a fighter, a cleric, a magic user or a thief. And this was assumed to be due to a lengthy apprenticeship in those arts from at least age 10 or 12 on. Starting ages for humans were listed in the DMG as
  • Clerics           = 19 yrs    = 7 to 9 yr apprenticeship
  • Fighters         = 16 yrs    = 4 to 6 yr apprenticeship
  • Magic Users  = 26 yrs    = 14 to 16 yr apprenticeship
  • Thieves          = 19 yrs    = 7 to 9 yr apprenticeship
And in that time based on character class training 

Clerics learn to fight reasonably well, to turn undead, and to cast one spell--and in some version not even this until second level.

Fighters learn to fight well and use a variety of weapons and armor.

Magic Users learn the basics of magic and to cast one spell, and perhaps a few cantrips (in UA).

Thieves learn simple self defense and the rudiments of their craft but except for climbing walls are successful less than a third of the time. 

In other words, even adventurers, though slightly better than than zero level humans in some skills, are pretty average, and progress slowly through the ranks of their class to become heroes gradually better than a commoner. And commoners fight as well as almost any class at first level, except for fighters, and some don't improve beyond this until 6th level!

This is a far cry from what we are used to in D&D post 2000, where you are not just imagining what it would be like to be an adventurer, but you are allowed to dream big and be a powerful hero from the first moment the game starts. And heaven help the commoner who would try and defeat you, and DMs start to measure commoners by a whole new yardstick:

But I'm not here to talk about power creep or the value of playing an RPG where you start as a superhero or a slightly above average joe. To each his own and all that. 

What these early assumptions did for us, was make travelling to a fantasy world as ourselves a believable dream. And I mean ourselves as in our skinny, pot bellied, bad backed, asthmatic, pimply faced, flat footed selves and actually standing a chance at surviving! Becuase that is what our characters did. We may have a a 5 Dex and a 6 Con, but we identified with tha! We may not have liked it all that much, since in our mind Beaurigaard the Brave was a musclebound Olympic level warrior, but we really knew he was just a grunt with clear weaknesses--even though his strength might be 15. And what it communicated to us was that the important thing was how we played Beau based on our ability to think and strategize and use those strengths and even his weaknesses to his advantage. And moreover, what we realized was that even though we weren't as strong as Beau the fighter in real life were weren't as clumsy as he and maybe not even as sickly. In other words, if we were smart and careful and built up our skills we too might be able to be an adventurer and not only survive but perhaps surthrive in a fantasy world!

This made the dream that much more believable and that much more fun. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Exploring the Underworld: A 5e Experience

Not being one to let gray grow on an idea, I took my own advice last session and we spent the entire session in primarily exploratory play. It worked well with the storyline so far, since the last retreat the party made to recoup after the fight with the Ogres and Trolls gave the Slavers a good 8 hour lead on them. I figured it took four hours to clear the slaves out and another four hours on the road, gave them a good head start.

If you've never run the Slaver Series each module makes it very clear that the Slave Lords and their Network, which I have worked into the Lord's Alliance, are very crafty and cunning. They are shrewd and ruthless assassins and thieves and will not hesitate to take advantage when it presents itself. Well in several failed frontal assaults they Lords have lost to the party each time. Thus this last time they realized it was better to leave the adventurers trapped in the stockade apparently pursuing them into the dungeons underneath, when in actuality they had already vacated the caves through exit 39 (see below).

I also decided they would leave all the traps activated and a few more, as well as summon several nasty beasties to be left behind with the other natural denizens of the cave to deter and slow down the party. In the spirit of the Mythic Underworld I also redesigned the map--I don't have the map with me right now, but I'll try and remember to post it later--to include portions off map connected to the deeper and darker Underworld.

The idea here is that what we are talking about is a whole other world under the earth--not exactly like the UnderDark, which serves a different purpose--that is or may be or eventually will creep its way into any region under the earth, no matter how near or far. I used the Cave regions primarily (in the NW quadrant) and area 17 as my primary infiltration points of the beginning of cancerous growths, or old festering wounds of evil that were never quite healed and kept from abscessing into the main dungeon.

Essentially my thinking was that the Slave Lords and the Drow, when they took over the stockade and rebuilt the fort in and amongst the ruins of the original keep, they found that the dungeon had become infected with nether regions of the Underworld. The Cave regions, in fact, of the Upper NE quadrant had always been connected to things deeper, darker and more sinister. However, the Drow and the Slave Lords had walled off those portions to keep them in check as they did their business. And nothing says "open me" to a group of XP hungry adventurers like a large thick iron door, crossed with chains and padlocked, hung with a hastily scrawled sign reading "Under NO circumstances is this door to be opened!"

But keeping out the chaos when one is so close to it is like trying to hold back a lava flow from hell, or perhaps more aptly poisonous gas through a window screen. It's gonna get in. But this brings up an important point about the Underworld. Those who traffic in evil, and especially those who choose to execute their dark deeds in places beneath the surface of the earth and away from the light of day begin to become all too comfortable with the malign and twisted influence of Chaos. They are used to reality feeling warped, diseased and dangerous. They become a part of the disease themselves and seek out its deleterious influence to further their own aberrant schemes.

So it was that my adventurers entered the portion of the castle that was not rebuilt by the Slavers, but the older more ancient and shadowy stone portion of the ruins that led downwards into the dungeons below. Now, remember, that the Slavers had left with the slaves, leaving the Adventurers to deal with the traps, puzzles and denizens they had left behind; in addition to whatever might have crawled out of the now unlocked, unchained and open doors which had barred the dark from dungeon below the fort. So immediately the castle seems to take on an abandoned, silent for ominous feel.

First they tackle a complicated series of doors previously used to dispose of slaves and "drop" them into cages below. Now the area is magically trapped with a high level magical sleep spell. The creepy words on the door "Somnus Loductor" (Latin for Sleep Inductor and used as a magical glyph to anchor the enchantment now on the area). However, a comprehend languages having translated the words, the adventurers falsely assumed that this was some elaborate method to "anesthetize" slaves before transport. I won't bore you with a play by play, but suffice it to say it led to a good half hour of intense and exciting play as they worked their way through and past this nefarious trap.

The next exploratory phase involved the party in a strange and somewhat creepy section of the dungeon where an escaped slave and his two female charges were hiding in the walls. The escapees constructed an elaborate haunting hoax in this section of the dungeon (this is a part of the original module) which led to a scary confrontation in which the party accidentally kills all three of the poor escaped souls hiding behind the walls. The ethical dilemma and argument this caused was brilliant and offered an excellent example of alignment based roleplay among the party.

The point is there was technically no combat in all three and half hours of play, and the party had a blast working their way through this very interesting and challenging portion of the dungeon. Atmosphere was thick, tension was high, interest was keen and all in all it was one of the best sessions we've had in awhile. Several of the players were commenting about the castle as if it were a foe in and of itself "I am beginning to hate this place!" and "What is this freakin castle trying to do to us?!" and one suggestion that they actually excavate a section themselves and drop it into their own base of operations back in Phandalin.

All of which I point out to support the notion success when the dungeon begins to take on the tone of a Mythic Underworld and exploration, critical thinking, roleplay and immersion in the setting begins to rise to the top. I had mentioned last time that my hope is to minimize combat frequency, increase combat deadliness and play more with exploration and interaction with the setting and its denizens. Adventurers get the feeling that they aren't just on a military style mission, but that they are exploring a very dangerous and insidious place that is somehow out to get them! The very heart of Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Thoughts on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld"

An Excellent Example of Mythic Underworld from Hydra Cooperative
I found something that inspired me. To be honest, I had first heard about it when I read Philotomy's Musings back when it was just a web page. I believe it was Philotomy (aka Jason Cone) that first coined the phrase, but he was not its creator as much as its "namer". For the idea of the Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, as Philo makes clear in his writings, really harks back to the way D&D was originally played in the late 780's (my term for the late 70's early 80's). He describes the experience as exploration of a megadungeon that,

"should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it." (Philotomy's Musings pg 22)

I love this concept for several reasons; but before I enumerate them allow me to share, if I can, a bit of the feel of gaming in this way. I started gaming in 1981 with a group of older guys (I was 12 they were like 13-14) with AD&D. They had learned to play with OD&D + Supplements, but we used the 1e hardbacks exclusively when I played. I recall several salient moments in my early play which highlighted the over the top gonzo weirdness of D&D, going through modules like White Plume Mountain and Expedition to Barrier Peaks particularly. The general oddness and sci-fantasy "fun" made one believe literally anything was possible. D&D wasn't the classical medieval high fantasy game we think of today. Rather it was a strange brew of Lovecraftian menace, Moorcockish chaos and the Dunsanian bizarre. Of course none of us could have described it that way at the time--that simply was D&D.

What was also really clear is that the guys I was playing with simply made up most of it as we went along. This last part is what I'd like to highlight most clearly--we made stuff up as we played. Mostly it was the DM, but players were just as zany and hairbrained as any half mad dungeonmaster unleashing the craziness of his own twisted imagination upon his hapless players. To say the modules were a guide, is putting it mildly. They were more like fuzzy suggestions of some ideas you could use with this map. At least that's the way things were for the first few years. This style of play is actually very conducive to "Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" if you're comfortable improvising and imagining on the fly. It is not the only way this has to be done, but it certainly helps.

I have a personal belief that this is the way that early games went with Gygax, Arneson and the others as well. Proof of this can be had in the papers that have been shared online of the original Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor adventures--and the reason why they went unpublished for so long. Their  campaign materials consisted of maps and notes of sessions made just before and often as they happened. Putting them together in some kind of coherent order was almost impossible unless the DMs themselves did it, and even then they often couldn't do it. The fact is that it is hard to capture what really happened at the table when it may have had less than 2% to do with what you hastily scrawled in your prep session.

Dave Arneson is still renowned as a DM par excellence, and yet when they tried to create the Blackmoor supplement the writers and editors were so frustrated with his notes they had to rewrite most of it, and he was never satisfied with the finished product. It didn't live up to his vision of the campaign, and in fact nothing they tried to produce probably could have. Dave was better live than in Memorex. Most of the magic and the connections and depth of his adventures and campaigns were in Dave's head--not in his notes. And even if he had written them down, and he had, noone could quite make them come alive like Dave. Take, for example, the Arneson papers that were bequeathed upon his death. A literal van load of paper stuffed boxes and stacks and reams of papers and notebooks that were sort of symbolic of Dave's creative mind. It was the way he gamed and the way he wrote. Noone yet has been able to produce anything usable from them. Yet even Gygax lauded Arneson as a better DM than he himself was.

Now, obviously the game changed. Much of what Gary wrote did make it into reasonably organized print. However, even today the PHB, and DMG are criticized as poorly organized, baroque, and horribly indexed examples of how to not write a game book. Irregardless of the fact that these were the first books of their kind, and a vast improvement over the original three LBBs in terms of organization, and readability, they are indeed reflective of a style of gaming that was prevalent in the day. It was the beginning of a direction that would lead to the tightly written, more rules oriented, games of today. Even the early modules, mostly tournament reprints designed to be well organized for the tournaments in question, were sparse and not overly detailed. Often rooms are briefly described with a note of a monster, stats and treasure or left completely empty.

Filling in the lines, the motives, the details, were held to be the province of the DM themselves. In point of fact, Gary and the early designers all wrote into the first three books and the supplements that the point of the game was to do the imagining yourself, write the adventures, create the worlds, take the few rules we have written and "imagine the hell out of it!" Such was the way in which the early games were meant to be played. It was a surprise that players wanted more printed material, especially modules and it was only after how lucrative they realized such products could be that they started churning more and more out and eventually changed the approach to a "right" way to play D&D (c.f. Dragon Magazine circa iss. 76 and onward). All of this can be uncovered and confirmed in some of the histories written, interviews given and the excellent video casts given by Tim Kask and others.

It doesn't mean it was the right way to play, or that other ways were somehow wrong. I'm not saying that. As Tim Kask himself says "If you're having fun, you're doing it right." The point here is to give you a framework against which to understand, to grok, the idea of Dungeon as Mythic Underworld. It isn't just rooted in a style of dungeon design it is rooted in a style of play.

A "Megadungeon" whatever you might define that as, is rarely a finished product. And not only because it is generally considered to be infinite, but rather because it is simply too big to detail beyond reason. And reason dictates a style of detail that doesn't go much beyond

1. Entryway: four large columns stand in the center room, cobwebs, large spider.
2. Cloak room: 8 rotting pegs line the north and south wall, pile of motheaten cloaks are on floor
3. Empty
4. Confused rust monster HP 29
5. Storeroom: rots grubs in grain barrels
6. 10' spiked pit trap center of hall

So for example, these brief descriptions are designed to act as markers for what could be used, and elaborated upon as the DM sees fit. Running as is would be a bit dry, so the DM spices it up as she goes weaving together the environment represented by the above descriptions, the players' actions and the unfolding results of their actions.

But how do you turn a series of encounters like this into an actually Mythic Underworld? Assuming the descriptions above are part of a megadungeon or a portion of the MU (Mythic Underworld) it could go something like this.

The columns actually have series of lights in them, mutlicolored, that flash on and off at seemingly random intervals. A light on one column is burnt out and appears to be able to be depressed. The reason for this is innocuous, they are left over signal lights from a technologically advanced race that used to inhabit the region at one time. When you push on the one button it sizzles slightly and flickers briefly. As the characters are no doubt fiddling with lights the spider will drop on them from the webs above gaining surprise. Dangling in the spider web is the remains of an old half rusted cyborg. He at first appears like a human sized warrior in plate armor. His human half is desiccated, long ago drained of blood and fluids, but with a sufficient intelligence check they can get the robotic part working partly. His head will come to life, a red light faintly glowing where his one robotic eye would be. If they wait long enough the cyborg will begin to respond to questions, but his universal translator is broken and a character will have to cast comprehend languages to understand it. He may serve as a useful guide through portions of the dungeon, but if brought to within 100' of the central command jewel it will become hostile and seek to kill the party with its remaining laser eyes--though they are weak now and only do 3d6 damage per hit. In no case can the cyborg move and will have to be carried and continually nursed into running order.

And you get the idea ... that doesn't even begin to introduce the polymorphed rust monster who used to be an apprentice to a dark sorcerer who now makes his abode in the dungeon--hence his confusion. The point here is, and I just made all this up now, is that the weirdness comes into play as you move along. And so does the developing story of both the dungeon and the campaign.

Believe me, I have tried writing all this out ahead of time. In fact I just spend all day last Sunday prepping for an encounter in my current adventure and ended up using none of it. I mean zero. The party did something else, and I ended up deciding that the smart thing for the remaining bad guys and their leaders to do was to cut and run. But honestly, it all went great, just not as my well written and prepped 12 pages were expecting.

I end up making most of it up as we go out of the barest of bones of a plan and the actions and decisions that occur as we go. Of course every session doesn't have to be gonzo weird, but knowing that none of it has to make perfectly logical sense, relives a ton of pressure from a harried DM. The idea of a Dungeon World designed on these principles is a great help in this regard. The problem is that it is just a dungeon. What we really need is an approach that includes the upper and the lower worlds. Enter Faerie. That is what inspired me about the old post from Monsters and Manuals linked to above. That the Wilderness as a Mythic land of Faerie is every bit as cool and useful as the underworld concept. One could argue that this is what the designers had in mind when they wrote The UnderWorld & Wilderness Adventures of the OD&D set and the Expert Book of the Basic line. Both books were focused not just on dungeons but wild untamed magical wilderness areas as well. And the Mythic world of Chaos a la Poul Anderson's Three Hearts series was just as much about the untamed wilds above as the dark labyrinthine recesses under the ground were.

But let's talk about the reason I really love this. The idea that here be monsters, beyond the maps and domains of men, drives the adventure fantasy of the game and echos the weirdness in our own reality. What I mean by this is that for monsters, magic and wonder of fantasy to stay magical, wonderful and frightening it must remain unpredictable, essentially unknowable, and dangerous. Having spent a large portion of academic and armchair study into evidence of the unseen, the paranormal, the mythic and the supernatural in our world, one thing is clear. That when these things happen everyday normal reality takes a hike. Part of the reason these experiences thrill and interest us is precisely because they are strange. And I'm not just talking about a unicorn happening to walk out of the woods. We're like, "Oh my goodness look at that strange animal I've never seen before!" And after a while if I see it enough its just a horse with a horn on its head.

True fantasy and magic are not just something we normally don't expect to see. True magic, unreal experiences are exceptional because they bring with them, a sense of unreality; a feeling that the fabric of the universe being pulled a part at the seams, and you might just be going a little bit mad. These things, are what what makes the Mythic mythic. It is what the definition of fantasy is in my mind. If we live in a world that is as natural and mechanistic as our seems to be, but where goblins are real and some really smart people can do things with magic--sort of alike an undiscovered science--then the wonder begins to lose its power. Goblins are just another biological species, and can be dealt with as rationally as any other potentially dangerous species--like a bear or a wolf or a lion. In fact we really don't need them to define fantasy--an extended family of twisted serial killers would work just as well, or a widespread epidemic of rabid dogs. If magic is just another science that anyone with enough smarts can learn then we should use chemistry and physics to replicate it. My brother was a chem major for a while in pre-med and also an avid D&D player and I recall him telling me that just about any spell D&D mentions can be in some way replicated with science and technology.

So what makes magic magic? In a word, weirdness. True magic and magical beings are strange, unpredictable, ultimately unknowable, and though we can learn some rules of thumbs and general guidelines for dealing with it, they never quite make sense, and are apt to change at a moment's notice. Magic doesn't follow the normal everyday laws and rules of reality. Now, don't get me wrong. Like Philotomy pointed out, they (MUs) should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency. But they should also be bent, warped and chaotic--cancers gnawing at the world.

This essential ethos was built into D&D in the early days in the essential dichotomy between the lands of Chaos and the Lands of Law. And therein we have the heart of the conflict of the world of D&D. The lands of men with their castles, kingdoms, baronies and villages are the Lands of Law; and the outer wilds, the dark depths beneath are the sprawling realms of Chaos. The two constantly at war one with another, Rule and Misrule locked in eternal battle. And it is the brave, bold and foolhardy D&D adventurer that dares venture down and out into the realms where Chaos breathes and strange magics twist the world to its maniacal whims. These are the few souls who know something of the strange beauty and terrifying nightmare that is the Mythic UnderWorld and the Odd Courts of Faerie.

This is at the heart of Old School D&D and the style of DMing that thrived within it. Something I am going to be incorporating more and more into my own 5e games.