Sunday, September 30, 2012

DF Game, Session 15 - Felltower Level 2

September 30th, 2012

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (305 points)
Borriz, dwarven knight (290 points)
Nakar, human wizard (about 295 points)
Galen Longtread, human scout (253 points)
Kullockh, human scout (250 points)
Red Raggi, human berserker (?? points, NPC)

Reserve (players couldn't make it)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (about 280 points)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (283 points)

The group did the usual - sold off loot from last time, they gathered some rumors (about alternate entrances, existence of a possible 5th level, and foreign wizards looking for a "source of magic" in the dungeons), and bought up the healing potions in town. Galen also stocked up on Monster Drool to poison his arrows.

They also checked out the shield they'd found, surreptitiously. They found out it belonged to a guard in the hire of a Lord Venick. Vryce went to his townhouse - like the other nobles, it was surrounded by a wall, and there was a tower with no first floor entrances for retreating into during riots. He explained how they'd found the shield up in the dungeons in a lizards' room, and handed it over. The chamberlain, Jonal, told them he'd get back to him.

In a couple days, he did. A messenger summoned them - politely - to Lord Venick's. Nakar, Vryce, and Borriz all went. They were introduced to the Lord Venick, a thin, splotchy-skinned brown haired youngish man with a droopy mustache. He said his ancestor was, unfortunately, "caught up" in the rebellion of Lord Sterick, self-styled Baron Felltower. His men were searching for a crypt off the 2nd level where his ancestor, and the rest of Lord Sterick's bodyguards ("caught up" indeed). He offered 30 gold pieces (3000 silver) if they could find and return his ancestor's body to him for proper burial, along with any grave goods. His tomb (and the ancestor's goods) should be marked with the three red slashes of Lord Venick's family over the axe/sword/tower motif of Lord Sterick (and now, Stericksburg). The PCs agreed to do so if they could.

After many jokes about how they'd surely find the guy with "the other 50 wights he was buried with" they figured they might be able to get rewards from other families if they found crypts lost to living relatives.

Finally, Nakar read the book they'd found last session. It was a big book, but only a few pages were filled, in Common. It was the logbook of adventurers who'd raided the dungeon. The last entry was "We stashed what we found in the rubble under the ruined tower up here on the surface. Now we're going back for the rest."

They decided to bring Red Raggi, and headed up to the dungeons.

Once on the top of the mountain, they camped out and recovered their hastily stashed ladder from last time. Then they used Seek Earth to find the nearest source of silver while standing near the ruined towers. Nakar rolled a crit and they found it easily, in the rubble in the center of the most intact of the remaining towers. The second (and third) floors of the tower had fallen to the ground floor. Galen and Kullockh climbed up to keep an eye out, while Raggi, Vryce, and Borriz moved broken bits of rock and dug (Raggi brought a shovel just for this). They found a strongbox, opened it up, and found a lot of stuff - including 20 pounds of copper coins, 5 pounds of silver coins, a wizard's hat (turned out to magically stay clean at all times), 11 small magical spears (turned out to be one-shot throwing spears), a magical light shield, some valuable climbing gear, and some green tea and carmine in sealed pouches. Oh, and a pair of six-fingered gloves (otherwise normal). Nothing spectacular, but valuable enough to keep. They took everything but the copper into the dungeon with them.

They joked that these guys didn't die, they just went back and found so much more treasure they couldn't carry the book out with them.

They did their usual scout routine on the entrance, and headed in and put down their ladder bridge. They crossed and were dismayed to find someone had come before - the right portcullis was spiked all the way up. The door past it was equally spiked open. They briefly discussed trying to follow the path of spiked doors and "tracks" but decided they didn't want to actually find any adventurers if they were still there.

Instead they headed towards the second level stair they'd found two weeks ago. They took the same path through the secret door as last time, but this time encounter a big slime/ooze monster, nearly 20' across, eating the rotted rat corpses. Galen closed the door, and they got ready to bust in an attack it . . . but it had "seen" Galen and moved up to smash against the secret door. So Nakar dropped some spells and used Create Fire to set the area past the door on fire. After a minute they opened the (warm) secret door, and the ooze had fled, and there was nothing but burned rats. They moved on.

After Lockmastering some re-locked doors, they reached the ogre's room. It was closed and locked (again, Lockmaster opened it), but not barred or guarded. They moved in carefully, and found some (but not all) of the signs of their fight. No corpses, no weapons, and no ogres (and only a few broken bits of armor and bloodstains). They carefully moved down the stairs.

Most of the way down the long stairs was a stair scattered with dry, broken bones. Clearly, for noise. Invisible Galen, able to see in the dark thanks to Nakar's Dark Vision spell, stepped over them and spotted some apes crouched in the corners, waiting. He retreated up and the group decided a frontal assault was the best solution. They ranked up and headed down, Borriz to their left, Vryce to their right, and Raggi right up the middle. Nakar trailed with the two scouts. They reached the bottom of the stairs and eight dire apes charged them - the same apes as last time, which they'd accidentally left off their "we make sure the following are dead" list during their hasty retreat last trip. The apes didn't do much better, a couple eating arrows and the rest getting chopped up by Raggi, disemboweled by Vryce, or their heads bashed into shards by Borriz. One managed to strike Raggi after another grabbed him, but they died a second after that. But an ape shaman was there was well, waving a multi-colored obsidian sword and accompanied by a blue-limmed, semi-translucent ape. The "ghost ape" charged, while the shaman took an arrow and dropped, unconscious.

The ghost ape proceeded to give the group a lot of trouble. Nothing they had bothered it - missile spells, a flaming sword, Dispel Magic, and even stabbing with their magical spears. Galen fetched the obsidian sword and handed it to Vryce (who got pummeled over and over, but who was so armored he could mostly ignore the ape's all-too-corporeal punches). He swung . . . nothing. Finally Galen went back around to the shaman, and took off his bone necklace. Anything? No, Nakar could see it wasn't magical. So then Galen tried to icepick the ape in the eye with his knife . . . and missed. (He rolled an 18, and not only missed but stabbed the ground and dropped his knife. Embarrassing enough, but against an unconscious ape . . . ) Galen picked his knife back up, though, and then slashed the shaman's throat, just hard enough to kill him. The ghost ape immediately disappeared.

This time they made sure of the apes, with arrows to the eyes or cutting throats open or bashing their heads in.

They searched the room and found two doors. One turned out to lead to a big room the ape shaman cleared lived in. The other to a corridor. They followed that, passed a chamber with an arrow scratched into the floor pointing out the far way (everyone specifically didn't touch it), and took the first door off of it they found up another corridor.

A chamber far up the long hallway had a hemisphere of black crystal on the ceiling. Taking no chances, they shot at it with arrows. First shot did nothing, but then Kullockh shot a crack into it with a powerful bow shot. Another shot broke off more of it, shearing off a good third of the crystal and send cracks through the rest. Glass pieces were scattered across the floor. They eventually crossed this room with much care (including a rope around Galen, and then around Borriz, in case they set off a trap).

After this room there was a T. Here they found a door to a cold room, but shut it as the odd chill came out. "No more ghosts, thanks." They moved off the other direction after using Seek Earth and locating some silver very close to the upper left as they faced the cold room door. So they moved left. They found some single doors on the left wall and a double door on the right. Listening heard nothing, and no light came from within. It was dark inside. They opened that up (it was locked, but a crowbar fixed that), and found . . . luxury.

Inside was a huge room - around 40' wide and at least twice that long, with an arched ceiling. The fall wall had a small door but was also almost half roaring fireplace fronted by rugs and plush chairs. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with bookcases full of books and sliding ladders. There was a table with burning silver candelabras. Sofas sat near the bookcases.

The fanned out an looked around. Nakar and Vryce to the right, Borriz and Kullockh to the left. Nakar found treatise after treatise on magic. Kullockh books on culture and languages. They were stunned . . . until Borriz grabbed a book ("any book with cool symbols on the spine") and his hand went through. Damn, illusion. Everything they checked was illusionary. When Borriz realized the fire was too (no heat), he decided to jump in! Hahah! Bam, wall. There wasn't even a fireplace.

They couldn't figure it. Vryce checked the walls by feel to ensure there were walls. And they opened the small door in the back and found 3' of floor ending in a 6-7' deep pit full of old, dry refuse. A privy.

They thought a) this was all a fake, but why? and b) "their" silver was to their right, but they couldn't get there from here. So they left and went back the way they came.

The headed past the cold room into a big hallway that smelled of sulfur, which ended with a pit (they'd look later and find a dead rat in it, nothing special). A side passage smelled more of sulfur, so invisible Galen checked it out. Oops. It was the lair of an angry chimera, which must have seen them and came out running. Galen turned and ran, but the chimera literally crashed through him and ran him down. It made it just out of its side passage and attacked. It bashed Raggi a few times with its horns and lit his clothes on fire (narrowly missing Borriz and Vryce), and the group jumped it. Vryce sliced it up, Raggi criticalled and cut down through its back into its side, Borriz whiffed on a few shots (it dodged), and Galen put arrows into it. A final arrow through its lion head and a few more sword strokes put it down for good.

After this, it was getting late real-world, so the PCs retreated up to the surface. They got almost all the way back, but it turned out 5 hobgoblins were guarding the "pillboxes." They used invisible Galen to get the drop on the three in one pillbox and kill them, but not before they yelled out "Bree Yark!" and Galen called them Losers in Goblinese. They make Galen and Kullock invisible again, and they went to the other "pillbox." They set up nose-to-nose with the ambushing hobgoblins, and shot them in the face with arrows. They then covered the trap doors while everyone beat feet across the bridge. They removed the bridge and headed up.

The gathered their remaining stashed treasure, and headed back to town.

All in all, a profitable trip, mostly due to their surface find. The only loot from underground this trip was the obsidian sword of the ape shaman, but even that was worth enough to make it profitable trip. They also have a quest with a promised reward, and made a successful foray into the 2nd level.


Forgot these earlier, but here they are.

- It's fun to watch my players discover things they'd bypassed accidentally or deliberately sessions back. That loot has been sitting in the tower since, I don't know, the first day I wrote up the dungeon. They discovered it now through magic, sure, but they didn't know to try there until they found that book.

- No one seems to mind sped-up combat. Mostly because it doesn't skew fights against them. If it made them lose (or suffer damage they'd otherwise not suffer) they'd probably, legitimately, complain about the change.

- Borriz keeps wondering how the hell apes get into a dungeon up north. Or are even in a dungeon, carnivorous apes or not. There actually is a (possibly silly) reason, it's not just because I have all of these ape minis and like using apes. Well, that's probably why I made up the reason, but in-game, there is an explanation.

- No one has any idea how to fight ghosts. The solution won't be "spend points on Hidden Lore (Spirit Lore) and keep asking Peter" or "find just the right spell to beat them." It's a little more (and less) complicated than that.

- I was amused at the reactions in the illusion room. I was mildly surprised that they specifically asked if light came out from the room, and then didn't see the giant, blazing fire as a dead giveaway something was off. It would have been clearly seen, had it been blazing for real. Part of how illusions of splendor work - you get so distracted by the details you miss the strange incongruities of them.

- The city money meter keeps going up, but I'm beginning to wonder about the buying capacity of even a big town. Should the more the PCs sell also increase the "value" of the city? They're spreading around some magical items, rare spices, nice gems, and asking to convert small coins (copper) into larger denominations (gold and silver). It keeps the pot stirring, for sure, and they sell at less than 1/2 of the theoretical market value. That leaves a lot of room for profit by the merchants when they re-sell it down the road (literally or figuratively).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Important Villains vs. Fungible Monsters

It's struck me as I populate my DF game's setting that there are really two broad types of enemies in a campaign. You have your Important Villains, and your Fungible Monsters. I mentioned this a while back, but decided I'd try to write out my ideas about this more fully to get them clear, and maybe help others populate their worlds more easily.

(You could say Fungible Villains, but I think Fungible Monsters sounds better.)

Let's look at them in reverse.

Fungible Monsters are just NPCs placed for opposition. How tough they are or aren't, or how important they become or don't become, isn't critical. The idea behind fungible monsters is, you can swap them in or out. It doesn't really matter if they turn out to be easier or harder to kill than you expected. You can always deploy more or less next time. Or the PCs can relax and fight them more casually, or drill down and fight more ruthlessly, the next time. If those monsters turn out to drop dead like flies from a simple spell or are utterly harmless against the PC's front rank fighters, well, it happens. If you’re playing a game with an acceptance of high lethality, then even a TPK isn't really a problem. The next bunch of PCs will know not to mess with those monsters.

The monsters in and of themselves aren't very important as individuals. This is decidedly not the case with Important Villains.

Important Villains are NPCs that, in and of themselves, are important as individuals or as groups. They cannot easily be swapped out for another NPC within the setting, and what they can and can't do is important. They are important and useful for a sandbox game, and critical for a story-driven game.* These are the opposition which are inherently interesting and touch. They aren't random, and the GM needs to know how tough they are from the word go.

If the PCs decide they want to overthrow the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang, he's an important villain (primarily player driven). If the GM sets the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang after the PCs, he's an important villain (primarily GM driven). If the whole game is "Guys, we're going to play The Quest to Overthrow the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang," he's an important villain (story driven - pre-game decision driven).

If that aforementioned Mad Wizard of Wu Tang goes down to a simple spell you didn't plan for, or his Killer Kung Fu skills don't actually work that well, you're going to ruin the verisimilitude of the story. It just strikes a bad note if you didn't forsee some elementary defense he'd need to have survived long enough to be the Mad Wizard of Wu Tang. The more stuff the Bad Guy is supposed to be able to do, the more thought you have to put into it. It's totally lame if the whole quest is to fight an important NPC and he's taken down in a single second because you didn't build in the right defenses. It's a letdown if the "greatest swordsman in all the lands" is less of a challenge to a PC swordsman than that wandering group of goblins was. While these things can happen in reality, fiction and gaming isn't meant to be real. Conan doesn't have an easier time with the Big Scary than with the Big Scary's Henchmen.

I personally find it nice to run a game where the vast majority of critters are Fungible Monsters. It greatly simplifies my game prep. But the idea that some monsters really do need to be important and need to be crafted to explain their in-game position and reputation is still one I need to keep in mind. It's amusing if the trolls die in a few seconds while the goblins put up a real war of a fight. But it's lame if the Dragon of Felltower is a one-shot kill . . .

I also think these divisions help you to not over-think some encounters. If the monsters really are Fungible Monsters, and could really be anything, just relax and stat them up and see what happens. Save the worry for guys who legitimately need to be Important Villains.

* Note that story-driven does not imply a railroad. It merely implies that there is some over-arching plot or story, whether setting-, GM-, or player-driven, that provides the backbone for the campaign. Railroading is a way of running a game, not a game style. You can railroad in a non-story based game ("We go to that dungeon over there." "Suddenly, a teleport trap sends you to the dungeon I wanted you to go to!") as easily in a story based game ("We kill the important NPC!" "He miraculously survives and uses his alter reality action to undo your mistakes!"). It's a question of freedom of choice and action, not of story.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How the Kickstarters Have Gone

To jump on the Kickstarter hand-wringing bandwagon, here are the Kickstarters I've backed and how they've gone.

I've pledged at least a token amount for all of Jeff Dee's various Kickstarters to re-create his TSR art. While not everything has been exactly on time, I always get my pledge reward pretty soon after it ends, and it's exactly as described. The postcards are cool, too.

Order of the Stick: I got my book, my Roy magnet, and my coloring books. For less than I'd have paid to just get my book used on the secondary market. I'm good with The Giant.

Diesel was on time and on target.

Reaper is on schedule so far, although their pledge manager hasn't been so far, they haven't suggested a delay for delivery. But I can look at my minis and see the quality of Reaper products, and I know their customer service is top-notch and extremely customer friendly. I trust them to get me my giant box of minis very close to, if not exactly during, the promised month.

SJG will be late with Ogre, but it's much bigger and more awesome-seeming than the game I pledged for. I know and trust SJG - if anyone would bend over backward to fulfill his promises, it's SJ.

Dwimmermount is running a bit behind. I think James M. just set a bit too aggressive of a deadline - a "if everything goes well" instead of "I can make this date even if disaster strikes." My opinion, only - I don't know his situation well enough. I'm confident I'll get it eventually, though, and I'm willing to wait. I don't feel disappointed, I was happy to back his work to make sure it got published since it was inspirational in getting me to make my own megadungeon. I can honestly say I didn't really pay much attention to the "when" and more to the "what I'd get eventually" part.

So that's the roundup. Would I pledge again? Sure, if I feel like the cost is reasonable for what I get out of it, and if I think what's being promised can be delivered. The person making the promises matters. And I'll say that getting mail from Jeff Dee every month or two is pretty damn cool, because I used to sit and stare at his pictures when I was running game back in 4th grade, and that picture of Lloth in Q1 scared the hell out of everyone.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Not Realism - Consistency, Believability, and Logic

So all the cool kids are writing about realism in fantasy gaming (such as faoladh and FrDave, who links to still more posts by other cool kids.) Why should I be left out?

My thoughts on it are pretty simple: Realism isn't the goal in fantasy gaming (or indeed, most other RPGs, even hyper-realistic ones!)

It's verisimilitude. That is, the seeming of truth. ("Truthiness" works, too.) The world, the results of actions, and the logical leaps must feel true, feel consistent, be believable, and seem logical.

Consistency. Stuff that's true now in the game world should generally remain true unless acted on by an outside force. Spells might allow you ridiculous control over forces that don't even make sense realistically ("I'm an Earth Mage." Er, 4 elements? Or needing "Charm Monster" vs. "Charm Person.") There may be orcs, griffons, and demons who come from another plane to wreak evil because they're evil. You might be able to chop up robots with your magic sword without dulling its edge or shoot a personal disintegrater at guys who can fly and punch out tanks. These aren't deeply realistic things. But they should pretty much act the same game session to session. If they do, they're easier to accept.

Believability. Seems crazy, but the results of your actions and actions of others in the game world must be believable. Not real-world believable. Just that they shouldn't snap you out of your suspension of disbelief and your acceptance of a world with color-coded dragons and guys who can shape rock with command of magical forces hunting treasure in a dungeon instead of mining. Once you've set your ground rules and made them consistent, the results of those ground rules must be something that flows from those rules. If you have A and then B, players will expect C. If you have magical items (A), and people willing to buy them for money (B), then it's reasonable to say some people might be selling magical items, too (C). If you stop at B and say, no, there is no C, it's going to take some explanation and that explanation is probably costing you game time you could spend killing owlbears.

Logic. The game world and its rules should be logical, even if based on purely spurious logic ("Since there are dragons that breathe fire there must be dragons that breathe lightning!") Following the logic of your game world and game rules lets players follow it, too, and invent their own consistent details and come up with inventive solutions to problems.

If you hand players A and C, they should be able to guess the existence of B and act on it. If it's actually Q, you're not only going to snap them out of willing suspension of disbelief but also destroy the value of their own logical thinking. Why puzzle out the solution, or look for connections, or try to extend the logic of your powers to accomplish something new if the result is going to be illogical and inconsistent and random? This can be fun, but it'll cost one of the really cool things about RPGs - getting to say "If I was my guy, I'd do this . . . " and have an understanding of what can happen. If you basically say, there are dragons and spells so anything goes and I don't need logic, consistency, or believability of results, I think you're selling your game short.

That's what I think my players mean when they say "This seems pretty realistic." It doesn't matter if it's dwarven weaponmasters bashing skeletons or Delta Force taking down a building. What matters is that it feels real, it feels consistent, and that players get to feel like their actions have results that make sense within the imagined reality you play in. Break that, and you get an "unrealistic" game not matter how real or unreal your subject matter is.

In my opinion.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Somali Pirates vs. Delvers

I couldn't help but think, after reading this article, that delvers and pirates are a lot alike. And towns near dungeons, borderlands, uncleared hexes, etc. in a gaming world are a lot like those Somali coastal towns.

Not to make light of either the lethal pirates or the suffering they cause, or the suffering of the townsfolk, but there are similarities worth considering for gaming.

Boom vs. bust While the ships are there and pickings are good, money flows into town. Creditors extend loans. Prices rise tenfold or more ($0.05 tea going for $0.50). When the ships aren't there, or it's too risky to extend money to the risk-takers, it all dries up.

Delvers are like that, too. Dangerous job, and they go into the teeth of danger because the payoff for the few is great. Sure, the guys who buy the treasures from them and purchase the magic items might make even more of a profit. But for a brave soul who is willing to risk death (and has little skill besides smacking monsters), there is the lure of fortune.

Notice how the townspeople feel about the pirates - nothing good comes of them. It's likely they didn't say that out loud when pirates were dropping $1000 a night on prostitutes and paying 10x the going rate for food, snapping up luxury cars and bidding up housing prices. But as soon as they can't make their payments, it's over.

Delvers probably should get the same treatment. The Ruins of Razelgar are turning up scads of silver coins, handfuls of gold, gemstones by the score, and magical items worth more than the local town? Great, welcome! They can throw parties and celebrate and the inn is packed. All hail the brave adventurers! Welcome back from your dangerous and oh-so-brave descent into danger!

But then . . . the dungeon is empty, and you come back empty handed and can't afford a new round of rations and 10' poles? Take a hike, you economy-wreckers. We never liked you. All you brought was disease, death, and massive inflation. And in a fantasy world, likely strange hangers-on, monstrous intrusions, and blowback from the annoyed goblinoids at the Caves of Chaos. Oh, but you saved the town from a dragon/zombie horde/menace of fungi-men? Think of the reaction of the villagers at the end of The Seven Samurai - okay, thanks, but now you are a hindrance, not a help, and you can go now.

One can only hope that in reality, the days of the Horn of Africa being a pirate haven are over. But keep the lessons of the coastal towns in mind when adventurers show up, cash in hand . . .

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Random Memories of the Very Old Days

So I started playing in 1981 with (more-or-less) a mix of Basic Set D&D and AD&D. I say more-or-less because sometimes we'd look stuff up in a Holmes Basic Set, my uncle used the Rolemaster Arms Law critical hit tables sometimes, and we used the DMG alongside the Basic Set. If this sounds like a mess, man, you should have tried settling rules arguments.

If this stuff sounds crazy or infantile or juvenile or stupid, remember we were in 4th grade (and then 5th, and 6th) during most of this. Think South Park - foul-mouthed argumentative kids playing pretend. By the end of 7th grade most of the groups had long fragmented and only a hard core of gamers still played.

The dead stayed dead. Our games were often extremely lethal, and Raise Dead/Resurrection were totally unheard of. If you didn't have a friend with a high-level cleric, you died and stayed dead. Since almost no one had a high-level cleric, that meant all fatalities were permanent. The idea you could run to town with gold and get raised was sheer craziness. The example in the DMG of how miserably hard it was to convince someone to even un-petrify your friend meant there wasn't any swaying us. Sometimes someone would die in my game and then bring that guy, or someone with mysteriously identical stats and magic items, to another game. Yeah, that happened.

But in general, there was no network of NPCs in the world. Just the PCs and that's that.

People would level up on their own. Guys would buy a module and then run their own parties through it and come back with higher levels and more magic items. Arguing this would get ugly, and resulted in parents calling other parents to scold the complainer.

Actually, that's another point - the GM's word wasn't law. The book's word was law. Period. Any appeal of the wording was to a handy parent or teacher, and usually you'd get stuck with that interpretation forever. This is also why we played with what the rules said you could do. If the rules didn't say "a 10' pole can detect pits" then it couldn't. If it said thieves can climb and didn't say anyone else could, they couldn't.

We named all of our guys. Sometimes "you didn't even the name the guy until 2nd level" is held up as a hallmark of Old-School Play. Not for us. You had to name your guy. Not naming your guy meant you couldn't play him. You could just add "II" or "III" to the end of a prior name - I remember Dru the Druid XIV at some point, years in - but you had to name your guy.

We had actual arguments over names, about who named which guy and could use the name again, or if that name went with this class, etc.

We ran modules. You played B1 or B2 or B3 (generally B2), and then graduated to X1, and then eventually the A-series and/or G-series. Everyone tried S1, S2, S3, and/or S4 as soon as possible, usually at too low a level (I remember playing a 4th level elf in White Plume Mountain. He was level 3 after fighting some wights.) We played D1-2 and then Q1, skipping D3 because no one had it and it was expensive to get it.

We often skipped whole sections of adventures because they were complicated or uninteresting. I don't ever remember anyone getting through D2, or getting to use it. By the time they got there, everyone was eager to get to the Abyss (and we all knew it was at the other end of the tunnels).

Why did we know that Q1 was at the other end? Often, the players also owned, and read, the adventures. Getting your hands on ones they hadn't read was hard.

You didn't make up your own stuff that often, because the only way to avoid a fight was to have a module to point at. Plus the modules were cool. The guys who made the game up made them, and they were the exemplars of adventure design. Finishing them gave you some status. "I beat Peter's dungeon." Big deal. "I beat White Plume Mountain." Wow, cool!

(Which makes me amused when I hear even older gamers and/or early game designers say we were slaves to modules. Yeah, you guys wrote them and sold them to us.)

We played every day. Or close enough to it. We'd play anywhere and everywhere. I remember running the opening fight of S3 while sitting on a bench on the playground near my Elementary School at lunchtime. We didn't finish it that day, lunchtime was too short.

No character backstory. Or frontstory. Or story. Or description. At all. So much so that I can rarely conjure up any memories of specific characters, other than a few who survived so long that they did spectacular things (like Blackstar the thief surviving the Tomb of Horrors, and Hana the mage breaking his Staff of the Magi on Lloth's back at the end of Q1 after luring her out of her anti-magic zone, and then making his "shifted to another plane" roll.) Characters weren't characters, just game pieces. I only remember Blackstar, really, because years later I found the Adventure Log for his second trip to the Tomb of Horrors! I mean, we played almost daily for years, and I can't remember more than a few names and nothing about the characters attached to them.

On the other hand, my high school AD&D game had PCs with a short backstory and real personalities. I can remember almost every one of them and cool stuff they did. The short-run "my guy is just some guy" players didn't last and I don't remember much about their characters. I don't think this is coincidence.

No Dragon. Not until 6th grade, when someone got Dragon #55 (I now own that exact copy, as his collection was passed to my cousin and then to me over the years). I got Dragon #78 in 7th grade, and then I eventually subscribed. Once we did, what it said was law.

We had a lot of fun, but it was different fun than I sometimes hear about. I miss the sensawonder of my first sessions, but I don't miss much else about those days. Just some random memories of playing back in the day, with tween-age DMs and tween-age gamers.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Four mistakes to avoid when making a megadungeon

In a discussion about megadungeons (in a link now lost to me), someone pointed out the advice in this WOTC blog:

Adventure Builder: Writing Your First Adventure by Wolfgang Baur
He's got four complaints about adventures submitted for publication:

"1) too much useless backstory
2) slow starts
3) random encounters
4) too many encounters"

Although in the thread I read, this was all shot down, I actually think it's generally very sound advice for an old-school game, especially a megadungeon. I'll explain why point by point.

"1) too much useless backstory"

Basically: Write enough for the game, don't write a novel.

Why it's true for old school games:
The key word is "useless." Not "too much backstory" but "useless" backstory. Details you just don't need, and players will never get to learn (or benefit from, if they do).

If the backstory is valuable, and if learning it is both interesting and useful to the players, it's a benefit to the game.

The idea of "Gary's got this cool new game called Greyhawk. You're a bunch of guys exploring an old abandoned wizard's castle full of monsters and treasure and stuff." launched an entire hobby. How much backstory is that? Not much. Just enough to get started.

It's probably not enough to sustain a game, though. You need some backstory. But you don't need more than the players will encounter, or than the players will be able to find out and utilize. Think of those tantalizing tastes of the history of Greyhawk and the madness of Zagyg and the vague hints you get about Blackmoor. Why are they tantalizing? Because you have just enough to go on, but not so much that your imagination has no gaps to fill. That's the middle ground you want for your players. Some backstory, but loose enough that when they imagine something cooler, you can run with it. Not so little that you don't have an answer or your megadungeon doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Just enough.

"2) slow starts"

Basically: Start off with a bang, not a whimper.

Why it's true for old school games:
Nothing sucks more than camping in front of a gigantic dungeon full of monsters, puzzles, traps, and unimaginable treasures and having nothing to do. Or worse, have a lot of boring crap to do. Room 1 can be empty (and usually is), but there better be stuff to do immediately. Decisions to make ("Do we go left, right, or straight?") and things to worry about ("Where do those obviously steep stairs go? What is that odd smell? Who is making that groaning noise?") are really important.

Like the man said, people want to show up and roll dice. This is especially true the less often you play. Make sure there is stuff to do right way in your megadungeon. Make sure entering the place or going down a level or pulling the elevator lever has some kind of effect. You'll never regret starting off with a bang, and that goes equally for sessions, levels (it shouldn't be safe to "just go down to level 4 real quick and look around"), and whole dungeons. Vary what you use, but make it exciting from the word go.

I'm guilty of this - although my upper works had a ghost and some other (as yet unknown) encounters, my megadungeon started with a whimper. I should have had a bang-zoom start and I didn't. We had a "let's mine our own entrance!" thing going for half the session. That's my fault, not theirs.

3) random encounters

Basically: They can be fun, but they don't advance the adventure.

Why it's true for old school games:
This is the one I agree with the least. But I don't think it's totally wrong or without value.

Take this from someone who loves them: Wandering Monsters are a time-use tax. Dawdle? Fight some random monsters that show up to hassle you. You can't just sit around or take your time. They generally advance the adventure indirectly, by forcing players to make decisions and to move. That's what they are for. You don't exactly speed up the session by throwing a random monster at the party, nor do you speed up their exploration. You're punishing them for taking too much time.

Not that this is bad. It's reasonable in the game of dungeon crawling that there is a tax for sitting around. You'll suffer now but keep the pace up more later.

But the author also has a point - they don't need to be random per se. You don't necessarily need a table. You could just say that on a 1 in 6 every X amount of time, there is a chance that monsters that live nearby the disturbance (aka the party) come to investigate. Dumb monsters might wander up and attack. Smart ones might organize an ambush, or provoke dumb monsters to go after you, or use magic to confuse your approach so you can't find them, or another clever response. Hell, they might come and negotiate from a position of strength as you sit bandaging the cleric up enough that he'll wake up and heal your unconscious fighters. This changes them from "a carrion crawler appears from nowhere 10-60' away and attacks you; had you moved faster, it might not have existed" to "a carrion crawler from the room you rested to close to has heard the moans of your wounded and wandered over; too bad you didn't surprise it while it was sleeping."

While I love tables and I use them myself, you really can just make the "random" in encounter just randomly determining if you fight them in their keyed area or outside of it. Keep the roll, but you can ditch the table if you want. It won't break the megadungeon, and it might even make it seem more alive.

"4) too many encounters"

Basically, too many encounters slows down progress.

Why it's true for old school games:
If you fill every room in your megadungeon, no one will get anywhere. You'll be bogged down clearing room after room. Why make it "mega" if you intend to cram it tight with monsters and traps and treasure? You could do that with a smaller dungeon. Part of the fun of megadungeons is that they can contain anything and maybe everything, because they are so big. How do you get across the idea that it's so huge? Leave empty space. Put in hallways that take 20 minutes to cross and stairs that wind down for miles. But if every room has an encounter, you never get to explore all that stuff. So don't feel like you need to fill the whole dungeon. The fact that old-school stocking tables leave anywhere from 1/3 (D&D Basic Set p. B52) to 60% empty (DMG, pg. 170) to 2/3 empty (Monsters & Treasures, p. 6) are a good guideline to this. The dungeon is as big as you need it to be - so don't put in so many encounters it takes too much real-world time to get to the cool stuff.

Make sure there is a lot to do - and yes, this means encounters - but not so many that every session is a slog of room clearing or trap detection. Make sure they can go look around, not get bogged down with too much in too small of a spot.

So that's what I take away from that article. It goes on to expand on appropriate encounter levels, and adventure paths, and stuff I don't care about for my current game. But that first bit, those four mistakes, I really feel like I took away some clarity about the good and the bad. I hope it helps you, too.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Megadungeon Resources Link Page

I recently stumbled across a great collection of links to megadungeon blog posts.'s Megadungeon Resources I've read a lot of these, but the sheer exhaustive nature of the list means it has links I hadn't seen before. Fun stuff, and I wish I'd found it before I started my own megadungeon. Still, it's useful as I add more and more levels and run it month after month . . .

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How did you meet your gamers?

It's a simple enough questions, but how did you meet your gamers?

I know a lot of people game with "other gamers" - that is, they meet as gamers and end up playing together. In my case, most of my gamers were known to me as friends (or relatives of friends) and we knew each other socially before we started playing. But I decided to trace the path of how I met these guys. This is only my current group - I also have a wider web of former gamers who just aren't showing up to kill owlbears on Sundays.

Where and how did you meet your current gamers?

My gaming group is assembled out of people I knew outside of gaming (mostly - see below), who I recruited into my gaming group. They often gamed before joining my group, but they were all friends first. In my current group of 7+1 (one guy can't game right now, but we're holding him a seat), in rough chronological order:

- the "plus one" was the younger brother of my High School gaming buddy's on-again, off-again girlfriend/best friend. I met him at her house, and then years later another gaming buddy brought him along to join in a small GURPS game. He liked the rules, but for assorted reasons we didn't play much after that.

- two are the younger brothers of a High School friend. One got the other into gaming, and when I met them they were between games. The guy I just mentioned was in the same grade as the older one, and told him how awesome GURPS was. So he wanted to play, and he and the first guy made up guys the next day and we started to play. Eventually his younger brother joined in, too, after the infamous "giant sundew" story*

- one guy played AD&D with me in 7th grade. We weren't friends in High School due to me being a jerk to him in 8th grade and just never getting put in the same classes, ever (impressive over four years in a small school). Years later, we ended up working in the same IT department at the same company. We'd talk gaming and wargaming and video games, and then we eventually decided to set up a game of GURPS and see if he liked it. My existing group joined and we haven't stopped much since then.

- one guy was friends with the first three, and joined in on and off over the years. Amusingly he was (at least briefly) friends with one of my cousins, and despite the fact he could snap my neck with one hand I still do an impression of his 10-year old self introducing himself to me. He was also one of my karate buddies, from when we trained in one of our instructor's home-made backyard dojo. Our senior student was also one of my fellow gamers from back in the day.

- another guy was friend with the younger of the two brothers, and played a one-off GURPS game and I recruited him into the group on the spot. He hasn't left since, although he's been in and out of regular play over the years due to exciting real-life adventures across the US and the globe.

- the last two I knew online without realizing I was living so close by. I started posting questions to a private mailing list we're all on (by virtue of similar interests). He chimed in with comments about missing AD&D and fantasy gaming, and I invited him for a try out. He fit right in. Turned out another of that mailing list's members was his old gaming buddy and lived even closer to us. He showed up for a session and, again, he fit right in like he'd been there all the time.

It's a funny and convoluted set of connections when you put it down on paper, but that's how I met the guys who are currently playing (or played) in my Dungeon Fantasy game.

* So there I am, running a canned AD&D module, and describe a sticky pile of old rags in the corner of the room just as Younger Brother is walking through the room. One player starts to say "Okay, I'll search the rags . . . " and YB says "Hmmm. That sounds just like the description of a Giant Sundew." The player stops and says "Okay, I draw my sword and poke the pile of rags . . . "

Yes, it was a giant sundew.

We pretty much just added YB to the game immediately after. May as well.

Monday, September 17, 2012

DF Game, Session 14 - Felltower (Part II)

For Part I, the remainder of the previous expedition, click here.

September 16th, 2012

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Nakar, human wizard (about 290 points)
Galen Longtread, human scout (253 points)
Kullockh, human scout (250 points)
Red Raggi, human berserker (?? points, NPC)

Reserve (players couldn't make it)
Vryce, human knight (299 points)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (about 280 points)
Borriz, dwarven knight (280 points)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (283 points)

After a week off, Nakar organized another expedition to the dungeons under Felltower. Galen Longtread was back, along with a new scout - a former cellmate of now-dead Fuma. They also located Red Raggi, and he was enthusiastic about coming along.

The four of them decided to hire a torchbearer to both give them a mobile light source and potentially carry some treasure back. So they found a guy and paid him his day rate (30 sp) and loaned him their newly-found shield and gave him a couple torches. They enchanted one with Continual Light and left the other as a spare. He has a name, but they didn't care about it and ended up calling him "Torchy" or "McTorchy." I'm sure that touched him deep in his heart and deepened his loyalty.

They headed out, custom-made ladder/bridge in hand. They crossed to the north side of the river, passed Sterick's statue (and wondered why a rebel's statue is still standing), and reach the ruins of Felltower by around noon. They camped out and got ready - making continual light stones, poisoning arrows, and so on.

They scouted down into the entrance chamber, and noted one of the curtained/shuttered arrowslits was open, but dark. While Galen and Kullochk watched, Nakar invisible levitated across and scouted. He heard even low breathing. A sleeping guard? As the light from the PCs started to cause the guard to stir, Nakar readied a Stone Missile. The hobgoblin peeped up, and Nakar stuck his hand in and shot him point blank in the head, killing him outright. The body slumped down, and they went on with their business.

Raggi and the scouts put down the bridge and locked it in place. They proceeded through the right portcullis, and found the metal door open. They carefully went through and past the rest of the (shuttered) arrow slits and into the "noisy room."

From there, they had decided to head right, what they call map east (not that it's actually east, but whatever). They decided to make one of the scouts invisible, and send him ahead to scout just close enough to take advantage of their light sources. This would prove a useful tactic.

As they headed along a corridor they'd visited in their first trip, they heard oncoming booted feet. They set up a quick ambush around a corner, and once the goblins appeared they opened up on them. A few arrows and a few of Raggi's axe swings and they were all down before they could call an alarm. They quickly looted the goblins (even taking some of their small-sized shortbows) and continued on.

A few turns later, their scouted revealed a room that had been empty when they first passed was in fact full of snoozing gnolls. The scout (I think it was Galen this time) tried to sneak back, but he realized they must have smelled him because they became alert and started arming. He headed back and they set up to fight, as the door at the back of the gnoll's room was heard to open and close. The gnolls crept forward, bows and morninstars at the ready, while the PCs waited around the corner, with their invisible scout aiming. The gnolls could see the light but didn't know about the scout. The PCs opened up when the gnolls got close but not too close, and began to shoot them down. Raggi melee'd with the gnolls while Kulloch and Galen shot them in their unarmored snouts. It ended pretty quickly, with no injuries. Raggi stabbed a few to death cheerfully, ramming his knife into their face. He was held prisoner by, and tortured by, gnolls in the Caves of Chaos, and doesn't remember that too fondly.

At this point Galen took a gnoll's longbow for himself, and started to use it despite the difficulty of drawing an over-strength and over-sized bow. They searched the gnolls and their room and took a few coins, but not much else of real value. They headed through the door and found it was their "trash room." Nothing valuable there, either, just broken arrow bits, urine stains, and empty ration wrappers.

The group futzed around for a good while here. First they explored a side passage, with Nakar in the rear. He spotted a slugbeast on the ceiling sneaking up on them just as it reached for McTorchy. He Phase Other'd him but only managed to do that once; the second time the slugbeast had him. He popped it with a stone missile to no effect, while Galen shot it with arrows and Raggi ran up to chop it. Kullockh covered their front. The sticky slugbeast squished McTorchy into unconsciousness, and Raggi had a tough time pulling his axe back out each turn to hit it again. But they made short work of it in the end.

They stashed unconscious McTorchy in the trash room and turned him invisible, banking on the urine smells to keep anyone from smelling him either.

They found a room that turned out to be hourglass shaped with a door in the middle. Raggi went to open the door, but a magical trap hit him - he suddenly saw himself getting overrun by gnolls and went berserk, swinging his axe. Nakar calmly turned everyone invisible and let Raggi run out of steam. Once he calmed down, they realized it was a magical trap they couldn't easily remove. So they had Raggi hack the door down. The other half of the room was empty, but knocking on the walls found a thin section. They used Shape Earth to open it up, and moved into a room with stale, stale air.

That room was empty as well, with drag marks showing where - chests? trunks? - were dragged out of the room long ago. They groused at the adventurers who must have come before, and double-groused at them leaving it closed off and trapped. Who would do that? "We would." said Galen.

They skipped another side room because they saw spiderwebs in the hallway leading to it.

The spent a good bit of time exploring the immediate around around a big room they'd found in the past, trying to make their map line up. It took time in and out of game, but they didn't pay for it - the only wandering monsters were 10 giant rats, and a few arrows and a wall of magical flame took care of them as a threat. They killed 9 with arrows and an axe blow by Raggi, and only one escaped.

They found another room with something odd - a "stall" like layout, with the "stall walls" being relatively smooth meteoric iron ore. Immune to magic. There were marks between them as if it was used as a firing range for spells, but no sign of a magical trap. A room off of that was also empty. A Seek Earth looking for silver pointed out a spot nearby, so they tried to navigate to it.

They did, and found some empty Goblin quarters - and a lone, dropped silver piece. Aargh.

More exploration followed, and they found a locked room. Lockmaster solved that, and the locked door out of it. They decided to check just a little more, needing treasure, and found a taller, slightly wider door of heavy, iron-reinforced wood with a lock. A close look revealed light behind the door but little escaped as the door was snugly in its doorframe.

They geared up and Lockmaster'd the door, and then opened it up. Inside was a 40 x 40' room with a stairway down at the other end. A couple of tables were set up as barricades to either side, and four big gnolls crouched behind a wall of barrels in the center. Plate-and-mail armored ogres with spears and big-ass weapons (one a greataxe, one a giant kophesh) stood to either side. Uh-oh.

Nakar quickly Missile Shielded Raggi, and then Great Hasted him and slapped his back to send him in. Meanwhile Galen and Kulloch exchanged arrows with the gnolls and shot a few down. Once Raggi got in, the fighting really started. Up from behind the tables popped 10 goblins, who started to stab with spears and shoot at Raggi with bows. One criticalled and hit him, but couldn't penetrate his mail shirt. Raggi attacked.

Raggi was in rare form, dodging all blows and using Great Haste to rain down axe blows on his opponents. He tried to engage the ogre, but mostly realized it was better to cut down numbers and diverted himself to wipe out a gnoll and then some goblins.

Then the ogres ordered up their reinforcements - eight flesh-eating apes, some sporting clubs! They rushed up the stairs and into the fray.


Raggi shouted, "This room is full of damn, dirty apes!"

The bows of the scouts told here - the charging apes couldn't dodge very well, and the arrows sliced into their vitals and mostly took them out in a single shot. Thrown spears from the ogres couldn't hit Raggi, the gnolls were down, and the goblins too weak. But the ogres were really a big threat.

The fight continued to go well, with Raggi backing up and hacking down apes while the scouts shot them up. One ogre maneuvers to flank Raggi and the other to the middle to try and spear the scouts, and ate a few arrows from his attempt. But as the last apes fell, Raggi began to get lucky and pounded a few massive axe swings into the ogre - but it shrugged off the cuts and kept fighting!

Right at the end of Raggi's Great Haste, his luck ran low. He got chopped badly by the kopesh. He went berserk, and then just attacked with reckless abandon. He managed to eventually beat the kopesh-wielding ogre down, but the other went after the scouts and wizard. Luckily the surviving goblins, who'd been moving in to help engage Raggi, panicked and fled.

Galen ran too, thinking the plan was "get the hell out of here." Kullockh didn't flee but concentrated on defending himself. Invisible Nakar took a point-blank shot at the ogre with a Stone Missile, but missed - and it was the last of his ready power. He spent most of his (Great Hasted) turns turning invisible again, drinking healing potions and paut, trying to get enough power for another shot. Kullockh yelled to Raggi - "Gnolls are out here!" to attact his attention. It did, and he roared out to help. He chopped the ogre in his legs, but failed to seriously hurt him through his mail. The ogre turned and chopped Raggi flat in one blow, leaving him flat on his back, seemingly dead.

But that was the last hurrah for the ogre. Unable to find Nakar, and briefly distracted, he was vulnerable. Invisible Nakar, Nakar the Unseen, stepped up and shot him point blank in the head with something like a 15-16d Stone Missile. It did 58 damage past the pot helm, mail coif, skull, and natural DR of the ogre to his skull - x4 damage meant 232 damage past his DR. Even considering his size, this was enough to blow him almost all the way down to automatic death even had he not been badly and repeatedly injured. His skull and mail coif more-or-less exploded, and his pot helm flew into pieces and rattled around.

The fight was over, just as Galen came running back (he'd realized no one was fleeing with him!)

They dragged Nakar to Raggi so he could bandage him - he wasn't dead. The scouts delivered a coup-de-grace to the other ogre (knife to the eyes) and gnolls, and quickly looted the room. They looted the ogre's chests, rifled some pockets, and then left when they heard noises down the stairs. They had enough time to realize the ogre's armor was valuable and magical, but no time (or carrying capacity) to take it. They carried out Raggi and the loot, with Nakar stumbling after. They closed the door and Magelocked it to keep anyone from pursuing them too easily.

They quickly but carefully retraced their steps to the "noisy room" before Nakar said "Don't forget McTorchy." Oops. They went back and got him - he was alive and invisible. Nakar fed him a healing potion and woke him up (he'd been out for a while, so it wasn't hard), and dragged him along too.

Stumbling and tired and laden down, they reached the surface. Galen and Kullockh went back and got the ladder, and then they stashed that in a nearby room and headed back to town with their injured and loot.


Second successful trip in a row. Nasty, nasty fight, but only Raggi was seriously hurt and they did a lot of damage and took a good amount of loot.

Some notes:

Hey, I have ST 13 and DX 14 too! Because they're close in points and both used the same template, Galen and Kullockh have a lot of overlap. We joked about them going to the same scout school. "Did you have Mr. Aragorn 5th period for archery?" "No, I had him 6th period. 5th period I had bird call class."
DF characters from some templates - scout is one - can come out looking very similar. While their personalities are different, their stats and skill levels are so close as to make them seem almost interchangeable. I think it'll get clear as we play more that they aren't.

3-2-1-Combat We kept combat very simple this time - map for rough location, and basic combat using only the rules from the back of GURPS Basic Set Characters, plus Deceptive Attacks and the three-second rule (you've got roughly 3 seconds to tell me what you're doing). As a result, combat went quickly. Once we switched to tactical, map-based combat for the final fight, everyone was so used to deciding quickly it flew by, too. Nakar's player said basically it's better to do nothing than to do something stupid, and Galen's player said that if you think it's probably stupid, it's better to do nothing. Keeps the fight moving, too. It's how we got through, er, 5 fights? and a lot of exploration as well.

Level 2 Finally, stairs to the next level. They found stairs before, but they didn't go down far enough to reach a full-height level underneath the current one. Now they have, so I decided to give out a +1 bonus for that, like I'd been debating.

MVB Most Valuable Berserker. NPC or not, the players voted Raggi MVP of the session, so he gets +1 character point. Sweet! He did do well, even for Raggi, who has a good record of killing things like there is no tomorrow and surviving ridiculous situations.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

DF Game, Session 14 - Felltower (Part I)

We did another split session today. Since last time we left off in the dungeon, first priority was to get back out of the dungeon so the players who showed up could go back in with their own guys. By prior agreement, the "current" group would finish looking for the troll's lair, and then leave the dungeon.

I'll write up the rest of the session tomorrow, but this was the early bit.

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (299 points)
Nakar, human wizard (about 285 points)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (about 280 points)
Fuma, human thief (254 points)
Borriz, dwarven knight (280 points)

Reserve (players couldn't make it)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (283 points)
Galen Longtread, human scout (250 points)
Red Raggi, human berserker (?? points, NPC)

(The players of Fuma, Nakar, and Galen showed up for this session, but ran Borriz, Nakar, and Vryce & Inquisitor Marco, respectively)

The group had just finished off the trolls and their poison slorn pets when we left off. They finished burning the trolls to ash with Create Fire, and then headed off down the corridor the trolls first came down.

They came to a branching corridor, and checked to the right - they found the way the trolls had flanked them, Once they worked that out, they turned back and followed some scrapings on the floor to an intersection. The most scrapings were right, the least forward, the second most left. So they checked right.

There they found a flask-shaped room (narrow at the mouth, wide at the end). It was full of trash, dung, and chewed up bones and leather and scales and cloth. There were also green splatters of what looked like venom. It was clearly the lair of the seven slorn. A quick search turned up a medium iron shield painted with the (current) arms of Stericksburg - an axe and hammer over a tower, with gold stripes and edging. It was battered but usable, so they took it.

There were no other exits, so they headed back up the "second most scratched" hallway. It was long, and they found a half-open door. They checked past and saw another door a half-dozen yards away. So they closed and Magelocked it while they scouted up the hallway a bit. Nothing but more corridor, so they headed back. They opened the door, and then opened the one after it (after closing the hallway door behind them).

They found the troll's lair, and bed piles for three trolls. They'd killed three, so they felt sure no others would show. Just to be safe, Vryce watched the door while the others searched. They turned the various piles of bedding, trash, and bones and filth over. They found some gold, over 1500 silver, some copper, a scroll with a couple spells, a meteoric small falchion, a couple pieces of silver jewelry, and a Dwarven whetstone.

After searching for a bit, they heard some distant groaning/roaring noises, so they decided to leave quickly. They left the troll's room and moved out. A hasty but careful rush back to the entrance, uprooting of their bridge, and they were on the surface and safe. They headed back to town.

This is where we ended the closeout of the last trip. Tomorrow I'll try to post the second expedition we got to today. This trip was a good one - it was profitable and left them with some useful or saleable special items. The scroll isn't very exciting, but the magic-immune falchion might be.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Grenadier 2004 Hirelings: Half done!

Here is my set of Grenadier 2004 Hirelings:

Half done! Five down, four (one a double) to go!

Left to right in the back are (as named on the box)
Pack Bearer, Lantern Bearer, Carrying Body, Coffer Bearer, Chest Bearer

Left to right in the front are
Team carrying trunk, Potion Drinker, Spike Driver, Torch Bearer Halfling

The guys in the back are done. I'm not sure if I'm going to decorate the bases of the guys in back or not. I like the flocking, but it seems less cute when my campaign is set mostly underground. Out of those guys, the Lantern Bearer is the oldest - he's done purely by hand and with careful black washing and shading. The others all got base colored, then dipped/brushed with Army Painter Quickshade (Strong Tone), and then dullcoted, then highlighted, then re-dullcoted. Sounds like overkill but it works and they're both attractive and pretty resilient. That first guy on the left was the first mini I used my Quickshade on!

Next up is probably the team, just because they look like a pretty easy paint job and a cool looking mini to put on the table. The guy on the right had lead rot on half his leg, so I had to scrape it off and then build him a new leg with green stuff. It didn't come out that well, but it's not bad, and it's in a good position to stay out of sight.

I'm torn on the halfling. I don't use a lot of them, and they don't show up in my games often. I'm debating painting him up as a goblin (they exist, and the party hasn't been loathe to use them). I'm still not sure.

I know I'm a packrat because I have no intention of throwing the (empty) box away. But I'm rather proud that these guys are heading into the home stretch. They are amongst my favorite delver minis. All I need now is a stretcher bearer team, since that's what hirelings tend to carry most often in my games!

By the way, you can see a well-painted set of these here on Cool Mini or Not, plus a chest of unknown provenance (it's not in 2004).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on Dungeon Fantasy & non-front line fighter types

My players and I started a brief discussion on Sunday about the utility of non-fighter types in my game, which I think reflects on deliberate choices in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. Here are some of my thoughts about combat and non-combat specialists in DF.

The thing about DF is, everyone is an expert-level specialist.

Non-front line fighters will never be able to keep up with front-line fighters in combat. Combat that is significantly dangerous to Barbarians, Knights, Martial Artists, and Swashbucklers will overwhelm non-front line fighters. Even some of them - the Barbarian and the Martial Artist - give up some direct combat ability for flexibility in other areas, and are more at risk than the other two. Holy Warriors fill a specific niche - they'll pass as front-line fighters, but aren’t up to the Knight or Swashbuckler level; they excel against "evil" creatures.

Conversely, front line fighters will never be able to keep up in non-fighting tasks covered by other experts. Traps and locks will utterly frustrate any front-line fighter. They are useless for much besides setting off delicate traps. They can't cast spells or disarm traps or open doors without force. Only Clerics can heal. Only Wizards are any good at spells. Only Bards can use songs to sway or calm or incite. Only Artificers can build gadgets on the fly.

The split in DF is that if you take a non-front line fighter, you're as much as admitting you can't hack it against the toughest foes. But if you take a front-line fighter, you can't hack it on technical tasks. Knights, specifically, are so myopically focused on combat they can't do much else besides force doors and kill monsters. If they dump most of their points in more combat abilities and not much in strength, they can't even open doors well.

In this way, it's a lot like a higher-level D&D or Rolemaster game would be. Any trap dangerous enough to require disarming instead of absorbing or bypassing needs a Thief, because no one else can hack it. Any evil shrine bad enough to do evil things needs a Cleric to cleanse it. Any wound bad enough to slow you down requires a Cleric to heal it. Any magical defenses or barriers worth noting requires a Wizard to bypass. Anything on guard enough to require sneaking to surprise needs a Thief or Scout. Wizards will be useful in and out of combat, with the right spells, but they can't out-kill the fighters in combat. You can try some overlap (either with a 50-point lens, or just pouring points into a non-template skill) but you'll forever lag the experts. That's part of the game design. It's niche protection in the best way (for more on niche protection, see here and here)

My game is combat-heavy. But it's also obstacle heavy (fortified entrances, heavy doors, magical barriers, etc. and that's just so far on level 1). Part of the "non-combatants are useless" meme I can see starting to grow in my own game is because, as luck would have it, the group really hasn't hit many of the evil traps, horrid puzzles, killed-by-special-methods monsters, magical barriers, unholy sites, skill/knowledge challenges, and tricky negotiating opportunities that await them elsewhere. There have been some already, but they've either been bypassed, bludgeoned down and walled off (such as the gargoyles), or assaulted with Shape Earth (such as the black door and the trapped hallway from last session). Some of this is play style - if you think it's always fine to bash the chest to pieces or kick the door down or cure damage after setting off the trap, maybe a Thief isn't going to have much to do. If you never scout, yeah, Scouts are useless. If you smash a hole in the floor instead of doing research to find the password for the magic staircase, the Sage or Wizard will be less useful. If you deal with evil shrines by taking the valuables and leaving them dangerously evil, the Cleric is less useful.

I personally think that in RPGs, you get the game you play. If you make non-stealthy fighters and frontal assault everything in a loose combat order, you’re going to get a campaign heavy in chaotic, turns-on-a-die-roll fights with lots of ambushes by stealthy opponents. If you make a wizard-heavy party, you're going to have a "15 minute adventuring day" type of game where the whole group adventures based on available energy, and where magic resistant foes are a special challenge and No Mana Zones seem unfair barriers. If you favor diplomatic types and talking, you'll negotiate more overall in the campaign.

The GM influences just as much as the players - it's probably 50/50 GM/combination of the players. If both react to the perception of "campaign needs" you can get a feedback circle - we fight a lot, so we need more fighters in the group, so we can't navigate traps or negotiate, so we take more damage and have more fights and need more fighters. The GM then tosses more and tougher fights at you because you're too hard to challenge in a fight and too hapless against other threats.

The way out of the loop is to just get out of the loop - both the GM and the players need to do it.

How? The GM needs to set challenges and let them sort it out themselves, and not modify them to match a lopsided approach. Example: "Okay, you wiped out Orcus and his buddies in three rounds with no sweat, but now what? The temple exit is trapped, the treasure is behind a forcefield, and Orcus will re-form in 1 minute if you don't destroy his unholy altar with clerical rituals."

The players need to leverage the skills of their non-front line fighter buddies, and the non-combat skills of the fighters so they aren't "sit around until we fight" types. They need to avoid trying to outrace the GM like he was a video game AI ("I've maxed out my combat skills and win all fights in the game easily, finally. Okay, next quest . . . ") You can't win an arms race with someone with unlimited resources, so concentrate on achieving your goals in a fun manner without trying to maximize your ability to beat one challenge. Pick a guy that's fun and useful, and find ways to get more out of your abilities.

I think there is always room for the expert, the non-combatant, and the utility character. You can't pull your weight when the combat specialists are needed, but the game isn't only combat, unless you make it out to be. If all you bring are hammers . . .

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gary Gygax, Game Design, and Games Without Winners

I stumbled across this book once while searching for "Gygax" in my library's keyword search catalog.

It's a kids book about game and toy innovators. And who is there, along side Milton Bradley (no intro needed), Joshua Lionel Cowen (Lionel Trains), and Ole Kirk Christiansen (inventor of LEGO)? Gary Gygax.

Gary Gygax's chapter is titled "Dungeons & Dragons: Games Without Winners." It discusses the origins of D&D from Dave Arneson's Blackmoor through the explosive growth (and epic collapse) of TSR and beyond. It's a neat little history, but stuff everyone who has played D&D long enough probably knows. The measure of Gary Gygax as a company founder is mixed.

But the legacy they attribute to him is the idea of games without winners.
"The game had no ending, unless all the players were killed off or agreed among themselves to stop the journey. Gygax explained, "The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character," who then "becomes kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire." But the real fun of the game was simply in spending some time with friends on an exciting adventure in a make-believe world."

That one quote encapulates a lot about D&D in particular and RPGs in general. It's a summary of the elusive end-game of D&D - get so good you retire and become part of the mythology of the gameworld. It's a summary of what makes RPGs unique - you "win" by playing well, not by playing better than others. You win by having fun playing.

The book traces this influence right up to computer RPGs and shared-world games like Neverwinter Nights.

In any case, it's very cool that Gary Gygax's baby got him credited with a real fundamental change in gaming. I don't play much that I did when I was 9, but I still play RPGs, because I win whenever it's a good session.

It's worth reading the rest of the chapter (and the book). I wouldn't buy it, just find it in your library. It's well worth the read.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

DF Game, Session 13 - Felltower

Finally we had time, a playing space, and enough people to play. Summer is hard for parents and for me as well. Last session was July 15th.

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Characters: (approximate net point total)
Vryce, human knight (299 points)
Nakar, human wizard (about 285 points)
Inquisitor Marco, human cleric (about 280 points)
Fuma, human thief (254 points)
Borriz, dwarven knight (280 points)

Reserve (players couldn't make it)
Honus Honusson, human barbarian (283 points)
Galen Longtread, human scout (250 points)
Red Raggi, human berserker (?? points, NPC) (Red Raggi is around town right now on a 15 or less on 3d. I rolled a 16, so he wasn't available.)

We opened up with the PCs in town. Fuma did some gambling and learned Poisons (and picked up some poisons for his crossbow and Vryce's sword.) Vryce did some carousing and picked up some rumors. Nakar tried to learn about gargoyles (they are elementals, and some wag told him you need special dwarven magic gargoyle hammers to kill them). Borriz caroused as well (not as successfully). Father Marco's player showed up late, late, late so he didn't get anything done in town, he just caught up later.

The group headed out up the mountain to Felltower, passing the usual landmarks - across the Stone Bridge to the northside slums and Sterick's Landing, up past the statue of Sterick the Red himself, up the windy path, to the top of the mountain, and to the crumbling castle that marks Felltower.

They entered the dungeon with the usual caution (invisible scouts, watching the arrow slits, etc.) and put down their bridge. They were amused to find the hobgoblins (presumably) had put up wooden shutters backed with leather, wool, or felt (to ensure no light penetrated) across the inside of the arrow slits. Tired of duking it out with the PCs (and paying for it) presumably.

Since Inq. Marco wasn't there yet, they decided against a run at the wights, and turned right. They passed the echo-y chamber they'd encountered before, and went what they call "map north" (the dungeon doesn't actually line up neatly N-S). They saw a mosaic-floored 20' corridor with two side exits. Fuma scouted invisibly, and saw the edging of flicking light as if escaping from a closed door to the left. He also heard voices - sounded like orcish - and booted feet heading away. Also, some snuffling and grunting noises.

(Editing later: Forgot the mention that Inq. Marco's player showed up, so we ruled that he'd caught up with them after a slow start.)

Fuma went back and explained, then the group followed. The wide corridor continued ahead to the extent of their magical lighting. The headed left.

The passed a dead-end alcove and a side passage they didn't explore, and reached the door quietly. They heard voices speaking Common, something about a trapdoor, stuck, injuries, and "what do we do now?" So they lined up and bashed the door down and moved in. Inside the room were five men - two down (one still slightly smoldering), three standing - one with an axe and shield, one with a sword, one with a bow - around a campfire made of broken bits of scrap wood. It was a long room ending in a stone spiral staircase and with a portcullis closing off a 10' wide passage to the "north." There were scorch marks on the floor in front of the portcullis.

Vryce decided to speak, and they were willing to talk.

Long story short, they said they were the Choke brothers - Grimleck Choke (axe guy), Bowbender Choke (bow), and "Big" John Choke (greatsword). This will be funny later. They and their two (wounded) hirelings had entered the dungeon and found this room. They and the PCs conferred with each other, and then together. They decided to team up. The PCs revealed they weren't three, but five (Fuma and Nakar being invisible). The Chokes told them the portcullis was locked but they bent a hole in it, but a trap on it burned one of their hirelings and some painted faced zapped the other a bit. They tried the trapdoor at the top of the stairs, but it wouldn't budge. And they heard orcs coming (and mentioned seeing trolls, but no one seemed to notice) so they hid in here.

Sure enough, down the blocked corridor was a black, smooth door (metal, for sure) and two pairs of open-mouthed faces painted on the wall.

Fuma went through the bars to investigate, and tried to crawl between the faces. They blasted him with fire, and set his cloak on fire. He cut it off and crawled to "safety" between the faces. While he waited, the group planned. Borriz and Vryce tried the trapdoor and managed to force it up a bit, but rocks and dust fell on them and a bigger rock blocked it partly open. No dice - it's buried by crumbled stonework.

So they decided they'd shape the stone from above (and later from a section of floor by the door) and ooze it down, between the bars, and create tilted walls of stone to block the mouths of the faces. They did one, then two (and the trapdoor crashed shut as un-shaped rock above shifted), and then a third by tearing up a 6' x 3' x 3' foxhole out of the floor with Shape Earth. Fuma hung out on the "wrong" side of the portcullis, just because.

(This is short to explain, but it took a couple hours of play, which I'll gripe about below*)

While they rested, I kept having Nakar (who was taking all the time to shape and rest, shape and rest) make some rolls. Oops, too low. Wandering monsters. The orc patrol in the area showed up . . . with a bang. The group hear thundering steps and roaring noises. Suddenly, BANG, the (Magelocked) door exploded into pieces. A big boar (!) came charging in, flattening Grimleck Choke, ignoring a hatchet to the brain from Borriz, and taking a few cuts from Vryce and John Choke plus an arrow and a sunbolt before dropping. Instantly after it fell, two gladiator apes charged in. They did little besides get beat up by Borriz, but they kept everyone busy until the orcs arrived. They did, firing arrows and then four big brute orcs charged in.

As this happened, the PCs suddenly realized too late that John Choke had moved behind Vryce, Grimleck behind Borriz, Bowbender had lined up a shot on Inquisitor Marco, and the two "scared hirelings" moved right next to Fuma (albeit on the wrong side of the portcullis) and Nakar. And they suddenly attacked. Borriz dropped from an axe to the back (although he was only down, not out), Vryce was neck-and-arm grabbed by John, Bowbender missed Inq. Marco, one hireling grabbed at Nakar (and missed) and the other snaked out a hand and grabbed at Fuma.


What followed was a three-way fight. The orcs kept attacking everyone, while the Choke brothers engaged with weapons . . . and their bare hands.

Fuma's fight was short. He dodged the grapple, dropped his crossbow, and engaged with his shortsword. He lightly wounded his opponent, who (along with most of the others) shifted into the form of a green ogre! The green ogre grabbed his neck, and as Fuma tried to fend he off, proceeded to begin to crush his neck. It took only two seconds of squeezing (and two really brutal ST rolls by the ogre) to choke the life out of Fuma. He dropped to the ground, dead.

Vryce was borne down to his knees and his sword knocked out of his hands, before he could finally break free - even as his opponent and he were attacked equally by orcs and a gladiator ape that got back up from his stunned and prone position. Nakar blasted Bowman choke with a powerful stone missile (8d+8, for 37 damage) but it didn't drop him. Inq. Marco fire off spells and then tried to fight with his mace but was knocked into that hole they'd made harvesting stone for their face-blocking walls. Two of the Chokes tried to get Nakar, but he kept fending them off with spells and magically-enhanced defenses. They kept trying to grappling him and wring his neck, but he was too wiley (and lucky!) for them.

The fight really turned when John Choke got clipped by a gladiator ape and knocked out cold with a terrible HT roll, and Borriz got back up. Vryce got back up, too, with his sword at the ready (yanked back up from its lanyard). At that point, Orcs started to die as fast as Borriz wanted them to. Inq. Marco fought from his hole, fending off an ape (and crippling it's leg), using Command to get an orc to drop his weapon, and hurting one of the Chokes, too. A big half-orc half-ogre ran in and swung his hammer but Vryce parried and then Borriz killed the guy outright with his signature double head blows. Vryce attacked the apes, and the Chokes. Borriz pursued the orcs a bit, killing a couple archers who'd followed the originals into the room, but when their morale broke he couldn't keep up with them as they fled. Vryce, meanwhile, killed off the Chokes.

A shaman and two archers escaped, but six orcs and a half-orc half-ogre died along with two apes and all five Chokes (John by coup-de-grace to both eyes).

The loot was disappointing, and so was the loss of Fuma. The orcs had only a mix of so-so weapons and some coins, and the Chokes were broke. They decided to head back the way they came, after hearing more noise from that direction and not wanting to be cornered.

They got the intersection of the mosaic hallways and the way back when they heard something approaching. They decided to go for it, despite dwindling resources (and re-world time). They left Fuma's body in the open and tossed lightstones nearby to make anyone coming look past them, and set up a quick ambush. What came around the corner were the first two of (eventually) five poison slorn, big lizards that breathe toxic streams of gas. They attacked and hacked up the slorn, but not before Borriz took a big blast of venom. Just then, the slorn's master came up - a troll! Hloo, hloo, hloo, it went, and attacked. Borriz got clawed up (and knocked out), and Vryce, Inq. Marco, and Nakar attacked with spells and swords. They managed to finish the lizards, and then after a nasty scrap dropped the troll. Before they could light him up, though, another troll and another slorn came at them from the hallway . . . and nastier-looking troll and two more slorn came up from the door they'd been planning to use to escape!

Inq. Marco probably saved the day here with a timely Great Heal (to cure Borriz entirely) and then a made-it-exactly-despite-penalties Awaken to get him up. Nakar also set a big section of the battlefield on fire, cornering himself but forcing the slorn to close instead of sit back breathing toxins. He eventually tripped trying retreat across a wounded troll, got his face clawed open, and needed rescue - but the fire helped, and Borriz and Vryce managed to dice up the remaining slorn and bash the trolls down. They group then quickly heaped the trolls into the magical fire and Nakar kept it up for 2 minutes to ensure they burned to ash (100+ seconds in magic fire is a lot of damage, even to trolls!)

We decided to end it there. While they could have scampered out of the dungeon, they're convinced they just exposed the troll's treasure and want to make a grab for it. So next time, we'll pick up there and let them look around a bit. Hopefully they'll take a (short?) break once they find the troll's/slorn's lair or lairs, and go back to the surface. Fuma's player needs a new PC introduced.

That's where we ended.

* If there is one thing I could change/would change "next time", I'd add another change to the DF spell changes list - Shape Earth cannot shape worked stone. No shaping holes in walls, no shaping carven floors, etc. I understand the value of this, and that GURPS mages are more utility than combat, and that taking it away means taking away a valuable ability. But man, the session grinds to a halt at every obstacle and people say "Can we shape a hole in it? What's the magic resistance of the floor? Of the wall? Of that rock? Can we cover it with shaped stone? Can we shape the wall away from the lock? Can we shape barricades in front of the trap?" And since the spell is extremely costly (6x cost for worked stone) but not so costly they can't cast it, this means shape, rest, roll wandering monsters, have a fight, more shaping, more resting, etc. and we spend a few hours of the game session in one room trying to bludgeon a way into an area I meant to be hard to get into. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't . . . but it means less exploration and more "solve it by shape it." I'd recommend for a traditional D&D-style or video game-style game, where walls are true obstacles except where specifically destructable, stone that's been worked by tools cannot be shaped at all.
Would that I could change this now, but it's too late (and characters and plans are based on it.) It's just not that exciting, which is my main complaint.


Fun session.

A few things this time:

You can find Andersonian trolls, poison slorn, gladiator apes, and those green ogres in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1. It was mostly luck that the PCs hit all of them in one session.

d30 Rumors. I put 30 rumors on a list and let my players roll the d30 for each rumor they picked up (1 automatic, plus 1 for every 2 points they made a Carousing roll by). This was a lot of fun, actually. I bolded out the rumors they have, and I'll pull them off the list and fill in new ones.

Combat can be slow. Especially if everyone is kibbitzing about each other's best options and worried about maximizing this turn's actions while not opening up their rear hexes to any attacks on subsequent turns. So while it's fine we have a high proportion of the session being combat, it sucks that it's one combat or two combats. So we're going to try a few ways to speed it up next time.

They need more bodies in the fray. But some players are reluctant to hire folks who'll get killed in the process.

We also discussed some meta-issues like always leaving the dungeon at the end of a session, how to get down to lower levels if you have to re-fight your way down each time, etc. We also talked "one group" versus "loose confederation of looters" and having extra PCs. We did all agree that killing monsters while drinking beer with your friends is awesome, but we're hoping to find a way to further maximize the awesomeness . . .

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My megadungeon "best" practices - Part VI

Here are some more ramblings about dungeon design, specifically megadungeon design. This is just what I've discovered as I have gone along.

The rest of the series is linked from here.

Quick Felltower/Grak Yorl Status Update
My own megadungeon has, as of now, 4 main levels and 1 sub-level mapped out, and everything the players could possibly reach in any two sessions is stocked and ready. I've got notes and outsides on several more levels and sub levels, and I'll spend time on them when I've got a killer idea or the players seem like they'll get there within a session or two.

On to the lessons:

Know which way the doors open. When I started my megadungeon mapping, I went right back to Gygaxian mapping, with doors shown as boxes overlaying the wall.

I realize now I missed a good chance to make my life easier. I should have put architectural blueprint style notations of which way a door swings open.

If your players are anything like mine, the first thing they door when they see a closed door is ask, which side are the hinges on? No locked, barred, or magically sealed door or poison needle doorhandle trap is worth beans if my players are on the side with the hinges. Hinges come off. That's if they don't follow the tactics of Spec Ops troops and make their own entrance and ignore that silly choke point.

Which way the door swings - from left to right, or right to left, into the room or out - will affect every decision you make about the door. Do you bust it down? Would there be a bar on the inside, or could someone have piled trash up to keep it from being shouldered open? That would make sense if it swings into the room, but not as much if it opens out. If it has recessed hinges or is a pocket door or swings both ways, it changes the nature of the door (and the wall next to it).

While I can make this up on the fly from knowing what my dungeon doors were put up for, and why, it would have been easier from the start to have it noted on the map. That way I don't have to remember.

Make it easy to change levels. It shouldn't be a nightmare to get down to level 2 from level 1. It doesn't need to be trivial, but the smoother the transit, the more chances that players will actually go there. You want to avoid making it so that every attempt to get down to the next level involves a resource-draining slog or takes up a big chunk of your game session. It's just logistics - if going deeper is in and of itself costly and time-consuming, it won't happen as often.

Two corollaries to this:

Make it possible to bypass sections, but give them a reason not to. If it's easy to, say, skip from level 3 down to level 7 using the elevator, or the big access shaft, or the teleporter, great. But then you need a reason to go to levels 4, 5, and 6 instead of doing a quick raid on level 7. Besides the inherent danger of going too deep, that is. Put things - valuable, unique, and interesting things - on levels 4, 5, and 6 that make it worth exploring them. Put dangerous creatures there that must be dealt with to avoid leaving monsters in your six. Put cool stuff there.

I played the hell out of Wizardy: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (available here) when I was a kid. There was an elevator from level 1 to level 4, and then from 4 or 5 (I forget which) down to 9. So I never spent time on levels 6, 7, or 8. They were filled with teleporters, turnabout traps, mazes, and nastiness. But I could just ride down to 9, fight one all-or-nothing encounter (and let rip with my best spells and magic items), take my loot, and run back to town. So I did that over and over - it was risky, but the level 9 critters were worth a lot of XP and we found the best magic items there. All 6-8 had was less treasure and more frustration. So avoid that!

Include subtle level changes

I'm not a big fan of teleporters, especially the kind that do it without you ever noticing (I find that hard to believe in, and it wrecks my suspension of disbelief). But I do like stairs down to sub levels, or sloping passages, or raised up or lowered areas on a level. Combined, they make it hard to tell what's a passage to the next level and what's just part of this level but raised up or lowered down. If you go down to level 7 and up a tall set of stairs to the temple's alter and priests chambers, is it still level 7 in danger and reward? Does that sloping passage in the caves on level 5 drop you down to more dangerous stuff, or does it merely mean a physically lower area of level 5?

Man-made dungeon levels might take advantage of a dead cave found during the excavation, and it might be above or below the rest of the level.

Putting that kind of conundrum in from of the players tests their willingness to explore. It adds tension and choices with small cost. It also adds realism - caves aren't flat, and having to climb up and down obstacles makes a lot of sense.
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