Sunday, March 28, 2021

Megadungeons & The Mythic Underworld

 Below is another article I wrote a few years ago for an online pop culture website. The humor is a bit bitey because the site owners were into that...

Can Gary Come Out To Play?

A couple of college-age men knocked on the front door of a modest two-story home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They were nervous and a bit apprehensive, but they were also filled with a hopeful anticipation. A pretty blond woman opened the door and eyed the young men with suspicion, though she already knew why they were there.

Rolling her eyes, she called out behind her “Gary! Players!”

In his study, Gary Gygax shuffled his work papers into a pile, took a couple drags off a joint and went out to greet the men.

Smiling, he ushered them down into a large basement.

It was full of tables, one of them piled with small dunes of sand. In one corner stood a five foot, open-sectioned miniature castle, its exposed rooms and halls populated with lead minis of elves and orcs.

The young men eagerly smiled and looked at each other.

Gary handed them each several sheets of paper with pre-generated characters on them and pointed to a couple of chairs at a table laden with books and binders. “I have a couple of hours. guys, let’s start you at a town tavern down the road from Castle Greyhawk.”

The Basement King Of Lake Geneva

It was the late 70’s, and Dungeons And Dragons was swiftly becoming a certified phenomenon. Gary Gygax was making enough money off the game to fully indulge in his profitable hobby. He was running games for 10-20 regulars almost every night.

In addition, mostly on weekends but often any day of the week, strangers would show up at the Gygax abode, having heard he was up for DMing for anybody at a moments notice. As long as he wasn’t busy with his huge group of regulars in his closed evening campaigns.

This would not last, as eventually the growing popularity of the game, and larger and larger related projects taking up his time, would make gaming with Gary outside his regular group possible only at conventions.

See, when you get more and more famous and successful, you have less time to kick it with small groups of fans. The only thing I can personally compare it to was when I was a little kid in the late 70’s at San Diego Comic Convention International (one day to become Comic-Con), where I remember cornering Stan Lee in a hallway with several other young comic geeks, where “The Man” happily hung out for a half hour answering questions on everything from Spider-Man to Howard The Duck. From the 80’s on something like that would just not be possible.

But back to Gary.

Birth of The Megadungeon

So early on GG was running impromptu sessions for fans, and nightly for his group. How did he do it? Nowadays most modern story-crafting DMs would balk at the lack of prep time. Also, Gary would often be missing players at any particular session. How do you attend to a running narrative when the player pool shuffled so much, with little to no notice?

The answer is you didn’t. You just centered your gameplay around a megadungeon.

One of the hardest parts of running for a regular group is to consistently get everybody to show up regularly and constantly explaining away character absences. Getting players together for a game is like corralling cats. Jobs, family, and vacations get in the way of regular attendance.

But what about the fragile DM’s precious story? Mr. 5th Edition Dungeon Master needs to script out and craft his little stories, anticipating the players’ future actions.

Well, that was not always the case, Brosif.

Fuck Story

With a megadungeon, there is no story (or if you must, it IS the story). All you need is the adventure location and a separate home base such as a town. The dungeon is itself the tent pole of the campaign.

It’s where you do the dirty murder hobo business of kicking in doors and killing beasties. And the tavern, inn, or whatever is where you retreated to heal, recover, and spend your blood-soaked loot.

Each session ends with the trip back to town. The next with a trip back to the dungeon. Sounds monotonous? Not in Gary’s Castle Greyhawk. Here’s a pic of his first level:

That’s a lot of rooms, right? Not only that, but most levels had sub-levels. Gary’s 12+ level Greyhawk dungeon typically had 100 rooms or more per level.

But believe it or not, Gary was a minimalist. He only wrote a sentence or two in his notes for each room, winging and randomizing elements he had not notated. When a room was explored, he would draw a line through it, and later would restock it or redesign it all together.

He could mix things up and make things as unique as he wanted.

Some rooms would be monster lairs; others might be large halls with pools filled with various magic liquids. One room might contain a dwarven forge; while the next might be an oracles chamber. Some rooms even lead to other worlds, such as Conan’s Hyperborea or John Carter’s Barsoom.

No two rooms out of hundreds would offer the same experience.

And it was perfect for groups of varying level. The megadungeon levels had many stairways and chutes to other levels, and parties could delve in relation to ability. Noob poltroons could stick to the giant rats and goblins of level one, while tougher adventurers could head to deeper levels, where the rewards matched the dangers. After an evening of ass-kicking, they headed back up and back to town till the next game. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Dungeon As An Entity

Who was restocking this dungeon? Who was coming into this deadly maze to construct rooms? The usual explanation was that some mad wizard was in charge. But that didn’t explain how monsters and undead lived literally on top of each other with little in the way of resources, waiting patiently for characters to come challenge them for the contents of locked chests.

Even as early as 1st edition, the charming batshit whimsy of colossal dungeons with no naturalism was slowly giving way to more realism, but in original D&D unrealistic “living dungeons” were heavily implied in the rules. It was baked in.

The rules for the underworld stated that in the dungeon, doors would automatically slam shut behind the characters, and were usually locked or jammed. The same doors would automatically open for monsters. No character could see in the dark, but all dungeon inhabitants, even evil humans, could see fine; that is unless they were taken prisoner or charmed by players, at which point they lost the ability.

Megadungeons were like haunted houses, they seemed to have their own agendas. An old school dungeon such as this hated player characters and loved its monsters.

This seems perhaps too whimsical and fantastic to many, but the idea of a living dungeon fits well in the madcap world of old D&D.

Online amateur D&D historian Jason Cone, also known as Philotomy, describes the verisimilitude of what he calls the “Mythic Underworld” quite eloquently:

“There is a school of thought on dungeons that says they should have been built with a distinct purpose, should ‘make sense’ as far as the inhabitants and their ecology, and shouldn’t necessarily be the centerpiece of the game (after all, the Mines of Moria were just a place to get through).

None of that need be true for a megadungeon underworld.

There might be a reason the dungeon exists, but there might not; it might simply be. It certainly can, and perhaps should be the centerpiece of the game.

As for ecology, a megadungeon should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply and may be bent, warped, or broken.

Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it.”

Megadungeons Become A Dirty Little Secret

But as time rolled by players found such concepts as running gauntlets in super-magical labyrinths to be passe to a degree. But this was not the main reason megadungeons such as Castle Greyhawk did not become the norm in published adventures.

With minimal descriptions and a constantly shifting layout, Gygax didn’t think megadungeons would be all that usable for DM’s who did not create them. And in all honesty, I think he believed most dungeon masters, especially unseasoned ones, would be incapable of the on-the-fly decision making required for a dynamic and ever-changing location. Rather ironic now that we old schoolers see original D&D as having been more about “rulings NOT rules.”

Anybody who ran OD&D by necessity had to be adept at winging things. This is in stark contrast to the more modern editions where “player agency” seems to run the game.

But when it came time to publish adventures for the game, Gary passed on using his precious Castle Greyhawk dungeons and instead focused on ones he used for convention tournaments, such as his classic Against the Giants series. Basically, these were “railroad” adventures, more about getting from point A to point B than sandboxing. When a dungeon was involved, it was just a series of halls or caves meant to be cleared out, not a magical theme park you could delve into again and again.

The linear adventure became the norm, and was of the type DMs would imitate for years to come. By the early 80’s, dungeons of The Mythic Underworld were becoming a lost art.

The Megadungeon Lives Again

About 10 years ago or so a renewed interest in original D&D brought the megadungeon concept back into fashion among gamers old school and new.

For a somewhat outside-the-box list of megadungeons (including the Death Star) check out this article.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Professional Dungeon Masters


Pictured above: profile pic of a Roll20 forum member

advertising as a "Paid DM" 

In recent months I've been exploring the Roll20 members forums. Here people advertise that they are looking for games to play in, looking to start a campaign, etc. I've been interested, surprised, annoyed, and even appalled (I'll post more on this in the future), but the most stand out thing to me there is the phenomenon of "paid DM's."

Around 10 years ago when I started exploring the "OSR" online, there wasn't much in the way of "professional dungeon masters." Sure, somebody like Frank Mentzer and other mid-level gaming luminaries might be getting a payday for running a convention game. You can make your own call as to whether such sessions are worth the time and money (I try not to be judgmental but I don't find this grizzled veteran very compelling in his refereeing), but I was never much of a convention dude. 

At some point right before I originally started this blog I was lurking around a forum, I think, and some young fellow calling himself Captain Kommando or some such made a post discussing the possibility of running games for a living. Apparently he lived with his granny and money was an issue. In order to help he wanted to earn some bucks, and he thought DMing for pay would be a great way to save the homestead. He would don masks and do voices and provide you an interactive experience. That forum, at least then (I have zero recent forum experience; in the past I found forums such as and Dragonsfoot to be cesspools of tired old school gamers clinging to tired old notions) was full of people who thought their way of having fun pretending to be elves was superior, and they kind of ate Captain Kommando alive. "pay to play? the hell you say!" But he dug in his heels. I think that after he sat on a train for an hour to go run a free trial game for some folk at a mall food court, and none of them showing up, he gave up on his dream and went back to a regular job search. 

Flash forward some years, and the roll20 "looking for games forum" is full of folk advertising as "paid DM's." Literally 25-35 % of the posts are from DM's looking to get 10-20 bucks a sessions from their players. And they often seem to be able to find a group to pay. They call themselves "legendary DM's" though readily admitting they have only been doing D&D for two or three years. That's gotta chap the ass of anybody doing it for free for decades. Hell, sometimes a group will post looking for a DM to pay. 

Now, none of that really appeals to me. For one thing I don't really need the money. But to have to have an expectation that you are "working" for the players really turns me off. Too many times in the past, especially outside my own hand-picked groups, have I felt like running a session was like a job that didn't pay. For every player that brought me a six pack of high end beer, there were two who didn't seem to give a shit about what might be fun for me in the game. And I was giving it up for free. 

The added pressure of getting paid for it for sure does not appeal. A role playing game as customer service? Just like life in general I have found that when it comes to being a player the secret to happiness is managing your expectations. If you are paying somebody you certainly have high ones. 

Honestly, I think this notion is another side effect of  the popularity of Critical Role. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Your Gameworld: Reboots and Retcons

I was very fortunate as a kid, early on in my gaming, to have started a game world and kept with it for decades. It was really just a dungeon and a tavern to go to between games. That really only lasted a couple of sessions, as supply shops and residences besides the tavern became necessary. And that's how my setting Acheron grew. As things were needed. Often locations would be created by players as backgrounds for their characters, and that added to my world. So it was a growing thing, created out of shared experiences.

I always tried to maintain a consistency in my world. If something happened, then the world was forever affected by it. The Isle of Dread visited for the first time? OK, now it was no longer virgin territory. The Caves of Chaos battled through and the evil temple destroyed? Guess I'm never using that location again. At least not the way it was. 

But I softened on that consistency in the last decade or so as I found myself wanting to reuse certain adventures that I loved. Mostly notably the old White Dwarf Magazine dungeon The Lichway. Also, I have had a lifelong love for the Runequest Glorantha town of Apple Lane, a module I also adapted for use in D&D. In the Lichway you very likely release a hoard of undead in the complex. In Apple Lane you will defend a pawnshop from an evening attack (in the Runequest material its a tribe of baboons), and eventually explore The Rainbow Mounds and fight the forces of the Dark Troll White Eye (an orc in my D&D setting). 

Apple Lane I could reuse a couple of times because the first time (and maybe second and third) I used it for Runequest. Decades ago. For D&D I changed some names; Gringle became Gengle. Apple Lane became Lemon Tree. But most details stayed the same. Lichway was sort of "one and done" because, well, hundreds of undead at large in the place. 

But there came a time when I realized the only person I was fooling with a sort of enforced purity of continuity in the world was myself. Every few years I found myself with a brand new group. In every case nobody had ever heard of Apple Lane or The Lichway. This was a fantasy world with no real value outside my games. Why was I so worried about continuity. Did it really matter? 

But in a way I have found, for me at least, a happy compromise. A location reboot. I decided that some locations might be in sort of a dimensional loop (or whatever). Perhaps a curse or will of some godling that no matter what happens it returns the location, all its inhabitants, back to a zero setting. When one group of players is out of my life, I can refresh these old favorites to use again if I so choose. The undead of The Lichway return to their crypts. Dark Odo and her followers rewind back to their old positions. The local fishing village forgets the adventurers who came that time and unleashed the undead hoards who would keep them awake at night howling within the necropolis. Apple Lane itself is also in a continuity loop. Gringle will always need brave souls to protect his pawn shop. White Eye the orc always returns to life and haunts the Rainbow Mounds. 

These are out of the way locations, so its easy to just reset and reuse.

There is a new wrinkle though. One of my old players from my home town is involved in my online Roll20 games. I want to use Apple Lane and its environs once more (maybe for the 5th time, in two worlds). But the thing is she had a character experience this 20 years ago. The entire adventure was a major point in her characters life. Back then she ended up falling in love with the pawn shop owners assistant "Hobbit John" (a duck in the Runequest version) and marrying him (yes, she was a hobbit as well, a cleric and local sheriff). So she would surely remember all this. 

But its cool. She is a trusted old player. She has played in several different groups of mine over the decades. So I can go ahead and jerk the curtain a bit in her case. Let her know what I am doing. Tell her about the reboot concept. It would be a rerun for her, but its been long enough where she won't remember every detail so it can still be fun for her. And of course there will be differences. Hobbit John is gone, having married a players character and being released from whatever curse maintains the retcon in Apple Lane. My last go at the Lichway was different as well (she was not involved in that campaign as it was face to face before the pandemic) as noted in my previous posts about The Lichway. 

So things can and should be changed up. But there is no negative side to reusing beloved modules and disrupting the continuity of your world. And modules aren't the only changes I've embraced. Hell, back in the day I let a friend run a campaign in my world where he promptly affected things on a continental level. For the longest time I just kept all his messing with the world as part of its history. But it got to the point where I said "why?" and just dismissed those things. Wiped them from the history. He certainly would never know. He died in the 90's.

Nobody really knows but me. And as I get older I just don't care any more. I'm not writing The Silmarillion here. Its just a D&D setting. When I'm gone it comes with me.  Its just about having fun and is no more serious than that. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Lichway - part two


 Part 2

 Prequeling this great old module:

The location of The Lichway is a tidal basin about (in my game world) 80 miles north of the Kingdom of Tanmoor, of which this area is officially a part of. The "Sandlands" is a wild area, for a thousand years inhabited by (as the module describes) a "dour coastal people," The Sandlanders, who as the module seems to not so subtly suggest worship undead and include undead raising rituals in their funerary rights. That was long ago actually, before colonists from the Acherian Empire to the east founded the city of Tanmoor, and interbred with the coastal first people of the area. Early on the Sandlanders were diminished, their small kingdom absorbed and their magnificent necropolis known as The Lichway abandoned and forgotten about.  The people of the Sandlands fell into a certain primitism and the once great community reduced to several small fishing villages along the wild coasts of the north, mostly beneath the notice of the Kingdom that doomed their culture. 

But the Lichway sits, patiently. The "Susurrus" awaiting release, while the interned are awaiting as well.

So as I mentioned in my last post, the module just starts you in the Korm basin, and you can float in to the covered cavern up to the old docks, or you can come in through the tunnel that leads outside. Within the complex are several more or less unrelated factions just hanging out in this desolate area, because reasons. And by that I mean no reasons. The main group is the human female Magic user Dark Odo and her group, that consists of several evil personages of various races and classes. Fighters, a cleric, a thief, etc. They have taken up residence in the part of the complex the players are unlikely to pass through first (out of the maybe 4 or 5 times I ran it they never entered that side of the place first, it requiring swimming through dubious water or secret doors).  Odo's party has a couple of captives (one of them bound and clearly a sex slave for Odo's fighters), probably previous adventurers. they more or less count as yet another faction.

There are a pair of Man-Beasts (from White Dwarf magazine just like this module) hanging out near the main halls, and near the entrance the party is likely to encounter a quartet of thieves that are rummaging about in one of the first trash strewn rooms and trying to bust down a door a magic user is hiding behind. These folk don't seem to be related in any way to Odo's group (the magic user has actually been ousted by Odo), even though the complex is not exactly vast. Why this place that has sat undisturbed for hundreds of years is suddenly having a convergence of intruders is not explained, in true old school (lazy) style. 

Well, I decided on my last go with Lichway about a year ago for a new group to change things up and come up with a fairly involved backstory for all this. 

But before I go any further I should say that the fact that I used this module several times in the same gameworld  should itself raise some questions. My land of Acheron has been my D&D jam since I was a kid. I have maintained a certain history (more often than not created by player characters over the decades) and consistency with it, but the Lichway is clearly an exception. I have only used it with completely new groups each time, so it was fairly easy to retcon each time. I mean, unleashing hundreds of howling undead that cannot leave the complex doesn't exactly change your game setting in any way. It just IS. A secluded location nobody will go to unless you need want use to it again. 

The time before last, maybe 5 years ago in my old group in Los Angeles, the only real change I made to this was to have Dark Odo be a Drow. A sort of free agent and drow empire renegade, she sought the treasure of the Lichway to fund her own power base on the surface world. There being an old abandoned drow outpost in the upper caves of the local underdark entrance, she also pondered the possibility of reestablishing her own drow powerbase in the local sub-surface areas.

There was at least a couple of other changes in NPC's I made. Runis, one of Odo's fighters, was now a local and pureblood direct descendant of the original Sandlander culture. I had Dark Odo fill her head with notions of the Sandlanders reclaiming their heritage and the local lands from Tanmoor. If she followed Odo she would become a queen of a new kingdom. All they needed was the vast treasure hidden in the Lichway. 

The rest of Odo's gang were made up of followers whom she also entranced with promises of money and power to come. The Man Beasts were an exception. Not true followers, the were paid by Odo as body guards, scouts, and extra security (In the original material the Man Beasts seemed to have no connection to Odo's gang despire close proximity). 

The four thieves near the Lichway entrance were a gang from Tanmoor who heard about the necropolis from Odo, but most of this is getting ahead of myself. 

Odo had visited the Korm basin area briefly to learn what she could of Lichway, and this is where she met and originally charmed Runis. Odo then went with Runis to Tanmoor in hopes of learning more secrets about The Lichway before taking it on. If you were to do something similar there are many ways to go about it, but I had Dark Odo come into contact with Merlo Von Tanmoor, one of the last of an old Tanmoorian family of wealth who also happened to be the youngest professor of history at the college.

Merlo was also a contact of the players in their first games, someone who could use them for important personal missions, i.e. helping obtain historical objects. Merlo, and associates of his from the Wizards Guild and other city groups actually regularly used adventuring groups/mercenaries with special skill sets to perform small quests. This was not only how Merlo met the PC's, but he also knew Dark Odo and friends. Odo had come to Tanmoor hoping to find out more details from historians about The Lichway before encountering its dangers, and in a meeting with Merlo and others she found that the info was lacking, knowing no more details than Odo's Sandlander follower Runis. But Odo found another use for Merlo; helping get others to the Lichway that she could either add to her growing gang, or victimize and rob once she planned to set up an HQ there. She counted on Merlo Von Tanmoor's curiosity for obscure historical things and Lichway was right up his alley.  

Merlo threw a seasonal party for his vast amount of college and wizards guild associates, and some of the adventurer's often used by him and others were also invited. This included the party, and also Dark Odo and some of her party members such as Runis (Runis attending in traditional Sandlander garb; lots of shore bird feathers and shells as adornment. I really liked to play up her coastal wilderness roots). Though Odo fascinated Merlo, he (a magic user who did not tend to use his abilities openly) could see she was a manipulator and did his best to avoid her wiles. Merlo did insinuate to the characters the he had been intimate with her, so they could never be sure she wasn’t truly manipulating him at least subtly. 

The player party got to know Odo a bit at the party, and player Leslie, running a female half orc fighter named Emen, had her character become attracted to the dour but ruggedly lovely Runis. This was an unexpected development that I knew I could exploit for the eventual encounter in The Lichway.

Also in attendance was the thief/mercenary party who called themselves "The Four Blades." These would eventually be the thieves encountered in The Lichway. To spice up the future encounter between the party and the thieves,  I made it so the half elf member of The Four Blades had a hatred for orcs. A tense encounter and near fight with him and Emen heated things up, and set up some tension for their later meeting again at the Lichway.

 Runis and a couple other of Dark Odo's band (including the female Man Beast) had a city adventure with the party that night. Runis and Emen, having at attraction to each other spent a couple of days in each others company after that, Runis confiding to Emin about Odo's promises of making her a ruler of a new kingdom in the Sandlands. This relationship, pursued originally by Emin, was a great way to create future drama for the Lichway encounters. I could never have predicted it, but it was only made possible by bringing the PC's and NPC's together socially. 

Dark Odo gathered up Runis and the rest of her band and left for the Sandlands, hoping to beat any that she told about The Lichway there to prepare for either recruiting or robbing them. 

A couple of weeks went by in the city before Merlo summoned the party. He told them that besides Dark Odo and her gang heading off to Lichway, some other adventuring groups, such as The Four Blades, had also eventually embarked south for The old Sandlands. Knowing Odo spread news of the place, he could only wonder about her motivations. Curios about that, and the historical value of the situation, he tapped the party to go find The Lichway, discover what Odo was up to, and bring him back any information about the place they could learn. 

That was all the set up, and as I said the Runis/Emen would have potential for drama. After the party had some encounters around the village close to Lichway, they entered and went about exploring in the manner it usually is done (finding the key to the Susurrus cage early on) outside of encountering folks they knew. The Four Blades, inspired to check out Lichway a couple weeks earlier by Odo in Tanmoor, were exploring one of the initial areas and trying to flush out the mage as indicated in the module. There was a near fight, but the thieves were convinced by the stronger party to leave the place and so they did. 

The ultimate encounter with Odo and here gang went violent fairly quickly, but as Runis was emotionally divided by Odo and Emen she was a basket case and refused to fight. The long and short of it had most of Odo's group decimated, Odo herself escaping, and Runis falling in with the player party and more or less becoming a follower for Emen. Oh, the short of it is seeing as they had a cage key things went as they often do here; the Sussurus escapes, the dead rise, and the party runs like hell. 

One characters strongly suggested they lock themselves in the cage. You can imagine how that might work out. Starving to death huddles in a cage while howling skeletons reached in at you. But stronger heads prevailed and they just high tailed it with the undead riot chasing close behind. 

So that's it. In a nutshell you can find any old way to get the player characters into encounters with Odo and the others at some point before the delve. You could have Odo's gang, and maybe the Four Thieves, frequent the same tavern and socialize with them there. Maybe they all hear about the Lichway at the same time. You'll need a way to delay the party a few days so Odo and the rest can get there ahead of them and be a bit settled in, though the Four Thieves seem to have arrived just ahead of the party as written in the module.

 There are probably a ton of ways to get the NPC;s into a social encounter with the PC's. As I did just have them at a rich persons party with an NPC in common to introduce them. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Lichway - "why are they here?"


The Lichway is a dungeon that originally appeared in issue #9 (Oct/Nov 1978) of White Dwarf magazine out of England. It was an old favorite of mine, and over the decades I've now used it probably 4 or 5 times. It would have been more than that, but my groups tended to be long lasting, years, and I could only spring it on an entirely fresh group of players. 

Many old schoolers probably are more about using Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos multiple times (I've used them maybe twice since I was a kid). But while KotB is about as basic and vanilla as it gets (just fight endless caves of humanoids and maybe a nice-seeming cleric is a homicidal asshole), Lichway is an artifact of old indy style D&D like Arduin Grimoire and Judges Guild. The old school common dungeon elements are abundant:

The location has a gritty background (necropolis for deceased undead worshippers).

It has a shallow waterway running through it.

A deep variety of mostly offbeat monsters inhabit the area. 

There is plenty of grim mood and dungeon dressing (hundreds of open crypts, worms that will choke you in the fresh water sources, vampire statues, a long-ranging rustling sound emitted by a unique creature, a horrifying possible no-win scenario...think quick!).

But most iconic to me is the fact that several (and by several I don't mean like just 2) different groups/gangs are currently inhabiting the dungeon with for the most part no real goal or purpose other than await murder hobo's a'coming to call. I mean, there are a pair of Man Beasts (character class out of White Dwarf and another favored old school thing of mine)  just sitting around in a small enclosed hallway. Just like old school you need to inject your own motivations and reasons, whether the designers planned it like that or not (I suspect in most cases not. The style was just to give little description, because D&D was once a game about just killing monsters. Period.). 

I always injected a little of my own juice here and there since the first time I used it as a teen. It was easy just to assume the 2nd level Man Beast, a male, is training his lower level female follower, and a crypt with all kinds of creatures in it seemed like a good spot. 

I think that in all but one of the times I used it, the party manages to release the Sussurus, the ape-shaped thorn creature that emitted a windy sound that put undead in earshot to sleep. In my second to last use around four years ago back in LA the MU cast silence on it. So I've experienced that joy of playing out the party running away in chaotic "every man for himself" style through the part of the dungeon they hadn't explored yet to get away from hundreds of angry undead. Always a hoot. I think a player or two has been lost over the play through due to a bad decision or delay (describing a body being torn to bits by a howling mob of skeletons never gets old), but so far no TPK. but its come close almost every time.

So anyway, my first campaign in my new town the other year ended up geared towards Lichway. It didn't start out that way. This was an entirely new group and I was using 5th edition for the first time. To say I went into it NOT studied up on the rules in an understatement. Since all my players were newish to the edition, I used that as a way to learn. As the players learn while using their characters I would tap into that and learn along. 

And to be honest, on an old school note, I was able to wing things much more than I thought I could. Just tap into the stat base save mechanics for everything and you are good to go. Really, outside of magic use the system is pretty easy peasy. 

But since I was new to it I started slow. Running each game in sort of a simple episodic manner. At first not really looking to the future, but as time went by, the characters made contacts and friends in the way of NPC's, I had to start looking at a direction. And I knew I wanted to use an old school module, in part because I knew the players would not be familiar with anything I had from the old days. They were all a good bit younger than me. 

So first thing was to be prepared to use Lichway for 5th editon. No worries. Really nothing in there was too out of the ordinary. Man Beasts and the Susurrus were needing to be adapted. Not much else. 

But this time I decided to do something entirely different. This was a twist for me, and since it might be for you, you might want to consider it if you ever use this really excellent dungeon setting. What did I do?

Two things. First I decided to give all the groups in the dungeon an actual reason, and actual purpose, for being in the dreary place. A convergence of coincidence for good reasons.

Second, I would have the party, early on adventuring a hundred miles south of the Lichway in the big city Tanmoor prior to the Lichway delve, actually meet and interact with some of the inhabitants whom I had yet to set up shop in the Lichway. There would be a variety of things ahead of time that would set up the dynamic elements within the necropolis. And in so doing quadruple the feeling of gravitas once the location was reached. Sort of a prequel to Lichway as presented, starting  maybe a month before the actual dungeon delve.

I switched the female MU gang leader Dark Odo from a human to a young drow magic user. Highly charismatic and specializing in charm magic, the dark elf enchantress' gang was almost complete as shown in the module.. The Man Beasts were paid scouts and body guards working for Odo, hirelings more than charmed henchmen, while all the other members of the gang were recruited by Odo's considerable, manipulative charms.

Why would Odo go to the Lichway? And who where the unrelated thieves who were exploring the Lichway? Not to mention the former adventuring party that was slaughtered except for Odo's gangs captives. How did the character party get involved in all this? 

In my next post I'll lay out how I took my first 5th edition campaign towards the Lichway, and why all the NPC's are in it when the party finally shows up at the Korm Basin necropolis. 


Kevin Mac

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Early D&D Pirate Ship

 Below is another of a series of articles I wrote a couple of years ago for a pop culture entertainment site.

The Smell of Wargamers is In the Air

It was a beautiful August day in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and a throng of men old and young were lining up at a sign-in desk at the entrance to the historical Horticultural Hall to sit at a table indoors all day. It was 1976 at GenCon, originally a tabletop wargaming convention that had evolved to cater more to the players of a new game: DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS.

Inside at the many tables set out for the event sat middle-aged WW2 and Korean War vets clinging to their historical wargames.

Horticulture Hall
Geek Asgard circa 1976

Some scowled over at the nearby college-aged youths who in the last couple of years were invading the stodgy event, pretending to be elves and dwarves in the newish game Dungeons and Dragons.

Occasionally a paunchy, neckbearded wargamer would sidle over out of curiosity, and eventually ask a question non-D&D players would ask for decades. “How do you win?”  Each player had a different answer.

Charles Grant
“Blah blah blah Hitler. Blah blah blah Napoleon. “

In one corner of the hall, not far from several seller’s tables, a blond, bespectacled 21 year old was hanging a fabric banner on the wall. The edges of the sign had been burnt and dirtied to give the impression of an old timey treasure map. On the banner were the words JUDGES GUILD.

Building A Pirate Ship

The young man’s name was BILL OWEN, and he was there to represent he and friend BOB BLEDSAW’s new game company, Judges Guild. Bob was back at home sick and could not attend, and they had forgotten to arrange the use of a merchandise table, but that wasn’t going to stop Bill. He and partner Bob Bledsaw had a product to sell, and it was to be a game changer.

Based on Bledsaw’s home D&D campaign, it was a beautifully designed and intensely detailed map of a fantasy city they called CITY STATE OF THE INVINCIBLE OVERLORD.

Invincible Overlord Map

The map immediately evoked inspiration in even the most skeptical D&Der, with it’s dozens of buildings labelled as mundane businesses such as rope maker or bath house, to more fantastic shops such as wizards supply and monster hunter. It had an intricate system of alleyways and streets with names like Slaver Street and Misty Street. The maps were snapped up, but many buyers wondered about the details of the locations.

That had yet to be worked out; Bob and Bill had assumed Judges (what Dungeon Masters were called then) would want to add their own details. After all, Gary Gygax and TSR didn’t produce settings for the game yet, assuming there would be no demand. Bill thought for a second, then led any who inquired to his car, where he provided Bob’s address. “send us your address and 10 bucks, and we’ll put you on our subscription list for further info and releases.”

Bill had just invented Judges Guild’s subscription model. With few hobby shops specializing in role playing games yet, this turned out to be a winning move. The Judges Guild pirate ship had launched, matey.

pirate ship D&D
“Avast there, me dorkos!”

Flash back a few months. 32 year-old Bob Bledsaw, who had fallen in love with D&D almost as soon as it came out, had been running a locally popular campaign for some time. He and young player Bill Owen had talked a lot about producing game materials, and Bob’s incredible map design skills made them decide to visit TSR Hobbies in hopes of convincing Gary Gygax to agree to let them produce game materials for D&D.

They were unable to gain audience with Lord Gary, but D&D co-creator Dave Arneson was happy to meet them. TSR didn’t think game setting products would sell, assuming everybody was happy doing their own homebrews. Dave went ahead and gave verbal permission, and Judges Guild was born (Gygax would much later say he would never have made the agreement).

The Ship Launches

The City State map proved wildly popular, and in order to fulfill the first subscription requests, Bob whipped out the details of the city he created. The vibe he instilled in it would be his gameworld standard. Bob’s personal home game setting was Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but this new location could not be more different from the lands of Bilbo and Aragorn. It was totally gonzo.

The style was part ancient Greece, part Hyperboria, and part Lankhmar, the city of Fritz Leibers Fafhred and Grey Mouser. The city was designed as an outdoor dungeon, and walking the streets could lead to random monster and villain encounters. Walking into a shop and roughing up the haberdasher could be unwise; he might just be a 10th level sorcerer or even a demi-god.

Interesting to note, The City State’s Pegasus-riding Overlord was himself unabashedly evil, as well as 90% of his advisors and council.

Invisible Overlord book

Years of campaign play could be enjoyed without the characters ever leaving the city. This was not a setting for wanna be novel writers. It was pure sandbox. Characters were supposed to wander the city and encounter non – player characters who would react to them.

There were charts and tables describing random encounters and events, and each shop location featured it’s own rumors being discussed by customers and shopkeeps. If players heard a rumor that a dolphin had appeared out of thin air at a bathhouse, characters could hightail it over to see what was going on. It was up to the dungeon master to wing it and adjudicate the situation.

Bob continued expanding his City State setting. Calling his lands THE WILDERLANDS OF HIGH FANTASY, many adventure modules and packets containing maps and info on other locales and city states in the setting were gobbled up by the new Judges Guild faithful. The tropes of The Wilderlands included having it’s city state communities exist in isolation in the middle of howling wildernesses, with little real power outside their city walls.

A Gritty Sandbox to Play In

The Wilderlands were lands in decline, full of ruins of older civilizations, with little in the way of usable trade roads or safe havens. Bandits, monsters, mutants, and even aliens could kill you as you journeyed. If you were a resident of a town in the lands, a ten mile hike to visit your cousin was a suicide mission. Much like The City State, populations of all sizes (at least the human dominant ones) tended to be evil in nature. In most fantasy settings there were pockets of evil. In the Wilderlands, it’s good that is hard to find.

The brutal Wilderlands made Westeros look like Tolkien’s Shire.

highlands of High fantasy book

Another labor of love of Bob’s was Tegel Manor, a haunted super-mansion set in the Wilderlands, a dungeon chock full of ghosts, ghouls, vampires, and an endless variety of threats. With many gags, tricks and traps, it was a total funhouse dungeon. Playing in the mansion was like being on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, except you have to fight everything you see. It featured over 150 rooms, and a maze of hallways. It was both deadly and goofy as hell. At the main foyer you might be greeted by a butler in the form of a Balrog’s ghost, or you might enter a room to witness several zombies bowing before a large white rat wearing a plumed hat. In typical Bledsaw fashion, single sentence descriptions were the norm.

It was up to the haggard DM to decide why the hell zombies were bowing to a rat.

The manor halls were adorned with a hundred magical paintings of former residents with mystical affects.  There’s no evidence that Bob Bledsaw was a coke hound like Gary Gygax, but he sure came up with some wild-ass stuff.

D&D map

Fans of Judges Guild ate it up. It seemed the perfect weird fantasy world to D&D in.

Bill Owen would leave the company in 1978 for other pursuits (his true love before and after the Guild was the travel industry). But The company continued to expand, gaining the ownership of Dungeoneer Magazine, a fanzine-like product chock full of new monsters, magic items, and new adventures to add to the growing Wilderlands.

Sailing Along

The Dungeoneer book

Judges Guild produced over 250 products related to D&D, and by the early 80’s employed over 40 people. Not bad considering many of these items were poorly edited, very often contained fairly generic and unappealing artwork, and almost always were printed on poor and flimsy paper stock. And this was one of the reasons The Guild was heading into a decline to rival the decaying civilization of The Wilderlands.

Gary Gygax and company over at TSR had wised up and realized there was a demand for settings and adventures. The items they began to produce were well edited and typeset, done up with high grade paper stock and hard covers, and professional artwork. Judges Guild rejected these notions.

Bob Bledsaw
“But the sign in front of my office is bitchin’!” – Bob Bledsaw

Also the Guilds ideals of dungeon gauntlets, jokey puns and gags, and devotion to gonzo concepts were already becoming old. The D&D fanbase was changing and becoming more sophisticated. Ironically, players of a game where you pretended to be elves faced a growing realism movement.

Playing D&D
“Realism will make our dorky elf game legit!”


Judges Guild lost it’s license from TSR in 1982, and this proved to be the nail in the coffin. After a few last gasps (The Guild had a few licenses with other companies), the gangplank to the pirate ship was pulled up in 1985.

Sinking pirate ship
Glub glub

But, A Legacy Among the Faithful

Many years later Bob would briefly team with others to reprint some old Guild items, keeping his name in the gaming loop. Bob passed away in 2008 (the same year as Gary Gygax), but to this day his legacy carries on, through his son Bob jr. teaming up with small press game companies.

Original printings of Guild items sell for high prices on Ebay and Amazon.

The pirate ship is long gone, but the gonzo lives on in the hearts of Judges Guild faithful, like yours truly.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Cubes of Sadness


What more can be said of Gelatinous Cubes? They've been written about for decades. Forums have hundreds of threads about them. But they are so basic, iconic in D&D, that they remain fairly unchanged. They slide down  corridors looking to paralyze and digest organic material.  Not much else. 

 Old school/new school (I'm not sure) wildman Patrick Stuart has a new take that he discusses on his blog False Machine. I know Patrick from Deep Carbon Observatory, an almost unrunable adventure that I actually managed to run, adapting it (about 50% of it) for a Star Wars KOTOR game. Setting it on an alien planet actually made it much more workable than using it for my fairly vanilla D&D setting. But outside of this scenario the rest I know about him is from reading about Zak Smiths many many many kurfuffles with other OSR folk. Most of this happened while I was taking a very long sabbatical from the OSR and my own kurfuffles, so I don't have much in the way of commentary about it since I'm trying to have a more positive experience with talking about the hobby. But to me Patrick is kind of a mad genius with this stuff. To say he thinks outside the box when it comes to D&D is and understatement. He is a madman who kind of makes you think outside that box as sort of a contact high from his madcap stuff. Sometimes hard to describe in my own words the odd appeal. 

Recently on his blog Patrick talked about Gelatinous Cubes, the most basic of D&D creatures that defy tweaking. Sure, stick one in a trap door pit, or have one fall from above as a trap. But what more can you do with them? 

Mad philosopher Stuart has applied a sort of "Sadness Demon" aspect to them. They are attracted to grief. Or something.   As in Deep Carbon he can paint a picture with few words, making your mind fill in blanks in a way any great outside the box writing  can make you do. An instant collaboration. But man when he applies an abundance of word stuff it gets wild. I took some of that, shook it up with my own spices, and out popped my gel cube evolutions almost by inspired osmosis. 

So my take on the them, with a nod of the bonnet to Pat. 

Did you ever read Marvel Comics horror series Man Thing? MT was a mindless muck monster that shambles around the Florida Everglades, being encountered by everything from Fountain of Youth lost soul Conquistadors to Howard the Duck. 

A unique power/curse the creature has is a "fear sense," If a creature is in a state of fear nearby, it agitates the Man Thing. MT will seek the thing out and puts its muddy mitts on them. As the saying in the comics go "whoever shall know fear burns at the Man Things touch." Yep, if you are fearful (how could you not be in its presence?) you catch fire wherever it touches you. 

So, I'm not suggesting we change up the cubes damage to catch you on fire, nor be attracted to fear. But how about sadness? The cubes go about their business in the caves below, slurping up and quickly digesting dead rats, rot grubs, and goblin poop, but if some sentient creature within a few miles is in a state of great sadness, they change gears and seek it out. 

I kind of imagine a small town near a cave/dungeon complex. Travellers will come to town noticing how happy everybody is acting. Good cheer and friendly hello's. Even fearsome looking characters will be greeted happily. Whats going on? Perhaps the town drunkard, cheery at first, whispers to the characters that they should get out of town, as the constant cheer can itself be exhausting. He says he's had to forget his dear wife who died years ago so as to not dredge up sad feelings. He starts to weep a bit, and a few townies proceed to give him a pounding, all with smiles still on their faces.

Maybe you remember that old Twilight Zone with the kid who can grant his own wishes, and the remaining townfolk who are super cheery and "that's a good thing you did, Johnny!"

While obtaining rooms and having a drink at the inn, a hand at the stables gets kicked by a mule and is killed outright. The townfolk gather and try to put a stop to his wife and kids in shock and crying. If they don't soon stop, daggers come out and the party can intervene to stop the murders. 

Either way it is too late; a slurping and glurping sound comes from the outskirts of town from all directions, and into view comes sliding several full size gelatinous cubes that go after those sorrowful people. Even if the sorrow is stopped its too late. The cubes are here and they sense living meat. The siege is on. 

I can also imagine a roadside tavern scenario where one of the keepers children has died, and the sorrow in the place is heavy. The inn can be besieged by a couple of cubes (excellent for a low level scenario). A new twist on the zombie attack. More cubes start showing up, and a drunken sage says they are attracted by the grief. The party can take it from there. 

Or how about some sadness oozes and jellies? Sad blob attacks can be fun too.