Sunday, May 16, 2021

Favorite board game obsessions of recent years part 4 - Dead of Winter

OK, though Talisman will probably remain a forever fave of me and my fellow board warriors in my group, DoW has become a close second. 

My local besties B & L sold their house and hit the road in a huge pick up and a luxury mobile trailer to see the country. Until we discovered Talisman had a digital online version, our gaming pretty much halted. But last summer, when they were managing a nice RV park near Salt Lake City, I made the 6 hour drive to spend a few nights in one of the parks hotel rooms, and besides hiking in the local national park (and spending a bit of time in the RV parks rustic pub) we spent most of our time  playing the shit out of the board games I have mentioned previously, but especially our newest jam Dead of Winter. 

Here is Board Game Geeks description:

 "Crossroads" is a game series from Plaid Hat Games that tests a group of survivors' ability to work together and stay alive while facing crises and challenges from both outside and inside. Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game, the first title in this series, puts 2-5 players in a small, weakened colony of survivors in a world in which most of humanity is either dead or diseased, flesh-craving monsters. Each player leads a faction of survivors, with dozens of different characters in the game.

Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means players are working together toward one common victory condition, but for each individual player to achieve victory, they must also complete their personal secret objective, which could relate to a psychological tick that's fairly harmless to most others in the colony, a dangerous obsession that could put the main objective at risk, a desire for sabotage of the main mission, or (worst of all) vengeance against the colony! Games could end with all players winning, some winning and some losing, or all players losing. Work toward the group's goal, but don't get walked all over by a loudmouth who's looking out only for their own interests!

Dead of Winter is an experience that can be accomplished only through the medium of tabletop games, a story-centric game about surviving through a harsh winter in an apocalyptic world. The survivors are all dealing with their own psychological imperatives, but must still find a way to work together to fight off outside threats, resolve crises, find food and supplies, and keep the colony's morale up.

Dead of Winter has players making frequent, difficult, heavily-thematic, wildly-varying decisions that often have them deciding between what's best for the colony and what's best for themselves. The rulebook also includes a fully co-operative variant in which all players work toward the group objective with no personal goals.

That all sounds cool, and in reality its all true. There is a certain amount of complexity (nothing like some of the more popular Lovecraft games) but its fairly easy to pick up if you are focused at least for the first hour of the game. Most of its mechanics are intuitive. 

So you are living in a walled off community. You each start with two characters, with stats related to fighting, leadership ability, and scavenging. For instance the soldier has a high charisma and fighting ability, while the schoolteacher has improved scavenging in the school location. There are not hit points per se, but exposure to the elements and the zombie hoards outside can inflict wounds, and a zombie bite might outright kill you, and endanger others (if you get bit near others then you have to roll exposure for them - basically the dead character is now a zombie attacking them. A lot of elements in this game you have to make assumptions like that because, thankfully, the creators didn't want to waste to much of your time on fiddly details). 

The colony has its problems from turn to turn. When you use resources the trash piles up, affecting morale. You also need a certain amount of food to keep every body happy (besides characters there are a few nameless non coms you have to take care of). You are constantly trying to maintain a balance to keep morale from going down.

Besides taking out trash and such, the characters can go outside on their turn (rolling for exposure to the weather and zombie bites each time) and do some scavenging for food, weapons, medicine, and tools. Locations include the school, police station, grocery, and library. Just like the colony gates these areas can become overrun with zombies, so killing them now and again is a good tactic to keep things from going out of control. If a place gets overrun then characters start dying. 

When starting a new game you pull a card for the entire games tone and goal (keeping people fed, worrying about the trash, finding a certain amount of medicine, etc). Each turn you pull a card for that turns immediate goal (just lesser versions of the main game goal) and each turn another player will pull a crossroads card for you before your turn. That card has certain events that happen to a character on their turn, and often depends on certain things like if a particular character is in play or an action the character might take. Crossroads might also include an immediate event that almost always includes a choice to be made. Maybe you encounter a bus load of kids and have to decide if you can take them in and feed them, or if you abandon them (often all players vote on the outcome). Morale is often involved here. 

Then there is the goal of each player. At the start of a game each players secretly pulls a card for that. It might include things like end the game with a certain amount of guns, or to have a certain amount of characters under your control. Mixed in with these random motivations and requirements is a traitor card. There is a good chance a player will pull one, and buddy, these can be a pain. It usually requires that the game ends with zero morale on the board and you needing to fulfill certain requirements similar to the turn by turn cards. These are often seemingly impossible feats to accomplish. You need to work at fulfilling your requirements and lowering the colony morale without tipping off the others that you are a traitor. The players can vote to kick somebody out, and that just makes it all harder. Though being a bad guy in plain site can be fun. A nothing to lose scenario. I had a habit of pulling the traitor card in more than half the games we played, and had concluded that they were impossible. But in one of our last sessions I actually pulled a win out of my ass in the final turn. I needed morale to go zero, and I needed to have more characters in hand than anybody else. It wasn't going to happen, but suddenly the stars were right. Morale was low. I realized only one player had more characters than me.  I managed to get a crossroads card that gave me two more characters, evening me up with another player. I still had a move left so I had my karate guy move to a location with somebodies janitor character and kill him in a fight. That allowed me to have the most characters and brought morale to zero to end the game. It was an exciting win in a game that most of the time everybody loses, and it took the other players by complete surprise. So if you are the traitor it can pay to wait things out and hope the stars are right for a win in the final turns. 

There seems to be endless variation because not only are there a lot of characters to choose from, there are tons of all the cards. The crossroads deck is huge. So no games should ever play the same twice. 

I love a lot of the characters, but one of the funniest is the mall Santa. An old drunk who still wears his suit, the colony actually gets a boost in morale if he dies. 

Like Epic Spell Wars and King of Tokyo, this happens to be another game I encountered on Will Wheaton's Tabletop show (I actually saw it in a store originally but watching the episode cinched me buying it). I find it one of the most entertaining episodes and it features the late Grant Imahara and Ashely Johnson of Critical Role and The Last of Us fame. Its especially fun because you don't find out who the traitor is till the end of the episode, and its a great twist. 

There are other editions of the game I have yet to sample, but that in itself might be a good reason to go to a convention for the board game room. 

Its another long form game, usually taking 3 hours for three players. On game days we liked to play a game of this, and if we had another hour or so do a few shots of our shorter games. I love this game and King of Tokyo and Spell Wars, so days I got to play all of them were a great day for me. 

Oh, also, I love the art by Fernanda Suarez. There are certainly some beautiful looking people in the apocalypse. 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Favorite board game obsessions of recent years part 3 - Epic Spell Wars of The Battle Wizards

 Epic Spell Wars is a series of boxed sets based around the concept of spell casters, seemingly straight out of the pages of 70's and 80's underground comics, who formulate powerful and devastating spells created from three different components. 

My set is Dual at Mt. Skullzfyre. There is no board per se. But there is a nifty standee...

In this set the standee doesn't really do anything other than inspire. But some other editions include a rule about controlling the standee that gives it a bit of purpose. 

Much like King of Tokyo, the characters are nothing other than art. They all have only one attribute: hit points. 

Every round the players fill up to a certain amount of cards in hand. They then go about crafting their three part spell. Initiative is based upon a number in a little red circle on the Delivery card. Spells are made up of three card types that come in an exact order; Source, Quality, and Delivery. 

Source and Quality will usually include some affect, most often damage, and the Delivery is almost always a table to roll on to see what main damage you inflict with the spell. Each card has an element in the lower right corner. For each of these elements present in your three card spell you get an additional die on the Delivery table. So if you have all three of the same element present you get three dice on that table. 

When its your turn you reveal the cards, announce the name of the spell, preferably in the voice of your crazy character, and then deliver the damage. Last wizard standing is the winner. That's about it. Anyone who died gets to start the next game with a Dead Wizard Card, that gives them some minor advantage in the game. 

The only real strategy is using as many elements as possible to get the best roll on the Delivery table. But really, just putting together a funny or cool sounding spell is just as good a strategy; this game is maybe the most based on luck than my other faves. 

The other set I have is Panic at the Pleasure Palace.

It is essentially the same game play, mixed up with a couple of other elements. The characters and spells are a bit more x-rated. And a new feature includes being inflicted with and trying to remove spell casting-based venereal diseases. Oh yeah, this set comes with a testicle shaped bag to hold yer bits and bobs. 

Like King of Tokyo a typical game is about a half hour. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Favorite board game obsessions of recent years part 2 - King of Tokyo

When I moved into my new town over two years ago, I spent a certain amount of time at the local comic book/game shop. I got some 5th edition experience there (the game play was about what I expected from a game shop, a type of location I hadn't gamed at for decades), but the most fun for me was the browsing the tons of board games on display.

One of the things I wanted a change from in my move from Los Angeles was my high cable bills. So I just got Spectrum's "Pick 10 option" was getting 10 of your favorite basic cable channels (and also a bunch of the free channels usually available using a TV antenna) available without a cable box; it was all streaming. So I ended up getting my first streaming device, a Roku express. It was on Roku I discovered Pluto TV, a grouping of streaming channels that the next couple of years would be my most watched format. Pluto has channels dedicated to particular TV fare of various vintage. One channel might be all Baywatch episodes. One might be James Bond movies. Another showing endless episodes of Dark Shadows. But Pluto also had channels dedicated to internet shows of recent years, such as a Minecraft gameplay channel, several IGN channels, and Geek and Sundry. It was on Geek and Sundry that I discovered Will Wheaton's board game show Tabletop.

Will and Felicia (rumor has it Nathan Fillion knocked her up at a convention).

I was never much of a Will fan, but in all honesty I think I just bought into what seemed like a geek conspiracy to hate him (for being on Star Trek while they were not, maybe?). Getting to know him on the show I got to like him and his sense of humor. Will's guests would include a long list of geek media personalities from the fringes of movies, tv, and gaming. A virtual "who's that?" of pop culture. Non-household names like Grant Imahara from Mythbusters, porn gal turned D&D convention maven Satine Phoenix, and even the queen bee of Geek and Sundrey (at the time) Felicia Day (one of my secret pleasures was her and her bullying brother Ryan's video game play show Co-Optitude). BTW good news; Zak Smith never appeared on an episode from what I can tell. 

 I eventually would discover several games I love to play, and one I would love to but never did. That first one was Eldritch Horror, a game that looked amazing but once I got it on my table I had a hard time figuring the ins and outs. As usual in a Lovecraft game it was full of rules mechanics that seemed unnecessarily dense and high maintenance. That game has sat unopened on my shelf for over two years. 

But my great board game loves of recent times I actually get to play where on the show, most of which I will talk about in upcoming posts. Games like zombie crisis colony game Dead of Winter, the dream-like Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, Epic Spell Wars (think of it as Beavis and Butthead if they invented a board game), and what I am talking about today; King of Tokyo.

Yes, there is a Mr. Freeze penguin from outer space in this

King was created in 2014 by Richard Garfield, mastermind behind Magic: The Gathering. The basic "plot" is that you play one of several Kaiju. Some are clearly based on existing Toho Studios monsters, like Gigazaur (Godzilla), The King (King Kong), Mecha Dragon (Mecha Godzilla). Some are just plain fanciful, like CyberKitty, a giant...cyber...kitty...

I almost always run Gigazaur (similar to but legally distinct from Godzilla)

Different editions will change up the monsters, and you can even buy separate monster packs with a new monster and associated cards. My favorite of these is Pandakai, a Kaiju panda. 

"Hi keeba!"

The monster you choose doesn't really have any special affect on the game. It all mostly happens in the dice. So, you start with a health total (hit points represented by hearts), zero victory points, and a deck of power/event type cards that flips out three starting cards. These cards can be bought using energy (we like to call them "Energon Cubes" like from Transformers) you can collect based on dice rolls. There are two ways to win; either defeat all other monsters (bring them to zero hearts), or get 20 victory points. Victory points are collected either through dice rolls or card affects. I won't go into detail about the dice, but it is a very cool part of the game. I'm told it works a lot like games such as Yahtzee, where you can roll multiple times to try and get certain outcomes. You might be rolling to collect hearts to heal, or you may try for victory points (gained by rolling multiples of the same number). You can also collect attack symbols to clobber your foes. 

There isn't really a game board to move around on per se. Its just a small board representing Tokyo. When a combatant is in Tokyo all his attacks hit all other monsters. But all other monsters attacks hit him! Plus you cannot normally heal in Tokyo, so your time there will be short. But you can collect victory points by getting there and staying there. 

You can collect energy from die rolls to save up and buy cards. One card might let you have an extra head so you can roll an extra die. Another might depict a dedicated news team who follows you around and gives you victory points due to the press exposure (things like this add great flavor). 

Turns are action packed and the game goes fast. Too fast, I think sometimes. Many sessions will see few power cards get brought into play. Sometimes you are just too busy collecting heals and punches to spend time building up energy cubes. But some cards can be game changing for you, and they add a great flavor, especially seeing as cards can be the only thing that truly distinguishes a character. Sometime we play with slightly higher hit points and a need for more victory to win to have a better chance at bringing multiple cards into play. 

Sessions tend to be short, averaging probably 25 minutes. But the game is so engaging and full of Kaiju goodness you can do several games in a couple hours. Its perfect for if your longer favorite game goes short. And its easy enough to learn for kids too. You can get it for less than 30 bucks, and the price point is amazing for what you get out of it. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Favorite board game obsessions of recent years part 1 - Talisman started it all

 Some time in 2019 after I moved to my new town and had gotten a nice little D&D group together (my first real dabbling in DMing 5th edition) I also started getting into a variety of board games in a way I never had before.

Outside of typical board games of my childhood (Monopoly, Clue, etc) I had really gotten into Talisman in the 90's. I mean, really into it. My buddy had a girlfriend who's roommate had the basic board and the dungeon. At our height of play I might go over for the weekend, surfing the couch, and we would play Friday night, finish that game the next morning, start another in the afternoon to finish that night, and then start a new game Sunday morning after breakfast (starting our days drinking with some Mimosa) to finish that late afternoon. We were bonkers for it. I eventually bought a used copy of the game and the dungeon of my own, and played it with folk all over the rest of the 90's.

Talisman had a ton of elements I loved. A bevy of fantasy characters with varied abilities to play; a ton of things that could happen based on encounters and event cards (very often game changing); and most games you could finish in about three hours. 

 Then in the early 2000's I pretty much retired from RPG's and gaming in general for several years, and my copy of Talisman went into the closet with my D&D stuff. 

In my later long running  group that lasted from around 2008 till I left Los Angeles in 2018, I think I only had maybe one or two occasions to break Talisman out from hibernation. But the one time we actually played a boardgame as an RPG alternative was Arkham Horror. I don't even recall which player had a copy. I mostly just recall what a long night it was. The game was so complicated and dense (far more than I felt it needed to be) I found it hard to enjoy despite loving Call of Cthulhu. That was about it for boardgames until I moved to this town almost three years ago. Then I met B and L. 

They were a local couple who I met off a local shops Facebook page because they wanted to play D&D, and pretty soon they had a adopted me (I didn't really know many people in town and hadn't been working yet) and were my besties pretty quick. Besides us having a D&D group for several months, we also started playing boardgames. They were already avid board gamers, being frequent visitors to a local bar that stocked games. There besides a bevy of microbrews, you could pull any number of their hundreds of boardgames off the shelf and play it. They have everything. 

But they had not played Talisman before, and after I first pulled out that old beat-up copy, they fell in love with it. Soon they had the most recent edition (that was by then several years old). I'll be posting about some other faves soon, but here I'll talk about the most amazing discovery of all that is Talisman related: Digital Talisman.

I had just made some offhanded Facebook post about Talisman, and a friend in Sacramento mentioned that there was a digital edition on steam. Zuh?!

I had no Steam experience, but within minutes I had an account and bought Talisman and a few of its expansions. Oh man, how amazing. This was an incredible discovery. Not just the main game, but they had a ton of the expansions. For physical copies this would all be about a thousand dollars if you could even find them. But on Steam the main game was like 6.99, and the expansions were that or less! Many of these weren't even available in physical form. Of all the fucked up things that happened in 2020, discovering digital Talisman was a highlight. And I have friends who love it as well. B and L left town to travel around the country in a huge luxury mobile home. But whenever they are somewhere they can get decent cell phone coverage for hot spots they are up for a game. You can even play it solo with the software running other characters (fairly intelligently as well). 

There are few downsides to this version. Of course there can be a glitch here and there, but rarely game breaking. And so far if you play a game online that game will be erased if you play another one before you finish. So you have to make sure you have plenty of time to finish. 

The upgrade in my Talisman playing has in a way changed my gaming habits. Digital Talisman, as well as the MMO Elder Scrolls Online (will post about that later) have in large part overtaken my desire to run D&D. These days there are just too many options.

Fudging Dice Rolls


Fudging dice rolls is an issue that many old schoolers particularly take offense at. They tend to be all about "the purity of the dice" and "why bother rolling at all then?" Though I would not say I have never fudged a roll, I can't think of a time in recent years I did, though I can think of a few I wish I had in retrospect.

 In my last long time group, as opposed to previous long running groups made up of people I already knew who were often not that versed in RPG's, I had at least a couple of power gaming or min maxing players come along who tended to take advantage of my general good nature as a player friendly DM. As soon as they saw I had sympathy for players characters and that I almost always gave their situations the benefit of a doubt, if not a special save to give at least a small chance at avoiding perma-death, they took on the personas of jackals who sensed a wounded lamb (player character friendly DM). Yeah, give some an inch and they'll take a mile. 

These are often mooks who don't really care about anybody else's fun, especially the beleaguered DM. They just wanted strong players characters who were more powerful than anybody else. For whatever reason this is the fun they got out of the game. For whatever lacked in their real lives, power or whatever (now that I think of it the wives of these dudes seemed to call the shots in their lives), they had to be bullies in an elf game. But it wasn't just for the reasonable, "fun for all" players that I was a friendly GM. Whatever the case, I was fair to all. But yeah, a few times I wished I wasn't.

But OK, I'm not here to complain about former players I often wished I had dice-fudged to death. But on the issue of DM fudging, I think there is often a deeper issue at large here. Maybe more insidious, and it's something I've noticed since I was a kid in other people's game. 

You see, since I was a teen GM back in the day, I had a tendency to randomize the world in general. Most often in the case of NPC decisions. I called it my "yes no maybe" method. Kayhla the Hobbit speaks to an innkeeper and asks if they can get a free meal along with their room for the night because the party is low on funds. I think most DM's would just say yes or no depending on how they personally felt in that moment. But for me I would put that to a roll. If I had actually imagined a certain personality for this innkeeper, I would make a modifier. Is he cheap? Or is he generous? What is Kayhla's charisma? Then modify the roll. Easy enough. Well, OK, I'm sure plenty of DM's just did btb reaction rolls. But really, the rare times I sat as a player I pretty much never saw such rolls.  OK, that's a fairly petty example, but you can apply that to much more.

Many DM's in my experience, my entire life, just seem to run much of the game out of their head. Mostly in terms of NPC decisions. Players pose something to an NPC, and the DM just yeah or nay's it. He decides from whole cloth what the NPC will do, how they will react. Pretty much based on his own biases. Sure, he or she might have a personality in mind for the NPC that can sway that decision. But it is still a DM decision. No die roll. It comes out of his conscious or subconscious. Out of his head. An example of one of the times I did this was as a teen. One of my players girlfriends wanted to try and play, and long story short the characters had to go to the cities fireworks factory (every game city should have a fireworks factory, in whatever genre) and get some fireworks. They are very expensive, and money was an issue. The new player had her character, a good looking woman, try to flirt a major discount from the guy. Since he was quite old (and I was quite young) I just hand waved that the guy had no libido and would not be interested. OK, again, I was young. The guy may not have still had an active sex drive, but he still might be swayed by a flirtatious young lady. I really should have put it to a roll. But no, I just decided out of my head how he would act. Long story short, the gal player was very miffed, kind of embarrassed at the failure, and quit the game right there. Sure, she could have been a little more understanding and not have overreacted so much. But it stuck with me. I gipped her, and my session, out of a cute little interaction.  And that has stuck with me, and one of the reason's I believe in at least a chance of something happening. 

It is probably a minor issue for most. To be honest any player I have had that I told I like to randomize even minor things in my setting for the sake of getting close to a living breathing world that doesn't entirely come out of my brain, they never seem to care much.  But I think that outside of the rare times there is a 100% chance an NPC would or would not do something (somebody very against sexual assault will almost for sure not commit it. Somebody who is anti-violence will almost for sure not punch a child who tried to pickpocket them) there should be some chance at variances.  Almost nothing should be an absolute. One of the things I love about the concept of The Matrix, is that the simulated world has to seem real; it has verisimilitude outside of some of the crazy powers the strongest individuals (or programs) have. If you get in street fight and you are one of the "unenlightened" then basic rules of physics are happening. What is going on is actually just a bunch of computer code dictating everything.  But that code is aimed at giving a sense of a living world. I really like to think of a game world in those terms. And randomization is one of the big factors of that IMHO.

Fighting and other action pieces are in large part dictated by random rolls. Chances are modified by various factors (strength, skill, dexterity, weapon, etc). Why should the non-action stuff not be dictated by randomness to some degree or another? If not, then IMO its very similar to fudging those action dice.

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.