This one will cover a lot of ground, but I promise you it's going somewhere. At least, I think it is. That's why I want your feedback at the end. Pretty please.
TL;DR: Dungeons and Geomorphs have been around fuh-revah, I know. But I'm chewing on ways to combine "dungeon flux space," geomorphs, and some principles borrowed from semi-abstract fast-play rpgs to make a dungeoncrawling experience that hits most of the traditional old-school notes while pushing the really fun (to me) stuff to the forefront. In some ways, this is a development of my thinking earlier this year about streamlining RPG procedures even further in old-school play. I'm not really sure how well this would work (or how helpful it really is)...but it's been my hobby distraction during a pretty busy week. What do you all think?
FIRST: ON SOME RECENT FAST-PLAY EXPERIENCES...
I GM'd for my kids last weekend. Their characters realized they would need to confront an old enemy, a dimension-hopping wizard tyrant currently in league with a group of volcano-dwelling fire giants planning to drown the local realm in fire. Rather than a direct confrontation, one of my kids favored a risky but cunning idea; since there happened to be another site nearby rumored to house a trio of ancient dragons, perhaps they somehow could persuade or trick the dragons into aiding them against the wizard? Off they went to the dragons' lair, where they ended up face-to-face with a red, a green, and a white dragon. As it turned out, they discovered that the dragons were forever trapped within their lairs, bound there by an even older wizard who now lay entombed in the frozen crypts across the valley. Free them from the older wizard's power, the dragons promised, and they would aid their liberators! Off the adventurers went to look for the old wizard's bonds. In the frozen crypts, they fought their way past half a dozen frozen dwarven mummies guarding the wizard's tomb. Fortunately, once inside, they found the crystal sphere the wizard had used to entrap the dragons. Unfortunately, the wizard's ghost floated into and then animated the skeleton of a dead dragon buried with him! The two heroes defeated this dracolich in fierce combat, and set off to liberate the three living dragons...but there our session ended...
The time I GM'd before that, I ran two adult players through a post-apocalyptic scenario. One controlled a dune-buggy-riding gang of cyborg followers; the other, a philanthropic but ambitious minister, leading a small band of devotees. The two players teamed up to wrest control of a local mine from a cruel ruling bank - but they also had to deal with not one but two invading armies from surrounding foreign states. They struck a deal with one group of invaders, and then defeated a platoon-sized force sent by the other invaders, and shut down the eldritch teleporting gate that had enabled their invasion. All the hubbub had awoken a kilometers-long metallic chaos beast slumbering beneath the region (its face read "BOEING" in the Ancient Script) - but one PC hopped on his motor-bike and let the chaos-beast chase him all the way to the other invading army's camp, just outside the play region. Upon his safe return from the ensuing slaughter, the PCs teamed up to assault the fortified bank, and wrested control of their local community, founding a new and successful small state.
Whew. Those were fairly epic sessions, with the kind of shenanigans I'd normally expect to read about from a high-level, long-lived campaign. But in fact, in each case I was running what amounted to a one-shot, with character generation included in the same session. Oh, and setting generation as well. How? Because I've been running more of On Mighty Thews, and experimenting with the boundaries of this nifty little sort-of-narrative-game-meets-sword-and-sorcery title. I've recently explained here what I like about this game and how I came to appreciate it, so I won't repeat all that. More critically, though, I will say that after repeated plays, I'm not entirely sure I like handing the players the narrative power represented in that game by Lore rolls (my players come up with very cool ideas, but it makes it harder to run the sort of old-school game I'm accustomed to - not railroading, but building a coherent world with hidden information). Yet...man, this game sure flies, and it allows players to get so much done, while still facing some meaningful decisions.
So, hmmm, I've been wondering...what more could it do? I've experimented with simple domain and warband rules for the game...anything else? Could you run an old-school dungeon well using this resolution system, with or without Lore rolls? Would On Mighty Thews' ability to provide sometimes-tense but really fast combats work well in an old-school dungeoncrawl? Well, that's what I was wondering, when...everything below happened, too.
MOTIVATING TENSE DUNGEON-CRAWLING: SOME VERY CONCRETE IDEAS FROM A VERY ABSTRACT SOURCE
A commenter on Reddit recently alerted me to a new branch of games - Trophy, Trophy Dark, and Trophy Gold. They're about (probably doomed) expeditions into dark woods and ruins. The whole thing feels aesthetically like a hybrid of Symbaroum or WHFRP or Into the Odd. It's very rules light. Whereas Trophy expects the party to die or go insane in almost every session, Trophy Gold (currently running a kickstarter) expands and develops Trophy's simple rules, but aims for a hybrid with a more old-school dungeon-crawling feeling where there is at least some real chance that your poor rat-catchers might survive a few missions. And I do emphasize feeling, because in the end TG still looks very much like a narrative story-game that produces old-school-like narratives. Overall, I don't think this is a game I'd want to run extensively - too prone to railroading in service of story goals, for example.
But. Oh goody gumdrops but. There are some really clever ideas in this game, and a few of them might just start showing up in my more traditional old-school-flavored rpg campaigns.
How many of us have wondered about exactly why these foolish adventurers are willing to keep plunging the dungeons over and over again, no matter the attendant dangers, and no matter how rich they get? How many of us recognize the utilitarian benefits of gold-for-xp, but either feel uncomfortable about its inherent ethical message, or - maybe even more of us - just don't find treasure all that interesting after the 15,000th gold piece? How do we motivate players AND player characters in a believable, narratively-interesting way?
Meet Burdens from Trophy Gold. Treasure in this game is pretty abstract - it seems to work like "this pile of gold counts as 1 Treasure, and so does that magic knife we found, and so does that silver crown we pilfered." This means that by session's end, each player will hopefully have a real but fairly small number of Treasure Points they personally got from the party haul. Well, you had better get more each time than your Burden, because your Burden is the number of Treasures your character must bring back from each session or THE CHARACTER FUNCTIONALLY DIES. Huh? See, the assumption is that these hardscrabble characters are in terrible debt to various cold and uncaring social entities back in 'civilization.' To advance and become more powerful, your character may outfit more impressive gear between missions, or even new spell-rituals - but each of these improvements earns you greater Burden. Fail to find enough treasure per session, and you fail to pay your harsh debt-holders back in town...and they come after you. You narrate what happens - debtors' prison, or just a crushing wage-slavery back home...or even death...but either way, you create a new character and hope for better luck next time.
This system means that characters have room for meaningful advancement, but the act of advancement also raises the stakes in future adventures. You might be more powerful, but you also must accomplish more, or your character is toast. This accomplishes a TG design goal of creating characters who always feel that traditional low-level angst about being a few mis-steps away from failure or death...all the way throughout their character arc. And that's without even mentioning the threat of dangerous beasties eating you in the dark. But Burdens provide a compulsion to go deeper into the dungeon, to take that one extra risk just this once, because you have to do so to save your character. Other games have already played around with indebted characters (Classic Traveller, Electric Bastionland...) but I don't recall seeing one that makes debt-service so urgent and necessary every single time you play the game.
This is quite a simple yet elegant idea. I could imagine it working well in a variety of old-school style dungeon-crawl games. You could even alter the 'currency', so that whatever kind of accomplishment you want to emphasize becomes the ticking time bomb that could derail a character.
That being said, I don't like how TG makes simple, mundane weapons and armor the things that add burdens early on - to harness this idea, I'd rather let characters just have the mundane stuff (see the 'no shopping' section of Barbarians of Lemuria for inspiration!) but make more exciting and powerful tools or weapons cost Burden.
If TG sounds worth checking out, you can buy it on DriveThru in an issue of the Gauntlet's Codex: Gold magazine - but for the time being, the rules are available for free download on the Trophy Gold Kickstarter page.
Anyway. There are a bunch of other small ideas in TG that I might borrow to play with, (Ruin is an interesting way to handle health) but I wanted to highlight Burdens in particular. And maybe harness them?
Maybe like this? ...
BACK TO THE (MEGA-)DUNGEON
So, a few months ago, I had a wild fling with the megadungeon phenomenon.
Unfortunately, some health issues affecting a regular player led to a pause and change to our ongoing Isle of Dread campaign. To fill the interim space, I decided to set up a drop-in, open-table, zoom-able megadungeon campaign. I pored over my options; I already have Barrowmaze complete, Archaia, and Highfell ... I considered all the main stand-ins...and ended up purchasing both ASE 1 and Stonehell, and compromised by pitching Stonehell, but with a science-fantasy post-apoc background!
We ran a few sessions. We had some very fun moments. I got kind of bored. Now we're playing On Mighty Thews instead for a bit.
Why was I bored? Not because of any flaws inherent in Stonehell, I think (I'd recommend it, cautiously). But...just...all that pure, unadulterated old-school dungeon-crawling wasn't terribly fulfilling, for me at least. I soon realized that more faction action was needed, so I made sure to insert that, and it definitely helped. But I think I kind of wanted the players to just move through it all a lot more quickly, to spend more time encountering the really cool stuff and a little less time checking out just one more alcove.
It's quite possible I could have run it better. I also note that the players were traversing the undead-dominated "Quiet Halls" on level 1 for several sessions...and I just read an interesting older blog post about pacing megadungeon "slow" vs "fast" levels that said this: "A series of long hallways with 10' by 10' crypts that monsters burst out of is a tremendously slow level, as anyone who's run the Quiet Halls in Stonehell can attest." Hmmm...maybe I just jinxed myself by running the wroooong laboratory experiment! But it's made me wonder: is there a way to keep the nuts and bolts of old-school-style dungeoneering, but make everything I really want to see jump right out to the forefront, make it more tense and more uniformly interesting?
And then my various ideas, from the various elements of this post, started to congeal together.
So I'm messing around with this idea. It might be a really great one, or it might be terrible; or it might already be done and tried and available and I don't realize it. I'm hoping for some feedback on just how fun and useful this approach seems. I'm kind of working through this even as I type, a bit, so thanks for bearing with me here...
The pitch: PCs play probably-doomed heroes and possibly-redeemable rogues who must clear a giant, winding dungeon of evil before it destroys their homeland. But said homeland aboveground is on hard times, and is now ruled by avaricious, heartless brutes who will destroy the PCs if they don't make their regular payments. Thus, the PCs have to get a certain amount of Treasure (Burdens from TG!) each session, and they must shut down and sanctify a certain number of 'dark sources' in the dungeon per session, or the forces of darkness will overwhelm their society and the players lose the campaign (so you can lose the campaign together as a party, and you can lose your player character individually). Oh, and things in the darkness want to eat you.
Some inspirations: everything mentioned above, plus Blades Against Darkness, Into the Dark, Into the Odd, The Nightmares Beneath, etc., etc. Oh, and especially The Perilous Wilds, which already includes a system for semi-randomly generating themed dungeons quickly or on the fly. This is like that, but with the more concrete map of a geomorph added to provide a bit more tactical content for engagement within each dungeon Area.
How I envision this working: each dungeon 'level' has two kinds of spaces: Flux Space which stays unmapped, and Areas. Flux Space are the nigh-endless miles of twisting corridors or tunnels that interconnect, wind, double back, and generally cause navigational headaches while actually permitting Jacquay-style movement between different Areas. Areas are those spots where Danger, Reward, and interesting stuff converge, the places worth 'zooming in' to see what happens in play. And yet the areas themselves aren't abstract; they need to permit good ol' fashioned old-school tactical dungeoncrawling. So each Area is modeled by ... a 10x10 dungeon geomorph.
|Geomorphs by Dyson Logos|
You need a stack of geomorphs, like the free ones Dyson has on his website, to run this thing. You can use top-down or side-view geomorphs (or mix them up, even better!). The geomorphs don't have to fit against each other, because each Area is surrounded by Flux Space rather than another geomorph.
Each Area/Geomorph has one Dark-Source that is seeping evil into the world from deeper within the dungeon. These must be shut down and sanctified to make safe each Area, one at a time. Expect 1 Dark Source and therefore 1 Area per player in each session, more or less. If you don't shut down enough Dark Sources, something really bad happens, maybe even campaign-loss, or minimally an XP penalty or something like that (I'm thinking to keep this game tightly focused on the actual dungeoncrawling by linking the dungeon to a city above, but keeping the actual city stuff abstract and out of the direct lens - except when city factions show up, for example).
Each 'Level' would be a target ideally for a single session of play, allowing the Players to run through approximately # of players x Areas in one session (this will require use of fast play rulesets...I think). Each Level has one or more Factions which will have some presence each session. Each Level also has 1 randomly-generated narrative twist that is triggered when players reach a certain Area on the level, and stays in effect thereafter (maybe the players discover a live human prisoner, for example...or a new schism occurs within a faction present, etc.). At any rate, Factions need to be a big thing in the random encounters - Yoon-Suin-style random-generation for 3 above-ground factions and 3 subterranean factions to make each campaign its own bespoke thang.
Each Area also has 1d3 Threats and 1d3 Treasures, randomly or deliberately assigned to rooms on the Geomorph. When moving through a Geomorph, a random encounter also occurs with 1-in-6 chance every time you enter a new room, or every time you take certain actions (resting, testing a secret door, etc.). Each Area/Geomorph is either Garrisoned (intelligent foes who are organized and maybe fortified), has Monsters, or is Abandoned & full of Traps as Threats. Because the number of Threats and Treasures per geomorph will vary within a narrow consistent range, there is constant incentive for players to just push to see if there is another treasure on this one before they go back to flux space to find a new geomorph...but there might be other threats too.
|Another by Dyson Logos. |
I feel his geomorphs hit the right balance, small enough to run through fairly quickly amid 1-3 encounters, but just big enough to have a couple corners that might call out for further exploration...
This could work simply as a system-neutral approach to building dungeons, I suppose, but I'm thinking it would work best with something somewhat abstract and probably using conflict-resolution rather than task-resolution. But it could work either way. Maybe Into the Odd could handle it well?
Folks, this post is much more rambling than is my wont (errr...it's been a really busy two weeks...). Thanks for bearing with me. If you have any input on whether this makes sense, whether it's already been done to death, or whether it looks fruitful to develop, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks, happy gaming, and best wishes!