Monthly Archives: February 2018

Zines for megadungeons

(Being a review of Megadungeon #1, among other things.)

Since rediscovering fantasy roleplaying games sometime around 2011, I have followed the development of several home brew megadungeons. Some of my favorites include the taking-OD&D-seriously Dwimmermount, the Lovecraft-by-way-of-Vikings Black City, the Diablo-infused “precious shithole hellscape” Nightwick Abbey, the steam-age demonic fantasy cruise-ship-as-megadungeon HMS Apollyon, and the gleeful toybox-filled deity-haunted dungeon Numenhalla. These projects remain mostly unpublished1, present only as referee-musings, map-fragments, or, travelogue-style, as scattered session reports.

Numenhalla, however, is finally seeing (gradual) publication in the recent Hack & Slash zine Megadungeon, of which two issues are available as of this writing. This post considers Megadungeon #1, which contains a mix of referee advice, setting glimpses, some player-facing rules, and a couple intro dungeon areas. First, I will cover what I consider weaknesses, along with a few observations. Then, I will cover strengths and the promise Megadungeon (the zine) has for the practice of developing megadungeons for play.

The presentation has several weaknesses, the primary being transitions. Many of the sections began life as a blog posts, and it shows. This is only a minor flaw; in some ways, it even adds to the utility, creating a series of self-contained easy to reference nuggets, but it also makes the whole feel more like a grab bag than a carefully designed book. The amount of actual dungeon content in this issue is also rather small. While the two dungeon areas are wonderfully evocative, with beautifully hand-illustrated maps, they are also somewhat linear and detail only 15 keyed areas (dungeon content arguably occupies 5 of the 38-some zine pages). While I think it is a common mistake to attempt keying a giant sprawl of rooms when starting a megadungeon, rather than working with a more tractable map, I was still hoping for a bit more. That said, the creativity of the areas makes up somewhat for the quantity, and I realize that issue one also may involve more setting and play advice groundwork compared to future issues.

Crop from page 8

The biggest strength, apart from the obvious enthusiasm, is the art, which projects a sense of playfulness that is too often lacking in fantasy art. However, the playfulness never descends into explicit goofiness or self-deprecation, and at some points almost verges into a sense of the mystic (a good thing when attempting to capture the fantastic). The dungeon features themselves are often weighted with promise (see the pitch black door, for example). I have less to say about the various rules bits, such as the augatic class (a tin man style robot that gains new powers through upgrades), but they are well done and easy enough to drop into any game using a B/X type engine.

Though the last handful of years has produced several notable published megadungeons2, such as Stonehell, Barrowmaze, Castle Gargantua, and Maze of the Blue Medusa, I would still like to see more experimentation in different ways to present a megadungeon for direct use by someone that is not the dungeon’s author. To my knowledge, no existing megadungeon has used a zine format so I am curious to see where Courtney takes this. The closest approach I am aware of is the collaborative darkness beneath megadungeon published in the now-defunct Fight On!. Though there were a few standout levels, such as Sham’s level 2 and level 3, it suffered overall from a lack of coherent vision.

The zine format encourages zone-level publication, which naturally breaks down the task into more achievable units. While this might be less of a concern for Numenhalla, as I gather a large portion of the dungeon is already designed, it would probably be a good approach for any referee who wants to share their megadungeon. The major challenge using this form is that a good dungeon contains relationships between various areas, and this is difficult to pull off if one creates and publishes areas in sequences. How does one include a well-considered gate to level 5 in level 1 if level 5 is as yet undefined? Notably, the Numenhalla entrance halls do contain several (locked) connections to deeper areas, but we will need to wait for future issues to see if the dungeon can make good on this promise. 

Anyone interested in the idea of megadungeon play would probably get something out of this zine. As the text states:

Numenhalla lies beneath all cities,
All mounts and valleys,
And all lands.

As a disclaimer, I have gamed with Courtney both as player and referee. As with all my reviews, I attempt to review impartially, and always buy everything I review, never accepting review copies.

1. The ACKS-published extrapolation of Dwimmermount is the closest to publication for any of these dungeons, but ultimately completes a different project than the original idea behind Dwimmermount.

2. I make no attempt here to offer a comprehensive list of recent megadungeons, but the ones I listed stand out as attempts to push the form in various ways.

Considering short campaigns

Apocalypse World agendas (2nd edition, page 80)

In my experience, people tend to play tabletop roleplaying games as either one-shots or with the expectation of a perpetual, extended campaign. I have thought off and on about running games aimed explicitly at a midpoint between these extremes. The television analogue here would be the mini-series. Something like True Detective season 1 or a self-contained anime series like Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet.

The challenge would be to serve the agenda of play to find out what happens while also drawing the set of sessions to a close in a way that is satisfying. That is, how can one ensure the freedom necessary for fulfilling exploratory play while avoiding the mirror-image dangers of aimlessness and railroading?

Here is a first pass at how I might think about setting up such a mini-series game. First, determine a handful (say, three) of questions regarding the fictional situation, for which an answer (any answer) would constitute a satisfying arc outcome. Maybe one of these could explicitly be a win/lose condition, as in some tournament modules, but that seems like the easy way out. Then, lay these questions out explicitly before play so the players are in on the particular enigmas. Second, gear preparation entirely toward the details around the enigmas.

If other priorities emerge through play, or players end up more interested in other, unpredicted conflicts, that would be fine too. In my experience though, imminent uncertainty provides gravitation even without any other mechanical support, so just having a few big unanswered questions, such as the outcome of whether an invasion is averted diplomatically or by force of arms, may be sufficient. I might also consider something like building XP reward into advancing a countdown clock, but probably only after trying to run a something like this using an approach resting only on shaping player expectations.

Finally, it seems reasonable to work with the assumption that while some or most such mini-series arcs may connect to nothing else, they also may be continued in subsequent seasons if everyone is enthusiastic, allowing characters to sometimes persist. To have integrity, one would need to sometimes follow through on the promise of continuity, otherwise I suspect everyone would revert to mentality more characteristic of one-shots, which would not quite reach the potential I see for this kind of play. Depending on the particular rules, Flailsnails would be another reasonable approach, but that only works for some types of games.