Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What makes a megadungeon?

It's big, but is it mega?
There's been a lot of chatter in my own little corner of the OSR web lately about megadungeons, and this is a thing that I both enjoy and encourage. For obvious reasons, I've got quite a few opinions about the megadungeon concept and execution, and I'm not afraid to share.

But I think in order to properly frame the discussion, we need to get a bit of definition around what, exactly, a megadungeon is.

Quite a few people subscribe to the "mythic underworld" interpretation of the megadungeon, where it represents a place where the normal rules of the world no longer apply, and wherein fantastical and abnormal things can be encountered. Indeed, Philotomy's Musings (a well-traveled booklet in certain circles) gives a length discourse on the megadungeon as mythic underworld, and in addition provides the following criteria for the mythic underworld/megadungeon (which he significantly uses interchangeably):

  1. It's big, and has many levels; in fact, it may be endless
  2. It follows its own ecological and physical rules
  3. It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
  4. It is not linear; there are many possible paths and interconnections
  5. There are many ways to move up and down through the levels.
  6. Its purpose is mysterious or shrouded in legend
  7. It's inimical to those exploring it
  8. Deeper or farther levels are more dangerous
  9. It's a (the?) central feature of the campaign 

Personally, I'm not a fan of the mythic underworld interpretation, if for no other reason that in what has become the default style of FRPG campaign, there really is no distinction between the laws of reality in the dungeon, as compared to the town or inn. In a Campbellian sense, there's no definitive transition between the normal world and the world of fairy tales wherein one can encounter orcs, and vampires, and find magic rings. You could very well be attacked by a vampire while staying in your (supposedly) safe space.

Now, certainly, this is not the only approach to setting up a FRPG campaign, and something like the Western Marches campaign (seriously, if you've not read that yet, go do so immediately; it's brilliant) does in fact make the distinction. The town is safe, the lands to the west of the town are not. But when compared to "most" FRPG campaigns, that's the exception.

But more to the point, it fails to distinguish between a "regular" dungeon (one that can be "finished" in one or more sessions and play) and a megadungeon. For instance, I would argue that Philotomy's criteria 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 could apply to all sorts of different adventures and not just a megadungeon. I would also argue that 2 doesn't even necessarily apply to a megadungeon, although it could (and I would argue could apply to certain sorts of adventures, such as extra-planar excursions, more than it does to a megadungeon).

For instance, let's take one of my favorite modules, B1: In Search of the Unknown.

Certainly, it's big, and has many levels. It's not linear (although Dyson Logos made an effort to make it moreso); has several interconnections between levels; is certainly shrouded in legend as a general thing, even though its purpose is pretty straightforward (to act as a base for Zelligar and Rohgan); and it's definitely inimical to explorers (what dungeon isn't?). While it doesn't necessarily get harder as one goes from the surface, the second level certainly seems to be more deadly than the first, and 9 is not relevant because it can be plugged into any campaign (by design) and could certainly serve as a campaign tentpole (I used it in just such a way once, and it was a great success).

But I don't think anyone would argue it is a megadungeon.

What does that leave us? Simple.
3. It is not static; the inhabitants and even the layout may grow or change over time
That, to me, is the key. That's what makes something a megadungeon, rather than a regular dungeon. Any tomb or fortress or magic vault can be deadly, or get harder as you go further from the entrance, or whatever else.

But what makes a megadungeon special is that it is literally impossible to "clear".

Part of this is because of its size. You might be able to clear out a level (indeed, some of the PCs in the original Greyhawk campaign did just that, for a while, and claimed it for their own), but you'll never clear the dungeon. It's just not possible. Because while you're off exploring level 8, the orcs on level 3 are tunneling into a side level, and the myconids in that cavern in level 7 are spawning new warriors, and the Mad Archmage at the bottom is busy forming gates to new demi-planes.

Speaking of which, Wayne at Initiative One is entirely right. A megadungeon doesn't have a "boss" that can be defeated. If that were the case, doing so would "clear" the dungeon, which is exactly what can't be done to megadungeon. Certainly, individual levels can have bosses. Absolutely! But even Zagyg at level 13 of Castle Greyhawk, and the Mad Archmage at the bottom of Castle of the Mad Archmage, aren't bosses in that sense. They're not there to be defeated. They're there to open up yet another aspect of play. Certainly, meeting them can be viewed as a victory of sorts, but when you take the slide to China, you haven't defeated the dungeon. You just have farther to walk to go back to exploring it. Because the Greyhawk Construction Company just opened up a new side level on level 4 that wasn't there the last time.

In fact, we can infer exactly this from the racial abilities built into 1E. Detecting new construction makes absolutely no sense in a game sense unless there's new construction to detect.

So where does this leave us? It's not size (although size is important from a practical standpoint). It's not deadliness, because any dungeon worth its salt is deadly. It's all about replayability. The state of being wherein the PCs could, if they wished, keep going back into the dungeon over and over and over and over, and never, ever, not have something new to explore. (They might not find it, but that doesn't mean it's not there.) And that isn't limited to physical construction, either; demi-planes and other extra-dimensional gates, time portals, cursed scrolls taking PCs to the Starship Warden; they all count as part of the megadungeon.

Without that element of infinite replayability, you don't have a megadungeon. You just have a large dungeon, which is a very different thing.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Now on Facebook!

A bit of administrivia, if I may. Greyhawk Grognard now has a FaceBook page! If you look to the right you'll see the button that will take you there. Or you can just click here.

Remember to "like" the page to get updates!

On there you'll find not just announcements of activity here on the blog, but also shorter pieces that don't warrant entire blog posts of their own, plus more ephemeral things like links to relevant news stories and things I find amusing/relevant. There also tends to be a lot more dialogue over at FaceBook, so more chances to get into fights with engage with your fellow readers!

Let's Read: Greyhawk Adventures (Part 10)

Picking up the pace as we near the end of this long, long journey, the next section up is the Geography of Oerth, and truth to tell this is one of my favorite sections.

Here we are treated to a dozen interesting / mysterious / adventure-worthy locations in the Flanaess. These aren't full-blown adventures (those come in the next section of the book), but they give enough high-level information and specific detail that a dungeon master could develop any of them into an adventure that could take his PCs weeks if not longer to work through.

And that, I think, is the strength of this section. It doesn't spoon-feed things to the DM, but rather sets up just enough detail to let the DM's own imagination take over for the details. A few game mechanic suggestions are given at the end of each entry.

The dozen locales detailed include the following.

The Pinnacles of Azor'alq, located in the middle of the Drawmij Ocean. These are a series of cliff-like islands that rise suddenly out of the sea, filled with lost interior caves, and home to all manner of fantastic flying creatures such as dragons and phoenixes.

The Sea of Dust. Already known in very truncated form from the World of Greyhawk gazetteer, we learn a lot more about its nature and its inhabitants in this section, including likely places where surviving ruins of the ancient Suloise Imperium might be found. The details don't mesh with Gary Gygax's novel set in the same place (for obvious reasons), but it is still great information to have at the DM's fingertips.

The Pits of Azak-Zil, located in the southeastern Abbor-Alz. Most of the description is left to the history of the site, which is a now-abandoned dwarven mine, at the site of a meteor impact. Some of that background doesn't quite ring true (the Principality of Ulek is going to send an expedition all the way to the Abbor-Alz?), and I wish there was more concrete information about the undead-infested mines themselves.

Skellingshald, a plateau-city located in the Griff Mountains. Originally a Flan stronghold, now abandoned to its magical and mundane guardians, its inaccessibility is as great an obstacle to overcome as the kobolds and other creatures, and what treasure remains is of course cursed.

The Sinking Isle, located near the Sea Barons. As the name suggests, this mysterious island emerges from the sea at intervals, inviting those who happen to be in the area at the time to investigate. There are treasures to be had, but the whole is dangerous in the extreme, as the island can sink beneath the waves at any time. In addition, it is guarded by both sahuagin and kraken.

The Twisted Forest, located in the Drachengrabs. Not an actual forest at all, but rather a region of stone pillars that could well be described as humanoid instead of tree-like in shape. They are, in fact, the trapped remains of a variety of evil inhabitants who wandered into the area over the years, including some ancient Suel refugees. There is treasure, but also danger from the possibility of the trapped ones taking over the bodies of explorers.

The Burning Cliffs, located along the Icy Sea. This patch of naturally hot and fiery bitumen and flammable rock is not only dangerous in and of itself because of the intense heat and smoke that it spews forth, but is actually growing each year. At the heart of this place is apparently a gate to the Elemental Plane of Fire, making the fabled City of Brass accessible to those foolish enough to make the attempt.

Csipros Erd - The Geysers of Death, located in the northern Barrier Peaks. This is pretty straightforward; a region of geysers, poisonous gasses, and hot springs that make travel hazardous in the extreme, but sweetened by the presence of a treasure hoard belonging to humanoids driven out of the Lortmils during the Hateful Wars.

Tovag Baragu - The Stone Circles, located in the Dry Steppes. This is one feature that was actually given a fuller treatment in a later module; Vecna Lives! The whole thing is an artifact that acts as a time/planar travel system. Vecna later uses it in his attempt to achieve godhood.

Rigodruok - The Rainbow Vale, located in the Land of Black Ice. Sort of a riff on the idea of the Hollow Oerth, this is a warm and fertile bowl-shaped vale in the midst of the black ice, inhabited by humanoids, spiders, and cavemen, with plentiful diamonds.

Esmerin, located in the Lortmils. This is a happy and hidden valley, rich in gems and metals, wherein tallfellow halflings and giants live in harmony.

Turucambi, located in the Oljatt Sea near Hepmonaland. A maze of limestone and coral reefs and shoals, with many small islands. The maze of reefs under the surface is home to sea-races of all types, and the whole produces weird and unpredictable tides, geysers, and the whole filled with poisonous plants and animals. The presence of many rare and valuable corals makes the whole thing worth visiting, despite the dangers.

Next up: Adventures in Greyhawk

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

RPGNow OSR Extravaganza Sale - 15% off!

I didn't know it was coming, but I'm glad to be a part of it.

Right now all of BRW Games products are 15% off as part of RPGNow's OSR Extravaganza Sale. That includes all our game titles, hard copy as well as pdf!


Friday, May 19, 2017

We have winners!

Well, two out of three winners, anyway.

In conjunction with the recent ADD/CotMA pdf sale, three lucky winners were going to get free hard copies of their purchases. All three winners have been contacted through OneBookShelf, but unfortunately I've only heard from two of them!

But we still have another winner to be heard from! If you're reading this and bought a pdf during the sale, please look for an email from Chris Tang (from OBS) with the subject line "Free Book" and follow the instructions within.

If I don't hear from our mystery winner within a week, I'll be forced to draw another winner. I'll also ask OBS to try to get in touch with him again.

Jonathan and Weird Dave, your books will be en route shortly. Thanks to everyone for participating!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Reminder: Sale ends today!

Just a reminder that the Adventures Dark and Deep/Castle of the Mad Archmage 20% off pdf sale ends today. Plus, two lucky winners will get a free upgrade to softcover versions, and one grand prize winner will get a hardcover version of their purchase. Details here. Good luck!

Friday, May 5, 2017

BRW Games PDF Sale and Drawing!!


As we head slowly into the summer months, I thought I'd do an impromptu sale, with a contest to boot!

From Saturday May 6, 2017 through Sunday May 14, 2017, all print-possible pdf titles will be 20% off.

In addition, anyone purchasing a pdf version of a title (that has a print version) will be included in a special drawing. Two lucky winners will win a free upgrade to a softcover version of the title, and one lucky winner will get a free upgrade to hardcover (if available)!

Shipping to the United States is included. Outside of the U.S. you will be asked to make up the difference in shipping costs. But the books themselves are still free!

Purchases of titles that do not have a print version will not be included in the drawing. But if you get a print title, and want to try for a second copy, more power to you! The following titles have print options available:

A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore
Adventures Dark and Deep Bestiary
Adventures Dark and Deep Game Masters Toolkit
Adventures Dark and Deep Players Manual
Castle of the Mad Archmage Adventure Book
Castle of the Mad Archmage Adventure Book (Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Edition)
Castle of the Mad Archmage Illustration Book
Castle of the Mad Archmage Map Book
Castle of the Mad Archmage Expansion - Level Three East
The Golden Scroll of Justice

This offer does not apply to the Adventures Dark and Deep bundle, but does apply to the Castle of the Mad Archmage OSR digital bundle.

Good luck!