Monday, September 13, 2021

What I Learned from the Beastly Boys


A few weeks ago, I submitted an entry into Prince of Nothing's "No-Artpunk Contest". The final outcome of the contest is still pending, but Prince has provided his judgment on my entry and his assessment has been augmented by several critiquing comments from the Fundamentalist tribe. 

I enjoyed putting together a dungeon within the contest constraints and I learned a lot from the process  and the critique my entry received. 

Where I Fit

The conceit of this contest pits two branches of the OSR tree against each other. On one side, the Art-punks, and on the other an un-named group that I think of as the D&D fundamentalists. 

Although Prince describes me as a "self-professed Artpunk connoisseur" I do not think of myself as a member of that camp. My adventures don't include reflections on the nature of deep-time or parodic personifications of debt-slavery. I'm not trying to sell my dungeon maps at Fredericks and Freiser. 

The adventures I make are not deeply conceptual, they're mostly in keeping with the mainstream of old-fashioned D&D.... Fight smugglers in caves, clear a haunted lighthouse, explore a temple, plunder a burial mound.


However, I'm clearly not a Fundamentalist either. I don't run my games with the received Rules As Written and my games' procedures are pretty loosy-gooosy. I eagerly kit-bash on bits and pieces from all sorts of other rule sets be they actually old rules (i.e. B/X), modern-trad (i.e. 5e) or the various indie/story-games (i.e. Apocalypse World). 

I hang out in OSR spaces because I like a lot of the content being made, but my actual game is at most 50% old-school. 

I think of myself as an ultra-heterodox Universal Harvester. 

The Module 

My entry, Baleful Bastion of the Beastly Boys is my attempt at creating a low-level, bog standard but still fun dungeon. Prince compares it to T1: The Village of Hommlet's Moat House dungeon and it's an apt comparison as this is precisely what I'm trying to emulate and riff on. 

The presentation of my dungeon differs significantly from what you'd find in the adventures from the actual Old School days. I tried to model the layout on the DM notes in my notebook rather than the (to my eyes) kludgy, dense paragraphs of early modules. 

My hope was to keep what was good about the old modules while updating the functionality of the text. 

The Review

Prince's thorough review was super useful to me. It highlighted several weaknesses in my adventure and perhaps even more interesting, held a spotlight on several areas where my priorities differ pretty widely with the Fundamentalist OSR orthodoxy. 

Formatting:

Prince begins: 

There is all sorts of fuckery going on with the format, and the liberal use of bullet points, the squiggly room titles in the actual rooms and the descriptions that are irregularly spaced around it... The black hand weighs on Beastly Boys’ presentation like a millstone.

I'm going to have to disagree with Prince here pretty strongly. Is my formatting pretty? No. Is it radically more functional than the original stuff. Absolutely yes. 

Prince brought up Hommlet as a point of comparison. It's among the most beloved old modules and it's one that I've actually run. 

This is a nightmare.

As presented, Hommlet is a pain in the ass. It requires a significant amount of careful pre-reading, preparation and re-statement to be playable. I used the invaluable cliff-notes maps prepped by Daniel of ggnore podcast fame but if they hadn't been available, I'd have needed to make something similar for myself. 

Prince continues:

The format does allow a great deal of information to be conveyed on each page in a manner that can be perused reasonably well, but some of the innovation is questionable. I see little information being gained from using the room title instead of the more sensible numbered room keys

Having played flip-around-the-module games with the OG Hommlet, I couldn't disagree more. The arrow references are much easier to read at the table. That said, I had meant to include room numbers in addition to assist with cross-reference, i.e. "The ogre will move from here to Room 2: Guard Post" You can see on my maps that I started numbering the rooms on the ground floor and forgot to include them later on. 

Dungeon Architecture: 

Prince says:

It is more or less understood that if you make a dungeon map it need not confirm 100% to a realistic depiction of ancient architecture. We are often willing to suspend disbelief about the myriad architectural inefficiencies of a temple as long as it has an altar, the high priest has some quarters and there is some sort of inner sanctum. With fortresses I feel one needs to be a bit more stringent, and Bastion has the problem that its architecture doesn’t make that much sense. Some more castle-like features (a wall, a moat, a courtyard etc. even if broken) would have added some verisimilitude to the thing. Adding some (semi) empty chambers or storerooms would also have given the bastion a bit more room to breathe, making it feel less cramped.

I mostly agree with this on principle. A little more review of actual castles and a little more empty space could improve the map. On the other hand, real castle layouts are often TOO defensible. They incorporate so many bottlenecks, dead-ends and cul de sacs that they don't always offer the flow of a properly Jaquay-ed space. 

While we're throwing stones at irrational architecture, let's do a little compare and contrast:

Three real castle floor plans

Neither of these is quite realistic but I feel like one might be a little bit closer to actual castle architecture:

Left: Hommlet, Right: Beastly Boys

Jonathan Becker suggested UK3: The Guantlet as an exemplary old-school keep and it looks rad. Definitely, going to check it out. 

Map Tools

Prince's comment: 

The map has no scale. Scale, fixed distance, scope, resources, consequences. This is the thin line between playing AD&D and playing fucking Dungeon World. The lack of a scale is all the more lamentable because the adventure does something good, it places a great deal of treasure in a hidden vault in the basement that can be discerned if the PCs do proper mapping…but how can they map properly if there is no scale? A shame. Doors are not marked on the map, even when they clearly should be.

Later in the comments he continues: 

 I will say that a scale is recommended, and for a dungeon I consider it almost a necessity (to measure Turns). You can omit it but that in turn fucks with movement which fucks with encumberance etc. etc. It’s not a disaster but I can think of few occasions when scaling a map does not improve it.

From Jonathan, also in the comments:

The scale thing definitely hurts. 

I was blindsided by the importance that the true old-schooler's placed on a rigid scale. For me, precise room dimensions are not at all important. I run my random encounters based on number of rooms traversed, not by counting feet moved. 

I understand that there's a branch of old-school play that celebrates meticulous player mapping but if my players ever spend twenty minutes carefully graphing out the exact dimensions of a room, I'll quit D&D. Life is too short for tedious geometry fidgeting. 

All that said, adding a scale takes two minutes and if it helps make my dungeons more useful to a broad range of other DMs, I'm happy to do it.  

The comment on doors.... 100% mea culpa. It's a big oversight and significantly weakens my map. 


Treasure

From Prince: 

My last major gripe is the treasure... none of the treasure is concealed, and some of the treasure is just TABLE C IN THE OSE DMG. NO. THE PITS OF DESPAIR FOR THEE! ...Mundane treasure and mundane creatures need not be boring, but giving only a table references will guarantee that this is the case.

From Jonathan Becker: 

When picking up a pre-written adventure for use at the table, I think there’s some practicality in having thoughtful, appropriate loot pre-placed by the adventure’s author. If I were running a module that referred me to random treasure tables (and assuming that I still wanted to run the thing for my group), the first thing I’d do is nail down what’s present BEFORE play began. The “surprise at the table” thing? Mm. Not worth the potential headache.

I totally agree with these criticisms. My use of OSE table treasure was an attempt to ape the style of old modules and frankly it sucks. Coming up with better treasure would definitely make the adventure better. I wrote a "Search the Body" table (a new-OSR standby) that I think is pretty good and supplementing it with a d10 table of flavorful larger treasures would have been easy to do and worthwhile. 

Conclusion

This contest was a blast. I doubt I'll make it into the final winners' circle but I'm really glad I participated. 

The Fundamentalist branch of the OSR has a lot to offer when it comes to adventure design and critique and I'm grateful to have gotten their perspective on one of my creations. I am really enjoying reading the commentary on the other entries too and I think the comment sections on these posts have been robust and productive. 

The ways we differ in what we want an adventure to do seem to exemplify what Gus L highlighted in a post a few months back. I think the shorter sessions I play (2-3 hours) often with limited time for prep on game-day (I make my dungeons at leisure, often months before use) give me little patience for block text and fidgeting with room sizes. I need to be able to pick something up and run with it without pre-reading. Additionally, I play online and reveal a map piecemeal as players progress so they don't need to map precisely (a fairly core activity in certain branches of old school play). 

I hope this is merely the first of many opportunities for us to share our dungeons for them to be picked apart by the old-guard. The old-school is a good place to learn and I'll jump at the chance to get their help in honing my dungeon-making craft.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

No-Art, Punk Contest: Baleful Bastion of the Beastly Boys

Broo - I wasn't able to identify the artist

Download my Free Adventure: 

Baleful Bastion of the Beastly Boys

Princeofnothing, a fellow with large opinions, and a fondness for the Old Ways, is hosting a dungeon design contest, an undertaking which he dubs the "No-Artpunk Contest!"

The design brief: 20-30 rooms stocked with book items and book monsters for a 0e - 1e D&D (or clone) system. 5 -20 pages. "Presentation and layout should be whatever you want. Worddoc, Plain text or Paint. Homemade maps, terrible self-drawn paint art, is all welcome."

Now, to be sure, I tend to be a fan of much of what is labeled artpunk in the old-school-ish D&D scene. I backed the new Patrick kickstarter the day it became available (you should back it too!) and I ran a 20+ session Mork Borg campaign. However, I am a sucker for a contest and constraints inspire creativity. 

In preparing an entry, I decided to full embrace the Fundamentalist D&D ethos and produce an adventure that uses the most basic possible monsters, in the most basic possible set up and try to imbue it with fun solely through the clever arrangement of situations, traps and monster tactics. The adventure should work, swapping out all of the monsters for different ones. 

For the layout, I took my cues from the spare, functionality of DM prep notes rather than the verbose, blocky text of early modules. My hope is that the brevity and convenience of the layout would let most DMs run this without even reading it all the way through first (though reading it will take 10 mins max). 

Anyhow, whether or not the Nihilian Potentate appreciates my efforts, I like the little castle I have created and hope that folks enjoy it. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Demoniad (Part 3): Practical Demonology



After two posts blathering on about the creeping chaos of demoniac meta-physics and planar cosmology, it's time to get down to practicalities. 

Design Goals

In a recent episode of the Monster Man podcast, James talked about the "Creatures of the Warp" and the importance of making chaotic outsiders from beyond normal space, feel truly alien. In game terms, they should break the rules, and do things that other monsters can't do. They can't be just another stack of hit points.

Another priority for me in exploring demons in my setting is showing their mutability. Not only are demons existentially corrupting to everything they touch, they themselves are also changed. Consequently, once you start finding demons, you'll see lots of mixtures of demons and other things. Demon-dragons, demon-possessed sorcerers, demon-animals, demon-oozes... and on and on. 

Since I'm prioritizing, reality-bending and inconsistency, I can't just pull a standard stat blocks for Tanar'ri.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Bocage Crawl

 

Maybe this isn't anything, but I had the idea that the mixed terrain of woods and small fields of a bocage landscape could make for a fun and picturesque landscape-crawl. 

According to Wikipedia: 

In English, bocage refers to a terrain of mixed woodland and pasture, with fields and winding country lanes sunken between narrow low ridges and banks surmounted by tall thick hedgerows that break the wind but also limit visibility.

This differentiated topography is more interesting, both tactically and aesthetically, than the wide open farms that I (as an American) typically imagine. The restricted sight-lines and labyrinthine  structure lend themselves naturally to a area-by-area crawling exploration style. The sunken lanes are analogous to corridors and the hedgerows break the fields into well-defined rooms.

If we exaggerate the features of bocage, shrinking & diversifying the fields, reinforcing the hedges with vorpal ferns, and dotting the landscape with ruins and eccentric dwellings we have an effective outdoor dungeon. 

Monday, August 2, 2021

One Page Dungeon Contest: Kill Several Demons

 

Download Here! 

On Friday, I was catching up on my D&D blog feed and I saw a post about this year's one page dungeon contest. I thought to myself, "Awesome! I've been meaning to enter but I always forget and miss the window, I wonder when submissions are due..." 

Turns out it was Saturday. To make a long story short, Saturday morning, I set myself the goal of making a One Page Dungeon in one day, from idea to finished PDF. 

Needless to say, I don't think I'm a real contender for the contest but I had a lot of fun making my dungeon and I hope folks will enjoy it. I'm pretty proud of what I produced on a tight deadline.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Thurstle Island: Actual Play Map

 


Sometimes it's fun to see the maps that turn up in actual play rather than the ones that were drawn with careful premeditation during prep. 

We play with just a whiteboard rather than a virtual tabletop and I draw as we go. 

I ran the Ruined Fort over our last couple sessions. It's been a lot of fun.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

More Favorites

It's been much too long since I've done a shout-out post. The last time I did, people still thought that the "novel corona virus" was basically just a bad flu.

Map Crow is fantastic. I know that Ben Milton just gave him a highlight in the latest issue of the Glatisant, but for real... check this out. Most of his vids have < 500 views and that seems totally wrong. 


This week, The Lizard Man Diaries has released a Part 2 to the incredibly useful Generic Room Stocker (now available in PDF). I'm looking forward to filling up a few levels of my City of the Ancients with "generic" content like: 

A room that is "Ethereal and vaporous - twisting, flowing and floating." Ornamented with "decorative weapons" that are "far to flat" and "vaguely incorporeal". An "inhabitant, puzzling over the way in which a device is used", reacts "mockingly and "derisively" but is "open to discussion." The devise "informs" but "requires a sacrifice to operate.

 

Labytinths of Illrith Varn from Swamp of Monsters! In May 2020 Nate L. described "how i did my megadungeon." Earlier this week, he posted a campaign summary and map overview. I really enjoyed reading the original post laying out how the dungeon was created, followed by the look-back on how it worked. 

72 Encounters from the City of Spires from Against the Wicked City. Joseph Manola has packed years of his campaign into a giant table of awesome mini-adventures, plot hooks and city encounters. Back in September, he did a series of posts (1, 2, 3) on how he runs the campaign. Reminds me a bit of the map he posted in 2019 for his previous Team Tsathogga campaign (which I found very inspiring) but at a zoomed in level.

In Classic Vs. The Past,  All Dead Generations considers how modern games differ from the games of the 70s and 80s. Gus L. points out four major departures in how the games are played and gives some suggestions on how to address these in campaigns.

  1. Two to three hour sessions
  2. Shorter campaigns
  3. Smaller groups
  4. Online play
Gus has also released several adventures this year, which I highly recommend. The Bruja, The Beast and The Barrow which I ran and reviewed back in March and Broken Bastion which I've purchased but haven't run yet.

A Thorough Look at Urban Gameplay in D&D from A Knight at the Opera. Exactly what it says on the tin. A truly excellent compilation. 

Chris Tamm of Elfmaids and Octopi continues to be awe-inspiringly prolific. It's hard to pick what to link but I enjoyed this post about Dungeon Ants and this one about Omnisaur + Dungeon Design in which he describes "I might try some alternate configurations when done and have them as bits a GM could cut out and reassemble or ad to some other map. A strange new kink in my process." I'm thinking about some cut-up dungeons too so it was nice to hear someone else on that track. 

PrinceofNothing is Introducing a No-Artpunk Contest. Despite the fact that I like most of what I've seen described as "artpunk" and have run 20+ sessions of Mork Borg, I think making an old-fashioned, "back to the Moathouse" sort of dungeon could be fun.

___

I'm sure I'm missing a bunch of deserving people. Hopefully, I'll catch them the next time I do this (hopefully sooner than 16 months this time...)