Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Into the Megadungeon, Episode 04 "The Human Element"

In episode 4 of Into the Megadungeon, “The Human Element”, I interview Josh McCrowell about his eight year megadungeon campaign, and his forthcoming megadungeon ruleset, His Majesty the Worm. We talk about how old school dungeoncrawling struggles to capture the human element of the exprience of perilous exploration. We also talk about tips for making a megadungeon a lot less overwhelming to design. Without further ado, here is Episode 4, “The Human Element” on your podcast platform of choice:

Listen to Episode 4, “The Human Element” on Spotify here.

Listen to Episode 4, “The Human Element” on Apple Podcasts here.

Listen to Episode 4, “The Human Element” on Pocket Casts here

LIsten to Episode 4, “The Human Element” on Podcast Addict here.

Listen to Episode 4, “The Human Element” on Overcast here.

Listen to Episode 4, “The Human Element” on Google Podcasts here.

Reader’s Notes

You can find Josh McCrowell’s work, including draft material on His Majesty the Worm, here. You can sing up for an announcement about its launch here. Josh also has a great blog, Rise Up Comus, which you can view here.

I *very highly* recommend you download his McCrowell’s step by step megadungeon creation document, Dungeon Seeds, which will also appear as an appendix of His Majesty the Worm. It presents a series of dungeon area “seeds” and a worksheet style approach to stocking them. Whether you follow his modular approach or not, it’s full of a wealth of concrete checklists and ideas to get you started and break your design paralysis. Get it here.

Josh mentions the well-beloved manga Dungeon Meshi or Delicious in Dungeon by Ryōko Kui as an influence on His Majesty the Worm. This humorous dungeoncrawling manga has a central culinary theme of eating monsters in the dungeon. You can purchase it here. An anime is coming soon to netflix, check out the trailer here. This is probably essential reading/viewing for megadungeon lovers. 

I wanted to mention again Nick Kuntz’s continuing megadungeon newsletter, Underworld Adventurer. Nick, who is my GM, appeared on Episode 02, “Persistent Little Worlds”. The second installment of Nick’s newsletter discusses an earlier “failed” megadungeon campaign they ran, “What Fools These Adventurers Be!” It’s especially useful for seeing how Nick approaches mapping by borrowing and reworking other sources. Check it out here.

Future Plans for the Newsletter and Podcast

October will be a horror filled month as I release interviews with Luke Gearing, author of the sci-fi horror megadungeon Gradient Descent and a very special Halloween episode with Miranda Elkins, GM of the diabolical long-running Nightwick Abbey campaign! I have decided that Season 1 of Into the Megadungeon, “Megadungeons as…”, will be 8 episodes in total. The final episode, “A Practice”, will be a little different in its format from the rest of the season. It will be an epsiode where I meditate on themes that emerged from the first season, focusing on concrete advice for creating and running megadungeons.

Starting with the next post, I’m also going to be sharing more of my dreamlands material, including some work in progress and gaming ephemera from my first dreamlands campaign. So if you’re getting a little bored of one podcast blogpost after another, I think you’ll find welcome relief soon.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

What Hull Breach Teaches Us

Hull Breach: Volume 01 (available here) is a 3rd party companion for Mothership, the ttrpg of space horror in the tradition of Alien and Event Horizon. Hull Breach is an anthology developed and produced by Ian Yusem, consisting of 26 different entries by 24 different authors, with layout and design by Eric Hill, Lone Archivist, and Meredith Silver; editing by Fiona Geist and Jarret Crader; and art by Nikolai Fletcher, L.F. OSR, Sajan Rai, Daniel Vega, and Joshua Clark.

I’m reviewing Hull Breach here on Mazirian's Garden rather than on Bones of Contention for the simple reason that Ian Yusem, whom I know a little mainly by having been in a couple of discords over the years, asked me to take a quick look at the PDF of the penultimate draft. Given our draconian policy on conflicts of interest, this excludes me from being eligible to review it on Bones. But I find myself with a lot to say about it, so I wanted to say it here.

The anthologies is divided into 5 sections. The first is “Intel”, which deals with toolkits and procedures, including some tips for running horror and investigative games, and a couple of entirely new ways of running Mothership, like playing as the monsters or playing without a warden (GM). “Missions” presents jobs that players can take, which is the basic setup for adventuring in Mothership. “Locations” includes stations and planets, along with a couple of location-based adventures. “Entities” presents alien monstrosities, colorful NPCs, and corporate patrons. Finally, “Assets” presents new equipment and technology.

In organizing these diverse elements, Hull Breach sets a new standard for anthology companions. It lays down a template that could and should be replicated for almost any game or genre. The main innovation has to do with the way in which these 26 discrete contributions are woven together so that they can each be used not only a la carte but also as a single campaign.

This integration happens at 3 levels.  

Most importantly, in a total of 12 action packed pages—including the 4 endpapers!—Ian creates a framework for all the contributions. We get a simple map of 3 different connected sectors where locations from the anthology are placed, and three different corresponding campaign frames: one of corporate intrigue set in core space, one about survival horror set in the fringe of rimspace, and one about exploring the unknown set in frontier space. Each frame has a different suggested starter adventure, a different package of recommended article to use, and a few suggested follow up adventures from the anthology.

We also get a set of simple procedures for space travel between destinations and a nice reputation mechanic, which has to do with how corporate friendly or subversive and criminal the PCs are being, affecting the kinds of jobs they get offered over time. There is also a system of “campaign causality” where certain consequences are triggered when set conditions are met pertaining to the different articles in the anthology.

There are a couple of extras including a corporate pyramid that shows how different corporations, mentioned in various articles, are related to one another, a set of rumors pitched as conspiracy theories, and some loot tables that reference different parts of the anthology. We also get a worksheet for a campaign that tracks all these elements.

None of the individual elements is rocket science taken alone. But together they show you how you can use the many articles in the anthology to run a solid campaign. Since the anthology is so modular, it’s easy to imagine expanding the resources for a warden to include other published adventures for Mothership, which could easily be dropped into the framework. It’s turns what threatens to be disjointed articles into a tidy package.

At a second level the individual articles have clearly been edited to include many references to other articles. Gear from the “Assets” section shows up throughout, as do people and aliens from the “Entities” section. More impressively, adventures often contain hooks to other adventures, creating a coherent, interconnected campaign from 26 distinct articles that can also be used separately.

At a third level, by having only 4 artists, and layout done by only 3 different individuals, the work has a consistent look and feel to it. Again, there’s a nice compromise between modularity and system. Each article has its own distinct color scheme and graphic design, and yet consistent typeface is employed, and none feels jarring or out of place. The artwork is especially good, often exquisite. From L.F. OSR’s lonely black and white stippled architecture, to Sajan Rai’s gorgeous, painterly monstrosities; from Daniel Vegas’ deliciously hellish concept art, to Nikolai Fletcher’s classic sci-fi gear and schematics illustrations—the artwork just doesn’t miss a beat.

In terms of the content, not all the articles will be equally useful for all wardens, and not all equally tickled my fancy. But there were many that were manifestly useful for any campaign, and a few that were flat out great.

The award for my favorite single article goes to Bones and Videotape by Matt Umland with art by Joshua Clark, a truly ingenious sci-fi puzzle dungeon. It belongs to that genre where the players go into the dungeon not knowing what is going on at all, and they have to puzzle out the rules of the space they’re operating on the fly. It also has what will almost certainly be an amazing dramatic reveal. Plus, you’ve got to love a horror adventure where characters are encouraged to stop in the dungeon to playback videotapes they recover on a clunky videotape player. I wanted to run it immediately upon reading it, which almost never happens to me.

Other quite good adventures include Road Work by Brian Stauffer with art by Daniel Vega, which has the PCs trying to escape a loop while traveling through alternate versions of reality (the solution Stauffer envisions is a touch over-specific, but the details of the adventure are quite good). and Vibechete by Joel Hines, which brings classic slasher horror to Mothership for a rollicking good time.

Another delightful article and adventure pair was Ian Yusem’s clever flipping of the Motherhip script in Manhunt, which has the PCs playing as alien monsters who are hunting the true monsters: human beings. There are four different imaginative varieties of monsters you can play, all illustrated beautifully by Sajan Rai, along with a neat mechanic where the monsters evolve as they become enraged by human cruelty or violence. His brutal one shot, Churn Rate, which involves monsters trying to escape a corporate alien zoo, seems like it would be a lot of fun.  

The award for the most useful single article goes to Corpocrat Dogs by Quadra with art by Sajan Rai, which presents randomly generated corporate handlers, each with a name and appearance, a grating modus operandi that almost guarantees that the players will love to hate them, a dark secret that will lead to trouble down the line, and a mission generator referencing the contents of other articles. Since in Mothership, the characters are almost certain to be bumping up against needy corporate types, I think this article could be used in any campaign, probably multiple times. Another useful article is the writeup on Xeiram, a terrifying corporate enforcer intended to plague the PCs when they cross their corporate overlords, written by Daniel Hallinan with art by Sajan Rai. I also found the writeup on Hellkites, hive-dwelling alien insectoid horrors by Mystery Spice with art by Daniel Vega solidly useful.

The lessons of Hull Breach: Volume 01 are immediate and obvious. It presents a template for ttrpg anthologies that deserves to be reproduced. It will probably work best for anthologies produced for games with a coherent setting or at least a shared vibe and genre. For example, it is easy for me to imagine an anthology that follows this format for other sci-fi or cyberpunk games like Gamma World, Traveler, Star Frontiers, or Cyberpunk 2020. But it’s also easy for me to imagine something with this template for a sword & sorcery setting like Hyperborea. Here one might present a similar division of novel procedures and toolkits, quests, locations, factions and monsters, as well as spells and magic items. These could then be woven together in a simple hexmap, with a reputation score that affects reactions rolls with different factions, campaign causality triggers keyed to different articles, the whole Hull Breach works. With a little work the articles could be woven together, adventures seeding other adventures, referencing spells, locations, and monsters in other articles, along with unified artwork and aesthetic. Yusem and his crew have shown you the way. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Into the Megadungeon Episode 3 "The Problem of Space"


I have another episode and reader notes to share with you! But first a couple of announcements. First, Ultan's Door Press is having a September sale, with almost everything at 15-20% off. Get the entire run of Through Ultan's Door and Downtime in Zyan. I even have a small number of Huargo's White Jungle posters available! Head over to the webstore here while it's still open. 

Second, I've decided to start a project connected with the podcast called "The Megadungeon Syllabus". (Forgive the silly pedagogical title, but my day job is professoring and I literally write syllabi all the time, so I'm just going with what I know.) It's going to be a larger ongoing project where I create three versions of a reading/viewing list--short, medium, and long--broken down by different topics. I'll probably create it a google doc that people can download, or just follow the links from the doc itself. I'll certainly share the evolving work in progress doc as it develops here and on my newlsetter, Missives from Beyond the Veil of Sleep. (By the way, if you want to sign up for the newsletter and get these posts straight to your inbox, go here.)

Now on to our real business, Episode 3 of Into the Megadungeon, "The Problem of Space". This time I interview Gus L about his long running HMS Apollyon campaign. We had a lot of fun talking about how dungeoncrawling involves navigating a concrete space, how to make treasure actually interesting, why it's so hard to publish a good megadungeon, and how you can draw on the weirdness of history to get outside of bog-standard fantasy tropes. Without further ado, I present Episode 3 to you on your platform of choice:

Find Episode 3 "The Question of Space" on Spotify here

Find Episode 3 "The Question of Space" on Apple Podcasts here.

Find Episode 3 "The Question of Space" on Google Podcasts here

Find Episode 3 "The Question of Space" on Podcast Addict here.

Find Episode 3 "The Question of Space" on Overcast here.  

Find Episode 3 "The Question of Space" on Pocket Casts here.

You can find a full transcript of the episode here

Reader's Notes 

Art by Evlyn Moreau

As always, here is the extended reader's notes for the interview. 

Gus's Stuff

First, you can find many of Gus' posts about the HMS Apollyon campaign over at his old blog, Dungeon of Signs here. I HIGHLY recommend you download and read Gus' HMS Apollyon Player's Guide, which you can find here. It's a wonderful repurposing of Original Dungeon & Dragons to lean even more into procedural dungeoncrawling and the wild Apollyon setting. 

For Gus' theoretical writings on the procedural dungeon crawl, as well as new gaming projects, you should take a look at his newer blog All Dead Generations here. For Gus' published adventures, like Tomb Robbers of the Crystal Frontier, and Broken Bastion, visit Ratking Productions here. You can purchase Beneath the Moss Courts, an adventure about lawyers and pirates set int he world of my zine here

FLAILSNAILS & Constantcon

At one point we discuss FLAILSNAILS and Constantcon. FLAILSNAILS was a set of protocols whereby GMs agreed to allow players to take PCs from one game and use them in other games. Constantcon was the massive open table schedule of running FLAILSNAILS games that people could play. If you want to know more, I wrote about FLAILSNAILS on track 01 of my Google+ Mixtape here 

Gus's Megadungeon Recommendations

Gus also refered to three published megadungeons that he thinks are each very good in their own way. This is really the first set of megadungeon recommendations on the podcast. 

Caverns of Thracia by Jennell Jaquays, a pathbreaking early hobby massive dungeon notable, like Jaquays' other early contributions for it's evocative flavor, use of factions, and open map design. Gus wrote a review of it for Bones of Contention here.    

Patrick Wetmore's delightful gonzo science fantasy megadungeon, Anomalous Subsurface Environment (ASE) that started Gus on megadungeon gaming. You can still get in print or PDF here.

Gus also praises highly Richard Barton's truly massive The Halls of Arden Vul, which you can find in all it's enormous glory here

History as Inspiration for Adventure Design

Finally, of course, you can find the UNESCO World Heritage list here, presenting you with numerous real world locations to fire your imagination for your location-based adventure design.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Into the Megadungeon Episode 2 "Little Persistent Worlds"

I'm very excited to release Episode 2 of my podcast Into the Megadungeon. In this episode I interviewed Nick Kuntz about their megadungeon campaign, The Twilight Age. I've known Nick for a long time. They were one of the players in my long-running original Ultan's Door campaign, playing primarily as the saucy teenage gonif Mia. During the early hellish days of the pandemic Nick launched their megadungeon campaign, which I've played in now for a few years as the wizard Phasmo. 

We talk about a lot of things in this episode, including the rewards and challenges of magedungeon campaigns with large player rosters; the importance of factions in megadungeons; and how megadungeons can function as "little persistent worlds", where the stories that emerge are less about protagonists and more about an abiding place.  

Without further ado, here is the episode on the largest of the podcast platforms:

Episode 2 "Little Perisstent Worlds" on Spotify

Episode 2 "Little Persistent Worlds" on Apple Podcasts

Episode 2 "Little Persistent Worlds" on Google Podcasts

Further Reading 

Art by the Inimitable Evlyn Moreau

First off, Nick is starting a megadungeon newsletter! You can read the first issue and subscribe to it here. The first issue, accompanied by Nick's illustrations and maps, "Let the Adventure Begin!" talks about megadungeons as a "good enough" art form, and discusses of Jack Kirby's comics on Nick's faction design. The first issue of this newsletter is the ideal pairing for this episode of the podcast. 

If you want to see what a functional megadungeon campaign blog actually looks like, I recommend highly Nick's Underworld Adventurer blog for their Twlight Shores campaign. Check out some recent session recaps, or peruse the archives for house rules and setting elements! (Attentive readers may even discover the fate of the Eye of Terror discussed at some length in the episode.) For those more interested in Nick's illustrations, check out their instagram account here

For more on large player rosters, I highly recommend watching this video by Ben Milton at Questing Beast. Milton here talks about how the presupposed play style of early editions of D&D involved an "open table" with large player rosters. While you're at, it's also worth your time to check out the "Open Table Manifesto" by Justin Alexander. 

For more on emergent stories, you could read this post I wrote on the topic. Nick is arguing that large player roster games megadungeon campaigns supercharge this feature and take it in an interesting direction. This was probably the biggest revelation for me to come out of playing in Nick's game.

At one point Nick refers to an old campaign, where six months of play emerged from a random encounter roll near a castle that resulted in a jousting challenge. For the charming jousting minimgame in OD&D (Original D&D) check out Fantastic Medieval Campaigns Appendix A, pp. 188-189, available for free here.

Finally, Nick refers at one point to the fact that a beholder in OSE is called an “Eye of Terror”. “OSE” stands for Old School Essentials, a retroclone—a repackaging and modern presentation of an older ruleset—of B/X D&D, the Basic/Expert edition of D&D written by Tom Moldvay, Dave Cook, and Stephen Marsh. The Open Games License (OGL) allows reprinting of older ruleset like this, but reserves some terms as proprietary to Wizards of the Coast, including “beholder”, which OSE renames “Eye of Terror”. You can learn more about Old School Essentials here.

You can find a full text trasncript of Episode 2 “Little Persistent Worlds” here

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Into the Megadungeon Episode 1 "Mysteries"

I am excited to share the very first episode “Mysteries” of my brand new podcast Into the Megadungeon, where I interview veteran GMs about their amazing megadungeon campaigns, campaigns focused on a single adventuring location with 100’s of rooms spread across many levels. It’s my way of exploring this largely lost play style and contributing to its possible revival. The podcast focuses on the actual experience of GMs at the table. You can expect to hear details about their campaigns, what they learned through play, some tips and techniques, and just maybe a bit of theory—but always grounded in practice.

We start in Episode 01 “Mysteries” with James Maliszewski, author of the blog Grognardia, whom I interview about his Dwimmermount campaign. Among other things, James and I discuss how a GM can make a single dungeon hold the interest and excitement of players. Without further ado, here are links to the podcast!

Episode 01 "Mysteries" on Spotify 

Episode 01 "Mysteries" on Apple Podcasts

Episode 01 "Mysteries" on Google

Reader’s Notes to Episode 01

With each episode, I will share “reader’s notes here. If you read these notes before listening to an episode, you’ll have everything you need to know to listen to the episode! For the curious, the links the notes contain can also be used as a springboard to learn more about the history and practice of megadungeon play.

James ran his Dwimmermount campaign as an experiment to learn about the original megadungeon playstyle practiced at the very beginning of the hobby. As part of that experiment he used the very first version of dungeons and dragons (OD&D) that had been designed specifically for this style of play. He mentions in passing several terms and names that refer to these older editions and early game products. (Don’t worry, in later episodes of the podcast I interview GMs who have developed brand new rulesets to run this style of game, as well as some who use fifth edition D&D to play megdungeon campaigns.)

Glossary of Names and Terms

A young Dave Arenson smiling.

Dave Arneson: One of the two creators of Dungeons & Dragons. Arneson ran the very first games of what would become Dungeons & Dragons, which explored the dungeons beneath Castle Blackmoor. This was both the very first tabletop roleplaying campaign and the very first megadungeon campaign. Castle Blackmoor was never published in its full form.

Gary Gygax: The other creator of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax ran the second megadungeon campaign exploring the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk. Gygax went on to head TSR and authored several early rulebooks of D&D, as well as some classic modules. Castle Greyhawk was also never published in its full form. But Gygax wrote a wonderful little article in 1975 for Europa, a wargaming zine (amateur magazine), telling aspiring GMs what they need to do to set up their very own megadungeon that contains a tantalizing overview of the different levels of Castle Greyhawk. Check it out here.

The contents of white box D&D.

Original Dungeons & Dragons: Also called “OD&D”, “0E”, or “white box”, this was the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons that came in a little white box. The box contained the three little brown books titled “Men & Magic”, “Monsters & Treasure”, and “Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”. Curious about the rules? A reader friendly, and cheaper, alternative which I heartily recommend is Fantastic Medieval Campaigns, which accurately presents the original rules in a clean and attractive modern format, available for free here.

Philotomy’s OD&D Musings: A free document by Jason Cone, AKA Philotomy Jurament, published in 2007 introducing contemporary players to playing with the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules. The section on “creating an old school dungeon” is pure gold and should be read by those interested in megadungeon play. It is available for free here

Supplement I Greyhawk: The first supplement for Original Dungeons & Dragons detailing the Greyhawk setting and presenting many optional rules that became staples of later editions of D&D including “variable weapon damage”, the thief (i.e. rogue) class, among others.

Supplement II Blackmoor: The second supplement for Original Dungeons & Dragons detailing the Blackmoor setting, the monk class, and a far out adventure, The Temple of the Frog, that combines pulp sci-fi and fantasy elements.

Supplement III Eldritch Wizardry: The third supplement for Original Dungeons & Dragons, introducing the druid class and psionics, as well as many of the demons and devils such as Orcus that have become staples of the D&D multiverse.

An image of the cover of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, showing adventurers being attacked by alien tentacles.

S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: A module written by Gary Gygax, where PCs explore a dungeon inside a crashed spaceship!

Tekumel: The richly imagined campaign world of M.A.R. Barker, based on non-European inspirations including meso-American and Indian sources. TSR published an early version of rules for play in this campaign world, Empire of the Petal Throne.

Clark’s Third Law: Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction author, enumerated 3 laws over the course of his writings about speculation and future technological change. The 3rd law is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

#Dungeon23 Challenge: This Sean McCoy’s challenge to create a 365 room megadungeon dungeon in 2023, one room per day. You can read about the original challenge here. I highlighted some of the most dynamic entries I was able to find in the early weeks of the challenge in posts here.

Grognardia: This is James Maliszewski’s prolific blog, dedicated to all things old school gaming. I recommend reading James’ Dwimmermount posts to get a sense of how the campaign developed from modest beginnings to a dynamic campaign exploring the secrets of an entire setting. You can find the blog here, and the Dwimmermount posts are collected here.

As always, if you would prefer to receive these podcast announcements and reader's notes directly to your inbox, then please consider subscribing to my substack, Missives from Beyond the Veil of Sleep, which you can find here

Monday, July 31, 2023

The Problem of Spotlight Management in OSR Games

I listened to the “expert delve” segment of this episode of Fear of a Black Dragon (starts around the 28 min mark) with great interest. Jason and Tom were discussing “spotlight management”, that is making sure that each player gets roughly equal time in the “spotlight”, i.e. being the one who gets to contribute to the game, by saying what their character does, and so on. 

Almost all the techniques they mention involve situations where the PCs are in different places doing different things. Their advice is excellent: to consider narrative beats, to switch from one PC to another at cliff-hanger moments (i.e. moments of high drama) that keep people engaged, and so on. They also talk about systems that incorporate different turns more more systematically. Although I could be better, I’m not the worst at what they are talking about. For example, during my downtime segments in my face-to-face game, where PCs break up to all pursue individual projects and activities, I try to move the spotlight around intuitively using something like the ideas they float. I think it works. 

But outside of downtime, in the OSR style games I run, the party is almost never separate. “Never split the party” may be a tired trope, but it’s also sensible practice in old school games. You might think, great, if they're together then it will be much easier to keep everyone equally involved, since the scene is shared. In a more narrative heavy game that was focused on individual characters as individuals, or on their relations to one another, that would be true. In such games, you can move the spotlight around in a single situation by simply asking each players in the situation what their characters do, or how they react to the situation, what they're feeling about it, and so on. 

But the way I run the game, outside of downtime, the focus tends to be on collective problem solving. The players tend to talk freely amongst themselves about what they are going to do as a group at each step. Sometimes people don’t even say what their separate characters are doing, but announce what the group is doing. And this is how I like it! In the games I run, the focus is not on individuals taken separately, nor on their relation to one another, but rather on the exploration of fantastic and perilous spaces by the group collectively. I always allow this kind of collective deliberation, even when it's utterly implausible in the game: in the heat of combat, in the middle of a high-stakes conversation, at any point really, since what I’m here for is the cooperative problem solving that is the heart of the particular flavor of challenge based, sandbox play that I like. 


The problem is that what controls the spotlight under those circumstances is not me, the GM, but rather the social dynamics of the players' freeform collective deliberation about what to do. In order for me to move the spotlight around in that process, I need, essentially, to intervene in the group's deliberations. But I don’t have a good way of systematically doing that. It's hard to know what the proper technique to intervene to move the spotlight without disrupting the freeform deliberation among players. 

I’m blessed in my current face to face group in that no one dominates the conversations. They manage the spotlight relatively well. (The problem is MUCH greater in online play, I’ve noticed, probably because normal conversational dynamics break down over videoconferencing.) But even in my current face to face game, there still is one player who is a bit more passive than the others—despite being a very canny player. But he just doesn’t speak up as much in the group's collective deliberations. 


I can rectify this to some extent, insofar as often characters will act individually, especially when we’re focused on tight scenes where it’s less about what decision the group is making and more about what contribution to a shared effort each character is making. In those circumstances, I can ensure that the spotlight travels to the quieter player. But this is a far cry from the kind of “spotlight management” that Jason and Tom are talking about. If I'm going to be real, it’s more like spotlight damage control. 


I actually have no idea how to solve this problem. I’m tempted to say that without changing the kind of game I’m playing, there’s really no way to manage the spotlight in the core experience. I hope that’s not true, but I’m afraid it is. Any ideas?



Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Google Plus Mixtape, Track 03: Savage World of Krül


I was on Google + for five years. I met so many of you wonderful people there. We shared practices, information, and bits of wonder, frozen starlight, passed gleefully from one outstretched elfin hand to another. I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons with you, in rewarding and novels grownup ways. But now Google + is gone. So I made you this mixtape. I think you'll recognize some of the songs. I hope you like it.

At long last, I return the Google+ mixtape, my homage to the OSR scene on Google+. This mixtape seems unfortunately timely once again  as the app formerly known as Twitter--poor substitute for Google+ that it ever was--wobbles on its last legs. You can "listen" to track 01 here and track 02 here. In track 02, I pointed out that gaming groups on G+ were essentially superbands. All the players were DMs in their own fearsome games. Numerous campaigns were run where every participant was the most committed member of another group. I pointed out that you can also trace patterns of influence between them, which is connected to my point that the OSR was, more than anything, a play culture.

As Google+ lay on its deathbed, I frantically helped people to download the G+ communities that had served as the home of their amazing campaigns. I took the opportunity, with permission of course, to interview the players in the campaigns, with the idea of sharing some inside reflections on the longer running campaigns of G+, some better known, and others less. As it happens, I got hung up for TWO YEARS writing the post for Track 03, which was originally to be on Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign and the superband of players inaccurately called "The Nefarious Nine". But on some solid recent advice, I have decided to unstick myself by shuffling the order of the tracks. So I have elected to bump up the Savage World of Krül, the campaign of Robert Parker, player of the unforgettable ne'er do-well Manzifrain in Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign. (Now that I am unstuck, you will hear more about Manzifrain soon enough.)

Without further a'do I present to you:

The Best Kept Secret of Retro-Games

Having played alongside him during my brief stint in the Nefarious Nine, I can say that Robert Parker is an interesting player. In fact, he's the dream player for the kind of DM who is in to deep world building. For him, the great joy in playing in a sandbox game is coming up with theories, plumbing the depths of secrets, unravelling the mysteries in a campaign as they relate to the open-world goals of the party. Information is for him the real treasure.

I've also enjoyed talking with Robert. If I tell him what I'm thinking about running, he's always casually like, "Oh, that's what you're going to do? Have you read Brian Aldiss' Hothouse?" Or, "Oh, have you taken a look at the early cyberpunk zine Mondo?" Or, "Oh, do you know about Traveler's rules on animal encounters?" His recommendations invariably completely change how I'm thinking about what I"m working on. He's also been SUPER interesting to talk about on the topic of how to run sandbox games that are not focused on location-based adventures (i.e. dungeons). For instance, he can tell you how to run a sandbox supers game, or talk about how to run a mystery sandbox for Call of Cthulhu, or a planet-hopping Traveler sandbox game.

I'll let you in on another secret: he was a driving force behind Hydra Coop. To a not inconsiderable extent you have him to thank for the bounty that cooperative venture has provided to the retro-game scene. He also came up with some of the most interesting rules to Fever Dreaming Marlinko and the forthcoming Slumbering Ursine Dunes Completish Omnibus. I guess what I'm trying to say is that Robert is probably the most interesting guy you may never have heard of in the retro-game scene.

The Savage World of Krül

While a member in the Nefarious Nine, Robert ran an off again on again game from 2012-2014 called The Savage World of Krül. Other members of the Nefarious Nine played in it, including Chris Kutalik, Cole Long, David Lewis Johnson, and Michael Moscrip. When I interviewed his players about it in 2018, sometimes I got the feeling that I was watching a sketch with Stefon in Saturday Night Live. "If you wanted to have a wild time back then, the game to play was Savage World of Krül. This campaign had everything: He-Man style chest harnesses...Tex-Mex sorcerers...cyborg gangs...wax dungeons"

Robert described the campaign this way to me: "It was a colonial sword & planet gone to shit game. Lord of Light-style god-beings come from a sea of possible realities, enslave the local humanoid population, breed humans, and then it turns into ugly late capitalism before collapsing into a post-apocalyptic ruin of city-states ruled by the descendants of demonic entities and their inbred half-human spawn." The Appendix N
for the game (in fact Appendix B in his ruleset) included entries like Zelazney's Lord of Light series, Kirby's Fourth World comics, Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure novels, Brian Aldiss' Nonstop, Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun, as well as the entirety of Leigh Brackett's work.

When explaining what made the game memorable, Cole referred to the NPCs: "the flamboyant Tex-Mex magicians, the Clock King, and all these different crazy gangs with cyborg-surgery dues." He also dwelt on the disorientation induced by the setting, which seemed at first glance to be a gonzo planetary romance. That is, until the party found treasure like a wardrobe full of tuxedos, or came across an NPC running what was apparently an ancient photo booth. Was the World of Krül then somehow Earth? The disorientation they described reminded me of the signature effect of Gene Wolf, who carries you along thinking you know what the setting is in his novels, only to casually drop elements 100 pages in that, in combination with the increasingly suspicious narrator, throws everything you thought you knew about the setting into question.

Welcome to Mindfuck Dungeon!

Several players also described the game as sporting some of the most memorable dungeons they had ever seen. The central campaign dungeon was Mindfuck Dungeon (MFD). MFD was the watchtower of a powerful witch who had gone missing called the Clock King. It could be approached from above by paying a hefty entry fee to a gang called the Metal Fingers, or from below through undercity crawl from any of a series connecting locations. There was a central staircase that rotated between four dungeon quadrants on the second level, and could be controlled by finding missing clocks throughout the dungeon. You could only unlock the lower levels of the dungeon by finding all the missing clocks. (Although you could also approach the lower levels from the exterior or hidden elevators.) 

Although the theme was generally funhouse meat grinder, the dungeon was full of liminal spaces with different vibes. There were many sub-levels with distinctive aesthetics; one of cramped rough hewn spaces with pattering footsteps that could be accessed only by pit traps; one immaterial sub-level hanging in the air that only became tangible in the light of a certain kind candle; and there was a double-decker dungeon sub-level, where you would either be walking on the floor or the ceiling, depending on where you entered it. Hearing the dungeon described, it sounds like a giant 3D puzzle full of secrets that rewarded deep play. It also ground through PCs like nobody's business. Robert tells me that one player ran more than 20 different PCs in the campaign. The campaign had other dungeons with even wilder premises like the Waxworks, a living dungeon of shifting organs!

The Most Memorable PC Death

Several players, most of all Chris Kutalik, reported that the most memorable moment in the campaign was the death of Chris's character. Unbeknownst to the party, there was a DERO/anti-life infestation growing in the walls around level 2 of MFD, coiling around the level. It was occupied by malignant creatures who bedeviled the party on that level with the unnerving habit of suddenly appearing out of nowhere. When exploring level 2, one time the party triggered a floor trap. A panel opened in the ceiling revealing a magnet that sucked Chris' heavily armored character (and I believe Michael Moscrip's character as well) up into the ceiling, moving them along a track, and depositing them in the DERO sublevel, before sliding closed. Isolated, these characters found themselves in a space with a completely different ominous aesthetic of polished black walls with a red carpet that ate their feet if they stood still in one place. They were lost in unfamiliar territory trying to reconnect with the rest of the party, until their light source gave out. The party could hear their screams, maddeningly just behind the walls, powerless to help them, as they were hunted through the darkness by the malignant occupants of this hideous space. Giving up all hope, Chris' character ended up taking his own life to avoid being captured by the DERO. Everyone, including Chris, described this as a high point of the campaign.

A B/X Ruleset to Remember

The ruleset for the game, which circulated among players in PDF form, is a masterful B/X hack. My feeling is that these rules stands roughly to B/X as Gus' HMS Apollyon rules stand to OD&D. Both, working with the strengths of the chassis of their game of choice, spin it in creative way to support play in a particular campaign world. Everything in the ruleset conveys and reinforces elements of the setting. Robert's ruleset in particular is designed for long haul campaign shenanigans and play. Since the ruleset isn't published or generally available, I don't want to get into too much detailed, but it's such a glorious B/X hack that I can't resist saying something about. 

Character creation involved a selection two classes: fighting man/warrior woman & warlock/witch, with further hidden weird classes unlockable with a lucky roll or with character death. (Since there was so much PC death Robert wanted to throw a bone to those who perished again and again.) Each of the base classes had a lot of flavor. For witches and warlocks the flavor comes from the selection of 1 of 7 magical schools from this chart. 

For fighting men or warrior women the player rolls on a background table. There are 17 backgrounds, split between wilderness and urban backgrounds, that add 1d6 to one of your stats and sometimes give you some other power. (There is also a small chance to roll on a hidden "weird class" subtable.) These stats serve in part as the basis of a system of checks that allows for your character to have something of the flavor of thieves, rangers, and the like as sort of sub-classes of fighters. You are also able to trade off stats against one another, allowing for a fair amount of customization. 

Equipment was treated by Robert as another opportunity for worldbuilding. In addition to the standard fare of swords and torches, there are very pricey items like gasoline, shotguns, and even dynamite. The system uses a piecemeal armor system that calls out to He-Man or swords & sorcery genres. Robert also had rules for gambling, a set of mini-games that are resolved in the first 10 minutes of every session for those PCs who wished to drop by Xita's House of Games, a seedy gaming house in the city's Low Quarter. There were minigames for  slots,  blackjack, as well as a clever lottery game. I imagine that starting each session with real life gambling sets a nice opening tone. 

Where the ruleset really shines though is in the downtime system. I'm frankly glad that I hadn't read these rules when I was working out my own system of downtime, because they're so good I think they might have captured my imagination. The baseline is a cost of living expense with different expense tiers, tied to different bonuses or penalties on your hit points--hit dice were rolled each session. (If you couldn't pay for any tier there was a table to roll on for being unhoused.)

The downtime actions  carousing, rumor mongering, gathering intelligence in a variety of modes, including research, door to door interviews, casing a joint, infiltrating an organization and so on. (There is also an elaborate set of rules for using stool pigeons, more on the gang rules below.) There is also a career downtime action, which involves finding or working at a job. The system lists several careers, from stevedore to lab assistant, and so on. It uses stat checks to see if you can land a job (some are open only to individuals with certain skills), or a keep a job, or get a promotion. Getting fired usually has negative consequences. If you have a job you must dedicated half your downtimes to working it, and you receive weekly wages. It's a tidy little system that has a lot of worldbuilding built into it with the different careers. I would love it as a player.  

In addition to this rich offering of regular downtime actions, one genius innovation the ruleset introduces is the idea of a special downtime action. Once per month, a player is allowed to write up a special downtime action that does not fit into the framework mentioned so far. These actions are handled on an ad-hoc basis. Robert explained the significance of limiting specialty downtime action to me in terms of the advantage freeform downtime gives to enterprising and pushy players. The idea is to limit it to 1 out of every 4 downtimes, both to limit the workload on a DM with a large player base, and also to make sure that no one was reaping massive advantages by sinking homework in between sessions. The flexibility of the idea of a limited specialty downtime action is enticing. Interestingly, Robert also allowed players to use the specialty downtime action to play a special 30 minute session (usually at the start of a regular game session), where the player character could try to quickly resolve catastrophes that had come up via downtime, e.g. getting captured by someone you were spying on or the like. 

Perhaps the most elaborate rules in the game were the rules for taking and holding territory and building gangs as the envisioned domain play for fighting men. Four years before Blades in the Dark was published, and far better suited to the OSR playstyle, these rules were a tour-de-force. They explained what you had to do to seize a territory; they had rules for how to handle the gang warfare during the struggle; as well as rules for the monies and other advantages you would receive by securing and holding territory. They also tied in with the downtime actions that involved recruiting and paying gang members suitable for different kinds of jobs, hiring stool pigeons, infiltrating enemy gangs, and so on. 

These rules are not available for public consumption. They are, from Robert's point of view, game ephemera specifically made for his campaign and not for public consumption. However, both the setting and rules were major influence on David Lewis Johnson's Gathox Vertical Slum, another member of the Nefarious Nine and a player in Savage Sword of Krül. You can also find some of them absorbed into the forthcoming Slumbering Ursine Dunes Completish Omnibus So you can get at least a taste of the setting flavor and rules by looking at these wonderful product. As we'll see it also influenced Cole Long's rules for Swords of the Inner Sea, which I'll be looking at in a later track. 

Pay your cyber-surgery dues and you can find me in Mind Fuck Dungeon until the next mixtape trakc drops! 

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