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.