What about sub-mega dungeons?

When I started doing research about good dungeon design, I made an interesting observation. Pretty much everyone who is writing about the design of dungeons is talking specifically of the rather special case of megadungeons. I can understand the fascination with these massive places that can remain not fully explored even after multiple campaigns set inside of them. But when you start looking into the details of what people are writing about the design, you find a lot of recommendations that I don’t think carry over well into games of exploring multiple different dungeons over 1 to 4 sessions each.

The whole logistics are really quite different and the journey to and from the dungeon takes up a much bigger role in the campaign when the party constantly has to relocate their base camp. Like most advice that is around for worldbuilding, megadungeon advice mostly concerns itself with the really big pictures. But what seemingly gets overlooked is the small scale design of encounters and individual rooms. These are problems that a lot more GMs are having to deal with, yet it seems that nobody really has anything smart to say about this element. As a GM poorly experienced in running dungeon crawls, I’ve been doing a lot of searching for such information, but it appears to be curiously absent.

In the Land of Zero-Level NPCs a 4th Level Fighter is a Hero

One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.

I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.

I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.

So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.

One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!

So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.

Eldritch Lore: Elementals

Air Elemental by javi-ure

A while back I’ve seen someone describe elementals in Dungeons & Dragons as fundamentally boring. I think they are really cool, but what is it that they rally have going for themselves? When you look at their description in the Monster Manuals and Expert Sets, really all that you get is a description of how they look and their abilities in combat. And that’s really everything there is about them. What little there is about their role in the wider world makes them appear more like mindless temporary golems controlled by wizards than actual nature spirits. I have to agree. Elementals in Dungeons & Dragons are super lame.

Yeah, well… I’m gonna go build my own fantasy setting. With blackjack and cool elementals!

Elementals

Earth Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals are the oldest and most numerous of the spirits inhabiting the Spiritworld. Even more so than the spirits of trees and animals, they are the spirits of the land, sea, rivers, and sky themselves. They have no shape or form of their own, but wherever the elements are present there are also elemental spirits inhabiting them in the Spiritworld.  Whenever they have a need to interact with the physical world around them they can manifest a body shaped from their element. Weapons can not damage water and fire and even when rock is crushed an earth elemental can maintain a body made from rubble. The only ways to deal any harm to an elemental spirit are magic and the elements themselves. Dousing fire with water or turning water into steam with extreme heat can overwhelm the power of an elemental spirit, causing it to lose its hold over its physical form and disappearing back into the environment to recover its strength. Like all spirits, elementals are hurt by iron as well, but bronze, wood, and stone have no effect on them whatsoever.

Fire Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals don’t have any needs as living creatures would understand them or even desires like the shie, naga, and raksha. They are eternal beings as old as the world itself, who will probably continue to exist until the end of time, long after all people, beasts, and other nature spirits will be gone. Yet they are not mindless forces of nature, nor completely devoid of emotions. The main priority pursued by elementals is to be left in peace. The one thing that drives them into furious rage are disturbances of their comfortable quiet. However what costitutes a disturbance to these enigmatic beings is never clear to tell. The presence of beasts large and small is a constant and regular occurence throughout all the world and most of the time elementals make no distinguishment between people and animals. The affairs of mortals are of no relevance to them and so they are generally ignored by elementals. However, their apparent peacefulness can very quickly turn into determined agression by causing a commotion in their vicinity or merely getting to close for their comfort.

Water Elemental by javi-ure

While elementals usually don’t talk to other creatures they are capable of speech, speaking in the languages of spirits of the earth, water, and sky. They simply lack any desire to communicate with other beings. But when approached with care by a shaman they can be drawn into a conversation and reveal themselves to be quite intelligent creatures of great wisdom, though much of it has little meaning to the short lives of mortal beings. When interacting with people, elementals often take a vaguely humanoid shape but they can also assume forms resembling various great beasts or simply appear as rolling clouds or bulges of water. The minds of elementals are nearly as alien as those of the ancients that predate the formation of the world, but being a fundamental part of the natural world their presence has none of their warping and corrupting effects on the land and creatures around them.

Lesser Elemental

XP: 500
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 19
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 6 (27 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d6
Earth: Slam 1d8
Fire: Slam 1d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 12
Poison: 10
Breath: 13
Device: 11
Magic: 14
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Greater Elemental

XP: 1,200
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 21
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 8 (36 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d8
Earth: Slam 2d6
Fire: Slam 1d8 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 10
Poison: 8
Breath: 11
Device: 9
Magic: 12
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Elder Elemental

XP: 1,900
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 23
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 12 (54 hp)
Attack: Slam 2d6
Earth: Slam 2d8
Fire: Slam 2d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 8
Poison: 6
Breath: 9
Device: 7
Magic: 10
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

The greatest thing that D&D forgot

Now this is not going to be a big, or even any, revelation to many people who are reading sites like this, but over the last weeks I’ve been doing more research on great adventure location design, which led me many times into dead ends because of the same single preconception the people writing have about D&D as a roleplaying game. So here you have it from my mouth:

Early D&D* was an exploration game, not a combat game.

I think this is probably the single most important aspect that distinguishes oldschool roleplaying from “modern games”. With AD&D 2nd Edition it’s a bit muddy, but we can safely say that 3rd to 5th Edition and Pathfinder are all combat games first that have some additional rules for non-combat situation tacked on to them. But with oldschool games, the situation is really very different. Combat is something that can happen, but the whole game is build in a way that you really don’t want it to happen. Except if it is for dramatic reasons, of course. Stopping a major villain and slaying a terrible monster is great. But the rules as a whole are all set up to make combat a bad thing for the characters.

Combat provides very little XP, except when it opens the way to treasure that gives the party a lot of XP. Getting access to the treasure without combat is always preferable. Combat is the primary pressure put on players to not spend too much time in dungeons rooms and not simply dealing with obstacles by destroying them. Because both these things attact potential combat. Encumbrance exist to slow characters down, which means they take longer to explore the dungeon and are less capable of escaping from a fight. Encumbrance only is a bad thing if players don’t want to fight.

Combat also is deadly and gets characters killed, even if the party wins a fight. But combat also isn’t necessary. Any time the party encounters living things in a dungeon and there is no good reason why those creatures and NPCs are hostile, the rules have a reaction roll to determine how they react to the party. And the creatures attacking on sight is the least likely reaction. The next most unfriendly reaction in the Basic Set is “Hostile, possible attack”, which I regard as being most sensibly interpreted as “attacks if provoked by the party’s actions”. There is a chance that a monster actually reacts friendly and the next most positive result is that the monster leaves or considers offers. Because the monster does not want to risk a fight with likely dadly consequences either. And if a fight breaks out, there is also the Morale check, which is used to determine whether monsters who are taking casualties decide that they would rather abandon the fight than risk now even more possible looking death.

The whole game is set up so that combat hold almost all risk and no reward for the players and that even their oppponents prefer not to fight. Combat is what happens when an encounter ends in catastrophy.

D&D being a game of exploration instead of combat also explains the majority of traditional spells that keep getting carried on by each new addition even though they seem to be pretty much useless. They are useless in a combat game. But hold portal, levitate, and speak with animal all make so much sense in an exploration game.

* That is pre-Dragonlance, 1974-1984.

I search the body

Some things that can be randomly found on killed or captured NPCs in the Ancient Lands. It’s a great tool for showing the players about the setting instead of telling them, which I think first appeared in Vornheim by He Who Must Not Be Named. Since I believe no kittens were killed in the development of this idea, I have no problems with using it. It’s a great tool that every setting that wants to be more than generic should use.

  • Bag with silver scraps (worth 1d4 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with silver coins (worth 1d6 x 10 sp)
  • Bag with gold nuggets (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small gold idol (worth 1d10 x 10 sp)
  • Small carved ivory idol
  • Small carved wooden idol
  • Small clay idol
  • Iron dagger (deals full damage to spirits)
  • Obsidian knife (deals full damage to spirits, breaks when rolling a 1 against an armored foe)
  • Iron tipped arrows (1d10)
  • Obsidian tipped arrows (1d10)
  • A map showing the location of a site in the wilderness (random monster lair or a prepared full size dungeon)
  • Glas jar with glowing slugs (light as a candle, slugs live for 10 days if fed leaves)
  • Crystal that glows like a candle for three hours after lying in a campfire for one hour
  • Pouch with iron nails (1d10)
  • Pouch with opium
  • Pouch with salt
  • Herbal potion (heals 1d4 points of damage)
  • Herbal potion (+2 to all saving throws and Constitution checks against exhaustion)
  • Herbal potion (+1 to attack and damage, -2 penalty to AC)
  • Vial with water from a healing spring (heals 1d6+1 points of damage when drunk or negates 1 level lost from energy drain when worn as an amulet and then rendered inert)

Three Degrees of Civilization

Over the last couple of months I have been steering the design of the ¬†Ancient Lands away from true sandbox environments towards something more of an expedition focused nature. Adventures more in the style of David Cook’s The Isle of Dread and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Civilization and culture is increasingly moving into the background in favor of greater attention to environments in which actual adventures are playing out. But the setting is not just aimed at being a stage for dungeon crawls, but for entire expeditions from the planning to the eventual triumphant return laden with gold. This makes the settlements through which the party passes along the way an important and integral element of both the adventures and the setting.

During a discussion about the development of the setting I mentioned that all proper civilization is located along the rivers and coast, which led to the natural question what the deal is with all the communities not located directly on this primary trade network of waterways. While trying to express how I was imagining minor settlements, this idea of Three Degrees of Civilization evolved naturally while I was typing a response. (Which is why I always love writing about my design process. A lot of great ideas arise from that.) It all goes back to the Hill Cantons idea of Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird, with which it overlaps, but is not identical. In the Ancient Lands, the starting towns would be corelands where everything is ordinary; the wilderness is the borderlands, where things are getting strange and threatening; and the ruins and caves of the main adventure sites would be the weird, where the Mythic Underworld is fully realized. In a slight twist, cities are not part of the corelands but of the borderlands. So many people living together in a massive construction of stone is just not natural and alien to the ordinary clanspeople from which PCs come.

But not all villages are equal. While the towns from which expeditions start are clearly part of the corelands and some of the early settlements are welcome islands of safety in the wilderness, the further away from the main waterways of civilization you get, the more foreign even the villages become. As the title indicates, I came up with three categories of settlements that are meant to make the players experience their gradual transition into the weird.

First Degree Communities

Settlements of the first degree are all places that are regularly visited by travelling merchants and who are part of the international network of trade. They import goods from foreign places and in turn export local products to pay for them. Almost all first degree settlements have some kind of port or pier where merchant ships traveling on the major rivers and along the coasts can trade their goods. Even though cities are strange places, they are also communities of the first degree.

The first thing that is of importance to player characters in these settlements is that business is done with coins. These settlements have stores, taverns, and sometimes inns near the port where they can get any supplies and services they need by simply paying for them with money. If they require mounts and pack animals, there are traders who sell them.

The other main feature of these communities is that visitors are common and that most of the locals enjoy some social mobility. This makes them the best places to easily recruit hirelings, guards, and other specialists. The idea of paid labor and going on long journeys is not foreign to these people, even if the majority of them has never traveled furthern than one or two settlements away from their home.

Bronze is a common material in these communities and soldiers are regularly equipped with lamellar cuirases and bronze spears, axes, and swords.

Second Degree Communities

Communities of the second degree are not directly on the trade network that transports goods across the world but they have regular contact with settlements that are. These are almost universally fully argarian communities that are mostly self-sufficient but have some frequency of bartering surplus food and animal skins for manufactured goods with their neighbors.

Second degree communities don’t normally use money for everyday transactions but as they have regular contatact with places that do it has still value for them. While there are no stores to buy supplies, parties can stock up on food and other basic necessities by offering coins to locals that can spare some. Getting new equipment in these places can be quite difficult as there simply aren’t many tools or weapons with which the locals would part.

Ocassionally traders from neighboring settlements might arrive with a few ogets carrying some goods for barter, these communities don’t see any regular visitors and as such there are no inns and taverns. The center of the community is usually the hall of the chief and the only accomodations are those offered by local families who invite the PCs as guests. If they are travelling with a considerable party of hirelings and guards, this hospitality probably won’t extend to them. Usually getting such an invitation is not difficult, as hosting travellers is widely considered a previlege among wealthy families who are proud to have such honored guests.

Since labor is limited and everybody needed, recruiting new hirelings in these communties is difficult. Player’s might be able to find one or two people eager to leave before they are being cast out, but other than that a local guide to show the path to a nearby ruin is usually the most that they can get unless they have become close friends with the village leaders.

Bronze is a rare and valuable material in these communities and lamellar armor or swords are uncommon, while leather scale armor and bronze spears dominate.

Third Degree Communities

These villages are almost always very small and isolated and located far from any major trade routes. Their only contact with civilization is through neighboring comunities of the second degree and even that could be very limited.

Unsurprisingly, these settlements have no use for coins but might accept gold and silver jewelry when bartering for food. Outsiders are often invited into such villages only if the locals are desperate for help with outside threats and then it is only the chief who has the right to make such invitations.

Hirelings can not be recruited in such communities but if one of the PCs somehow ends up having a strong relationship to specific NPCs these could still join the party as henchmen.

Most such communities have very little bronze and as such large numbers of spears and arrows are using stone blades. Only high ranking warriors have bronze weapons and armor is generally limited only to shields and small numbers of bronze helmets taken as trophies.