We've been so busy working that when we added up how long it had been since we last played D&D it had been 3 months!
Not that the crew hasn't been begging for more abuse at the hands of Greg Svenson's Tonisborg dungeon, but scheduling has been tough since everyone has real life commitments.
Sadly when we sent out notice for the last game, it was short notice, and we only had a DM and 3 players. Crisis briefly set in because many years of experience has proven that the ideal number of people is 4-5 players and a DM, with each player running 2 characters.
A traditional Secrets of Blackmoor Iced Tea glass can be seen in this photo
Then we realized that we do know of some experienced gamers we could call on to help fill out the party -- The Bards of Grayhawk!
Disclaimer: The internet is full of words. Words are hard. There is also a video to commemorate this fateful meeting.
A quick FB message and it was all set up, The Bards of Greyhawk would join up with Secrets of Blackmoor for an epic and possibly weird gaming session.
Ritch asked for an address, but I refused to give it to him until the day of the game. I told him to think of this gaming session as something like the old days of Raves, where you didn't really know where the party was until the last minute.
When Saturday night rolled around we had the pleasure of meeting Jeremy and Ritch in person for the first time over a very laid back session of OD&D.
A few minutes of dice rolling and some equipment purchases later and the Bards were ready to Rock -- You gotta love OD&D when it comes to fast set up and play.
The Bards are in da house!
Randall had the two dwarf characters again. It has become a tradition that when a dwarf gets killed it gets re-used as yet another of a very large family of dwarf brothers, cousins, and extended family. Thus the family name of Har* gets carried onto other characters, that never have to be re-rolled, and which have similar names:
Harvii - (with two i's is pronounced Harv-eye) who died in game 1 of Tonisborg
Harvi - who died in game 2 of Tonisborg
Scarvi - who can't seem to get himself killed no matter what
Marvi - who is taking up slot 2 and can be expected to live a very short life
*A brief historical note: Randall is following Lord of the Rings dwarf naming protocol so this is all fully within regs.
And of course we had the rest of the regular party of characters, Rosa's, Chalice, and Elie, and Chris with Ned* and Earl*.
*Note: Ned and Earl are names that come from a long and ancient line of sub urban mobile castle peoples.
We're still playing the old game
By this point all the bad puns and jokes were already flying; most of which cannot be put into print. Yet when it comes to Epic Gaming there have to be bad jokes, or it won't meet our standards of Huzzah!
The game was again to be a journey into Tonisborg dungeon which dates back to 1973. It likely has not been run since about 1982, when it was "misplaced".
As the party approached the ruin, the DM dropped his first hint via an NPC: Are you going to take the little stairwell, or the big stairs? I was doing that thing you do as a DM, where you can't tell them to do something but you can suggest it.
A while back we did a blog post about Tonisborg and talked a bit about the dead-li-fication (real word -- google it) of this dungeon. The first level has some 4th level encounters on it that will destroy a weak party quickly and it's actually a bit safer to go straight to the 2nd level. In fact, Tonisborg is what inspired us to come up with the Killer D.M. concept in the first place.
The players ignored the DM's subtle hint about perhaps going to the second level of the dungeon where things might be easier and headed back to the place of carnage known as level 1.
I always wonder when people draw while I am Dm'ing, is it really that boring Ritch?
I won't go into a blow by blow retelling of the adventure since the one thing I hate most, is when someone bores me with extended long winded apparently unique special and funny tales of their own D&D games. I will try to be brief and show what is relevant about old dungeons like this one.
After a very short time in the dungeon, Tonisborg once again proved its reputation is well earned -- Tonisborg is a Killer. Almost every encounter was something that the players deemed too big to handle and they ran away from it.
Rosa even proclaimed: If this is 1st level, I want to go to kinder level!
Ever notice how dice in photos look almost as if they were placed there?
And then things went from worse to a lot worse, as the players finally reached Rooms #1 and #2. A very bad place indeed. Yet the players were doing really well and playing very tactically as they used a thief to explore the passageway solo so he would not alert anything, or anyone, of the party's presence.
I love when players treat Dungeoning as more than a jaunt through the dungeon and approach it as a kind military mission with scouting and planning -- Nice Move Jeremy!
Pencils too, can look almost as if they were staged in the photo
Of course, the party had no way of knowing that death was waiting for them in both rooms and seeing as it was their choice, there was nothing to do but play on and watch things unfold.
The thief listened at the door to the room with wraiths in it and heard nothing. Then he listened at the door with the Theurgists and he heard some voices chanting. Well, so far so good.
The thief rejoined the party and a quick debate took place about what to do. It was decided that the non-noise door was the safest option. As DM, I was thinking, "Oh goody I get to kill now." So the 2nd level fighter and the 1st level thief went back to the door, thinking they could open it quietly and explore the room.
One failed door open roll later and the fighter and thief found themselves facing 2 wraiths.
After that, all hell broke loose. The wraiths killed the thief in one blow. The theurgists came out of their door to help the wraiths. The Fighter started running and said something along the lines of "AAAaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!"
Somehow everyone else got the cue that running was a pretty good idea.
Tonisborg: 1 Party: 0
We go fully medieval -- No Printing Presses means no Graph Paper!
Having decided that enough is enough the players chose to leave the dungeon for good. This led to a quick die roll to determine a random encounter which once again came up with giant weasels. A previous game we ran had weasels as a wandering monster encounter as well, and the party was already familiar with them. For instance, Scarvi the Dwarf still wants to find out how to capture and tame one, so he can "ride the weasel" -- Dwarves are weird.
Since the encounter range was only 10 feet a battle broke out immediately. One of Ritch's charatcers went below zero hit points in the first round. Since we play a very home brewed game we have our own simple system for dealing with this.
If you go negative hit points the party can still save you with healing and by binding the wounds (Only clerics for 1d4 per character) after the fight is over. So the -5 got healed by the cleric to a +3 and that player survived.
This all brings me to the whole point of today's blog post. It's always really wonderful to meet new gamers. And The Bards of Greyhawk are our kind of gamers. They are funny and they like to have a good time. They fit right into our group and the game went smoothly.
A good example of this happened during the weasel battle when there were just two weasels left and I asked Ritch, "Which weasel are you attacking".
And Ritch said, "Well, I'm a hobbit, and everyone knows that most hobbits will choose the lesser of two weasels."
If you have not heard of the Bards of Greyhawk, you should check them out.
Our personal favorite is this german electronica inspired tune they made for CafCon:
They also have a website with more info here: http://www.bardsofgreyhawk.com/
As I write this little missive from my humble jail cell in the Dark-Site run by the Dungeon Design Code Infractions Secret Police, or DDCISP, I am forced to ruminate on my crimes.
I was delivered to this vile "dungeon" of despair because I did not use graph paper. I did not follow the lines. I was a sloppy and lazy Dungeon Master. I acted without any concern for my players and actually faked half of the adventure -- I am the worst kind of Dungeon Master because I am a cheater.
And most of all, I disrespected the memory our great founding fathers, St. Gygax, and St. Arneson.
I am a traitorous comrade and deserve my fate. My living conditions are abysmal and I am being tortured daily as I am forced to listen to bad slavic rap music round the clock...
…and must eat healthy food: oatmeal. The low sugar diet will kill me -- Please Send MTN. DEW!
Ok, everyone relax!
There is no secret police force that keeps tabs on how people design their dungeons, so if you think someone is peering in your windows to see what your maps look like, either take your meds, or call the real police.
Now, lets look at Quick and Dirty Dungeon Design some more.
This is yet another truly shaming example of how I do dungeons. (See Exhibit A)
Exhibit: A (also known as The Walls of Shame)
If you examine Exhibit A, you once again see a a lot of personal shame -- my own. No one was ever supposed to see this, ever!
Lameness abounds, except for the fact that we had a blast playing it. This little piece of garbage dungeon lasted 4, or 5, sessions and I kept adding to it between sessions to keep it fresh and new. If monsters got killed, monsters got replaced. None of that clearing things out stuff; every mission required whole new monsters to be dealt with before getting to unexplored areas.
I think it took me maybe 2 hours to whip up and I didn't even bother to make a separate page to note the monsters on. What I did instead was to CHEAT. I made little notes and drew little designs next to places on the map. These are all just memory triggers for me to use as I am running the dungeon.
This is once again a bit heretical because at some point, someone decided that dungeons were supposed to be really painstakingly complicated and throughly annotated straight jackets. This probably came about because of all the published modules.
We've all seen these pre-made dungeon modules where everything is described in minute detail:
…as the players enter the room, the first thing they will notice is that there is a trail of glistening and damp saliva leading from a wooden chest in the corner to a dead orc sitting with his back against the wall on the opposite side of the room…
Ok, Some people love modules. I won't fault them for it. I use them as inspiration and STEAL IDEAS from them; yet I actually find modules incredibly difficult to run -- Too much to remember for my little pea brain.
I find that making my own dungeons is much easier, and the process for making them can be done in simple stages.
You can either make your map first, or create encounters first, I tend to mix it up and make half the map and then populate it to see how the rest of the map should be drawn. I'm jumping ahead of myself though; I need an overarching concept before I do anything.
First I come up with A THEME. In this case I have a double theme, one of which is that half the dungeon is silly because it is dedicated to Fred Funk. There is some scrawly graffiti in a triangular room that says: "Funk, King of all the orcs was here!" Along with a scary pumpkin face. The other is that a clan of kobolds is living here and the nearby village peasants are angry because of the raiding parties to steal their cows and occasionally people. There's more, but it does not matter. Ok, three overlapping themes, but whatever.
So what if the kobolds discovered a room where a demon is trapped inside a statue and that this is a really bad place for the players to find.
Themes can be anything that inspires you, be it a location like the River Cave complex from the last post, or who lives there, or maybe just a mood - I want this to feel scary like a haunted house. I want to emphasize that mood is important,
I even make notes in some rooms about the kind of mood I want to evoke during play. Is there fogg, is it silent? Telling your players that everything is suddenly silent is a powerful moment in any dungeon dive.
Once I have a map and a theme, I make a list of EVENTS like so:
-Area of map is controlled by kobolds
-There is a tunnel that over time will become infested with what look like insideout rat
-The wizard's chamber is empty, right now, but on the desk is a magic dagger. If it is touched, it animates and can fly around stabbing people. It is AC2 and if hit by a player it will deactivate and fall to the ground until touched again
-The players hear footsteps running away from them into the darkness - Boo!
-A supernatural gust of wind and rain suddenly occurs and then immediately stops And then a voice is heard laughing maniacally
These examples are actually much more detailed than my actual lists of ideas. Some of my ideas may be wandering monsters that talk to the players, I just didn't list those. Yet they are all just little memory triggers for me, so that when I run the dungeon I remember what is there and what should happen. I also embellish all my notes in real time as I actually play the encounters out. I am always faking my way through the game, Yes, I cheat!
Once I have my list, I simply plonk everything into the rooms.
The players will already know something unsavory lives here, because there are filthy symbols scrawled on the dungeon walls. Look closely and you see some symbols marked on the map - yep kobold graffiti. (Sorry if you are a bit too prudish to see these symbols. I make really scary dungeons.)
If you look at the kobold warrens, you see 6k, 7k, 8k, next to some of the rooms. My kobolds are nasty little buggers, if they are losing they will run away and warn the other kobolds, so you can see where one kobold survived and ran up to join the kobolds in the next room as a curved line and a +1. Now the next room as 8 kobolds, and then it happens again, they retreat and now the players are up against 14 kobolds and the tables have turned as the players beat a hasty retreat!
The rat tunnels are like sewers and as we played I really went to town describing how the players are trudging through ankle deep water and then they see all these little eyes reflected back at them by their torch light. This is standard run of the mill stuff, but it can scare players, and as they found out: It can still kill you!
For the record, our crew beat a hasty retreat and everyone survived.
And of course the uninhabited Wizard's lab. I cheated on that too. When I made the map I put it on the extreme upper right hand side as a secret chamber. The players never found it, so I moved it to a room marked spider in the upper middle of the map ,they found that one. I like to RECYCLE planned encounters, if they are not discovered, and why waste a good chance for fun?
Most of the time I cheat when I run a dungeon. I make half of it up on the spot and I move interesting things around as I play to keep things interesting. Sometimes my notes are not enough and I make things up in game time, or alter them based on player behavior. I said - sometimes. :)
And I can hear all of you out there saying things like: But that's not FAIR!
Well cupcakes, life isn't fair -- and I cheat my players when we play. The thing is, am I really cheating them?
Cheating players, is when they die because something they have no chance to resist kills them. Yet a core reason for playing is to have a stimulating experience and interact with all kinds of situations. I am just being lazy because I only prepare a few special encounters before each session and pad it all out with monster combat encounters and strange events. again, I try to maximize player enjoyment with, you got it, CHEATS to keep the game interesting. If the players do not go to that side of the map, well then, maybe something interesting ends up over here.
I also don't bother to use random charts to make combat encounters. I've been playing for decades and I just decide what I want where, and make a note on the map.
Some people have commented to me, Yes - Dan Boggs - I am talking about you, that it is not fair to populate your dungeon intentionally. Dan, It's just that I have monsters that I hate to use, so I find it easier to put monsters into rooms that I feel an affinity for, and I tend to make up one shot home made monsters a lot. It's a map and even if my placement is not random, what passages the players choose is, so it's still random.
Of course a first level dungeon like this requires a bit of restraint.
In the previous blog post I talked about referee mystique -- Players do not know what you are doing and this allows you to keep them nervous and afraid of your dungeon, as well as just keep them out of your business; so you can go about making things more intense in your game session -- by Cheating!
I like to run fast games and my Cheater System actually helps me run a quicker game. Which also brings me back to
MY PROBLEM with pre-made modules. There is so much detail in a pre-made one, that I can often forget those details and the players may never get all the details. This also happens in my cheater games, I forget things, and yet the players do not know this and have fun.
I used to really feel anxious when I missed some key element during a game, I was really hard on myself at times. I've finally realized that if the players don't know about it, they can't care -- JUST HAVE FUN and keep playing!
I also think the THROW AWAY DUNGEONS sometimes end up being some of my best work. Since I don't care too much about it, I feel much more freedom in making it.
Well, now you've seen another of my truly embarrassing maps. And hopefully , you will consider trying some of my sloppy and lazy technique in order to speed up your own dungeon making for your campaign.
There is no reason that game preparation should take too long, as long as your game judging ability still provides for an entertaining evening of gaming.
If you try a test run of a home made Quick and Dirty Dungeon, you may find your players are having just as much fun as when they run through an expensive pre-made one. In fact, you may find you are a better dungeon master than you realized too.
And another thing to consider -- Some encounters will never happen:
The players met an NPC named Boaty. Boaty is actually a pair of twin magical boats who say the same thing at the same time in chorus. They are very freindly and helpful. They will take you anywhere you want in the watery areas of the map.
They asked the players if they wanted to go to Happy Island - NO. Then they asked the players if they wanted to go to Dragon Island - NOPE. And finally they asked the players if they wanted to go to Laser Penguin Island - A DEFINITIVE NEVER EVER!
Consider that any truly big and dangerous monster, or place, in your dungeon is well known. The characters will hear about it from the NPC's. And perhaps, if they are smart, they will just not go there. These mythic places that players never want to visit will become epic in your games. It's been nearly a year and the players still mention Laser Penguin Island despite never having been there.
Ok, now it's time to apply this technique and see what happens. Get some paper and a pen(cil) and get to building and populating your own module. Set your Theme, make a List of Events and Creatures, Then note everything on your wonderful new map -- Instant Dungeon Module!
The methods for Quick and Dirty Dungeons are really just a tool. It may not work for everyone.
Try it, if you do not like what you've made, consider that this style of design allows for redo's. These sloppy maps can be rough drafts and practice. You can throw the map away, or better yet, look at what you have, take what you like, and make a newer and better map.
Don't forget to check out our SHOP as well as the Gary Con Movie Draft Sample here:
Image from: https://www.foodiebaker.com/skocjan-caves-slovenia/
Everyone is an expert on map making, just google dungeon map tutorial, or something similar, and you'll get a gagillion hits that lead to sites where people tell you that they have the answer to how it is supposed to be done.
It's sort of funny to think that some people will try to tell you that there is a right way, and a wrong way.
Not long ago, we got to visit a cave complex in Slovenia. It was fascinating to see just how big the caves are. And also how high the ceilings were, or how deep a canyon can be underground:
This site has an interactive that is pretty awesome too:
Being in a real cave complex makes the little wheels in your head start to turn, and the idea of a river cave dungeon complex was born.
Because the original rules suggested using graph paper, that is exactly what we do, and most of us end up following the lines and treat the graph paper like the lines in a coloring book. It's sort of amazing that all of our underground places align to the cardinal points like the streets in Mayberry U.S.A. And of course, because so many of us have seen pre-published dungeon modules, we try to make our own hand drawn maps look as tidy and professional as what you see in the commercial products.
So, what if we just stop caring about it so much?
Map courtesy of: Worlds Lamest Map Makers and Bic Ball Point Pens :P
This is a map that was drawn yesterday while lying on the couch. It isn't even finished. It's really sloppy. It's embarrassing to share this publicly because the only award it will get is as World's Worst Map Ever.
There are places that upon further inspection, we'd like to alter a bit. Well, it's drawn in pen, so the next step will look even worse!
Having played for a long long time, we're less and less obsessed with dungeon map perfection. In fact, we have stopped using graph paper and just draw what comes to mind on whatever piece of paper seems to be handy. This means that the actual distances and dimensions during a game are estimated on the spot. The little tunnels are about 10' wide. The pathways around the canyon walls are likely more like 20' wide, which should make the players begin to worry about just exactly who lives here?
Most of the maps in our current game are really chaotic because of this, but it doesn't seem to change anything and the players have no clue just how sloppy they are!
You may be wondering why we do this, there are several reasons:
-The Dungeon Master Mystique. No one will ever see our maps because players aren't ever supposed to know what the Dungeon Master knows.
-Anachronisms. Even though players want to have exact duplicates of your map that they create: there are no such things as graph paper and mechanical pencils in our fantasy world!
Never mind surveying poles and equipment.
-Old School Play. We play a fully immersive game, where all of the action takes place as a verbal exchange. We prefer to only use minis in order to determine marching orders. Once a battle starts, the action is all in your head like so:
Ref - There are two orcs standing in the room.
Player - Ok, I run over and attack the one on the left with my sword - RAHR!
Frenzied die rolling follows. ;)
If you play the verbal style of RPG things can also move really fast and you can clear half a dungeon level in one night.
-Confusion. It's fun to trick the players about what direction they are traveling in and we make maps with lots of squiggly passages that angle in all directions. This makes it so they end up with their own sloppy, but realistic maps -- and sometimes they get lost.
-Game Time. Sure, the players can do a very accurate map, but this will take time, and guess what -- the DM gets to make more wandering monster die rolls.
-Scale. If you use graph paper and use a scale 1 square = 10', your dungeon is actually a really tiny thing, how the heck is a dragon supposed to get in there?
-Real World Time. Mapping and populating an entire dungeon could literally take weeks. Our players can clean out a dungeon in just a couple game sessions. When they are done with a dungeon, they just move on and forget about it. All that effort and OCD detail gets put in a drawer, possibly forever.
-D.I.Y. That's right -- DO IT YOURSELF. The essence of the original set of rules for D&D was that they were a template for how to run a game; a lot of it was not defined. Every DM played differently and made things differently. This means that each and every D&D dungeon was a unique experience to be delved into.
The most important part of all of this, is that making maps is actually fun to do. It's like a hobby within a hobby. All you need is a pencil, or pen, and a piece of paper, and you can descend into a magical world that is all your own.
Remember the words of the greatest Dungeon Designer of all time...
A few hours of day dreaming on paper and you end up with an instant home made Dungeon Module!
Our attitude is that maps don't really matter. They can be as poorly made as possible, and the experience of playing an RPG is still the same -- it's how you use the map that matters.
So relax and have fun. better yet, get a piece of blank paper and a pen(cil) and get drawing!
Oh and --Thank you Dave Arneson, for inventing RPG dungeons!
Don't Forget to Check Out the Pre-Order Store: https://secrets-of-blackmoor.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders
Sometimes we get interesting emails from the O.G.'s, as we like to call them; the people in either Minnesota, or Wisconsin, who took part in creating these games, either by actually designing them, or by play testing them.
Recently, Bob Meyer wrote us a quick note about a game he got to play in:
"[…]Just wanted to let you know that I made it to a game that Jeff ran at The Source in June…
(He's talking about Jeff Berry a.k.a. Chirine Ba Kal an original member of Phil Barker's gaming group)
[…] This is actually the first time that I have seen Jeff run a game.
It was interesting to see Jeff running the game the same way I have been running Blackmoor.
Of course Jeff was running an EPT adventure. (Empire of the Petal Throne by M.A.R. Barker: TSR game company,1975)
It should not be a surprise to me that our styles as a gamemaster are the same, considering that we both go back to the origins of the games."
Here we have one of the original Blackmoor players making an observation about an original Tekumel, or Empire of the Petal Throne player. Bob didn't go into any more detail on how Chirine was running his game in the same way. We'll have to email back some questions.
Perhaps what is most interesting is that the two -Keepers of the Flame- for both games, were in the same room. Bob is the current Blackmoor referee, and Chirine is doing the same for Tekumel by being the oldest active referee from Barker's group. One was running a game and the other was noting how they played the game in the same way despite any difference in the rules.
And just to add some more commentary, when we sat in on the most recent Blackmoor game, David Megarry's praise for Bob's ref'ing was bountiful. He said things like, we played it exactly as we did when we first began.
It's a tribute to Dave Arneson that his Adventure Game play method continues to be passed down to new gamers when these original players run a dungeon game.
The other day we posted an image of Fred Funk's D&D books.
We also talked a lot about how you can help The Movie Project RIGHT NOW by Sharing Links and talking to friends about it Online.
The response was huge with over 100 likes and what's more critical, over 40 SHARES!
Now lets talk a little bit about the Illustrious and Iconic Fred Funk.
In Blackmoor, he was known as Funk the 1st, King of all the Orcs!
(see the image taken from the First Fantasy Campaign: Dave Arneson, Judges Guild, 1977)
Very little is known about what he did then because he was an evil character who would spend most of his time phoning Dave in order to explore the dungeon all day long. He was also giving instructions to Dave about how he was setting up the defenses for his part of the dungeon as he established his own realm deep underground on the 10th level.
He had lots of time to do so as he was a security guard with a phone on his desk!
We're told that he was calling up Dave so often, and was so obsessed with playing Blackmoor, that Dave's parent's friends couldn't get a call through to the house; the line was always busy! This led the Arnesons to put their foot down and demand that the telephone Blackmoor sessions had to end.
Fred also created his own game world with it's own rules variants. Known as Fred's World, his most loyal friends and fans assembled his notes and published the game online after he passed away.
You can Download it here:
Perhaps what is most notable about original RPG'ers like Fred Funk, is their creativity in how they played. Since no one had ever created a fantasy campaign before this, each player was free to explore their own personal style and did whatever they felt like doing. There were no rule books and Arneson actually encouraged players to think creatively with very few limits.
You can see this free-style play when you look at what Fred did in Blackmoor, since he made his own dungeon within Arneson's dungeon; and also in how he developed his own campaign. Everything he did both as a player and DM, has a uniqueness to it that is all Fred.
Fred left a big impression on Blackmoor due to this completely open format campaign style, that was being played in the twin cities. Even today, anyone entering the dungeon below Blackmoor Castle is advised to avoid setting foot on Fred's endless staircase, known as The Orcian way.
It's been fun teasing everyone with photos of an old D&D set on our FaceBook page. We'll make sure to reveal the original owner's name soon.
These little boxes take us back to the very beginnings of TSR when two men got together to form something called G&K enterprises.
When Dungeons & Dragons was eventually published, Gary Gygax and Don Kaye were the proprietors of their tiny game company that hardly anyone had ever heard of. Of course, as we now know, things quickly began to change and the crazy idea would become a global sensation. Tragically, Don never got to see the full result of his contribution to D&D.
Few people know who Don Kaye was. Yet he was the main source of funding for this crazy new game. In fact, all the early copies of D&D were being assembled and shipped out of Don's garage. Not long after the release of D&D Don Kaye died of a heart attack.
Rob Kuntz told us how he heard of Don's passing over the phone from Ernie Gygax. That he just could not believe it at first.
Don had been there from the very beginning as a partner with Gary in this crazy new endeavor. Yet the loss of Don Kaye likely reached much farther into Gygax's life, as he and Don were best friends since childhood and attended high school together.
The legacy of D&D is a shared experience by many people and all of them did their part in helping to make it happen. Don's legacy is that these little unassuming boxes began to appear in gaming rooms everywhere.
Very few photos exist of Don Kaye, we have none in our archive, yet his impact on gamer's lives everywhere is immeasurable.
Thank you Don.
(Photo by Ryan Swan - Copyright the Fellowship of the Thing, LTD.)
Since the very first day David Megarry revealed the lost dungeon of Tonisborg it has become a treasure trove of information.
(Images: Ross Maker, David Megarry, David Wesely, examining Tonisborg dungeon.)
Tonisborg dungeon has led us to think a lot about how difficult OD&D was designed to be. In addition to the rules themselves, the early referee's were much more willing to let players do stupid things which would lead to their untimely deaths.
We've been a having fun calling Dave Arneson and Greg Svenson --KILLER DM's. Of course, we should clarify that what we mean by this is that they aren't necessarily out to kill players; the attitude between 1971 and 1974, is that players should have to work to succeed. And that not every encounter is meant to be won.
If you ignore all the role played situations in a dungeon game, and only focus on the mechanics, certain parameters become common to all dungeons:
1. how you design your dungeon tunnels and rooms.
2. what kinds of creatures and traps you put in these rooms and tunnels.
Think of where it is, and what it is, in your own dungeon, because this will show you how things were different later in this discussion.
If you've managed to keep records, it would interesting to see what kind of mortality rate you have in your own games.
Ok, lets get back to KILLER DM's, a lot of people are over reacting to the term. We'll explain a bit more what we mean by this. From what we can see, Dave Arneson made his game harder on his players in order to make the rewards of surviving his dungeon that much more of a victory.
So lets look at some quantifiable evidence that shows this to be true of the original players. For this we do have solid evidence: Dungeons, and Character Sheets.
First off, we have David Megarry's collection of character attributes. The sheet contains the info on 20 characters. David says that some of these characters may only have lasted one session. The first 12 are likely from the first few years of Blackmoor. We think that the 13th has a notation that she died in Tonisborg. This is likely Megarry's Scholaress charatcer and is from both Arneson and Svenson games and just happened to get killed in Tonisborg, since Blackmoor became a shared world.
Ok, so over the first 2 years or so, Megarry suffers the loss of 13 deaths. Lets just assume Arneson had roughly 15 -20 players in his game during the first few years. Can we assume then, that his players were running about 10 characters during this time? We're looking at an estimate of around 150 - 200 (+/-) characters over 2 years. Certainly, there are those iconic characters who just lived through everything, yet if everyone is averaging 10 characters per year, we're getting a high rate of deaths by comparison with contemporary games. This number is really high at around 80%; if we assume that some live past this 2 year stretch.
In your own games are you getting this number of character deaths, or roughly 6.5 per player per year?
Lots of things will likely factor into this high rate of deaths.
Arneson's players had never played fantasy, or dungeon, RPG's before this, so their expectation of the game would be different from how players think today.
Arneson didn't have the expanded character levels in his game that appear later. It's also likely that players who were used to winning and losing in war games all the time, were not as likely to get attached to characters back then. A miniatures war gamer has a keen understanding that in order to gain ground in a battle, you have to give up blood; the trick is to make the enemy take higher losses than you. Of course in an RPG, if you lose, it's game over.
You can break down how the characters died on the Megarry sheet as well. Sure, most of them get killed by monsters, but there is even one guy who got lost and starved to death!
We need to check back with David as to what period this sheet covers. If it is from 1971 until 1975, then we're seeing a stronger case for a 80% mortality rate annually. How does your own game compare?
People might say that their players wouldn't play if they died a lot, well maybe today's players are like that. Despite all the mayhem that is being meted out to the players, the original group just kept going back for more -- People were having fun dying!
Some of the responses we've seen to our articles is that in order to have a story, you have to have less characters dying. Arneson invented the RPG extended story concept. He had a lot of story in his world. The Egg of Coot was a constant threat. He was also creating a variety of adventures for the players to go on, it wasn't just going to the dungeon to see what you'd find. Arneson's first dungeon adventures are about being hired to go on a mission into the dungeon to find something. All of that is story, yet Arneson was willing to lose some characters along the way. There is tons of evidence that he was willing to TPK a party if they really screwed up too.
As a Referee, are you willing to make your game a Monty Haul, just because you want to see your story play out, or do you need to be more clever, so that if characters die the story keeps moving forward? i.e. The party gets TPK'ed and the ancient scroll with the riddle and map on it is lost. Or is it? Perhaps the second party to go on an adventure will find this very same scroll and be able to fulfill the quest! Or, now it is in the hands of the Evil Wizard in the dungeon, and is willing to trade it for something of great value.
A true "Sandbox" game is full of stories and even a scroll can have its own story arc for how it got from one place to another.
What about Tonisborg? What has made this dungeon so compelling for us?
Dan Boggs has written quite a but about it. The main thing he discovered after doing a bit of number crunching, is that it is populated according to the instructions given in OD&D , or "The Little Brown Books".
The other thing we all noted is that Tonisborg is drawn much like Blackmoor is drawn. It's made up of a lot of interconnected passages and the rooms come off of these tunnels. This allows players to roam around without having to enter into rooms at all. This extent of the passages vs rooms is very much a Twin Cities style of map. We're not saying this is better or worse, it's just different, yet you may want to consider this when designing your own maps because it looks like a real catacomb, and also serves a purpose.
There are some parts of the dungeon with unique properties, such as the "Special Evil Areas", we'll leave off on discussing that for now but they are intriguing, since the note on the map says that a player has a 1 in 6 chance of being taken away.
Lastly, Greg's maps actually show you which way a door swings!
How deadly is it?
It is perhaps the first dungeon using a D&D draft, or the published rules. So while it is in Blackmoor, it is also not using the same rules that cuased David Megarry to die so often during the first two years. Yet Greg is still a KILLLER DM!
Both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax collaborated on the original game design. And they were likely in agreement on many aspects of D&D that relate to play balance.
OD&D had some elements in the design that were put there to help players. For instance, no 1st level monster has an armor class of 2. This means a first level party with a couple of Main Battle Tank warriors in plate mail, are generally 50% more likely to hit the most armored monsters, compared to what the monster's odds are when hitting back. So there is a bit of a skew toward the party at this point.
A sword, is a sword, is a sword, by any other name.
If you look at how damage is handled in OD&D, there is still that chance that a 1st level monster will get a hit and either really hurt a player, or even kill her. Consider also, that monsters are not real players, if they get wiped out there's plenty more where they came from. A long session that explores perhaps half a dungeon level is a series of potentially brutal encounters for your players. Even with the benefit of hitting all of them more than they hit you, you're still looking at a bad ratio of hits and damage received over an adventure.
Based on these combat averages we can tell that Tonisborg kills characters!
If you look at what the maps show, you find that the quantity of deadliness just gets more lethal the deeper you go.
As Dan Boggs has pointed out, Tonisborg is populated via a random monster distribution that comes right from the rules. Greg told us he created the dungeon randomly, we need to ask him if he meant the monsters, or the map -- or BOTH!
Lets look at what type of monsters one can find. We're providing the charts straight from OD&D. The first chart is used in order to determine what difficulty level the monsters are. If you look at levels 1-4, you 'll see that it's possible to end up encountering some truly nasty stuff while adventuring. What makes it even worse, is that these charts are also the wandering monster charts!
On every level of Tonisborg there are creatures of up to three levels of greater Dead-lification (this is a real word BTW) that can likely destroy , or severely diminish, a party of any size. On level 1 you get a 1 in 3 chance of encountering something from the either 3rd level with a 5, or 4th level if you roll a 6. All of these monsters are already looking really nasty.
What seems most terrifying are the undead on these levels. Both Wights and Wraiths are level drainers, meaning that if they hit you there is also a chance you will lose 1 life energy level; as a bonus to Player Happi-fication (yet another real word) 1st level characters only have 1 life energy level! If you fail your saving throw -- game over. These monsters are deadly!
And of course, Wraiths and Wights can only be hit by magical weapons -- ever get the feeling the DM is cheating?
Look at the first level map section, there are two adjacent rooms, the one with the (2) Wraiths, and across the hall, one with some Evil Priests. You can be sure these monsters are working together thus making this area a really bad hair day for any hapless 1st level parties to discover. Sure you can knock on door 1, or door 2. Yet, it's likely both doors will open at the same time. But hey, if you do manage to kill them, they probably have their treasure stashed in the secret hallway right behind their room.
By level 7, there are more examples of happi-fication and joy. Look at the key section and map sections we've provided. There is that open hallway area that contains the most fearsome monsters of all dungeon creatures. People can argue which one is worse, but at this point since they are located within 30 feet of each other, the Purple Worm in area #14 and the White Dragon in area #15 are about to cause a lot of trouble for the average party of adventurers.
Which one do you disturb first, and will the second come to investigate? What about those Evil Priests in room #13? Anyone who wants to get attacked from behind by a White Dragon while fighting a Purple Worm and some Evil High Priests, please raise your hand now.
Ok, so the map is different and the monsters can be meaner, this has to change how you play the game. How the heck do these guys play this game if it's just killing them outright?
Does this mean every encounter kills the entire party -- no. What it does reveal, is that the Original Gamers are sneaking around and trying to be quiet. They are using the architecture of the dungeon as an aid to their mission, because they can wander the tunnels and avoid really dangerous rooms while entering others.
Bob Meyer told us that The Great Svenni got to high levels because he knew when to fight and when to run.
Sure, you need to kill monsters to gain experience, but the real skill lays in knowing what ones you can handle and what ones to avoid.
It's worth considering that doubling your party size is going to keep from losing everyone. Hirelings were an essential component in many Blackmoor adventures; so that a party could be just a bit more beefy. Maybe your group of 4 players can hire 4 warriors to man the front line in battles. Of course, if a player gets killed, another Blackmoor tradition is for that player to take over as one of the NPC hirelings.
And those seemingly useless items like spikes and oil flasks. Those were good for keeping monsters from chasing you, because you could spike a door shut, or set the floor afire for a few rounds. The same goes for the spells that many players avoid choosing. Sure, we all want to be able to cast Fire Balls, but Hold Monster, or Hold Portal sure come in handy when you find something really nasty and need to run away. Even a Web spell is good for slowing down the front ranks of the band of 50 orcs that are chasing you out of the dungeon.
We also have heard several accounts of personal sacrifice by players. A party would stumble on a really bad situation and the fighters would hold off the enemy long enough, so that the rest of the party could flee. In some cases these brave warriors gave up their lives for their comrades -- This is truly heroic adventuring!
If you use your noggin, you'll know that the architecture of the dungeon can help you as well. There are more stairwells in Greg's dungeon than any other dungeon we've seen; with the exception of the published version of Blackmoor dungeon. If you can retreat to an upper level via one of these tiny stair wells, then you suddenly have the advantage as the monsters can only come at you single file!
Perhaps the best defense in Greg's dungeon is to remember to bring along a box of marbles that you can roll down a stair well, thus toppling even a mighty Balrog that is chasing you! (we're thinking Dave Arneson is getting a good giggle from the mental image of a Balrog falling on his butt, because it fits right in with his gonzo sense of humor.)
How lethal is your game? Are you willing to become a KILLER DM yourself?
If you still do not believe that this style of play is fun, you can try it out for yourself and see what happens. While you don't want to kill off all the established characters in your campaign, you could run a game with a test dungeon. What if you draw up a map that is full of long tunnels and many staircases between the levels just like Tonisborg has. You can even give your players 2nd level characters to start with, along with a couple of NPC hirelings so that the party can takes losses and continue on their quest. Of course while most monsters will be an even match for the players, you can also sprinkle a couple really tough ones into the mix. Add in some deadly trap doors and other obstacles throughout the dungeon too, since even a barren passage can lead to death.
What's more, don't tell your players that the odds have changed. Let them discover that characters die easily in this new dungeon. It may be interesting to see how they react to suddenly being confronted with a dungeon where the stakes are higher and the feeling of impending doom is a palpable fear.
You may have to drop hints like "You can always run away!"
Next week we won't be posting anything since we will be on the road. We've been invited to take part in the annual Blackmoor game in the Twin Cities -- we're "dying" to join in on the fun.
If you aren't already already aware of it, despite all of our posts about it, this tuesday, May 22nd, is a special day. Even if you aren't gaming, take a moment to contemplate that fantasy gaming took a very big step on this day back in 1971 in Dave Arneson's parent's basement.
A week from today something special is going to happen.
Although Blackmoor comes into existence before may 22nd 1971, most players refer to the in town adventure on this date as the beginning of what has come to be known as Blackmoor. Arneson himself always used that date as the demarcation of when Blackmoor started
Of course before this, there was the druid with the hand phaser, and the card game under a troll bridge. It is even possible that Duane Jenkins became a vampire before this session.
Dave Arneson passed away in 2009, yet his friends keep his memory alive by running an annual Blackmoor game for those who were in the original campaign. We wanted to help the guys celebrate the longest running fantasy campaign ever, by making a little video.
We've been on a tear over our KILLER DM discussion, ironically both James and Greg claim that people didn't die much in Blackmoor. Perhaps they have this perspective because both of them had characters that rose to the highest levels, certainly others did not fair so well.
This year marks the 47th year since the First Fantasy Campaign began. You too can join in and run a game in honor of Dave's memory.
Blackmoor is alive!
Dave Arneson lives in our hearts.
In our last discussion we talked about the change in how people view Character Death as you trace a parallel path between the evolution of D&D and computer games.
Today we're going to look at old gamer culture and see if they had a different way of thinking about things back then.
Ok, so let's just start off by telling you this -- It's your job as a referee to kill a lot of characters!
We'll go with Gary Gygax's assertion that a 50% mortality rate on every adventure is too high. Yet there must be attrition or the stakes are too low. How about if we get an average of 25%? That seems reasonable. So what was the attitude toward killing off characters back then?
We're pretty sure the first DM's made their games really hard on players. It wasn't enough just to be average, or good enough. Players had to be really creative in order to "WIN"; and by winning, we mean that they were able to overcome a monster thus getting its treasure.
The first Dungeon's are Blackmoor (1971), Greyhawk (1973), and as far as we can tell, Tonisborg is right in there as well (1973/1974). Blackmoor and Greyhawk predate the publication of any rules, so as play-test games they are going to be a bit different. Tonisborg arose, or rather -- got dug, when D&D drafts were given to the players in the Twin Cities in the summer of 1973. It then goes on to be altered again when the rules are published. Greg Svenson told us he threw away his play-test draft once he got the published rules.
It's important to get a feel for how people think during this early stage in RPG's. As DM's today, we know all about how a dungeon should be made. We live within a culture of modern gaming where game play and dungeon design are common shared knowledge. It wasn't like this back then at all. Consider that what is contained in the rules for OD&D is sketchy at best, and that until Dave Arneson publishes the first Adventure Module: The Temple of the Frog via the Blackmoor OD&D Supplement II -- there are no good examples of dungeons for people to copy. Everyone is on their own as they try to figure out the best way to make their dungeon.
You may also want to consider that gaming culture changes dramatically from the early days. We've interviewed a lot of early RPG'ers who started before 1974 and they describe things a lot differently; the DM's had no qualms about exterminating characters.
In our interview with David Wesely about his first trip to Blackmoor, he relates the game in great detail. We are even able to corroborate this story with Ross Maker's account of the same adventure. They go into the dungeon with a troop of dwarf hirelings in search of a princess who had been kidnapped by a Balrog. At some point one of the dwarves at the back of the party gets separated and disappears. The rest of the party eventually finds the Balrog, or he finds them; it's always a matter of perspective. It's at this point that things get dicey and the Balrog proceeds to decimate the party, beginning with the dwarves. The Balrog then turns his attention to the Players. Just as Wesely and Maker are about to receive the killing blow from the Balrog, the lost dwarf reappears, comes up behind the Balrog, and clobbers him with one mighty blow. Our hapless adventurers both shout, Hooray, were saved!
End of story. Well, not really.
Wesely says that although he had fun, he also gave Dave Arneson a hard time about the adventure, because he felt that Dave was being too easy on the players; that the rescue of the players by the lost dwarf is making the Deus Ex Machina too obvious. Wesely's advice to Arneson is that he needs to allow his players to get killed in order to make the stakes higher and the game worth playing. Arneson takes this advice to heart, from that point on Dave Arneson becomes a KILLER DM.
We know this because Arneson was known for running games at conventions where he would wipe out entire parties without blinking eye. When asked about this high mortality rate, Arneson would mimic killing players characters by smashing his thumb into the table and grinding it back and forth. This ruthlessness as a DM even comes up when he goes to demonstrate Blackmoor to the Lake Geneva Gamers in 1972. In that adventure Terry Kuntz earned a singular honor. While down in the dungeon, their small party of players: Gary Gygax, Ernie Gygax, Rob Kuntz, Terry Kuntz, and David Megarry, ran into a wizard. Everyone else decided to run away. Terry figured he could take him on and drew his sword. Well, things didn't last long. The wizard drew his wand and blasted him with a fireball, frying him instantly. As the first character to die in Lake Geneva, Terry can now claim to be Arneson's first kill outside of Minnesota.
The KILLER DM attitude is pervasive in the Twin Cities. We asked Dave Belfry about his adventures in Blackmoor fully expecting to find out about an epic high level character with years of history and the countles stories that go with that. Yet his response surprised us entirely, since he said something along these lines - I never had a character that lasted long. As well as - I died a lot of times.
Martin Noetzel is most famous as the Wandering Elf, he related the same thing -- I died a lot of times.
We can take these examples of early gamer culture even farther if you listen to the type of language the original gamers use.
Rob Kuntz says a very interesting word when he talks about playing with Arneson "I loved playing AGAINST Arneson…"
Chirine Ba Kal uses the same language when he talks about playing. He describes a game as playing AGAINST the DM.
We can hear the proverbial screeching tires as everyone who reads this is confronted by this old concept of playing against who ever is referee'ing your game. If we relate back to our previous article on how Computer/Video Games change, consider how coin operated consoles give you 3 lives. You can play your heart out and maybe you may last a really long time, yet in the end, the machine wins and you die -- GAME OVER!
Of course, some of you are now rolling on the ground while squealing things like "But the DM is supposed to be an impartial judge!" Yeah, whatever, all you N00B gamers need to learn your lesson. When you come to a real dungeon game, recall these words of wisdom that are written on the gates of hell: Abandon all hope - ye who enter here!
That's the difference in a nutshell: the original game is about surviving through hell, and new games seem to be like when the bell goes off, and all the children run out of the school and climb all over the super safe plastic playground equipment. Yup, it's fun, but it isn't a challenge if no one gets hurt.
And of course you may be wondering how all of this can relate to Greg Svenson and his Tonisborg Dungeon. We're showing you a snippet of the dungeon key from level 1. You may notice that room #2 contains five wraiths.
If you are designing a dungeon, do you populate it with easy to kill monsters and do a lot of hand holding, so that your players are less likely to die? Or do you make things difficult and step on your player's egos a bit?
Judging by what we see in Tonisborg's 1st level, Greg too is a KILLER DM.
We feel we are building a really strong case for making dungeon games deadly again. What do you think?
In our next in this series on dangerous dungeons, we'll drag some of Dan Boggs research into the mix and talk about the actual mechanics involved. If you have any doubts, thus far -- trust us, it's only gonna get uglier.
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