Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Double Dungeon Reflections

So, the antagonizer and I recently ran a double dungeon: we agreed on sharing a map and populating it with two different groups. I ran a group of Dwarf PCs first, and he ran Drow PCs second. The goals for the two games was to do something wacky with the same dungeon map and also to show off some iconic elements of D&D. Overall I enjoyed both sessions, both running and playing.

The map. I liked what we chose. It was two pages from Dyson which were explicitly one level of a multi-part dungeon, so the two maps fit together well. We decided first on what each room would represent (more or less) and then populated them with furniture and such. There were two issues with the map. First, it was a little too big. I liked it, but it was hard to cut down, which meant there were a lot of empty-ish rooms to explore because we only had a solid 6 hours in each session. The second issue was that replaying the same map made it a little easy for me to picture where we were (as I was intimiately familiar with the map). Two other players played both, and it was a nice in-joke to re-explore the same ground, but it was lost on most of the players the second time. It was also hard to ignore what I knew already about the map. The fix for some future double dungeon is probably to pick a three-page map and share only one portion of it between each expedition. The real issue here is we could have done the double dungeon with the same players both times, but I wanted to play with a broader set of people, rather than the same group of 7 people twice.

The PCs.  For both drow and dwarves we put up a reduced list of thematic options. I liked it, as it kept most of the characters stereotypical. We each allowed a couple characters that stretched things a little. I kept my list a bit tighter, so there was one dwarven deep stalker ranger which worked fine (though I did talk the player out of a dwarven sorcerer slightly). The antagonizer had a broader list, but we still ended up with two deep stalker rangers, a female wizard, and neither priestess of Lolth was a cleric (Favored Soul of Evil and Underdark Circle of the Land druid). I think next time the way to do it would be to keep a pretty tight list of thematic characters (focusing on the main cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard options) and really explicitly suggest a few good concepts that you'd only want to see one of: a dwarven artificer wizard, deep stalker ranger, svirfneblin illusionist or abjurer ally, etc.  Also, we needed to have an option for pre-gen characters somehow. We didn't restrict backgrounds in any way and pretty much did things by the book, so we could have made some suggestions there. It might make things easier if we just requested players to pick a race, class (& archetype), and background and then have the DM actually assign the mechanics if the player doesn't make the character by a certain date. One good thing we did was allow a bit more flexibility for the drow by giving men a +1 to int and women a +1 to wisdom, this made men competent wizards and women competent priests. We also went back to the original sources and let drow swap darkness for levitation (self only), for a bit of variety. This is exactly the sort of options one needs for a single-race game.

Personality Traits. I used dwarven personality traits from the second edition Complete Book of Dwarves. I basically handed one out that I thought would be a reasonable fit for each PC, then had each player draw one personality trait randomly. It worked really well because there were about 8 good options and they were good fits for dwarves. We did an ad hoc guessing of who was playing each one that might have been nice to formalize a bit. For the drow, this wasn't such a tenable option. The Antagonizer made a list of about five personality traits to keep in mind while playing a drow, which I think was about the best we could do in the time frame (I had forgotten about personality traits and done the dwarf ones quite last-minute). So while it worked better for dwarves than drow, dwarves were also easier. I think that I overall had the easier time since drow are pretty one-dimensional whereas dwarves are much more fleshed out.

Goals. I don't think I'll ever run a one-shot without goals again. Each of the characters had a specific thing they were looking for or needed to do, and it made for some nice victory conditions. The whole idea comes from games like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, where you probably have an overall group victory condition and one or more individual ones. It is a nice and concrete way to create a little conflict within the party but maybe not too much. Again, I think it was easier for dwarves than for drow, but in the end we did have a great stand-off at the end where my character used a spell without any obvious components (thank you metamagic) to force a male to attack my rival priestess. It didn't quite work out, but definitely upped the tension and treachery at the end. I'm definitely interested in exploring goals more, and if there is a way to make more smaller goals, and what makes good goals in a one-shot type game. The goals I used could definitely have been tightened up. Perhaps this could be done by trying particular goals to backgrounds and giving the PCs a list of backgrounds to choose from.

Background info. Because of my dislike of skills and preference for failing forward a bit, I put the relevant background info onto a bunch of 5x8 notecards. This included "rumors" or information specific to a character's background and also to training in certain skills and tools. The antagonizer followed suit, but he didn't have much time to do it as extensively as I did since his session was two days after mine. I thought the approach worked well, because players could get important info in easily digestible half-page cards only when it was relevant. But, for my part, I was trying to put together a great riddle about the dwarven deities, so I ended up giving out a number of irrelevant cards (mostly to the cleric and paladin) that detailed D&D deities. I could have easily cut a few out. Also, in one or two situations I had cards that relied on a DC 15 intelligence check. I kinda wish I had done that a bit more, with the very basic info for anyone who is trained, and a few extras for the lucky/skilled. I really liked this approach, but its a bit difficult to implement when you don't know what the PCs will end up being (and ultimately I got someone to be trained in arcana just because I wanted that after making a bunch of "trained in arcana" cards). I also effed it up by missing one person who should have been getting things: the result of someone picking a bonus feat late and I didn't know they were trained in history. I'd definitely do this again.

The Adventure. I think both games went well, and the size of the map was both a benefit and a hinderance. Each was billed as an excursion, and the goal was not to kill everything possible. Both parties made it in and out without killing or even encountering everything, and that was good because we didn't have the time for that. It was difficult to cut things though, perhaps because the map was so awesome and loopy. I think the antagonizer did a better job of making some rooms less useable than I did by flooding some. It might have been better if we had solid story reasons and hints of where people could find what they needed. The encounters were a bit easy for the dwarves because they missed two of the hardest (the Derro swarm and troll spellcaster + her two-headed lover).

Mapping. The hard part of running an old school dungeon is mapping it. I was going to start out with room descriptions only, but quickly resorted to drawing things for the players. I wish I had done it the way the antagonizer did, however, which I don't think was entirely planned but worked well. Rather than drawing each complex of rooms attaching to one another, he drew them ad hoc on different spots on the mat. I only could have improved on that by drawing them with different orientations to confuse people about left, right, north, and south. I wish I would have had more solid room descriptions, and done them more as distinct sections of the dungeon, but that might necessitate doing the map oneself rather than just stealing it. For example, things could have been clearer as an office complex, the town square, the priest's quarters, the barracks, etc. As someone who has been getting into OSR stuff, this has been weighing on me lately, particularly with my own Al-Qadim game and how to use newer technology (or not) to make mapping meaningful and easy.

Flaws. The biggest flaw I think I had was spending too much time trying to detail the dwarven gods, because only two characters were trained in religion and I didn't end up making full use of all that info. Like, the troll and duergar religion cards were basically just in the way for sure. I ended up making a quick little riddle in the end which relied on one line that the trained-in-religion folks got, though everyone had a chance of figuring it out with the illusion hint. I had an idea for sacred ale too, but it didn't come out because no one actually choose brewer's supplies as their racial tool option. I think the next flaw was in room descriptions: they were a bit sparse and could have been better, but also I should have renumbered rooms on the map. I missed one room for sure, and had a few extraneous numberings which confused things a bit, and when I passed the map on it didn't have a few staircases erased. If there was a third flaw, it might have been in creating characters. We didn't really make a PC as the players would, so there were some choices (languages, bonus skills) that we didn't think to put in the character creation docs. Not knowing what was planned but not experienced for the Drow, its hard to say what might have been done a bit better. The only thing that comes to mind would have been a bit more care in keeping secrets for a treachery game. We could have used a werewolf or resistance-style heads-down thumbs-up when detect magic and detect poison were cast, and if we had agreed to use facebook chat to send covert messages (though that might run afoul of the desire to have less cell phone use at the table, but texts can suffer more delays it seems) it might have allowed for a bit more treachery (or more paranoia).

In total. I really enjoyed this, and I'm even motivated to revise this so it can be redone. I think the dwarves ended up being a little stronger than drow, but really only because it was easier to do dwarven PCs. I think both sessions accomplished the vague goals I had, which was to showcase some iconic elements of D&D (dwarves, drow, and their gods), reƫxplore the same dungeon, and test out some clear personality and goal options for the players to help in roleplaying.

For revision. For characters, just have players select the race, class, and background right away. Then if they don't make the character themselves by a pre-determined date its easy for the DM to crank it out as a pre-gen, and the players can even potentially ask for a change or two once they see the sheet. This would really help the DM to stat things up while giving players choices if they want them. Goals can be tied to this selection perhaps, and at any rate knowing a few details (race, class, background) will help the DM to assign goals earlier and background info. If the DM has a hand in making the characters its easier to ensure that one PC is trained in each of the 4 knowledge skills (GUMSHOE style). For the background info, this can easily be tightened up to remove some elements that didn't get used (or make it clearly optional with DC 15 checks since there's no drawback for not knowing the information) and possibly spreading some of the info out among the different skills. Goals, likewise, could have been tightened up a bit. Finally, the map needs to be more clearly annotated and the rooms need some fixing up; now that I'm running some old school modules I have a few ideas on what is helpful for map annotations and should implement some of those.  I'm definitely into seeing this baby run again in a 8-hour session. I wonder if it'd be possible to add a third or fourth excursion into the dungeon, perhaps svirfneblin or duergar, though they might have the same problems (or limitations) as drow did.

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