Thursday, February 25, 2010

a bit of a confession

So this post started out as the report on last night's Mutant Future session, but it went off the rails along the way.

Last night I was all set for my players to locate and explore Death Heart, the high level Arduin dungeon that was teased at the end of the previous session. Lord Brain (imagine the Spider-Man foe Myserio, but with a brain-in-a-jar instead of that weird fishbowl, and powers akin to a Thundarr style wizard) had promised the group riches and power in exchange for the spellbook purportedly hidden in the dungeons of Death Heart. Carl, who missed the last session, asked for more details on this proposed adventure. When the rumoured "scorpions the size of your house" were mentioned he argued vehemently for going back to the Howling Tower and continuing to plunder that dungeon. The regulars at my game are usually a pretty easy going bunch, so whenever one person feels passionate about a course of action the rest tend to follow that lead. So I put away Death Heart and got the Howling Tower back out.

I've got to say that running Dave Hargave's The Howling Tower has been a real eye-opener for me. His Arduin Grimoire and the first two or three follow-up books are some of my favorite books from the early years of the hobby. So when I got a chance to snag some of his modules I jumped at the opportunity, assuming I would really dig on 'em.

Turns out I like Hargave's dungeons a lot less than many of his other works. The maps drive me crazy. They're crowded with way too many oddly shaped rooms that are a pain-in-the-ass to describe and almost as hard to draw. The number of utterly pointless secret doors is very high. And only rooms with monsters and treasure are keyed. So if there's a skorpadillo and some magic boots in a room I can tell you the lighting, what the walls and floors are made of, what the air quality is like, etc. But the sixteen empty rooms next door have no descriptors whatsoever. So I end up busting my ass to trick out all the other rooms, because the last thing I want is for a player to say "Uh oh. This room actually has a description, watch out for monsters."

And while I appreciate funhouse dungeons a lot more than some people, I think it's a little weak that none of the stocked rooms have anything to do with one another. The text gives no clues as to how the Priest of Cthulhu in room 16 and the ogre in room 18 interact. Furthermore, it feels weird not having the least idea where either of them go in the dungeon to get something to drink or take a dump. Every serious dungeon I build has at least on crapper and one place where the monsters can go to get a drink of water. Is that crazy?

All the Hargrave dungeons I've looked at are mostly empty time-wasting labyrinths with nothing but monsters dutifully guarding treasure chests. I can't believe I'm complaining about that fact, but I am. Something about his presentation sucks all the fun out of funhouse dungeons for me. So I spend a lot of each session putting that fun back in on the fly. Which can be a great way to spend a few hours twice a month, but at the end of the night I feel tired from all that swimming against the current. I might as well be working off an empty map and some randomly generated monsters and treasures.

Note that I'm not casting aspersions here on Hargrave's skills as a DM. I have no reason to doubt these dungeons were a hoot to play at his table. What I feel is probably at work here is a recurring problem with adventure modules: module writers have to work hard to figure out the difference between writing for themselves and writing for another DM. Maybe Hargrave assumed that I would figure out that of course all the undead on level one are under the control of the evil cleric, etc. On the other hand, if there's a unifying theme to the Howling Tower I'm not finding it. Jamie Mal finds Tegel Manor too funhouse for his tastes, but there's a lot more rhyme (and some reason) to that dungeon compared to Hargave's work.


  1. Those are a big reason why I have never run any of Hargraves modules. On top of often containing Rainbow Death Rays full of tiny unicorns, it's almost impossible to logic out why a demonic fire troll that just wants to kill and eat everything is bunking with a human time traveler.

    Despite that, if taken individually or in small groups certain rooms and encounters are great for planning your own dungeon around.

  2. Yeah, I remember being pretty disappointed in Howling Tower back in the day.

  3. If it's any consolation, Tegel Manor has grown on me a lot in the last year. I still find it a little disjointed compared to my favorite adventure modules, but I'm coming round to seeing that as an opportunity for improvisation rather than as a drawback.

    That said, never underestimate the value of a unifying theme, which is why Tegel Manor, for all the ways it frustrates me, is nevertheless a module I could run. From the sounds of it, though, Hargrave's dungeon isn't.

  4. While I have no experience with the modules mentioned, I think you're right on about the difference between recording a dungeon for you own play and providing it for someone else to use.

    The one-page dungeon contest became confusing for me for that very reason-- "Am I supposed to be presenting just a map with the broadest strokes of ideas to inspire another DM, or provide all the theme, the reasoning, the flavor they might need to run the dungeon?"

    It almost feels like the two approaches need different names-- Module vs Dungeon Template or something.

  5. "Furthermore, it feels weird not having the least idea where either of them go in the dungeon to get something to drink or take a dump."

    No toilets=Old School, baby.

    I remember purchasing Ed Greenwood's Undermountain almost 20 years ago and cheering when I saw he had put in jakes!
    (BTW, anyone ever wonder where all the giants in G3 relieved themselves? That's a lotta...uh....stuff.)

  6. While I am not as concerned about dungeon toilets as Jeff, I am in complete agreement on Hargrave's modules, and would largely bring up the same reasons, meaningless secret doors and all. The Arduin Grimoires are something I can see the magic in; Arduin modules don't quite have that pull. They are all built on an exciting premise, but never follow up on that - instead, they are a mish-mash of too random bits.

    What Tegel has over them is what I call "thematic appropriateness" -- the seemingly random bits fitting into a common theme. A dungeon may be crazy, but it is madness with a method - insane family portraits with random magical effects, insane family members who are mostly undead, a ballroom of ghosts and a game room with an animated 6 HD bowling ball and a deck of many things resting on a parlour table. I can get behind that. Arduin, maybe you really had to be there. Someone should ask Calithena, since he had gamed with Dave as a kid.

  7. Oh, and since I have already done it for a blog post on LotFP, here is something on the subject I originally wrote for the Referee's Guidelines of my RPG Kard és Mágia:

    "It is an important advantage of dungeons that they provide a space for improbable and wondrous things, and they are less bound by the reality of our world than, for example, a small fantasy town. Therefore, it is a mistake to seek a cure for the supposed problems of dungeons in the form of more “realistic” and more thoroughly detailed locales. In fact, if these attempts are successful and the descriptions are dominated by mundane details, it is precisely the fantastic aspect of the dungeon which makes them appealing in the first place that will be lost. This treatment usually becomes fatal, and participants will soon get bored with the endless succession of guard rooms and sleeping quarters, seeking more interesting adventures elsewhere.

    The solution is not necessarily the total rejection of realism (although on some occasions, it is completely right to take the fully surreal approach – especially when characters are exploring underworld realms, foreign dimensions or dream worlds); rather, instead of conventional reality, we should think from the perspective of thematic appropriateness. The question here is not how a dungeon would really operate; rather, how to fill it with encounters closely or more distantly related to its overall theme.

    For example, if the locale is the abandoned jungle temple of an ape-cult, in addition to more straightforward encounters such as a pack of carnivorous apes, mechanical traps, skull-filled sacrificial vaults and forsaken treasuries, we could think of magical mirrors which send the hostile simulacra of viewers into the world (distorted into the form of man-apes); a colossal ape idol holding a large copper sphere which has a limited ability to control minds (and what lives within? Perhaps a superintelligent slime which craves freedom, and of course world domination!); a tower in both the present and the past, where strange encounters and bargains may occur, and so on.

    All in all, our task is not the detailed reproduction of a “working” ruined temple in the jungles, but where we can get from reality through a few steps of free association. Sometimes, nothing is more intriguing than a few unsolved mysteries – whether the referee knows the solution or not. What matters is to capture the imagination of the players and spur them to action. Obviously, it is also good to spice up these encounters with purely descriptive elements with no specific function (unless the players think of something clever on their own), but these should not be dominant."


    I consider thematic appropriateness one of the keys to Bob Bledsaw's design philosophy, and a way to understand his works from City State to Tegel Manor and the Wilderlands -- point B follows from point A, but not always through conventional reasoning, rather a quirky and circuitous sort of playful dream-logic.

  8. Furthermore, it feels weird not having the least idea where either of them go in the dungeon to get something to drink or take a dump.

    The mythic underworld in action, baby! Gelatinous cubes getting fat.

    FWIW, I sometimes include such things and often don't. We don't role play out the powder room breaks for PCs, and I don't spend much time worrying about it for anyone else, either.

    I see it sort of like a set for a movie: we all assume the characters go to the bathroom, and we all assume the house they live in contains a toilet. But unless something happens in the bathroom, they don't really need to build a set for it. I'm okay not knowing where it is, and I'm okay if the total size of the rooms I see in the film don't actually fit within the house they show in exterior shots.

  9. Anonymous3:08 PM

    "I consider thematic appropriateness one of the keys to Bob Bledsaw's design philosophy, and a way to understand his works from City State to Tegel Manor and the Wilderlands -- point B follows from point A, but not always through conventional reasoning, rather a quirky and circuitous sort of playful dream-logic."

    Very insightful comment, Melan.

  10. "The privies are implied."

  11. I'm a bit confused by this post because, upon reading it through, my mind is making an assumption that may not be the case...

    Are you running the module as is without reading it over first? I mean, I'm sure you wouldn't do that...would you?

    After giving a given module the once over so you can familiarize yourself with its various elements (the map, the traps, what monsters are there, etc.), I always (when I use modules which is very rare) go back over the details and add or modify things so they fit my campaign. I remember reading Expedition to the Barrier Peaks five times and creating tons of notes before I actually ran it.

    Modules used as is...I don't believe I've actually done that ever.

  12. Oh. I've read the module a couple times. I had concerns before I ran it, but I wanted to try anyway to see what would happen. As it turns out, I was right to be concerned.

  13. (BTW, anyone ever wonder where all the giants in G3 relieved themselves? That's a lotta...uh....stuff.)

    Well the giants in G3 did have a river of lava on the lowest level. That would be the idea place to leave a Number 1 or 2...

  14. Not having seen or read the aforementioned module "The Howling Tower", it strikes me as obvious that the DM is supposed to flesh out the rest of the module. Jeff mentions the large assortment of empty rooms. This seems to harken back to the heady days of "B1: In Search of the Unknown", where the DM too was supposed to stock the rest of the module and only a few areas wew keyed.

  15. Re: thematic appropriateness

    I've always liked the term "internal consistency."

    There are rules at work here; rules that may not apply any place else. But rules that can be deciphered to some extent.

  16. The Skullbryn module twice uses the phrase "sole guardian" in reference to Hargrave's heavy use of the phrase in his dungeons.

    I felt that was a more constructive homage than actually imitating Hargrave's dungeon-design style ;)