Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Dungeon Crawl Practice 9 - Vessels of the Plague Fleet & Dungeon Types

The Capital Fleet of the Successor Empire, once a thousand stone ships, depleted and weakened by mutiny, war, neglect, disaster and finally broken in the war of Maratime Schism by magical plague. Trapped in the estuary of the Green Flow, the towering stone hexareme and octeres - each a floating castle topped in towers and fortresses mired in mud. The smaller trihemioliai and quinquereme, baking on the hot sea, crews skeletonized by disease. Beyond the pickets of the Schismatics, and the units of the mutinied units of the Expeditionary Fleets. Lingering, crews and marines bloated and raved under the Pyre Sea sun until the surviving captains met, pooling their healthy sailors, manned an escape squadron, headed by the bombardment enneres Implacable, and sailed out to battle the mutineers in a long pursuit back to Aurum Ferro. The fleet that remained died at the hands of its sickly crews. Seacocks opened, weapons spiked, the dying crews denied their vessels to their enemies: sinking with them or driving them ashore.

Three easily explored vessels are included here and are the most complete and well preserved of the Plague Fleet, fixed fast in its mud and the dense mangroves that have grown outward as the Green Flow dumps tons of rich sediment into the Morass each year.

The Hemolina Cruelty, a lighter vessel, a sharp prowed raider driven into the shore, its trapped treasure holds still containing plunder from a raid on the Sapphire Islands of the Maratime Provence. Currently the renegade revolutionaries, the Lost Lambs scavenge its stern in search of volatile arcane munitions to aid their insurrectionist violence.

The Quadireme Risen Empire, a siege ship, rebuilt from the razee of the burnt octeres One Thousand Wisdoms, now mired deep in the mangrove, its overgrown bombard decks home to the court of the Ape King and its holds a submerged ghost grave.

The Hexareme Red Queen rests in the shallows, a stately dreadnought, trapped in time. Aboard the forces of its former ship’s daemon stalks the decks, animating the vessel’s figurehead, locked in an endless battle with the soul of the sorcerer king once bound to its power plant.

Perhaps 30 other vessels are lost in the Green Morass and the waters around it, most entirely submerged or buried in silts. Others are capsized, choked with mangrove, or burnt shells, emptied of accessible valuables by time and the elements. These other wrecks can be expanded on by an ambitious GM (Appendix A includes some tables and ideas on how to do so) but the Cruelty, Risen Empire and Red Queen represent both many sessions of exploration and the central puzzle of the Plague fleet, so it’s unlikely a party in an open world game will want to explore them all.

Classic Adventure Locale Variety
: The “Dungeon Crawl” as a play style demands a “dungeon” of course. It’s in the name. From nearly the first however, to hold players’ attention, that dungeon has had to be more than a series of stone corridors and rectangular rooms filled with monsters to fight. What though does that make the dungeon and how does it effect the designer creating one?  If varied play demands varied challenges: tactical, social and spatial, it's also reasonable that a designer should have varied tools and provide varied resources to a GM attempting to mange this variety.  The adventure has been forced to grow beyond a series of combat encounters that the players move through like a board game.

It’s worth noting that one of the earliest published( 1976) Dungeons & Dragons adventure - "Palace of the Vampire Queen" by Pete and Judy Kerestan (which I have mentioned in passing before) was precisely this, a series of corridors and rooms each keyed with only a couple lines to show the statistics of their monstrous inhabitants. This is the first example of the dungeon crawl as a board game, the players plotting the moves of their characters through the dungeon, from room to room, combating the inhabitants. A detached approach to play without much characterization, where direct appeal to the dice resolves the obstacles. It’s a style of design drawn clearly from war-gaming, and crystallized in 1975’s "Dungeon!" board game by Dave Megarry. It seems likely that it was a main component of the original Castle Greyhawk, and it’s influence is strong in the 1970’s rulesets - especially (and paradoxically) in the procedural aspects of the Original Dungeons & Dragons dungeon exploration rules. This style also led directly into early computer role-playing games, such as Rogue, or its clone Sword of Fargoal which I wasted at least one 1980’s summer playing fanatically. The dungeon as board game isn’t something to scoff at, it birthed the entire Computer Role Playing Game genre where graphics, sound and complex calculations allowed for increasing in depth tactical experiences that make up for the lack of an intelligent adaptive GM -- at least to many. However, I suspect that the genius of Dungeons & Dragons and fundamentally (begrudgingly) of Gygax* was the synthesis of this board game aspect with role playing and non-combat obstacles. The dungeon is best when it moves beyond simple combat obstacles resolved through dice rolling and a few small decisions about which resources to spend in a specific combat.

In prior All Dead Generation’s posts the idea of the dungeon as the field of play has been discussed and the ultimate goal of the blog is to encourage and aid this sort of play, but the specific nature of dungeon design hasn’t been addressed in much detail. Here’s the basic principles:

A) The “dungeon” is more properly referred to as an “Adventure Locale”
This promotes the understanding that not all dungeons need to be underground labyrinths or caves -- they need not be subterranean at all. While darkness is useful for resource based challenges, any area that’s broken up into keyed sections that have limited means of movement between them can be a dungeon

B) Spatial orienteering is the first challenge of the Adventure Locale.
Location based adventure must be set in an imagined space, and that space matters. The players’ decisions about how to move through that space define the course of the adventure and the obstacles encountered.

C) Player choice about movement and actions must matter.
The soft time limit of random encounters and the depletion of supplies make it dangerous for players to seek total knowledge of the adventure locale - scouting and backtracking are valuable, but to encourage risk taking they must also include risk.

D) The Adventure Locale can and should include several types of obstacles and threats to the characters.
If making decisions about how to move through a fictional space is the basic challenge of location based adventure, the other components of “exploration” style also focus on player decision making over gambling mechanics. Obstacles: faction intrigue, traps, puzzles, and tactical choices are intended to allow problem solving that informs player risk taking.

With these guidelines it’s easy to see that even within a “crawl” play style there can be multiple types of obstacle and multiple types of adventure location. Play and its focus will change based on the nature of the primary obstacles that impede character progress through the location or threaten the character’s survival. There’s nothing new about this idea, types of adventure have been around since Gygax and Arneson started to move away from the board and war game aspects of table top play, and some of the earliest adventures represent still viable types of location design.

Perhaps the Second published Dungeons & Dragons adventure was Dave Arneson’s “Temple of the Frog.” It’s a 1975 adventure included in the “Blackmoor” supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons edition -- 19 confusing pages about a science fantasy swamp theocracy devoted to piracy and frog worship. Notable about Temple of the Frog is that it’s a Siege. The temple itself has an underground maze below but Arneson spends an almost equal time discussing the political and military situation, and the players are expected to negotiate that, overcoming the Temple’s guard force and fortifications through subterfuge, assault or stealth. This Siege style adventure likely comes from Arnesons experience playing and running 'Braunsteins'** -- but appears in its refined form in Gygax’s "G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief" (1978).

The SIEGE form of adventure locale involves the base of an organized foe. The party will largely be faced with tactical challenges, either overcoming the prepared defenses, battle plans and full force of an enemy or infiltrating the fortress and achieving their goals through stealth or assassination. The Siege need not always follow Steading's goal of eliminating the threat of the enemy, but can work as a heist (retrieving a guarded object, rescuing a prisoner or assassinating a specific enemy), or as part of a larger battle (with the party acting as a strike team or breaching force as part of a larger battle). While the Siege immediately brings to mind above ground fortresses, any scenario where the party faces a single hostile force can fall into this category. A designer of a Siege location will need to pay attention to the Order of Battle of the besieged inhabitants, including their tactics and likely responses to various types of attack, as well as issues like patrol patterns and how the location differs between its normal and alert states. Players in Siege scenarios need to exercise tactical concerns, as almost invariably they are designed so that the besiegers can destroy the party in the event of a direct confrontation where the players have allowed them to follow their battle plans.

A second form of Adventure Locale is the LABYRINTH, a location where the majority of obstacles take to forms of puzzles and traps. Such adventures require a great deal of complex keying because puzzles and traps are complex, and demands close attention and problem solving skills from the players. The first, and still one of the greatest, examples of this form of dungeon is 1975’s "Tomb of Horrors", originally written by Alan Lucien and Gygax for “competitive play” at the first Origins conference. The introduction to the Tomb manages to point out the dangers of this dungeon form, it’s advantages and Gygax’s distinct, sometimes infuriating voice of elitism and authority. "Tomb of Horrors" is a controversial adventure, even today, but it’s also an adventure with enormous staying power -- revised, rewritten and re released for almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

The Labyrinth can be extremely rewarding for the sort of player who likes solving puzzles, provides a different, memorable experience and offers a rich source of engagement with the setting. However, the Labyrinth is also more susceptible to the perception of unfairness and the problems of antagonistic GMing because it’s risks are: complex (requiring a clear understanding by the players - the result of clear GM description), less connected to the randomness of die rolls/combat mechanics and because of the sort of intellectual pretensions fiendish puzzles tend to bring out. Because of this, and the complexity of puzzles, Labyrinths are some of the hardest adventures to design and run successfully.

The final style of classic adventure that comes to mind is one around faction intrigue and social/role playing problem solving. Perhaps it’s best described as a MASQUE, taken from a particular 17th century form of costume ball and collective performance. A Masque places the players in the role of deal makers and schemers, usually faced with a set of factions that taken together far outclass the party but which are in or can be drawn into conflict, leaving the party holding the balance of power if the players can unravel the desires and relationships of the factions. The MASQUE style of faction puzzle is part of a lot of early adventures, but it finds a particularly notable early expression in "B2 Keep on the Borderlands". The Caves of Chaos (and the keep itself) represent a sandbox of dangerous factions and sub-factions that the players can intrigue with. As one commentator described it “the various humanoids are holed up in their lairs [...] tired of battling it out in the gorge below and are scheming up plots to sway the balance of power. Moreover, most hate the daylight, and the owlbear rules the night since moving in.” The Caves are poised on an uneasy equilibrium that the adventurers will disrupt just by their presence, and while a 1st level party is no match for the entire population of the Caves, making deals, guerilla warfare, plots and counter-plots can allow a clever party to bring down all the factions in an orgy of mutual destruction.

Faction based Masques are not hard to create, but require the designer or GM to have an understanding of the wants and relationships between the factions. Relationship diagrams, profiles of faction leaders and timelines of faction actions can all add to these sorts of adventures. A difficulty in running them is responding to unexpected player actions in a believable way that neither creates an impossible situation for the party (at least a secret one) or allows complete and utter victory over the factions without further effort -- especially if that victory grants the party overwhelming resources. For example, befriending a dragon shouldn’t leave the party with the ability to call in a fantasy airstrike of dragon fire and rending talons anytime they are faced with opposition, but instead offer a petulant and domineering acquaintance who makes demands for even minimal help. Relationships with setting factions should always create more complexity and links to the world, and only rarely resolve serious problems in a completely satisfying way.

The distinction between SIEGE, LABYRINTH and MASQUE is rarely absolute -- and shouldn’t be, most adventures are better served by adding a bit of all three: factions in dispute, each with their own fortress lairs to besiege and containing puzzles and traps. The players with a chance to resolve tactical, puzzle and social problems in the same adventure means that a variety of player types can enjoy the adventure and a variety of solutions will exist for it overall. The combination and mixture of various sorts of problems to create a hybrid likely deserves its own label, and it’s so essential that the best label for it is simply the DUNGEON. However, an appreciation for the variety of problems an adventure can contain and the tool/resources a designer can use and offer to run them is helpful even if a pure subcategory of adventure is rare.

For Plague Ships I intend to go into further detail about each sub-type, and include nodes (more on nodal adventures in a later post) that are relatively pure. The likely first stone ship, the Cruelty will be a faction fortress (fairly easy to negotiate access through) atop a trap filled Labyrinth for example.

*I’m begrudging in my respect for Gary Gygax not because he was a bad designer, but because he seems to have been a fairly ugly fellow - expressing approval of the ideology behind Sand Creek Massacre and the acts of John Chivington (the unrepentant author of the1864 slaughter of up to 200 peaceful Southern Cheyenne - who was viewed even in the 19th century as a murderous bigot), the gleeful application of Chivington’s ideas of cultural superiority and the right of colonial conquest to his own games and rather retrograde views on women. I never met Gygax, and can’t confirm that he was a committed racist or misogynist, but he’s on the record having said some pretty awful things. That said, I’ll still run his adventures and refer to him as he’s dead, immensely important to the history of Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s worth extending understanding to people from other times and places ...but... Even for a self-educated, mid-century, white guy, Gygax seems like one of those titans of the past who was disgustingly flawed even by the standards of their time and place.

Anyway, it’s not that important to catalogue Gygax’s apparent moral failings - it is however important to acknowledge them and consider their impact on his work and the hobby as a whole, because both the legacy of his attitudes or worse the defense of them can easily discourage potential players. While addressing these issues will change very little, TTRPGs are a small hobby space outside the mainstream of history, Ignoring and sidestepping the ugly past is a form of gatekeeping, telling some people that Dungeons & Dragons is a dangerous space for them where they aren’t welcomed.

**Braunstein was a style of wargame invented by David Wesley in 1969, and notable because the players each play individual characters in charge of specific groups (military officers, mayors and such) in a sandbox. The original Braunstein was set in a town occupied by Napoleon’s army, and others followed set in fictional failing colonial states or Wild West cattle towns where the goal was to seize the state/town by coup or to prevent it depending on the player’s role. The individual character and emphasis on negotiation and intrigue outside the mechanics of the wargame were major innovations that led to Tabletop Roleplaying.


  1. Really enjoying this series. It is extraordinarily helpful to have a window like this into how someone else thinks about and prepares a setting and locations. I am looking forward to future posts.

    Also, a sentence got cut off: "What though does that make the dungeon and"

    1. Glad you're enjoying the series -- I hope I can get back into putting these up more regularly. There's plenty more to talk about in Plague Ships. Fixed the sentence you caught, sometimes things drop while being transferred into blogger.

  2. You have some of the best analysis! Looking forward to hearing and seeing more about the plague fleet dungeon vessels!

  3. Thank you for making this and your Dungeon of Signs blog public again. Really appreciate your analyses and everything else.

    1. Thanks semiurge, hopefully we'll get into some denser stuff soon.

  4. You mention 'shuttlecocks' when I think perhaps you might mean stopcocks?

    1. Should be "seacock" really, the stopcock is simply a valve type, a seacock is one on a vessel for letting salt water in an out.

  5. I'd love it if you returned to these some day.

    1. I like the location, but don't think I can write it for both 5E and OD&D...


Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...