A PDF of this 60 page adventure is available on DriveThruRPG. An introductory delve into a densely interactive classic dungeon crawl designed with contemporary sensibilities.
All Dead Generations is a blog about “Classic Gaming”, something that Retired Adventurer’s “Six Cultures of Play” essay in April identified as “oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly" … The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge.”
RPGS Aren't Played As They Were In The 1970’s And Even Classic RPG Design Must Grapple With It!
While the essay notes that I use the term Classic to perhaps describe something different then it’s version of Classic play, I’m not sure I fully agree. Yes, All Dead Generations frequently suggests rule variation from the primary sources of what Retired Adventurer identifies as the Classic style (AD&D and 1981’s Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert books) and certainly my preferred aesthetics of phantasmagoric Western or opium fever Dunsanyian fantasy are somewhat far removed from the Gygaxian vernacular fantasy of gray stone corridors full of orcs that make up most classic adventures, but as far as ethics of play and play-style goals I place both All Dead Generations and my adventure design firmly in the Classic tradition. Why the distinction then? There are certainly still plenty of designers working with the Gygax aesthetic, and perfecting adventure design that reflects back to Keep on the Borderlands or even Castle Greyhawk. I’m not, and moreover the entire purpose of Jewelbox Design is somewhat antithetical to the maximal dungeons traditional for Classic play.
I’d argue that All Dead Generations and my current dungeon design seek to offer the same sort of “progressive development of challenges” and fairness that are the core of Classic design, but make them functional for contemporary play. By contemporary play I don’t mean 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons or its design principles, I mean the actual physical conditions that most RPGs seem to be played in in 2021. Two or three hour sessions, played at most once a week seems the modern standard, especially for online play. This is very different then how Gygax and other early designers appear to have run their tables and visualized play. While it’s a bit hard to pin down the exact length of Gygax’s sessions for Castle Greyhawk, Gygax notes in the April 1976 issue of the Strategic Review that:
“It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years tosee 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.”
The important context here is that while the number of sessions played is somewhere around one or two a week (though Gygax apparently ran Greyhawk more often with different groups), the length of the campaign is assumed to be many years. The length of session also seems to have generally been far longer. The original announcement for Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign read “There will be a medieval "Braunstein" April 17, 1971 at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis.... It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll's bridge between sunup and sundown.” An eleven hour game session. One assumes that Greyhawk ran on a similar basis, at least on the weekends, and even on weeknights and for younger players at least 4 to 5 hours.
Given this disparity in time, both of the individual sessions and the length of campaigns, it’s very unlikely that the classic megadungeons of Greyhawk and Blackmoor, or even shorter published adventures like Tomb of Horror were approachable in shorter, less frequent sessions. In an interesting example, the 1975 Origins I run of the Tomb was supposed to be two hours, though famously only the a level “Evil lord” and 14 orc retainers played by Rob Kuntz finished it with a virtuoso display of calculating orc sacrifice that took 4 hours. This 1975 edition of the Tomb was lengthened for commercial release, with more complexity and puzzles added that greatly expanded play time.
Kuntz’s delve into the Tomb of Horrors varies from another aspect of early play that’s different from present conventions, Robilar the Evil Lord completed the Tomb of Horrors solo, with a large number of retainers. While there’s several stories of similar solo play or adventures for small numbers of drop in visitors, the party size that explored Gygax’s castle Greyhawk during it’s long weekend session ranged up to 10 or 20 players. As anyone who has run a group of that size can attest, organizational efforts and decision making take longer, but the party’s ability to handle threats (combat especially) are vastly improved. Contemporary, and especially online play, depends on smaller parties. Rime of the Frost Maiden, a recent WotC campaign, is designed for four to six players, compared with the six to nine players Keep on the Borderlands suggests.
While they overlap at the edges, and vary, all three of these circumstantial elements: campaign length, session length and expected party size are generally smaller in contemporary play. The limitations imposed by technology as well as different expectations of how rpg play will work have changed since the mid 1970’s. While none of these 2021 conventions are worse or better then those of 1976 they do militate for a different style of adventure design and perhaps rules modifications that account for shorter sessions.
What to Preserve
What exactly does the typical contemporary game session and campaign entail and what player expectations does it build or support? What if anything from the classic style has to be set aside and what is absolutely essential to retain? These aren’t entirely objective questions, especially the last, but from my own experience and play goals I’ve arrived at the following elements.
Maintaining a dungeon crawl experience and the problem solving focused play that it provides is my first goal. To do this certain other design principles and ethics seem essential:
- Exploration of location layout, and puzzle solving must remain the main focus of play.
- Navigation of the location’s space must function as an engine for risk and tension.
- Navigation of the location’s space should offer multiple solutions to its obstacles and puzzles, both through path finding and play decisions about what means the characters use to approach any obstacle.
- Combat should remain a secondary part of play, one type of obstacle among several.
- Combat should retain its lethality and function as the embodiment of risk -- an inevitable fail state.
- Character skills and mechanics must remain secondary to player ingenuity and problem solving
- Supplies and equipment depletion should remain a threat and part of players’ risk v. reward calculations.
- To help retain an open table, expeditions should remain 1 session in length, ending at a haven or safe camps without ending or beginning sessions in media res.
- Progress and a sense of achievement must be possible each session, but neither guaranteed nor necessarily involving “clearing” a location or completing a narrative.
With goals in mind, the next question is: what are the conditions of contemporary play, and what does that imply for design and play-style? Again, there’s nothing absolute about the answers to this question, even in the context of the goals above, the conclusions derive from my own play experience over the last ten years and my discussions with others who are also actively playing classic style games. As mentioned above there’s three basic changes from Gygax’s assumptions or ideal of the circumstance of play back in the late 70’s that each have specific effects on play: sessions are shorter, campaigns are shorter, and groups are smaller. An additional factor that doesn’t always apply, but has for the last year is that most play is online through meeting software.
Two to Three Hour Session
What does this difference mean for play and adventure design though? Most obviously it means that there will be less adventuring each session, and thus fewer rooms or scenes are be explored by the players each session. How many rooms exactly will of course vary with the contents, but again a surprisingly consistent answer emerges across the communities I asked: between 2 and 12 rooms or scenes per session. The outliers on the lower end were again for contemporary traditional games with complex combat, and help make more sense of the popularity of “5 Room Dungeons” in that play style.
For Classic style play this revelation about the speed of exploration offers an argument for a revaluation of many of the principles of Classic adventure design, especially in light of Classic play’s preference for open tables. In an open table game, with its revolving cast of player characters sessions traditionally begin and end in a safe location such as a town.When a session’s exploration is limited to only a few rooms this makes larger dungeons even more difficult to run then they would be with only the exploration limit of around eight rooms per sessions, because not only must sufficiently interesting play occur in those few rooms but the party cannot be expected to explore more rooms from an exit in any one session (or even less if the referee doesn’t allow ‘fast travel’ back to the surface). Even if one uses minimal keying and a large number of bare rooms as was common in early dungeon design this number doesn’t climb significantly, perhaps to ten or twelve rooms explored per session, as players tend to pay attention and investigate even the slightest fragment of dungeon dressing.
The potential advantage of spread out and minimally keyed dungeons creates another issue, a potential breakdown in the supply mechanics of exploration play. When one expects that a session will only explore a few rooms for supply to be meaningful it has to be threatened and decrease during exploration of even that small number of rooms. This means that the mechanics for supply depletion (the few that exist) Classic rule sets tend not to work very well. The torch supply and rate of depletion that makes sense for a ten hour 50 room delve won’t work for a two hour 5 room delve. To prepare for the shortened timescale of contemporary play, supply mechanics themselves need to be changed. This then comes into conflict with larger spaces to explore, where the session may remain short, but through minimalism or other conveniences such as fast travel the number of turns and amount of supply depletion is still that of a longer session. Managing this tension between the amount of interactive content and the amount of in-game time spent becomes a difficult balancing act for contemporary designers and referees.
It’s not fair to today’s players to call a year long campaign short, but compared to the campaigns envisioned by early Dungeons & Dragons designers - five or ten year affairs where multiple groups of adventurers ranged across a single huge game world and would rise to 15th or 20th level, those in these shorter campaigns will miss out on the higher level experience. A campaign measured in months, 10 or 20 sessions, cannot reach the heights of 5th or 6th level spells, higher HD monsters or domain management without significant changes to the mechanics of character advancement. In Classic Dungeons & Dragons there’s a sort of default progress through adventure types suggested, a rise from exploring dungeons for the first 5 or 6 levels to exploring the wilderness until level 10 or 12 and then finally managing a demesne, with the high level character supporting a stable of lower level retainers and riding out from to confront major threats to their stronghold. As written these rules simply aren’t designed for 1st level characters to undertake wilderness treks and third level ones to manage a town or tower. This limitation has less impact on individual dungeon design, but a greater impact on how well campaigns can meet player expectations. The ideal 1970’s or 1980’s campaign, and one suspects most were not ideal in this way) reached high levels and moved into domain management and/or inter-planar adventures and contests with the gods themselves. The 1983 “Immortals” Dungeon’s & Dragons set, also known as the “Gold Box”, written by Frank Mentzer for the 3rd edition of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons line (BECMI) finally ends the climb up the hierarchy of levels with divine apotheosis at level 37. It also substitute class levels for divine levels, so your 37th level Lord becomes a brand new “Initiate of Matter”, with your 3,480,000 XP converted into 348 “Power Points” to buy divine abilities in a character building mini-game .
Imagine the amount of sessions it takes to accumulate 3.5 Million Experience Points? Even assuming a certain amount of the kind of power play that Gygax attacks in his 1976 editorial we’re talking a decade of consistent and regular sessions with the same characters. The vast majority of people just don’t play that way, but just because one doesn’t have the monomaniacal energy and time of a bored teenager in 1986 one shouldn’t have to miss out on the pleasures of high-powered and bizarre alchemically themed interplanar adventure like that found in TSR’s M3 Twilight Calling. There’s many ways to overcome classic Dungeons & Dragons’ assumption of epic decade-long campaigns, even without resorting to milestone leveling, from flattening the power level of powerful characters and monsters like dragons and giants to reducing higher level XP goals. However, this condition of contemporary play is the one best addressed by changes to the game’s core mechanics or the setting at the campaign level. At the dungeon design level, shorter campaign length just places emphasis on a more vigorous leveling schedule, which in turn promotes smaller locations (or discrete nodes within larger locations) crammed with treasure.
The designers of earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected large groups to play. Looking through early adventure modules the recommended group size was large, 9 characters is “optimal” for G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and B2 - Keep on the Borderlands assume 6 to 9 characters. In both cases there’s an acknowledgment that parties may be smaller, and caution that in such case powerful magic items, NPCs and henchman are needed for the party to stand a chance. This caution of course suggests that even at Gygax’s table groups of 9 characters weren’t always available, but with contemporary conditions of play a 9 player group, especially over online meeting software is very rare, and certainly nearly impossible to consistently bring to the table, virtual or otherwise.
As Gygax implies with his GM notes for both G1 and B2, larger parties simply have more options, greater resilience and are far more potent in combat. More spells, more hit points, more healing, more carrying capacity for supplies … all make a larger group better suited for longer more dangerous delves. As such it makes sense to take Gygax’s cautions to heart, Keep on the Borderlands isn’t designed for a group of three or four, and will require a different approach to play, modifications to either character power (such as magic items and henchman) or modification to the adventure itself. Small groups adventuring parties especially limit the ability of the party to move deeply into a location and carry out treasure or continue exploration after setback. When there are three fighters in the front line and one is grievously injured it’s a setback, but one far less grievous than when the group’s only front line combatant is nearly dead. Likewise, such a group likely needs the same amount of healing (damage output is the same), but will have fewer resources. A small party running classic rules only has one or two combat encounters in them, and with a large dungeon and the frequent random encounter checks that are useful for making dungeon size matter, must proceed with far greater caution and guile.
On the plus side, smaller groups are both easier to run and reduce the amount of time spent on decision making, so work well with shorter sessions, and may allow for exploring a greater amount of scenes/rooms in the same amount of time … at least until they face combat. Ultimately, small groups, like shorter session lengths are a common condition of contemporary play that militates for a different approach to design, smaller locations with greater numbers of exits and entrances and more limited use of combat as an obstacle (a penalty or inevitable consequence of risk taking still, but not the most common and recurring impediment to exploration progress).
Perhaps the contemporary condition of play most unfathomable to Gygax and crew back in the 1970’s and 1980’s was the advent of online play through both chat/meeting software and now dedicated virtual tabletop programs. As with online work, online play presents its own issues with intensity, fatigue and focus. With games however it creates additional and unique considerations. At a basic level online play demands better meeting skills from the participants, such as a willingness to avoid interruption, crosstalk and take turns speaking more generally (all made worse by the small delays and noise balancing of the medium). From a games specific viewpoint, online play makes sharing maps, character sheets and other handwritten media more difficult. An example of real consequence for classic play is that player mapping becomes a far greater chore over an online platform.
The most serious difficulty, and one additive to limitations imposed by the other contemporary conditions of play, is fatigue. “Zoom Fatigue” is a much discussed side effect of virtual chats and online meetings that has become a popular point of discussion in business management circles and the press as the pandemic moves some varieties of work online. Effectively, greater “fatigue” is the result of the close eye contact, limited visual range, greater cognitive load, and other physical and mental strains imposed by the online meeting format. This applies to online games as well. Online meeting skills and work arounds abound, but since unlike meetings and work chats, games aren’t something we’re forced to engage in for sustenance, it seems unlikely that merely lessening the unpleasant aspects of prolonged virtual interaction will encourage people to play longer sessions. My own experience with Zoom fatigue, and the anecdotes I’ve heard from other long term virtual players suggest that a 2-3 hour session is about as much as most people can take before they tune out, fall asleep, drink to excess, or begin to get restless.
The Past is a Foreign Country and Nostalgia a Seductive Liar!
It also seems to be an open question if Dungeons & Dragons was ever played in the long campaign arc, long session format that Gygax championed. The 1976 editorial referenced above is at least partially a response to and attack on the style of play described in Alarums & Excursions, Lee Gold’s magazine that at the time detailed the ways the community of Dungeons & Dragons players around CalTech understood and approached the game. The CalTech (also known as “Dungeons & Beavers” after the school’s mascot) approach would prove incredibly influential to later TSR design, and its emphasis on genre emulation, steep power curves, and player character primacy appear to be far more influential then the Lake Geneva emphasis on logistics and other war game sensibilities.
One possible reason that the sort of play Gygax seems to have decried as too easy and too heroic has come to dominate Dungeons & Dragons design may be that the assumptions GYgax makes about the conditions of play are themselves unmanageable. Players want to experience the full sweep of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy within a reasonable time frame, and most refuse to wade through ten or fifteen years of grueling weekly sessions to get to the point where the stories they are telling are of dragon riding lords battling for cosmic power.
Whatever the link between Gygax’s ideal of play, its historical actualities and the common present conditions it’s worth repeating again that the rules of classic Dungeons & Dragons as written aren’t designed for the ways most people play. As a designer or referee it’s worth considering this and looking for ways to adapt your games to the actual conditions at your table (or more likely your virtual table). It is rarely best to fortify one’s design in the tersely described grey stone goblin warrens of a classic megadungeon without considering how far into the maze your three hours of adventure will take the adventurers and how they will have to return. For megadungeons, one common complaint is that adventurers quickly leave the dungeon seeking above ground challenges, and a big part of this may be a desire to spend more of the session engaging in with actual obstacles, puzzles and encounters then in a dungeon where the first hour is likely to be spent negotiating previously explored areas, and the vast number of rooms are empty.
This route is the one that the hobby has taken more generally, to largely discard or ritualize the dungeon crawl, converting it to a genre itself, and creating ways (zone based dungeon design or the encounter focused small locations of contemporary WotC adventures come immediately to mind) but if one wishes to preserve the core of the dungeon crawl play style, and retain the design principles and play ethics described above, something more than an aesthetic nod to the genre of location based adventure seems necessary.
To discuss preserving the dungeon crawl and the spirit of classic play under the contemporary conditions of play will likely be the next project for All Dead Generations, along with publishing adventures and perhaps even rules or procedure guides that enable it. Some of these preservatives have already been mentioned on this blog, but there are many potential paths still -- too many to write about in this post. Changes can, and perhaps need, to be made in both the orthodox principles of classic adventure design and the mechanics for exploration themselves.