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Friday, 22 January 2010

It's My Dungeon And I'll Cry If I Want To...

There is an art to designing a dungeon, a craft that requires a combination of planning and the imagination in order to help fashion a setting from which the DM and his players can play a game and create a story. Sadly, it is not at an art that I have managed to master, no matter how many books or magazine articles that I read on the subject, and the truth of the matter is that I am a better player than I am a DM just as I am a better reviewer and editor than I am a writer. Nevertheless, I have read, reviewed, and on the odd occasion, played enough adventures and modules for Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (yes, even that venerable game got its own dungeon in the form of Karak Azgal: Explore the Mountain Kingdoms of the Dwarfs), so I can at least recognise the good from the bad. That though, still does not deal with my own inability to create a good dungeon. Fortunately, there is something available that can help.

Planet-Thirteen’s How to Host a Dungeon: a solo game of dungeon creation is part tool and part game that enables the user to create not only the physical outline of a dungeon, but also its history and effect upon the surface world. It begins in the Primordial Age and follows the rise of an underground dwelling people during the Age of Civilisation through to their decline following the Great Disaster. Of course the Civilisation will leave behind barracks, breeding chambers, storerooms, great halls and palaces, and so on, and it is into these ruins that new races will move so beginning the Age of Monsters. At the same time, kingdoms will arise on the surface and eventually take an interest in the ruins below them, the infamy of the ruins growing until it attracts someone or some being bent on world domination. Thus begins the Age of Villainy and the history of the dungeon is done all ready to be explored by some plucky band of adventurers. Or rather a band of adventurers – known as the player characters – that is both pluckier and luckier than the adventuring parties that have gone before it.

It needs to be made clear though, the end product of the process that How to Host a Dungeon guides you through does not give you a fully mapped dungeon. Rather it provides a cutaway view of the dungeon side on. There is advice on how to map the dungeon, but it is far from comprehensive, and anyone wanting further advice will have to look elsewhere. Fortunately the publisher’s site provides several links that might prove helpful.

The “game” comes as a sheaf of twenty-four card sheets, all in black and white, and divided into the various ages explored by the game. The cards are self-contained and in playing through the game there is relatively little cross referencing between one card and another, although this becomes necessary in its later stages. The cards are engagingly illustrated in a heavy cartoonish style that gives How to Host a Dungeon a certain gonzo style. The game though, does not come complete and to get the most out of it, you will also need a pad of tracing paper (but light paper will also do), pens and pencils in different colours, beads in at least three colours, and the usual polyhedral dice. You will also need one thumb and one finger. These are used for measurement purposes and need not be your own, as are the beads, but they probably need to be your own.

You begin the dungeon in the Primordial Age with a blank sheet of tracing paper placed in front of you in landscape format. At the top is line indicating the surface and six numbers are placed down the side to indicate depth. You roll dice to determine what lay beneath the earth long ago – anything from natural caverns that might home to the plague, primeval creatures, or even an ancient wyrm, to an underground river or veins of gold or mithral ore. The location of each of these is determined by dropping a die onto the sheet of paper, the amount of ore determined a roll of a six-sided die. Beads of one colour represent the ore (and treasures) while another colour is used to indicate population levels.

All of these elements are drawn directly onto the tracing paper, but as soon as one age ends and another begins, another sheet of tracing paper is placed over the top of the previous sheet and it is onto this new sheet that the details and events of the new age will be drawn. Over the course of an Age, the current inhabitants of the dungeon expand and increase the area that they control or simply wander its existing halls and tunnels and so encounter other groups. Invariably conflict ensues and a story hook is created. For this purpose I would suggest having a notebook to hand so that the events that occur during a dungeon’s creation can be noted and used to help create the legends and rumours about it.

It is the gold and mithral ore placed in the Primordial Age that fuels the working of the dungeon. Dwarves or Dark Elves will be attracted to it and in mining the deposits will establish themselves below during the Age of Civilisation, constructing ever greater buildings and creating fabulous treasures for as long as there is still ore to mine. Alternatively, a banished demon prince and his horde might appear in the depths and spread out upwards in search of both this ore and slaves to sacrifice in the hope that he can lead his forces back from whence he came. Until you have some experience with How to Host to a Dungeon, it is suggested that only one civilisation establish itself in the realms below, but it is possible to run two or more in tandem, and if their halls or chambers intersect then war ensues.

How the Age of Civilisation ends depends upon the race in question. It might end in a Great Disaster, such as an earthquake or a volcanic eruption (my Dwarves were driven from their halls after the earth itself was cracked by a Fallen Star), or a race might dig too deep (and unleash the disaster) or too high and bring war down upon from the surface against the Dark Elves, or from Heaven against the Demons. In the wake of the Great Disaster, the abandoned halls below begin to be explored by monsters (from below and from the surface) and by parties from the surface kingdoms. This is the Age of Monsters and is where play increases in complexity as you switch back and forth between the cards for the monsters and the card for the Surface Kingdoms. The monsters are categorised by archetype – Delving Groups, Breeding Groups, Alpha Predators, and Wandering Monsters – and have a card each that describes their behaviour and activities during the Age of Monsters. Each card also suggests a monster type for each category, such as Druegar for Delving Groups and Ogre Magi for Alpha Predators. A last category lets adventurer parties explore the dungeon and steal its treasures and the undead to rise and guard this treasure. It is entirely possible for the undead to consist of dead adventurers!

The Age of Monsters will eventually lead into the Age of Villainy usually brought about because the monsters grew in number and either attracted the attention of a potential tyrant or because they boiled up from below ground and ransacked the Surface Kingdoms. It is also possible for another Great Disaster to occur and wipe out the dungeon’s monsters, only for it to be repopulated and a second Age of Monsters to take place. With the beginning of the Age of Villainy comes another escalation in term of the game’s complexity, as the user is not only swapping between the cards for the monsters and the Surface Kingdoms, but now also the card for the dungeon’s newly arrived arch-villain – or two if you really want to complicate matters – and you will be pushing around various coloured beads to represent the monsters, the villains, and delvers from the surface.

As with the Age of Monsters, the villains in the Age of Villainy come in various flavours – such as the Thought Lord Cult or Liche King – each with its own card and rules for the villain’s activities. During this time, the dungeon will be beset by curious and greedy adventuring parties and by monsters not under the control of the villain, the likelihood being that they will be the cause of the villain’s eventual downfall.

It is also here that a game of How to Host a Dungeon comes to an end. What the player has in his hand is a handful of layers of tracing paper upon which are drawn the rough markings and notations that chronicle the dungeon’s history. From this history and in particular the key points – for example, when one age ends and another begins or when one race or monster group encounters another – the player or DM can begin to create a story for his dungeon and even begin to map it out in readiness for play.

So far I have described How to Host a Dungeon as a game and given you some idea of how it is “played.” Yet it is not really game, more of a simulation with a limited set of variables comprised of the civilisations, monsters, and villains that ultimately have more influence upon the “play” and the end result than the user does, though said user has some say in where he places his dungeon’s features (and to a lesser extent what each looks like) and he is also free to ignore the rolls made, instead choosing something that he feels to be more appropriate. That said, the limited number of variables does mean that you are not necessarily going to create very many dungeons before you exhaust the possibilities built into How to Host a Dungeon. This still leaves room for extra cards, detailing other underground races or perhaps possible random events.

One real issue with How to Host a Dungeon is that it is underwritten in places and the user will have to decide on how things work at certain points. For example, right at the beginning it does not clearly say how much ore is available to mine from a vein of gold or a mithral deposit. It seems reasonable to assume that the six-sided die rolled for either at the dungeon’s start back in the Primordial Age not only indicates the location for the precious metal, but also the amount. Otherwise, the deposits are quickly mined and a civilisation has little time to get started. In general though, anyone familiar with the dungeon concept as seen in Dungeons & Dragons or Tunnels & Trolls should be able to work around such rules omissions.

As a simulation, How to Host a Dungeon is actually fun to play as you watch your dungeon grow and change and so create a story. The process is undeniably and heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons (and thus by Tolkien in the form of Middle Earth’s Moria) – which shows most obviously in the flavours of monster available during the Age of Monsters – and this means that that the created dungeon can easily be mapped back onto a Dungeons & Dragons game. As a tool for creating dungeons in the classic style How to Host a Dungeon: a solo game of dungeon creation is an entertainingly artful device that talks the same language as the Old School Renaissance as well as more modern reiterations of the game.

So now I can create a dungeon. Unfortunately my dungeon drawing skills probably do not match the scale of my ambitions, but the creator of How to Host a Dungeon, Tony Dowler, is creating his own with his website, Year of the Dungeon.