If you’re at all plugged in to the RPG blog world, you probably noticed the controversy that raged a few weeks ago over an extremely negative review of James Maliszewski’s megadungeon Dwimmermount. I’ve waited until the flames went down to cover the debate, mostly to fit with this blog’s ethos of compiling all the info you could need in one place, but also to give myself a bit of time to sift and assess the many words that were written about the issue. So without further ado, let’s jump into these choppy waters…
It all began with a post at Joethelawyer’s Wondrous Imaginings blog, with the unambiguous title “Played Dwimmermount Last Night. Sucked.” In short, Joe claims that Dwimmermount is boring. His specifics: too many empty rooms, too many features that the players can’t interact with, and too many coins in perfectly round numbers.
At various stages in the debate, others who played in this session weighed in. Michael Garcia of The Crazy GM one-upped Joethelawyer’s bluntness with a post entitled “Play report, aka Dwimmermount Blows Donkey.” Eric Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern, the session’s GM, wrote a far more measured post, ”Closing the Door on Dwimmermount,” in which he describes how he intentionally ran the dungeon as written “to be as true to [it] as we could,” and politely concludes that “[c]urrently, Dwimmermount is not a match to my gaming group’s style of play.”
The controversy really got cooking over at therpgsite, with a thread started by Black Vulmea that openly (though non-confrontationally) asked Joethelawyer what he was expecting, and where Dwimmermount didn’t deliver. Many OSR heavyweights make their opinions known, including Erik Jensen, Rob Conley, Benoist, Melan, Roger the Game Sage, Kent, and Justin Alexander. There’s some sniping and backbiting in the thread, but it mostly turns on questions of what a megadungeon needs in order to engage the players, and thus has some value as a read.
The big argument here is about Room 46, which holds 9 giant rats, 2000 cp, and some jewelry. All the treasure is hidden in the rubbish of the room. The arguments against boil down to…
- Rats shouldn’t be paired with so much treasure for no reason
- Coins shouldn’t come in perfectly round numbers
- Rats and rubbish aren’t inherently interesting
The main argument advanced in Dwimmermount’s defense is that it’s up to the GM to breathe life into the necessarily sparse key of a massive dungeon, in short, to make a room of rats more than just a room of rats. Justin Alexander makes a great post (bottom of page 2) detailing how he would have written the room, turning the rats into mysterious little acolytes of some god. But he still lays the blame at Maliszewski’s feet for not doing this work ahead of time: “When I talked… about the fact that Maliszewski’s method of expanding his minimalist key mostly consisted of using more words to describe a minimalist key, this is what I was talking about.”
Anyway, the greater blogosphere began weighing in. Stephan Poag discussed the exactly-2000-cp issue in detail, assessing other options for hoard math, and ended up thinking that maybe big round numbers aren’t so bad. JD Jarvis of Aeons & Augauries advised measuring coins in pouches, chests, sacks, etc. instead of numbers (until the party had time to count). So did Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, and gave more detail in a second post. Roger the Game Sage offered 9 Rats, 2000 CP: 5 Variations on a Theme, and later, Flip That Dungeon Cliche. Greg Gillespie of Barrowmaze fame started a discussion of empty rooms, and mentioned that he enjoyed playing Dwimmermount under JMal’s GMing.
Stephan Poag also started having doubts about megadungeons in general, suggesting they were perhaps an OSR fad that is now fading due to the sporadic nature of most players’ game schedules. Naraoia leapt In Defense of the Megadungeon at the Mule Abides, discussing the demographics and quirks of the nearly-150-session Chateau D’Ambreville megadungeon campaign he plays in, but ultimately deciding that “in the end, if megadungeons were boring, none of these things would matter.” (And, incidentally, making me kind of miss living near NYC, where apparently this game has been happening for ages without my knowledge.) Gus L of Dungeon of Signs, who runs the campaign that Joethelawyer holds up as an example of what megadungeons should be, took the opportunity to opine on how to keep megadungeon play fresh. Noisms wondered if playing published modules might actually be a bad thing, “whether the effect might rather be to entrench standard practices, restrain innovation, and above all waste time.”
Finally, -C gave a nod to the controversy while describing what will set his Numenhalla dungeon apart (an interesting list of what megadungeons should strive for) and then really hit the megadungeons-are-dead meme hard as a “misrepresentation of facts,” arguing that megadungeons are still exploding in popularity, and a few rats and coppers can’t kill them. (He also links to this humble blog as an example of megadungeons’ continued popularity. Thanks!)
So that’s the roundup. The controversy seems to have died down, and my guess is that the people who love megadungeons will go on writing and running and exploring them like always. I think the greatest value to come out of the debate is a narrowing of focus on what megadungeons should contain. In all the links above it’s very tough to find a defense of Dwimmermount as written. People defend megadungeons, people argue that Dwimmermount is still a draft, people explain how they’d run Dwimmermount– but nobody really comes out and says “nine rats, two thousand coppers– it’s perfect.”
The argument really hinges on two things: internal logic and player agency.
Internal logic is a major question in megadungeon design. The anti-2000-copper people say that it simply doesn’t make sense to have coins in perfect amounts (one poster snarkily asks if the coppers were in penny rolls like at the bank). The other side replies that it’s unnecessary busywork to make every hoard 1,997 or 2,008 coppers. Unless your PC is Rain Man, he can’t tell the difference between the two at a glance, and round numbers save your players from some game-slowing arithmetic.
But ultimately this gets at perhaps the big question about megadungeons, the “fun-house versus logical-lair” argument. Is the purpose of a megadungeon just a place to exercise player skill? In that case, you can have all the traps and rooms of orcs and round coin counts you want, because you’re playing the dungeon as a game of survival and advancement. Or is a megadungeon really about telling a story, the tale of every lost culture, mad wizard, and greedy dragon that ever haunted its halls? If that’s how you play it, you should make sure your coin piles include odd counts of specific coins (97 gold iruds from Illuvia, 144 silver wolves from Mercia because Mercians are superstitious about the number twelve, etc. etc.) just as you make sure your power factions have clear motivations and trap-free escape routes. If it’s a game, give them 2,000 coppers. If it’s a simulation, give them details.
I believe that the internal logic question is a matter of taste, for both the designer and the players. Player agency, however, is not. Player agency is a must. Reading the many accounts and arguments about this now-notorious Dwimmermount session, what I really hear again and again is “there was nothing for us to do.” There’s a room with ghosts playing chess, but they apparently can’t be interacted with, just watched. Ditto the statues whose heads have all been replaced by depictions of the same god. Finding the rats’ treasure is a matter of spending three ten-minute turns searching while the GM rolls for wandering monsters. And so on.
I haven’t played or read Dwimmermount. I prefer to wait for finished versions, and I can only imagine that James Maliszewski will be returning to some of his room descriptions after all this hoo-ha. But from what I’m hearing, the dungeon is low on player agency. That is to say: there’s plenty of interesting stuff to look at, and history to learn about, and things to fight, but there isn’t much for players to do. Players must be given choices to make, objects to play with, puzzles to solve. The things they find in one area should interact with the things they find in another area, not just in an intellectual way but in a physical way. It ties back to the discussion of traps as puzzles from a few weeks ago. The players– not the characters– must be challenged. Otherwise you’re just rolling dice.
I’ve been working very hard to put this ethos into action in my adventure “Palace of the Pleasure Pilgrims,” the Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future post-apoc dungeon I talked about in the traps-as-puzzles post. I keep going back to my notes and adding more things for players to interact with, more puzzles that tie multiple rooms together, and so on. The day approacheth: I’m running the Palace for the first time at midnight Friday night (Saturday morning to you purists) at Geek Media Expo here in Nashville. (If you’re coming to the con, join my game! If you’re not coming to the con, you’re a bad person who should be shunned by all right-thinking citizens!) The Palace isn’t a megadungeon– it’s a paltry 36 rooms or something like that– but everything I’m doing in it applies a hundred times over in the megadungeon. If the Palace is a bust, the players can leave and explore anywhere else in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Arcentis (well, not at a con game, but you know what I mean). If your tentpole megadungeon doesn’t challenge and engage the players with interactivity, the campaign will fold. And if enough megadungeon campaigns fold, then it really will be the end of the megadungeon.
And we don’t want that. After all, I have this domain name registered for the next year at least.