Gygax's Seven Principals of the DM's Function


There has been some online complaints made by dungeon masters who feel that they had already played their best game. This thought is one that I do not find acceptable; in fact, by entertaining thoughts like that we are allowing ourselves to become complacent. If this happens, than it is probably time to sit on the other side of the screen for a while. The DM has many many functions, and it is his duty to never stop working on improving his ability to become better; true mastery, I feel, is unattainable. If we lose the ability to critique our work, we cannot grow. We must be critical of ourselves, but what is it exactly that we actually do? According to the games co-creator, Gary Gygax, he identified seven principal functions which we are responsiblefor; while it is very easy to become good at each, a true level of mastery is not actually possible, we can always improve our skills.


BECOME A MOVING FORCE

This skill does not mean that you railroad the players: that is simply providing the function, but it is a very weak attempt at doing so. To become a proper mover one has to plant seeds as one goes. This does not mean that you go out and buy the latest and greatest module and force your players to sit through it. There are many layers of storytelling that we are seeding, small ones as well as large ones. Most of this can be provided by identifying plausible and unexpected consequences. As soon as the game starts, and the players are making decisions there are consequences for these decisions, some good, and some not so good. We must also seek to become unpredictable, we offer many options as the game flows and the players chose which options that they want to pursue, this alone probably removes most modules from play. Your players will also be unpredictable, but if they get stuck than it is our job to move them before this even happens. We have to be aware of what seeds we are planting, and what unresolved plots are doing; if the players chose to ignore something today, it could spiral out of control and we have to let it do this.

We still want the players in control of their own destinies, however they still need us to guide them. If we offer no options then we are offering too many options. Decisions must be made, but in order for the players to make decisions they must be offered questions. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, we don’t want to lead the party, but we also want to keep everybody engaged. The party moves as one, but they should also move as individuals as well, meaning that some of the seeds that we are planting are for specific players, they are the stars of the show, they are calling the shots.

If you had spent three weeks designing a mine, and the players decide to not go into this mine, we’ve got to figure out a way to either encourage them to enter through encounters, else put it away and save it for later. Under no circumstances should they be trusting you. A good rule of thumb for me is that if you feel that you are being railroaded into something, then you’d best get off the tracks because you are being manipulated. Becoming a proper moving force takes years of practice, you don’t want to get caughtdoing it, but you don’t want to leave your players unaware of what there is to do. They must feel that they are agents of free will, because they are, but there is a balance to doing it well that is not static in any way. Finding quiet and different ways to nudge the party along when they need it is a subtle skill, and one can always do it with more creativity and tact than we’d done previously. We must never allow something to become passé.

CREATOR

Even if we use a published setting, we are still responsible for creating everything in this world. We do so because of necessity, but we are also exploring creativity.  This is more than just imagination; we must also be organized to properly catalog our world when it is required. This is a non-stop learning process, just because we have a map and a brief synopsis of what an area is like does not mean that we are ready to play there. We create on paper, as well as create at the table while playing the game; this goes back to adventure seeds and becoming a moving force. We must be inspired to create, and allow ourselves to enjoy doing it. Not only do we create basic necessities, we can always go just a little bit further, add just a little bit more detail. Create thoughtfully and with intent to move things along.

DESIGNER

Paying someone to design stuff for you is boring. While it is fine to steal and twist established ideas, if one does nothing but use the designs of others, what is it that you are really accomplishing here? Designing and Creating are linked together, but they aren’t the same thing. We create an orcish war party, but we must design how this war party will try and attack. We create a dungeon, but first we must design it.

I don’t care who you are, you aren’t an expert designer, things can always be tighter, we want everything different, there are also many play styles to try, and they all haven’t been invented yet. It is okay to open every game out with a goblin war, as long as you can design it to flow and function differently each time. Becoming repetitive and complacent go hand in hand, if an encounter falls apart, you’ve got to identify why and how you can design it better next time. Even if the design worked perfectly, it will never be repeated, no matter what, this is a major part of our job.

ARBITER

We must be aware of our rules; our chosen system represents the physics of our realm. Some people feel that they get bored of a system; this typically means that they are not focusing on the other principle functions. The rules are there to make our lives easier, and they allow us to do things consistently, that is all. One need not be an expert of the rules, but they do have to be aware of them. We depend upon our rules to help us design. We create new rules to either improve our base system or to speed up play. It doesn’t matter what this system is, you must master it and once you’ve got a system mastered do not switch systems. Have we ever got a system mastered? Probably not, and it would be a waste of time to try and memorize every chart and rule in it. Mastery, in this sense, is knowing your way around the books, being able to find something fast, or better yet, before play. The rules are tools which you can depend upon. They help us design by filling in all of the gaps so we can work on other elements of the design.

OVERSEER

We supervise and manage people. Managing people is a skill, even if these people get along, which hopefully they do, we must keep them productive. We pit players against each other, but we must also help them to resolve that issue. A role-playing session that goes on for too long leaves everybody not involved in it out in the cold, we’ve got to keep everybody engaged, and this is a dance that we are always learning and tinkering with. We make sure that the quiet people have a voice; that those who are following must lead; that those who have become complacent players in their own right must be challenged. DM’s are interactive with a group of people and we can’t forget this. If the players fail to accomplish their goals, this may be because of some fault of our own.

Many problems which happen at the table usually can be traced right to this source. A player who is a bully in an extreme situation, must be dealt with, but somebody who just gets excited, and tends to talk over everybody else probably isn’t doing it on purpose. Usually when a problem is happening it isn’t identified right away, not until it becomes an issue; thus, learning how to catch this stuff before it blows up is something that is learned over time though experience.

The Dungeon Master is the boss, and while it is our job to make the character’s lives miserable, the players depend upon us to be a good manager, to provide a safe and productive environment in which everybody can imagine and create and make something meaningful together.

DIRECTOR

Besides creating the world, we also bring it to life. Wemust be aware of our audience, what their expectations are and making sure that these expectations are being fulfilled. While we are all creating, it is our duty to bring the setting to life, and to do that we have to learn proper pacing. We seek to manipulate the emotions of the players, we speed up play, we slow it down, we don’t want to read giant text blocks to force a specific picture into the players heads, we have to draw simple and basic shapes and let their imaginations fill in the rest. This is a skill that is also learned over time. This is where your personal style and voice comes in. If you can discover these things, then you can offer your players an experience that they can’t get just anywhere.

Knowing when to break out the miniatures so that everybody is on the same page, but knowing when not to as well; knowing when to separate the party and when to keep them together, there are many tricks and formulas that you’ve got to use, and you are never going to master this, but if it isn’t there in any shape or form then everybody is going to get bored.

REFEREE

While a high degree of passion is required to be a Dungeon Master, we must also allow the dice to function. We have to blend rules with design. We have to make difficult calls, and we have to stick to plans. We have to bend rules, yet abide by them. We’ve got to have faith is our system to allow it to have its influence upon the game.  If the dice decide to up and kill everybody because of miserable rolls, we have to say, “Well, that wasn’t very much fun. Let’s try that again, shall we?”  However if somebody takes a risk, you also have to allow them to fail. We must be impartial, yet passionate. We must design but not become a slave to them. We are allowed to say “No.” But we are allowed to say yes too.

We must be fair, not just to the players, but to ourselves as well. If the monsters win, then they’ve won. If somebody at the table does nothing but make called shots, then you as the DM should be doing it as well. We must be able to interpret rules, and apply them as accurately as we can. We must invent rules on the fly to keep a pace going, but we must stop the game sometimes as well, just to refresh everybody on how a situation will be judged so that everybody is on the same page. Being a referee takes experience, and quick thinking. It involves making a decision and sticking to it. It involves being unpopular sometimes, keeping the players honest, allowing a system to function and knowing when it isn’t.

2121 Tome of Magic review



The Tome of Magic, I just want to say that I don’t really care for this book, but I will try my best to give it a fair review. There are those out there that love this book, and those out there that hate it . . . I am neither. I have no feelings about this book at all. I bought it years ago and on the rare occasion that I pick it off of the shelf, I usually set it back down without finding anything of any value what so ever. I want to say that in all of the years that I’ve owned it, I have only found one single instance where I used it, which was last month; that is many many years of gaming, friends. I don’t know, maybe I’ve used it before and promptly forgot about it, the Tome of Magic is that kind of book.

It was released in June of 1991, and is the cumulative effort of David Cook, Nigel Findley, Anthony Herring, Christopher Kubasik, Carl Sargent, and Rick Swan. It also features some nice art. I always thought that it was strange for this book to be hardbound, the material found within it isn’t stuff that you are really going to use all the time, it came about because Dave Cook thought that there was some holes in the 2e spell list, which is really kind of crazy, 2nd Edition has some severe bulk issues when it comes to spells, there are lots of them in the Player’s Handbook which people complain about because many think of them as throw aways.

CHAPTER I: How to Use Tome of Magic

In case you don’t know how to use a book, then this section is for you! Just kidding. This section is very dated, it was written when this information was brand new and they thought that people wanted to logically explain why clerics suddenly get new spells that they didn’t have before, which isn’t relevant anymore. One of the things that it does offer is adding the Wild Mage to your core rules. Personally, I’ve never really done this. I’m not opposed to it, it just isn’t anything that has really come up in my campaign. Looking at them, they look like a DM’s nightmare, I always found NPC wizards difficult already and I honestly don’t want to deal with even more book work, maybe it just looks harder than it really is. These rules and alternative tables look more interesting and more advanced than the version introduced to us in Forgotten Realms Adventures.*

The Tome also does some modifying to the cleric’s spells and how they function, specifically in regards to cooperation, which is very welcome into the game.

CHAPTER II: Wizard’s Spells

None of these spells are all that exciting, but they weren’t supposed to be. They aren’t spells that are all that useful, or different from the core spells found in the PHB, except if you specifically write for them, but there are two camps: Those that want lots of spells, and those that think that there are just way to many, admittedly I think that there are way to many, but at least with wizards, there are limits on how many spells that a character can have, while you want to make sure that the mage has a good balance, it is nice to have lots of spells to choose from to fill in their lists, but how much is too much? I suppose that that is a personal question that everybody has to ask themselves. What really irritates me about the mage is that at 9th level they can create their own spells, which is difficult when there are so many spells already out there, however I know that I am nitpicking. When you are playing a wizard you tend to notice the holes present in the system more than the Dungeon Master does.


CHAPTER III: Priest Spells

This could had been a mess, but thankfully this book added new Spheres, for the most part, over just adding spells to the existing ones. Clerics are hard to play! Especially when magic is required, and this book tends to make it even more difficult, instead of speed reading one book looking for ideas for something that you can do, now you have two books to go through.

Another big problem with this section is that the new spheres aren’t in The Complete Priest’s Handbook, as the Tome was written afterwards. As a cleric, I generally ignore this thing unless I’ve got a huge problem. The way that I have found to get around it is through scrolls.

The Tome does offer a concept which they call “Quest Spells” that are pretty interesting. These are very powerful spells for both PCs and NPCs which can add story elements that you can’t normally achieve without ignoring things. I guess to me it is an attractive concept, and it is fairly well written so that it doesn’t break everything around it. By making sacrifices you can introduce some awesome concepts to your games which can take some interesting directions.

While I do have mixed feelings about adding this book as core to the 2e system, I always end up doing it simply because these spells have been play-tested, now I’m not afraid to write my own, but that can take a lot of book work to figure out something that at the end of the day really doesn’t matter. It is just easier to look through the handbooks for spells, and when it comes down to writing one, it is nice to have lots of examples to look at so that you can categorize it properly. What this books spells do do is offer nice and tight mechanics, which I might not be able to achieve on my own.

CHAPTER IV: Magical Items

I never use this chapter, I think that the DMG wastes too much space with detailing these things, and then you’ve got this book which adds even more. As a new user, I liked reading sections like these, but as a well-seasoned DM I find them absolutely worthless. I almost always create my own magical items for the game, I am stingy when it comes to them and when I put one into play there is usually a reason.

APPENDIX I-III

These are nice, they collect all of the core spells and categorize them; there is one for wizards and one for priests, and then an index which cross-references with the PHB. Now I prefer playing with the old PHB, and I use the first printing of the Tome of Magic as well, thus this index is accurate, but if you use the black PHB, unless you have the appropriate version of the Tome, these page numbers won’t be right.

SUMMARY

This is a popular book, there is no denying that. It saw many reprints and even reappeared for 3e. It does offer options, but I wish that it would had offered more than it does. I remember when I first bought this book I had some expectations and once I got it home and read it, I didn’t feel that those expectations were met.  I just don’t have much use for this book. I would had liked to see the clerical magic system reworked, but that never happened until Wizards of the Coast took over. I probably should use this product more than I do, and I would if I  played more magical settings than I typically run. It would make the NPCs that I create different, but honestly, this has never been a noticeable problem for me, but that is due to my personal style.

The physical specs of this book are incredible. Because I used to be a mobile DM, this book was almost always on the bottom of the bag and took a lot of punishment, which it handled like a champ. It is weird that it was hardbound, it boosted the price up, but because it was hardbound I think that more people bought it than normally would had. Typically the hardbound handbooks are awesome, which personally I don’t feel to be the case here. You can play the game for the rest of your life and never once need this book. It isn’t even a very good luxury item. At the time I originally bought it, I felt ripped off and gave it a D-, but as it has sat on my shelf for many years now, and I do pick it up from time to time, I can see how this book can spark some creative slumps, and give a campaign a little bit more color than it normally might, so I’ll improve this rating to a very shaky C+. This book was written for a specific market, and I do not fit this market, so admittedly, I’m just a bad judge of this thing because I have little use for what it offers.

Cost wise, you’ve got to be careful with this one, like I said before, if this book doesn’t match up with your Players Handbook then you won’t be able to use the index, which is one of its best features. Don’t trust pictures, if you use the black PHB you’ll need to buy the ToM printed after 1995, and likewise, any ToM published after 95 won’t match the handbooks printed before it. PDFs are probably better here, but honestly, this book really isn’t even needed to play the game so you can skip it unless you find some cool deal where you can get away with spending 5-10 dollars on the hardcopy while perusing your favorite used book store.  

*EDIT: The Tome of Magic introduces the Wild Mage as a playable character, the concept of Wild Magic was introduced in Forgotten Realms Adventures

Gothic Earth Episode 3, The Playthings of the Devil



SPOILER WARNING: If you are playing or plan to play Bleak House, don't read this. This is my tables play-notes for events which took place during last game session. 


We actually got finished with the scenario that I ripped out of the Ravenloft Box Set: Bleak House. I thought that I would be able to get a few more sessions out of this bad boy, but apparently the Players didn’t like being confined, tortured, and toyed with so they said No More, and came up with this plan of making a pact with the devil possessing the major NPC Boyd Weathermay, hoping that the demon, once free would attack the Vampire Doctors who were conducting sick and gruesome experiments on their patients. Unfortunately they miss read the signs; Boyd wasn’t a prisoner at all, he was actually in charge.

Wait, lets back up. They were locked in an asylum, an evil Doctor was using them as Guinee pigs, claiming that he was curing mental illness, all he was really doing was driving people insane. Last session they were able to get an idea of the layout of the Asylum, and learned to follow the rules else face harsh consequences.  This session they started delving into the mysteries of the people which live here. They thought that this guy named Edward was a raving lunatic, but it turned out that he wasn’t actually crazy, his Intelligence had been artificially raised to god-like levels, making him more than human and he found it very difficult to communicate with lower life-forms (namely everything else on this planet). He was able to get the party to start listening to him by offering up a clue to something that the Medium should see in the Library. A hollowed out book which somebody had hidden a diary detailing them witnessing a fellow inmate dying and coming back as an orderly, as well as a Cleric’s scroll with a new spell to my game called “Body Clock” (a side not, and a spoiler for later posts, I got this spell from the Tome of Magic, a book that I’ve owned for over 20 years and THIS was the first time that I actually got any use of the thing), which the mystic could use to defeat the Sleep Spell Dominioni used, but it only had 3 charges left.

They were able to figure out that the staff of this place were undead. They were also able to figure out that something even worse was going on, somehow they had been taken to Ravenloft (which was actually the other way around, Dominioni had found a tear in Ravenloft and was able to come to this world, however he was a Dark Lord, and all of Ravenloft’s specialty rules were active. Instead of a magically dead Victorian world, they were in a very magically charged bubble of pure evil.

They had only one weapon that would harm anything in here, a cane that had been given to the gunslinger by Van Helsing, all of their stuff had been confiscated when they allowed themselves to be check into this hospital. They were able to find some stuff, once they snuck into the Doctors personal chamber, and discovered exactly what they were up against, which was bad. The way to kill him was to figure out when he slept, and stake him using a hammer that I was going to introduce in the next session.

There was also a government conspiracy going on, Germany went through a rather shocking regime change, and it just so happens that one of the PC’s is a Prussian spy, who has ties to the old regime that was ran by Bismark, who also just so happens to be kept here. Other spies had infiltrated the Asylum, hoping to extract him, but each were always caught and met bad ends, she was able to recognize her former spy master, reduced to a mental age of 5 year old, playing with dolls on the floor and going through old code words. Once the PC spy found Bismark, she knew that it was her duty to get him out of here, the trouble was that everything brought to him he thought was one of the Doctor’s games. He never left his cell, for any reason and was so paranoid that he trusted nothing that was said to him.

They were also able to properly interview Boyd, a character that they had heard since the very first game at the beginning of the campaign, but hadn’t actually met until last session. They were able to identify 3 distict personalities: His own, a boy of 10 years old in a man’s body, the demon, and a third, a paladin claiming to be from some storybook world whose name was George Weathermay (the same as his fathers, and this storybook fairy world being Ravenloft. George is listed as a ranger in the Black Box, but I changed his class cause I’m cool like that).  

They did make a few errors, they met their lawyer, who is also Boyd’s lawyer, and the Doctor wheeled in “Boyd”, however the party knew that this wasn’t Boyd, and that this imposter was there to monitor the conversation.  The lawyer knew it too, but played along. The mistake happened when they asked the Lawyer for a book of matches, and they had the gunslinger hide them in a magical item that he had been able to retain which hid stuff. This alerted Dominioni to the fact that they had this, but he’s a devious person who wanted to see how far he could let this go before squishing all of their dreams and hopes of escape.

The other error was trying to make a deal with the devil. They had planned on setting the place on fire, and escaping while the demon was battling Dominioni, which even if the Demon wasn’t the guy in charge, this plan would had failed: The bubble that they were in, conformed to the wishes of the vampire. While inside of it, reality was solely based upon what Dominioni said it was.

This plan was executed, they escaped their cells in the middle of the night, and went upstairs to Boyd’s room, telling the demon that they offer him freedom and a chance to cause chaos. It was then that the demon laughed and mocked them, as if a little vampire could imprison the likes of him! It revealed that he was the master of this asylum, not the Doctor, but it did give the demon a chance to test the Doctor, to see if he was the asset which the vampire claimed to be. The demon, like the Doctor, enjoyed mental games, so instead of killing the PCs, he decided to let this little plot play out.

Once the true nature of the relationship between the Demon and the Doctor was revealed, the players started freaking out. The jig was up, Dominioni was going to know everything and they’d be punished in the morning, the spy got fed up and took the politician back downstairs the cells. They had themselves cornered into the kitchen, the Demon just standing in the doorway smiling at them as they tried to figure out a course of action. Nobody noticed that the spy had slipped away, but they decided to go with setting fire to the asylum anyway, but they didn’t want to fight the demon because it would kill them and they knew it.

The doors were locked, and only the undead could escape the asylum itself, the Demon cast “Feign Undead” upon the party in the kitchen, giving them full access to the asylum, and just waited for the fireworks to start.

The party set fire to the asylum and ran out, it was only then that they realized that the spy and the German Prime Minister had gone back downstairs, and would probably burn to death along with all of the other prisoners, but what’s been done can’t be undone. They just had to ride this roller-coaster. Even the gates out of the Asylum yard were open; they could escape, but probably get rounded up in the morning anyway. This was bad! Nobody knew what to do.

At this point, Dr. Dominioni crashes through his window, escaping the burning hospital in the form of a raven, and confronts the party directly. So there they are, the gunslinger has a weapon that he knows will harm the vampire, two other PCs have wooden stakes, not knowing that they are worthless because the vampire has to be vulnerable to be staked, and a mystic whose last spell had gone totally wrong, she had cast cure light wounds on the spy only to find that an eyeball had appeared on the spot the next day, and it was looking at her.

Dominioni tells them that if they just go back inside and return to their cells, all will be forgiven, but if they leave, then they will all die. This is their one chance to save themselves, so do they take the vampire at his word, or do they fight? Return to get driven insane or die? The players themselves saw this fight as hopeless, they won’t win with 1 guy able to do damage, but role-playing their characters dictated that they not return. They decided that it was best to go out in a blaze of glory. They wanted me to play this monster to the best of my ability and see how long they could last before losing these characters that a couple of them had been playing for a few years now, and had become favorites. There was no whining, no fits at the table, they accepted their fate.

The Archeologist wanted to make sure that they at least got a few shots in before being wasted; he rushed the vampire who grabbed him, busted his arm and used him as a shield while he told the others that it wasn’t too late for them.

Meanwhile, down in the cells, the spy smells smoke and knows exactly what that means, those idiots went through with the plan anyway! She grabbed her charge and attempted to escape the fire, however she found herself trapped at the front door, it wouldn’t open because she wasn’t dead yet, and turning around, she sees all of the orderlies in the place coming to the vampires aid so that they can recapture the party.

Outside, the gun slinger keeps trying to hit the vampire, who gets irritated, throws the archeologist away and decides to kill the gunslinger. I attempt a called shot to the head, and just barely fail it, that is when the gunslinger finally scores a direct hit. Doctor Dominioni is my oldest NPC, he had never been injured before. Not once! Seeing his own blood was kind of shocking to him. This gave the party a couple of rounds to act before I completely vamped out and went on a killing spree. The gunslinger wails on him a couple of times, the mystic hurries up and opens the door for the spy and the prime minister before they are stormed by ghouls and the 3rd level Explorer is doing his best to fade into the background. Him and his stick.

Masque of the Red Death is different, the magic that we use is so low that the players are forced to use spells that under regular conditions would be considered too low powered, It forces you to really rethink what these things can do, and we had a moment during this game that the Mystic discovered that the spell “Stone” worked as a +weapon against undead. This spell changed the tide of battle, she was able to have unlimited ammo, as the ground was covered in stones, and was able to get really good hits against the vampire. Eventually, they were able to do the impossible, drive the Vampire down to zero hp, and as it started to evaporate into a mist, which it would return to its coffin and arise refreshed in the morning to extract its revenge; the 3rd level explorer leaped at it with his stake, and scored a hit! The vampire was staked, and Dominioni, freaking out in a vampiric messy death shot gallons of boiling blood into the explorers face, but the PC kept the pressure on, sealing the vampire’s fate until the last of its evil life was spent. The explorer will bear these scars for the rest of his days. The archeologist is broken, the spy had gouged out the eye in the back of her neck, leaving a seeping eye socket just waiting to get infected, the gunslinger already had an injured leg, the mystic hasn’t much faith in her ability to heal in this terrible place, they have no food, no water, no shelter, no money, and no idea of where to find safe shelter.

The Demon allowed them their victory; he slew the other vampires because they were weak. The ghouls died when Dominioni fell, inmates are trying to escape a burning building that is now engulfed in flames, and the Demon just leaves them to it.

Next game is going to be tough, while I wasn’t able to kill any of them during the combat itself; they are not out of the woods yet. Instead of man vs. monster, next game will be man vs. nature and I don’t expect everybody to make it as those situations are usually worse than any encounter that I can devise, but we’ll just see what happens. I already had the wilderness section prepped in case they attempted to escape early on, so once again I can just use the material that I already had for next game.  Let the hex crawl begin!

1060 Ruins of Undermountain review



What a commercial module is, is an elusive thing which has changed over the years.  What makes a great module? I like a module where the designer talks to you, personally. They shouldn’t hide behind anything, I want them front and center; but a good module, is more of a setting than a novel. Stories are fun, but I don’t really find it to be very satisfying. I prefer a module that gives us a place to play, over one that tells us how to do it. My group and I found this out very quickly, and it can be linked to a specific product, Ed Greewood’s mega dungeon 1060 Ruins of Undermountain.

Undermountain was released in March of 1991, it appeared at 17th place in Dungeon Magazine’s list of The 30 Greatest Modules ofall time. This product is massive, and a very odd one to be released when it was. At this period, TSR was looking to steal all of our games. A few key insiders were providing information to help us avoid being caught up in TSR’s plot-lines, but for the most part, there was a whole lot of meta-gaming going on. TSR wanted you to feel that you weren’t competent to create your own adventures; not because you are stupid, but because creating adventures takes a lot of time and planning which your trusted professionals at TSR will gladly do. It is utter hogwash, and they knew it, but if you repeat the same message long enough, people will believe anything.

Undermountain went against the grain, and I mean WAY against it. TSR had many of its users convinced that the 2nd Edition was a brand new and exclusive product and everything that came before was child’s play, and was completely incompatible with this new and improved system, and then this comes out, and THIS was straight up OD&D. Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. Sure, he had to dumb it down some, and replace some of his stuff with explanations for new players (to conform to TSR’s status quo), but it saved us. It was a life-preserver thrown to those of us drowning in an ocean of commercialism. Ed Greenwood was a DIY kind of guy, and he wanted others to be a DIY kind of guy too; he took the concepts placed before him by Gygax and Arneson, and made them his own. That is how you play the game and he knew it. Greenwood is brilliant, and his writing style was infectious when it came to creativity. Just reading his stuff, one feels his excitement for building, and comes away with confidence that they can do this too.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, my fellow players and I are delving into the grandest dungeon ever published. If the DM even owned a copy of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting Box, we never used it; all we used was Ruins of Undermountain. None of us knew it at the time, but we were playing OD&D; we were getting squished by the DM and laughing about it, not caring that our characters had no chance of survival. This Box Set was just so much fun! This was my first experience with Dungeons & Dragons, and we played it our own way. We started our PCs off at 5th level, we ignored food and water, we ignored how we were carrying all of this stuff around with us, and we even ignored XP. If you survived an entire gaming session you gained a level, which was rare.

Our DM at the time (my first DM) really didn’t like DMing; he would do it, but eventually he’d just want to play so bad that he’d have somebody else DM. They would have a published module and we’d play that but get incredibly bored of it. We rarely, if ever actually finished those things. Even today we just can’t play published adventures straight through, they lack charm and challenge. Back then, we’d get bored of being micromanaged, and we’d go right back to getting squished in Undermountain as soon as we could.

Ruins of Undermountain is, to this day, the largest mega-dungeon ever published*, and it isn’t even complete. This is just the first 3 levels! We played this box for years and years, and never did explore every nook and cranny that it had to offer. Most of the rooms are left blank, to be filled in by the DM, which is crazy talk for a product of the 90’s! DM’s wanted complete products, right? According to TSR they did, but this boxset is better than everything else in their module library. Ruins of Undermountain allowed the new players of the 90’s to experience freedom and creativity that was practically unheard of for a very long time. Greenwood included a whole bunch of room descriptions, and this is true Greenwood, his gift to inspire the users to create without limitations is evident here.

The map is an issue; I know that when we played it, the DM needed the entire table, just for his maps. I had played it again more recently, but this time the DM used the PDF files, which allowed him to have greater control over the map, and he was able to run this thing taking up the small space that was allotted to him at the table. The PDF is also affordable, the original boxsets are going to run you a pretty penny, so even if you do print off every page of the PDF, it will still be much cheaper than forking over the cash just to say that you own a piece of gaming history.

What Ruins of Undermountain is is a setting within a setting, it takes place inside ofthe city of Waterdeep, which takes place inside of Forgotten Realms, but it is still completely independent of them. You could just as easily set Undermountain in any published setting and because of the nature of this thing, it will fit. You don’t need Forgotten Realms, or the Waterdeep Boxsets to play this game. All you need is an open mind, a bunch of scrap paper, and some players. It doesn’t tell you how to play, it can take anything that you want to throw at it, and I do mean EVERYTHING! If you want to use it for telling a story, it can do that. If you want to play go find the flag, it can do that too. If you want to just hang out and play a mindless dungeon delve just to play, it can definitely do that. Versatility and re-play-ability is what makes a product valuable, and this box set is definitely valuable.

It comes with a lot of stuff. Interesting NPCs that you can use, or ignore, new magic items, spells, and monsters, lots and lots of traps and room descriptions, and the cool thing is that anybody can pick this thing up, read it, and use it. As a player, I played this under two different dungeon Masters and got a completely unique and entertaining experience each time. It does have those really good ideas that can bring strangers together talking about it, but it also helps the DM discover his and his clubs play style, or even gives them a chance to mix things up a bit and do something that you might not normally get to do! You can play this setting as a death trap, a place to start your first game, or the place to take high level adventurers to give them one last game before they are retired. That is versatility!

I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound. This product is Dungeons & Dragons, it doesn’t matter what D&D system you are playing, it was reformatted for 2e, but with just a couple of easy tweaks here and there it is core to any edition, and appropriate for any player group. I had talked about returning to the dungeons of yore, and this product allows anybody to try it out. You are the boss! If you just want to use the maps, you can; if you want to make your own maps and use this box for some easy room descriptions, you can use this thing for years, this product truly is a masterpiece! That is why it boggles my mind that TSR allowed it to be released. If you haven’t heard of it, or just assumed that it was 2e module trash, check it out! I think that you’ll really enjoy it.

* Google+ user Mike Wilson told me that Ruins of Undermountain is no longer the largest dungeon ever printed, that honor goes to "The World's Largest Dungeon" which he doesn't recommend buying, but it is technically larger! Thanks Mike, and you do have a point about Bigger isn't always better.
Also, our good friend Jens D. of The Disoriented Ranger fame suggests that we check out this awesome blog post at DM David called Megadungeons in Print and On The Web. DM David quickly reviews other Megadungeons out there, and offers an excellent read!

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A 2nd Edition AD&D holdout, I've played since 1993 and still love it!

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