Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Ultimate Sandbox: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures Part 1

We're finally here at Volume III - The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. This is the book that tells the referee how to run the game, with a focus on the dungeon and the outdoors. It's the Dungeon Master's Guide, really, but much more condensed and without the random hooker tables.

THE UNDERWORLD: This book kicks off by getting right to the heart of the matter - the ref needs to design a Honkin' Big Dungeon before play begins. A sample cross-section is given, with ten levels in all (though with funky numbering like 5, 5-1/2 and 5-3/4, the bottom cavern level is only level 6. Anyway, I'll be using this cross-section as the basis for a dungeon somewhere near the City of Greyhawk.

We follow that with some tips on dungeon design, and we get some tidbits about Greyhawk Castle in the bargain - it has over a dozen levels in succession downwards, and more than that branching off, with at least two levels being worked on at a time. Included here are a museum from another age, an underground lake (The Black Reservoir, I believe it's called), a series of caverns filled with giant fungi, a bowling alley for 20' tall giants, an arena of evil, and some crypts. I'm filing these notes away, and will compare them to Castle Zagyg when I get my hands on it - needless to say, if all of those aren't in there I'll be making some additions of my own.

Then we get a sample level designed to showcase a lot of Gary's simplest tricks, things like slanting passages, rooms that revolve, and just about anything else that would make mapping hard. This isn't really a design to be played through, but more of an example of how these kinds of things can work. Nevertheless I'm going to include it as a part of the sample dungeon anyway, probably on one of the 4th or 5th levels.

A list of tricks and traps follows, and it's the standard stuff for messing up maps and trapping players further into the dungeon than they want to go. I'll be incorporating all of these into the sample dungeon, of course, and there ought to be some in Castle Greyhawk as well.

There are tips for stocking the dungeon and keeping it fresh, and it's interesting to note that Gary advocates leaving large areas basically empty. I suppose when games use a lot of wandering monsters, the ones placed specifically by the DM ought to be a bit more of a rarity. He also advises changing the layout of the dungeon with little regard for verisimilitude. I can buy that in the Underworld - the megadungeon is a weird place, where logic does not necessarily apply, and its twisting tunnels may not always be the way you remembered...

THE MOVE/TURN IN THE UNDERWORLD: It's noted that every inch (") in a dungeon equals 10 feet, not the ten yards of Chainmail. A double move takes ten minutes, also called a turn - except when fleeing, where movement is doubled (and you can't map while running either!).

One turn every hour must be spent motionless, as characters need rest! The gnashing of teeth when I enforce this rule will be mighty.

There are ten rounds of combat per turn, which makes a combat round 1 minute. Gary notes that combat is 'fast and furious' - is he taking the piss?

Secret passages can be found by rolling 1-2 on 1d6, or 1-4 for elves. There's even an optional rule for elves to sense them automatically on 1-2, and this one becomes core later on.

Then we note that most doors won't open by turning the handle, but need to be forced (by rolling 1-2 on 1d6, seemingly regardless of Strength). Doors also automatically close, just for added inconvenience, though they can be wedged open with spikes. Monsters ignore all of these rules and open doors whenever they like, which is so biased and arbitrary that it comes out awesome. Again, I'll be playing that as a special rule for megadungeons, their inherently chaotic nature always working against the PCs.

Characters can listen at doors, with demi-humans all better at it than men. Undead maintain their awesomeness by being utterly silent.

Light sources get some lip service, and we get another arbitrary doozy: "Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character". Once again, the megadungeon did it.

We finish up with a note on fire balls and lightning bolts - more specifically, the tendency of fire balls to expand to their maximum volume, and lightning bolts to rebound from walls. I've always rebounded lightning bolts, but could never be bothered working out the volume for fireballs. I suppose I'll just eyeball it from now on.

UNDERWORLD MONSTERS: This section first deals with how far away monsters are when the players spot them, and whether either side has surprise or not. Surprise is a strange one for me in D&D. It's a pretty simple rule as presented here, but for one reason or another we never used it. Basic, 1e, 2e, the rule is there in each version, but it never made it into my games, where surprise was pretty much a case of DM fiat. Looking at it now, it's the sort of thing that can turn a battle one way or the other, and that's as it should be. It's a very nice rule that I'll be implementing with pleasure. I'm not too certain about the example with the Wyvern, though - it seems to me that it gets two surprise rounds, but I could be wrong.

Wandering Monsters: Wandering monsters are checked for at the end of every turn, with a 1-in-6 chance of appearing - to me that sounds like a lot of random encounters, but that's probably a symptom of me mostly playing in plot-driven games. In those, wandering monsters are a hindrance - in a sandbox, they're another random element for the PCs to deal with as they try to survive in the dungeon.

One thing I love about the Wandering Monster tables is that there's a big chance for monsters of varying power levels. Just because you're on Dungeon Level 1, that doesn't mean you'll only encounter 1st level monsters - if the dice go against you, you could be staring down the barrel of a random encounter with Wraiths or something equally deadly.

The level 2 chart has an entry for Thouls. I remember those in the D&D Basic Set, but they aren't detailed in OD&D. Are they a typo that got turned into a monster? Or a genuine monster that got left out by mistake?

A lot of giant animals that aren't statted up also get entries. Giant Hogs would be my favourite of these. There are also White Apes, again not detailed here. And given the game draws so heavily on Conan, the lack of Ape stats is criminal.

We then get a list of alternate monsters, some of which are mentioned for the first time ever: Giant Crabs, Giant Leeches, Giant Octopi, Crocodiles, Giant Squids, Pterodactyls, Cyborgs, Robots, Androids, Shadows and Dopplegangers. It's obvious here that Gary had far more ideas than he could squeeze into the booklets.

The numbers for wandering monsters appearing is pretty vague - some are solitary, some might have more or less depending on the relative dungeon level, and bigger parties attract more monsters (so much for safety in numbers).

Avoiding Monsters: Role-playing in D&D? Forget it - monsters always attack unless they're smart enough to avoid an obviously superior force. Says so right there in the rules. There are some nice simple rules for pursuit, as well as for dropping items to distract your pursuers. It's a nice touch that low intelligence monsters are more likely to stop for food, and high intelligence monsters are more likely to stop for treasure.

Random Actions by Monsters: In contradiction to what was stated above, intelligent monsters have a reaction chart to roll on for their actions, which can be negative, uncertain or positive. So I guess that means intelligent monsters don't always attack - or maybe they always attack unless the players do something first that might cause a roll on this chart. Sounds fair enough to me.

EXAMPLE OF PLAY: And now, halfway through the third booklet (by which time I imagine a lot of confused people had given up) there's an example of how the game is played. It's all quite terse and lacking in excitement, with a focus on exact distances for mapping accuracy. The players use a Caller, which is something I utterly despise - here's a rule I will cheerfully ignore. Basically the players enter the dungeon, fight some Gnolls, and find some treasure containing thousands of coins and a pair of elven boots. I'll be converting the details of this example into part of the first level of the Sample Dungeon mentioned yesterday. Those six gnolls will be wreaking havoc on a whole bunch of 1st level characters, I imagine.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at adventures in the wilderness, castles, specialists - and the ever-awesome Angry Villager Rule!


jamused said...

I think that it's pretty important to always use the monster reaction tables unless a monster is specified as attacking on sight or is just an eating machine like most oozes. The dungeon is a busy place, with monsters encountering each other frequently as they go about their business as well as parties of adventurers of varying degrees of toughness. Unless the monster is by far the toughest thing for several levels around, it doesn't survive by fighting everything it comes across. Even dumb monsters might be sated, tired, hurt, or just in a hurry to get somewhere else. The "positive" reaction might be to let you be if you don't threaten it, or it might be to retreat because it doesn't want to deal with you...yet. Or even, for the smart monsters, an offer to ally with you against some hated enemy.

But to me, the dungeon feels much more like a real place, and PCs have many more interesting options, if most of the encounters have some chance that it's not going to immediately go to combat.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

Yes, you're right about that - the dungeon definitely works better when monsters have a variety of potential reactions to the PCs. If all they do is attack it takes some of the suspense out of the PCs decisions.

I never imagined monsters attacking everything on sight, though - just the Player Characters. I have no problem imagining that many monsters live in reasonable harmony with each other in the dungeons.

Jeff Rients said...

I think the Thoul really is a type that became a monster. The T is just above the G on a qwerty keyboard.

I've always rebounded lightning bolts, but could never be bothered working out the volume for fireballs. I suppose I'll just eyeball it from now on.

It's pretty easy after the first couple of tries. A standard firball fills up 32 and a half 10' x 10' x 10' cubes. If you assume that most corridors and small rooms are 10' tall, all you have to do is count squares. I generally assume higher ceilings in larger rooms and deduct from the total cubes accordingly. I also sometimes blow doors open, which eats a cube per door.

Good times.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

I figured as much, and it's telling that Thouls don't appear in AD&D - Gary obviously had no time for them. I'm pretty sure that they are in Holmes Basic, though.

And yeah, I should be able to expand fireballs without too much difficulty. It helps having players that aren't too concerned with the mechanical aspects.