New on Desk #51 — Simple Dungeons

Busy busy — let’s see how quick I can make the newsletter!

The primordial D&D

We were shooting the breeze after last Monday’s Coup game when the discussion turned towards healing rules, and hit point mechanics, and then into how the very earliest D&D apparently didn’t have quantified healing or spell memorization parameters because the world outside the dungeon did not formally exist; instead the game had a boardgame-like formal assumption that you’d go into the dungeon, lose some hit points, and then come out, and that’s the excursion.

A vision: gathering together all the tidbits of knowledge, the very earliest D&D, from before the ’74 game text was published, seems to have been a bit of a boardgame. There are specific features of our current playstyle (the challengeful, kinda free kriegspiel, kinda debate society game that e.g. our on-going Coup campaign represents) that were probably not there in how the game was played at its earliest. Or at least, I find it entertaining to imagine a possible early form of D&D that was in some ways more like The Labyrinth than what D&D became later on.

Also, I got to play a bit more Legend of Grimrock this week, just a teeny tiny session in between everything else. It’s an intentional extreme throwback as a game, too. The simplicity of these two ideas inspired me a bit on something, let’s see…

Designing the Simple D&D

Here are some core precepts of this hypothetical game:

  • There is no fictional maneuvering by default: no freely selectable equipment, no manipulating your micro-position in the dungeon corridor, no tactical combat maneuvers. It’s more like those ’80s dungeoneering boardgames that came out to offer an easier way to experience something D&D-like. Like Heroquest the boardgame, except as we’ll see, in fact nothing like it.
  • There is, however, a Dungeon Master whose job it is to design the dungeon, which entails primarily placing traps, monsters and treasure. The DM draws their dungeon content from a bag called “whatever you can manage to adjudicate”, which by default consists of pretty simple stuff. Spoiler alert: it didn’t stay simple as the game evolved.
  • An expedition is an expedition: there is no dungeon-external world, between-excursions maneuvers are menu options just like inside the dungeon. You show up at the dungeon door with full HPs and spell loads, and exit when you run out, and then come back an indeterminate amount of time later, again with full loads. Session end always ends an excursion, and the early excursions in particular are so short that it’s trivial to run several of them in a single session.
  • The dungeon remains static between excursions. The DM, however, repopulates it between visits. The repopulation algorithm is relatively simple and generally results in minimal new treasure and a sparser (maybe 50% of the original max) monster population, but it does mean that you don’t really “clear” the dungeon by default.
  • XP for treasure, but also as per the earliest official rules: 100 XP per monster HD defeated. This is a relatively high reward at low levels, which is totally appropriate for how hellishly difficult this game is. Should still fall into insignificance later.

The rules of Simple D&D are very simple, as you’d expect. Everything in D&D taken down to the bare minimum. The “no fictional maneuvering” part ultimately means that the players do not have much responsibility for anything at all, really: you just open dungeon doors, survive what’s inside, and move on. There’s no advantage to be gained by “I take care to check the ceiling as I move forward”; the trap detection check is 1/6 no matter what you say. The most important choices concern running away (both in combat and in terms of retreating the expedition). Even stuff well attested in ’74 for like light sources and water and such are stripped away in preference for focusing entirely on mapping the dungeon, opening doors and running combats.

Because hit points are extremely sparse at low levels, expeditions are likely to consist of 1–2 encounters, one of them hostile, followed by a retreat. This gets better as characters gain some levels (and possibly some limited HP recovery), but ultimately the HP exist in Simple D&D as the expedition clock.

The goal in Simple D&D is to penetrate the dungeon and get ever deeper in there. I think it helps orient the game if you place the Amulet of Yendor in there and tell the players that they’re looking for that. Because treasure makes the party more powerful, and losing members makes the party weaker, and the dungeon gets more monsters every time you retreat, there’s a sort of overall campaign time limit threatening the party: you stall out if your expeditions do not accomplish enough in terms of mapping and treasure-gathering.

There is potential for the game to expand and extend, but it would be interesting if it didn’t do it into the direction D&D historically went. The historical D&D considered “roleplaying” to be this exciting new thing, the real appeal of the game (perhaps rightly), and this does show in the game. The characters having individual stat lines and emphasis on free maneuvers in lieu of keeping the game mechanically simple are examples of symptoms. What we ultimately get is a game that extends its scope far beyond the single dungeon that was the original remit of the game.

I have one example of the kinds of things that could be a novel extension for Simple D&D. Just for the sake of an example, this is the direction you’d want to go:

Dwarven colonizers: These little buggers are interested in coming in and living in the dungeon. They come in families of 1+1d6 and cost 100 GP per dwarf to pay for their manumission and travel expenses. They come with their own equipment and survival skills. Just escort them to a pacified corner of the dungeon on your next excursion, and they’ll set up shop. The point of having them is that they breed during dungeon repopulation cycles and replace otherwise spawning hostile monsters, making an already-cleared dungeon level safer over time. They might also set up shops and such, helping with dungeoneering logistics.

The point being: new ideas and options should keep inside the dungeon, and they should be relatively boardgamey to keep it Simple.

I think it would be interesting to explore Simple Dungeons a bit, it could be both inspiring for real D&D, and perhaps have some merit as a game in its own right. I’m particularly interested in how much faster you can make the game by removing position maneuvering altogether, and how the short expeditions and constant repopulation play together. The GM also has some creative opportunities in providing special encounters here and there in between the standard monster stuff. All in all, Simple is a form of D&D that focuses entirely on dungeon mapping, puzzles and managing the menu-based combat (fight or flee, fight or flee, decision every round as the points whittle down).

Desk drawer interrupt: the Castle Conquest Game

Long-time correspondents might notice how the “Simple Dungeons” game is essentially similar to the “Castle Conquest” game I was messing with back in spring… A question here: why haven’t I written anything in the newsletter archive about my Castle Conquest game? That’s pretty weird. It did go through alpha drafting and even got a single playtest session at the time. Maybe I didn’t think that I should write about my game design ideation in the newsletter at that time?

A hah, the time-stamps on my notes reveal the truth: it wasn’t in the spring, it was late autumn last year. I do remember that I was doing a lot of forestry around the time I was working on this, so it was clearly last fall. So the reason it’s not in the newsletter is obvious; this project’s a year old already, and has lain in the desk drawer waiting for me to get inspired to do more about it. I really should, there is some merit to the ideas in here.

The node map of my first Castle Conquest castle, inspired by Castlevania. It’s far, far too large. The players would uncover the map node by node, path by path.

So the concept of the Castle Conquest game is pretty similar to this Simple Dungeons musing, except I was working off a different set of inspirations at the time. The game is still boardgamey and without fictional positioning elements. Instead of the player playing a party, though, they are playing competing secret agents trying to infiltrate the castle of an evil mastermind filled with traps and perils. The players take turns building characters (the game has this wacky charop system all its own), trying to beat the castle, dying in entertaining fashion and then letting the next player try.

The Castle Conquest game relies on a vertex mapping scheme instead of the dungeon corridor squares of D&D; the conceit of the castle exploration is more about each location having their own secret random content tables that the players comb through to discover routes to new locations and other helpful and dangerous encounters on the way. As each location has its own encounter and discovery tables, they each have the potential to include a fair bit of content on their own.

So the game’s content structuring strategy is very different, and the structure of the party is very different, but the basic core activity is still the same: kick open a dungeon door blindly, encounter anything from a rampaging toaster to a Miss Universe exhibition match, deal with it, move on. I would say that great minds think alike if this wasn’t the same person obsessing over slightly varying dungeon boardgames; different year, same topic.

Monday: Coup de Main #27

We finished the Greyhawk “spec-op crawl” (Heikki has trademark on the term; he’s looking to make a name for himself as a rpg theorist) on Monday in a very ambiguous way: the players maneuvered hard to stop this arms trade deal between a Bandit Kingdom dealer and interested buying parties down south, but the ultimate best they managed in that regard was producing enough heat to make the trading parties back off and pull stakes; we do not know if it was temporary, or if they’re simply going to get together again in some new location later.

Strategically, I’d say that the main reason for the ambiguous outcome was the player unwillingness to ultimately commit significant resources into any kind of direct confrontation. Arguably they had the tactical upper hand at one point, what with having located the arms-dealer’s inn while they were sleeping. The party was clearly playing asset preservation on strategic level, though, and weren’t willing to take the risk of outright violent assault. While the option to escalate to violence existed all along ,the party always chose to back off, leading to a relatively indecisive overall result for the adventure.

There were some nice urban adventure events in the scenario, skullduggery on both sides (a player character even died near-immediately after being introduced!), but some players also found the overall flow of play to be boring. I think it’s partly because of leadership and plan management issues in the party, because the procedures for playing this kind of spy-vs-spy aren’t as firm as they could be, and partly because I got too detailed with encounters that could have been handled more abstractly, causing play overall to progress a bit slowly. All three points are strongly associated, of course: part of the reason for my not being able to abstract out of the nocturnal intimidation scene or the daylight kidnap-drug-interrogation stuff was that this was the very first time we were doing either, so I needed to run through it in detail to understand myself what could go wrong. Part of the reason for why the party had difficulties formulating clear plans and sticking to them was that we’re all inexperienced with this kind of scenario. And part of the reason for why I played things step-by-step was that the planning didn’t paint an overall strong direction to abstract towards.

We discussed the experience after the session (which discussion ultimately ended up inspiring me about Simple Dungeons), which in part means that we didn’t get around to speculating much about what comes next. I do know that we’ll keep checking the Mondays over the Yuletide, and if there’s enough players, we’ll play; individuals might have Christmas-related scheduling complications, and we well might skip a week or two here until things go back to normal in January. We’ll know for sure later.

As is traditional, the Yuletide session shall have extra Santa. This time it’s falling on tomorrow’s session, as the 21st is the Winter Solstice! (In reality the solstice is on the 20th this year, but the 21st is still the Bear Day of Finnish paganism, so what do I care — tomorrow we shall have Bear!)

Session #28 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 21.12., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like. It’s winter solstice, so Yuletide magic will abound!

Thursday: Christmassy Lapfantasy

Chugging along merrily! I love how the different players in their own echo chambers develop the scenario in their own directions. Some are all about internal politics or magic of their faction, while others do social politics inside other factions, or simply work out logistics for war.

The actual Thursday session was just a simple touch-base, see-faces thing. We did run a few real-time scenes for players who happened to have complex maneuvers happening. (If your faction has heard news of the Turja Autumn Fires, a gathering of the native tribes, then that’s an example of what happened.)

No more on this quite yet, partly because I’m late, late, late in my writing. An external observer might claim that I’m late because I spent a considerable amount of time over the week conducting Lapfantasy, writing 10k+ words of various material for the players, but that’s just play, so we ignore it. I’m not on the clock, mom!

Check in with Muster

We’re at nearly 2200 €, with a week to go, so I’m slowly starting to relinquish myself to having to write a book in January. Amazing what crowdfunding can do!

Also, check out this funky comic strip we did with Sipi, inspired by Muster. It’s something of an art sample for the book, you could say.

I know the post-production (coloring, lettering, etc.) is kinda hurried, but I’m still happy with it for a first shot at making a comic. Resembles the real thing. I discuss the comic and its creative history a bit more in a campaign update, so head there for the deets if you’re interested.

State of the Productive Facilities

Well, I made a comic this week. Or rather, I scribbled over a comic strip that somebody else made. So a productive week clearly.

Next week we’ll have a retrospective for the year, as one should. And I’ll see about producing one more piece of Muster marketing material. Unfortunately I don’t seem to have the time to write the next essay in my blog essay pipeline before January, but I’ll make a point of doing that before I start drafting Muster for real, so it’ll happen soon-ish either way.

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