My goals going in to the first adventure of The Great Dungeon were:
- Player-Driven World Building
- A unique ‘dungeon’ with a fun twist and sensible, discernible ‘ecology’
- A gritty setting without an oppressive atmosphere
- Challenging and Engaging Gameplay
The following is part adventure recap, part DM strategy session, and part after action report. I’m approaching this edition of D&D with game design/writing credits and a love for story and indy-game approaches. Ultimately, I want The Great Dungeon series to be informative to the reader, but also provide a method to refine the approach to my own DMing. I plan on tweeting about the campaign in between sessions under #TheGreatDungeon.
- Meathead (Pronounced Me-Thea-Ad) – Vulgar Dwarf Fighter.
- Jake – Tiefling Pickpocket Rogue.
- Donovan – Bellicose Human War Priest.
- Blake – Jaded Human Wizard.
The disparate characters were united by one thing: the seemingly insane desire to volunteer to explore a dungeon. While most able bodied people were stuck in the struggle of the Great War, these few opted out of that to go into sudden inexplicable areas of monsters and secure them and become Dungeoneers. The PCs met their handler, Captain Mettahey, a grizzled elf with a loveable drawl and after going-over some ground rules, were sent to the front lines. He was concerned with eliminating the threat a random dungeon posed and with any new magic or technology they may uncover. The party hopped in a strange troop transport, along with a fresh unit of recruits, to get closer to the front lines. The transport was not particular notable except for a strange pair of tails that were somehow grafted on it that ‘displaced’ the transport, creating shifting mirror images. They experienced how terrible the front lines were replete with visuals of a constant stream of fireballs streaking through the sky, sporadic explosions on the ground, and the terrible smell of death.
Donovan decided to bless the troops calling on his War God to, “let these sacks of meat absorb damage for us so that we may complete our holy mission.” This rattled the troopers. The PCs got their first real choice when the transport’s horses, and the unit’s officer, were incinerated by a fireball-style artillery barrage that left the transport without a leader and a means moving. The characters opted almost immediately to abandon the transport and the hapless green recruits, but not before Jake snagged a locket off a poor scared soldier’s neck. Meatthead decided to rip the strange displacement tails off the transport and keep for his own purposes. A strange portal summoned a water elemental, gas-masking wearing diminutive soldiers appeared from behind an illusionary hillside, and the party bravely fled the fight and towards their objective. The other soldiers that stood and fought, but were captured alive by the enemy strike force. This encounter was not meant to be a set piece, the party could have fought, but it gave the group a chance to establish exactly how little they cared about aiding the common soldier.
The Dungeoneers reached their objective, an anomalous dungeon gate in the middle of a trench being dug. The portly elf, Yomurphy, who led the mostly dwarven and gnome engineering corps gave them a bit of exposition on the unpredictable nature of the dungeons. He revealed his expertise as an arcane trickster and let the PCs into the dungeon, but not before Jake pickpocketed Yomurphy’s key ring. The team hustled into the dungeon, where it became clear that there was no sensible spatial representation between the dungeon and the trench they had just entered.
Once in the dungeon, the players had a lot more agency. They decided to send Jake the rogue ahead a bit. As a tiefling, the dark conditions didn’t bother him. As they explored a door shut behind them, trapping them with whatever else lurked in the dungeon. They made their way through some caves and found a half dozen small humanoids huddled around some fires. Jake tries to make a calming gesture, but the humanoids fled. They gathered around a series of crude crates and warded the party off with spears. Meathead did not take kindly to brandished weapons and charged. With that, the party went to work summarily dispatching four kobolds before coaxing the others to surrender, only to discover these creatures were guarding about 18 eggs in tiny creches. For the practical and hard-hearted party, there was a moment of understanding about why the encounter played it how it did, but no tears were shed. Not knowing what else to do, and thinking the eggs could be worth money, they moved the eggs near the campfires to help keep them warm, but not before casually slaughtering their prisoners.
A rules note: I decided to keep track of the total hit points of the entire mob of kobolds. Where it made sense, I just had attacks carry through and kill multiple monsters. While this certainly favors the characters in these style fights, my main motivation was bookkeeping. I run very fast and loose, with zero written prep, and I wanted the encounters to be snappy and brutal. I haven’t decided if I need a ‘counterbalance’ to this house rule, but I’m open to ideas.
They quickly found a ‘clean room’ in cave, free of refuse, and stumbled upon a pair of grey oozes/waste treatment facilities. The fight was one-sided. As they explored farther, they heard the gibbering of another set of creatures coming down the corridor. Jack hid as the dozen kobolds past, and another combat began. This one was very fraught. Blake’s color spray gave the squishier members of the party a key round of respite from attack, but even so both Jake and Blake were knocked out cold before the party emerged victorious. Blake was one turn away from having to a potentially roll fatal death save.
The party rested, opting to forego their iron rations and cooked kobolds with survival skills. They debated ‘making an omelette’ but left the kobold eggs alone. During the night, Donovan and Meathead made miserable perception checks. I didn’t feel like ambushing the party, but I wanted the failures to have consequences. Instead, Yomurphy snuck into their camp and stole back his key ring and Jake’s stolen necklace.
The party awoke and Jake realized he had been the victim of a theft. Grumbling, they explored the rest of the dungeon. After some twists and turns, they came to a cave with a waterfall. The waterfall filled a small pond that obviously drained into another (unseen) room. Thirty feet up on a sheer rock face, there was a passage that ran behind the waterfall and descended to a door that was barred and locked shut by a mechanism in that corridor. Jake messed around and tried to scale the wall to no avail. Eventually, he explored where the pond was draining.
The party went through a brief underwater passage and emerged into a room full of strange magically charged geodes. The ground was covered in places where geodes had been ripped up and blood splatter. The geodes resonated with energy, and when they were touched by a character they did one point of damage. As the blood was seemingly sucked into the stone, the geode’s energy resonated with the character it hurt. Each character took a geode with them back out of the underwater tunnel. As they pondered how to make their way out, they heard voices coming from the passageway by the waterfall…
Challenge: The party felt fragile and behaved with a healthy dose of risk management. I hate when games are so dangerous they become tedious threat investigation, but being predestined to win is boring for the opposite reasons. The party trusted that I wasn’t out to unfairly gank them, but they respected the gravity of their character’s danger so it made things exciting and fun
Ecology: After exploring their level of the dungeon, the players realized the kobolds were locked down here to harvest geodes for… whatever was above them.
Immorality: I think setting the tone and the expectations were very freeing. Not every character was a stone-cold murder hobo, but the players’ attitude reflected that character disagreements over prisoners, eggs, and even treasure was coming from a place of moral uncertainty. I was impressed with how much that understanding allowed characters to be comfortable bickering, but helped keep the players harmonious.
Player Setting Creation: I tried to introduce more inspiration into the game and coax players into ad-libbing the world’s history. My inspiration was a bit too stingy, and the players didn’t really take to filling in world details. Part of it may also be my compartmentalized set up. I painted World War I, but then segment the characters into dungeons that purposefully removed and out of lockstep with the rest of the world. I’m thinking of either making it mandatory (IE if you want to reroll, fill in a world detail as to why this action is easier) or just letting it languish as is for the first part of the game.
What’s the Deal with that Bold Text? – The items in bold are dangling plot threads for next time. I consider those a lot in between sessions, but I am not necessarily know where they will lead. If you have any ideas or suggestions, let me know on twitter @Veredium with the hashtag: #TheGreatDungeon.