Friday, March 29, 2013

Paths Not Taken

"To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It is about going back to the roots of our hobby and seeing what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time "

Rob Conley / Bat in the Attic

This remains a most intriguing sentiment, and something of an inspiration for going back to the roots and looking at things that could be done differently, expanded upon or opened-up, made new again perhaps. I cannot guarantee how regular a feature this particular exploration/experiment will be here at Hereticwerks, but I'll aim to do one new installment at least once a month. What I intend to do is this; go back to some classic module or whatnot from back in 'Ye Olden Daze,' lift-out some specific element or feature or idea from that item and then attempt to 'imagine the hell out of it,' as Matt Finch would say. It may only be a vaguely interesting thought experiment or a waste of time, or maybe it will lead somewhere or to something. I don't know. but I intend to find out.

Here goes the first foray...

D1-2: A Double-Decker Creature-Feature
Dungeon Module D1-2
Descent Into the Depths of the Earth

This is the revised and combined re-release of modules D1 (Descent Into the Depths of the Earth) and D2 (Shrine of the Kuo-Toa). I couldn't locate my tattered copy of D1, and I never owned the stand-alone D2. The Combo-Edition was a gift from a player in one of my old games.

Like most men's magazines, the real meat of this publication is the centerfold section. Not the Jermlaine or other critters, not the map of the Kuo-Toa Shrine (in that gloriously hideous 'non-repro blue'), not the really thoughtful blank page provided for Player's Notes. Nope. It  is the centerfold that features a set of modular mini-maps for various passages, tunnels, caverns and so forth that interests me. If anything it is the single most memorable thing from the module, at least for me, here and now. I do also remember vividly the complaints of several players who were grievously disappointed that there wan't a full entry for Blidoolpoolp, the lobster-headed goddess of the sea (but with underground temples) who just happened to walk around topless. I suspect they may have been suffering from Green Boobie Syndrome; this was a social affliction very prevalent at SciFi conventions where many a nubile young woman was somehow convinced to paint her breasts green and parade around as an Orion Slave Girl.


D1-2, Pi:" Tunnel-Morphs"
Back to the map(s). Right there on the first page of the centerfold, on the left half of the page, are a set of three tunnels or passages. Directly next to them are three little mini-maps of caverns that led off from the main tunnels. On the next page there's another three tunnels and two mini-maps of caverns, including one showing an underground river crossing. Yeah. That mini-map of the underground river crossing really spoke to me back then. I did a pile of my own 'Under River Morphs' back in the day.

 This doesn't seem all the big a deal now, but back in '78 when these mini-maps were first released upon the gaming population, this was really a cool development. We did Not have to draw-out every detail, nook and cranny of every tunnel, cave and chasm under the earth--we could map out the significant sections and play connect-the-dots on a hex map (as shown on p. iii of the module's map insert).

D1-2, P.iii: An Early Node-Map
At the time, I was very impressed with the flexibility and adaptability of this sort of Node Mapping approach to the Underworld. I made a lot of sense, from the viewpoint of someone who was going to have to draw-up all those maps. It also appealed to me as a DM who wanted to be able to adapt to any changes wrought by the players and to anticipate any further developments on the part of the monsters or NPCs in response to the player's actions. If a tunnel flooded, I wanted to be able to work that into things and not have it just go away conveniently next time like the notorious tendency of TV shows to reset back to the comfy default at the end of each episode (most Star Trek episodes, for instance).

Chris over at The Hill Cantons has started-up a Wilderness Hexcrawl that has player characters heading out from the already-mapped area into the great wide unknown regions of the Weird...a vast expanse of blank, empty hexes on his map...very reminiscent of the Player's Map from D1-2, only his players are exploring a sun-lit above-ground wilderness. It looks and sounds like a great game, for those doing the G+/web cam thing.

Much like how Chris is handling the exploration of a howling wilderness, the Node-Mapping/Hexcrawl idea is pretty useful and works just as well for Underworld Adventuring, or for gigantic space arks, planetary-scale habitats, impossible architectural monstrosities on other planes, even for setting up a Megadungeon, all of which I've done at one time or another over the decades since I first was exposed to those pernicious Little Brown Books. Again, it's not a new idea, in and of itself, see the Player's Map above there from 1978. It's a tried-and-true approach. Definitely not the only one, and there could well be an even better approach out there. But I haven't found it yet. I really like the notion of actively exploring an Underworld using a Hex Map like it was a Hexcrawl; the Underworld as Undercrawl, if you will. It wouldn't be all that difficult to adapt the familiar mechanics of a Hexcrawl to the subterranean exploration process. We've made a few Cave and Tunnel Hazard Tables available here at the blog. More of that sort of resource is in-the-works.

In addition to raiding tombs, breaking into buried cities and delving through some megadungeon, going with the Undercrawl approach to an adventure framework expands upon the possibilities open to a group as it makes locating or exploiting (even preying upon) subterranean trade routes and other such things more than just a few random encounters. Knowing where the main underworld passages are located would be essential information to merchants, raiders, and others. That map your group worked so hard to put together over the course of various harrowing adventures is now a treasure item in and of itself. Perhaps this form of exploration can result in better loot that monster-killing, or maybe it just enables more strategic and efective  monster-killing. Either way it's a win-win.

Another feature of building-up a stock of mini-maps and tunnel-sections that I really liked back then and have been re-examining all over again, is the way that multiple smaller areas can be connected or integrated into a larger whole in a sort of network. Like in the old maps I used to do, for example Tanch, which I posted about a while back, was a major dungeon-site that connected into quite a few other sites. I would leave sections of the background 'hatching' empty and un-filled-in so that new passages or connections could be drawn-in at last-minute. Several of my old players were devious about digging their own tunnels or setting-up their own fortified positions within the tunnels and dungeons. A few of them were able to rake over a section of a smaller dungeon and convert it into a formidable base of operations. this was something that I heartily encouraged. Dungeons should not be static, dead things, but rather dynamic and reactive spaces that changed through interaction with the player characters. That's an opinion, of course, but one I still hang on to. I very much prefer for the choices of the players to be meaningful, their actions to leave some trace or mark upon things. Doing so has certainly increased certain aspects of the workload, but it has also engendered a form of collaborative interaction. Why is there an elephant in the sewers beneath Wermspittle? Simple; a player character summoned the thing (using a peculiar mechanism they had found in a deserted, burned-out cellar beneath a sanitarium) during a fight with a pack of roaming Wormiacs. The elephant survived the fight and someone has taken it upon themselves to feed the thing (entry 6). No one has bothered to inquire too closely as to who would be doing that just yet.

I really, really enjoy participating in the ongoing evolution of a dungeon or other fictive shared space where things continue to develop as yet another group interacts with it. It is a great deal of fun. I'm incorporating the notes and feedback from our play-testers (including Porky's excellent Circle's Turn series of enhanced play recaps) regarding Zilgor's Repose and there are some additional encounters included in the revised and expanded version we hope to have available in a few more weeks. That poor, poor mule...


Back to the maps of the 'Tunnel-Morphs,' or whatever you want to call them. I was looking at those mini-maps in Module D1-2 and some of the old magic woke up again I guess. I started to draw-up some fresh, new tunnels, caves, and other such stuff.

The exploration of subterranean trade-routes, finding Lost Cities, learning the real source of a particular underground river; this is the very stuff of groping through black pits under Barsoom, and all that sort of thing. There are a ton of really interesting and fun opportunities for adventuring deep below the surface that a lot of great books deal with...but we didn't see too often in the classic 'modules.' And that in a nutshell is the inspiration for

A lot of my older attempts at Hexcrawls have been lost or given away as gifts. It has been a long time since I started-up a brand new Undercrawl like what I've described above. In-between the current projects, I've been jotting down notes and making sketches for an strange sort of Undercrawl adventure that would really make the most of some of our various Monsters, Random Tables and other stuff. My personal goal is to make it link to the Hidden Chambers Beneath Zormur's Palace, from the first series of stories featuring Bujilli...and go on into places that we've only hinted at so far, like right into the heart of the Kalaramar Drifts and beyond.

But first I need to finish the Worldboats pdf and then there's that little secret-project we're working on with Needles as a add-on to Space-Age Sorcery, in addition to the Expanded this is going to take a while to bring together, but in the meantime I intend to do a series of Underworld Passages. Hand drawn, easy to use with any system/edition. You could use these maps to extend some of those old modules, if you're interested. The first set is available as a sample and you can grab a copy by clicking on the PNT1.pdf in the BOX widget in the right-hand side-bar. And yes, I plan on re-drawing those old UnderRiver-Morphs as part of this project. I'm also working on revamping that old map from Tanch and have plans for a sort of networked-megadungeon based upon what I've outlined above.

Very likely someone out there already has drafted-up a whole treatise on the topic of 'How To Conduct An Undecrawl,' it wouldn't surprise me one bit. People have been playing around with this sort of thing since the Seventies after all. So if anyone knows of some particularly well-done Underworld-as-Wilderness / Undercrawl (as described above) resources or adventures, please do leave a note and link in the comments. In the meantime I'm going to focus on building my own set of tools and resources, like we old-timers tend to do, and like how it used to be back in the early days.


  1. Wonderful. I love the posts like this where you reflect and muse and talk about the sources of inspiration. I like the idea you might be going back to Zormur's Palace too.

    The new download with the underworld passages is outstanding, not least because they actually feel underworldy, with the irregularities and the digressions from linearity, and the dripstone of course. You can see the flow textures and changes in level and almost feel the damp, and that's an aid to the GM for sure, a prompt to keep the players in the moment.

    As for Circles Turn, it's easy to be inspired by what you create. And it does hurt a little to think of that poor mule.

    1. I still prefer to deliver stuff like the Underworld Passages, but I've been getting pushed to write more of this sort of thing. I'm very excited about going back to Zormur's Palace...and not only in an adventure. I deliberately kept the Underworld Passages fairly sparse, partly so that they would print cleanly, and partly so that people could draw-in bits and pieces as they desired. I did a set with grid-lines, but didn't post it as I like this version better.

      Now that the first six-seven passages are done, I'm going to work on a few intersections and cavern-clusters and the like. There are a ton of other features that might be fun to map/illustrate...when there's time.

  2. If you want a roundup of megadungeon-related stuff, you may find useful.

    You'll also find excellent weird cave formations at False Machine.

    1. What I'm interested in is the Underworld-as-Wilderness concept. That said, I'm always interested in megadungeons. I can always hope to learn a few new tricks. I'll check out these links. Weird cave formations sounds very pertinent to my interests. Thanks!

  3. Secret projects between you and Needles are certainly the sort of thing to arouse interest!

    1. This one is quite a deal. Once I finish the artwork and we have the thing completed, I'll post more details. We're making really good progress and I don't want to screw things up by speaking out too early in the process.

  4. Great post, a lot to think about and more comments coming later.

    "Much like how Chris is handling the exploration of a howling wilderness, the Node-Mapping/Hexcrawl idea."

    It's funny but how I am running the recent Hexcrawl is fairly different from how I run wilderness pointcrawls. In the latter it's more about choices of path and the highlighting of unusual areas. That format tends to work better for me in the regular campaign, but I couldn't wrap my brain around how to "fill in the blank areas of the map" goal of this recent mini-campaign, so the traditional hexcrawl seemed to be a much better fit.

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for dropping by. Like skinning cats, there are more than two ways to run these sorts of Hexcrawl/Pointcrawls/ruincrawls, etc. I like seeing alternative approaches, like what you described. It gets me to consider what I've been doing and what I might do instead. Sometimes that leads to new stuff that I wouldn't have found otherwise.

      I found your approach very reminiscent of the Tower in Kaneloon where Earl Aubec went out to battle Chaos and in driving it back establish new realms and regions. It also reminded me of the old bad joke we used to have in our group about going off of the map into a zone of empty whiteness crisscrossed at regular intervals by black lines. It was pretty lame even back then, but really was a big problem for a lot of DM/GMs I've met, which still boggles my mind. So what if the players go off the map? Draw a new one. Improvise. Explore what is out there; make it worth exploring what is out there. that's how we always approached it. An opportunity for playing something new and cool. We found whole weird new worlds that way...

  5. This adventure was totally inspired by your UnderRiver Morphs post. I just made the assumption that the maps in that post depicted a vertical underwater river system, and made a similar funnel map as a Symmes hole entry to the Hollow Earth.

    1. I'm doing several Whirlpools, Funnels and Symmes-holes for sure. Needles and I have both been talking about our respective Hollow Earth (and Other Worlds) campaigns. Symmes book is an interesting read, but the story behind it is far more fascinating and would make a great novel in itself. Same with Shaver's whole weird Dero-ific ultra-cthonic mythos. I'll draft-up a few tables to go along with this stuff. Might make it more useful.


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