Dungeons of the Dread Wyrm


By R. Nelson Bailey
Dungeoneers Guild Games
1e
Levels 10-15

Rumors hint that below a barren crag in a forlorn range of hills lies the lair of the great dread wyrm, Felmurnuzza. This dragon has mercilessly terrorized and plundered the nearby civilized lands for hundreds of years. However, no one has seen her for many decades. Nonetheless, these kingdoms continue to pay the fell serpent tribute out of fear. Many now say that she sleeps that sleep of death — her legendary fabulous hoard unprotected and ripe for the taking. Of course, if the rumors of her death are not true, a grim death surely awaits those that seek to discover her treasures.

This 37 page adventure describes a linear three level dragon lair with 41 rooms. Am I the only one who groans every time I see a high level adventure? Here’s your recipe: gimp the characters, make it linear like Tomb of Horrors, stuff it full of death traps like Tomb of Horrors. This adventure follows the recipe.

I feel like there was a crucial decision to made in the design of this adventure. There’s a decision between writing a high level adventure and writing a dungeon adventure. High level adventures have to deal with the insane party abilities that high level PC’s have. Over their lives they have had to deal with a bunch of crap, and have used abilities to help survive. And I don’t mean fireball. DIvination, teleport … things to help them determine and avoid the dangers ahead and bypass and/or escape when need be. A high level adventure has to address this. Hidden facts don’t exist and walls don’t stop high level PC’s.

But note that a dungeon is pretty explicit in its use of walls to channel and guide the party and limit their movement. Further, the environment is a “close” one, allowing for lots of room for hidden information, such as traps and other secrets. This is, essentially, WHY the party has all of those abilities. The challenge for the designer then becomes creating challenges for a party whose growth path was specifically designed to thwart the environment.

It seems like this almost inevitably leads to gimping the party. In essence, the designer refuses the challenge and instead just says “fuck you.” The walls are made of lead. Everyone wears rings of mind shielding. No teleports, or stone to mud, no ethereal, no scrying, no detect/divination spells. (This adventure even goes a step further and halves the thieves find & remove traps ability.) You got a room full of human fighters? Just say they are all immune to mind-control magic that way the party has to fight them!

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what D&D actually IS and how it works. Is D&D, fundamentally, about tactical combat? It is certainly an element, at times, but I don’t think that’s what make it appealing. (And, on the other end of the spectrum, it’s not about storytelling, especially by the DM.) There’s an ad-hoc element to D&D that, I think, makes it appealing. A back and forth between the DM & players reacting to each other. It’s a human interactive game. There’s a part of me that wants to say that the more you can computerize your adventure, or THINK you can computerize it, the worse the adventure is. Note that this covers both tactical combat play styles as well as railroad plot game styles. I don’t exactly buy 100% in to this idea, but there’s an idea buried in there somewhere that appeals to me and I DO think is true.

Yeah, Gygax gimped people in adventures. From stupid +1 turn amulets in B2 to the Tomb or Horrors. Look man, I would have wanted to explore greyhawk dungeon with him DM’ing as much as the next player, but that doesn’t mean he was infallible. Far from it.

Either this should have been an adventure for lower level players that did not have as much “bypass” magic, or it should have been rewritten as something other than a dungeon. Yeah, it’s hard. That’s why there are not a lot of high level adventures and “domain play” is a thing.

This has got another problem. There’s a style of writing that obsesses over dimensions. Room two, we are told, is “… unadorned 30’ by 40’ room. A 9’ tall, 7’ wide, 9’ long statue of a dragon sits across the room from the entryway. The dragon is constructed of bronze and sits on a 1’-tall pedestal. It sits on its haunches with wings folded, its mouth hanging open menacingly.” Or, as a better adventure would say “a massive bronze statue of a roaring statue.” Who the fuck cares that it sits on a 1’ tall pedestal? Is that trivia relevant to the actual play? (Leading the witness by using the word trivia!) This shit stems from the mistaken belief that more is more. It confuses trivia, like dimensions, with providing a good description. You can never provide enough detail to turn a description in to something good. It can be hard to grasp, but its critical to embrace the less is more philosophy. By proving less you are allowing the DM’s imagination fill in the details. THEY can provide an infinite amount of detail to the scene, if need be. This allows the designer to focus their writing. The craft that very short description in something extremely evocative. That little description will jab like an icepick in the DM’s own brain/imagination. THAT’S the goal. Plus, it’s easier for the DM to scan and use during play. A more evocative description, that lets the DM’s imagination build on it, and as a consequence is also easy to scan during play.

Hey jackasses (IE: my devoted readers), don’t confuse this with minimalism. I’m beating the terse/evocative/scanability horse because 95% of adventures fall in to this trap. When “Room 1: 12 skeletons” adventures show up I’ll instead bitch that a random number generator doesn’t provide value. There’s a middle ground, and it’s not minimalism.

One more bitch. Rube Goldberg design. Explaining effects with mechanics that already exist. Put on a crown and get “teleported without error” to the abyss. IE: the magic mouth says a word that dispels a massmorph that summons a … It’s fucking D&D. Shit happens, you don’t need to explain why.

Fuck, no, sorry, another point. I like Grimtooth. I have fond memories of pouring over it as a young teen, along with my Battletech technical readouts. But it’s not a style to be emulated. “The pit has a cone shaped bottom so thieves can’t climb walls out” is both a bit of gimping and a bit of Grimtooth and A LOT of the traps have a Grimtooth element.

It did have a couple of nice hooks, like A Throne card from A Deck giving you the ruined castle that sits on top of the lair, or a captured spy revealing they were working for the dragon, or a prophecy about a certain group of heroes slaying a dragon when a star blazes during the day … hey … what’s that flaming orb up in the sky? I was also rather fond of a room whose walls were black glass scorched, with a big urn in the middle. The urn is full of wraiths and spectres, from the dragon torching the room of workmen. I would have made it wiggle a little and smoke a bit … the best trouble is the trouble the party gets in to of their own accords. 🙂

Anyway, just another Tomb of Horrors.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is the first six pages, meaning it shows you nothing except the hooks and rumors on the last page.
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/250989/Dungeons-of-the-Dread-Wyrm-DUNGEON-DELVE-2

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12 Responses to Dungeons of the Dread Wyrm

  1. Bigby’s Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    Halves thieves’ FaRT percentages? Damn, that’s bullshit. Thiefey is finally at a level at which the skills are actually useful, and the designer pulls this nonsense?

  2. Shuffling Wombat says:

    If the opposition have access to limited wishes and wishes, these sort of defensive measures/restrictions make reasonable sense. And if one of your main defensive positions is made up of a few tough fighters, you need to give some thought to hold person spells or a handful of 3rd level clerics will wipe you out. PCs should have to vary their tactics a little; some of your spells can be used to boost fellow PCs, you can summon monsters etc. I prefer to see more innovative ways of countering predictable PC tactics: who says that the 2nd and 3rd level of a dungeon have to be adjacent, there could be many metres of rock as a barrier. Such a ploy is used in WGR6 City of Skulls, and thwarts those relying on a single passwall spell.

  3. squeen says:

    Byrce,

    When you wrote:

    “Rube Goldberg design. Explaining effects with mechanics that already exist. Put on a crown and get ‘teleported without error’ to the abyss. IE: the magic mouth says a word that dispels a massmorph that summons a… It’s fucking D&D. Shit happens, you don’t need to explain why.”

    were you saying the spell-mechanics, i.e. “without error” and “dispels a massmorph”, are the undesirable parts, and best to just describe the effect without pulling-back-the-curtain, so to speak?

    If so, I agree and think that’s an insightful recommendation.

    Also,

    “…the more you can computerize your adventure, or THINK you can computerize it, the worse the adventure is.”

    may go down next to “the kitchen allegory” as one of the all-time best Bryce-isms.

    Sincerely,
    Jackass #101

    • Camila Acolide says:

      “…the more you can computerize your adventure, or THINK you can computerize it, the worse the adventure is.”

      I love this! =)

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Right. It’s ok to teleport the party, or have a dispel effect. But if you think these are the ONLY ways to accomplish something, then that’s a problem. One way I think of it is that the Players Handbook, and everything in it, is for the PLAYERS. The DM (and/or designer) need abide by no rules at all, and CERTAINLY not anything in the PHB. Why does the dragon breath cold fire? Because it’s a dragon. Not because there’s a permanency spell on a magic mouth inside its mouth that triggers on a roar that activates a cone of fire spell.

  4. Edgewise says:

    “There’s an ad-hoc element to D&D that, I think, makes it appealing. A back and forth between the DM & players reacting to each other.”

    YES. This is why boxed text doesn’t work. DMing means you are merely curating a dialogue – slipping into a monologue breaks that all-important conversational flow.

    “It can be hard to grasp, but its critical to embrace the less is more philosophy. By proving less you are allowing the DM’s imagination fill in the details. THEY can provide an infinite amount of detail to the scene, if need be.”

    This is key. For my adventure writing, I apply the following test: if the GM can improvise something quicker than he or she can find the detail in my text, and it won’t break anything for them to do so, then I leave it out. Of course, ruthlessly applying this rule can feel like you’re chopping off pieces of your body. I think that’s why so many adventures fail at this – without a merciless editor, it’s very hard to do.

    “I like Grimtooth…But it’s not a style to be emulated. “The pit has a cone shaped bottom so thieves can’t climb walls out” is both a bit of gimping and a bit of Grimtooth and A LOT of the traps have a Grimtooth element.”

    You’re too kind. Grimtooth sucks. Sucks. Just because we loved it as kids doesn’t mean it’s not trash. If Grimtooth came out today, it would be properly categorized as something odd that you would never use.

    And wow, that example is terrible. Why would a cone-shaped pit be any harder to climb than one with vertical walls? Thieves are really good at climbing, especially at high level.

    By the way, I think the best recent example of a high-level adventure done right is Broodmother Skyfortress. You’re basically fighting kaiju, and there’s no gimping. As you say, it dispenses with the whole dungeon setting and replaces it with a nasty problem-space. And while it doesn’t have domain play, it does have domain-level repercussions, and as such would be a great adventure for high-level characters; the hook is that there are kaiju destroying your domain!

  5. Gus L. says:

    High Level Adventures – Because I like dungeon crawls its also why I like 0e based mechanics, parsimonious magic item supply and a nice flat power curve, where goblins are never not a threat.

    Too many high level adventures think “A vast army of orcs (or elves – it’s better with elves isn’t it) are on the frontier seeking to burn and murder until the realms of man are no more” is enough. Nah that’s a 3rd – 7th level adventure – bribe a dragon or two, find a lost artifact of super-badittude, recruit the legions of the Dead Kings, summon a space Cthulhu in a comment, assassinate the orc Tsar. It’s simple.

    High level adventure is “The world has come unmoored from it’s pillars, the time of the rat is here – endless war and starvation, a carnival of the poor, a Republic of Crime rises, the sun gone dark and the Mother of Thousands carried from city to city to devour all on a great murine ocean (none of this is a threat – it already happened – you gotta to fix it or save yourself)”. Some of the rare 90’s TSR stuff where the end of the adventure is going from black to gold box and the PC’s ascension to godhood manages to almost get there – but of course it also late 90’s TSR’s it up in painful ways.

  6. Lemarc says:

    For all that you dislike it, the sins you’re accusing this adventure of – gimping high-level player powers, Heath Robinson spell-chaining, obsession over dimensions – aren’t actually shared by Tomb of Horrors in any meaningful way. It’s like that module kicked your dog. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike it, but in your tendency to use it as a yardstick it’s taken on some sort of mythical badness for you.

  7. Oswald says:

    High level dungeons can work if the opposition is actually designed for high level play. The big bad can be in a trapped room designed to stop scry and fry while actively scrying the party, many enemies have flight, teleportation and astral phasing. Rooms move through the dungeon to prevent scrying as a form of mapping. A lot of enemies will use techniques to bypass damage, etc. The closest to good high level dungeons I’ve seen actually comes from adversarial PvP oriented 3rd edition play where the inhabitants use many of the same tricks as the players.

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