Wednesday, January 7, 2015

review of Dwimmermount, and notes for adapting it to 5e D&D

Dwimmermount is a megadungeon designed by James Maliszewski, who is the author of the (now seemingly abandoned) Grognardia blog.

I funded Dwimmermount on kickstarter, but when it came to his silence after his production delays and apparent disappearance from the internet I became one of James' harshest critics. At the time of his silence I genuinely worried that he had passed away and when it was revealed that he had retreated from interacting or communicating with anybody I was upset. Now, in the wake of Dwimmermount's release, I have read many reviews online and I have discovered that most reviewers seem to be unable to separate Maliszewski's mistakes with the content of his megadungeon. There is also some speculation about how much of the dungeon is actually his, and how much of it was written by Alexander Macris or Tavis Allison. I think a lot of people just simply still have sour grapes for James' disappearance. While some of his ideas have also been criticized for being simplistic, James Maliszewski once had the most popular OSR blog for some time before the problems with his Dwimmermount project arose.

At this point, criticizing James for things that happened over two years ago is a cheap shot. It's uncalled for, it's unnecessary, and it's insulting. He handed his project off to others who were ready to carry the torch for him, and the project was finished into what is now a huge 400-plus page volume. It's a colossal piece of work, and regardless of who wrote the finishing touches for the printed book it wouldn't have been possible without James' vision and inspiration.

I have greatly enjoyed reading through my copy of the book. The world of Dwimmermount is called Telluria, and the lore and history of the setting are tied inextricably with the history for the megadungeon. There are many oddities to the dungeon that appealed to me, and every level is designed consistently with the history that is provided. What James Maliszewski has done is write an adventure that mimics discovering everything there is to know about a fantasy setting. I suspect that the real joy of playing this adventure is in uncovering the history of this world, and anybody who tries to file the serial numbers off and place Dwimmermount within their own campaign will be stuck doing a lot of work. In tone and theme, Dwimmermount is Silmarillion-as-dungeoncrawl.

However, the book is badly organized. I'm sure there was some form of logic that caused the chapters to be arranged the way they were, but looking up information is difficult and keeping track of everything is nightmarish. There is no index, and many details are left vague. If I want to know who the leader of the gnolls is, or where the orcs make camp, or how these two groups feel about one another, then I am stuck looking in three different places that I can only look up from the contents if I've memorized what sections of the book that information is in. If I want to know where the different pieces of Dwimmermount's secret history can be found I'm also out of luck, as the book says "It is up to the Judge to read the lore in the referenced section and decide how best to describe it to his players." There are several passages with that same kind of "make it up as you go along" style of advice that you don't expect to find in a 400-page adventure where many things are meticulously described in exacting detail.

It's absorbing but at the same time frustrating to read. It excels at providing a cryptic Appendix N style atmosphere, but it falls flat when presenting how to approach the adventures locked within. The book is, overall, a mixture of good and bad. However, the pdf is priced at only $10 and I find that, frankly, amazing. When many publishers and authors try to sell their work (which has considerably less personal investment from the author) for almost the same cost as the print book, it's refreshing to see that Autarch wants to try and put this adventure into your hands at a reasonable price. Even if you never plan on GMing a Tellurian megadungeon, if you have the $10 to spare then you should pick it up and give it a read. You may find you can at least use something from it, or best case scenario it will inspire you to try playing in James' world.


Last weekend I was offered the opportunity to GM a 5th edition D&D game and since it would require a lot less work to adapt Dwimmermount to 5e, I decided to hold off on continuing with adapting Dwimmermount to my weird science-fantasy setting. Now I just need to apply Dwimmermount to 5th edition rules, which seems pretty easy to do and I'm basing that assessment off of comparing and contrasting some NPC stats between the Labyrinth Lord and ACKS versions of Dwimmermount.

1) Raise Dead, Resurrection, etc.
A lot of effort is spent describing how dwarves and elves can't receive healing from raise dead or resurrection spells, but then the main "villain" of Dwimmermount is a man who believed he could achieve immortality by making himself a god and resurrection spells have always been a strange (and hypocritical) thing to have in a campaign where the "bad guys" are trying to evade death.
For this game, raise dead, resurrection, and spells of that nature simply do not exist on Telluria.

2) Races
Dwarves and Gnomes are exclusively male. Dwarves reproduce by "carving" sons and Gnomes are produced from "mistakes" made during the carving process.
Players who want to play a...
Dwarf: use the Mountain Dwarf subrace exclusively.
Elf: use the High Elf subrace exclusively.
Halfling: there are no halflings on Telluria!
Dragonborn: no mechanical changes, but Dragonborn are magically created by a dragon whose Ancestry they match. A Dragonborn character can start with proficiency in one Int-based skill of their choice, or one additional language, due to their early childhood education from the dragon who made them.
Gnome: starting languages are Common and Dwarvish. The Gnomish language doesn't exist.
Half-Elf: there are no half-elves on Telluria!
Half-orc: there are no half-orcs on Telluria!
Tiefling: no mechanical changes, but Tieflings gain advantage on any skill checks involving knowledge about planar travel or demons.

3) Languages of Telluria
Common: there are many variations of Common but all humans around Montburg and Dwimmermount speak the same dialect.
Low Thulian: largely unwritten, non-standard form of Thulian spoken by the lower classes and conquered subject peoples of the Thulian Empire.
High Thulian: elegant, highly-inflected language with a rich vocabulary and literature, High Thulian was the language of the literary class during the Thulian Empire. It is spoken by aristocrats and scholars in the City-States, and preserved in the liturgy of the Great Church.
Ancient Thulian: The ancestor of High Thulian, Ancient Thulian has a relatively small vocabulary but an exceptionally complex grammar. Spoken by the first Thulian barbarians who conquered the Eld, it is today the preserve of sages and the Great Church, whose earliest holy books are scribed in it.
Bestial: The various beast-men (gnolls, orcs, lizard-men, etc.) all share this rough dialect of the Common language descended from the barracks argot of Thulian soldiers.
Elven: Sages who have closely studied elven have found it bears faint similarities in grammar and vocabulary with Ancient Thulian and Dwarven. The elves claim this is because Ephemerals learned to speak from their betters.
Dwarven: The workman-like language of curt words with a highly regular, efficient grammar spoken by the dwarves. Some of its vocabulary has a faint similarity to Ancient Thulian and Elven, although dwarves maintain this is because the superiority of their language was mimicked by the other races.
Goblin: The fast and guttural language of the goblins bears no resemblance to any other language on Telluria, including bestial. Goblin’s strange, transpositional grammar is difficult for even sages to learn, although the dumbest goblin masters it easily.
Precursor: Sages theorize that there may be a precursor language underlying the similarities of Ancient Thulian, Dwarven, and Elven, perhaps the tongue spoken by the Great Ancients. If so, no one knows how to speak it.

4) Classes of Dwimmermount
Barbarians: The island of Thule is still inhabited by humans descended from the seat of the ancient Thulian Empire, but they have fallen back into barbarism and insular clan hierarchies. Nonhuman barbarians would come from isolated pockets of civilization which have lost touch with the rest of the world in the aftermath of the Thulian Empire's decline.
Bards: no changes
Clerics: Clerics either worship one of the deities of the Great Church or a demon prince (Orcus is the only one listed below). At present, no known divine spells exceed the 5th level of power, and no living Cleric has ever exceeded 14th level of ability.
The Great Church was a religious institution of the Thulian Empire, formed from an amalgamation of the nine most influential faiths among the Thulians. Eight of the original deities honored by the Great Church are shown on the table below. The ninth “deity” was called Anyastos, who was, according to orthodox interpretation, not a deity at all, but rather an abstract concept (The Divine) representative of the power above and beyond all the other gods. Anyastos had no priesthood or temples of his own, instead being revered by all of the Church’s constituent faiths. Of course, there
have always been tales of secret societies and esoteric orders devoted to him. Later, Turms Termax identified himself with The Divine and his worship eventually supplanted that of Anyastos within the Great Church.
Chaotic clerics possess the ability to cast divine spells, although they serve neither Law nor the deities of the Thulian Great Church. Such men and women have – knowingly or unknowingly - thrown in their lot with the various demon lords and princes of the Great Void.
Clerics of the Knowledge Domain worship Asana (Lawful) or Tenen (Lawful)
Clerics of the Life Domain worship Caint (Lawful Good) or Donn (Lawful)
Clerics of the Light Domain worship Typhon (Lawful Evil)
Clerics of the Nature Domain worship Anesidora (Lawful Good)
Clerics of the Tempest Domain worship Tenen (Lawful) or Donn (Lawful)
Clerics of the Trickery Domain worship Orcus (Chaotic Evil) or Tyche (Lawful)
Clerics of the War Domain worship Mavors (Lawful Evil)
Druids: At present, no known divine spells exceed the 5th level of power, and no living Druid has ever exceeded 14th level of ability.
Fighters: no changes
Monks: these are rare in the region around Dwimmermount.
Paladins: fighters in the service of Law. Unlike clerics, paladins serve no known god. Indeed, they generally consider all gods to be, at best, merely powerful otherworldly beings and, at worst, demons masquerading as divinities. Paladins serve only Law, and some have surmised that “Law” is simply another manifestation of the abstract Thulian deity, Anyastos.
Rangers: no changes
Rogues: no changes
Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards: At present, no known arcane spells exceed the 6th level of power, and no living magic-user has ever exceeded 14th level of ability.

5) Backgrounds of Dwimmermount
Courtney Campbell has written a few backgrounds that I would add to this setting:
Brewer / Drunk
Farmer
Prisoner
Gravedigger

6) Skills and stuff
In the Dwimmermount adventure there are many calls for skill rolls involving knowledge of Ancient Lore, Eld Lore, Thulian Lore, and Termaxian Lore. In my mind, it seems unnecessary to have four separate skills for the history of one location. Each type of lore will fall under History and the base default will be directly related to how long ago each period lasted. Termaxian Lore defaults to DC 10, Thulian Lore defaults to DC 15, Eld Lore falls under DC 20, and Ancient Lore is DC 25.

DC 15 is my default for most Int-based skills, but characters from other worlds have severe penalties to History (+15 DC) and Religion (+10 DC) rolls. These penalties lessen as the characters learn more about Telluria. Every 10 hours spent studying each subject, or every level gained after arriving on Telluria, reduces the DC by -1. Learning something unique about Dwimmermount will also help lower these penalties.

And then there's Azoth!

Azoth does a lot of weird and random stuff that I'm just going to ignore most of. Raw azoth will still inflict damage, and if it's improperly handled refined azoth will trigger spell effects that can potentially become permanent.

All of the uses of azoth for constructing magical devices (as well as creating new races or the alchemical processes for creating undead) remain intact.