This book is a monster. Clocking in at over four hundred pages, it has everything you’d need for a long-running campaign: background, history, game-mastering advice, a stocked wilderness area, a fully described “Keep on the Borderlands” type of base for the players to use, new spells, new monsters, new magic items, and one of the biggest and most elaborate dungeons ever published. It’s positively brimming with references, developments, and applications of material drawn from Gary Gygax’s Appendix N reading list from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. If you’ve wondered what fantasy role playing adventure would look like if someone revisited its foundations and took sort of a neoclassical approach to it… this is it!
The overall tone is much closer to the science fantasy¹ of Jack Vance than the glam/goth/punk mashup in evidence in recent incarnations of the franchise. The exact same willingness to mix in science fiction elements that is in evidence in classic game products Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Expedition to Barrier Peaks is here in spades. It is perhaps an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs that the underworld sprawls to the extent that it does. Much more explicit are Robert E. Howard‘s Hyperborean barbarians exploding out of the north to smite a sorcerous and decadent empire. It’s A. Merritt that provides the most impact on the material, however: not only is there an actual moon pool in the dungeon, but there are also frog men about as well. To be fair, the latter do seem to be more out of Lovecraft than anything else… but given that Lovcraft also claims a spot in the Appendix N list, this is still a win for fans of weird fiction. Finally, the old three-point alignment system from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions is adapted here to this world with neither faerie nor Christendom; it is thoroughly integrated into both the general world history and the specifics of the adventure. Its ramifications are thought through and consistently applied in everything from the most obscure lore and setting history to traps, encounters, and magic items.
The real payoff for going back to the pulp roots of the game for inspiration is that is no longer feels like something that’s derivative of watered down Tolkien ripoffs. Everything feels much more alien and mysterious. All the classic adventure gaming tropes are here, but you really can’t take anything for granted in this new context. Old standbys like dwarves and elves are here more or less as you’d expect; a set of variant cleric classes have been detailed here that are more or less along the same lines as the ones introduced way back in the second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player Handbook. But both the demi-human races and the cleric classes are wedded directly to the campaign setting and the dungeon’s backstory. Figuring out the history, origin, and nature of these things is a big part of the game. At the same time, they’re not loaded with the gratuitous detail that failed novelists gravitate toward when they take solace in adventure design. Everything here on the races and classes are different enough to be intriguing while still being easy to pick up and run with.
Traveller has long been praised for creating a style of play where the players are primarily motivated by a desire to learn more about the nature of the game universe.² Dwimmermount manages to integrate that sort of premise into the context of classic D&D adventuring in a really significant way. Sure, if the players don’t have any real leads to follow up on, they can always go back to the default m.o. of killing monsters and taking their stuff. But gold isn’t the only thing that will motivate the players to keep rappelling down into this particular rabbit hole. Indeed, there is an experience point value on information that is equal to that which can be gotten from retrieving treasure! That’s the sort of incentive that even the most hardened dungeon delver can grasp immediately.
But this is by no means an ordinary dungeon crawl. You cannot clear this thing. Coming back alive from the place with a bunch of loot is liable to be a very big deal; it can inspire non-player character parties to try to get in on the act. The players can make a lot of money (and thus experience) just selling maps that they make of the place. Doing so will help them level up a lot faster… but it will also generate additional attention and activity on those levels by rival adventuring groups. It’s possible for rooms to get restocked between sessions… and it’s possible for rooms to get looted before the players even find them!
Not that it has to get that wild and woolly. Sure, there are tools and advice on how to make the dungeon a living, breathing world. But you don’t have to over-complicate things. By default each room is set up to provide a solid and interesting situation. You can assume most of the time that the players just so happened to get there just as those things are playing out. This creates a bit of a quantum effect³ to some extent… but it’s a lot easier than trying to extrapolate out the action on eight or nine dungeon levels while the players gradually make their way down when you’ve got something solid to lead off with.
There are multiple factions on each level. And a lot of these don’t just stay on the level that they’re “supposed” to be on, but are active on several of them simultaneously. Figuring out what these groups are up to, which ones to cooperate with, and which ones to wipe out is not an easy question. If you wish you could have done something a little more creative with the various factions of the iconic Caves of Chaos, you’ll have plenty of chances to rectify that with this module. In any case, a lot of these monster groups are willing to talk and deal, and you get plenty of details to help you run them intelligently.
Another thing you can expect is a whole lot of weird stuff. If you’ve ever rolled up a dungeon randomly with your trusty Basic Set books, you not only got a surprising amount of empty rooms, but a whole lot of “specials.” I was never that creative, so I ran out of ideas for those things rather quickly back in the day. After reading a few hundred pages of room descriptions from this dungeon, this is not a problem anymore! Without giving anything away, you can expect all kinds of contraptions, idols, and statues… most with some sort of puzzle associated with them. Most of them are optional, so they’re not necessarily going to bring play to a halt when the players don’t understand how they’re supposed to work. I can easily see the players pass on some of this stuff buy, then figure something out at a lower level… and then rush back to previous locations to try again to solve what stumped them before.
If you liked old text adventure games like the Zork series, Planetfall, and Suspended, then you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of this stuff. (I know I felt like a genius when I first figured out Flood Control Dam #5.) Best of all, you don’t have to wade through several tedious levels with the standard goblin, kobald, and skeleton type encounters. Every level has a blend of politics, danger, and strangeness. And all of it ties into the overarching mystery. There’s a lot here… and it just goes on and on and on and on…. Well that is kind of the point of a gigantic, sprawling monster dungeon like this. But going through each of these levels, at some point my mind just couldn’t be blown anymore. There’s just so much awesome, I began to worry that the last few levels might not be able to provide anything like a real payoff. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Again, not to give too much away, but… there is something down there that is on par with the audaciousness of the “domed city” on the final level of the iconic sample dungeon from the Holmes Basic Set rule book. We now know that the drawing was by Tom Wham.⁴ We also have the sample dungeon cross-section that J. Eric Holmes himself had intended to be used in the book.⁵ A lot of design principles that can be garnered from these iconic maps are in evidence in Dwimmermount, sure. But I have to say, seeing something like the this completely thought through, worked out, tested and developed… finally having it in my hands and ready for play… having all of those preceding levels and the background information and the history… it’s just positively breathtaking. It’s equally astonishing to see the things I speculated in my retrospectives At the Earth’s Core and The Moon Pool pretty much all here and in an even more immediately playable format than I had imagined could be done.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to create for a campaign that features this material. For starters, there are plenty of treasure maps within Dwimmermount that will give the players an excuse to go tromping about the wider world. There are portals and pointers to what are essentially entire new worlds, just like what we talked about back when we covered Changeling Earth. And there are notes on how to continue the adventure into new dungeon levels beyond what are covered here. This is a framework that could easily support an entire line of supplements and modules.
One thing missing from all of this is an epic battle– something like the Battle of Five Armies on the slopes of the titular mountain… or something like the climatic battles from end of Princess of Mars or the epic wars from the Middle Earth’s First Age, with legions of monstrous and demonic entities from all over the multiverse clashing as Carmina Burana blares in the background. Still, Individual referees shouldn’t have too much trouble whipping something up along those lines if that’s their bag. I would prefer to have an actual scenario booklet in my hand… something on par with the campaigns from the Starcraft video game or from the Commands & Colors series. The Adventurer Conqueror King System certainly equips referees for developing something like that for themselves, especially when the Domains at War supplement is included along with it, but I still want more. (I may be the only person out here that wants that, though– which may explain why such a thing never seems to get made– role-players and miniatures gamers just have very different tastes that don’t often overlap for some reason.)
Still, the ACKS edition of Dwimmermount is fully fleshed out with complete stats for each of the domains, including market class and the exact composition of their military forces. And even though I am a staunch advocate of minimalist, old school gaming… I have to say that I quite like way that the ACKS proficiency system is used to flesh out the non-player characters. It isn’t just gratuitous chrome, either, but is fully integrated into the room descriptions and puzzles. And though I tend to lean toward doing initiative by side, I admit I am keen on running some of the combats from the lower levels with the ACKS individual initiative system where there are explicit means of spoiling mages’ spell-casting attempt.⁶
It’s hard not to wonder, though… is this thing so big, so richly detailed, and so complex that it is impossible for a mere mortal to run it? I don’t think so. The leveling system–both in terms of the character development and in how the dungeon is organized– means that the complexity and detail is dolled out steadily from session to session. The nuances of the competing factions are something that becomes clear just by playing– you don’t have to figure it all out before hand. Still, this is not Michael Curtis’s Stonehell. You’re not going to be running this like it’s a One Page Dungeon. You’re not going to be taking levels from Dwimmermount and then dropping them into totally different campaign settings, either. Not without a lot of retrofitting anyway….
If you do want a little extra help keeping up with the campaign and running sessions, the Dwimmermount Dungeon Tracker present’s the dungeon maps with the room names marked directly on them opposite from space to mark when random monsters turn up. It also has a brief summary of the level’s background, factions, and oddities. Note that while the level maps from the Dwimmermount Map Book have neither the annotations nor the tracking aids, that companion booklet does contain a four page extra large wilderness map and set of illustrations that break down the order in which the various levels were constructed.
All together, this is a pretty amazing set of products. The scope is so large, it’s hard to believe that this ever got completed. And while the old grognards might have taken it for granted that tabletop adventure gaming should be something like what is presented here, the old guard never actually published anything of this scale. All those little kids looking at that “Skull Mountain” megadungeon map in their brand new Holmes Basic Sets… only a fraction of them had the skills to create something like that and none of them had the option to just up and buy one. But now we not only have something like that available, we have one that incorporates decades of gaming experience. That’s awesome. This is just one more reason why there’s never been a better time to be playing tabletop games.
¹ For more on science fantasy in the Appendix N list, see D&D’s Appendix N Roots Are Science Fantasy over at Roles, Rules, and Rolls.
² For more on this point, see the sidebar on page 81 in GURPS Traveller by Loren Wiseman.
³ See the Quantum Ogre series at Hack & Slash for more information on this well known design issue in role-playing games.
⁴ Check out Skull Mountain by Tom Wham at Zenopus Archives to get the full story.
⁵ See A Missing Link: A Miniature Megadungeon over at Semper Initiativus Unam for details.
⁶ I know now that those rules were right there in the Cook/Marsh Expert book all along, but because they were never explicitly laid out in the sequence of play, I never got the chance to experience them. In any case, they were not in the Moldvay Basic rules at all, so it’s really no wonder that I ended up playing it “wrong” for so many sessions…! Doh!