Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ruins of the Undercity

The new micro-game is coming along swimmingly...usually, I can knock one out in a day, but I didn't have as much time to work on it Friday as I wanted, and my entire weekend was taken up with Good Ol' Family Time (Happy Birthday, D!)...and the problem with doing a one-page Supers game is figuring out how (or if) to list a good enough slate of powers.

Anyhoo, right now I'm taking a break from that because, well, because I've got other projects on my mind. Several have been bouncing around the cranial sphere of late (i.e. the last year) with progress occurring on 1st one, then another, then a third...often with results that end up causing me to go back and modify (or even re-write) an earlier project. Not necessarily because I'm "wishy-washy" (though I admit that may be part of it) but because my thought on game design continues to evolve.

Recently, I've been rethinking about delving back into D&D Mine...something that's been on-hold since I started bouncing around the three-way triangle of dinosaur pulp-space opera-superhero fantasy games I've been working. I just haven't been in much of a "D&D mood" of late for a number of reasons, two of which are:

- my growing dissatisfaction with even B/X D&D (leading me to write D&D Mine), and
- the lack of a rule set that can do what I want it to do

The latter of which is one of those terrible circular traps: I'm out of the mood of writing D&D because I'm frustrated with the lack of a good rule set for D&D because I haven't completed the writing of my own rule set for D&D because I'm out of the mood of writing D&D. See what I mean?

In fact, I just spent an hour or so blowing off steam on the subject with an employee at the local game shop...which sucks for my readers, of course, because (having already vented my thoughts out loud) I have little left to write on the subject.

But PRIOR to that, I did take the time to read a game supplement someone has recently published and sent me requesting a review. That someone is Kabuki Kaiser and that supplement is Ruins of the Undercity. While I am generally slow at getting to (and often less-than-complimentary) this kind of thing, I've decided to make an exception and say a few words on the book...possibly to avoid making a decision on what other writing I should be pursuing at the moment.

Ruins of the Undercity is compatible with Labyrinth Lord (the B/X-retroclone) and provides a Random DM-less  Dungeon Generator for One Player or More. It does this mainly by adapting the old random dungeon generation rules from Gygax's 1st edition DMG, putting them in a specific game world/setting and updating them to be both LL friendly and compatible. Those of you who, like me, owned the old DMG and used the random dungeon generator for solo play on days when you didn't have your regular game group available and couldn't get enough D&D will remember those old random tables generating quirky maps with twisting corridors and ill-fitting and strangely shaped rooms. I'm not really interested in talking about THAT part of the book...it may be done fine or not, but it's not terribly original (save that Kaiser adds additional random town tables for both before and after a delve). Instead, I want to talk a bit about the setting specific stuff.

Actually, let me back up a bit...I want to talk about D&D Mine first. Those of you who recall me blogging about that project (5 or 6 months back) will recall I was having some frustration with reconciling the fantasy setting with the basic tenets of D&D, namely how to to reconcile the background setting (an ancient Arabia/Persia setting) with the basic conceit of the game (going into holes looking for treasure). Or perhaps you DON'T remember, because perhaps I never got around to discussing it. Well, suffice is to say it WAS frustrating for me...D&D in its most basic (i.e. primordial) form...doesn't do well with the idea of wandering free-booting adventures because it's original incarnation (after Chainmail) was with the static delve site of Arneson's Blackmoor. And Gygax's Greyhawk. And whatever-it-is Rob Kuntz called his basic mega-dungeon. The rules and regulations, the mechanic limitations of the game, were created for a particular type of exploration...and don't work as well once you pull the PCs out of the dungeon and start expanding their "fantasy world." Since the time players got bored with the initial premise and started looking "outside the box" designers (both the Founding Fathers and their descendant designers) have been tweaking and adjusting and modifying trying to find away to "make it work;" the subsequent evolution of the game has done some good things and many, many bad things ever since.

[that is REALLY abstract and over-simplified, but it's not the point of the post and I just want to get on with it, not rehash earlier blog thoughts]

In the end, I figured the only way to do my D&D Mine in a way that even VAGUELY resembled D&D (and still make sense) was to factor a similar "ancient mega-dungeon" into the game's setting...an Arabian Nights inspired fiction containing both the post-Islam Bagdad and the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. And the way to do that would be to set everything in  one huge and fabulous city of ancient origin (like Sinbad's Bagdad) built upon the site of an earlier ancient and awful (and necromantic) ruin and city. GMs would still have full leeway to design the dungeon (entrances would be dotted all about the town), but would have justification for the adventuring action of professional treasure seekers. It wasn't what I had initially wanted, but it would be a possible "out" for me.

Still it was frustrating, and I never got around to writing it up, instead adapting old AD&D modules (like Dwellers of the Forbidden City) to the new game rules for play-testing. Figured I'd finish making sure things worked before bothering to write up the setting.

So now we return to Ruins of the Undercity, which basically beats me to the punch.

The premise of RotUC is remarkably similar to my own Big Fat Idea...an ancient and huge city, built upon the ruined heap of an older, more ancient ruin, providing all the "home base" stuff up top (not to mention places to work one's standard D&D endgame scenarios) with a huge "adventure complex" (to be randomly generated) underneath. RotUC also has a similar "flavor" to it, skipping the more Western Europe flavored monsters in exchange for something more Middle Eastern or east Indian (love-love-love the magic turbans). Even leaving out the random dungeon generation stuff (and rules for "solo play") it's a tasty game setting, and one I wouldn't mind stealing from...absolutely adored the "lich thieves" (though their metal masks was a little to Frank Miller 300 for my taste).

A lot of his monsters (Kaiser provides a fairly fat bestiary) are recognizably cribbed from the Fiend Folio, though it would appear he only took his favorite ones that might do well in the setting (two thumbs up from moi). He adds a few of his own, setting-specific ones, however, and is happy to change the modify the original FF critters to suit his purpose...he also provides combat tactic lists for the non-straightforward monsters (the better to use them in solo play; very serviceable), which is a nice little default to have on-hand.

However, there's nothing absolutely special about the first 64 pages of the book...most anyone with a Fiend Folio and DMG could come up with something similar (including the random town events) with a little mental effort and the time and energy to put it all together (most anyone could do it, but I haven't seen it in such a nice little compilation before; it makes for a good supplement/setting book). What IS impressive (to me) was what came AFTER those first 64 pages, specifically the Appendix A with regard to campaign play, specifically with regard to a codified system of personal objectives for player characters. Long term game goals is something I like to see (and encourage) in my players, but it's something I rarely encounter: most players are too busy learning the game rules, are trying to stay alive or finding gold coins to bother thinking about such things. Kaiser puts together a specific list of high level goals (many of which can be accomplished prior to achieving Name level) for adventurers, as well as the specific mechanics required for accomplishing these objectives. Some examples include: becoming a high priest of the city's patron deity (available even to non-clerics), becoming a member of the city council or even the city's ruler, founding or taking control of a guild house, becoming a city folk hero, achieving immortality through undeath, or wedding a king/queen in a distant country. All of these are cool and will appeal to different personalities (and might evolve out of random events); some PCs might accomplish multiple long-term objectives (I don't think any are mutually exclusive) and they all provide role-playing rewards outside the normal D&D "box" without breaking the D&D game system. That's cool and new and I wish I'd thought to do it first.

[well, I HAVE thought of similar goals/objectives, but I haven't codified them like Kaiser has; and certainly not in such a way that they work directly with the campaign setting for which he's created them]

So that was cool. Coupled with the nice game setting, the sensible monster lists, and some out-o-the-box magic items (fairly pulp fantasy stuff with good and bad benefits of the kind usual to folklore and NOT found in modern D&D editions) this is a nice little book to pick up and run a campaign. The random dungeon creation and solo play rules are fine, but nothing I'd proclaim as a reason for getting the game (my days of solo gaming are long behind me...I don't have time for that anymore!). I did like the random town events (easy to use and more sensible than a lot of the tables I've seen on the internet the last couple years), and Ruins of the Undercity is probably something I would use...if I hadn't already decided to re-write the rules of D&D to my own personal purposes.

But I'll certainly be checking out parts of RotUC if and when I ever get back to finishing up my version of D&D Mine...especially the rules in aforementioned Appendix A.

[Ruins of the Undercity available for purchase here]


  1. Your idea about an ancient city on top a dungeon reminds me of Tekumel (at least its original incarnation). One thing about that underworld was that it housed lots of temples to the various evil demon-gods worshiped by the citizens of the city and the temples are actively maintained. So you've got cultists defending their own shrines, cultists raiding other shrines, demons, adventurers, all wandering around together.

  2. @ Hedge; though I didn't mention it earlier, interesting enough (to me anyway) one of the 'personal objective'/endgame goals included in Appendix A of RotUC is "Establishing a New Cult." Pretty cool considering there's only one main religion in the city!
    : )

  3. Awesome and spot-on review, thank you for this! You've really hit the nail on the head because indeed, this booklet isn't about the solo play tables alone, it's a setting and campaign book as well (the tables have been tweaked as well to convey an atmosphere though you can't realize it until you actually play with them).

  4. @ Kabuki:

    Hey, thanks for sharing your book with me. I'm glad you liked the review. Rest assured, I was being as honest as possible (other folks have taken umbrage with some of my reviews of their work!).
    ; )

  5. Okay guys, I've joined the Oklahoma Charity Bundle on Drivethru and added Ruins of the Undercity to the stack. Here's your chance to contribute and grab the PDF if this great reveiw sparked your interest.