Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Review: Dwimmermount

This is a review of Dwimmermount; something, I started working on the day I received my copy, but then I got distracted. Now it is finished, for better or for worse. I tried my best to make it as spoiler-free as possible, but still, read further at your own risk. Lastly, I present my personal thoughts regarding Dwimmermount as a whole, hoping that the Reader may see through my rambling and understand what I am trying to say.

Note that I am not interested in the discussion of the product's controversial history and Kickstarter campaign; the past is the past, and I firmly believe that the product can nevertheless be judged upon its own merits or lack thereof.


Introduction

There are two lengthy introductions (the first by James Maliszewski, the second by Tavis Allison and Alexander Macris) detailing the product's history, goals, major components, and possible uses; enumerating the theoretical and practical difficulties of publishing a true megadungeon; and acknowledging the works on which Dwimmermount is built.

History of Dwimmermount

Chapter 2 summarises the history of Dwimmermount and Telluria, the setting in which Dwimmermount "officially" exists, as follows. Many ages ago, there were the Great Ancients, who were responsible for the creation of many things (including most known spells and the dwarves); the oldest parts of Dwimmermount were also built at this time.

Then came the invading Eld, the Red Elves from Areon, the Red Planet. They wielded powerful magic and destroyed the Great Ancients (although some believe some of them escaped and one day shall return). The Eld conquered Telluria and enslaved many races.

As centuries passed, the Thulians, a northern race of lawful men, slowly drove off the Eld and established their own empire; their most sacred institution, the Great Church, banned arcane magic and they hunted down most wizards and witches. So did they kill anyone who fought back against their empire.

Then, Turms Termax, possibly the most powerful wizard in the history of men came and preached that magic would lead men to godhood. When the Thulians finally captured and brought him to Dwimmermount, they decapitated him, but instead of dying, he actually became a god. So his enemies swore allegiance to him, and they even reformed the Great Church so that practitioners of magic would not be hunted anymore.

Soon the Termaxians became rulers of the Thulian Empire; however, many rebelled against them, especially the followers of Typhon and Tyche. When the rebels finally reached Dwimmermount to siege the Termaxians' strongest fortress, they found it dark and quiet, and its doors sealed. Nobody knew what happened to Dwimmermount, but it did not matter: the rebels won and the Thulian Empire fell.

Telluria is now ruled by city-states and small principalities, and Dwimmermount remained undisturbed for two centuries. However, lights have recently been seen and noises have been heard from there, and people speak of shady figures who were seen entering the once great fortress. Investigators hired by the authorities confirmed that people have recently entered Dwimmermount, but no further actions have been taken. There is a window of opportunity to explore Dwimmermount and learn its many secrets.

After shortly describing the above history - this much the players may even be told -, Referees are presented with the real history of the world and of Dwimmermount in a factual way: every piece of information is numbered so that they can be referred to later in the book (for instance, when an ancient scroll detailing some secrets of the world is found). Because learning these secrets is a crucial gameplay element of Dwimmermount, and because they are quite clever (even if not entirely novel), I will not go into details to avoid spoilers.

Adventuring in Dwimmermount

Men may be one of the four main classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, or thief) or one of the two sub-classes: the cultist or the paladin. Clerics must be of Lawful alignment as they serve one of the eight deities of the former Thulian Great Church. The cultist is a sub-class of clerics; they serve demons and other powerful beings from the Great Void. They must be Chaotic, they can only cast the reversed form of cleric spells (which are not available to Lawful clerics), they can use edged weapons, and instead of turning they may command undead creatures. Clerics may abandon their faith and become cultists later in the game; doing so, they gain a few bonus abilities as well.

Paladins, a sub-class of fighters, are Lawful warriors from the east. They are quite rare in the region, and many mysteries surround them. There are ways in Dwimmermount for a fighter to become a paladin later. Otherwise they have the same limitations and advantages paladins usually do (code of honour, oath of poverty, immunity to diseases, detect evil, cure disease, healing touch, mighty steed, etc.).

Dwarves are sort of constructs: there are only male dwarves, and they reproduce by carving out a new dwarf from stone and adorn it with gems and jewels, which magically grants life to the carving. This process is mechanically simple (it depends on the carving dwarf's level and the amount of gold he invests in materials), and it may produce malformed creatures (such as gnomes and kobolds) instead of dwarves. When they die, dwarves revert to stone; they cannot be brought back to life by raise dead but by stone to flesh.

Elves are descendants of the evil Eld, particularly of the ones who were unable to flee to the Red Planet upon the Thulian Empire's downfall. They are practically immortal, they cannot be brought back to life by raise dead, and they seem to have no society or children; all of these qualities make them even more suspicious in the eyes of men and dwarves.

Next, commonly known "facts" available to player characters are presented, then some racially biased pieces of information. For instance, to men Dwimmermount is sacred for it holds many ancient temples dedicated to their gods. Also, a table of random rumours is presented.

Lastly, this chapter describes additional motivation to explore Dwimmermount beside loot:
  • First, players may try and sell their maps of the dungeon for gold; there's a simple table to help the referee determine the appropriate price, and the text mentions several consequences to such actions (rival parties, selling multiple copies, etc.).
  • Second, the halls of Dwimmermount hold answers for many intriguing questions, such as "What is the origin of the Gods?" and "What is the secret to immortality?". These questions may be answered by gathering certains facts (referenced by their numbers), and certain people would pay much gold for such knowledge.
  • Third, there are a few adventure seeds tied to the first level of the dungeon as examples for how to draw the party to Dwimmermount and provide additional goals beside seeking treasure.
Surroundings of Dwimmermount

Chapter 4 describes the wilderness surrounding Dwimmermount; it is an updated version of the wilderness presented in the second issue of Fight On!. As such, there are three locations that refer to separate products: (1) the Ruined Monastery from Fight On! #1, (2) Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer, and (3) Maliszewski's own The Cursed Chateau.

Chapter 5 details Muntburg, the settlement closest to Dwimmermount, which will probably be the base of operations for the party. It is a decently described town, but there are no surprises. At the end of the chapter, a few notes can be found on handling the player character's impact on the settlement.

Dwimmermount Proper

Chapter 6 provides an overview of the most important features of Dwimmermount, including known entrances; the arcane barriers that have sealed off the dungeon for hundreds of years; the fantastic materials used for its construction; the different types of doors found within Dwimmermount; lighting, stairs, elevators, portals, and many other environmental features; as well as important rules, like how monster entries are keyed, how to restock previously explored parts, and house rules concerning experience.

This chapter both summarises many important aspects of Dwimmermount in a useful and orderly fashion, and provides background information that, if used consistently by the referee, can be exploited by the players ("So the statue is made of some reddish metal? This place must've been built by the Eld; beware of those nasty arcane traps, boys!").

Chapter 7 details the various factions currently operating in Dwimmermount. Very useful tables are provided listing the levels on which they are active, the whereabouts of their leaders, and their enemies and allies. They are all given a paragraph of text, as well, providing additional information (origins, plans, tactics, etc.).

There are 13 levels altogether, that amount to, by my count, 715 described areas. The room descriptions are detailed and sometimes wordy; names, monster stats, and links to other areas or features can be separated easily from the text, but in actual play the texts can still be too long. It is advised that the GM become familiar with the areas the characters can reasonably have access to (or use coloured marker liberally). Otherwise, the levels seem to be reasonably crafted; the maps are good and useful, and the areas generate the feeling that they belong to the whole, something greater than themselves. They feel coherent.

Lastly, there are seven appendices. The first three describe 70 new magic items, 22 new spells, and 86 new monsters; mind you, new in this context means not included in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook. The fourth presents six sample rival adventuring parties. Each has detailed NPC stats, specialties, plans, and rates for certain jobs. The fifth presents more details about the heavenly bodies; the descriptions really amp up the planetary romance feel of Dwimmermount. The sixth provides more information on the mystical substance called Azoth that played a significant role in the history of Dwimmermount. The last appendix describes Turms Termax in more detail, and it also provides clear mechanics on reaching godhood.

Supporting Products

There are a number of supporting products that can help run Dwimmermount more easily:
  • The Illustration Book provides illustrations for key locations and denizens of the dungeon; they are designed to be shown to players.
  • The Map Book presents enhanced versions of the maps found in the main book.
  • The Dungeon Tracker presents key information about each level in a unique and accesible manner. This, I think, is the best aid a publisher can provide for their megadungeon.
Personal Thoughts

Dwimmermount is huge. Not just the dungeon - although, for comparison, Rappan Athuk has 880 detailed areas; Barrowmaze 425, counting each mound as one area; Stonehell 671; and The Castle of the Mad Archmage 1470 -, but the book itself: it's 400+ pages of information.

I was pleased to find out that the early comments on the playtest material regarding the blandness of magic items and mundane treasure were heard; now everything that has value is given a short description, and each secret door is given a few words.

Some people may find the amount of background information intimidating, but it ensures coherence and shows how much care and energy have been put into this product.

The organisation of the book seems to be okay; in actual play it may be hard to wield, but that is true for every product of such size.

All in all, I find it to be the best megadungeon released so far. Here are my comparisons with other similar products:
  • Rappan Athuk has great ideas but terrible organisation; Dwimmermount is far better in presenting information.
  • Barrowmaze is pretty good, but it lacks the 3D nuances that make a dungeon really interesting; also, too many dead ends.
  • Stonehell and The Castle of the Mad Archmage are both minimalist in design and thus are superior to Dwimmermount in on-the-fly use and reskinning; however, without improvisation to a great extent they may appear bland and simplistic.
To sum it up, Dwimmermount is a well-written, information-dense, traditional megadungeon with hints of science fantasy, designed to facilitate a game based around exploration and discovery. The tools and information presented inside this huge tome are aimed at helping achieve this goal; and with success, I must say. However, there are downsides to this as well, namely it can be too much to digest all at once, it relies on prep work (or the use of the Dungeon Tracker), and the amount of information provided may give the impression that there is less room for improvisation (which is actually untrue).

Dwimmermount was released in two different systems: Labyrinth Lord and Adventurer Conquror King System; they are available in PDF for 10 bucks or PDF+hardcover combo for 75 bucks. Also of note is that the entire text of Dwimmermount (!) was released under the OGL.

I recommend this product for everyone who enjoy exploring megadungeons, and also for those who plan to develop or release a megadungeon; there are lessons to be learnt, for sure.

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