DotMM: 10 Lessons Learned
No plan survives contact with the enemy! I’m running a campaign in Undermountain and we are half a dozen sessions in. It’s an open table with the following modifications:
- Treasure for XP
- Inventory Management
- Random encounters (& strict time management)
- Rules-light character classes
This is for my magnum opus to be published on the DMsGuild. I’ve worked on it for some time but only now had the chance to properly test all of the parts in tandem.
And testing Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a problem in its own right – this thing is huge! In those 6 sessions, we’ve covered half of a floor? Even if I go by the 80/20 rule and call it quits past floor 4, that will take me half a year.
Anyway, here is a list of stuff what is good, and stuff what is not so good, that I have found so far:
1. Rules-light characters
These work! Players are engaging with the dungeon creatively! Combat is smooth! The free-form magic system enables creating problem-solving!
My fears with the lite system have not come to pass: balance seems fair, no one has abused the magic system, and there have been no complaints of boredom.
I’m not convinced that the system has the longevity of vanilla D&D, as gaining levels isn’t as exciting, but when I suggested switching to by-the-book characters, the players were fine staying with their lite versions.
2. The “monster sign” effect
The overloaded encounter die is pretty good. It’s a system where the random monster roll of 1d6, with an encounter happening on a 1, is used to determine other dungeon events as well. On a 3, a torch burns out. On a 5, spells end, etc. But by far the best result is a roll of 2: the sign.
Rolling a two on the random encounter die has created many interesting, dynamic situations. From a nearby goblin relieving himself on a pillar to the voices of an approaching Undertaker gang – allowing players to react to nearby monsters without directly going into combat is great fun.
3. The old school dungeoneering procedure
The core of this procedure is simple: you can do anything you want but it will cost you 10 minutes and a random encounter roll. It should have been part of 5e. All the usual questions of “what happens if I fail to pick a lock?” or “how do I know how much time has passed?” are answered.
When a monster is the thing that’s standing between you and the thing that you actually want, the dynamic is far more interesting than when the monster is the thing you want (to slay). The latter has players systematically combing the dungeon, killing everything in sight. The former encourages politics, stealth, and wit.
These guys are doing their job pretty well! They add a bit of damage, exploration, and interaction, while not unbalancing the situation. Yet. My players haven’t gained the ability to hire higher-level hirelings yet.
This is not loved by my players. Worse yet, it’s not loved by me.
Encumbrance makes all these fancy promises. Tough choices for players! How much do I bring into the dungeon? How much can I take out? Do I play it safe or do I give in to greed? But in reality, it’s 99% admin and 1% trivial choices. Let’s just not take the copper coins. If there were many carried resources fighting for attention then maybe this could work, but there aren’t, which leads me to…
2. Tracking light and food
A session takes 2 to 3 in-game hours. That’s 2-3 torches (or a single lantern), and maybe a single ration or waterskin. In the rare case something runs out, the wizard can cast light or create food. And otherwise, it just means that the game is over as the characters make their way back out of the dungeon. I could force them to expire a lot quicker to increase their importance, but then what?
These are close to getting cut replaced with a generic “amount of treasure you can carry” system that ignores equipment but still makes carrying barrels of dwarven ale a difficult.
3. Spending treasure
It’s a known problem that there’s not that much to spend coin on in 5e. I’ve made a list based on Xanathar’s Guide, Strongholds & Followers, and added hirelings and a magic item auction, but still, it feels a little flat. Some of the Xanathar options are also imbalanced, like how stocking up on healing potions is cheap-as-free for a herbalist.
1. Describing rooms in “theatre of the mind”
Dungeon of the Mad Mage has some crazy-weird rooms, for no apparent reason. Probably a holdover from the olden days, as the first dungeon-floors are based on old maps from the AD&D era.
Mapping is a big part of exploration, but I find myself explaining room and hallway dimensions ad nauseam, with players losing interest quickly. Using a shared drawing tool helps, but it also enables players to ask me “like this?” which is only a small step away from me just drawing the map myself, which is only a small step away from me just copy/pasting the map from the book. There has to be a better way but I haven’t found it yet.
2. Leveling takes aaaaages
Funnily enough, not my fault! Treasure or monsters, the expectation is that a party explores most of a floor before moving down, but in my experience exploring a floor takes a good 10+ sessions! Maybe I’m just a bad DM? I could give my players more treasure, but then they can just hang around on the upper floors, gaining way too much XP. Perhaps some sort of sliding XP scale, but that doesn’t work with treasure very well. Another puzzler!
Some experiments need to be done. The higher levels of the lite system need to be tested – as well as what treasure and money even mean when you’re richer than Jeff Bezos. I also need to force the players to use vanilla D&D for a bit so that we may compare its virtues against mine.
And I have to find a better encumbrance system.