The following assumes you know the whole back-story of the disappearance of James Maliszewski and his blog Grognardia a couple of years ago. If not, here’s a couple links for you. And in the spirit of the title of this entry, the tldr is this: James wrote a very successful blog recounting his experiences going back to original D&D. He started a kickstarter to publish his home campaign setting, and then vanished suddenly when his father became very ill, and hasn’t posted a word online since. While others picked up the kickstarter responsibilities, many were quite upset about the whole thing, while others had some empathy for a man having an obviously tough time with grief.

OK, so I backed that kickstarter when it first launched. In early 2012 I also had a little personal upheaval to deal with, and as such wasn’t paying much attention to James or his blog. There were offers on the kickstarter to refund my money, but I let it ride. It wasn’t a lot of money and I had already kind of forgotten about it. I figured it was worth the risk that maybe James would return or these other guys would put something interesting together. And then last week, this arrived in the mail:

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Man, I was not expecting such a massive book. Seriously, this thing weighs a ton, and clocks in at over 400 pages. It took me a couple days just to get up the gumption to try and read the thing. I started out skimming and popping around trying to find specific bits of interest. Finally, I picked it up for my pre-bed time reading last night and started in at chapter 1. That first chapter turns out to be an incredibly interesting read. While just the introduction, it includes James’ original intro describing his personal goals, and then a larger chunk from the publisher talking about what problems James had with the project and how they went about solving those problems once James had left.

Let’s begin with James’ own motivations. He was pretty enamored of the idea of a mega-dungeon for some time, and wrote about such frequently on his blog:

There’s never really been a properly presented old school campaign setting, because none that I know of have ever given us the megadungeons around which they revolved. It seems to me that, if I were an old school publisher looking for a “killer app,” it’d be a well-done megadungeon and surrounding wilderness, done in a way that fosters sandbox/hexcrawl play.

I think the quote above outlines not only his original dream, but also what eventually becomes the albatross of the project for him. The introduction to Dwimmermount puts it this way:

As identified by James, the fundamental difficulty in publishing a megadungeon is that it changes over time in response to play.

The final problem James identified for a published dungeon is that the amount of detail which accumulates through the history of play can be overwhelming to the referee. Freedom from extensive preparation was one of the key advantages James found in refereeing Dwimmermount, because at the beginning of the campaign there was little prepared material demanding to be studied before each session. By the end of James’ campaign, a wealth of detail had piled up – but much of it did not make it into the first drafts of Dwimmermount. James’ drafts were purposefully minimalist, so as to avoid burdening the referee with an abundance of material to master, leaving each referee space for individual creativity to make the dungeon his own.

Whether or not you agree that megadungeons are instrumental to recreating old school play, I think the above issues ring true for adapting any home campaign setting into published material. I remember throughout my young gaming life (all the way up to and including college play), I always envied GMs who had long spanning home campaigns rich with history and content. When I started my own old school campaign back in January of 2010, this is exactly what I was setting out to create — my own long living campaign world that would grow organically over time. I think I was pretty successful at doing just that, but would I try now to package that all up into a published work and sell it to the public? Certainly not.

The fact is, you can’t package the magic of the shared history among DM and players. You can package up all the output of this communal creative process, but expecting an outsider to be able to pick that up and have the same experiences you did is laughable. And yet, it seems that’s exactly what is being attempted here:

We have added in much of the detail that James left out, attempting to stay true to James’ intent or written notes while resolving inconsistencies between sections of the text written at different times and filling in gaps where his drafts referred to details not provided. As a result, the final material we have published is considerably more detailed than the first drafts. We think this ultimately makes Dwimmermount a better product, and hope that you agree. For some referees, experts in improvisation and megadungeon creation, the additional material we have added will be unnecessary and possibly even distracting; but we feel that erring on the side of more content rather than less is ultimately better for everyone. In play, it is much easier to ignore unwanted material than to manufacture details from whole cloth, and a majority of backers we interacted with preferred to be able to run the dungeon “out of the box” without being required to add their own material.

A product that is “better for everyone” at the expense of “experts in improvisation” who will find much of the work “unnecessary and possibly even distracting.” This sounds an awful lot like the exact progression of D&D, a gradual removal of reliance on expert GMs able to improvise, and a leveling of the playing field to give everyone a standard experience, even if that standard had become somewhat drab as a result.

I will still attempt to make it through the 400 pages and find the hidden gems for extraction into my own campaign. I’m sure they are in there, and it’s just a question if I can make it through all the verbosity to find them. For my own money though, I kind of wish the book had been closer to James’ original draft, or perhaps something more like Michael Curtis’ Stonehell. Give me loose notes that inspire my imagination and leave plenty of room for interpretation, not pages upon pages of minutiae.

I tore through Stonehell and dropped that sucker right into my campaign world. My players know of its existence, and some love it, and many more avoid it like the plague. It is full of mystery and danger in their eyes – just what a massive dungeon should be. Is it the central tent-pole of my campaign? No. Does it provide plenty of hooks for adventure and exciting play? Absolutely.