Monday, August 25, 2014

Dungeon of Signs Reviews Dwimmermount


Russ Nicholson Ghasts - Best Art in Dwimmermount
Dwimmermount, long rumored, shrouded in mystery and rage, a controversy and the breaker of titans. I’m not talking about the mega-dungeon, I’m talking about the drama and frustration surrounding the late delivery of this Kickstarted project.  I don’t really care about any of the drama and rigmarole associated with the Dwimmermount, but I am interested in the product itself, a consciously ‘old school’ mega dungeon packaged by, expanded on and rewritten by Autarch press (Of Adventurer Conqueror King – which I don’t have much experience with) and originally conceived and written by Grognardia.

It suffices to say that the Kickstarter was frightfully delayed, the task overwhelming (more on that below) and what started out as a hobbyist’s personal expression of his affection for old system dungeon crawls collapsed into something very different and a bit ugly.  The somewhat tragic, convoluted and painful process of publishing Dwimmermount is alluded to in the introduction along with the project’s basic goals and intentions, but it should be fundamentally unimportant to anyone who is asking themselves “Can I use this mega-dungeon, and what for?”

Besides the now unimportant delay in publication, during Dwimmermount’s production, it’s draft was released in a more or less playable form.  In running a test of the adventure one of the groups, GM’d by a well-known OSR blogger and containing at least one other vocal member of the online OSR community found the first level of the dungeon, slow, dull and most importantly frustratingly unoriginal.  The exemplar of these alleged problems was a room containing six giant rats and several thousand copper pieces.  It should be said that other players, testing Dwimmermount as run by its first author and creator James Maliszewski reported a much more interesting experience. There may be some truth to this distinction as there’s a real possibility that draft notes would be spare and uninteresting compared to the creator’s own understanding of them – certainly my HMS APOLLYON notes, when readable at all, are far less interesting then the ideas they jog in my memory.  Still the basic accusation and one that this review will seek to answer is “Is Dwimmermount Boring?”  The answer to this question is no.  Perhaps a qualified no, stating that if one ran it as a hack and slash combat centric adventure it could have dull spots, and that it’s clearly focused on providing for a long running exploration campaign.    

Dwimmermount is 414 pages long, and while some of this is introductions, space filling design decisions (really if your book is already huge why not) and tables of contents there’s hundreds of pages of gaming content in here, including a starting town, demi-human races and subclasses as well as a lightly keyed wilderness and map. This isn’t a mega-dungeon, it’s a setting focused around a mega-dungeon and should be reviewed as such. With a product this size I don’t think I can really speak to much about how I’d run the module, reskinning it into something different and strange, Dwimmermount is already totalizing, as much as any setting is, which takes the onus off the GM to determine the game worlds feel and basic sensibilities if done correctly.  Dwimmermount’s sensibilities are very classic dungeons and dragons and it aims to evoke a swords and sorcery world rather than the watered down Tolkien pastiche known as vanilla fantasy. Still Dwimmermount is undeniably huge, and suffers from some bloat, and the over zeleous explanation of simple things.  While some of these odd additions are pretty interesting and useful (a discussion of the magical/ancient and alien materials in the mountain is interesting, but goes on for several pages in a rather convoluted manner).   This is too be expected in a product of Dwimmermount’s size and complexity, but can be off-putting when first picking up the module, as the majority of the excess is in the first hundred pages, which contain setting and wilderness.

Sadly, and this is perhaps Dwimmermount’s greatest trouble, the huge book is disorganized – or perhaps overly organized, tritely organized, or badly organized.  There are about 300 pages of keyed rooms, broken up by level, but the monster description (not the stats thankfully), magic items and level factions are in separate sections before or after the main meat of the module.  It’s the treatment of factions that annoys me the most, especially as the faction conflict in Dwimmermount is nicely set up, with multi-level rivalries and ancient antagonisms that can eventually be deduced at the first encounter with some groups. Factions maybe one of the most important elements in Dwimmermount, yet the faction section is split off, without separate notes for reading with each level, lost in  its own little design gulag, where it’s split up by level. Beyond the broad outline of multi-level faction conflict this is information that could easily have been provided in each level’s introduction.  

There’s something a bit strange about Dwimmermount’s setting, it’s gameworld is far too close to a dull Vanilla Fantasy/High Fantasy with a Science Fantasy mega-dungeon at its center. While Dwimmermount and its larger setting background feels a bit more like a more serious Anomalous Subsurface Environment (more Barsoom and less Thundarr), the current outdoor part of the setting (towns, wilderness map and such) is a rather standard collapsed wizard empire with emergent city-states, yeomen and such.  This component of the adventure is the weakest, and while it might be molded into an interesting ‘mythic underworld’ v. ‘prosaic overworld’ dynamic, it’s not ideal.  If I draw on the comparison with ASE again, the lightly sketched (mostly elaborated through evocative detail and random tables) Land of 1,000 towers/Denethix is far more compelling and far better linked to the mega-dungeon than Dwimmermount’s Muntburg.  I think this is important because in my experience running ASE, players will get bored with the dungeon at some point and do some exploration of the above ground world and nearby locations.  Yet Dwimmermount’s Muntburg, both less interesting and smaller then ASE’s Denethix, takes up a lot more pages to cover.

Dwimmermount is a fully realized megadungeon.  It has mysteries, factions, tricks, traps, unique monsters, sublevels and sprawling maps filled with loops and multiple entrances.  The maps themselves are nothing special, their fill is unpleasant, and the talents of Logan Knight appear to have been largely wasted as his elevation map is chopped into several sheets, oriented in a funny direction, and doesn’t actually provide much information.  The overhead maps are clean though, and functional enough, with a map for each of the 13 levels (some are sublevels of the same size) containing 50 – 70 locations, on what appears to have been a single sheet of graph paper.  That is to say that as Megadungeons go Dwimmermount is more deep than wide, and its levels individually slightly smaller, with smaller spaces and rooms then some other megadungeons. There is good art throughout, though it’s somewhat inconsistent, from a couple of magnificent Russ Nichelson illustrations, in his glorious art nouveau details/dripping grot style and then there are scattered cartoon drawing that provide an entirely different feel.  Much of the interior art is grey washed (obviously digitally so) ink drawings of Dwimmermount’s interior spaces.  These are largely of good quality and evocative enough to both be fun while reading and worth sharing at the table.

The dungeon itself covers most of the traditional megadungeon/mythic underworld standards: flooded levels, cave levels, laboratories, ancient cities and ancient machines.  There’s a nice mix of traps and encounters, but it tends to include a lot more empty rooms then I personally would.  This could make for a good exploration game, and there is certainly a nice idea about large gold rewards for discovering historical mysteries within Dwimmermount, that could be the basis of a solid campaign, relying on the numerous mosaics, murals, artifacts, inscriptions and tomes within the dungeon. 

There is a good amount of dungeon dressing in Dwimmermount, with rooms seemingly having been designed and placed with some attention to what I call ‘organic’ dungeon stocking.  This can bother some GMs who don’t need to know a room was once a barracks or a slurry pond 500 years before, but for me it’s helpful as it informs what might be found there from a careful search, likewise knowing a room’s current use helps the GM flesh out description in game, when the party decides to take great interest in a room that has little or no importance to the dungeon as a whole. The room descriptions in Dwimmermount are correspondingly longer then in many megadungeon products (Stonehell, ASE) because of the historical and dressing detail, but they aren’t pointlessly so especially when one consider’s that Dwimmermount is clearly written for a long exploration game. 
The organic detail is more interesting the deeper one gets into Dwimmermount, where science-fantasy and odd touches predominate, as opposed to the first levels which have the feel of a standard, grey stone blocks and ironbound doors dungeon. I think this alow start, as well as the obtuse nature of the mysteries in Dwimmermount may have give one shot players and GMs the feeling that the dungeon is a vanilla slog, some sort of clumsy B1 – Search for the unknown (the description density reminds me of B1) blown up to cover over a thousand rooms. Yet once the party is through the first few levels things start getting interesting and strange.    

The slower pace of keyed encounters may emphasize exploration (and hence resource management), and so Dwimmermount depends on the random encounter table for a lot of the in game action, and sadly these encounter tables are weak, cursory and uninspiring – though sufficient and easy enough to modify.  If the GM has read the considerable faction material it should be easy to make these encounters fun, and potentially both dangerous and profitable, depending on the players’ interest and abilities at faction based roleplaying. Likewise a good GM can use even the skeletal random encounter table to add signs and noises of the other inhabitants in addition to actual encounters.  This might also go a ways towards making the levels of Dwimmermount seem a bit less deserted.  This is a minor complaint really, as the core of Dwimmermount is solid, and the content contains many of the harder to improvise elements of a dungeon crawl – traps, tricks and mysteries.

Dwimmermount is enormous, and I can’t really go into detail about its many levels beyond the generalities about, except to see that there are a number of good ideas and encounters on every level, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that it is a ‘boring’ dungeon or and overpolished one.  Dwimmermount has reasonable size descriptions, provides a good amount of information on its keyed areas and has enough variation to make it worthwhile.

 Dwimmermount has a good monster set, but it might trick a reader into thinking otherwise.  Many of the creatures within the mountain share the name with common D&D enemies: kobolds, orcs, gnolls, and minotaurs, but have an radically different background (as magically vat grown soldier beastmen) that makes them more interesting and flavorful enemies.  This is a theme in Dwimmermount, a reluctance to follow Tolkienwsque fantasy naming conventions and give everything different and new a nonsensical name in some pseudo fantasy language.  Rather Dwimmermount’s authors have decided to use names that evoke ideas or words related to what they signify.  The Eld for example are Martian elves, who are old (hence ‘eld’ as in elder), magic (‘eld’ as in eldritch) and from space (‘eld’ as in Games Workshop’s Eldar). I personally hate confusing fantasy names without real world reference so this is a great naming convention.  It’s much easier to remember content with names that give me an idea of what I’m dealing with.

The tricks and traps are generally rational and can be explained mechanically easily enough, allowing player skill solutions and work arounds rather than limiting the game to mechanical skill tests. However, there seem to be fewer traps and such then I’d personally like, meaning monsters present the major challenge in much of Dwimmermount.

The Treasure in Dwimmermount is fairly good, with most mundane treasures getting the few words of description necessary to make them interesting and somewhat memorable.  The magic items are likewise good, and while many +X weapons exist they are at least described as being made of magical or supernatural material in a way that gives them some life.  There are a fair number of new magic items as well and these are generally excellent, both because they have clear origins and because they are often low powered, but useful.   

Dwimmermount took a long time to get out, and it seems to have passed through a lot of hands before publication.  It’s trouble as they are stem from this convoluted production process, with different authors and designers putting their own gloss the original ideas, and muddying them as they did so.  This has led some of the adventure, especially the setting elements to seem rather like dull vanilla D&D imagining, but if one can get past the frustrating mediocrity of Dwimmermount’s wilderness areas (and I’m not saying one should, megadungeon campaigns have a tendency to wander from the dungeon itself in my experience), there’s a lot of great stuff within.  [NOTE: Per one of the publishers and editors of Dwimmermount this impression does not reflect the actual process, the editors were true to the notes provided by the auteur, which included the vanilla fantasy above ground. I have heard other versions of this regarding the starting town being phased out quickly in favor of a necromancers' city, and the liberal use of LOTFP locations above ground.  Really I'm not concerned about the source of the difference, but personally the split between Science Fantasy Dungeon and Vanilla Fantasy setting is jarring and Muntberg would be what I'd change 1st if I were to run Dwimmermount]. Dwimmermount is subtle stuff, and will require a lot of play time to really get into, but it’s there - a non-gonzo science fantasy D&D mega dungeon built with a lot of attention to detail and an adherence to all the ‘rules’ of building a good mega-dungeon.  The very size of Dwimmermount may also be its enemy, a few forays into the place won’t discover much, and the levels get consistently weirder, but start very classically D&D.  Of the major historical factions, the interesting ones (martian elves, space wizards, robot gods) are deeper in the dungeon while the Thulians read pretty much like a vanilla fantasy evil militaristic empire. This means that to enjoy Dwimmermount’s more interesting elements one will have to play a campaign, likely a long one.  Even the dungeon itself is a long haul, the number of empty rooms is based on the classic proportions, which tend to make for a slow game if the party is cautious or interested in fiddling with dungeon dressing.

All in all Dwimmermount is a solid megadungeon, so big that it may be harder to use, and hampered a bit by dull high fantasy additions to its swords and sorcery (or perhaps sword and planet even) core.  The individual levels include factions, decent monsters (everything is a reskinning really, with the classic D&D names pasted on), evocative treasure, imaginative traps/puzzles and a lot of mysteries to explore. 

The only real improvement I can think of for Dwimmermount, would be to drop the Megadungeon into a less vanilla fantasy world, perhaps ASE’s Land of 1,000 Towers or even Carcosa, as the dungeon is strange enough to offer a great addition to a real Science Fantasy game world.


  1. The transition that campaign material goes through in the process of being published, from something like 'mind's eye + written notes + group memory' to 'tidy written entry', does seem a potential source of loss, generally of course, not only here. Here at least it looks to have been offset by all the work that's been put it since the project was taken over, and the new eyes looking at it.

    On your final major point about the site rewarding long-term play, it's such a major location it would be a presence in the wider world even if a party moved far away, to the point they'd still be hearing about it and might be drawn back. It would have to be a long campaign still, but I think this might be what James was aiming at, reflecting his long view of the hobby, but also the longer campaigns of the younger groups of the old days, as having more time, or even growing up together.

    In that sense it could even be seen a little elitist, for the amount of dedication and patience demanded. It's also easy to imagine it being a reference point for a later form of DIY D&D, in a decade or two say, as a representative of the interpretations of this moment, with the time played or depth reached becoming a source of cred.

    1. Absolutely - I think Dwimmermount is a fine product, but for a very specific purpose a long long campaign based on an exploration style dungeon crawl. The Rat/Copper fracas is largely the result of a one shot mentality using sketchy notes I think. I would contrast this to ASE again, in that the first level (or 0-level) of ASE is all white plastic walls, radioactive power and robots - setting a gonzo science fantasy tone from the beginning. Dwimmermount's first level really does remind me a fair bit of B1 (which is not a bad thing, B1 has excellent description an room keys).

  2. Although your review is positive overall, Dwimmermount just seems like too much of a risk. It's not just the money investment (presumably substantial for a 400+ page book), but the subsequent time investment required to see whether it's something one would want to run, and if so, how and what one would need to change to have it fit into one's campaign. It certainly seems different enough (in a complicated way that any reviewer would have difficulty describing fully) for it to need to be well vetted, so to speak, by any referee. I'm not trying to be overly critical or harp on James or the Kickstarter controversy, but the way you describe it, the sheer size of the thing just scares me.

    1. It's $10.00 as a PDF - not too pricey. I agree that it's not something to drop into a campaign. It is a campaign, a fairly good one that could take PCs from 1st to 10th level without much trouble. The wilderness needs to be redone a bit (or at least the starting town does) but I haven't seen a megadungeon this complete that actually has a solid science fantasy feel and hits all the proper megadungeon elements (mysteries, rival parties, factions) etc.

    2. Yeah. I saw that, though I was unclear on whether or not it was recommended that you also get the map book for an additional $7.50 or whatever. (Also, if I'm really going to use something, I want a hard copy.) Part of what scares me is that the setting sounds intricate enough that it might be hard to disentangle some of it if it didn't fit, or at least you'd have to read the whole thing to figure out how to do that (I'm referring to the factions, etc.). So I guess, my standoffishness is more general or philosophical-perhaps a 400+ page setting and megadungeon (and even then you have to redo the starting town!) is just too big to sell as a product. Stonehell, Barrowmaze and ASE seem rich and huge without being mentally overwhelming. Don't know about Rappan Athuk since I seem to have missed the boat on that one.

  3. Hello! Alex Macris here. I'm the contributing designer who carried the project to completion. Thank you very much for your kind and thorough review.

    There is one point which you made with which I feel called to disagree. You wrote, "It’s troubles, as they are, stem from this convoluted production process, with different authors and designers putting their own gloss the original ideas, and muddying them as they did so. This has led some of the adventure, especially the setting elements to seem rather like dull vanilla D&D imagining, but if one can get past the frustrating mediocrity of Dwimmermount’s wilderness areas... there’s a lot of great stuff within."

    Dwimmermount's Wilderness area and Muntburg are virtually unchanged from James' original draft. Anyone who cares to question this will find it factually verifiable, as James' original draft and my revised drafts were made available to all backers. Those areas of the book you praised most were the ones that were most re-written by me. Far from "muddying" Dwimmermount will dull vanilla D&D, I spent many hours emphasizing the sword & planet elements that had been latent in the work. I don't want any confusion that I "muddied" Dwimmermount by introducing a vanilla wilderness setting or starter town. Those elements were present from the get-go and were merely left to stand as James wrote them.

    1. Speaking as one of the backers, it did seem like he did that -leaving the town boring- to kinda nudge the players back into the dungeon.

    2. I hadn't realized that about the town Alex, I'll update my review.