Crafting the Coulee Caverns

The very first session of the Coulee Caverns. Pictured: top left – me; bottom left – Curt Parr; bottom right – Karen Bovenmyer; top right – Michael Holcomb; photo by Karen Bovenmyer

My original submissions for my local Coulee Con naturally were for Rolemaster, the system I had been running for my home game. After some careful thinking, however, I decided that this all-games-are-welcome-appealing-broadly-to-families con would benefit more from an old school D&D adventure built specifically for this event. Hence the Coulee Caverns were conceived. In my main promotion I was certain to capitalize on the popularity of Stranger Things by claiming that this was the edition that the kids in the Netflix series were playing. (They probably were more accurately using AD&D1e, however.)

Then I conceived of the dungeon, and, over a series of three promotional pieces published on Facebook, I made sure that prospective players knew what they were in for. Natives of the local region would be likely to recognize “Easter eggs” in the dungeon levels. The city of The Crossings, for example, is La Crosse (the location of Coulee Con) in plain English. Six massive towers of La Crosse’s City Brewery are referred to as “the world’s largest six-pack.” A shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe lies nearby. Etc.

In Coulee Caverns, the Coulee Caverns are just level one. There are six levels total (though not all might be available). None of them are balanced (meaning, it is not intended that first-level characters should be capable of surviving every physical conflict), but Wandering Monsters are keyed to corresponding levels of difficulty. Gamers are free to explore any of these levels, though not all might be available.

1 The Coulee Caverns. A labyrinthine cave system. Strange stuff therein.

2 The Hicks House. A manor-house and grounds that got magically transported and locked underground.

3 The World’s Largest Six-Pack. Dwarves don’t typically brew anything precisely called “Dwarven Ale,” but these dwarves did: “Dwarven Ale,” fermented in six giant vats.

4 Temple of Guadala. This holy place currently is under siege by the Powers of Darkness.

5 The Silent City. A vast region of tombs.

6 Dungeon of the Demogorgon. Exactly what it says.

Gamers can participate in any or all events this year or in years following (I intend to run this annually for the foreseeable future). The same character can and should be used for every session (unless it dies, of course, in which case the gamer is free to make or choose a new one).

Old School Primer

1 Gold is xp, and that’s how you level up! But you don’t “cash in” on it until you get home. As soon as you gather a fair amount of treasure, get out of the dungeon and home! Come back to the dungeon on the next in-game “day.” (This also helps you recharge spells.)

2 You’re not supposed to win every conflict through violent force. Some of them you can’t. If you ever seem outmatched, run away!

3 Player Skill (not character skill) is what wins this game (and sometimes plain old luck). Your characters don’t have skills; you are the characters’ skills. There are few obstacles that can be overcome by using dice. Use your imaginations. Use your equipment and the items you find in the dungeon in creative ways. Use the environment to your tactical advantage.

4 Don’t get attached to your character. (Giving your character a silly name will help.) Your character will die! (If it doesn’t, thank the gods of the dice.) If your character expires, laugh and roll up or choose a new one. Jump back into the game.

Backstory

For millennia the city-state called The Crossings prospered, drawing to her walls all manner of folk, including Elves and Dwarves, on the banks of the Great River.

But the Dwarves, digging too deep (as they will) uncovered a Gate to the infernal realms, there through admitting the Demogorgon to the material plane.

The resulting war lasted one thousand years, the culmination of which saw reality twisted and ashen slag thrust up through a massive gorge. Up this Demogorgon’s armies marched.

The folk on the surface rallied. Ramparts were built against the demonic hordes. When Demogorgon himself ascended, the Paladin Lord Remy the Reverent met the fiend in single combat. The devil was cast into the Pit, but Remy followed thereafter.

For one hundred years the Order of the Reverent have kept vigil over the Gorge. Except for some rumblings now and then, it would seem their lord has vanquished the foe. Though others in The Crossings — madmen and heretics — would claim otherwise — that, instead, Demogorgon waits, will rise again in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile local adventurers petition for an opportunity to explore the Abyss. In the reality warp, portions of the Crossings were reorganized and locked underground along the walls of the Chasm. The Remites have explored the upper areas and reported at least five specific upper levels.

At last Mayor Kubaut has agreed to open to a limited number of adventurers, on the date of August 24, the Gates of the Rampart. The stipulation is a ten percent tax on any wealth these foolishly brave folk might find. Good luck, you spelunkers marked for death!

In ways this next part is an extensive and unsolicited advertisement for some of Kent David Kelly’s products. Though I have owned most of them in PDF for a while now and have used a number of them, it wasn’t until recently that I really looked at Dungeon Design Guide III, and it transformed my process. In a nutshell, Kelly identifies six types of Dungeon: the Cavern System, the Manor-house, the Temple, the Tomb, the Stronghold, and (of course) the Dungeon. You can see how these map onto my dungeon levels already described.

In previous design guides Kelly wrote about these concepts, but in DDGIII specifically he responds to reader requests to make a massive table that, with a d1000 roll, generates a type of room (depending on the adventure location in mind) from Apartments to Ziggurat. The owner of this manual can use the table however she likes, but I used it to generate about 30 rooms for each of the six types of locations. I wrote these rooms and some descriptions on large index cards and then grouped the cards into “areas” that made the most sense. Then I drew the maps.

Kelly publishes another table that is essential for my newfound process. This is the Chaotic Descriptor Table found in his Adventure Generator. Add the result of this d1000 roll to your room and… well, allow your imagination to do the rest.

Before striking on these tools and this system I had read lots of dungeon building advice (including Kelly’s and Matt Finch’s) and had attempted devising other design systems. Finch has advised that half of all dungeon rooms should be “empty.” Others claim that no dungeon location should be just an empty room. Using the system described here settled this for me: the room could very well be empty, but at least it has or once had an understandable purpose (it’s a Meeting Hall, for example), and now it is Jade (the room no longer need be necessarily “empty,” depending on whether the imagination lines the walls with jade, or tables and chairs of jade, or even a jade figurine along a wall or on a table).

This system also intuitively provides the other elements of a good dungeon adventure in a ratio approximate to what tends to be recommended (the other half of the rooms). Plenty of the descriptors will suggest unusual features, NPCs, tricks, traps, monsters or treasure.

The events went well. I met some new people, gamed again with friends I had met the previous year, and all around I am looking forward to next year (and expect I’ll have some repeat players at my tables). This con grows in attendance and offerings year after year. I hope to see the Coulee Caverns experience likewise grow.

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Skills Systems and a Creative Crisis

About a year ago I posted on the I.C.E. forums about what a “skill-less” Rolemaster might look like. Was it an idle topic? Not for me! But it puzzled the community. If I remember it right (and I suppose this can be confirmed on the forum) one person said that Rolemaster is skills. Another person asked me what problem I was trying to solve. I thought these were worthwhile responses, so I let the matter drop, even though I already had created something that I considered calling a skill-less Rolemaster. But I played MERP. I added RM2 to it. I kept playing.

But after the nostalgic exuberance began to fade away, I recognized that something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t pleased as a GM. More and more I began to approach my game night with trepidation. Preparation was anxiety-laden. GMing began to feel more and more like “work.” It reminded me, in fact, of my time running Pathfinder and, after that, the limitations I had begun to find with the Yggdrasill system.

And then I started running Swords & Wizardry for a crowd on Discord and I remembered why once I had been pursuing a skill-less system. The skills (and weapon charts) in Rolemaster that looked beautiful from a design standpoint were strangling me as a GM. The pace of my games annoyed me — though I learned it didn’t necessarily annoy my friends. In Swords & Wizardry I made fast rulings — “Okay, roll 4d6 under your Dexterity. No good? Okay” — whereas in Rolemaster I puzzled from one chart to the next — “You got an 89? On Armor Type 19? That’s… 4 hits. Okay, I’ll deduct 4 from this meat sack of a Wyvern.” At the end of this latter session I tossed away my dice and said, “I’m sorry, friends, but I’m done.” I was ready for a sabbatical. I even had arranged for another member of the group to run something in the interim.

But they wanted to keep playing. They understood my frustration. They perhaps even felt some of it themselves. But they were immersed in the story. They were engrossed in Middle-earth. They were invested in their characters. They wanted to keep developing them. And then I remembered.

“Well,” I said, taking Swords & Wizardry down from the shelf. “We could convert these characters over to D&D.”

Except not entirely to just D&D. I have read a number of testimonials from old school gamers who started with AD&D. They added Arms Law & Claw Law. Then they added Spell Law. And then they started playing Rolemaster and never went back to that “simpler” system from which Rolemaster had evolved. But I looked again at Rolemaster’s origin as modular options for AD&D and I started pulling out the things I didn’t like. Then I took what remained and plugged it back into an old school d20 chassis. How does it run? Well, I’ll be happy to give reports after a few sessions.

The wonderful thesis of Matt Finch’s Swords & Wizardry is that anything not covered in the core rules (which are reduced to elemental compounds) is for the game group to work out on its own. This, in fact, is the attitude of the entire OSR — that the original rules is a template to be stretched and pulled and modified and compounded to result in startling new simulations and emulations. Similarly, Rolemaster designer Coleman Charlton, often in the face of surprising RM edition wars, emphatically states that RM is and always has been a gamer’s toolkit for groups to modify or nullify however they see fit.

So I present now, for interested readers with an understanding of both Original D&D and Rolemaster, my own old school revival of modular D&D/RM2. Well, you might notice some home innovations as well. This has yet to be taken out for a spin, but I’m looking forward to it!

MERP Modifications for Swords & Wizardry

Attributes

Roll 3d6 6x. Lowest value may become 15 but must be applied to a Prime Attribute.

Magic

Power Points based on Int, Wis or Cha. 13-15 1, 16-17 2, 18-19 3, 20+ 4.

PCs enjoy chance to learn spell lists according to Race. Magic-users 5 ranks/lvl. Druids 5. Clerics 3. Rangers 1.

Modifiers to spell preparation – 4 rds 0, 3 rds +1, 2 rds +2, 1 rd +3, 0 rds +4.

Base Casting – Casters 3d6 under Attribute. Secondary 4d6. Others 5d6.

Combat Casting – Casters roll on Fighters table. Secondary on Cleric table. Others on Thief.

Combat

Fighters, Rangers and Paladins enjoy +1 to attacks from the back.

Critical hits. On a natural 20, a second roll is made for the degree of the critical. 1-4 A, 5-8 B, 9-12 C, 13-16 D, 17-20 E. Fighters (and subclasses) add attribute and item bonuses to this roll. Fighters may increase or decrease critical roll by level + attribute + item.

Damage/Death/Healing

0 hp = unconscious, -Con = death. Heal 1 hp/hr resting, 1 per 3 hrs not resting.

Foraging

Determine “level of effect.” Roll 4d6 – lvl under Wisdom +2/effect level. Other factors (location, climate, etc.) might apply.

XP

Each session worth an average of 200 xp each player. Creature points divided. Hp lost. Travel points. Idea points. Spell points (spell lvl x 10). Critical (A – 10, B – 20, C – 30, D – 40, E – 50). Expenses (detailed below).

Assassin – poisons or assassination preparations

Cleric – charity

Druid – nature preservation

Fighter – training

Magic-user – research

Monk – charity

Paladin – charity

Ranger – value of herbs foraged (effect lvl x 10)

Thief – gold “liberated” or stolen (including from lairs)

Hobbits – gold spent on food, drink and smoke

Gold and Equipment a Swords & Wizardry economy