Monday, March 28, 2022

Spectral Interogatories IV - Xanadu and the Negadungeon


Xanadu is a 35 page, 33 key, location based adventure published in 2020, for Old School Essentials and Dungeon Crawl Classics by Singing Flame, the self publishing imprint of Vasili Kaliman. I haven't played Xanadu, so this review is based only on reading the text. I believe it’s Mr. Kaliman’s first published adventure, and it has generally been well received, as has his subsequent work, Night Land. Xanadu also strike me as a contemporary version of one of the signature adventure designs innovations of the Mid-OSR period, “The Negadungeon”.

By the “Mid-OSR” I mean roughly the period between 2011 and 2017, where the hotspot for play, theorizing, and design relating to pre-1990 RPGs was the G+ social platform. As always with scene definitions there’s outliers and blurring around the edges, the past isn't especially tidy, and in places like the ODD 74 and Dragonsfoot forums, the “Early-OSR” has never really stopped. My experience with the Mid-OSR period was that it was characterized by innovation in setting design and an embrace of online play, primarily using Moldvay Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of lingua franca (though it’s worth remembering that the same community played many other older games online as well: Traveller, RIFTS/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes, Pendragon, and Metamorphosis Alpha come immediately to my mind). Still largely a community of hobbyists rather than small publishers, the focus was mostly on creating novel settings (including classes, equipment, and monsters, with occasional rules hacks) while generally remaining faithful to the mechanics of the rule set.

While Negadungeon as a phenomenon likely predates the Mid-OSR -- I consider Tomb of Horrors (1975 - Gary Gygax and Alan Lucien) a strong precursor to the Negadungeon, the term was created in early 2013 by the OSR gaming blog “Rotten Pulp” to discuss the design sensibilities of predominant OSR publisher Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP). LotFP’s signature adventure Death Frost Doom (2009/2014) by James Raggi* is often offered as a prime example of the Negadungeon.  Rotten Pulp provides this tidy defintion of the Negadungeon as an "inverse dungeon" where:

Everything within will:

A. Curse you

B. Trigger traps

C. Unleash unspeakable evils

D. All of the above.

It is not made to entertain you; it is made to destroy you. It holds nothing but negatreasure and negaexperience.


This definition is a bit flippant, and the Negadungeon isn’t universally or even generally viewed as a bad thing, but it captures the gist of the design. This isn't to say that some Negadungeons aren't simply relentless death traps, but the better of them, such as Slaughtergrid by Neoplastic Press have built in checks or work-arounds especially to mitigate random death. Death Frost Doom is still the flagship Negadungeon though and still a well regarded adventure, one that I’ve played and run several times with various types of reskinning and revision. Its central conceit is that in an ancient and cursed graveyard some sort of horrific magical creature keeps a world conquering army of the undead quiescent. Adventurers finding the location ignore warnings, stumble about dealing with its few (but deadly) traps and plunder the graveyard's treasures, until they encounter the only “monster” within -- a guardian -- and destroy it. The undead wake, likely trapping the characters within the tomb; an unstoppable army of death between the adventurers and escape. An ancient dead general offers succor in exchange for a service that will unleash him and his dead army on the world - destroying the setting (or turning it into a zombie apocalypse). It’s notable that much of the plot and even the guardian creature (a strange plant-like entity whose endless moans trap the dead) are borrowed/plundered wholesale from The Lichway (1978 - Albie Fiore, White Dwarf Issue 9). The Lichway again suggests that the Negadungeon is not a new phenomenon, but one adapted, expanded, particularized, and popularized by the Mid-OSR. It also goes some way to indicating the different aesthetic and design sensibilities of early British fantasy RPGs and US Dungeons & Dragon publication.

The Negadungeon is not just an “impossible” or difficult adventure (I know plenty of people who have successfully played through Tomb of Horrors and have done so myself with Death Frost Doom, or one that “screws over” the players. At its root is the design decision to shift the genre of the fantasy RPG from adventure to horror. No longer are the characters heroes, or even protagonists, but instead they are the victims of something greater, tricked, perhaps forced into unwittingly destroying themselves and sometimes their world through their flaws (usually avarice and an ease with violence). This is the defining moment of the Negadungon, it has a point of horrific force majeure when the player doesn't simply loss control of the character (it's not a railroad or a sadistic referee) but is forced to make a choice between to horrific acts or outcomes.  The climax or perhaps end of a Negadungeon is horror because the PC protagonists are forced to do and/or endure something horrific or cease playing, usually by perishing.  In Death Frost Doom one must either try to escape at impossible (or seemingly impossible) odds through an army of the dead, throw oneself into a bottomless pit, or cut a deal with an ancient evil to save yourself but destroy the setting.

Difficulty begins, and a sense of unfairness or trickery sets in, when the referee and adventure don’t provide warning or even hints that the Negadungeon is a fundamental subversion of their expectations about the nature of play ending in horror. Of course the Negadungeon only really functions in the context of concealing that subversion, because it gets its impressive emotional punch when it reveals that the players’ expectations are the source of their doom. In one sense the Negadungeon is a form of structured narrative, focused on genre emulation, where the referee is asked to pull play in the direction of the climatic failure of the party. It's this element that makes it harder to see a trap-maze style tournament adventure like Tomb of Horrors as a true Negadungeon, because a Negadungeon has at least a loose internal narrative (though its own, not that of the characters) and its central conceit depends on genre emulation, at least to the degree that genre deception qualifies.  The genre element is so strong in the Negadungeon that several story games are even built around the idea, notably Trophy Dark and its inspiration Cthulhu Dark. Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross conducted a $210,000 Kickstarter in January 2022, and has a thriving community based around the Gauntlet forum and Codex magazine. Billed as a “tabletop roleplaying game of dark forests, doomed treasure-hunters” it’s notable that Trophy Dark is a genre emulation game (meaning its players succeed by telling a satisfying story in the pre-selected genre, rather than by having characters survive or overcome challenges as in classic style RPGs) specifically emulating the Negadungeon.

While games like Trophy exist, a Negadungeon on its own is not a story game, or even an “Adventure Path” such as those commonly published by TSRs starting in the mid-80’s. A Negadungeon, while it has a potential, even likely, climactic fail state is still a location based, procedurally explored dungeon adventure … but its central puzzle isn’t to maximize the amount of treasure taken from the place, defeat its most dangerous inhabitant, or “clear” the dungeon, it’s to figure out the dangers of the place and to know when to stop exploring, take one’s wealth, and leave.

Negadungeons that work do two things:

  • First, they telegraph and provide hints that the dungeon is different, that it is a single large trap, or at least operating in a different genre from the normal exploration based dungeon crawl.
  • Second, they allow retreat for players who figure out the secret, are designed for one-shot use, or provide some kind of escape option from the climactic defeat and horrific choice/fate.

Looking at Xanadu, while it lacks a setting destroying climax, it still contains the basic structure of the Negadungeon, primarily the Rotten Pulp definition of a high lethality adventuring space where the everything is highly dangerous with little reward, but also the definition I've suggested here.  Xanadu traps the party within its arena of high lethality traps -- most aren't obstacles, and few provide significant treasure, but the characters must either interact with them or die because there is no other escape. Even if they choose the right obstacle to interact with Xanadu is highly punitive in a random way, and this, setting the players up from the start of the adventure for randomized near unavoidable death is a strong point against it, especially as a sound Negadungeon. 

XANADU THE DUNGEON

Xanadu's difficulties as a Negadungeon don't mean that it's without charm, or that it doesn't display other elements of good design. Many of the individual keys are well done and highly legible in the "minimalism plus" style currently associated most strongly with Gavin Norman and his OSE line of adventures. The content of the keys is often interesting, almost universally interactive, and challenge or puzzle based. There is relatively little descriptive detail because of the keying style, an issue worth examining in context of both Xanadu's aesthetic and Negadungeon aspirations, but what exists is useful and should provide sufficient inspiration to a referee running the adventure.

The set up for Xanadu is worth describing, precisely because there's a lack of aesthetic coherency so it won’t come through very well without a full description. The adventure’s overall structure is secondary to its individual obstacles, and seems somewhat an afterthought or at least its subsumed quickly by the bizarre encounters and obstacles within. Kaliman does provide an excellent page of referee note/introduction for Xanadu that details the major creatures within, but while this may help the referee understand it does less for the players who will have a hard time discovering the relationships between the inhabitants of the cursed temple. The titular location, Xanadu is a temple or cult compound, sealed from the world after its inhabitants foolishly summoned the “tooth fairy” from the sugar dimension and this horrific extra-dimensional being has been luring humans to the now warped temple to kill them and steal their teeth.

Xanadu offers both hooks and rumors. The rumors, while somewhat helpful, would benefit from greater detail as a way to provide information about some of the less intuitive and very deadly obstacles within the temple. The hooks are better, and I appreciate any adventure that offers a variety of hooks. Xanadu's are fairly simple or standard, but decent and well presented: a patron’s sister is missing after joining the cult, a depopulated village, and a variety of rumors about magic and treasure. The setting, hooks and rumors all suffer a bit from another decision Kaliman makes, to provide a sentence long randomly generated background for the cult via table rather then a more standard set of descriptions.

This strikes me as an odd use of random tables, because despite gestures towards the idea in its layout and art, Xanadu is not a late-1980's rogue-like computer game. It’s unlikely that the same referee and players will run it multiple times. This means that the identity of the cult is something you will use once. The half page table, with sixteen entries will get rolled on once, likely before play and the players never have a chance to see the other 15 results. Random tables in adventures work best to procedurally generate content that sketches in large areas which are likely to have significant interaction but either too big (and too homogeneous) to key in totality or which the players will breeze through without fully exploring due to other pressures. The contents of a library, the treasure found in each of 500 tombs, encounters for every forest on a hexmap and such. In situation where the players will interact with table content only a few times (i.e. treasures in a specific keyed location/smaller dungeon or background information on a single faction) the space used by the table is usually better used to provide more detail or something else directly useful for running and playing the adventure.

Here, because the cult’s background could offer the best justification for the bizarre curse on the temple, the presence of otherworldly monsters and a tooth stealing sugar fairy it would be far better to make it specific and singular. As written the situation within temple Xanadu is unclear and lacks significant clues or connection, while the descriptions of ritual spaces have to be vague enough to cover a variety of cult concepts. Had Xanadu instead chosen one cult -- say #4 “Voices of a New Reality [... who] are explorers of states of consciousness” -- the adventure could placed their symbols everywhere (say a mouth open to receive cult produced candy, laced with hallucinogenic drugs), and include spaces, treasure, and content more directly related to their interests: mediation halls, luxurious drug dens, a candy/drug factory etc. This lack of references and internal coherence becomes a more serious issue precisely because Xanadu strives to be a Negadungoen where internal consistency and theme are a major way to provide clues to the puzzle of the dungeon’s genre.

Xanadu’s individual keys however are sound and imaginative, They contain many fairly typical, interactive, dungeon elements - statutes, mosaics, traps and puzzles all of which are loosely tied either to the temple or the theme of its new overlord - the Tooth Fairy. Most have interesting twists and effects, usually curses or penalties, that feel slightly unfamiliar in the best sort of way. Some of these interactive obstacles are intuitive, such as a spell-eating statue of a pregnant woman whose belly bursts if punctured, casting the stolen spells on everyone in the room. However, almost all of them offer only risk, and give little or no benefit to the party for interaction, so absent the interaction compelled by the need to escape it seems unlikely that savvy adventurers would interact with more then the first few. Interactivity and individual key design are the best aspects of Xanadu. Xanadu offers a densely interactive space, though without random encounters, another common aspect of the Negadungeon dating back to Tomb of Horrors that removes time pressure, allowing extreme caution).

In addition to traps and puzzles there are few monstrous inhabitants in Xanadu. Some resemble traps: floating explosive lantern creatures and acid sac slime/octopus things. Others are more standard, tooth extracting miniature doubles of the party, the ominous tooth fairy, and the cursed remnants of a family that once lived in the temple transformed into body horror style monstrosities. Like the obstacles these creatures, while often individually interesting and mechanically compelling, don’t form a coherent whole and one is left feeling that the dungeon is weird for the sake of being weird. Compounding this misfortune the majority of monsters are of the post 1980’s TSR “the monsters will attack until destroyed” school of design: floating lanterns, acid bladders, tooth hungry doppelgänger gnomes, and the entire cursed family: father, mother and daughter. The only monster that seems to suggest a possibility of non-combat interaction is the Tooth Fairy herself, and then only if the party has gathered a large number of teeth to offer her and made a successful random check. There’s still no possibility of faction intrigue, or even of interrogating the inhabitants for clues, only of combat or a brief interaction and gift of treasure from the Tooth Fairy. This is an oversight in any dungeon adventure designed for classic style play. Furthermore, as a referee one can read a few bits of information on these various creatures - the formerly human ones at least - and know how they tie into some of the hooks, but there’s no opportunity to use this information or resolve these hooks meaningfully because the only interaction is combat.

The art of Xanadu, along with the layout, is quite strong. Illustrated with a small number of bold pixel art images in a simple and bright palette, and supplemented with borrowed Dyson Logos cartography, itself overlaid with bright pop style numbers, is arresting. It’s unfortunate that neither the imagery or the related “early computer RPG” fonts seem to match the dungeon itself. The design is excellent, potently new when it was published and evocative, but it simply doesn’t match with the grimd aesthetic of a monster like “The Filth” an emaciated, curse warped former clock maker who reeks of feces, trails stinking pus, wails in endless pain and attacks with a lashing tongue and claws.

Xanadu's Pixel Art

This is the entire aesthetic of Xanadu, an odd juxtaposition of body horror filled, gruesome, grimdark and bright, C-64 retro, referentially humorous, absurdity. Some might describe it as “gonzo”, but the juxtaposition is too scattered. A gonzo world like Anomalous Subsurface Environment has to make sense, at least from the perspective of the characters, or it becomes goofy instead, a monster zoo filled with “humorous” references that become unconnected absurdity like WG7 Castle Greyhawk (not what Gygax intended for Castle Greyhawk to be sure). Xanadu’s undefined cult temple, sealed by magical time clocks, filled with a variety of fragmented individual traps and monsters, some with a dental theme, simply doesn’t have the necessary coherence. It’s not just referential and odd to players, but even when one imagines the characters’ understanding of the location it feels scattered and random. Instead of feeling like coherent world, humorous because as players we see pop cultural references, Xanadu too often feels like a clash of disparate elements, a sort of grab bag of dungeon ideas (some quite good), many inspired by LotFP or other works using the grim and gory aesthetic of the Mid-OSR, that has been hastily blended with unrelated pixel art (also good) and a vague appreciation for procedural generation without the necessary underpinning in classic dungeon design.

So as a dungeon Xanadu’s strengths are its individual keys, the often novel nature of its traps or puzzles, clear useful layout, and sound referee notes/sheets that actually help run the adventure. Its weaknesses are incoherent, a funhouse approach to setting and a lack of charity towards the characters that I suspect will quickly teach most players to avoid its otherwise compelling obstacles and puzzles. Its strengths might overcome these weaknesses, and certainly could be more easily overlooked if it was simply a dungeon adventure, but it’s not, it’s a Negadungeon, a design form that demands greater attention to avoid the risk of becoming a playground for the worst kind of antagonistic refereeing.

XANADU THE NEGADUNGEON

Xanadu is a dungeon filled with deadly dangers, most of the traps within include save vs. death effects or even instant death as one of the options. A statute whose gemstone eyes can only be removed if a tooth is placed in its bowl disintegrates anyone who tries to take them without solving the puzzle (this is one clear reference to a similar puzzle in Death Frost Doom, though in Xanadu there’s fewer clue as to how it works). This isn’t what makes it a Negadungoen however, the Negadungeon manifests primarily for two reasons: first, the party is sealed within the temple upon entry (and attempts to escape through the portal are potentially lethal - though they most often result in an extra eye on the back of the head). Second, while trapped in the temple the means of escape is to find and manipulate a set of temporal and dimensional clocks that while easy enough to find are the only means of escape (at least back to the outside world - defeating or placating the Tooth Fairy may provide a way to somewhere else) require a random and extremely dangerous, deadly even, set of arbitrary rolls to use. The clocks borrow their mechanics from the Gamma World artifact tables which usually result in an explosion. The same goes for Xanadu's clocks. Trapped within the adventure the PCs will struggle through a set of dangerous obstacles, many with no advantages to interaction, and find themselves eventually playing with another, even more dangerous obstacle to escape.  Escape can only be accomplished by an arbitrary set of multiple die rolls with a narrow chance of success and deadly consequences for failure.

Xanadu - Interior Spread

This doesn’t strike me as the basis of an enjoyable adventure, but it’s clearly Rotten Pulp’s Negadungeon: “not made to entertain you; [...] made to destroy you. It holds nothing but negatreasure and negaexperience.” Once again, to make a functional Negadungeon the designer needs to either allow and hint at the desirability of retreat, design specifically for a one shot/tournament, or offer the characters a way to survive once defeated -- usually through a devil’s bargain or moral quandary. Xanadu does none of these explicitly (though the second is offered as an option), it simply provides an arena of deadly traps, body horror, and a mechanically frustrating means of escape that will likely prove deadly and futile.

This could be easily alleviated by offering a bargain with the Tooth Fairy (perhaps teeth for freedom, or a promise to serve her) that includes escape rather than just diamonds, a way to interact with the clockmaker/Filth beyond combat, or multiple alternate means of escape. A Negadungeon that forces player interaction with its most deadly elements should also offer players hope and alternatives or it becomes little more than an excuse for sadistic referees and discouraging play. There is a reason many people disdain the style of early Dungeons & Dragons, and while it is usually ascribed to antagonistic refereeing, antagonistic design will give the same miserable experience. Other possibilities to make Xanadu less incoherently punitive are more complex, but equally available, and require only an understanding of what the Negadungeon seeks to accomplish beyond being highly lethal and difficult.

Of the ways a Negadungeon can alleviate the sense of unfairness that they tend to create, the most complex and interesting is to offer the players ways to discover that their expectations about genre or play are incorrect. This allows for alternate solutions or for players to decide when to leave the dungeon after collecting whatever treasure they can. The designer must make it clear to the referee and offer clues to the players that the adventure itself is a large puzzle, and that the way to solve it is to recognize that its ending is near inevitable failure, that retreat and escape are the ultimate player goal. Generally it’s also good design to offer the characters a significant reward for figuring this puzzle out. This isn’t an easy design trick to pull off but to do it more easily a designer can use a couple of tools that Xanadu doesn’t.

The first of these is an aesthetic break, using description and a clear rupture between the “normal” world of the setting and the NegaDungeon. This may be one reason why the Mid and Late OSR periods often focused on produced “grimdark” settings. When the setting (or dungeon) is full of imagery of gruesome death, mutilation and body horror it helps to show that it has broken from the expectations of vernacular fantasy and that the setting is instead dark fantasy or horror. Even outside of the context of Negadungeon design the aesthetic rupture both warns players that the game they are playing is a high lethality one, distinct from more recent editions of D&D.  Xanadu may attempt this to a degree, with its monsters, traps and descriptions, but its grim descriptions, but gore and body horror are at odds with its layout and the art as well as well as with the goofy or gonzo elements of the adventure ... the extraplanar being cursing the temple is The Tooth Fairy, served by Molar Minions, and she’s from the mysterious Sugar Realm. While I enjoy a horrific Candyland (a staple of one G+ era campaign I played in) This doesn't really fit with the rest of Xanadu and didn’t have to be the case, but it would have required some decisions by the designer both about layout/keying and content on what aesthetic (candyland and pop or gore and grimdark) the adventure should follow.

One of the profound advantages of writing adventures with a Gygaxian Vernacular setting is that they immediately make sense to players and referees. Orc warrens in the ruins of a Dwarven Fortress may be bland and dull, but anyone who has been exposed to recent popular fantasy has a good idea of what they look like and contain. Descriptions can be terse as both referee and players will easily fill in the appearance and details of the cliched space from 50 plus years of popular representation. The more one departs from such an expected setting the greater the need to provide detail and description -- meaning the harder it is to use minimal or even "minimal plus" keying. As a rule keys always need to balance between evocative/useful detail and concise usable information, but the less players and referees can be expected to have a cultural or referential familiarity with the space, the longer keys need to be and more detail they require to function at all.

Xanadu’s title suggests it could have been fairly referential while still breaking with the norms of Gygaxian Vernacular aesthetic.

Kubla Khan (1922) -Dugald Stewart Walker
First, there’s the Coleridge poem Kubla Khan that starts with “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a Stately Pleasure Dome Decree:” It may be an opium fueled romantic era poem exotifying the capital of the Shangdu (likely ultimately based on Marco Polo’s fanciful descriptions), but it’s a good source of RPG adventure material and imagery. Xanadu the adventure however does not contain any pleasure gardens, caverns measureless to man, sunless seas, or even a woman wailing for her demon lover. As with the poem it could even end with either the flooding and sinking of the pleasure dome to “caves of ice” or take place in an already sunken, frozen dome, haunted by a nearly divine foe with flashing eyes and floating hair juiced up on the honeydew and the milk of paradise. It'd be a rich source of imagery and inspiration.  The opium dream, late 19th/early 20th century fantasy aesthetic has been adapted numerous times to RPG projects, including by Kaliman, whose Night Land is based on William Hope Hogdson's 1912 dying earth fantasy The Night Land. Also of course by Bone's own Ben L. and his Through Ultan's Door.

From Xanadu (1980) - Universal

Second, and perhaps more of a stretch, but clearly useful for inspiration and aesthetic, there’s the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film named Xanadu about the mythic Muses inspiring some boring 1970's LA dudes to create a nightclub named Xanadu. It’s sort of a last hurrah of the disco era, via rollerdisco, and roller skating Newton-John plays Terpsichore, the muse of dance - which she does well, mostly on roller skates. None of this makes it into Xanadu the adventure either ... not even this groovy mural (from which the muses first emerge).

From "Xanadu" (1985) - Nihon Falcom
This image is clearly Newton - John in Xanadu ...
a reference to the movie. Wheels within wheels.

The only clear influences I can find for Xanadu are the 1985 action RPG computer game Xanadu (Dragon Slayer II), which has at least one pixel art asset that's mirrored in the RPG, and Death Frost Doom. Xanadu also shares LotFP's general interest in body horror and high lethality adventure design, while the focus on sacrificing teeth central to Xanadu is very a direct gesture towards the "tooth door" of Death Frost Doom

Obviously Xanadu the adventure need not reference any inspirations, but I’d suggest that some throughgoing theme representing the space as having its own non-standard and consistent aesthetic would encourage players exploring it to realize that they are adventuring somewhere different. Perhaps the bizarre shifts between tone achieve this, but greater coherence would also suggest that the location is comprehensible, that it’s challenges follow a logic and theme. If one designs a dungeon, Nega or not, around a theme and its own discoverable character/history/secrets this consistency helps mitigate any sense of unfairness in high lethality obstacles, because these obstacles will make sense in the context of the adventure as a whole. The specifics of the aesthetic aren’t very important, just a consistency that encourages players to see the adventure as possessing clear internal logic and vision, with repeated motifs and themes that themselves provide clues to how to overcome its obstacles.

The second, more immediate way to make the Negadungeon into a puzzle rather than a punishment is to offer clues and a clear exit -- up to a point of no return. In a Negadungeon, usually because the party has made a foolish decision based on the player expectations that they are in the standard "explore and loot" style of adventure, the doom at the heart of the Negadungeon may prevent escape, but up until then there needs to be a way to back off, reevaluate, and even depart. If the designer and referee allow this the players may collectively groan about their fate, but they will also retroactively recognize that there were clues to it and that their own misunderstanding of those clues is what led to their characters' destruction. This can be fun, it doesn’t feel arbitrary or frustratingly obtuse, but instead its a loss as the logical result of the players own actions and assumptions. Fair players (and like referees, not all players can or want to be fair) will accept these sorts of defeats in the spirit of the game, especially if the adventure offers some alternative to a TPK on failure.

Xanadu doesn’t do any of these things, the party is trapped in a baffling location, lacking internal logic, and without meaningful clues or an aesthetic that hints at either its Negadungeon nature or ways to escape. Indeed there is no escape from Xanadu other then rolling the dice and facing the bad odds of Gamma World’s eclectic table, which even with eventual success will likely result in multiple combats with cavity creeps and a few PC mutations or deaths. It’s always seemed to me that a PC death that’s purely the result of a forced random roll feels especially unfair, and trying to figure out Xanadu’s magic clock is forced in every way. The clocks represent the only means of escape and there are no schemes, spells, or discoveries that the party can use to tilt the rolls in their favor or automatically succeed -- the players simply roll dice a few times and either succeed or more likely suffer destruction with the occasional TPK or mere loss of multiple limbs. Even a fist fight with Acererak at least offers the illusion of survivability that is part of any D&D combat -- and Tomb of Horrors was designed as a tournament module with pregen characters, where no party was expected to reach Acererak’s real tomb in the allotted time and would clearly have "won" the game if they did.

The Negadungeon is a difficult form to design, because despite its mythology and stated purpose, to succeed its design must be ultimately less focused on the ways players can fail then on providing and encouraging clear means for their characters to either recognize its trickery or to survive in the face of failure - perhaps battered or changed, perhaps the secret cause of their setting’s desolation, but alive and ready for another adventure. It’s tricky to referee a Negadungeon and tricker to write one, especially if one isn’t steeped in Classic and OSR practice, design, and theory. A referee or designer with a more narrative design background who understands the referee's role as either a contributor to and facilitator of the players own stories or as the director rather then as a neutral arbitrator and set designer may be easily tempted by the Negadungeon to push it to its grim conclusion.

While it may be a difficult form to design, I sincerely want to to see more Negadungeons, because there’s something incredibly fulfilling about playing through one - they offer compelling challenges with a powerful sense of consequences and hit on a core conceit of aheroic dungeon crawling play ... that victory for a desperate treasure hunter may merely be avoiding dying in a dark hole. They also offer a fascinating way to transform setting or give the party a lasting sense of doomed responsibility for greater tragedy. Finally any design that transforms the basic structure of the dungeon crawl is worth practicing because variety and novelty will excite even the most jaded grognard. The Negadungeon has faded in popularity since LotFP's heyday, but it'd be nice to see it revived by newer designers, given a new look and reinvigorated.  Xanadu tries this and while I judge it to have failed, I'm overjoyed to see it all the same.

I also don’t want to suggest that Xanadu’s failures are an indictment of Kaliman’s skill as a designer - it’s an ambitious first published work, and while it’s not an adventure that works for me, it has strong keying, excellent interactivity and good design. I hope we see more adventures from Singing Flame, even another Negadungeon, because despite my criticisms, there's a core of interesting design in Xanadu and no hesitency about experimenting with adventure design.

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* Sadly, I have to note that since it’s Mid-OSR heyday, LotFP has engaged in and courted many controversies that deservingly earned it large amount of negative attention for its dedication to shock horror and the personal politics of its owner. However, it is next to impossible to talk about the G+ period of OSR design without including LotFP’s contributions to the scene. Rather than go into any detail on LotFP and its legacy here, this post by Humza at Legacy of Bieth covers the current state of things for the brand as of early 2022.

8 comments:

  1. Signposting the different play expectations assumed by different adventures is a tricky problem which I appreciate you mulling about here. In my own campaign where I run players through published modules one after another, I've taken to simply telling the players up front if something will be particularly demanding of them. It's not the most satisfying method, but it does the job at maximum efficiency.

    I also appreciate this more nuanced look at what makes a good Negadungeon. The term was a buzzword in what you call the mid OSR. Everyone was saying it, but I don't think I ever saw anyone really try to understand what made one good aside from its ability to produce dead PCs.

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  2. As usual LS your instincts for a home campaign feel dead on, you can usually tell players that the adventure/location they are entering is different. For designers working on public release stuff or on a Negadungeon within the meaning I'm offering here I think a couple of points are worth considering and may push against just telling players, beyond of course the lack of satisfaction you mention.

    A) For the published design, one's always playing telephone, you don't have to tell you players to beware, you have to convince the referee running your adventure to tell the players to beware. This goes for the individual traps and obstacles as well - and for this signposting danger with obvious and inspiring detail strikes me as a solid start. Hopefully the referee will both focus on the right elements of the adventure and get the tools and inspiration to describe them in a way that gives players the right message

    B) For the Negadungeon specifically the forms appeal seems to me to be at least partially that it's a surprise genre shift. Unpuzzling that the adventurers may want to flee is itself the major puzzle, so mentioning that at the start can lose some of the appeal.

    I also hope people look back at the Negadungeons of the 10's and keep writing them, thinking about them and improving on them, especially with the increased interest in both horror and one shot adventures using early style systems. I should look at an actual extremely experimental Mid-OSR adventure next - Deep Carbon Observatory, but it's such a dense piece of work.

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  3. Thank you for the review, Gus. As always good work.
    This is one where I strongly disagree with you, though. I would rather have an incredibly well-written and evocative Negadungeon than suffer through a bland, vanilla "well balanced" dungeon.
    At least, works like Death Frost Doom and Xanadu have something that I can work with as a GM: lower some HDs, telegraph the dangers, lore dump in a couple of scrolls, old-crazy-man-on-the-road-saying-they-all-gonna-day-and-saying-some-cryptic-prophecy/riddle and BAM. I can GM this.
    And let's not forget about the layout - mainly Xanadu's layout - which makes it easier to skim through and, therefore, easier to locate elements highlight and change them in my notes.
    Maybe, my style of GMing is at odds with other people. I assume people like to GM things "as written". I never run full published dungeons as written, I always change them to fit my settings, so, to me, It's not a problem to edit things out of an adventure. The problem is when adventures do not give enough to work with. An those, are plenty. paraphrasing the meme, when it comes to Dungeon and adventure design "People's Boos Mean Nothing, I've Seen What Makes them Cheer" LOL
    Again, great review, sorry if anything sounded hostile, English is not my native language, just wanted to drop my 2 cents of defense to the Negadungeons and why people insist on them!

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    1. I'm not sure that we disagree as much as you think. I'm very much in favor of people writing negadungeons, think asymmetrical encounter/level design are absolutely necessary for good exploration play, and certainly support published adventures that depart from the vanilla.

      My primary issue with Xanadu is that I don't think it succeeds as a Negadungeon. Nor are its issues simply a matter of lowering HD and telegraphing dangers. Neither of these help when the party is trapped in a space where the only way out is a set of random rolls with a high chance of lethal failure and no alternatives.

      To succeed the negadungeon must be more then simply a location where the PCs die regardless of their efforts or choices. It's a horror scenario, and good horror slowly builds its tension, letting the viewers/readers/players realize the dangers. In the negadungeon the players should discover that it's their own misconceptions about the location and nature of play that have or will "doom" the characters.

      If it's to be part of a campaign, rather then a game like Trophy Dark built around the fun of losing with style, the negadungeon has to allow the possibility of the players unraveling this core genre change and escaping or winning before their own efforts (not designer fiat) produce or unleash their "doom". An alternative/addition to this - Death Frost Doom's ("DFD") contribution - and what perhaps makes a Negadungeon practically functional within a campaign, is a location where even after triggering it's "doom" the party can survive by making some sort sacrifice or suffering some largely narrative defeat. In DFD's case this is the famous zombie army that destroys the world and fundamentally changes the setting genre. Alternatives seem possible and interesting.

      Unfortunately, and despite solid design work, Xanadu manages to do neither of these things even as it comes close. I'd really love to see more functional negadungeons though, and this review is at least partially a small effort to encourage a revival of the form.

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  4. Thank you so much for doing such an in-depth review of my adventure! There’s a ton of invaluable information here, and it will take me a while to unpack. I think all the points you made are good ones. This is the first adventure I ever wrote, and in many way – I didn’t know what I was doing. I found that being a reader (mostly) and player of RPGs is very different to trying to write your own. Xanadu wasn’t even playtested (as it was written during the most intense period of the Covid lockdown in mid-2020, and none of my gaming group was around). You indeed picked out some influences like Death Frost Doom (which was the first OSR adventure I bought after a 20-year hiatus from gaming), and its incongruous and disjointed tone appealed to me (as did some Judges Guild products like the Wilderlands series and Tegal Manor). It just seemed easier to write a 'funhouse’ dungeon, rather than coming up with a plot. I also wrote Xanadu backwards - I started with the map first. I then just populated the rooms with what I thought was cool stuff, and then tried to make a few connections between elements, features, and monsters at the very end. In terms of the puzzle in Xanadu, everybody hated it! Very few people picked it was borrowed from Gamma World, and I think what appealed to me was designing it as a graphical element to include in the book. Most people I know who have run Xanadu have not used the puzzle (and when they did, their players hated it). But again, thank you very kindly for this piece. I’ve learnt more from this review about writing good adventures than I have from years of reading other people’s adventures and trying to figure out how to do my own.

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    1. Vasili,
      Glad the review was helpful, I hope it didn't feel too harsh because there's plenty I enjoy about Xanadu -- and its great for a first go at adventure design. Mostly my reviews look at products that are about a specific design idea, so in many ways this isn't a review of Xanadu at all so much as an effort to discuss the negadungeon. Anyway, It sounds like you've got plenty more experience since and I look forward to seeing more work -- perhaps someday a Xanadu rewrite or another negadungeon?

      I also think it's always worth drawing ones own map - but that might just be me.

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    2. For me at least, the issue with the puzzle was that it required a whole lot of repeated rolls to produce one of three possible results. The entire thing could've been replaced with a single random table. If each of the blue nodes on the network had an effect associated with it, it'd be more like a random encounter table presented in an interesting way.

      I did some analysis to determine the equivalent "single random table" for the puzzle here, btw. It's roughly a 1-in-8 chance of escaping and a 2-in-8 chance of "uh-oh" each time you try.

      https://thedwarfdiedagain.blogspot.com/2021/01/simplifying-xanadus-clock-puzzle-using.html

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  5. The review wasn't harsh at all! I welcome this kind of commentary about my work anytime - I think RPG writers need this, as it's so rare to find! So thank you once again to you and everyone at this blog who's putting in the time and effort to look into work with such a level of depth! I'm a fan.

    I think at some stage I'll do a 'Xanadu Remastered', which I imagine will have original art and new maps. And in fact, I am working on a kind of negadungeon right now, which was just funded a couple of weeks ago on Kickstarter. You can check it out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/896634455/dngn-weird-fantasy-megadungeon-zine

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