Monday, February 1, 2010

The Dungeon Alphabet - a Fun Impulse Buy

In recent years we've seen a resurgence of conversation online regarding the Dungeons and Dragons "retro renaissance." This is the practice of playing original edition D&D, often in the way it was first played back in the early 1970's. In some ways the concept of the retro renaissance seems funny to me because I've always played first edition D&D. I suppose that made me both behind and ahead of the times. The other aspect of the "renaissance" that strikes me is that the historical Italian Renaissance shook the world and led the great advances in a variety of fields. In comparison the D&D Renaissance could simply be some older guys with blogs waxing nostalgic in the midst of a role playing mid life crisis.

So having established that I'm a D&D fan but not expecting Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy to join the Obamas in rolling up some characters anytime soon, let's look at a fun new product I picked up this weekend. Goodman Games recently published a hardcover book called The Dungeon Alphabet (TDA). This book contains twenty six entries related to D&D, arranged by letter of the alphabet. So, for example, "P is for Pool," and "K is for Kobold." Each entry is accompanied by a page or so of text and a table which allows you to randomly pick a certain type of pool, kobold, or what not. Some of the entries are really quite inspired- under "W is for Weird" you can roll up weird discovery number eleven:

"A cloud of glowing dust motes floats in the air in some difficult to reach place (in a high balcony, on the far side of a deep chasm, or atop a stone pillar."

Now for those readers who are not experienced in old style D&D, let's explain why that entry is so fabulous. When players encounter this they are intrigued- glowing motes, could these be related to treasure, could they be magical, could they be a trap or some portal to another location? And then the players have to decide how to examine them- climb a wall, cross the chasm, search for some hidden route. In a few sentences the dungeon master has created an exciting mystery with a challenge, some risk of hidden danger, and some hint of a cool reward. An experienced dungeon master could really ad lib the rest, just sitting here I can imagine an invisible treasure chest that glows, a will o' the wisp that lures victims into peril, a collection of gold that magically floats and allows anyone carrying it to levitate as well, the possibilities are endless and this is one of hundreds of entries.

The randomized charts are also appealing to old school players simply because random events are so very old school. A contemporary D&D adventure tells a grand story with characters, plot developments, emotional twists and complex metaplots. Old school games feature crazy magical pools, traps, baffling magical items and a sense that the world is endlessly surprising and mysterious. At their worst old school games can seem a little unreal, but at their best the excitement of discovering a mysterious fountain with a single black goldfish swimming in it and a sealed and unknown potion in its center is just terrific. A fountain! Is it magic? What's that potion? A trap? And the goldfish? Is it guarding the treasure or an innocent pet? Who wants to try drinking from the fountain? And off we go...

TDA is priced at ten dollars and this is the deal maker for me. The book is charming but it is basically a few dozen randomized tables. Ten dollars is exactly the amount that makes this a fun purchase. The book isn't designed to change anyone's life, just breath some fun and flavor into your games. I've already gotten my money's worth just from the pleasure of ready the entries and my players and going to love some of these pools, traps, doors, and "weird." I got my copy of The Dungeon Alphabet at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

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