So now I have nudged the trajectory of my PCs wholly into an overland journey to the enemy-occupied Dwarven mountain city of Angrothrond, wherein the PCs expect to find armies of Orcs and Trolls, caverns of partially mined angril (a homebrewed substance similar to mithril) and perhaps a massive, inert stone golem and a slumbering Iron Dragon of Morgoth from the First Age of Middle-earth. Since starting this coming avalanche—the trickle of adventuring steps that should result in armies at war—I have been anxious to envision specifically what the PCs should encounter at this destination.
I’m not content to rest with the near-zero prep that unpredictable gamers have required of me for our discrete sessions. This is because I’m reasonably assured that the PCs will come to Angrothrond, and I should be adequately prepared to meet them there. And yet I’m still not sure how to build the location—or if I should construct it at all, even considering the new circumstances.
The first thing I chose to do was randomly generate half a dozen qualities for just as many areas in the surrounding countryside. This adheres to lazy GMing. But I have been wrestling, since then, with how detailed to make Angrothrond itself. I began to map it out. I sketched a side-view of the mountain with a rough estimation of levels, then I sketched a couple “overhead maps” of some components of the individual levels.
In my youth I never, ever did much with maps. Most of my GMing was “winging it.” My friends and I would be at someone’s house for the night, giddy on Pepsi cola and Reese’s Pieces. In between consuming VHS movies, my friends would insist I run MERP. I’d sit in a corner for a few minutes, dreaming and maybe jotting a few notes, then, when ready, I’d announce the beginning of the scenario.
When I did need maps—and almost always they were overland maps—I had Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth, a 1987 birthday gift to me from two neighborhood friends. I still have it, and I still use it, as you shall see in this discussion.
While playtesting Against the Darkmaster, I have been thinking a lot about GNS theory. For those who might not know, GNS stands for Gamist Narrativist Simulationist. These three qualities comprise all rpgs (at least, I have yet to find an exception), and individual rpgs might be described by where they fall among these poles or within a Venn diagram. Right now, I haven’t determined where VsD lands in a graph.
I do know that OSR games tend to land heavily in the Gamist portion of the diagram, and I believe that two evidences for this are the ease and speed of character creation—roll one up and try to survive!—and its preponderance of detailed maps—this is the space; interact with it. When a game moves into Narrativism, rules concerning improv acting enter play: Is there any kind of lever on the wall? (Whether the GM had intended it or not) Yes, and you notice a rusty iron grate directly below it; perhaps the lever operates it in some way? I think that VsD is supposed to bleed into Narrativism in an appreciable way—its intent is to emulate exciting high fantasy, after all, not necessarily the Simulationism of dungeon exploration—and player questions and Skill rolls, therefore, are likely to directly affect the game space.
How detailed should Angrothrond be, therefore? At first I tried to map it extensively. By the time I reached some lower levels, though, I felt like it was a useless task—who cares how many independent Dwarf homes are on this level! I wondered if I might save myself some time by borrowing a map. I have plenty of OSR dungeon maps, but using those for VsD simply would highlight the mundanity of Gamist play. Well, what about some true Middle-earth precedents? I don’t own any early MERP modules that might have the Dwarf structures. I looked up what Cubicle 7’s One Ring might be offering these days: some reviewers of Erebor: The Lonely Mountain were disappointed with the lack of significant maps, so that seemed like a hefty price for a mere curiosity of a PDF.
But didn’t I have maps already? Turning to Fonstad I found not only maps but a Narrativist precedent. Tolkien’s Dwarven caverns are better described as immense underground cities rather than dungeons. Who cares about the placement of every single municipal feature in a town or village? Same with these places. In fact, Tolkien’s prose concerning underground exploration often involves hours—even days—of journey through a single passage, sometimes with just a few choices concerning passageways. It wasn’t until Tolkien’s characters encountered adventure features that he described the space with any tactical clarity.
So I think I shall do the same. Angrothrond will be defined by rough levels, and each of these will contain some major features to be more fully detailed as the Narrative requires. Thank you, Tolkien and Fonstad, for clearing this up for me!