Tuesday, October 29, 2019

(AD&D 2nd Edition) Reverse Dungeon

Reverse Dungeon is a good adventure that has the misfortune to be saddled with a great pitch. The premise is simple - take the most basic, by-the-numbers AD&D dungeon crawl imaginable, but play it out from the perspective of the monsters. It's an idea that is as amazing as it is obvious, which makes it all the more mysterious that it didn't get published until the year 2000. I can only assume that Gygax's anti-monster rant in the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide was so traumatizing that it scared away a whole generation of gamers.

Reverse Dungeon's biggest flaw is its failure to set the right tone. From a certain perspective, there is no such thing as a "reverse dungeon." You can just make your PCs be goblins or illithids or vampires or what have you and play them in an adventure and that's just normal fantasy roleplaying. There's no real reason, aside from D&D tradition, to divide your fantasy creatures into PC options and NPC options.

Similarly, "defend your home from invaders who want to rob you" is just a good adventure plot. At any point in D&D's history, you could have pitched a "defend an isolated fortress from the monster hordes" module, and it's likely that no one would have objected, "oh, so you want to do a reverse dungeon?"

But let's not be disingenuous here. When we saw the title, Reverse Dungeon, we all had a pretty good idea about what that would mean. There is a certain stylized way of roleplaying, a set of genre conventions that when you think about them too hard, you realize that they don't often map well to any sort of objectively good world-building. Like, why are all these monsters just hanging around underground waiting for adventurers to come by and steal their shit? Aren't some of them natural enemies? What do they even eat?

There's certainly room for an operatic version of the "reverse dungeon," one that plays up the oddly ritualized nature of the dungeon crawl. There is a tone, not quite at the level of parody, but just self-aware enough to encourage the players to really chew the scenery, that could have made this concept sing.

Reverse Dungeon never quite gets there. There are glimmers. There's this wizard, Blaise, and the adventure repeatedly uses him as The Wizard Who "Did It." Not in so many words, of course, but enough that it quickly became noticeable. He had a collection of rare magical items, and also a collection of monsters he summoned, captured, or magically bound. Why not use the one to guard the other? Oh, when he was just starting out in the whole demon summoning game, his dark patrons tricked them into taking possession of a dozen "demon seeds" that would slowly grow over the centuries until they eventually bloomed into extraplanar gates that would open the world up to invasion by a demon army? Just shove 'em in a cave and hope the problem takes care of itself.

I really wanted Blaise to show up as a "bad boss." The text repeatedly sets him up as a totally irresponsible dick, but then, when it finally gets to the dungeon's lowest level, Blaise's inner sanctum is effectively abandoned. Blaise has become a demi-lich, his consciousness occupied on the outer planes, with only his magically animated skull remaining behind. My dream of The Office, but with, like, gorgons and shit, was dashed.

Similarly, at the end of the book, when it's time to turn the tables and invade the monastery that is the source of all these pesky heroes, I was hoping for something that was as over-the-top anti-monster as your typical dungeon crawl is anti-hero. Like maybe you put your eye up to a keyhole to peek through and pressurized holy water shoots out. Or perhaps the fighter-priest with the Rod of Resurrection just keeps showing up, no matter how many times you kill him. But alas, instead of a fun-house mirror Tomb of Horrors, all we got was a mostly regular monastery.

Maybe it's my fault for letting my expectations get away from me, but I do think Reverse Dungeon made a mistake in playing it as straight as it did. If I really wanted to deeply explore the motivations and psychology of a monster, I'd just play Vampire: the Masquerade.

Ukss Contribution: There were some neat ideas here. Some of the game's most famous Artifacts make an appearance. The notorious early adventure "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" (where PCs find a crashed spaceship) is referenced. I hope I didn't give the impression in the main body of the post that this book wasn't fun.

But once again, I have to ignore all that high fantasy goodness to obsess over a small detail that might otherwise go unnoticed.

When you're in the middle of your counterattack against the monastery, you might get side-tracked and wander into the stables. If you do, all the animals flee. Well, all but one. A 600 lb sow, raised by a kindly priest, not as food, but as a companion, will absolutely lose her shit on your undead asses.

It's kind of dumb encounter, because while she is hefty for a pig, at this point in the adventure one of your character options is a minor death (which is exactly what it sounds like - an incarnation of the grim reaper himself, given independent existence thanks to a mishap with a Deck of Many Things), so there's no way this fight is anything but one-sided.

You know what, though, I kind of love her. The best part? Her name is Diva.

She's fat. She's fabulous. And she is putting up with precisely none of your demonic bullshit. She's Diva, the undead-slaying pig, and you'd better show her some respect.


  1. As someone who usually plays a ranger or other pet class... Diva sounds awesome.

  2. I'm holding out for Diva as some kind of lesser divinity.


    1. That was my initial thought too, but I wonder if maybe it would work better if she was just what she appeared to be - a spoiled pig who got pissed off when her human friends were attacked.

  3. There was a You play the monsters module/game at UK Gencon 1997. Each table rigged out their goblin tribe and fought or negotiated with other tables to see who would be King of the Goblins.

    IIRC they ended up inventing XP taxation and the two front runners went head to head in a fight involving rocket powered hangliders, Hellhound cavalry and an Apparatus of Kwalish.

    And I'm certain a copy of that ended up with the D&D designers, but most of what made it fun was emergant in play rather than in the documents.