Monday, December 28, 2015

Dwimmermount as Axis Mundi

This is the second article where I look at the 400+ page megadungeon  Dwimmermount, created by James Maiszewski, and developed and published by Autarch.  Part I:  Dwimmermount as Old School Tribute.

The Axis Mundi is the center of the world, the connection point between the numinous realms and the world of man.  Many myth systems include these places in their cosmogonies; consider mythic locales like Mount Olympus, or the Norse Yggdrasil, as Axis Mundi.  What's interesting as I reflect on Dwimmermount is that the dungeon itself is the Axis Mundi for the entire campaign world!

Dwimmermount is the place the ancients came to earth from across space and time, and created their first empire deep beneath the mountain.  From that seminal moment, every major shift in the campaign setting can be tied back to actions that either started or ended with a change in rulership of the mountain, and corresponding changes to the geography and architecture of the dungeon.  Telluria, the world of Dwimmemount, has seen the ascent of the gods, invasions from other planets, the rise and fall of empires, and a fractured period where competing city-states vie for power - all originating or ending with the dungeon.  Secrets related to each of the major ages lie buried throughout.  A trip through Dwimmermount is an archaeological journey through the history of Telluria.

Dwimmermount is inexorably tied to quintessence, and a substance called "Azoth", liquid quintessence, which can be used as a powerful reagent and source of magic power.  When the dungeon reopens at the beginning of a Dwimmermount campaign, it immediately becomes the most important place on the planet, regardless of how quickly the local polities become involved. The nature of the secrets buried (and imprisoned) in Dwimmermount represent an existential threat to every nearby locale and city.  Whatever comes next, as history unfolds on your version of Telluria, will be inexorably tied to what happens with your players in the dungeon and the choices you make as DM regarding the powerful resources there.

Dwimmermount as Axis Mundi puts the dungeon in a much different posture than an archetypal lair or forgotten ruin, where treasure alone is the primary aim, and pillaging the dungeon isn't going to imbalance the campaign world or bring nations to war.  Mastery of the dungeon of Dwimmermount represents power over the campaign and knowledge of campaign-altering secrets and truths.  I've read quite a few megadungeons through the years, and very few of them take this extreme approach of making the dungeon the actual secret history of the world.  Of course, if you expect the major activity of the campaign to be exploring a sprawling "tent pole" dungeon, it makes sense that the dungeon should affect the rise and fall of empires and the historical ages of man.

However, this posture of Dwimmermount brings with it a corresponding set of problems.  The history of the dungeon is so intertwined with the history of the world of Telluria, there's definitely additional burdens placed on the referee who would retrofit Dwimmermount into another campaign world.  Portability is not a strength. Telluria has specific positions on weighty campaign questions such as alignment, the nature of the gods, the astral plane, the origins of elves and dwarves, and the sources of magic.  I happen to really like Dwimmermount's answers, but the campaign supports a particular flavor of pulp fantasy that incorporates elements of science fantasy as the campaign proceeds.

Perhaps a larger problem is that the wider world of Telluria doesn't exist… the referee is left to come up with his own interpretation.  The environs of Dwimmermount are described through an area hex map (a regional map) which covers a few nearby settlements and cities, but many of the principal non-player actors hail from far off empires and distant lands.  If the campaign stays laser focused on the dungeon and nearby city, there's probably enough there, but it's likely you'll need to take a broader view of the world and consider sketching a continent map that shows geographic and political relationships.  A Dwimmermount campaign could easily see armies on the move as the deepest levels of the dungeon get breached by players.

Folks have recommended Blackmarsh as a setting to retrofit for Dwimmermount, and I also saw someone place their version in Mystara.  I've grabbed a free copy of Blackmarsh from RPG Now to take a look.  The Wilderlands of High Fantasy (a 1970's setting from Judge's Guild) could be a good fit as well.

I've tried to stay light on specific spoilers here, assuming that both referees and players could be readers.  I'm greatly enjoying Dwimmermount (and have run 4 sessions already with my players) but did want to warn those who follow what to expect.  I'll probably end up sketching my own version of Telluria in the very near future.

Dwimmermount offers the chance for players to care about the ancient history of the campaign world, and rewards an approach that values knowledge - I think that's the next topic to discuss as we build towards a full review.