Geekdad 2015 Crew

Gen Con 2015 Experience – True Dungeon Wrap-Up

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One of our favorite puzzles - Brian S. figured it out, allowing us to escape the danger.
One of our favorite puzzles – Brian S. figured it out, allowing us to escape the danger.

The rest of True Dungeon lived up to the high standards that the adventure continues to set for itself and we did pretty well … until the last room … again. I imagine one day we will emerge victorious with all of the party alive, but this year was not that time. We still had a great experience and really enjoyed ourselves, proven by the fact that we emerged with more smiles than hit points. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine a weekend at Gen Con without a trip through True Dungeon – it really makes the con for me.

John Booth – I really, really enjoy the annual True Dungeon run. And Dave Banks is right: even in my third time taking part, I still felt that adrenaline and tension knotting in my gut waiting to walk into that first room. Our third adventure as a GeekDad crew was as fun as ever. Puzzle rooms were challenging and rewarding, and required a mix of teamwork, lightning-bolt moments of inspiration, and a little clue-hedged luck, and I absolutely loved the monster reveals, props, actors, and costumes in our combat encounters.

I feel like we generally fared better in combat than we had in the past, too. (I went back to playing a Monk this year, after playing as a Dwarf Fighter in 2014. Guess who forgot his own “take-a-ranged-weapon-no-matter-what” advice? +1 damage to myself with a Flurry of Forehead Slaps.)

Despite generally knowing what to expect each year, I’m still enthralled by and completely drawn into the story and environment, and sharing it all with friends is what keeps it a highlight of Gen Con.

Brian Stillman – (Note: Brian’s not a contributor but he most definitely achieved Honorary Geekdad status this week — he’s a buddy of John Booth and was key to the group getting past a major puzzle obstacle. We asked Brian to submit his thoughts on TD.)

Nothing is more shocking than walking into the gloomy darkness of True Dungeon after spending the day wandering the light and airy Indianapolis Convention Center. Your senses go into overdrive as they attempt to recalibrate and penetrate the sudden night. That’s when you notice the rock walls, the chill in the air, the bustle of other adventurers making their way to the staging area and then onward to their adventure.

True Dungeon is immersive from the get go, and I didn’t expect that. I’d played live-action games before, but I couldn’t imagine how the people behind TD could transform something as bland as a convention center into something as otherworldly as the Underdark. I didn’t really believe they’d be able to transport me into the game. But the clever use of building materials and crafts, lots of trick lighting, and a smothering cover of darkness can work magic. Throw in some spectacularly costumed NPCs and my own willful disregard for reality, and I found it easy to believe I was chasing a Drow Assassin through a maze of caves and caverns.

TD Tokens
Examples of token text from True Dungeon plastic tokens.

I’ll admit, I also had some doubts about the game mechanics. In previous LARP experiences, melee combat involved bashing NPCs on the head with foam-covered weapons. Incredibly immersive, but not too practical in a Gen Con setting. I was worried that True Dungeon’s method of combat — sliding a puck at a target, kind of like shuffleboard — would shatter my suspension of disbelief. But you know what? It was a lot of fun! It pushed at the illusion’s boundaries, but they managed to hold. The rapid-fire pace of all us fighters taking our shots while the Game Masters and monsters egged us on kept combat exciting and tense. I could feel the pressure — even if I wasn’t worried about getting bopped with a foam sword. It was a weird mix of tabletop RPG and LARPING, and it worked well.

Interactions with the monsters, especially a giant salamander made from an actor wrapped in foam and surrounded by simulated fire, helped maintain the illusion. Seriously, the woman playing the salamander was fantastic! And as a fan of classic D&D monsters, nothing thrilled me more than seeing a fake wall collapse to reveal a seven-foot tall Carrion Crawler!

But the puzzles are where True Dungeon really shined. That’s when I felt like the party of players were actually there, we were in the thick of it, we were the characters in the Underdark and we were solving puzzles upon which hung our very lives. The puzzles were smartly designed, incorporating a nice mix of physical and mental challenges. I liked how they encouraged team play — everyone needed to contribute for the party to make it out alive. I was impressed by the innovative use of lighting, set design, and symbolism that went into every puzzle and trap; the final puzzle, in particular, relied on projections and animation to devious effect. I was pretty freaked out, to tell you the truth.

Overall, True Dungeon was a blast. It was so easy to get caught up in the experience, to feel like I was part of the adventure and not just some con-goer who accidentally wandered into an advanced cosplay scenario. I definitely think it’s worth the $50 to play, though I’d do my best to go in with a full party of friends — it helped create the illusion of a long-term adventuring party, and it’s fun hanging out afterwards and reliving the adventure.

Angela Hickman Newnham – (Note: Jonathan Liu introduced the Geekdad crew to game designer, Angela, during Gen Con, and we had a great time visiting with her and playing some of the games she has designed. It was a no-brainer to invite her along on the True Dungeon trip.)

My favorite part about the True Dungeon experience was the immersion in the world. From memorizing my spells as the cleric to interacting with the cast throughout the Dungeon, it was like having all my fantasies of becoming a real adventurer played out… except the total party kill part! The system for casting cleric spells was especially captivating to me, as a long time rpg player I’ve often rattled around this nebulous concept of “memorizing spells” in my head, wondering how that could even work in an in-world way. I think the True Dungeon team came up with a really elegant, flavorful, and evocative way to do that. In the practice room I was given a board with rosary beards of different shapes and each had a word associated to them. These words were all thematic cleric-type words like grace, beauty, honor, purity, faith, zeal, courage, etc (and therefor all quite similarly grouped in my head, for an additional layer of challenge). I had a short amount of time to figure out some sort of system for attaching these words to these beads, knowing that my very party’s life could depend on it! It was the best kind of pre-game stress, and made me really excited to get in the dungeon, get hurt, and see if I could patch us up! I also appreciate that if you missed one of your healing “skill tests”, you still got to heal your injured party member, just not for as much (but I didn’t miss any!). I was told going into the dungeon to use up my spells freely, but I still felt compelled to hold them “just in case”. I will reiterate the advice given to me (that I foolishly didn’t heed) CAST THOSE SPELLS! I ended the dungeon with maybe 1/3rd of my spells cast, so in the future I think I would look for more opportunities to apply my sweet rosary bead word association skills.

James Floyd Kelly – I couldn’t imagine a better way to start wrapping up my first Gen Con than with a Saturday night running of True Dungeon with some fellow geek dads and friends. From my Wednesday arrival, I had been looking forward to this event, and three days (Thur, Fri, Sat) of playing tabletop games and hearing whispers and discussions from other Gen Con attendees had me ready to go…

Nothing quite builds anticipation like standing (or sitting) outside the main entrance to TD before your scheduled event. Watching people stream OUT of the doors with huge grins on their faces and talking (LOUDLY) about their encounters is really what you want to see from those who have completed an adventure. I did my best to avoid listening to spoilers — this meant walking to the opposite side of the large hall and goinging LA-LA-LA-LA-LA  more than once.

Once our group had arrived — ten strong! — we were ushered into a small room with a single table. A stack of cards was handed around that contained stats for a number of classes. Dave selected Paladin, for example… I went with Wizard. Jonathan was our Rogue and John Booth took on the Monk role — Fists of Fury! Along with your HP (I had 16, the lowest in the group.) and Armor Class, you can select weapons, armor, and spells depending on the class. This is done using small plastic tokens — each player receives a bag of 10 to start the game and trading is encouraged. You can keep them at the end of the game, and the Geekdad crew has been collecting them for years so we had a large selection for the group. My wizard took a robe that granted me a +1 to my pitiful AC and I had a wand that could fire a Ray of Poison spell five times — five small checkboxes on the token’s sticker would be used to indicate spent spells. Other players chose weapons and armor that would benefit them during the game, and after about 15 minutes of preparing our characters, we were ushered out of the room into a waiting area…

There are two variations we were offered – a more puzzle-laden adventure or a combat-focused adventure. We chose the puzzle adventure and were greeted by a female Drow. It can get quite loud in True Dungeon, with noises from other rooms leaking in… and TD is held in a large open area that is very echo-ey. All I could make out was that the Drow had stolen something from us or was on the run from our group and we had to chase her down. So… into the first room we went.

The first room held a single male Drow who informed us our target had damaged the elevator that went down into the dungeon. A series of 20 symbols were on a nearby chart, and we were told that placing a crystal in various locations around the room could repair the elevator. We had 60 seconds to fix it. There were 10 in our group, so each player chose two symbols and located them on the four walls. The countdown began, and we tried our best to pass the crystal from player to player… but failed. Each player took 2 damage from the debris knocked loose when the elevator attempted to move. On the second attempt, we were successful by calling out our numbers well in advance so each player would know where and when to hand off the crystal. A small window in one wall allowed us to see the stone shaft as it began to move up, letting us know we were heading down…

The next room gave us our first bit of combat for the night. A Carrion Crawler burst out from a hidden section of wall, surprising the group. Each room has a DM that stays put and monitors the action — this DM pulled out a hidden table from behind a curtain and we could see an outline of the monster on the tabletop. Like shuffleboard, players would slide their tokens (with weapon type and damage modifiers on the sticker) down the table to try and land them on standard d20 values. The DM knew what was required to hit the monster, so landing a +3 sword token on the 17 value on the outline would provide a value of 20, most likely a hit. On the outline, a tiny section of the monster’s head had ’20’ on it, indicating a critical hit. This method would be used throughout the night in later combat situations.

Click here for the conclusion!

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