An Inside Look at True Dungeon

by Marinda Darnell

Have you ever looked at those ads that promise a week long vacation somewhere sunny and warm during the winter months, and say it is too good to be true? In mid-October, I received an email from True Dungeon (TD), asking if I would like to come to Gen Con So Cal. Included was an offer to pay for airfare and hotel for an eight day, seven night stay in the gorgeous Anaheim Marriott. My first thought was to check the headers and see where it actually came from. Then I called Frances, my editor and good friend, and asked her opinion. Within ten minutes of receiving the email from Lee Vaughn, the Director of Operations for True Dungeon, I replied back with an affirmative, and started planning what I was going to pack for that week in California.

Some people have asked me what exactly True Dungeon is. For those who have never had this great experience, I need to explain a bit so you can understand the scope of what True Dungeon truly is. From the True Dungeon website; "True Dungeon is a d20 Variant that allows players to experience their D&D adventure within a life- size, dungeon environment. Not a LARP, True Dungeon focuses on problem solving, teamwork and tactics while providing exciting sets and interactive props. Players may find themselves creeping down a dark passageway and entering a long-forgotten crypt...."

TD first appeared at Gen Con Indy 2003. I read about the event on the Gen Con website, and managed to convince a group of 5 other people that this would be a great event to play in. After the entire group made it through alive and talked about it for months, I decided I had to go again the following year at Indy. With a different group at Gen Con Indy 2004, we made it half way through without losing our first player. By the final room, half the group was dead, but so were a lot of lizard men and a nasty spider. For 2004 TD was sponsored by Gen Con and Wizards of the Coast. Gen Con has been a very large contrubutor to TD since the beginning; in fact they would not be up and running without that support. Because of the sponsorship by WoTC, TD was able to use the Return to Hommlet second edition D&D adventure as a basis for the story. Imagine entering a room at the convention center, and stepping into the Inn of the "Welcoming Wench" and being greeted by an NPC wench who begins your adventure. From there you enter into a whole new world, leaving the era of cell phones and good lighting behind.

While the planning for this adventure started in October for me, the adventure truly began on Monday, November 29 at 2 am, when I headed for the South Bend, IN airport. A few hours later, I left behind the cold snowy Chicago region, and stepped off the plane into a balmy 65 degrees in Los Angeles. After an insane shuttle ride from LAX to the hotel, I finally settled in, made a few phone calls, and it was time to meet the directors of TD. TD was given a suite of rooms in the convention center on the second floor. Gen Con So Cal is very small, and besides TD and True Heroes (TH), they only occupy one hall way and a large room. That's right, one large room divided into dealers hall, and different sections for the different genres of games. Upstairs, Lee welcomed everyone (surprisingly a large number of the volunteers are from Indiana), and gave a few small assignments.

Building the dungeon was our first task. When I first walked into the actual dungeon, all that could be seen was a huge number of metal poles, some stacks of crates, and the bases for the poles laid out in a pattern the eye had a hard time following. The first evening, due to union regulations, all we could do was separate different wall panels out. Some of us also helped in the Tavern, making signs, new props, and blowing up balloons. All of the volunteers were released early that evening, with orders to report in the next morning. There was nothing else to do that night, but play some Munchkin Bites! in the hotel lobby with some of the other GMs.

Bright and early Tuesday morning, everyone gathered for a day of building. The union representatives were there to supervise the hanging of the dungeon walls, and anything that was above the ground level. The walls started to go up very quickly, and by 4 pm, almost the entire dungeon was finished including the tavern. There was one key piece missing though, Rodney the Imp. Rodney was being shipped inside of a large plasma screen monitor, which he was not very happy about. He would rather have flown in on his own two wings.

Wednesday was filled with putting the finishing touches on the dungeon and tavern, and training. Each room had it's own head GM who tweaked the room and made any final decisions about it. The GMs were rotated through the rooms on a daily basis. One day I was scheduled in the Spider Room, another day the Crypt/Treasure Room, and on the other day The Library. So each head GM had a chance to explain and answer any questions about what should happen in each room. From going through the dungeon as a player twice before, I really liked this set up. In the afternoon, VIP groups went through the dungeon. This was a great experience to have. There are all kinds of peep holes through out the dungeon for us to watch a party's progress. Some of players from different companies were just plain outstanding.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are the days the adventure was open. Each of those days had its own feel to it, and each one provided a fun experience for the GMs, players, and blue hands. Thursday, I was extremely nervous. What if I messed up? What if the players hated me? How was I to remember how everything goes in here and what everything was? My fears were baseless, but in a production this large someone always worries.

The room I enjoyed GMing the most, was actually the Crypt/Treasure Room, fondly referred to as Split Decision. This was the third adventure room in the dungeon, not counting the camp site. Split Decision was actually a series of three rooms. The players enter into an antechamber, and then must quickly decide which door way they are going to take, the one where the stone slab is closing to seal the tomb (as ordered by the talking mouth) or the door on the left that was not trying to close in any way. What surprised me about this room is that about 90% of all the groups choose the closing door. My thought was, why try to run through a closing door when you don't know if you'll be able to find your way out? Each of the two rooms had surprises, and interesting little quirks. Each room also required you to think, and try to solve a puzzle, while only one room had the possibility for combat. So there was a choice to make, pure puzzle room, or puzzle/potential combat room. For more information about the rooms, please see the True Dungeon website.

One highlight from the weekend: Wil Wheaton came through the dungeon. When asked to sing a song in the tavern (Wil was the bard), he promptly asked for something to make it worth his while, in true bard fashion, and entertained us with a song, earning himself a masterwork instrument token. Through out the entire dungeon Wil sang and danced and taunted his party's opponents. In all, one of the best parties to go through the dungeon that I saw all weekend long.

By the end of the week, I was tired, but so was everyone else. When I flew out of LAX, I was left with a few impressions. Here are just some of them:

  1. The True Dungeon staff is one of the most professional staffs I have worked with. They are all outstanding people who are so creative it can be mind boggling.
  2. Players going through a dungeon can be very inventive, and bards do not like to sing.
  3. Wil Wheaton is even more creative in person, as he is on his website.
  4. I so want to do this again! Not just going through the dungeon as a player, but working with the group again.

If you ever have the opportunity to volunteer for the True Adventures team, do it. Be ready to work some long hours, but you have fun though out it all. I met some amazing people, had an outstanding adventure, and took a vacation while doing so. Just remember to tip the wenches.

Copyright 2004-2005 The Lady Gamer. All rights reserved.