Those Frost Giants really messed us up! 10 feet tall with noses the size of bratwurst and hands like shovels, they towered over us. We would have been OK if we'd left them asleep. "If you talk above a whisper you'll wake them up," our guide told us. I'm fine whispering! We were all fine whispering. But the caged prisoner ruined everything.
"Help me!" she shouted. "Shh!" we all rasped. "Let me out!" she bellowed - and the damage was done. Up woke the giants and all hell broke loose. Our fighters were scooped up like pebbles and thrown into our spellcasters, and soon our bard, wizard and a fighter were dead. We hadn't much left to give. That goblin earlier had hurt us more than we expected, and the ice beast had been no pushover. Out of spells, out of options - and to top it off the giants were insulting us.
Had the horn not sounded signalling the end of the encounter, we'd have perished. As it was, a few of us went on. The dead silently followed.
This wasn't the kind of experience I'd been expecting at PAX South. This wasn't a video game or a tabletop game. This was a full-on costumed, propped and acted game. A mash of live action role-playing, escape room and Dungeons & Dragons. This was True Dungeon, which had a whole hall to itself, a myriad curtained walls segregating three, two-hour campaigns, and a demo. It was huge. Pricey, too. The demo was free but a campaign ticket was $58 - on top of your PAX ticket. "Real Dungeon. Real Props. Real Cool," said the slogan. It had better be for that price.
The demo lays out the basics. This isn't a LARP where you dive into role-play and whack each other with latex weaponry, like I did one cold weekend at Witcher School in Poland, but a game with strict mechanics like Dungeons & Dragons, which is very much its foundation. But True Dungeon doesn't have any dice so how does it work?
In combat you slide pucks, a bit like curling but on a table - a "shuffle board" is apparently the term I'm looking for. Slide a puck onto a numbered zone, on a drawing of your enemy, to work out your to-hit roll. Land on 20, which takes some doing, and you score a very good hit, but land on a 1 and you miss, you idiot! Damage depends on all sorts but mostly which token you've magnetically clipped into your puck. I'll come back to tokens, they're very important.
Magic does not use a puck. You tell the Games Master (GM) - there's one in each room - which spell you want to use, and they mark it off a character card hanging around your neck. But there is a kind of skill involved here in the form of a memory test.
As a cleric I had to memorise prayer beads - 14 beads each associated with a word, like Piety, Zeal and Devotion. Then when I cast a spell with a skill check, the GM whipped out a prayer-bead bracelet and pointed to a bead on it, asking me for the word associated with it. If I got it right, I'd do the upper-most value of healing or damage; if I got it wrong, I'd do the base amount, and my team would shun me.
Sounds easy until you realise you only get to see the words-and-beads chart for 10 minutes before the adventure begins. I was quite proud I managed to get most of my skill checks right! Mind you, one GM only knew one bead, which I'd just been asked before, but every little accomplishment is worth celebrating! Wizards, druids and bards have similar memory tests.
You don't have to act abilities out. You don't have to shout "Fireball!" and make scorchy noises while pretending you're Ryu. You just tell the GM and it's done. But there are some exceptions, and I love these - particularly the Bard's. To sing, the bard has to actually sing. It's brilliantly simple. It can be any song but they have to maintain it in order to keep the party - appropriately - buffed. I tell you, it's weird hearing D'esposito in the Norse realm of the gods.
Similarly, fighters have to actually insult enemies if they want to taunt them. It's a lovely touch, and very amusing.
How powerful you all are depends on your level and equipment, and you can find yourself with higher-levelled characters in your group who have run many campaigns. True Dungeon has been around for 14 years now, so there are veterans - and a sizeable community - out there.
XP you're rewarded with via a code, which you plug into the True Dungeon website, but loot you carry with you in the form of tokens. These are the lifeblood of True Dungeon, printed in limited seasonal runs and varying rarities, and they are coveted because of it. Tokens are your rewards at the end of a run, and they represent everything from weapons and armour, to potions and scrolls.
In your hand, tokens are like premium poker chips, clacking as you slide them around. They have varying pictures on them and can have different backing types. Some can be very valuable, the most sought after priced at hundreds of dollars (probably even more). People can spend a fortune on these things. They're dished out in random packs of 10, either for $8 online (sold in limited runs) or one for free with your campaign, but you can spend much more - right up to $2000 on a mega bundle if you so wish!
The hordes of tokens players lug along to shows like PAX are a sight to behold, and trading is a whole game in itself, facilitated by a special trading mat I won't even begin to pretend to understand.
It's these tokens you plonk down on character creation mats before the adventure begins, filling as many of the ~27 slots as you can. Borrowing and lending is encouraged. Then a GM comes around, notes all of it down on a big sheet of numbers, and you're off, into the campaign, undergoing a brief bit of training before being bamboozled with combat proper. It's a lot to get your head around, and can feel like a confusing, many-voiced din.
But it's not only combat encounters; puzzle rooms in between offer a respite. These rely on riddles to provide solutions to impressive technical contraptions: huge trays of fake snow with strange lights shining down, or nearly lifesize trees with orbs which need lighting. They're not easy, either, and against the clock.
Consider there are three puzzle rooms and three combat rooms in each of the three campaigns and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of the operation - and where the money goes. But is it worth $58? I keep coming back to this. I can't quite shake the impression True Dungeon didn't quite click. I wanted to be wowed and wanted to come out so excited I'd go straight back in but I wasn't.
True Dungeon's reliance on mechanics and numbers halted immersion. We'd barrel into a room and be presented with an exciting new scenario, only to be pulled back to character cards, numbers and mechanics when it came to life. There was a noticeable lack of role-playing too. It wasn't required (I'm sure some people do it) but the GMs didn't seem too bothered either, and some weren't in costume at all. There were even points, in some rooms, where we were talking about how the lighting of a puzzle worked while killing time before we moved on. The illusion slipped.
More gusto would have helped this greatly! And I expected it given the "real actors" part of the slogan. It would have distracted me from the shortcomings of the props and costumes and builds, which were good - some really good - but not gobsmacking. It would have also helped me block out the din of the show and forget I was in a giant convention center hall, the ceiling of which was impossible - and therefore not - covered up. But I realise there are limits to what a travelling show can do. Even so, a combination of ticket price, loot-boxy tokens, and lack of enthusiasm, left me feeling like I'd been pushed through a machine.
Yet still I applaud it. I love what True Dungeon is about. It's a place where you can go to play Dungeons & Dragons come to life, with friends or people you've never met before. It's theatrical, it's energetic. There's nothing else like it at a game show and it's perfect for it. The inspired way True Dungeon lifts D&D from the page is a tremendous achievement, and whatever reservations I have about the money involved, it's clearly being put to good use.
Maybe I caught True Dungeon in a sluggish moment - this was an adventure being run many times a day, for many people and many days, after all. Maybe you'll be barraged by enthusiasm, or maybe you're already part of the community and you've had wonderfully immersive experiences totally different to what I saw. I don't think I'll go back, but I encourage you - if you're lucky enough to be at a show where True Dungeon is playing - to give it a try.
PAX South is a show run by ReedPOP, the owner of Gamer Network and Eurogamer.