Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dungeonspiration: I Don't Do Dungeons

The last couple of years have been an intense fest of role playing for me.  If you add it up, the total gaming time during the last three years probably equals the previous thirty.  I've begun to realize - or re-realize rather - that I don't do dungeons.

Fun map that I don't know where came from.
That's a horrible realization in a column named after dungeons, but let me explain.  I dont' like dungeons.  Okay, that probably didn't come out right.  I don't like dungeons as a way of life.  Yeah, that's more accurate.

In my previous gaming life back in the 80s, I mainly DMed.  Within about two years, I was done with dungeons, focusing on wilderness adventures.  That got boring, and I went on to strictly urban fantasy adventures.  I really didn't get back to dungeons until the advent of 4e - both as a DM and as a player - and while I like dungeons - I think they work better as a spice than as an entrée.

(Yeah, some of you got confused, I know.  I'm using the North American definition of entrée - meaning the main course.)

Simply put, a trip to a dungeon that lasts more than two sessions is going to bore me to tears.  To me, a dungeon should be like a short story - composed of three succinct acts - a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In the depths of a lengthy dungeon stay, I loose focus.  Encounters begin to blur.  I forget why I'm underground, and forget to care.  Okay, yeah, I have the attention span of a gnat - I know that - but it's not getting much better as I age.

I understand that to some people, the dungeon is the game itself.  I understand that.  It's okay.  You megadungeoneers are wonderful people and I love you all, man.

It's just that . . . I really like that coming up for air part.  You pop out of the dungeon and go to town and interact with the locals - get to know them and their culture - and then maybe you wander around in the wilderness for a bit - get attacked by a yeti - capture the yeti - train the yeti to speak and say rude things to your fellow party members - take a trip on a flying boat - have dinner with the king of the elves and try to prevent the dwarves in the party from killing the dinner guest.  You know - stuff.

I don't know - maybe that's the 'new age' way of playing that the groggiest of grognards complain about - but heck, by 1984, that was my preferred way of playing.  I remember running a game set in a pseudo-Lankhmar where the PCs played beat-cops.  They had to pop into the sewers every once in a while for a dungeon adventure, but bulk of the time was comprised of thwarting ne'er-do-wells in a city of alleys.

I guess the big downer in the dungeon is that I'm not engaging with the people and cultures of the imaginary lands in which I dwell.  You know, aside from having a conversation with a talking door or exchanging curses with the kobold king during combat.  I'd like to feel like a part of a large, thriving, vibrant land, rather than just one of the many corpses buried underneath.

But still, I like a good dungeon.  The important features of good dungeons are that they should be short and to the point.  The dungeons bits - the monsters, traps, etc - should be memorable and exciting.  And I should have time - quality time - between dungeons in which I get to set my own priorities and become involved with the people who's ancestors I'm looting and defiling.  Otherwise, this imaginary world I'm traipsing around in (or DMing) is kind of hollow.

So that's my 'dungeon inspiriation' for today - a dearth of dungeons is inspiring.  To me, at least. :)

- Ark


  1. The only reason I ever considering playing D&D is to explore dungeons. D&D for me is dungeons with puzzles and traps and treasure and monsters - and yes, that includes negotiating and possibly allying with them, when it suits our purposes.

    Personal preference is a funny ol' thing, ain't it?

    1. @BV - Yes, preferences are - and luckily early D&D was flexible enough to allow for an amazing spectrum of play styles.

      This notion of negotiating and possibly allying with monsters . . . what a foreign concept! I think any alliance underground that we ever made lasted no longer than 30 seconds.

      That's not a joke. :)

      - Ark

  2. When I started gaming, I was pretty young - 9 years old. We used canned modules all the time, and strung them together with wilderness adventures. I occasionally mapped a dungeon myself, but I don't recall using them often. I did do a lot of wilderness maps as we played, though, culminating in my own game world in my early High School days. Then it was the occasional dungeon connected by lots of wilderness, city, and lair encounters. Finally, my last campaign (with GURPS) used only a few dungeon-like settings and was mostly set outdoors and in cities.

    It's only now as I'm much older that I'm giving a pure dungeon-centric campaign a try. So I'm totally with you there - even in the "good old days" of megadungeons, I was running a wilderness centered game. Your post sounds so much like the majority of my gaming experience.

    1. @Peter - I really tried a mega-dungeon when I started up with Labrynth Lord, but I found the shenanigans of the PCs when they were on the surface far more entertaining. They do, however, tend to level up a heck of a lot quicker when underground. :)

      - Ark

  3. Of course, nobody who played D&D from the books in the old days actually did a megadungeon.

    I solve the problem of saminess by making sure that even the biggest sprawls I design have separable areas with different look and feel.

  4. I'm definitely with you on this one. Generally, I have good ideas for what a dungeon is (buried ruins, sewer system, corpse of dead god, etc...), but when it actually comes to mapping the thing on graph paper and the like, I just come up short. I'm not really much of a deliberate accurate mapper.

  5. I'm with you too. Though I actually really like making dungeons, I quickly lose interest in running them. As a player it's worse. Much worse. I don't even like going in them; claustrophobia sets in, knowing that from here on out, my every move is dictated by the maze of corridors drawn on the map. Free will gone. No escape. Please get me out of here.

  6. Bless you sir. A boon on you, your family, your pets if any and all the generations of your kin before and after you.

    I usually feel so alone in my dislike of the dungeon as the end all be all of fantasy gaming. Dungeons bore me because (1) I've seen enough of them since age 8 to never need to see another every again, (2) the vast majority really do not feel different or interesting and (3) I'm really not a fantasy guy and they are very much a staple of the kind of fantasy I'm just not that into.

    All that said, I wouldn't mind playing through one that was...

    Largely or fully submerged underwater.

    Filled with snow and ice with sections exposed to the outside elements.

    M.C. Escher-like (done this a few times).

    Vertical dungeons (done this in SF games several times - starship crashed nose down).

    ...or anything else that felt different enough from hall, room, fight, steal, hall, room, fight, steal, hall, room...

    1. You're evil, you know that? Now I want to play something that combines all of those, and I don't have the skill to write it, nor is there anything like that, so far as I'm aware, that anyone else has made.

  7. Don't worry, there's not too much more of the Dungeon left, you'll be back to abducting yeti in no time!

  8. Map is by Dyson Logos of ACFEG.
    IIRC he entitled that one 'Mapping Challenge'.

  9. "the Mapper's Challenge", in fact.

    A pretty accurate name.

    PS I love all dungeons... mega-rural, mini-urban, gonzo-extraplanar, monster's gullet, ruined tower, drow fortification, taxidermist's basement, taverner's wine cellar, dwarven crypt, underwater laboratory manned by extra terrestrial sex slavers and guarded by zombie sharks...