Thursday, March 13, 2008

more on deep dungeons and strategery

Over at his own blog my good bud Stuart decided to offer a lengthy reply to the non-Telengard portion of Tuesday's Gameblog entry. Stuart's main beef, as far as I can see, is that a crazy-go-nuts dungeon (with things like a succubus in room 23 and a gold dragon in room 24) is the last place that strategic thinking will come into play. Stuart, if I'm off on this, please straighten me out in the comments section here or shoot off a flare gun or something. S. John Ross already offered a response to Stuart's concerns in the comment section of the original post, basically arguing that Stuart's concerns reach outside the bounds of the dungeoneering genre. And Stuart responded to that comment as well. It is unwise of me to step in between S. John and Stuart, because I'm dead certain they're both smarter than me. But I'm going to do it anyway, for no other reason that writing my own reply will make me think harder about the subject. I'll start by quoting Stuart's last comment:

This slippery slope is something that I suspect occurs across multiple games rather than in a single game.

Game 1: Players investigate. GM makes stuff up for them to find.

Game 2: GM makes up stuff ahead of time for players to find. Players ask questions/do things GM didn't anticipate.

Game 3: GM tries to create more coherent setting so that making stuff up will be easier...

Does that make sense?

My first thought here is to ask where the problem lies in this scenario. Stuart calls the situation a slippery slope, but as described I see a basic GMing technique. Only the dimmest of players will fail to go beyond the scope of the GM's initial creations. My old HERO System group called it the inevitable "X+1", where the GM plans for X number of contingencies and the players come up with at least X+1 responses to the situation. Rolling with these sorts of punches is something every GM does. Nothing about the dungeon makes that different.

Let's give a concrete example. The party has discovered a treasure that by random die roll happened to include a large number of potions. One of the players gets curious about this and innocently asks "Are all these potions in the same kind of bottle?" The DM has nothing in the key one way or the other, but he sees a golden opportunity. "Yeah, they're all shaped like those wide-bottomed science flasks, but made out of green glass. Now that you mention it, the potion of heroism from the bugbear lair is in the same kind of bottle." While the players spend 10 minutes discussing the ramifications of this, the DM sneakily writes down "new sublevel 4a, lair of the Mad Alchemist, include Ogre Mage". The next time the players interrogate a prisoner, they might ask the poor critter about potions. The DM is ready now. He tells the PCs that a strange blue giant carries a sack full of them around the dungeon, selling them to monsters for a hefty fee.

To me, this sort of operation is part of the ongoing process of good megadungeon development. Any novice DM can throw some dice on a random stocking chart and sketch some tunnels on a piece of graph paper. To me, that's just step one. A good dungeon makes something out of those dice rolls. And just as importantly, a good megadungeon is never completely done. Adding new sublevels, rooms behind secret doors, and other expansions is an ongoing venture.

Going back to the succubus in room 23 and the gold dragon in room 24, I think S. John is right on the money when he dismisses these sorts of incongruities as basic axioms of the genre. A DM can take that sort of situation and spin a plot out of it. Or he can simply use it as further evidence that the dungeon does not always operate under the same rules as the rational surface. Stuart is right on the money to spot a contradiction here. But I choose to work with that contradiction, even to embrace it. A good dungeon adventure is like a journey to a nightmare realm, where bravery and smarts are your only tools and sometimes they just don't work. Is that unfair to the strategic player, whose bestlaid plans can be screwed up by one bad wandering monster roll? Yes, it most certainly is unfair. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Dungeoneering is not for the faint of heart.

20 comments:

  1. I have to agree with you Jeff. It's not so much an issue given what Dungeons really are in Role-Playing games.

    It all depends on what a player expects out of a dungeon VS what the DM expects. Some people just want the "Running Man" style of game others want an experience in a fantastical but "realistic" world.

    If both, player and GM, are on the same page there shouldn't be a problem. Of course this all assumes the GM is good at handling the in game randomness of player.

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  2. Hmmm...

    I think maybe I wasn't as clear as I'd have liked to be. I don't think I disagree with your point here. What I'm saying is that it seems like there is a natural tendency for people to gradually shift genres away from the megadungeon. Sure, you can embrace the contradiction of the succubus in room 23 and gold dragon in room 24... but if the players make you work really hard to explain it, then you might avoid such a blatant contradiction in your next dungeon... and, in the long term, drift into another genre entirely.

    Related thoughts:

    Trenchcoats and katanas are the megadungeons of the 1990s.

    Wuxia is the megadungeon of the 2000s.

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  3. Sure, you can embrace the contradiction of the succubus in room 23 and gold dragon in room 24... but if the players make you work really hard to explain it, then you might avoid such a blatant contradiction in your next dungeon... and, in the long term, drift into another genre entirely.

    Whenever such explanations seem like hard work I just shrug them off.

    Related thoughts:

    Trenchcoats and katanas are the megadungeons of the 1990s.

    Wuxia is the megadungeon of the 2000s.


    Now you've lost me entirely.

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  4. Settembrini1:58 PM

    Also compelling, I think Stuart is wrong in assuming a "megadungeon" meme ever existed except in parody. In the form he´s referencing it.

    Campaigns are what D&D is all about, and Baronies, Titles and Gods & Hierarchies have been part of the game from the Brown Box AFAIK.

    There always was an outside world to the Dungeon, a frame of reference, continuity and relevance. Namely, the whole relevance of the Dungeon is from the OUTSIDE. The Gold, the Evilness (Chaos): those only make sense in relation to an outside world.

    Greyhawk, Braunstein, Blackmoor.

    90ies example:
    Paranoia isn´t working as a campaign game, because it´s madness /inaness(sp?) in a mad/inane world.

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  5. Settembrini2:02 PM

    ...clarification:

    1) replace first word in preceding entry with "Although"

    2) add to last paragraph: Thusly, continuity and the laws of cause and effect, common sense, immersion and believability have been essential part of D&D underwolrds right from the start. Randomness is ther to ADD to the verisimilitude and danger, the feeling of "being there", not replace or substract from it.

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  6. Now you've lost me entirely.

    That's OK. I'm not entirely sure what I meant by it. I'm having a day.

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  7. And here I thought the only slippery slope to avoid in dungeon crawling was that which, hidden beneath a tilting stone floor and greased with owlbear fat, sends poor Ulmick the Unwary and cohort tumbling three levels down, to land appetizingly in the fearsome mortar of the Hag Bubashka, a Baker of no small reknown.

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  8. Whenever such explanations seem like hard work I just shrug them off.

    Sure. You do.

    Does everyone?

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  9. Yes, I do the same as Jeff and say "it's a freaking dungeon!".

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  10. "A good dungeon adventure is like a journey to a nightmare realm, where bravery and smarts are your only tools and sometimes they just don't work. Is that unfair to the strategic player, whose bestlaid plans can be screwed up by one bad wandering monster roll? Yes, it most certainly is unfair. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Dungeoneering is not for the faint of heart."

    This is excellent. Someone posted something similar on Dragonsfoot a while ago, but I haven't been able to find it again. The idea that the Dungeon isn't just the basement -- but more like a dream world, is very important.

    And now I'm going to confuse the discussion because I'm a different Stuart. :D

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  11. sett -- I ran a Paranaoia campaign (using 2nd Edition rules) that went for 2-1/2 years ...

    Mind you, not a single actual PC survived for more than about 8 sessions (I believe that was the campaign record, all clones inclusive) but it the campaign kept strong, coherent threads because it explored an ongoing "little war" between three of the Secret Socities set against the glamorous backdrop of running one of the complex's fine cafeterias.

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  12. Sure, you can embrace the contradiction of the succubus in room 23 and gold dragon in room 24...

    If you think of it as "embracing a contradiction" rather than "embracing the genre's reality which rocks so hard that my feet can't stop tapping," I think that's the moment where you've decided - consciously or not - that you've stepped onto a slippery slope instead of a Stairway to Heaven.

    And I think it really is down to choice, whether you follow the ramp up, or down.

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  13. I was using Jeff's words there... and again, I'm not criticizing the dungeon genre here. I'm making more of a sociological point about why some people may unconsciously move away from it and adopt a different play style.

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  14. Fair enough, then :)

    I also realized, after hitting enter, that I should have said "And I think it really is a matter of inclinination ..." 'cause ... see what I did there? hee :)

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  15. I think that even in a dungeon that can have a succubus in room 23 and a gold dragon in room 24 with no explanation at all, strategically-minded players can make hay out of it as long as the contents of the rooms don't change frequently when they're not looking. After all, by the time a party is ready to encounter such things they should have a number of ways to scout ahead and then decide whether to try it, go make preparations and come back, or bypass. I think John Kim had a really good point here on his RPG blog a while back that it's the essence of dungeoneering that the DM stocks the place, but the players get to set the pace and encounter order.

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  16. wulfgar7:22 AM

    Here's my take on why my group (and many others it seems) felt the need to "grow up" and create more "realistic" dungeons instead of the freak-out, gonzo, monster-mega-dungeons of yore-

    Realism sounds so....cool in a geeky way. I mean any lameo 5 year old can play make believe with elves and dragons and dwarves. "Realism" lends an air of seriousness and maturity to a game, or at least to the player's minds.

    Dungeon ecology didn't start as an effort to squeeze the fun out of the dungeon. It was a movement to achieve ubergeekness- which had the unfortunate side effect of squeezing the fun out of the dungeon.

    So now that the realism genie is out of the bottle, how does a DM get it back in?

    Well try this- the next time a player asks a question like "how can all these monsters survive down here? There's nothing to eat and not enough space them" Thoughtfully ponder for a second and then say "yes. You're right that's not very realistic. Now we can either live with that, or you'll have to give up your magic armor and you're talking sword. Those aren't very realistic either."

    I'm glad to see a movement away from the imagination stifling brand of rpg realism and more and more DMs embracing a more "scientific" realism :)

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  17. You can always let the players see a monster or NPC using a secret/magic/tiny doors someplace that they can't have access to -- this suggests the Dungeon is larger and more complex than the slice they have access to. They used this trick in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (the Boatman) as well as some fantasy movies like Labyrinth.

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  18. You can always let the players see a monster or NPC using a secret/magic/tiny doors someplace that they can't have access to -- this suggests the Dungeon is larger and more complex than the slice they have access to.

    Excellent point. I was going to make my next Cinder-related post about Amazons and why they shave their heads, but obviously I need to go with Goblin Doors instead.

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  19. Luckily I did save that dragonsfoot comment, unfortunately I don't have the poster's name handy.
    The Dungeon--by which this author means the generic category and not any specific instance, though the principles apply in both cases--is a weird, unfathomable, and deadly place, and as such it should sound an irresistible call to those with the doughty hearts of adventurers. Importantly, it is also vast--do not fall into the trap of trying to "defeat" a level. Set goals, work to achieve them, and don't be afraid to move on when the opportunity presents itself. You can gauge what sorts of risks you want to take, and what sorts of rewards you wish to win, by considering the party level versus the dungeon level, as a rough equivalent exists in terms of PC abilities, appropriate challenges, and rightful prizes. Cautious parties may stay on safer levels, but the treasure will be less; daring parties may make forays deeper into the place for richer reward, but the danger will also increase. Choose the path that suits your party best.

    Within you will find ferocious monsters, lethal traps, cunning tricks and buried secrets, tortuous layouts and forgotten ways, baffling riddles, and best of all, fabulous treasure beyond imagining. You the player will be challenged as much, if not more, than your PC, and it will take the combined skills of both to succeed. This place is not merely a workaday, subterranean lair, with logically arranged sleeping and eating areas for a species simply somewhat different from (or even antagonistic toward) humans and demi-humans. The door you open is a portal, the stairs you descend a path, into the mythic underworld, luring you farther from the rational and sane daylight lands above, where a man may plot his way with confidence in the laws of nature, and into a nightmarish world of magic, evil, and elements that can devour your PC's very soul. You must be constantly on guard for peril from any quarter; you must manage your resources carefully, retreating when it is wise yet advancing when the time is right; you must demonstrate bravery, intelligence, and prowess as well, if your efforts are to be repaid with wealth and power. Not everything within the crumbling walls, forsaken chambers, and winding ways is hostile, and you may find allies in strange places or negotiate safe passage from others--but be wary of treachery and ill will. Those who think and fight their way back out may bear the riches that will spread their names throughout the realms of Man; those who do not will die a lonely death far from the places they know and cherish.

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