Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Ideal Dungeon is a Lie (and Probably Made of People)

There's an idea in this hobby that comes in and out of vogue every so often that goes like this: the only correct way to run a dungeon is to make it a dynamic environment where the verisimilitude of the world can be maintained. These Ideal Dungeons exist in a world apart from the traditional game. They have markets, food supplies, and all the necessary accouterments that come along with a living, breathing society; essentially existing in a parallel faux-world with our own. The proponents of this ideal dungeon often admit that carrying it through completely can be difficult, but they maintain that it is well within the reach of any Dungeon Master worthy of his title. 

It is my contention that the proponents of Ideal Dungeons haven't successfully put their idea into play as it's complete and total bullshit. Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that you can't have markets and the like to help present a hint of reality to your players in the hopes that they'll be more immersed in the illusion of the game. That is not only completely within the realm of possibility but can often be faked with a good chart (see Megadungeon Trades by J.D. Jarvis for more). Yet for the most ardent supporters of the Ideal Dungeon using charts robs the dungeon of its true potential as you've not captured reality and are only presenting a pale and sickly caricature in its place.

Simulating reality is not easy under the best of circumstances and it becomes increasingly difficult when you have to take into account all of the individual variables that come with the Ideal Dungeon. Let me put it to you this way. For the Ideal Dungeon to truly exist each individual creature within the dungeon would have to be named, have a personality, and act according to its needs on their turn; AND the environment would have to adjusted according to the actions of the players and creatures after each acted to reflect the amorphous nature of reality within a living ecosystem.

As a Dungeon Master running the Ideal Dungeon you would have to allow each of the players to act and then have each of the individual creatures within your dungeon act according to their unique wants and desires. Then you would have to adjust the environment accordingly (resources used, grown, and so on). Extending this operation out logically your players would act for one round and then the hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of creatures populating the dungeon would have to go with each individual acting separately of the whole. In other words your players would have their turn and three months later they would take their next action. 

It's because of the impossibility of the Ideal Dungeon that most Dungeon Masters actually run Dynamic Dungeons, where the creatures react to the players actions, or Static Dungeons, where the creatures are always in their assigned locations. Tomorrow we'll talk more about each of them and their benefits and drawbacks for play.

Feel like you're missing something?
Part 1: The Ideal Dungeon is a Lie (and Probably Made of People)


  1., are you referring specifically to underground fantasy environments when you say dungeons?

    'Cause my cities, space stations, starships, and subterranean societies work exactly as you describe above.

    Do people not normally do that?

    1. How do they work? Where each individual person within the city is treated as an individual and acts independently of all others?

    2. Let's take a look at a real life city so we have a frame of reference. I vote for New York City, NY, since I live there.

      According to the Census Bureau, the population estimate for New York City, as of 2013 , is 8,405,837. I am one of those people. That is not NY State, that is New York City alone. It does include all five boroughs: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan (where I live), Queens and Staten Island.

      Of those 8 million plus people, how many do you think interact with me personally? Better yet, while many, many of them have an indirect effects on my life, how many do you think directly effect my day-to-day living? Five percent? Maybe?

      Do they all have names? Yes, of course they do. They're people you understand. Do they act independently of each other? I, well I assume so, yes. Do I know what all of those acts are? No. Haven't the foggiest.

      I don't keep track of every last individual in my city, and while many who read this may be gripped by the paranoia that the government follows all the actions of everyone down to what they had for breakfast, I'm pretty sure New York's City Hall does keep track of every last individual either (Criminals and the homeless prove that all the time).

      My game cities are set up to function. They have people, an economic system, a rough demographic, a government, etc. If the players go into a shop to buy something, I know how much it is. I know the shopkeep's name if they ask, and it's the same name he, or she, will have next time the PCs come through that way, and go to that same shop. See, I write it down, and so do they.

      If you stop a Rodian on the streets of Mos Eisley in a Star Wars campaign I'm running, I know his name, why he is there, and where he is heading off to even if you do so 'randomly'. He's Reedlo by the way. He works at the speeder repair shop in Anchorhead.

      Stop a Vulcan woman, and her young son, in the marketplace of ShiKahr, capital of Vulcan, and she, T'Von is her name, will gladly point you in the direction of the Tellarite Embassy.

      I know the layout of all the major cities of my D&D-But-Not world of Aerth, and most of the minor ones. I know who lives there, who works there, who you are likely to meet, less likely to meet, and unlikely to meet.

      All the while, as you meander about looking for supplies, or information, or whathaveyou, the town wood carver is working on an order for a table, the blacksmith is shoeing a horse for the Duke's nephew (free of charge of course), and Vagrant Shadow slides from doorway to alley to behind gathered barrels of ale, or oil.

      The Vagrant Shadow? Oh it's harmless. A shadow, perhaps that of a beggar or other poor unfortunate, free and untethered to any mortal form. The town folk could be rid of it I'm sure, if they thought it prudent, but they'd just as soon let it be. The Chief Constable claims it sometimes stops by his window in the late evening, to whiff the steam from his tea and whisper secrets that have proven most helpful in thwarting the thieves guild.

      To all these places, I am a local. I know them like a native. I don't need charts or tables. I know what they grow, or build, or supply. I am aware of what it takes to sustain them. If New York City functions, if London does, if Rome did under Caesar, surely these fictitious lands are no different.

    3. See this is one more reason why I need to find a way to play with you.

      Anyway, what you're describing is more akin to the Dynamic Dungeon that I'll be talking about later than the Ideal. So I should probably go ahead and write that so we can reasonably continue this conversation . . .

  2. My question is: what's that point into going into all of that detail about dungeon ecology and the interaction between its groups of inhabitants if--

    A. You're not going to publish the dungeon.
    B. Your PCs are going to trash the place and alter the environment anyway.
    C. You don't have the time to do this.

    A little bit of this is fine, each according to his or her needs. Yet, I feel, unless you're going to get the dungeon published someday for a different audience besides your players, you'd better really enjoying doing all that work so it won't feel like a waste of time.

    1. Often I think that the people who really want to do things like the Ideal Dungeon have this idea that they're going to publish it all and everyone the world over is going to celebrate the level of detail. Too bad things like that don't happen very often, if at all.

  3. Don't obsess and dont do more preparation that you need to give every one a fun game

  4. Ideal Dungeon is like Denial, a miniature city in a bottle called Kandor.

  5. I've toyed with this idea from time to time but never quite got it working to my satisfaction for a game as complex as D&D. Science Fiction games are ofter a bit easier, as are non-RPGs or games with a very limited role playing aspect. They tend to run at a higher level of abstraction which simplifies my approach.

    You don't have to name and detail all of the monsters & NPCs, only the ones you already have. The rest exist as abstract mathematical equations in a computer simulation and only need to be instantiated when the PCs interact with them.

    The problem is that a D&D world is as complex as you want to make it. But the more "realism" you add to a computer simulation, the more likely it is to spin out of control and start generating absurd and useless results. Or crash & burn.

    1. Are science fiction games that much easier to do it with though? In my experience you tend to need less realism in the best one, but then I've only gotten to play in two so I might have too small of a sample to accurately form an opinion.

  6. Interesting post. It makes me think of old SPI monster games like "Campaign for North Africa" which had the reputation of trying to model everything in the minutest detail. All of North Africa with battalion-sized units at a scale of 1 hex equals 5 miles requiring a 3' x 10' playing surface and about 1500 hours to play the full campaign. SPI apparently advertised that "the game's Italian troops required additional water supplies so that they could prepare their pasta" (though this was likely a joke slipped into the marketing). Never played it myself, but it had the reputation of being the ultimate tabletop simulation and utterly unplayable.

    1. Man I've never heard of that thing before. I wonder if anyone has played it?

  7. I tried once. It almost took longer to set up than I had to play. And it took up so much space we couldn't leave it in my friend's basement for the month or two it would have taken to finish.

    I did actually play through something almost as crazy once. A guy at the local gaming store sponsored an overly ambitious Starfleet Battles campaign. I had the Lyrans (a minor race of cat people on the far side of the Klingon empire. The never actually appeared in the show, They were one of several new races invented for SFB.) At the climax of my war with the Kzinti we had a battle that involved 175 of my ships against 230 of his. SFB is a tactical ship to ship combat game. Typical scenarios involve 2-3 ships, almost never more than 10.

    1. Wow! Was the Starfleet Battles game fun?

    2. Parts of it were fun but as I said, it was overly ambitious and once we got into the middle game it bogged down into more accounting than fun. The people playing the Federation, Klingons & Romulans dropped out because they were just not equipped to keep track of the number of ships they were building and moving around.

      About a year after this game fell apart, the company released a strategic-level version of what we were trying to do called Federation and Empire. It dealt with the war on a fleet level rather than an individual ship level, and even at that scale, the board was smaller and far less counters were involved.

      SFB in fun, but it's a tactical scale game designed for small battles. We were trying to do a galaxy wide war.