Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Early Morning Thoughts on Dungeons

I've noticed lately that I am increasingly becoming convinced that the Dungeon adventure - by which I mean an actual fucking Dungeon and not the woods, cities, and multitude of hellscapes that so many of us have taken to calling dungeons lately - has gone by the wayside. Sure there are the occasional modules produced or the oddball outlier who stands to the side with his mega-dungeon; but as for the traditional kick in the door and kill all the monsters fare? 


Why is that do you think? Why have we gone away from the traditional dungeon crawl in favor of these increasingly far flung adventure locations that we call dungeons yet are anything but dungeons? 

I don't like it.


  1. I'm not sure. As both a player and a GM my favorite locale is an actual, "traditional" underground dungeon. Nothing really ever seems so threatening and menacing (i.e. fun) as that. But if I had to hazard a guess, I suspect other people who have racked up more playing hours than I have may simply have done dungeons enough that they've gotten blasé about it. But that's just a guess, and I'm way far from hitting that point myself.

  2. If we're speaking of D&D primarily, a lot of what's been happening over the years is a focus on story and character development. Many years ago, the game was almost adversarial in approach between the DM and the players. The dungeon was one of the best ways to challenge those players and try to kill them, for lack of a better analogy. However, starting with 2nd edition, I believe, the authors, as well as the many players and DMs out there, started to realize that this doesn't have to be an adversarial relationship.

    Sure, killing the monsters and taking their stuff is a blast, for a while. Eventually, people started asking questions like, "Why is that dungeon here?" and "Who built it?" and "Where are they now?" Those questions really opened up the game to becoming an interactive story game, instead of a theater of the mind combat game. Today, you need a reason for the characters to risk their necks by crawling around underground, other than kill the monsters and take their stuff.

    I like both styles of play. Kill and take is fun every now and again, but dammit if I don't like telling an epic story with my players.

    1. I think I have to agree with this. Though I started out with the Basic and dungeon delving at age 7 or 8, my formative gaming years as a teen coincided with 2nd Edition and Dragonlance (I liked the books and the setting but we never followed along with the modules) By that time the idea of story was more prevalent. The art I was looking at, in the Handbooks and Dragon Magazine and elsewhere focused on more exotic locations than just dungeons. I wanted to play in those locations, not just Dungeons. My current group only occasionally finds ourselves in dungeons and those are usually quite a slog, though I think that has more to do with playing on grids in 3.5 Ed as opposed to Dungeons in and of themselves. I do like the idea of Adventuring in the dark and dangerous dungeons of Old-School. where you had to keep track of torches and spells. Where a peaceful night's rest wasn't guaranteed so you might want to head back into town. Unfortunately I go along with the group and that's just not how it is. I think what I really need is a good-old-fashioned OSR group.

  3. I'm a bit unclear on this. In the OSR there is no shortage of dungeon based modules being produced. Pacesetter Games, Freakshow Games, Expeditious Retreat and Frog God alone have plenty, and more in production.

  4. I almost always agree with you Charles, but here I have to differ.

    Dungeons are almost always boring... Especially large ones. I've already posted about my dislike of mega-dungeons, but even smaller ones can be a drag.

    This may just be because not many authors write interesting ones. Without different terrain, or other unusual features, dungeons are often "meh".

    For my own preferences, if a dungeon takes more than 3 sessions to run, that is too many. There are exceptions, but in general, a "clear out the monsters" mission is not that much fun to me anymore unless there is something else really cool or unique about the scenario.

    I do still throw in small crypts or underground ruins when I DM, but they tend to be less than 10 areas, with only a sprinkle of encounters (1/2 dozen give or take).

    This is probably also do to more story-driven games as others have noted. I'm interested in getting to the next plot point rather than spending session after session grinding through a dungeon crawl.

    "Because it's there" used to be a good enough reason to do a dungeon crawl. Not anymore. There needs to be a reason for its existence and it should have some relevance to the campaign, or it seems to be a waste of time, especially since our sessions as adults are 4 hours or less... When we were kids, we thought nothing of playing D&D for 6 to 8 hours straight almost every weekend (and kids today have lots of other activities to distract them).

    Those days are over.

    1. I see your statement "dungeons are boring," and raise you...
      ...CHARACTERS are boring.

      I was 'batting for the other team' for years in terms of the "story versus crawl" debate, and I have played dozens upon dozens of games with hundreds of players from all across the US -- home games and convention games and internet games, on forums, by email, via Skype, and so forth.

      And I have met VERY few players who could create a solid, interesting, playable character right out of the box. And fewer still who could actually play these characters without pitching a fit when things didn't go their way. AND FEWER STILL who could do the above AND do it in the context of an adventuring party.

      The horrible truth is that while anyone may claim to WANT a story, there are few players who can PLAY a story. They don't want to play it, they want story-time. They want the GM to tell them a story about their character.

      There's no game. They don't want to play. They don't want to BE their imaginary character doing amazing things, they want other people to TELL THEM how amazing their character is.

      It's the difference between has-beens and never-will-bees. There are a lot of us out there who forged great characters upon the ashes of dozens of failed attempts -- who made one truly great character -- and then there are all the people who want that but without putting in any of the work.

      CAN you roleplay "for the story?" Yes, but you have to beat the hell out of your players. I've done it. I ran a year-long "story" campaign in which the players created characters with elaborate backgrounds and goals -- and subsequently forgot or ignored all their loving, handcrafted details.

      It was an arduous, painstaking, unrewarding experience and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

      Story emerges from GAME. If you don't have a game, you won't get your "story." Instead you'll get a bunch of spoiled, selfish players running amok, causing mischief because they've never had to work for any of what makes their PC "special."

      They have ZERO investment in their PCs because they don't know what anything cost. They don't have a context for the heroics they're trying to portray. Or the villainy, if the group swings that way. Or even the "moral ambiguity." Because none of it matters. They didn't struggle to survive a dungeon and so they don't respect anyone who did. It's a shallow and pathetic way to play the game.


    2. The characters my players play aren't boring, which, at least for us, is why dungeons are.

      How many social interactions and personal subplots get explored while the average dungeon is? How much of the politics of the milieu (which the PCs are intrinsically involved in) get addressed while you'll down there throwing goblin squatters out of someone's abandoned basement?

      Aside from the relative sameness of dungeons as a setting environment, there is the fact that the story and characters my players want to investigate and interact with just aren't usually found in caverns perfectly carved out to have 10x10 paths through them.

    3. RE: Barking Alien
      Please realize how rare your situation is, and how lucky you are.

      As to social interactions and personal subplots -- these sorts of things are regularly explored in typical megadungeons, which traditionally feature numerous racial and social factions to ally or war with in the course of exploring the dungeon.

      "Perfectly carved 10x10 paths" are indicative of poor dungeon design, and aren't representative of "average" dungeons, and "throwing goblin squatters out of someone's abandoned basement" is actually an example of a typical STORY-based event, rather than a typical dungeon encounter.

      So, yeah. :/


    4. Sorry, as I noted, dungeons and the settings that use them, aren't my thing. Perhaps dungeons have changed a lot last I played in a game that used them.

      Sadly, that last time was the same as the time before it, and the time before that. And the time before that, ad nauseam, for over 37 years with different GMs.

      The goblin squatters reference wasn't a story, it was a sarcastic metaphor. My apologies Drax. ;)

    5. Saying, "to each, their own" feels like a cop-out but also appropriate to this situation. Dungeons have always been fascinating to me for a number of reasons -- which is not to say I haven't played in some really awful dungeons. I've played with a lot of lousy GMs before, which is why I tend to volunteer rather than leave it to someone who clearly doesn't want the job. *shrug*

      I like solving puzzles and talking to every monster I meet -- and the dungeon just happens to be the perfect environment for that.


  5. And good riddance!


    In truth, I haven't really noticed a lack of Dungeons or extensive mislabeling. Perhaps that's because the D&D/Pathfinder approach to Medieval Fantasy just ain't my scene daddiy-o.

    Personally, I abhor the dungeon crawl. For me it was an overused environment and scenario locale back in 1986. With the exception of the occasional derelict starship or space station, maintenance tunnels, or sewer systems, I try to avoid dungeons. I almost never use them in my fantasy games.

  6. RE: Where have all the dungeons gone?

    I think a great deal of the problem comes from gimmicky and half-hearted dungeon design. Rather than being evocative, thought-provoking delves beneath the earth, many dungeons are weird, pointless deathtraps pulled out of thin air by GMs who'd rather being playing than running the game.

    I've had the misfortune of playing in a number of games where the GM just didn't care. He (or she!) didn't want to put the time in, didn't want to prep, didn't want to challenge the PCs. They were afraid of PC death sending the table into an uproar, and they were generally "cowardly GMs." Too afraid to do "the predictable thing" of running a basic encounter with GOBLINS.

    I think part of the problem is players not knowing how to HOST a dungeon, or how to PLAY a dungeon. If we were lucky, we figured out how to run a proper deathtrap when we had time to invest in learning as kids -- if not, we had to hope we learned about wilderness survival or emergency preparedness as boy scouts or whatever.

    Most players just don't get it. They don't WANT to be challenged because they don't like doing anything "hard" that they don't just succeed at right away. They want something safe and repeatable like an MMORPG or JRPG quest, where they're ASSURED a certain minimum amount of success for their time invested.

    They're too afraid to FAIL enough to learn how to SUCCEED. And so they don't get anything out of a challenge.

    At the same time, GMs are too worried about the players getting bored with a predictable dungeon, and so they try to pull the rug out from under them -- but doing this with. Every. Single. Encounter. If NONE of the encounters are predictable, then the players can never prepare for them. Every encounter is a crapshoot.

    OF COURSE the dungeon is stupid and boring and random and meaningless. That's how they're being run. Because the GM is unimaginative and cowardly. OF COURSE the characters are selfish, cowardly, murder-hobos. That's how they're being played. Because the players are whiny, self-important jerks who think every character they crap out is gold.

    A certain amount of dungeon MUST be rote -- dungeons must have a degree of familiarity so players can develop expectations. 60-80% of dungeons MUST be the same, so that the remaining 20-40% can blow our minds. And it's HARD to run "same-y" dungeons.

    But the thing is, if those FAMILIAR elements aren't there, then no one learns how to deal with the unexpected, much less contend with the practical elements of dungeon-crawling.

    And, some characters have to die. Call it a sacrifice on the altar of character development. Some PCs must die so that others might live to become great.

    How can you HONESTLY play a brooding, unfriendly lone wolf character if you NEVER see any of your friends die? I mean seriously. What do you have to brood about? All you do all the time is win. You SHOULD be the most arrogant and self-assured jerkface on the planet. You and your friends stomp all over monsters like nobody's business.

    I mean, really.


  7. The dungeon is dead! Long live the dungeon!

    Seriously though, there is no other place that I would rather explore than a mega-dungeon. Of course, a good mega-dungeon should feel like you are exploring a world. You will have machine levels, bottle cities, and portals to Wonderland.

  8. Because we want the game in which we go out and kill bizarre creatures with magic and crude weapons, then steal their treasure, instead of inventing gunpowder or having an industrial revolution to have a rational explanation for everything. And Dungeons are just too difficult to explain. ;-)

  9. @Dither

    You complain a lot about the players and the GM, but my issue with dungeons is far divorced from any problems you note with players or the GM.

    Most published dungeons, as written, suck out of the box regardless of the players or GM. They are absurdly unrealistic, have no real ecology, contain traps that make no sense in placement or mechanism, monsters have no reason to keep living where they are... and 9 times out of 10, they are a series of rail-roady encounters until you get to the boss fight to get the McGuffin. Yawn. Wake me when we get to something interesting.

    That's why they are boring.

    You are right that it is mostly about bad design... but don't blame that on the players and GM. We have lives outside of gaming, often have to rely on published materials from others, and I don't want to spend precious preparation hours trying to put lipstick on a pig.

    1. Well, that effectively displaces any and all guilt.

      It can't be the GM's fault for not having enough time, or for not wanting to invest the time and energy in creating or running a good dungeon. It can't be the player's fault for being self-important or unreasonable.

      I can't see how you'd blame written adventures either, given that you must rely upon them for not having time to develop your own -- beggars can't be choosers, and all that. So... there isn't really a problem at all, is there?

      No, no.

      I'm aware that there are problems with pre-printed stuff but you can't blame everything on published dungeons. Sometimes your GM sucks. Sometimes your players suck.

      What you need to realize though, is that player perceptions of dungeons (i.e. that dungeons are boring, implausible, etc.) are largely going to be based upon how the GM ran the adventure (published or otherwise), and how the players played the adventure.

      Given the ratio of players to published adventures, the balance of probability is that the players screwed up somewhere along the line, ruining the experience for each other and themselves -- rather than the adventures themselves being bad.


  10. The fact is: this is like arguing over Miller High Life vs. Sweetwater 420. This is the South, son, and it was hot in the garden today. Gimme whatcha got cold and the next round's on me.

  11. It could also be that creating dungeons is easy enough you don't really need to buy a module? I find that coming up with interesting stuff -- tricks, traps, non-combat encounters, unusual terrain, etc., is the hard part, and would probably buy a book of tricks & traps etc. but I have much less use for a simple dungeon plan. For example "Death frost doom" -- I consider that a pretty good module, but really most of it is filler anyone could come up with, and the dungeon map (despite winning an award) is pretty pedestrian. What is really useful about it is the handful of locations and traps/tricks that made it unique.
    Also, a lot of the older dungeon modules were pretty good and who wants to compete with them?


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