Last night's game (Trollsmyth's Labyrinth Lord chat game) triggered a minor epiphany for me. Nothing earth-shatteringly major, but it was a bit of a "where have you been all my life!" kind of moment.
Most of the session involved exploring a crumbling elven villa, the sort of standard ruined structure dungeoncrawl that forms a large part of the basic D&D experience. Which I had never, ever done before, to my great sadness. Those closest I've ever come was playing some of those early 3rd edition adventures -- the Sunless Citadel, something about an evil coin, and a few of those free adventures they used to have on the wizards website -- or rather, attempting to play them, since we very rarely ever got to the dungeon itself, and always abandoned the ones we did get to after the first few rooms. And those weren't even really dungeons; I don't know that the word quite applies to small, linear complexes designed specifically to support a single story.
At any rate, we quickly got it into our heads that "dungeon" meant "hack 'n slash," a static complex full of monsters, treasures, and traps, that didn't move around, didn't interact with each other, and didn't suggest any interesting decisions. Monsters were there to be fought, and traps meant rolling dice to see if you'd taken damage. So I spent my first couple years of gaming without any dungeons. Without a whole lot of D&D, even -- we were just as likely to play d20 Modern, or d20 Star Wars -- but when we did play D&D, we were messing around with Drow politics and getting sucked into inexplicable planes of ultimate evil intended as some kind of commentary on typical fantasy tropes. I finally ran a dungeon of my own, but it was just as uninspiring as my early concept would suggest. Fun, sure, since it was a light popcorn game, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Cue the Old School Renaissance. Suddenly, you've got a bunch of people writing about dungeons, not as story-filled lairs (how a lot of the online GMing advice I obsessively read in my early years treated such underground complexes) but as strange places full of mystery, ready to be explored. The idea of a dungeon as fundamentally weird place, that expected the players to explore, move around areas that were too dangerous for them, and solve problems using their own resources rather than in-game ones, was absolutely electrifying. I haven't, despite several bursts of enthusiasm and a few scattered attempts, run something like this of my own, and that's largely because the idea was so completely, deliciously alien to anything I'd gamed before that it's taken me two years to completely understand it.
Through all this, I never gave much thought to playing through a dungeon myself. Most of the other GMs I know aren't interested in them, and at any rate, I don't play much. (I have this weird idea that I don't like it, at least when compared to how much I enjoy DMing. More on that soon.) When the opportunity came up in Trollsmyth's game, I was certainly intrigued, but mostly thought of it as a way to get a better feel for dungeon design -- to see the beast in actual play, as it were.
Which I did. I've now got a much better sense for exactly why certain dungeon features ought to be arranged in the ways they usually are -- the values of interconnectivity, for instance -- and a much better idea of what a typical bought of dungeon exploration is supposed to look like. But all that, while important, is also missing the point a bit.
Dungeons are fun. Exploring dungeons is fun. I've tended to fixate on the gonzo/weird/inexplicable aspect of a traditional megadungeon, but they're fun for reasons even more basic than that. Mapping out a place, learning about it and how it was built, finding neat things in it, figuring out where the danger points are and trying to deal with them -- fun.
And I've been missing it, my entire gaming life.