Friday, February 20, 2009

It Took Me Eight Years To Figure This Out!

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.


  1. I've had a very similar revelation this year, despite always having a bit of a soft spot for good dungeon crawls.

    I think 2009 is quickly becoming the year of the location-driven adventure!

  2. It's two weeks until my group ventures down into their first old school dungeon. Looking very forward to it. :)

  3. Welcome to the old school - we didn't want to tell anyone but it's really a lot of fun, despite the crust and grumpy exterior stereotypes. :)

    I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to publish this blog post of yours pretty much to every old school forum I'm in. The fun aspect is the thing I wish more people would see in old school.

  4. SuperSooga: Oh, yes. Very, very yes. This is indeed the year of the dungeon.

    Stuart: Good luck!

    Chgowiz: Thanks. I've always thought of the "old school movement," such as it is, as a fairly welcoming group. Never got that "darn kids! get off of my lawn!" vibe that some people have complained about.

    And no, no problem at all. Fun is important -- I don't think anyone talks about it enough. That dialogue has kind of been taken over by "rule of cool" type arguments, which really miss the point.

  5. Eight years. Unreal. Congrats but I'm rather shocked that you didn't learn that dungeons are fun on day one. Kudos to Brian for helping you see the light...err dark.

    Dungeons are controlled chaos where anything goes. In fact, I'd rather roll dice, kill goblins and loot gold in the most stereotypical dungeon possible than sit around role-playing discussions of morality or politics. That you entered a dungeon and saw beyond the stereotype is just a bonus.

  6. Cool post. (Now we just need Axl Rose screeching, "Welcome to the dungeon, gonna die..." [grin])

  7. Excellent...excellent. You can't see me, but I'm steepling my fingers with satisfaction. Welcome to the old ways my friend.

  8. Sham aka Dave: And kudos to you, for writing so eloquently on their virtues. I owe you for that.

  9. Dungeons are nice, if done right, but i've never seen a published dungeon that would fit my needs. So i always had to do them myself. But i sometimes overdid, and about 2-3 times almost had a TPK.
    My group kinda "grew" out of this gaming style and we rather got into a more "sandboxy" style, rather more acting than reacting to dungeon environments.

  10. CalebtheHeretic: Isn't half the fun of a dungeon in the building of it? And one of the best things about dungeon-oriented way is the natural way it transitions into other styles. It's a great way for everyone to learn the ropes and experiment, and then you build the longer term campaign out of what you learn and the things that the players do. That's a process I've been written a fair amount about since I wrote this post, since watching that process in Trollsmyth's games has been really fascinating.