Monday, October 1, 2012

Time to Commit Sacrilege

I don't like dungeon crawls.

That's not entirely true.

I like dungeon crawls.  I just don't like huge dungeon crawls that eat up hours and hours of exploring and that intentionally provide a lot of "gotcha" passages that end up resulting in pointless encounters, traps, and the like.

Now, I figured that some of this was just me running into a few dungeons that could have been more evocative.  But even dungeons that I've seen that are well regarded by the RPG community seem to have a lot of "gotcha" included in them.

I've mentioned before that I ran a lot of fun campaigns out of UnderMountain in the Forgotten Realms.  I think part of that was that the point of UnderMountain was that those empty rooms didn't have to be empty, and that the dungeon had a built in reason for changing and having weird things show up.

The group could wander into an "empty" room, and it might have a magical trap that brought in something horrible and nasty, or it could transport the party to the other side of the world, or any number of things.

I realize a lot of this is probably my own personal ADD.  That, and I hate it when it is painfully obvious that the three giant dungeon levels exist so that when we find things we need to advance the plot that we are sufficient level to deal with the next part of the story.  Why doesn't the story advance when we only gain a level instead of two levels?  Because the dragon is the wrong CR for us to deal with unless we get an extra level.

No matter how well detailed and described the dungeon is, when I realize something like this, the entire dungeon turns into a grind, and I don't see the story or the plot, I see the game mechanics.

Maybe that is part of the charm of older dungeon crawls.  While it wasn't fun to wander around through fifteen rooms, only five of which had anything interesting in them, at least if we went down into the dungeon, we could leave, rest up, spend our treasure, and go back down.  If we wanted to find the shortcut to level two, that's on us, and not planned into the pacing of the story.

When I think of the roots of dungeon crawling, it occurs to me there aren't many dead ends, and even the dead ends tend to be exciting.  Look at any of the places that Indy explored in the Indiana Jones movies.  Where there hours and hours of side tunnels?  Maybe, but we didn't see it.  We saw the rooms where there were puzzles and traps, and we saw about three or four of them before the big payoff.

When Conan explored a lost city and ran into animated statues or undead inhabitants or ape-men, he usually found an entrance, a secret passage, the bad guys, the treasure room, and maybe a shortcut back out so he didn't have to kill all of the bad guys (unless he wanted to) before he could leave.

The Thieves Guildhall in the Fafhrd and Mouser books?  Trap after trap after trap, with guys trying to kill them on top of it.  The dungeon where they ran into the Avatar of Hate?  Trap, treasure, big nasty monster.

Moria from the LOTR?  Secret entrance, room where you find out information, area with an insane number of enemies, dangerous stone bridge, really nasty monster, exit.

I guess to me, this is what dungeons are suppose to emulate.  Yes, the action is contained, and it's a good excuse for a railroad, but at the same time, I think some dungeon designers attempt to couch any claims of a railroad by giving a seemingly infinite number of pointless choices.  If there isn't really more than one way to accomplish the goal, and you just have 20 side passages that are more wrong choices, you aren't creating something that isn't a railroad, you are creating a railroad with a few treadmills built off to the side.

So, yeah, I like dungeon crawls.  I just have ADD.  As a player, don't let me take too long to make a decision before something blows up or monsters or a trap force me one direction or another.  Don't make me have to metagame to figure out that I should have wasted more time to get another level if I figure out a short cut to the Import Thing in the dungeon  (but if you come up with another Important Thing that might be optional, hey, then I have a character reason to stay and get some XP).

As a GM, if you make an adventure with a dungeon in it and want me to run it, there are only so many ways I can describe a room as being interesting if it doesn't have Monsters, Traps, Treasure, or Information in it.

"You see even more amazing dwarven artwork on the walls.  This one appears to detail the ancient rules of the dwarven game of Roshombo."

I also have to say that a lot of this didn't annoy me nearly as much when I wasn't running games that required a grid map.  It becomes painfully obvious that there is nothing in the room when you don't have a map ready to go.  When you have to draw a map, it sometimes makes you less likely to drop something into a room that isn't in the dungeon as written.

So maybe what I need to do is run some dungeons using Dungeon Crawl Classics or 13th Age for a while and see if I can recapture a little bit of the magic of dungeons.

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