Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Some More Nice Things About Dungeons

A corridor made of grey stone, ten feet wide and sixty feet long.

What's in there?

The only thing in there--the only thing in the classic, platonic dungeon is what you (the DM) put in there or what you (the players) brought with you.

You come to a town.

You come to the edge of a forest.

What's in there?

All kinds of stuff. The players are going to assume the forest will have trees, mushrooms, grass, lichens, maybe birds, hidden nests, dirt underneath the grass, rocks, and millions of other things that might tactically or thematically complicate the situation if they decide to get interested in them--and the same thing times a thousand in a city or a town. The adventurer in a town has access to all kinds of resources that you may or may not have thought of when writing the adventure.

This makes adventures based around the classic dungeon (and any interior space you use in a game which resembles a classic dungeon--a stripped-down Death Star, a Tron-like computery world, etc.) fundamentally unlike all other kinds of adventure.

A dungeon (at least a classic dungeon -- if you make a dungeon out of a spooky old house where people still live this may not be true) is just this big geometric platonic space with no features except those you decided would be fun. It's almost perfectly equivalent to starting with your little piece of graph paper and slowly drawing in rooms and monsters and traps and features.

Unoriginal Observations on Dungeons and Plot

In an adventure where the players are free to roam a civilized or uncivilized area, what, if anything, relegates the players to only those areas which the DM has put in effort ahead of time is plot.

As is true of many location-based adventures, a dungeon doesn't need a pre-designed plot because the only things in it are interesting things or at least things the DM assumes are interesting. As has also been pointed out before, limiting things in this way actually, paradoxically offers a great deal of freedom since no matter which way the players turn within the dungeon, there's something presumably game-worthy there.

Front-Loading the Artificiality

Basically by having/letting/suggesting that the PCs go down into a dungeon the DM is saying "Here are a number of ideas I'm willing to run with, you pick the ones that interest you and if you combine them or do something with them that I wasn't prepared for I totally accept the responsibility to keep going with it anyway because it was my idea in the first place that these things were interesting."

By having/letting/suggesting the PCs go around outside or in any kind of normal space the DM is often---whether he/she knows it or not--obliged to say in subtle ways "Here's where the adventure is, if you stray too far, I might get boring."

Now, naturally, at this point we'd talk about "winging it" which is all well and good and fine and often results in awesome adventures but often the players are as interested in getting to the well-thought-out stuff that the DM has got ready as the DM is and so they have to make a decision about whether they want to access whatever pre-thought-out creativity the DM (or the published scenario the DM is using) has in store or start a kind of totally improvised game that they know they will be constantly aware is going to be a totally improvised game.

The dungeon adventure is an agreement to go back and forth about certain things which are provided by the players in the form of their characters and what they are carrying and provided by the DM in the form of whatever he/she drew into the map. However, within those bounds both sides are pretty much agreeing to play ball all the way.

The not-dungeon adventure involves constant conscious attention from the DM to either keep the thing on track or to decide that she/he can deal with the thing not being on track and constant semi-conscious attention from the players to finding reasons to want to find the plot or trying to decide whether the improvisation they've pushed off into is as interesting as they thought it would be once they decided to ignore the plot.

Neither one of these is better than the other. I've got no problem letting my players run around outside.

I just think it's worth explictily pointing out that the physical space a game is supposed to be taking place in has profound effect on RPG design and the flow of the game at the table, and on what an RPG or a given day of RPGing is about. The transition from battlefield adventures to dungeon adventures essentially created RPGs as we known them--the transition from dungeon adventure to wilderness or town adventures introduced the whole idea of "plot" (in the sense of something pre-outlined rather than emergent) to RPGs.

Non-dungeon adventures generally require the DM start to employ a whole set of cinematic tricks which are now considered standard. It's possible to build a dungeon adventure completely around the idea of proper managment of resources over a sometimes-elided amount of time, in a more open scenario the DM has to constantly make desisions about whether to make the players role-play all the way through their taxi cab ride or just say "ok you're there" and whether to make them pay the rent or ignore the landlady and just go ahead and move them to the next scene that the DM thinks will be dramatic. This can have all kinds of unexpected effects, including tipping the PCs off to where the plot is when, in-game, they shouldn't know.

Dungeons are just as artificial as pre-fab plots and cinematic techniques, but the dungeon takes all the artificiality of a DM-constructed world and front-loads it--you accept that you're going to a place that's all stone and there's only a few things in it, and after that, it's often all seamless.

Dungeons And Information

Before it's been explored, the dungeon (or any interior space with a limited number of exits which you expect to keep the players busy for a decent chunk of game time) functions like a horror or investigative situation. What's there? Could be anything, we'll have to open the door and see. The DM has information, the players don't. Limited information is also the only way to run classic horror or detective stories if you want the players to feel anything like the way that the protagonist in these stories presumably feel.

It's exciting because Hey, look, the unexpected! It also puts all the power in the GM's hand.

However, once a dungeon room has been explored it switches genres and it now becomes a tactical element--or whatever the PCs want to use it as. It's empty and they're heavily armed, so basically the PCs now "own" that territory--in a way they don't necessarily "own" places and things they discover ouside the dungeon situation. For example, you find a room and there's a prisioner there--the players can decide to use this prisoner to test traps and stuff. (Or they can decide to ask him/her all about his or her in-laws--point is, s/he is now something they get to play with.)

Information is the key to the players being able to play any kind of tactical game (you are here I'm here, there's a wall here, the monster is over there, etc) and once a dungeon area has been explored the players have a fairly clear tactical canvas to play with in a way that just saying "ok, you're on a street here's an ogre" doesn't provide. The dungeon has a thing here and a trap there and a pit here, the dragon's in this room, that's the sum total of what you have to work with--go!

Dungeons and Problem-Solving

This points up another interesting thing about dungeons:

Tactical play and also "PCs decide what issues they want this story to be about"-type play can't usually happen at exactly the same instant as horror and mystery because tactical play and player-interest-driven play both rely on the players having lots of information and horror and mystery rely on the players not knowing what's just around the corner. However, the dungeon, by definition, must have two states--the explored and the unexplored--so the dungeon adventure has phases that allow both halves of the equation.

Outside the dungeon, this kind of plot structure also appears in a lot of places--for example, in certain noir movies and books. They start out with mysteries being revealed (in game terms--GM revealing to players stuff s/he has already written) and move on to the detective using those revealed elements--the mob boss's secretary, the photographer with the horrible secret--to foil the villain.

It also appears in adventure stories--the hero discovers a bizarre world that operates by bizarre laws and then uses those very laws and rules to defeat some big baddie occupying it.

The difference in game terms between the dungeon adventure and the outside adventures is that the dungeon requires very little real work on the part of the GM to make this interesting "use the rules of the weird place against that weird place" alchemy happen--all the GM has to do is provide enough details that do enough different kinds of things and any PC worth his/her salt will figure a way to recombine them in a way the GM hadn't thought of, whereas in an "outdoor" adventure there's always the posibility that the PCs will bring in some resource that is less interesting but equally effective.

Dungeons as Limited-Resource Scenarios

The reason is because the dungeon is, like the "ticking bomb" and the "bus can't go under 50mph" situation, a limited resource scenario. They make it hard for the PCs to just go to some setting-implied off-screen source of authority or weapons or money or doctors to solve problems.

If the DM wants Chinatown-like twists and doublebacks outside a limited-resource scenario she/he has to either accept that they might not happen or stick them in him/herself, whereas this kind of necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention reasoning is encoded into the basic premise of limited-resources scenarios. If the players are running around normally, this is harder to do without making the situation seem artificially restricted ("The gun store is closed. The glass is too thick to break. You see a police rover.")

In traditional art there are basically two kinds of sculpture: the kind where you take a chunk of stuff and carve things away until it's the shape you want it to be--"subtractive" sculpture--and the kind where you pile up material until it's shaped the way you want it to be shaped--"additive" sculpture.

In an "outside" adventure, the DM has to think of every single boring way the problems could be solved (police, doctors, friends, cars, trains, puzzle-solving experts) and cut them out of the situation ahead of time or right there in front of the players, like a subtractive scultpture. It can be hard because you have to subtract away every single thing that could make the situation boring. So you're sitting around thinking about boring. In a dungeon, it's additive--there's nothing but a blank piece of graph paper, to which you add only fun.

In other words, in a dungeon it's relatively easy to create a situation where the solution to the problems provided (or created) has to be interesting and unexpected. And that's neat.


  1. I understand your dilemma about having to plan for real-world (read: boring and practical) solutions to the puzzles and challenges you've brewed up in an open-ended, outside game. In an open world, someone will be invariably think, "we need to get something off the roof? Can I just HIRE a thief to get up there?" Um...yes?

    I had never thought about it in terms of additive and subtractive, though.

    I play Cthulhu with a group of my friends (all 20-somethings pseudo-hipsters from NYC). I ran a brief campaign a while ago, and was really excited about embracing the desperate tone of Cthulhu by trying to create a specific limited-resource scenario, even though my PCs were used to 1930's international jet-setting. My plan was to make all of them come into contact with a stone that infected their dreams, forcing them into new conflicts whenever they chose to rest. I was trying to make the limited resource their own sanity, hoping to push them to desperation in a venue where money wouldn't make any difference.

    They were not too keen. I mean, they had a good time, but at the end of every session, there was this sense that they...still weren't out of the woods. Which is exactly what I wanted them to feel. But they wanted the feeling of accomplishment that comes from looting the last room of the cultists compound, dynamiting the foundation, and smoking stogies on the plane back to the States. Alas.

    It was a big awakening for me, and one that made me learn the value of co-willing suspension of disbelief that occurs between GM and PCs. "A letter arrives. It tells you to go here." Ok. Lame, yes. But, in some ways, it's the wink and nod towards the "dungeon" that will be less boring than everywhere else. In that regard both PC and GM are out for the same thing.

    Which is perhaps the tip of a LARGER lesson learned, which is what aspects of play different players enjoy. Your JLA-style multi-line scenario from a week or two ago hi-lights this well. More than just, some people like fighting, some people like talking, there's really a sense - some people like thinking up epic, cinematic things to do in game, some people really like customizing their character through deliberate choices, some people really like XP. Everyone likes loot.

    Anyway, many of the conventions of RPGs often seem as short-sighted decisions, but I frequently am reminded of the method behind the madness.

  2. interesting--
    i feel like one of the things about your dream scenario (especially if it goes on for a long time) is it continually denies them things they thought they'd get to do when they made their characters--i feel it's not so much "some people like talking" (though that can be true) and it sounds more like "people mentally prepare for a certain kind of range of activity" and if certain things they signed on for are always left out, then they want--not necessarily to "win" but just because they got excited about certain possibilities.

    'course i wasn't there, so y'never know.

  3. No, absolutely. In the dream-world their abilities and characteristics were specifically different from their Real World ones. I knew that I, myself, as a player would have enjoyed that kind of problem-solving, the kind you can't prepare for, but my players reacted exactly the way you said. They wanted to play with their characters and the abilities they had chosen. They didn't want to play with new other abilities (even if they chose those as well).

    There were mildly alternate rules to the dream-world. And just like you've talked about how far you can stray from "playing D&D" before you need to tell everyone that's what you're doing, by me introducing rules that were far enough from what the players expected...without giving them a new set of rules...yeah. They felt as though they didn't know the terms of the game. Turns out, not a good feeling.

  4. There's an interesting psychological element to dungeons as well, something we humans have been teasing ourselves with since prehistoric times. The "descent into the underworld" was an important part of early rites and rituals and there's a lot of cool neotlithic sites around the world you can visit that were designed to exploit the highest degree of this sensation. I think RPG dungeon exploration taps into that to some extent.

  5. This is probably my favorite post I've seen on your blog so far. :)

    I like that limit resource scenarios, like a dungeon, make the game more about a puzzle/problem solving type of creativity. With open-scope scenarios, like the town adventure, they seem to be more about an improvisation type of creativity.

    Both are fun, but they skew things towards different types of games.

    The exception to that is when you have a town/wilderness adventure with show-piece battles in which you once again turn things into a micro-dungeon (often with map and key) with limited resources and scope of action. A lot of Cyberpunk and Shadowrun adventures tended to be like that.

  6. Interesting points.
    What i liked best about dungeons (when i was running D&D 3.5 in FR) was the possibility to integrate a given dungeon into an ecosystem that would make sense based on a setting-related in-game logic, if i wanted to.
    Dungeons can be very cool if "done properly"(in sense of population and architectural layout), but can be horribly boring if they come across as "yet another dungeon to explore and loot".
    What does "done properly" mean?
    For example, a dungeon's dwellers' behavior and occurence should be as plausible as possible.
    Example given:
    A dungeon populated by Duergar should not at the same time be infested with dangerous nonintelligent critters stronger than the Duergar, because it might result in illogical results.
    Another example:
    We have a subterranean dwelling formerly inhabited by swirfneblin, but some years ago a mindflayer telepath/thrallherder discovered the settlement and started to overthrow and telepathically/psionically enslave the otherwise good or neutral aligned svirfneblin to rebuild&guard the site to fit their new dark master's wishes.
    What i mean: The inhabitants of a dungeon should not contradict each other's existence. Like, for example, a displacer beast should not be put into the same dungeon as a blink dog, which are natural foes of each other.

    But that's just my oppinion on dungeons, which i mostly have abandoned today, because i find it harder to come up with good, plausible explanations for a dungeon, its purpose, layout and dwellers than to "wing" a more "free" adventure. Luckily my players take most of the plothooks i present them with.
    True, a "dungeonless" adventure needs more preparation, but it's more to my liking (and that of my players) to have event-based adventures instead of site-based adventures(like most dungeons that don't come along with an event-driven plot) that, from my experience tend to develop into flip-flopping between TPK and utter boredom, sometimes combined with "We come back, when we've ammo-ed up and rested!".

    But it all depends on your point of view, as far as evry terrain, even modern city alleys or a spaceship or alien planet, can be seen as a dungeon of sorts.

  7. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    I noticed you didn't really mention setting, but I think it plays a really important role in exactly how those out-of-the-dungeon adventures go down.If you're playing in a standard, vanilla version of medieval times with some pretty straightforward fantasy elements thrown in then, yeah, it's pretty easy for players to turn almost anywhere to solve their problems, as you said.That's why I like the half-implied Dying Earth feel of pre-Greyhawk D&D - it's such a strange, malfunctioning, brutal, anything could happen type of environment - it's harder to take things for granted.

    But then, the dungeon has this to one degree or another too. Dungeons that conform to Gygaxian naturalist principles are easier for players to plan for/"solve" than dungeons than that work more like Philotomy's mythical underworld - which work more like Alice's wonderland and where literally anything could happen at any time.

  8. caleb--
    while i know the "anything can be a dungeon" line (and think it's mostly true), an important point i make in the beginning is that a city alley or space ship or alien planet has LOTS of features that platonic dungeons don't (that is, that are "presumed" rather than placed there by one or the other party)--even if the PCs and DM choose to ignore those features.

  9. As always Zak, a fascinating and accessible analysis of one of the most basic and accepted concepts in our hobby. On the subjects of 'Dungeon and Information' and 'Dungeon as Limited Resource Scenario' you are spot on.

    Now, I know people are going to think I'm being different just to be different again but I have an alternative view of some elements of the dungeon as an adventure setting.

    While I love a good dungeon (though usually in the form of a derelict spaceship or supervillain's trap filled hideout), I see them as so much more limiting on the player and GM than 'open world' adventures set in a forest, desert, town or city.

    "The adventurer in a town has access to all kinds of resources that you may or may not have thought of when writing the adventure."

    True but (a bit of devil's advocate here) why write an adventure with that limition on the action? I prefer to create scenarios and situations and let the players creatively overcome the obstacles presented. If they reason it might be a good idea to go to the city's library and look up info on a location or monster or they purchase some item and use it in an imaginative way later, kudos to them.

    "...at this point we'd talk about "winging it" which is all well and good and fine and often results in awesome adventures but often the players are as interested in getting to the well-thought-out stuff that the DM has got ready as the DM is and so they have to make a decision about whether they want to access whatever pre-thought-out creativity the DM (or the published scenario the DM is using) has in store or start a kind of totally improvised game that they know they will be constantly aware is going to be a totally improvised game."

    Why are these two styles looked at as seperate? I prepare ideas, villains (and their plots and goals), vehicles, devices, etc. and then wing it throughout the actual game. None of my players has any clue what's been prepped and what part is off the cuff. Ever since I was in High School that's been my style. I know my world, its characters and its elements and the PCs engage these elements in whatever way they choose. I guess I'm saying that in my mind improvised and pre-thought-out are not mutually exclusive but more like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Two ingredients combined to make one treat. Ninety-Nine times out of a hundred I'd wager the players have no idea if I pre-generated the peanut butter and made up the jelly on the fly or vice versa.

  10. barking--
    what i'm saying is:

    Limiting the resources CAN BE interesting.

    All games are based on interesting forms of limits.

    If you play every week, it can be intersting to do it in different ways.

    Also: regarding "winging it vs. not" of COURSE they mix together, but sometimes a player is going off into a zone that they find interesting and they know they're doing it because it was their idea in the first place. Like, out of nowhere, a PC says "I want to find a unicorn". Maybe your players dontl do that, but the point is, it's a possibility. now the player's looking for a unicorn and knows anything I do to make that intersting is probably improvised.

  11. Great write up Zak - I think you nutshelled your main point here perfectly with your "adding to" and "subtracting from" analogy, with regard to dungeon vs. wilderness/town adventure creation. I think that's spot on, and being more conscious of this aspect of design should make one better for it.

  12. There's always going to be a lot of improvising in an RPG, but when the GM is improvising the architecture of the game world itself rather than just the details it shifts things to a different style of play for everyone at the table, whether they're aware of it or not.

    Playing from a map + key (e.g. the classic 'dungeon') is a different sort of gameplay from a 'winging it' scenario, even with a best-of-the-best GM. Neither is necessarily better or worse than the other, but the game does play a bit differently.

  13. Playing from a map + key (e.g. the classic 'dungeon') is a different sort of gameplay from a 'winging it' scenario, even with a best-of-the-best GM.
    This is not me arguing against you, just something that's just occurred to me, and I think is slightly different to the "everything is a dungeon" idea, although I might be wrong on that.

    What if you took that dungeon map, and instead of rooms, they're buildings, and instead of corridors, they're city streets?

    Oh balls. Now I write it out, I realise where I've gone wrong, but I'm going to plough ahead anyway because it might be useful. Stream of consciousness and all that.

    So the dungeon is now a city, but the difference is that, unless it's a "working" dungeon, you've got no idea what's in room A or corridor B, whereas if it's a city, you've got an expectation of what's in building A or street B, based on what cities are like. Now, I did think about a post-apocalyptic city or something like that, but even so, there's an expectation of the floorplan of an abandoned cafe, of what items may still be left behind in an office building, even if it's now filled with rad-zombies, and so on.

    It's all about the expectation, isn't it?

    I suppose things would be different in a city like Carcosa, where you really don't know what to expect, but that's a very special case, and not really a city at all.

  14. I asked Dave Arneson about the literary inspiration for the dungeon during the Q&A of his "My Amazing Gaming Group" seminar at Gen Con in 2008. He said he wasn't thinking of the Mines of Moria or Quarmall or any of that stuff I was gassing on about; he'd just figured out it was really hard to prepare a scenario around an open-ended wilderness map, but if you put them underground you could constrain the possibilities and make it a lot easier on yourself to referee.

    It's worth noting, however, that even though I agree that most everyone else recapitulated this in the reverse order, the Blackmoor campaign started in the wilderness with big plot elements like invasions and prophesies before moving into the dungeon. It's also interesting that the first dungeon adventures were battlefields between Lawful and Chaotic teams of players, just like the outdoor wargames; having Dave be both referee and monster-commander was a later development.
    - Tavis