Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Essential Literariness of Dungeons

Newer RPGs are often described as "cinematic". And GMs (and sometimes players) of these games are often encouraged to skip the boring bits and "cut" to the next scene. This is wise--you don't need to see Chewbacca stopping off to buy milk every other adventure.

If new RPGs are "cinematic", what are the old ones?

In addition to being "cinematic", newer RPGs do not necessarily include dungeons--I don't think this is a coincidence.

A dungeon is a lot like a novel: it's a place where the attempt to do anything, no matter how mundane, might be interesting. Joyce made Dublin a dungeon in Ulysses. Every inch a mystery, and you had to crawl it.


Welcome to Dungeon! said...

Note how, quite often, a respected novel will be described as "labyrinthine."

Adam Dickstein said...

As one of those new-fangled, hippie, cinematic GMs, I suppose I could see your point. I do use dungeons somewhat sparingly.

Of course, the Nostromo of Alien was a dungeon of sorts. So was Syndrome's base in The Incredibles. Record of the Lodoss War and Legend of Crystania, two Japanese animated series inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, were chock full of dungeons.

So, dungeons can be like novels or they can be like the best motion pictures, an exciting ride where you never know what around the next turn.

Monty Ashley said...

Yeah, I don't like the tendency of people to use "cinematic" to mean "lots of action scenes." I'd totally play an RPG that played like the movies Russian Ark or Mindwalk or something.

Zak Sabbath said...

@barking and monty

sure, but do you get my point or not?

Monty Ashley said...

I do, and I agree with it. I was going to say that, but I immediately got distracted with trying to figure out the hardest type of movie to turn into a game. I mean, anyone can see how an RPG could play like Scott Pilgrim, but trying to do the equivalent of Aguirre, the Wrath of God sounds way more complicated and weird.

Rath said...

I just wanted to make a few general comments... I've watched every episode of D&D w/ Porn Stars and find it very interesting. I think you're a very good DM who can think on his feet. You're campaign world is also very interesting... everything has a very strange feel to it (flying pig balloons, backwards talking goblins, etc...), almost a heavy metal, dark fantasy slant. Anyway, I like it a lot. The girls are also very fun to watch as they play the game... they say the same comments over and over until it becomes humorous... example, "and I'm raging..." or "I have a high dexterity, I'm good at sneaking". Mandy is probably the best player out of all of them. I'm curious exactly how your game is a hybrid of 1E and 3E rules, it looks mainly 3E except for all the excessive 3E combat and movement rules. Also, I would love to see scanned images (or even close up pictures) of the girls character sheets, perhaps you could post them on this site in the future?

Zak Sabbath said...


if you click the tag "rules" you will see a post in there describing our rules in detail.

Rath said...

Thanks Zak, I'll check that out...

Steve Lawson said...

I, for one, would like to see footage of Chewbacca buying milk.

Pontifex said...

Zak, I think you are observing something real, but looking at it slightly askew.

There is a difference between a written culture and a video culture. The former encourages focused attentive thought, the latter encourages passive emulsive experience.

Cinematic play is, in my view, the abandonment of that focused attentive thought to allow you to drift along with the wind of the story. To reshape reality to fit the moment.

Classic dungeon play is the opposite, you trying to fit yourself into a written fixed structure. It requires analysis, adaptation, and focus. You cant just say "I use a fate point and reshape this". You have to deal with the reality that is there.

See my point?

Zak Sabbath said...


#1 I don;t see any way at all that anything you said conflicts with what I said. Maybe read it again.

#2 Incidentally, however, I DO totally disagree. Both kinds of games can ask for constant attention or "playing on default mode" depending mostly on the people playing the game just like there are brainless books and brainy movies.

Cinematic games can be the GM constantly putting on a geek show to entertain brainless players but it can also be the players taking a hand in doing whatever the system allows to make the scenes -work- cinematically. which is a genuine feat.

Likewise, literary games can be a careful and thoughtful examination of the entire environment and its possibilities or they can be the fighter sitting back while waiting for somebody else to figure out how to open the secret door.

#3 There's nothing wrong with a game where there's room to "coast" a little. Fun is a moody beast obeying a social ebb and flow, and the moment is only judged by the fun had in the moment.

The Cramp said...

Fuck yes. Totally just blew my mind there, honestly. Dublin as dungeon. Fuck. My first response, and I need to think about this correlation you've made more, is that Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise" is a cinematic dungeon crawl.

Wondergecko said...

I think the decision to make a game/campaign cinematic or literary ultimately resides in the hands of the players. Although I've added countless tiny bits of minutiae to my campaign to help flesh out the nature of the world, these all seem to slip by my players; Or, perhaps, I'm doing work that isn't necessary for the experience my players want.
Regardless, I think the DM and PCs ultimately decide the nature of the game, not the rules set.

P.S. I wonder if the conceptualization of newer RPGs as 'cinematic' and their forerunners as 'literary' is due mostly to the reliance of the former on visual aids -be they mats, miniatures, and/or terrain- and the latter on the spoken word: descriptions and narrations of action.

Zak Sabbath said...


I think you're right that the ultimate decision in this (as in all things) depends on who's rolling, but I think the idea that the style of thought dungeons suggest and abet is different than the style of thought that, say, urban investigation scenarios suggest and abet is different.

Seth S. said...

I actually started playing the newer rpg's first, 4.0 dnd being my first, but have since tried out several older games (currently running a villains and vigilantes campaign and it's awesome) and I've found that the older games seem to work better when the GM has to wing things, which is good for our group who tends to do wild plans that are most often out-of-the-box type strategy

and fankly our GM's don't always have time to adequately prepare for a game, myself included

Delta said...

Mostly strongly agree -- but I wouldn't say "novel", I'd say "short stories" (or series thereof).

Of course, I've been reading a lot of original Elric & Conan lately, and just yesterday gave a diatribe of "novels are corrupt and suck, short stories are the real art". So I'm biased.

Nagora said...

I think that what we're talking about here is the "default setting" of the games, not necessarily the capabilities of the game. Read the 4e material and you get a clear lead about what style of play the designers were aiming for. Naturally, new DMs will follow that lead - they probably picked the game up because its presented style appealed.

In my experience, 1e campaigns tend to gradually slide from episodic "Ok, this week you're approached by the local mayor to investigate..." into "I'm going to the shops for milk; anyone want to come along?" over the course of a year or so.

The reason for this is that at the start of the campaign, all the context is coming from the DM but as the years go by the players get to know their characters, the characters interact with the setting and the NPCs and what happens next grows more and more to be the result of the PCs' actions and the DM doesn't need to present a "new episode" any more, s/he just reports the next event that follows on from the last. Even when the DM introduces a plot line, it *has* to fit into the characters' existing context much more smoothly than in the early days when the tapestry of their lives was a lot plainer.

I honestly don't think 4e has to be any different, but I can see that there are some difficulties in the way it is presented. Most of all, the total disinterest in time and the passage of time strongly encourages episodic play and discourages thinking about what happens in the "down-time" of the characters' lives - the DM is definitely encouraged by the books' text to skip that down-time. But s/he doesn't have to.

Adam Dickstein said...

I do get your point and I sorta-kinda agree. Kind of. Maybe.

I just don't like this atmosphere of 'if its based on books its good' and 'if its based on modern media its bad' that you sometimes see among the old schoolers.

I was basically pointing out that while I do understand what you're saying, I don't find the concept married only to the literary medium.

Zak Sabbath said...

'if its based on books its good' and 'if its based on modern media its bad'

Nobody here said that.

ravenconspiracy said...

I think your use of cinematic or literary is not descriptive enough because I think far too many common examples of books or films will fall on the other side if the difference you are trying to define.

Movie, book, or RPG, I think the point is about what inspires and influences the content.

A lot of modern action movies, ancient stories, and 4e D&D gloss over detail - the content is driven by big thematic elements with few small elements - emphasis is often on the scope or drama of the conflict.

Old school D&D, lots of literature (including pulp fantasy), and plenty of older movies often have circumstance driven by little details.

Some Comparisons:

Newschool Film - the battle of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings movie (a sequence all about big sweeping themes in conflict).

Oldschool Film - the escape pod scene in Alien (the movie as a whole is full of little details and naturalistic interruptions which actually tell the story).

New D&D Session - Dominated by a series of combats which form a sequence, often taking place within a thin frame of a story.

Old School D&D Session - you never really know what elements (regardless of thematic size) will be important: it might be how a haunted shoe turns your armor shopping trip into a bloodbath.

Zak Sabbath said...


When people say "cinematic" in an RPG setting they are saying something very specific: deliberately skipping to a point in the story where something interesting is expected to happen in the plot or to the characters.

Just because not all movies do this--or they don't all do this in the same way--doesn't mean the adjective is meaningless.

In dungeons you don't necessarily do this. The details don't have to TELL the story, they ARE the story.

ravenconspiracy said...


That is a good definition of "cinematic" but I thought perhaps your use of "literary" was not as clear.

Accepting your definitions, its strange to say it but these terms lead to the observation that many movies are "literary" and many books are "cinematic" - which is a little misleading so I was trying (misguided or not) to shift the discussion away from those terms.

Your last sentence, I'm sure I meant the same thing. The details are indeed the story.

Regardless of all that I completely agree with your point but I'd go on to ask you to describe if you think the literary approach is superior (or at least more desirable to you) and why - maybe in another post.

Jeremy Murphy said...

I can point you in the direction of a fair number of novels where almost *nothing* you do is interesting... but that's beside the point.

The point is the "cinematic" leanings of modern RPGs. I'm not sure that they are thinking about "cinematic" the same way that you are, though.

In lots of cinema, there is a tendency to skip the walk, as it were, and cut right to the arrival. Which can be an issue in an RPG where you want immersion. Skipping the walk and getting right to the fight scene (or conversation - depends on the movie) can make players much more aware of the feeling of playing a game.

However, another definition of "cinematic" conflates more with the visual spectacle element of movies, along with the unrealistic action scenes - cars that blow up by rolling onto their roofs, for example.

My thought is that when a modern game is described as "cinematic", they're trying to say - the fights are John Woo and things are awesome and larger than life.

Based on that metric, I'd call old rpg's "gritty" or "serialized adventure".

As far as I'm concerned, the use of the dungeon in lots of rpg's is largely a result of practical considerations - you can limit the space and therefore the available options, they allow for a discreet chunk of activity, and they are easy to design/draw.

A snake may be a book, but a dungeon is just a shortcut.

Zak Sabbath said...


yes, many novels are cinematic--especially shit novels designed to be made into movies, and many movies are literary.

I am using the term "cinematic" not because I think it's the best but because designers of games use it to describe the "cut to the exciting bits" aesthetic.

And NO I do not think one approach is better than the other, so you won't be seeing that entry.

Zak Sabbath said...


"My thought is that when a modern game is described as "cinematic", they're trying to say - the fights are John Woo and things are awesome and larger than life."

That's partially true, but I am thinking also of indie games that are not so much about explosions as they are about intentional story and intentional drama and intentional character development where there is EXPLICIT instruction to the GM (and sometimes players) to "cut" from scene to scene.

As for this:

"As far as I'm concerned, the use of the dungeon in lots of rpg's is largely a result of practical considerations - you can limit the space and therefore the available options"

Well duh--

but I'm not talking about why dungeons thrived and survived as locations for adventures, I'm talking about what style of story they encourage.

Adam Dickstein said...

No, no one said that but I felt like I needed to point it out because sometimes/often that's where discussions like this end up.

I guess I am not understanding your meaning as well as I thought. I tend to use a different translation for cinematic than the one you are describing. For me, 'cinematic' means visually compelling and exciting, as well as full of drama of fast paced action.

Also, the 'dungeon' as setting for story or as a story itself seems passe to many of my players. Even the guys running D&D do a lot more outdoor and city based adventures than dungeons these days. Personally I like them, though often as an abandoned space station or massive starship wreckage.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with Zak's analysis here. Slow burn vs. POW!

Wondergecko said...

@Zak: I absolutely agree.

UWS guy said...

I think, "hollywood/bollywood/hong kong" cinema to be more exact Zak. What's that sweedish movie about the knight who meets up with a troup of acrobats and ends up playing chess with the grim reaper?

side note: I literally googled: sweedish knight grim reaper troup. First link? "The Seventh Seal", ye verily my google-foo is strong.

Is that movie cinematic or literary? Can a movie be literary? I don't know, but irregardless, I agree with your post and hadn't thought about it that way before.

Adamantyr said...

"If new RPGs are "cinematic", what are the old ones?"

If I was to use a single word, I'd probably say "tactical".

Not a big leap, since RPG's were born out of war games. The original idea was a small high-trained tactical group on a single mission.

What was their goal? Well, it could be to find something. Or kill someone. And where? Well, some place that is a maze of unknowns. Gotta crawl around, find the goal, deal with obstructions and opposition.

Cinematic events are still possible in such scenarios. But it's the mission and the place that are the focus, not the players themselves... they're merely participants. If they all perish, the dungeon and the mission await the next group.

The balance and pacing of such a game is different from modern games as well. In the dungeon, it's all real-time, it's all happening NOW, what are you doing? But when they go back to town, time flies... they rest, they recover, they sell things. Maybe the DM will bring a bit of that real-time back for a bar fight or a sinister encounter, but most of the time, it's a break.

UWS guy said...

Cinematic=the exciting bits. I understand. Counting torches, negotiating with hirelings, stronghold construction, all part of the "montage scene" that gets glossed over in movies..."the next week when you arrive at the dungeon..."

Right on zak. The Gygax DMG gave you very different things than the 4e DMG. The latter is all about helping the DM create those cinematic moments, where gygax gave you all the stuff about where to find a sage and how to run the week of travel to his library.

The "skill challenge" approach to the above (use your history and diplomacy skills to locate and convince the sage to help) is quite literally (but not literarily) a "montage scene" where you see gandalf a 3 minute clip of gandalf riding around and sitting in libraries all while "busy music" plays in the back round. Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerating this cliche in most of their cartoons.

In the literary game, this would takes actual weeks of game sessions to accomplish, but is hand waved with a skill challenge now so you can, "get to the good part".

Feystar said...

It all comes down to how you want to play/what you want to run really.

Do you want to go back to town after a fight, open the manual and pull up an itemised list of what you want to buy from the shops? Or do you want to haggle with the blacksmith for repairs and those new caltrops you've been hankering for then, head over to the local apothecary only to find a street urchin tries to rob you and dashes down an alley with your purse.

Neither is necessarily wrong, they're just different styles of gameplay.

AndreasDavour said...

Very interesting post, Zak. It spawned some thoughts of mine which became a post in itself.

How about hexcrawling cities? Hmm.

Kolb said...

Monty: Got happy when you mentioned aguirre. The first thing i would like to do is to create a giant dungeon, treating it in the same way as the jungle is treated in aguirre.

UWS guy said...

Well, both styles of play may be equally valid forms of entertainment, but only one is dungeons and dragons.

Anonymous said...

So...I'm pretty old school. And when I use the word "cinematic," I use it in a different way. I don't place cinematic in a binary with literary...rather I place cinematic in a binary with realistic. Sometimes cinematic is placed in binary with gritty...but that isn't always all that useful. Really I'm coming to the relationship to the word cinematic from the oldschool RPG GURPS.

Anyway, I think of D&D as a very cinematic game...especially at higher levels. High level AD&D 1e PCs could jump off a cliff and walk away. A single AD&D 1e PC of a higher level can wade through waves of kobolds and come away victorious. I think of D&D as super cinematic. As a matter of fact, when I get D&D players and bring them into a GURPS game I'm running...but one not using the cinematic options, I need to warn them that this is a realistic campaign, not a cinematic one.

Let me say it another way. Using my system of choice, GURPS, I could run a dungeon crawl with all the cinematic rules turned on...or I could run that dungeon crawl with all the realistic rules turned on.

A dungeon can be cinematic.
Or realistic.
Or dramatist.
Or tactical.
Or Narrativist.
Or Method Actory.
Or Power Gamer.

Or any number of things.

The dungeons would be slightly different...but I don't think a dungeon is inherently any sort of can be run in any number of ways.

Zak Sabbath said...

@ trooper6
There's nothing wrong with using "cinematic" as an opposite of "realistic" but if you're doing that then what you have to say has nothing to do with what I'm talking about here and isn't really relevant to what's being discussed.

AGCIAS said...

Zak, once again your comments crystalized my heretofore nebulous feelings. I mentioned your cinematic-novelic/oldRPG-newRPG dichotomy to DJ (my "et ux.") and her responce was, more or less, "Well, duh." DJ is smarter than I am. But, on consideration, and while I agree with Nagora pretty completely, even though I run mostly old RPGs now, my adventures themselves tend to vary -- eather wholly cinematic or wholly novelic.

BTW, I have been swamped for the last two months and am now catching up on installments of IHIWMA. Great fun -- much more like watching a game.