Dungeon is as dungeon does

Our fourth session concluded the Major Quest and neatly fulfilled the requirements for leveling up. Regarding that latter, I’m using the generalizing rule that doesn’t count experience points finely, but instead sets a level-up equal to a set number of “your level” sized encounters. The default quantity of encounters is ten, but it’s also stated that half that is OK too, which is what I did. You adjust your material a bit to this standard based on whether a given encounter is hard (counting more) or easy (counting less). To summarize, for our game, leveling-up is based on five encounters.

Add to that the Quest rules: that a Minor Quest is equal to a foe, so if, for instance, all three characters fulfill a Minor Quest each, that would be worth an encounter too. And a Major Quest is itself worth a whole encounter. Note that quests, especially minor ones, may be imposed into play as we go along. Think about that for a moment.

Furthermore, add that multi-step Skill Challenges count as encounters, or more flexibly, a combat encounter can transform into a skill challenge (e.g., instead of killing the wumpus, trying to escape it), or vice versa (a verbal negotation turns hostile), or even more flexibly, both can be occurring simultaneously and the encounter is resolved by whichever gets there first.

All of which is to say: in this game, although fighting is extremely likely and important, it is not the sole option for DM’s preparation, nor is it the sole option for players to address that preparation in play. With these rules in action, exactly when you fight and whom becomes a matter of for what, rather than the default-and-only expectation for what we do. Given the “five per level” standard we’re using, that means that focused, purposeful fighting is extremely closely defined for a given level-up.

I say again, this edition is far more flexible and creative regarding this issue than any other version of D&D I have encountered, which is to say, bluntly, any of them. You can turn foes to friends with Minor Quests entailing Skill Challenges, with the difficulty of the latter making perfect sense given fictional circumstances, and that counts exactly equally as killing them. You can level-up on your own terms, meaning, character priorities and personal satisfaction based strictly on what you feel like as you go along, judging situations and NPCs as you will. Why this insight achieved zero penetration into the hobby, I have no idea, or rather, only some ideas rather than certainty.

In this session, I think we found a nice blend between the pop/borderline-silly psych and knock-down drag-out combat adventure, all experienced and communicated in characterization and imagery. If I say so too, I think the warmth and fun among us as people really starts to show up too, and that goes with the sense of achievement and reward in the level-up which is more than merely “we killed enough guys, so it’s beef time.”

In my next prep, I will specially attend to creating multiple actors with multiple priorities, to set up open choices about whom to ally with about what, and thus enhancing the role of time relative to short and extended rests. It will matter in terms of who’s doing what when you’re doing something somewhere else. I’m looking forward to this context throwing everything I wrote about above into maximum drive.

What’s a “dungeon” anyway?

There’s a recent interesting thread at G+, which I’m not linking to because it mainly demonstrates how confounded the contributors have become in trying to discuss that. We talked about it for a while after play, which I snipped out because it was a bit fun-social and rambly, but I’ll summarize some of the points here.

We came up with three extremely distinct meanings of the term, in practice independent of one another.

  1. Dungeon as a literal set of interconnected chambers, experienced mainly at the “in there” perspective, meaning, making left-right and similar decisions. The default fiction is underground cellars, but it’s easily expanded to mean rooms in a complex building or interconnected buildings, or paths through a very thick wilderness or rock gullies, or even complex and unknown architecture in a community. James pointed out that it’s a useful fiction/realization of flow-chart space, providing a good or at least a well-established rationale for neither railroading player agency nor floatingin unbounded-whatever. Whether that’s all of play or a recognized subset is another question, but as such, there’s a certain relief to it on that basis alone.
  2. Dungeon as a strategic play-context, i.e., The Crawl, regardless of its literal setting – the core concept is risk vs. gain, with emphatic loss conditions in place. The simplest version of the latter is the TPK, but good game design includes lots of other, more nuanced (real) loss conditions as well. I am also hasty to point out that although people tag this as “video game play,” the historical fact is that early Dungeons & Dragons play codified it, was even highly identified with it (this is before the “saga/story” play took precedence), and the early computer and video games absorbed it from the table-top. Another nuance is that even groups which disdain the Crawl often include it as a subroutine of play, sometimes associating it with “what players want” as opposed to the GM/DM “wanting the story,” and a great deal of game design in and out of D&D attempts to reconcile these perceived priorities in a variety of ways. Unsurprisingly, in these cases, the subroutine is coded, or activated, by invoking the tropes of #1 above.
  3. Dungeon as a signal or term for exterminatory play, sometimes rightly identified as genocidal. Long ago a contributor at the Forge suggested this corresponded a little too closely to the American experience in the Vietnam War, particularly after the Tet Offensive and during the so-called Decent Interval, when soldiers were simply being told to kill anything that moved (see the book of that title by Nick Turse). Getting rid of the “V.C.” in the hamlet, pest control, in raw extermination battle situatiosn with the addition of acquisition – this is very much the tourney context, with literally no point to doing anything else but kill, with the exception of occcasional trickery or a clever end-run to subvert or avoid uncertain outcomes.

They aren’t the same things, and are sometimes even contradictory, but they get mixed and matched in a wide variety of ways throughout role-playing history, and they are very emotionally charged in hobby culture.

Fun with psychedelica

Here are the three maps I used. The first indicates depth based on the concentric circles, going deeper with each inward shift.

I decided the black circle at the bottom was a raised dais, creating a big rectangular room down there rather than making it a thick “pillar” for a doughnut-shaped corridor.

The second indicated the ambient light encountered by the characters, based on the diagonal bands. It had no game effect at all except for occasional modifications for visual perception.

The third indicated the zones occupied or controlled by specific monsters, which you can pick up pretty easily from viewing the sessions.

I plan on lots more trippy vortices as we go, so now you know the logic I brought to it in this case.


13 responses to “Dungeon is as dungeon does”

  1. The death of the self / the codpiece of vecna

    You can perhaps imagine my glee when the daily power I picked for Ezhelya purely based on colour, Foretaste of Death was too perfect for the girl with her dead comrades fingerbones hanging off her ghost haunted spear, seemed so fictionally appropriate. In particular, as the raging undead ego of Ksekk made his save and so took a final hit, confronting this creature with the reality of its death was something that totally had to be done. 

    I think all the characters have had similar moments in our vortex adventure and there seems to have been a really fun interaction between the colour and crunch of our individual powers and the specific context in the fiction at a given moment. I can't imagine that a different mix of classes or even power choices would have felt the same or lead to the same outcomes. This probably plays a part in making the open-ended options for addressing encounters/challenges work – there's enough crunch and distinctly different flavours to these choices to make them fun and to let the players make decisions about the developing fiction through means that aren't just killing it. (Looking at the end of the malavelance road creatures encounter as an example).

    I'm also pleased we gained grandmaster training from Ksekk as a reward. Having reread the original briefing I'd planned to suggest a minor quest toward that this session, but the more pressing matter of wading through mucous distracted me. After all you don't imagine Ezhelya, who after all began the second session literally tying herself to memories of fallen comrades, would leave her sometime mentors mindscape without at least trying to take something of him with her do you?

    Further thoughts on creating fantasy fiction, which was why I got involved in this 4e game in the first place, to come – but they are currently less coherent even than this.

    P.S. James, I see a minor quest (at least) in Runt's future after his visions of unbounded treasures, CofV for sure.

  2. Dungeon Thoughts

    In my now longstanding Skype game of 5e, I've certainly encountered the split between what the players want (dungeon crawling) vs what the DM wants (the overall story) that you describe in your list. I'm playing with two other guys, both of whom still struggle with The Impossible Thing, and so the artificial split between player/GM comes naturally to them. However, the more we transition towards an open-ended hex crawl style of play, the less that split makes sense. In this mode, the dungeon isn't an individual mission inserted into some larger story — or rather it is, but only in retrospect — but instead it's merely one node amongst many that fits into a larger world. We've slowly started to think of the dungeon as a standalone thing into which we travel for information, treasure, etc., and encounter an interesting sub-community. How deep we delve, and what we hope to get out of the dungeon is motivated more and more by the players. This also encouraged the DM to populate the dungeon with fewer mindless monsters, and more with individuals and creatures that (possibly) connect up with other goings-on elsewhere in the world.

    It's an interesting process in a slow evolution of play style leading to realizations about the roles of player and DM.

    • I want to get a bit more out

      I want to get a bit more out of that. It seems a little mashed-up to me, or maybe I'm just struggling to understand.

      There's your stated difference in priority between "get in there and crawl" vs. "we are saga-making." I'll tag that as a primary conundrum from the very first days of this activity, which I sometimes described as trying to do The Lord of the Rings with rules for nothing but staying in the Mines of Moria.

      Then there's the related issue of agency, the notion of "I play my character" vs."it's the GM's story." Your phrasing clarifies that it's not the same issue, but it's related and when you're fighting with that, then it's easy to port it over to the first point. I think I get it up to this point.

      Then there's "open-ended hex crawl" stated as an alternative to dungeons. Here's where I squint at modern-day OSR rhetoric like a cartoon dwarf, with one eye really squinty. A lot of that sort of play isn't an alternative at all; it simply makes the dungeon very big and above-ground with the alleged open-endedness being nothing more than the same old left-corridor/right-corridor at an expanded scale. Without reference to the instrument (hex map), what do you really mean in terms of situations and points of decision? In your phrasing, what exactly do you mean by "a larger world" in the direct experience of play?

      Your final sentences are intriguing but I've certainly seen similar phrases used to mask either blithering nonsense (e.g. The Secret of Bone Hill) or egregious railroading (e.g. Against the Cult of the Reptile God) far too often. I'd like to understand what you mean in terms of a direct example. Any hope of a post about your game here in Actual Play?


    • If I understand your

      If I understand your questiong correctly, it's a matter of thinking of the above-ground and below-ground play as, yes, part of the same thing. They're no longer two modes, and so the split between what the players want and what the DM wants fades away. It's all area to explore, and what NPCs populate the world must be independent actors with their own motivations because to link them into a railroaded plot would undermine the players' ability to explore where they want for as long as they want. If the DM can't count on the players exploreing a dungeon in full, for example, then the dungeon must be something other than a "mission." It has to be a situation that is operating independently from the players — that is, until the players choose to get involved. Material is then generated by the DM to fill in what's necessary. Sometimes that material comes from cobbled-together pregenerated notes. Sometimes it's on the fly.

      Important to note there is nothing inherent in erasing the split between dungeon and overworld that forces the game out of "DM's Plot" mode, but it does encourage the DM to reorient his thinking. This is really the lessons of something like Trollbabe applied in a more Gamist mode of play. The world is happening, and the players choose, or don't choose, to get involved. Size matters. When the world is large enough, and populated by disparate situations, it's difficult to come up with believable connections between them all unless you do it on the fly as part of an emerging storyline.

      Is our game 100% there yet? Nope! Could this transition I'm seeing be more wishful thinking than continued play style? Yup! The current DM is certainly struggling to understand how to even run a game that isn't railroaded in one fashion or another — but there are glimspes of that transition taking place in strings of 1-2 sessions where the feeling of joint creation is taking place. The game has not been without its problems, and there have been a couple difficult conversations regarding play styles and railroading. If I'm being honest, there have even been flashbacks to my pre-Forge days with huge and unnecessary doses of inchoherent, unsatisfying play. I'm not kdding myself saying this is a paragon of quality, but it's been educational.

      I'll see if I can come up with a useful actual play post. I have some other thoughts I'd like to share, and getting them down in writing would probably help.

  3. Fantasy without pink slime

    Part of the reason I prodded Ron and accidentally ended up playing D&D 4e was due to reading the discussions back on the Adept Press forums including this one: http://indie-rpgs.com/adept/index.php?topic=394.0
    Apart from producing a lovely bit of jargon (which monster manual is Pink Slime in?) I'm not sure that thread made much progress in understanding fantasy and the influence of D&D for good or ill and the sorry state of modern fantasy publishing and I couldn't, when I first read the thread, have added anything beyond incoherent grunting.
    Wereas now I can incoherently grunt and gesture toward as grumpy minotaur, aloof githzerai and cerebral shardmind trapped in a psychedelic vortex / mind of a deceased monk. I guess we made some fantasy fiction of our own.
    So what? What's the value of fantasy, more challengingly what makes at least some matter to me personally? This is a fun question I've been thinking about at least since the long ago times of my English teacher insisting I should read some more socially real fiction (while me and my geography teacher were swapping increasingly awful Terry Brooks novels).
    I think maybe we can start by talking about ingredients. Nobody is, I think, claiming ours are the equivalent of truffles and caviar, even Ron described it as an ice cream koan dungeon, but I think it has given rise to some genuinely affecting moments of fiction, at least from my perspective as a player arms deep in making them. Its difficult to know if a casual viewer found the Malevolent Frog things as hateful as I did, after the frustration of being gunged and glued and generally tauted by their floaty, evasive antics. Or whether they cared as much as me, after Ezhelya communicated with Kzekk's ghost, about putting down the fanboy monks or the rampaging Ego. Anyhow, some combination of play and mechanics, the specific aesthetics, and the fictional content has it's hooks in me.
    Some of this is Ron's baddies – which seem to have been marvellously creepy / icky / loathsome, such that I'm kind of sad we only had glimpses of some. But equally the game still comes loaded with D&D stuff, James can fairly say that an Ardent means nothing to him, nor to me originally, except as a name stuck on a skirmish game rule/combat function. But I have a bit of a better answer now, an Ardent is the kind of slightly wild, psionic warrior that will stab something in the back to prove its really already dead, channelling psychic visions until it admits it. This kicked arse and made me unreasonably happy.
    So we might see this as a kind of an emergent feature of play or, mixing metaphors, that we're using tools to shape the story, but equally building and shaping the tools as we go and as they fit, and out of pink slime or something else or not. I'm going to point over at phenomenology now, which I wasn't expecting when I started writing this, but there seems to be something here linking into the audience and author / creation and reception at the same time stuff Ron was describing, something about the process of making via roleplaying which is maybe quite different to writing novels or films, or consuming them? Does this process let you do differnet things with the same ingredients…?
    More incoherent grunting here, partly because I'm trying to avoid saying "its not about the ingredients, its about the intention behind using them", which sounds altogether too glib, even as I continue to think that part of what makes the pink slime slimey is the use of "fantasy" elements thoughtlessly, elfs and dwarves because of course, because Tolkein, because Gary Gygax, robbing them of any sense of the fantastic.
    That last clause in particular – "sense of the fantastic" – clearly needs to be given a bit more scrutiny, or possibly needs a Foretaste of Death, maybe somebody else has thoughts on that?
    (Readers will be unsurprised to know that I never won arguments about this with my English teacher.)
    • You reminded me of the

      You reminded me of the slightly alienated, occasionally unmotivated seventh-grade history teacher, who, after showing his uncontrollable and fully justifiable disgust upon seeing my copy of Priest-Kings of Gor, brought and gave to me his Lancer paperbacks of Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, and Swords Against Wizardry.

      Partly due to the interaction with a teacher, but more importantly because the contrast in texts could not be more stark. Gor had no sense of the fantastic, despite this or that trappings of this or that thing, and neither, as I was discovering, did John Jakes' absolutely wretched Brak the Barbarian. I had already understood the truly nasty contrast between Howard's actual Conan and the combined sludge of DeCamp/Carter that had almost completely obscured it, as I’d been lucky to have Roy Thomas' help (see Let there be nipples), and having read The Lord of the Rings at an early age, knew shelf-space pastiche when I saw it in The Sword of Shannara. Contrary to modern rhetoric, this has nothing to do with genre or subgenre, no "gonzo/vanilla" contrast. This is about the fantastic in its most evocative and affecting sense, in which daring to be ridiculous and acknowledging the cruelty in violence and glorying in sensual physicality all come together at once.

      And yes, we need more scrutiny of that. Better yet, we need to do a lot more of that.

    • So I thought maybe I coiuld

      So I thought maybe I coiuld link this this embryonic discussion of the fantastic back round to dungeons and their function. They are, after all, a wholly imaginary construct; try as you will you won't find any dungeons in the archeological record on earth.  And more than that, as a feature of D&D and similar games they are perhaps expected to both make a space for, and to themselves be fantsastical places. With the proviso that this is my first RPG experience of dungeoneering, Ron's psionic  mental construct dungeon strikes me as an example of this, not any sort of outlier. Similarly I imagine the mega-dungeons popular in the OSR, which appear to present richly detailed histories of construction, occupation and ecology, aim to deliver a different but equally fantastically rich experience (although I do wonder how effective dungeon exploration is as means of enjoying that – however as I said, no direct experience of this to speak from). The ur literary dungeon, at least to my knowledge, the Mines of Moria, seems to partly function in this way.

      This strikes me as tangetially related to the Crawl function of the dungeon. As part of the Crawl the dungeon is the locus of risk/reward as opposed to the town / home however abstracted that is, and presumably some types of town therefore, because the risk/reward/'okay we're done for know' decisions continue there, are also better interpreted as dungeons. Similarly maybe the dungeon can be seen as the locus of the fantastic, here be dragons literally, with a contrasting home base location balancing normalcy of a sort. The dungeon is where you encounter the fantastic – monsters, but also perhaps is itself fantastic. Is there even a pressure on the gm to provide that fantastic element / flavour? Its a dungeon… but in a flying castle! But in a volcano!! But inside a mummified purple worm!!!!1

      And alongside being fantastical the dungeon is, as I suggested, the space where the fantasical is found, perhaps even contained. (Is it important that ur fantasy heroes go there to find it? Not sure, need to think about this). Some games seem to emphasise this, that the PC's go into the dungeon and are changed by the experience – the DCC funnel perhaps? LotFP seems to want to make this a feature? Also, linking to another discussion, the feature of the Dungeon World rule that strikes me as most interesting (although I've never seen it in play) in the Compendium Class rules – where your character has a particular experience in the dungeon and as a result is now able to take new moves, not otherwise options. For example a character having been attacked/absorbed by an Ooze or similar might later take moves to turn into an ooze themselves, being marked by the experience.

      Ron, I get the impression you are enjoying this creative fantasy aspect of dungeon making in our game and when you played 4e previously. It certainly brought interesting content into play although as a player it sometimes felt a bit challenging to interact with beyond fighting things as we found them. I was though, probably excessively, pleased to get a "gutsy" comment when I had Ezhelya jam a spear into the quasi-living wall to make a psionic connection to Kzekk; I guess we just need to bring our a-game.

      I'm looking forward to subsequent "dungeons" in our game which hew a bit further away from your number 3, both for a further strategic challenge and to see new flavours in fantasy story making. I think that's going to be fun.

    • The Mines of Moria strike me

      The Mines of Moria strike me as more relevant than I'd first thought, as follows.

      • The characters did not want to go in there. They tried hard to go through the mountain pass instead and failed, so were forced to try their way through the Mines.
      • They were definitely not interested in scouring the joint free of infestation. An "encounter" was a disaster, and their uber-grand-arch-scary wizard leader was pissed off when one of them raised even a minor chance of getting them noticed.

      Clearly I'm talking about characters, not authors, as obviously we-as-authors want our guys to go in there, as far as role-playing is concerned (and obviously the novelist in this case as well). I'm thinking now about how non-automatic the notion of motivating characters to go in there voluntarily might be.

    • That’s a good point – or

      That's a good point – or points. In this game, I think my sense is vortices are very much high risk, with a chance of reward, in a world where reward is very rare. And our characters are more motivated than the average in terms of being willing to accept risk and/or seek reward. Also, exploring vortices seems like a potentially mystical/enlightening experience that monk-types would just be drawn to.

      Moria is also interesting in that there was not unanimity about avoiding it – Gimli wanted in, and Gandalf, while resistant, seems to have felt "fate" pulling him there

    • Oh yeah – I was going to

      Oh yeah – I was going to quibble a bit about "real world dungeons" based on Egyptian temples and European catacombs (neither of which is a dungeon, granted), and never got back to it. Then I happened upon this blog post, Perhaps really huge dungeons aren't "unrealistic" after all, which reinforces the point that they're not arbitrary, and can be a lot of fun if you think about why someone dug it.

  4. About Dungeons

    From the starting threads to the eventual background doc, these dungeon/vortices struck me as fulfilling a need I'd sorta-recognized in my own play: they mean something. Whether strategic risk vs. gain, story consequences, or even (probably always subtle) cosmological/existential meaning – one or more are at play here. I'd label the ur-dungeon (certainly here, maybe in general) as the Labyrinth – except we get to bring our own ass-kicking minotaur! And of course, thinking that way makes me connect Ezhelya with Ariadne and Eneku with Theseus … vaguely.

    I'm pretty sure the trick for me-as-Eneku as play continues is going to be staying vague – except when it's right not to be. But I trust James, Ross and Ron to be helpful along the way!

    • That is both generous and

      That is both generous and literary, probably far more of either than I deserve. I confess my thinking is less elevated. It's hovering on the border between (i) profound life-changes made after an Encounter session and (ii) "wow, have you ever really, you know, looked at your hands?" As long as the result is being airbrushed on a van somewhere and makes the otherwise granite-faced veteran highway cop go, for a moment, "oh, cool."

    • Emphasis on vaguely …

      … so don't go too far with generous and literary. I mean, I do think minotaurs in mazes  = some mythic resonance, but so what? Mythic resonance is easy and not neccesarily consequential.

      Besides, what with wear and tear on hands and eyesight, really looking at my hands *IS* kinda close to looking at one of your crazy dungeon maps … and if I had artistic talent and a van, there'd be a dungeon-mapped hand driving around my neighborhood sometime soon.

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