Saturday, December 22, 2018

Exploration Play


The first leg that the classic Dungeon Crawl stands on is “Exploration Play” - a description that points to (or obfuscates depending on how understandable the following is) the Locus of Play in the Dungeon Crawl. Characters in Dungeon Crawl scenarios or games are first explorers - adventurers even - not combatants, designed with abilities and ‘builds’ maximized for destroying specific potential opponents. Nor are characters in the Dungeon Crawl personalities first - they don’t require meaningful information about their pasts or goals (not to say these aren’t potentially fun elements) to play and the Dungeon Crawl isn’t designed with story growth in mind. Exploration play may include a good amount of role play, but it doesn’t focus on emotional character development in the sense of the examination and resolution of character flaws, traumas or desires. It also doesn’t ask the players to deeply inhabit their characters as representatives of a genre - a Dwarf fighter won’t succeed or fail in a dungeon crawl based on how well the player performs aspects of ‘Dwarfiness’ or ‘Fighter’. None of these other types of play are bad, but they aren’t at the core of the Dungeon Crawl experience. Instead the game is found in the characters and players direct interactions with the location itself.

From the 1st Edition Player's Handbook
A dungeon or location exists to be explored - to have it’s passages mapped, its puzzles solved, secrets revealed and inhabitants outwitted or pacified. The trick is understanding what that all implies and to make these exploratory activities both mechanically significant and meaningful for the players. Exploration is facilitated by more than a dungeon with a large number of keyed areas, or many encounters that will take multiple sessions to investigate or overcome. To make exploration meaningful the act of moving through dungeon locations needs to create a sense of ‘risk’ - tension and anticipation. In a scene or encounter based adventure tension builds as the narrative rises towards confrontation and the story advances towards climax - much like a novel or film. In a location based game the progress of the party in exploring the location creates tension without expected end point or climax: unraveling secrets, delving deeper, discovering its dangers and its potential rewards while steadily exhausting their resources.

Another way to say this is that there is no overarching plot to provide tension, and no predetermined, expected or rules generated climax that will become the moment of greatest risk and reward. I don’t want to suggest that you can’t have plot or set piece encounters in your game and still incorporate dungeon crawls - but if one is running plotted large-scale narratives it may be best to think as the crawl itself as a single scene or plot point. Nor is this to suggest that characters’ motivations can’t be tied to a location - a character may want to explore a location for personal reasons, and the GM can, even should, still accommodate that. A character’s backstory can be worked into a dungeon - a missing brother may have joined a faction within the dungeon or a lost heirloom might have been stolen away to the dungeon’s fastness - but this is an afterthought. Characters’ individual stories can advanced while exploring the dungeon, character background might even be a useful hook to initially encourage exploration, but personal character stories shouldn’t be the focus - both because this fails to offer incentives for other characters and because the Dungeon Crawl’s Design Principles make scene based revelations and narrative structure difficult to include without forcing the spatial complexity of the dungeon into a linear mold, scattering clues and scenes haphazardly or engaging in sleight of hand that degrades player trust. I don’t want to suggest that a good GM can’t pack a lot of story into a location or that a good location based adventure doesn’t lend itself to creating stories, and I’ll get try to address some ideas about how this works when I discuss the importance of factions in a a Dungeon Crawl, but the Design Principles behind exploration aren’t related to any kind of extrinsic story or narrative.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What is a Dungeon Crawl?

The blinding blackness of the underworld held back only by the sputtering light of your candles, lanterns and torches -- dim points in a vast ocean of darkness. Dank stone walls close in the and the weight of earth and stone above grinds down on a maze of corridors, galleries, vaults, tombs, caverns and ancient fortresses.  You trespass in the domains of long extinct subterranean peoples - the histories of their underworld unclear or unknown, their wealth abandoned and unclaimed. The darkness is full of death, yet it draws fools and fortune hunters with whispered intimations of gold for the plundering, only to devour them -- the dead's monuments melted candle stubs and mummified corpses clad in rusted mail laying forgotten in dusty endless halls.

The Rakshasa - 1977, Dave Trampier
AD&D Monster Manual
This is the stereotypical setting for fantasy table-top games, the titular ‘dungeon'. Acknowledge for a moment that the ‘dungeon’ is an utterly bizarre conceit, a setting that has few if any corollaries in the real world, an expansive multi-level maze of tunnels and rooms beneath the earth filled with treasures and home to monsters. Despite the absurdity, there are plenty of ways to justify and visualize this classic setting in the context of fantasy world building.

Planning and running the exploration of such dungeon, or at least running it well, is a bit more complex than a fictional origin and a few evocative descriptions of stone corridors or caverns teeming with bats. Running a RPG in a dungeon setting requires an understanding of a play style that’s fallen out of favor or been set aside in recent years and editions, and benefits from mechanics and adventure design principles that can at first glance appear antiquated or burdensome. The earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons were designed with a vast underground maze drawn on graph paper as the playing field, primary challenge, and largest, first, part of the setting: this is not true of more modern editions and adventures, including 5th Edition, which are designed with the idea of the adventure as a series of encounters which together create a story.

This difference in design is the first important element in running a dungeon crawl -- a dungeon is spatial environment, not a narrative one. There is little or no predetermined story. few events are designed or even expected to happen in a dungeon crawl campaign. The players characters tend to be less complex at the beginning then contemporary players may be used to and their motivations and personal backgrounds aren’t intended to be the source of future narrative. There are (often confusing) ways of talking about these conventions and how to play older editions that depend on gnomic phrases like: “Rulings not Rules” and “Heroic, not Superheroic” (both from Matt Finch’s excellent Quick Primer for Old School Games) ... they won't always help one understand older systems. Instead a larger framework is needed.  For me that framework is Proceduralism, the idea that dungeon crawl play depends on a set of often unwritten rules regarding how and when to apply the rules that determine success or failure in the fantasy world.

There is plenty to say about the interplay of mechanic, procedure, and table expectation that produce the Dungeon Crawl, but I also want to talk about how one might use a contemporary system to create a play style with some of the same elements and feel as that older style of adventure. Old School primers such as Finch’s may offer some ideas on ‘design principles’ and ‘game ethos’ (Ben Milton & Steve Lumpkin’s Principa Apocrypha is similarly interesting and more approachable source also available online), but without the ruleset to support them, cultural notes and a set of aspirational maxims will only go so far. This blog will try to note the distinctions between more contemporary play styles as well as considering if what sort of rule changes to 5th edition might make it better support "Dungeon Crawl” play.

Obviously a Dungeon Crawl is a setting, adventure, or part of an adventure where the characters spend the majority of the time exploring some kind of maze of rooms: a cave system, a buried city and hidden tomb or whatever else doesn’t stretch suspension of disbelief too far. Yet the dungeon need not be underground and it might not be a maze. An abandoned city is another traditional location which works well for Dungeon Crawl play and any location can function as a dungeon. Others have written about the nature of the dungeon more eloquently than me, but a definition of the dungeon that focuses on its mechanical elements and design principles should be more useful to the Referee then one that looks to its metaphysical purpose.

Interestingly, the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons has almost nothing to say about the existence or nature of the dungeon.  Though Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (booklet 3 of the 1974 edition) is about dungeon crawling, it doesn't explain much about what one is, choosing to immediately launches into peculiarities and specific rules regarding the exploration, lighting, and design of dungeons. The 'why' of the dungeon is assumed, even in the first edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax assumes the dungeon is a known quantity and is far more interested in justifying and describing how one might play the game in non-dungeon environments: the wilderness, under the sea, on alternate planes of existence. The Guide spends pages and pages describing these environments, their fictional relationship and underpinnings, as well as the rules that make them mechanically different from the default environment of the dungeon--but it doesn't discuss dungeons very much.

The assumption of the dungeon as default setting is such an inevitability at the publication of the Dungeon Masters Guide, in 1978, that it's section on "THE ADVENTURE" (after an admonishment to draw a map) begins:

"Naturally, the initial adventuring in the campaign will be those in the small community and nearby underground maze."

- Dungeon Masters Guide (First Edition - 1979) Gary Gygax, pg. 47.

The idea of an underground maze filled with monsters, traps, and treasure is already so natural after four years of Dungeons & Dragons that it needs no explanation.  It's a central concept to Dungeons & Dragons, yet there is very little about how to run a game in one in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (or Player's Handbook).

Even the sections that seek to aid new referees in running dungeon adventures are, much like those in the 1974 edition, short expositions of specific mechanics such as underground movement and searching speed. Rather then offer a theory of dungeons or how adventures in them work (something that the Guide does with wilderness and other types of adventure) Gygax provides the partially keyed map of a dungeon level beneath an old abbey along with examples of play. Examples are a great teaching tool, but they rarely address the foundational ideas and goals of a task. There are also some hints in the Appendices, including a large section on random dungeon generation, but Gygax's assumption that readers will already use and understand the underground maze as the chief location for adventure is absolute.

Little has improved today, though perhaps the knowledge that underpinned Gygax’s implacable assurance has withered. The 5th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide, while it's discussion of how to place Location Based adventures within the game is still limited, does a better job of encouraging their adoption, and notes a key conceit of the Dungeon Crawl that make it distinct.

"Within a dungeon, adventurers are constrained by walls and doors around them, but in the wilderness adventurers can travel in almost any direction they please. Therein lies the key difference between dungeon and wilderness: it's much easier to predict where the adventuring party might go in the dungeon because the options are limited- less so in the wilderness."

Where the 5th edition fails is that it doesn’t seem to understand what this limitation means. It doesn’t point out how the spatial limits of the dungeon work with mechanics that emphasize supply and randomized risk exploration.  It doesn't recognize that the dungeon emphasizes player navigation choices as it's limited but primary narrative or that it's goal is to elevate exploration to a coequal part or pillar of play. 5e’s advice on designing locations is limited to using them as backdrops for challenges, encounters, and longer external narratives that often depend on limiting player choice. Perhaps because of these omissions, the modern Guide seems reluctant to embrace the dungeon, despite a note that "Many of the greatest D&D adventures of all time are location-based. Creating a location-based adventure can be broken down into a number of steps."  Subsequent years and many published official adventures for 5E show that location based exploration really isn't the system's focus, or at least remains unsupported.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia driven Netflix series Stranger Things. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in the 80’s - in basements on rainy days, or around kitchen tables when someone’s parents were out of town. I started playing it again in 2011 around my own kitchen table with fellow 30ish professional types out of a sense of nostalgia and then online with other fans, many of whom were also rediscovering the game after years of absence. We never really thought to play the new editions, just pulled a book (or in my case the 1979 white box set) from parents’ basements or the back of closets and started up again where we left off as teenagers.

Larry Elmore's cover from the 1983 Basic D&D Set
Only after exposure to the online classic gaming community and younger players who were more familiar with the 3rd and 4th editions of the game, World of Darkness, Pathfinder or other more modern games did I really realize how much Dungeons & Dragons had changed with its newer editions, and how much after the release of the 5th edition there was a resurgence of interest in tabletop roleplaying games. Still, I’ve been a bit shocked looking at the new adventures produced by Wizards of the Coast, the differences from the way that I learned to play and like to play are jarring. I’m don’t want to claim that all modern adventure design is bad, ineffective or leads to games that aren’t fun, but it’s often not where my personal interests lie, and there’s plenty of other people who are happy to offer advice on how to design, run and play modern style adventures. For me it’s enough to talk about how and why classic style games are designed and work the way they do and how to design, run and play them - both with older systems or mechanics, but also ideally with more current editions of the game.

To understand old games and the way they were played the first odd thing to grasp is a bit of information about the 1980’s - there was no meaningful internet. The Dungeons & Dragons community was limited to the players in one’s immediate community with a little input from the rules and modules, perusal of hobby magazines like Dragon and perhaps attendance at local conventions. For most players and GM’s running early editions of the game there was no one to teach them how to play or how the rules worked except for someone else who’d learned by word of mouth - maybe someone at a hobby shop, or an older more experienced player. Every old Dungeon’s & Dragon’s game is therefore using a set of house rules. The concept of Rules as Written wasn’t especially important and debates over rule inconsistencies were argued out a 1,000 times by 1,000’s of different groups of players with almost no chance of definitive clarification and no authority to appeal to. This atomization combined with the smaller amount of gaming material, lower amount of fantasy cultural references, and less refined rule sets made for a community whose first principle is creativity.

In that spirit, it’s important to understand that it’s your game, players and Game Master together. Any changes you make at your table will be better than what a distant author provides. Better for your game, because you are the people most intimately involved with it and will play for your own enjoyment. Be bold, change things and remember: whatever you do it will be an improvement on what’s provided here or in your rule books.

Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...