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.

The 5E Guide follows this praise with steps that include providing the characters an explicit goal in the adventure/location, the villain of the adventure/location, NPC allies for the adventure, a way to begin or force the players into adventuring in the location and the adventure's climax. These tables are somewhat bland (e.g. a climax "The adventurers confront the main villain and a group of minions in a bloody battle to the finish.") but aren't totally useless; however, they don't really give much of an idea on how to build a location based adventure as much as how to 'plot' an adventure that occurs at a location. The focus on plotting is compounded by the first part of the 5th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide's chapter on adventure design which insists that adventures follow a story based structure of beginning, middle, and climactic end.

While the 5th edition makes a distinction between 'Location Based' and 'Scene Based' adventures it’s meaningless as written into 5E - as long as the location based adventure is simply a series of plotted scenes that occur at a single location, the distinction isn't fully realized or especially useful. The older style of Dungeon Crawl does not intentionally conform to a plot structure, the villains or allies among it's factions aren't determined in advance, and it has no specified climax.

As the 5th Edition guide notes, the dungeon is first a simplification and a gamification - a game board that strips away many of the complex problems of an open fictional world - social interaction, politics and moral concerns for example, except of course it doesn’t, but we’ll get to that in later posts. As a game ‘board’ rather than a ‘structure’ or ‘narrative’ the dungeon should create spatial puzzles - its mechanics and principles often relate to how best to move through it as a location. With a spatial orientation in its design (the map being far more important in a Dungeon Crawl then it is a scene based game) the spatial puzzle leads to prioritizing navigation and a game where it’s valuable for players to determine and understand the physical layout of the dungeon: entrances, exists, regions, locations of interest and the interrelations between them. A Dungeon Crawl requires that the characters exploration of fantastical spaces is at least as important as the other common "pillars" of RPG play like combat or interaction with NPCs. 

To elevate exploration one has the room by room description of the dungeon, and varied paths to discover through it, but to matter, this navigation puzzle needs to create risk for the characters and must be supported by varied procedures, mechanics, and player expectations that make moving through the fictional space itself tense: turnkeeping, depletion of valuable supplies, and the risk of dangerous, unrewarding random encounters. Without this rules based support the Dungeon Crawl risks tedium, as there's no risk associated with movement and no need to solve the dungeon's spatial puzzles. 

Classic Location Based adventure design is distinct from Scene Based design precisely because it minimizes or externalizes the questions of plotting and 'story', and focuses on the puzzle and risk of exploration. The referee may provide a few hints, rumors, reasons, or hooks that will bring a location to the attention of the players, but it is up to the players to decide when, how, and why they will explore a given location (failing to do so before a certain number of session may of course allow factions related to that location to advance their goals if one is using sandbox campaign mechanics). Rather then focus on on the utility and place of Location Based adventures within a campaign, it suffices to say that they are useful because they exist and allow the party to explore them, and that the challenges and revelations associated with Exploration (touched on above and subject of the next post), Factional Intrigue, and Moral Play are the keys to the 'Dungeon Crawl' style of play.

For those playing newer editions whose rules, design patterns, and player expectation don't contemplate of support the procedural exploration of a fantastical space, creating a Dungeon Crawl can be hard - it may require changes to rules and the redirection of player focus onto things that haven't been important in prior games and seem trivial (such as supplies and turnkeeping). It may require a revaluation of how and when to engage in combat, learning new ways to evaluate risk and reward and generally changing tone and goals of the game. It is certainly a more involved process then opening up an old dungeon adventure and sending a party of adventurers through it with new stat-lines for the dungeon's monstrous inhabitants. Yet, I encourage referees to try, even if their Dungeon Crawls are imperfect, or adapting modern rules and player expectations to the Dungeon Crawl proves impossible, the play style is different, unique and rewarding - worth at least some effort to explore.


  1. I'm enjoying this series of posts so far!

    I do have a bone to pick with the term "emergent narrative," though, less with you than it's adoption by the OSR crowd in general, namely its use to attempt to contrast "location" and "scene based" games. "Narrative" in this context, appears to mean "a chronological of events that can be narrated." This is no more or less true of location based play than scene based play.

    Emergent. Every game with random elements and actions by multiple participants is going to have an "emergent narrative" in this sense. There is no "scene based" adventure module so structured that the narrative would not vary given the actions of players and rolls of the dice.

    What is truth of sandoxes/location based play is that they have no dramatic structure. Scene-based play tends to have a bit of this, though it can be loose or relatively tight like an "adventure path."

    1. "Emergent Narrative" is certainly something I'll need to grapple with in another post. I do think it gets lauded a bit much, but I also think there's a difference between the sorts of stories that location and scene based play encourage and that it's a topic worth addressing. It's also entirely true that wherever there's player choice some different elements of story will tumble out.

      For location based scenarios and play I think that a key element that can get missed is that the scene based adventure effectively uses narrative or story structure to create a map. This is no longer necessary when one has a significant spatial map and it becomes rather tricky to overlay the spatial and narrative maps effectively. I think this is something that The Hickmans' experiment a lot with, Ravenloft being the key example I can think of, and I'm not sure how well it works.

      The key idea for me in 'Emergent Story' is that the lack of a GM built player facing narrative (which is used as an attack on location based play - painting it as slogging through halls without meaning engaged in repetitive play)doesn't eliminate the possibility of stories being told, especially those generated by player decision and interaction with the setting.

  2. Actual real-life true stories are emergent and yet when true stories are retold they generally have a dramatic structure. So it is with location based adventure -- by the time the story of the adventure is retold it will be dramatically framed.


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