Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Underground Maze or Primordial Stack

Crawling Down From 1974
“Dungeon crawl” has entered the popular lexicon as a description of any sort of adventure in an underground or ruinous space. It’s a common way to describe video games and occasionally other forms of media such as a part of novels or movies. Of course it’s most common in Roleplaying games, because the concept comes from Dungeons & Dragons, specifically from the earliest iterations of the game  - 1974's Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. What is it exactly though?

The term derives from the redefinition of the word “dungeon” by Dungeons & Dragons. Prior to the RPG hobby’s explosive growth in the 1970’s and 1980's the term's popular meaning (itself not the original 14th century meaning) of an underground prison was almost the only one. One can offer theories as to why Gygax & Arneson chose to use the word dungeon in both the title of their game and as a descriptor for the primary arena of play*. Interestingly within the first 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, while the word dungeon is used more often than other descriptors for the place where adventures occur, it is largely in reference to the name “Dungeons & Dragons” or the title “Dungeon Master” for the referee. When Gygax & Arneson are serious about discussing the concept of the fantasy space the characters explore they most often use “Underworld” and sometimes “Labyrinth” or “Maze”. Dungeon is the description that stuck, and the word’s meaning is now far more likely to be the one derived from Dungeons & Dragons.

In the context of role playing games for “Dungeon Crawl” is most helpful as a term if it means something beyond a light aesthetic gloss connotation a particular type of D&D-like fantasy (or an element “Gygaxian vernacular fantasy” aesthetic to be more precise): a place of grim stone corridors, screeching not-men to murder, and the occasional treasure chest that bites. This sort of view of the dungeon and dungeon crawl aren’t a problem, it certainly captures something, but it also tends to create a lot of dispute, because it’s a surface definition. A handful of aesthetic cliches, this idea of the dungeon crawl is however immediately and intuitively easy to grasp -- it becomes the first impression of what a RPG dungeon consists of. It’s not especially helpful though, because it says nothing about how the adventure will work with rules or what sort of play it aims for.

To make the concept meaningful, as always I want to look at dungeon crawling and dungeon design specifically from the perspective of how well an adventure encourages or supports “the procedural exploration of a fantastic space”. This is my definition of the “Dungeon Crawl”. It’s what is often referred to as a “location based” adventure, but I would add the additional qualification that a Dungeon Crawl also emphasizes exploration by connecting it to risk mechanics.

Likewise, this sort of design is sometimes considered the product of the early phases of the RPG hobby, especially of early Dungeons & Dragons. To some extent this is true, Dungeons & Dragons started to define this style of adventure design beginning in the 1974 edition, but I would argue that the game quickly grew away from it, with early D&D communities rapidly pushing the rules towards more character and scene-based scenarios such as wilderness adventure and narrative paths as early as the late 1970’s. The Dungeon Crawl was sidelined for some time, and its development has been fairly slow since, or largely about moving away from the granularity of room by room exploration and risk management towards narrative structure or improving tactical combat. One could even say that every edition of Dungeons & Dragons since the first - starting with Greyhawk, has increasingly focused on character and combat options at the expense of exploration - but that’s an argument for a different time. I like dungeons and the Dungeon Crawl play style though, and so I find it useful to look at how they can be written, what past dungeon designers have managed, and how one can better design dungeon adventures today. 

Patterns of Dungeon Design
When I look at Dungeon Crawl adventures, I see a few patterns of design. these are ways that the author of a dungeon adventure chooses to create a space for exploration: the size and "shape" of the dungeon, where its challenges are, what sort of play will predominate, styles of keying and assumptions about how the adventure will be used that are incorporated into the design itself.  While not exacting there are many elements of dungeon design that repeat both in specific authors works but across entire communities and play styles, creating reoccurring patterns or perhaps standards of adventure design.  

The most common patterns in contemporary dungeon crawl adventures are Philotomy’s “Mythic Underworlds” or variants on the idea — large, relatively minimally keyed adventures that are almost always dependent on referencing rules manuals for setting and detail. Another common design pattern is the “Thracian Ruin”, after the style of Jenelle Jaquays, dungeons with layered history and greater internal detail to facilitate player interaction. Both of these design trends, the dominant forms of Dungeon Crawl, come directly from the same source: the advice and examples in the 1974 “original” edition of Dungeons & Dragons (“OD&D” or the “LBBs”).

Yet the Mythic Underworld and Thracian Ruin are quite different design patterns. They may derive from the same source, but obviously Jaquay’s late 1970's reading has very different influences from Cone’s early 2000's one and this leaves questions…

  • What is the design advice in the 1974 edition?
  • Does any pattern of dungeon design follow directly from the 1974 edition's advice?

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...