Dungeons and… More Dungeons (Part 2)
Yesterday, spurred by the #DNDNext talk, I wrote a lot about why I thought dungeons, as shorthand for geographically isolated location-based adventures, were still a useful tool in the adventure RPG GM’s arsenal, and discussed the idea of the city-as-dungeon. What I didn’t do much was explain why I thought geographically isolated , location-based adventures were so useful.
A big part of the usefulness of “dungeons” is their natural pressures and restrictions on the actions of the players. There are a few tendencies common to modern people than many gamers fall back on, which make perfect sense in the real world, but aren’t much fun from the point of view of adventure RPG sessions. The biggest two adventure-killing “reasonable” tactics I’ve encountered over 30 years of gaming are calling for help, and falling back.
As a modern society, we are trained to call for help. Our phone systems have special numbers that let us call for help quickly, alarms on homes and cars and even smart phones are designed to make calling for help more effective. Even the buffo-weapon LARP groups I’ve been involved with insist players carry a whistle with them so if they fall and hurt themselves, they can easily call for help. But calling for help isn’t nearly as much fun for players in an RPG, even when it might make sense. If the PCs are young heroes working for the powerful wizard El Magister, or the politically savvy dragon Doneitagain, or whoever, it may well make sense from the character’s point of view to call for help when they get in over their heads. After all, if their patron is a powerful being and it’s sent them on an important mission, surely it’s better to call for back-up than fail, right?
Falling back is a similar issue, and it leads into the resource-management issue often known as the “15 Minute Work Day.” A lot of RPGs balance powerful abilities by limiting how often they can be used. Different players may well have a different mix of moderate powers they can use a lot vs powerful abilities they can use more rarely. As a result, players often want to use their very best abilities in the first few encounters they run into each day, then stop and wait for their best powers to regenerate. While that’s good tactics from the characters’ point of view, and there are plot-based ways to avoid players doing it all the time (like having a mission be set against a ticking clock), allowing players to use it as their default tactic can skew balance between characters, and make it difficult for a GM to run anything but maximum-risk encounters without the players treating everything as a cake-walk.
Dungeons can help with both of these behaviors. By putting PCs somewhere inherently dangerous and far away from “safe” civilization, the GM encourages players to deal with problems themselves (since help is too far away to reasonably call for), and can push players to pace resources (since even if they stop after a few encounters, there’s no guarantee their resting place will be safe if they can’t get out of the dungeon easily), and may even be able to reward them for pushing on (if genuinely safe locations to rest exist – but are spaced several encounters apart). Dungeons don’t make the “modern” behaviors impossible, but they do change the strategic dynamic to make them less common, and do so in a way most players find intuitively understandable.
So with that short overview of why I think GMs should often consider throwing in a wide range of dungeon adventures, let’s look at my next set of cinematic set-pieces.
One interesting variant of the dungeon adventures travel into intentionally, is the dungeon that grows up around them without warning, so entry into the dungeon adventure is sudden rather than pre-planned by the PCs. In some cases, the GM can get characters to happily put themselves someplace isolated, and then have it turn into a deathtrap after their arrival. This trick needs to be used sparingly (because otherwise PCs refuse to go anywhere, or at least treat every trip as a possible fight to the death and slow down play with endless, needless precautions), but as a change of pace this can be a good surprise.
A good example of this kind of “sudden dungeon” is the airplane from Snakes on a Plane. Actually most movies that take place on an airplane treat it as a dungeon, but this is the one with the most obvious examples of wandering monsters, coupled with a surprising number of traps and environmental hazards. (Flight of the Living Dead is another good example… if you happen to be a fan of very cheesy zombie movies). The most interesting part of this from an adventure-design point of view is that in neither case did the protagonists expect to be entering a dungeon – the nature of their situation evolved – but was aware that a threat existed (a transported prisoner needed to be guarded). This helps players not feel blindsided – they should have prepared for a fight or trap in any case – but changes the kind of threat they face.
Similar events make the ships in Titanic and Deep Rising sudden dungeons… though I prefer the monsters in Deep Rising (and it’s another example of character who knew some sort of danger was to be involved, just not that they were about to be in a constant running fight in a sinking ship with bloodthirsty mercenaries). These movies also all have the theme of turning a convenience (mass transit) into a drawback (things go wrong too far from civilization to get help). They obviously work best as very short-term adventures, but dungeons that are short as five rooms can be compelling single nights of fun.
A different take on the sudden dungeon is the movie (and the video games) Silent Hill. Here a trip to an area believed to be at most moderately dangerous (an abandoned town) becomes a sudden dungeon when it is revealed there is a hellish, nightmare-world version of the same place and characters can be stuck there. Again, a trick like this can’t be pulled too often, but it’s easy to see how characters in an archeological dig, or exploring a ghost town, or trekking through a well-traveled and safe forest could accidentally release something that changed the environment for the suddenly, dungeonastically worse. If a GM does want to use this trick more than once, it can be tied to an ongoing villain (what is Freddy Krugar from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies but a ghost who can turn your dreams into dungeon nightmares?) If combined with the dungeon city from yesterday, you get The Mist, or The Fog, or even Dawn of the Dead.
Speaking of undead, while many haunted houses are similar (characters in 13 Ghosts and House on Haunted Hill expected they could leave at their leisure, and were surprised when the houses turned into location based adventures), most RPG players are canny enough to see the signs of a haunting when they hear the set-up. Even so, there’s nothing wrong with letting player prepare a bit for sudden dungeons, and letting them see one or two coming may well just set the stage for surprising them alter. And not all hauntings take place in houses. PCs going to a friendly temple might discover it had been taken over by an evil cult, who unleashed demons and hellscapes just as the players arrived (perhaps doing so intentionally to trap the heroes). Or an invitation to a party at a local inn to celebrate its 100th anniversary might go south when it turns out it was built on the unmarked grave of a mass-murderer, and his spirit is accidentally also invited to the party. Even tropes players have seen a hundred times can be a surprise if the GM changes a few details.
And once the PCs are in a sudden dungeon, it doesn’t matter if they recognize it. It’s too late.
More dungeons tomorrow.