Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Dungeon's Front Door

Here we stand at the dungeon's front door.  Behind us spreads a world of choices, the freedom to load our junk up and strike out towards other places, towards other purposes, with whatever ambitions that we may possess.  Once we cross the threshold of the door, however, those choices will quickly be reduced.  If it happens that we do not 'clean out' the dungeon, if the dungeon proves to be deeper than our pool of abilities, our hit point total or our health, then steadily the only remaining choice will be to get out or die.

We enter understanding this.  If we are not compelled to enter by virtue of the campaign or the predestined will of our characters as determined by the DM, then entering the dungeon is a contractual obligation: "We resolve that our personal freedoms will be curtailed by degrees as we delve deeper into the dungeonscape, recognizing that by doing so we may be trapped, overwhelmed by monsters, magically transformed or otherwise cut off from supplies and help.  We do this of our own free will."

Rarely, in my experience, do players contemplate the consequences of stepping across that front door. Yes, they recognize that they might trip a wire, dump themselves into a chute and awaken on the fourth level down.  Yes, the recognize that after a certain point they will be run out of spells, health, healing items and equipment.  There is a moment of trepidation they feel before walking through the front door, which is the tension in the campaign the dungeon offers.

At the same time, players venture in with one, overarching expectation.  The dungeon will have treasure.  No matter what the dungeon may look like on the outside, no matter how ancient the doorway might be, no matter how irrational it is that piles of gold should have accumulated through random process into the possession of monsters living dozens of miles from the nearest town, trade route or moneychanger, the dungeon must and will contain piles of gold coins, worked gems, crafted jewelry, difficult to manufacture magical items and so on.  For those are the rules.  This is the balance of the contract.  "We, the players, venture into this dungeon and abandon our sandboxy privileges in exchange for prizes and riches we could not obtain otherwise."

It is in the dungeon that the metagame is forced upon us.  DMs worthy of the game cannot present a dungeon that is no more than empty tunnels and passageways, as would exist in the real world.  There must be things living down there.  These things must have treasure.  Any alternative to that equation makes for bad gaming.

The reasons are easy to explain.  The game is about improvement.  Dungeons, part of the game from the beginning, have been established in the game's mythology as necessarily existing, because in the player's understanding the dungeon is the fastest and most advantageous means of increasing the characters two measurements of improvement:  experience and treasure.  The DM can no more ignore the mythology of the dungeon than a film-maker can ignore the mythology of a happy ending.

Any subversion of that mythology is done at the DM's peril.

Yes, there are games that throw out the dungeon.  There are no doubt games where the DM says frankly to the player, "There's no guarantee that this dungeon will possess treasure."  There are films, too, without happy endings.  However, these will never be popular.  Where it comes to the DM and the DM's friends, running as players in the campaign, popularity is key.  It must be courted.

Players understand this as well as anyone - and in understanding this, they cheerfully toss away their 'rights' of agency freely upon encountering a dungeon in expectation of all the treasure they're going to gain.  The expectation is so high, in fact, that often the certainty of that treasure breaks the tension the dungeon offers.  Dungeons may even lead players to interpret the dungeon's presence as a guarantee offered by the DM for the player's advancement.  Thus the statement becomes, "We, the players, venture into this dungeon knowing damn well that the DM is going to come across with valuables and magic - in fact, that better be the case!"

So as the players enter the dungeon's front door, they are less concerned with the loss of their freedom than with their expected, even privileged ideas about personal gain.

Morally, this has represented a kind of sin - specifically, avarice.  Where personal well-being or safety is sacrificed in the expectation of base gain, philosophers and dramatists have long sought to hoist the patently immoral individuals upon their own petard - making them the victim of their own plots.  Where dungeons are concerned, this could mean having the individuals buried in a trap that could never have killed them had they been wise enough to keep out of a dungeon.  In role-playing, however, this option is expressly off the table.  The DM is not a moralist.  The DM cannot punish the players for avarice, since the game's point systems are all based upon rewarding greed rather than punishing it.

This places the DM in a difficult position.  While wishing to place obstacles between the players and the guarantee of wealth existing in the dungeon, the DM's choice of obstacles cannot be seen as contrary to the player's wishes.  Overuse of death traps or mechanical means designed to separate players from their equipment - or players from each other - are seen as manipulative and inconsistent with the game's purpose.  The DM is obliged to give the players a good game - but this does not include producing a dungeon scape full of puzzles that turn out to be insolvable (at least for the party at the table), endless empty rooms which drain the party of its verve, masses of monsters that are obviously too powerful for the party to overcome and other such hindrances.

Since no two parties are alike, the line between 'hindrance' and 'good game' can fall anywhere.  Some parties will cheerfully accept limb-rending traps that require the introduction of new character after new character.  Other parties will see the inclusion of such things as cheap and mean-spirited.  Some parties will view the assault of a dungeon as a logical series of adventuring starts, retiring to town between each foray to resupply and start again.  Other parties will not stand for this sort of long-lasting nonsense; for them, the dungeon must be completed by the end of the night, for who knows when they will run again?

The need to service the party once it has entered the dungeon provides its own form of player agenda - for no part of the game will prove to be as contentious as the party's view of how a dungeon ought to play out.  No party would stand for the presence of a death trap inside the dungeon's front door, nor the DM's plaintive argument, "You knew you were taking a risk by going inside!"  The party knows that exposing them to any danger within the dungeon without a clear and reasonable warning of the dangers ahead perpetrates an unfair advantage that, though possessed by the DM, cannot be employed by the DM.

More plainly stated, once the players enter the dungeon, the DM is reconfigured into the party's caretaker.  It is not enough to say that the dungeon has walls and door - the DM is obligated to give hints and clues throughout the dungeon that transmits information to the players about what comes next . . . hints and clues that are not necessary in the free agency of the wilderness.

The separation of dungeon and wilderness is inherent in aspects of the dungeon mythology - the presence of traps and monster proximity.

It is supposed - again from the mythology - that traps will proliferate in any dungeonscape, no matter how ancient and untended the environment.  Even in tombs that are hundreds of years old, it is routine that wood never rots, string and thread under tension never gives and that metal rods, brackets, switches, gears or such ever rust or seize.  No matter how complicated the design or how unlikely it may be that the various hundred working parts will produce the desired result without failure, the desired result is certain to occur.  Traps, within the game, must be viewed as living entities that work perfectly from the day they are installed and set, until such time as they go off or they are unset.  Though it would surely require magic to keep a trap in such good working order, without maintenance, even over the space of a single year, traps possess no magic aura that can be detected.  Somehow, traps - though made by ordinary, often dull-minded creatures - exist in an alternative universe where their substantiality is kept forever hidden.  Within role-playing games, we create life when we form a noose or a spring trap, without knowing we have done so.

This unreality is never questioned.  Traps are such nifty things that it is impossible to imagine a 'true' dungeon without their presence.  Traps are not, however, encountered in such numbers in the wilderness - or even in urbanscapes like towns, cities or individual lairs.  A single trap may exist to defend a trunk or a singular, unused doorway, but it is assumed that since people move around in the outside world, traps are infeasible.  They retain a practical existence only in places where people are rarely expected to investigate.  This premise is universal.

As with traps, which may reside at any moment within inches of a character inside a dungeon, it can also be said that, at any time, there are monsters that wait in eternal readiness within a few feet of the party.  Once again, this seems unlikely in the wilderness.  In the wilderness, most large monsters, along with monsters moving along in numbers exceeding thirty or forty, produce evidence of their existence: the sound of their movement, physical evidence of their passing, things left behind and so on.  In a dungeon, this is not so.  A dungeon door will appear to the character exactly the same, whether the room beyond is empty and full of dust or full of bloodthirsty humanoids with weapons in hand, slavering for the moment when the luckless point pulls the door's handle.

Doors are sacrosanct dividers between the 'inner world' of the monster's lair and the means of entrance the party has used.  The door will not look as though it has been used regularly because the monster within will never have used that door.  There will be no evidence of trash - unwanted material junk - ejected out of the lair by the inhabitants, though any culture would see the hall or the room beyond the door as an obvious dumping area.  Nor will the doorway that is never in use be bricked up, spiked or blocked by sacks, boxes and endless other material.  The door may be stuck, but it will open - completely - into a room that will seem to have been expressly designed to give the door itself free movement.  We must assume, therefore, that the residents of dungeons revere and worship doors, treating them as inviolable ways into their world that must never be obstructed. Unless, of course, the residents choose to bless the door with a trap.

This proximity to monsters means that the party will forever have the least amount of warning possible before finding themselves in combat.  Monsters will rush full-on from darkened corridors without a sound until they scream their blood-lust before surprise-and-initiative rolls.  Monsters will appear as perfectly camouflaged representations of dungeon walls, floors or ceilings, even though the camouflage is only meaningful where light has been cast.  Monsters will shoot forth from springs, pools, small holes in the wall and such as though fired from launchers that degrade into immateriality immediately after use.  Slimes, molds and jellies will deliver death-dealing measures of acid or disease from a glancing touch, with such volatility that a ten-pound iron bar will degrade to dust in a few seconds.  Paralyzation or poison, when it occurs, affects the entire body instantaneously, as such effects are somehow carried through the body's systems by means other than blood or lymph.

Players are used to this - and yet, there remains an understanding that the full employment of these monsters must be proscribed into the campaign in a very deliberate fashion, one that does not require the characters to experience too many monsters adjacently in too short a time.  Characters are entitled to moments where they can surge, regain health, re-incorporate their spells, locate every coin and valuable in the room, spend the necessary hours dividing 35,891 gold pieces six ways (or potentially into 34 different shares), debate over the value of valuables, argue loudly the distribution of treasure without being heard, etcetera, etcetera.

Well, it is Christmas Eve - and as I am Russian, I will be giving and opening my presents this evening.  So this seems like a good place to rest.  There's more to follow, but I'm gathering my thoughts on that for the moment.

1 comment:

Maxwell Joslyn said...

This reads like a lead-in to a discussion of dungeons that DON'T have these "mythological" features (eternal traps, monsters despite no signs of life, etc). I think that maybe the only sacred cow here is treasure (whether literal valuables, or lost knowledge or other resources); as you said, a DM can only introduce a treasure-free dungeon at his own peril, and maybe that's OK. What seems to be the way to solve the other parts of this tired setup is to think of the dungeon as integrated into the wilderness, and considering trap longevity, treasure "trickle down", etc. from that perspective.

It may be dramatically useful to still consider the dungeon separate, in some way, from the wilderness proper. This is why I say "integrate into [wilderness]" but not "reanalyze as part of [wilderness]", above. I mean that at the threshold of the dungeon, and in the shallower areas of its depths, there should be evidence of the wilderness around it; similarly, nearby wilderness may show signs of dungeon-ness (but not always, because sometimes you want the players to take a piss and discover a secret stone slab...) However, I think that the deeper into the dungeon one gets, the stranger it should be relative to its wilderness surroundings. This makes sense since there's literal distance between the two. There may also be entities using that literal distance to maintain some separation, as well, such as in the case of a hideout, a cult site, an apex predator, etc. Finally, deeper areas of the dungeon having weaker relations to the shallower areas or to the wilderness creates a similarly "deep" unknown for the players.

Pick me apart if I'm incoherent anywhere, this is one quick burst of thinking.