Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Just Thoughts On Dungeons

I realized last night that I have not run an underground setting in D&D in what would be twenty-one offline runnings.   Running every two weeks as I do, and given the four month break this last summer, I haven't had my party in a dungeon since late 2008.  There hasn't been any reason.

Now, I know many would think, 'there needs to be a reason?' ... but I think the answer to that would be yes.  I don't choose the actions of my party - if they wished to sorely enough, they would have pursued some beast into its underground lair and fought it there.  As it happens, I haven't generated any such beasts randomly, nor has it occurred to me to dream one up.  There have been town encounters and village encounters and a great many wilderness encounters, but nothing underground.  The last chance would have been a white dragon that appeared, harrassed the party and killed one of the party before flying off.  There was much debate.  It was thought better to leave the dragon alone (it was ancient, though the party wasn't certain).

Funny thing - I haven't heard any complaints.

So lately I haven't really been running dungeons and dragons ... not in the strict sense.  I'm sure that eventually the party will again venture underground.  It seems likely.  I'm happy to run one, when it comes up.

But I have to ask - is it really that important?

Dungeons are a rather easy thing for a DM to run.  I've always found it so - the descriptions are much simpler and the limited choices make the subterranean setting a breeze to set up ahead of time.  When I want to rest as a DM, I throw a dungeon.  Not difficult to mock up - although I know that there is a great deal of work that goes into those which are created and then sold as modules.  I can't say that I ever really enjoyed a dungeon as a player.

In my daughter's campaign, where I am running as a player, we have just entered a dungeon.  She is running a composite of several modules, redesigned by her to fit the setting, and that's fine.  Tactically, I remember how to fight in a dungeon with low-level characters; trust nothing, prepare to lose a few hit points to traps, let no one wander off on their own, think through the traps, touch nothing unnecessary ... it's old hat.  As ever, a bit dull, but the pay-off in treasure is always worth it.

Now and then I'll see a competition for the invention of a dungeon which will get me thinking about some odd setting or placement ... but I never do get down to drawing maps and such.  My dungeons are never more than a vague comprehension of a monster lair.  I imagine a few tunnels leading from the surface to storage places, chambers for the production of foods or other necessities (never necessary with dumber creatures), sleeping areas, perhaps a tomb or an oubliette, and finally a collection point for treasure.  Whenever possible I will make an obstacle of some room infested with some creature, or blocked by water, ice, sludge, chasms, foul air and so on ... as a time waster.  I rarely add a trap.  If I do, they are always something simple, rarely able to kill a party member.  Someone is more likely to die from drowning in an underwater shaft than from a trap in any dungeon of mine.

Because of such loose arrangements, I don't feel any more need to pre-draw out a dungeon that I would a field or a swamp.  If my party were on a mountain-top I would describe the view, the passages that led them to the top and the dangers that present themselves in getting down - whatever would be logical, given mountain tops ranging from tors to bald summits.  I find dungeons are just as rationally arranged as any outdoor setting, and so I treat them as such. 

So I don't enter competitions to make dungeons.  Competitions expect dungeons to be loaded up with traps, tricks, dressing, secret doors and passages ... and so on.  Stuff that bores the living crap out of me.  That all seemed very romantic and interesting ages ago, but after hundreds of secret doors and all variety of annoyances, I can do without poetry-and-riddle squawking statues.  My core party members are all seven-and-eight year veterans of the game, having played it very much during those critical teenage years filled with slaughter traps and killer dungeons - so they've been there, seen that just as I have.

Of course, besides me and my players, I don't see any evidence on-line that dungeons have lost their verve.  Alas, however, I am too jaded. 


A Paladin In Citadel said...

My perspective on dungeons is forever colored by B1 and B2, the dungeon geomorphs, and other early modules that used the entire sheet of graph paper as the dungeon. A completely irrational dungeon design, but one which I find myself tempted to re-deploy tim and and again.

I admire (read envy) your ability to run anything-but dungeons. I would not call myself a natural improvisor, which is often what it takes to run a successful outdoor or urban campaign. Dungeons are far easier.

Brunomac said...

I started my current group well over a year ago, with the intention of getting the party to a dungeon in no more than 3 or 4 games. Well, closing in on 30 games and the entire dungeon idea seems to have gone to the wayside.

I guess a couple of small underground caves and mines they encountered during the campaign could be counted as dungeons, but no classic, mythic underworld.

Going to try some OD&D at a game group next month. They'll be before the first hour is up.

Brunomac said...

In the dungeon before an hour is us, iswhatImeant...

KenHR said...

I enjoy running and playing in big dungeons. It speaks to the parts of me that enjoy a tight resource management challenge and a heavy dose of the weird.

The "megadungeon" I've been running sporadically for a few groups the past two years has a fairly logical and practical layout on the first two levels, but becomes far more maze-like and eccentric the further down one goes. This does have an explanation, however, as a sort of Winchester Mystery House writ large. The winding passageways, traps and such are meant to keep nasties in the bowels of the earth where they belong.

Dungeons can be great for atmosphere, especially that eldritch creepiness you find in pulp writers like CAS or Howard.