Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jumping the Rails

Occasionally in looking for content for the dungeon book, I have foolishly looked through videos on youtube titled things like 'Dungeon & Town Design' or 'Dungeon Design 101' - and I must admit, I find these things painful to watch.

Try this video by Esper, who is clearly much loved by some.  I only got at far as his description of his really 'cool' villain - a sorceress who was burned in a fire that also killed her parents, leaving her horribly scarred so that now she bears a resentment against . . . well, the party at least.

Even the villains are orphans these days.  It is amazing that there are any parents left.  Somehow, I have managed to somehow live, leaving my daughter with a father all this time - this must be what is holding her back from global conquest.

I find myself at a loss for something to say about having a dungeon 'theme.'  I ought to write something but my mind is drawing a blank.  To begin with, I don't think these people actually understand what 'theme' means - the word they really want is 'motif,' along the lines of producing a pattern that flows through the dungeon in order to obtain a sense of completion.

Only, this suggests that dungeons are made by architects and interior decorators, who conceive of the whole, bring a set of laborers and construct the whole complex in a few seasons.  As if for the Disney corporation, I suppose.  And while this makes a pleasant amusement ride, on the whole it strikes me that if the party is aware that they are on an amusement ride, the party is likely to think, "It isn't like the DM will kill us in the first room and forego all the things the DM has obviously prepared for us to see."

There's a real feeling like we've just climbed into the car in order to see the various displays and models that are set up.  We ooo and aaah at the dioramas. We do our part in pulling the levers and punching buttons, all the interactive stuff the 'ride' has given for us to do, helping us to be a part of it.  Then we step into the sun and stretch our arms and feel good about being off our ass.  We chat about it on the way to the Tiki Bar and have a couple of daiquiris, recounting the exciting parts and sharing feelings.

It all seems somehow . . . lacking.

Yet I have no way to describe the alternative.  I don't set up motifs and I don't count on the party finding the object in Room 22 that enables them to open the door in Room 17.  I don't expect them to interpret the symbol that repeats throughout - not because there won't be a symbol, but because in the long run as they are killing things, the symbol won't offer any special 'insight' into the mindset of the dungeon's resident orphan.

When the Goths stormed into Rome, I'm sure they were all very interested in the statues and the imagery and all the things that seemed to fit into the same motif - but they weren't looking for interest, they were looking for revenge and for gold (or perhaps food and articles of comfort, who really knows?).  All that Roman jazz was made for Romans,not for the Goths . . . I'm sure there were victims at the time who cried out, "Please don't destroy the bust of my grandfather's grandfather!  He was a great man!"  I'm also sure the Goth looked puzzled and then smashed the bust, because why not?

I don't think the Goth 'experience' was lessened by their not understanding the dramatic importance of the end of the Roman Empire.  They had their own motivations.  I suppose that this fits into my lack of motifs - in that I assume the players are able to come up with their own reasons for entering a dungeon.

Suppose they are looking for a McGuffin that they've heard about and they want.  How does that translate into the creatures of the dungeon knowing that the party is coming?  Or what day?  How is it these creatures are so darned ready?  Is the McGuffin really of equal importance to everyone in this situation?

The only real 'theme' that I concentrate on is making the situation very alien to the players.  This puts them off balance - like getting the car in Disneyland that keeps jumping the rails, scaring the hell out of the players more than the pretend ghosts can.

Perhaps there is an essay there.  I must give it more thought.


  1. I read somewhere that the dungeon experience was fundamentally different from the "waking world" experience because the act of entering the dungeon was an act of leaving the real world behind so as to encounter the "other." I'm sure I've messed up the metaphor, but the point remains: Dungeons are fundamentally different from the normal world (even in a fantasy realm).

    You've even mentioned that yourself, as the idea of "consequences" is altered because of the trade-off in the sandbox approach. Go into the dungeon and get your choices limited, but be rewarded with stuff and not have to worry about ramifications of killing the inhabitants.

    So entering the underworld/dungeon/other realm SHOULD be alien. I want the players to be happy to get back to town with their loot and stories. And if I can get them to miss the daylight and fresh air, so much the better.

  2. There is a way to describe your method- iterations. Putting Down Roots is just one of many such articles that you have written that use a simple four step process:
    1- establish the basic scene
    2- establish who comes upon the scene, and what they would do
    3- establish the consequences of actions taken in terms of how the scene is altered
    4- begin next iteration by repeating steps 1-3

    The description of the method is there, just buried in the applications.

  3. And wow, that video was like water torture. Drip, drip, drip . . . you keep hoping it ends, and then "DC 17 something something."

  4. I made it to crafting skill challenge encounters.

    I never really liked those all that much in general.

    Let me roll the same knowledge check 5 times and that will get us to our objective.

    And you KNOW they would never have it be impossible to just fail to find the dungeon. (skill checks were to find the dungeon and get there)

  5. Oddbit, that reminds me of some advice I heard from Tracy Hickman. When walking up to the Dungeon and needing a Key (because the doors were just too darn massive to break through), throw up your hands and say "Well, that's it. We tried, let's go back to the inn." A poor DM will likely have the characters discover a key/secret entrance before the characters travel 50 yards.

    It almost makes me want to play in one of those games just so I can roll over the DM. But that would be immature of me, so I shall refrain . . . .

  6. Aha, well . . .

    I already wrote the post that Spazalicious proposed, almost exactly following the four points given - it is a post called Wyrd, about goblins redefining the cave world before the players arrive.

    And the Dungeon's Front Door was alluded to by Doug; and I've written another post explaining why the players view "consequences" completely different underground than they do otherwise.

    So the two of you hit on three essays already written.

    Well done!

  7. There are programs that record the number of page views or link clicks. We can even monitor how long someone spends on a page or where the mouse travels across the page. Can we track how long someone spends watching a video? Because I think that information would greatly help these vloggers.


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