Tuesday, February 17, 2015

DFD's Introduction

In keeping with previous efforts, once I have the introduction to a new book finalized, I feel it's right to preview the book.

As best as I can tell, there's still a chance that I will have the book done on time.  There have been some hang-ups, however, and I am especially anxious to be sure the book is of the highest quality.  Thus, I am committed to letting the readers know in advance if there is going to be any pushing back of the release date.

Right now, I'd say the March 1st date on the Dungeon's Front Door is pretty soft.  On the other hand, if I were to push it back, positively the latest would be a period of one week (March 7).  The book is entirely completed just now, but editing can be a frustrating affair.

I will let the reader know the firm date on the 24th of February.  Please forgive me if I have to push the book's release back.  Some things can't be helped.

At any rate, here is the introduction as it stands.  I am following up with the photographer of the book's front cover to check the facts included below:


Before completing this book, I had considered adjusting the present-day appearance of the figure on the front cover. For anyone who cares to look at the image in a good light, it will not be hard to discern an orange hardhat through the dim light, a blue water bottle and a climbing harness, all standard equipment for anyone adventuring underground nowadays. Suggestions were made that I should give the subject a set of horns, disturbing bright eyes or simply black out the shape entirely – all of which I did not do.

Somehow, I felt that any change for fantasy’s sake would be too on the nose, even clich├ęd . . . and as I grew familiar with the image over a period of months, I began to feel that any change would diminish the sheer beauty of the landscape that it depicts – a place on this Earth that is completely real, just as it appears.

The location, as photographer and caver Nicholaus Vieira told me, is found under a mountain in the Selkirk Range in British Columbia, located within Glacier National Park near Roger’s Pass. To reach the point where the photograph was taken, Nick and friends spent thousands of hours spent researching, training, organizing and exploring a cave system that he calls “Raspberry Rising.” As of 2014, the passageway on the book cover had never known the sound of a human’s footsteps.

In real life, far from the fantasies of dungeons, it takes many, many incursions to explore the interior of a cave. It means hauling several trips worth of gear up to the entrance, reconnoitering the space within, storing goods, making preparations to climb if need be . . . and in the case of Raspberry, bringing along dive gear.

The Raspberry cave system is formed from a sink-hole that can be found below Tupper Glacier. Steadily, over millennia, the water dribbling into the mountain has formed an unknown number of parallel passages, descending more than two thousand feet over several miles. This we know only because dye tracing proves a relationship between the sink hole and the Raspberry’s entrance – though the actual system between the two has not yet been fully explored.

Nick’s party are following the stream upwards through the heart of the Mount Tupper, climbing waterfalls (sometimes strictly by feel, due to spray) and cascades, seeking the stream’s trunk passage through the mountain. Five times on this journey, they have encountered a “sump” – places where the passage dips so that the stream fills the passage with water, something like the U-curve under a kitchen sink. Raspberry’s sumps are long, technically difficult and too large – and inaccessible – to drain. Thus they can only be passed by cave diving – which means that at each stage along the journey, Nick’s party must bring along their scuba gear in order to navigate their way through.

While sumps can have clear water, Nick tells me that some of these in Raspberry have a consistency “like chocolate milk.” Thus, in scuba gear, deep below the Earth’s surface, he is literally feeling his way blind through a tunnel the shape of which is impossible to know. Sumps like this can take a lot of dives to fully explore.

How far is all this from the rather mild process of exploring a D&D Dungeon? Comparatively, I cannot help but view most of the dungeons I’ve run as a sort of Fun House joke, as far from anything truly dangerous as it is possible to get.

Then again, I remind myself that dungeons in the real world do not have creatures living there, who surely would take the time to knock out a few narrow passages, put in a door or two, level the floors and perhaps take up a broom and a mop and make the underground presentable. Of course, that gives me the image of an orc wearing a French maid’s costume – try to get that out of your head!

Thus I am reconciled with the potentially game-shattering realities of real caves – though there’s little doubt that I’m due to examine more fully the principles and practice of what the spelunking world can offer. That is, provided I’m not actually required to go underground. It isn’t that I’m claustrophobic or anything – after a lifetime of writing and editing in dark, dank rooms, surrounded only by the dim glow of the computer monitor, being in the dark is something of a habit. It is only that as I get a lot older, I become increasingly clumsy and increasingly colder. I doubt I have the wherewithal to climb a ten-metre high waterfall.

This series of essays do not, therefore, attempt to dissuade the reader from running the traditional dungeon found in D&D. Rather, I have sought to rant over a few of the tropes while mocking others, then deconstructing that which remains. Amid the philosophical approach that tends to possess me when speaking about the things I love, the reader will discover a collection of positive, useful thoughts I have accumulated about dungeons. Within, I will describe what a dungeon is and what it means to be in one. I will suggest ways to flesh out and provide substance to the underground and its inhabitants. I have included some humorous moments and taken time to wonder what it is that makes dungeons popular – for they are very popular, despite all the goofiness and absurdity of their existence.

The preposterous notion of dungeons – as slashingly brilliant as their invention was – will forever entice some poor soul to write, grinding along, of all the things that we already know to be terribly wrong about them. It is truly a sign of something’s value when it will withstand criticism that is 100% true about that thing’s badness. How awesome is it that sensibility makes no difference? For all the influence that reason has to say about the existence of dungeons, it might as well be an exhausted, wrecked hamster rocking back and forth on a very small wheel.

Therefore, I expect to still be running dungeons thirty years from now . . . for parties that will still be excited to gain admittance. Whenever a DM begins to feel that the game is getting out of hand, whenever there are clear signs that a new campaign or adventure is needed, the dungeon is there. When the players want to indulge in a little nostalgia: the dungeon is there. Whenever we’re looking for cutting edge, for the risk of a total party kill, for a little hack and haul away the loot: the dungeon is there.

Or rather, I should say here – as the dungeon is what you have in your hands right now. The dungeon as I see it. Therefore, let’s stop loitering outside. Let’s pick up our weapons and see what there is to kill.


Some moderate changes have been made to the text after fact checking with Nick.


  1. Can't wait...

    On the chance you copied and pasted from your draft, I noticed this:

    "Somehow, I felt that any change for fantasy’s sake would (be) too on the nose"

  2. And this is why I have an editor. Thank you Jeremiah. I'll fix the post and the draft.

  3. Wallet at the ready, waiting at the friendly online publisher of your choice.

    The only problem I can find with your books, they are hard to share with novices. My girlfriend often wants to see what I'm so engrossed in, or laughing about, and it's so far removed from the "common" experience, it requires an often lengthy dissertation just till I reach the point where I can even give her the book and expect her to understand something. Oh, the value in such. Keep producing, Alexis. And thank you for doing it.

  4. Consider the positive-sum gain in steadily educating your girlfriend, Scarbrow.

    My partner Tamara knew absolutely nothing about D&D when we met; today she plays in two different campaigns and tolerates my endless rambling discussions of most things that I write. She had to be brought up to speed too. It is all part of learning to experience each other's passion.


  5. I cannot agree with you more strongly about the banality of the D&D dungeon as opposed to real caving. The wife and I had a getaway, and we ended up talking ourselves into a "Wild Cave Tour" at the Cosmic Caverns in northern Arkansas.

    As a couple nearing 40 years old who had never done a non-tourist cave before...I don't know what we were thinking.

    This cavern would seem like a McDonald's playroom compared to what you described, but it was still nerve-wracking. Plenty of places to break a leg, yet no practical way to get someone with a broken leg out.

    Physically, it wasn't *that* bad - if the same physical challenges were $3 a ticket at a mall with a foam floor and safety harnesses and such, it'd be pretty tame. In the dark, and the wet, the cold, the mud...it was exhausting. There were a few ropes up, but those were mere suggestions of safety, they had no practical use. We moved maybe 200 feet horizontally in 4 hours.

    Our guide, however, who was around our age, was obviously much better off, but, that's experience, and experience with that particular cave at that; he's down there a lot, and down there for fun when he can.

    I don't know that I'd want to game that experience :) I'd rather game combat with orcs and improbable traps and such than combat with every 15-20 feet of the cave itself.

  6. I love the picture, and I love that you've left it exactly as it should be. While I was reading this post, I kept looking back at it and it feels, to me, as if the figure is a modern day explorer, somehow found himself in a d&d dungeon and is discovering the true beauty of them, compared to how he imagined them in a game. He's marvelling at what is ordinarily described as a "corridor leads to the north", finding interest in every tiny detail.

    In a few moments, he will come face to face with whatever dwells here, and there isn't a fantasy drawing of glowing eyes or shadowy horns, nor a dm's description of "two orcs guarding a door" that can prepare him for the sheer terror he will face, two menacing apex predators in their natural environment, armed to the teeth - glittering metal from within their mouths suggesting that they have in fact even armed their teeth, convinced that the orange helm he wears is magical and planning his murder for it.

  7. Does the book address using realistic-ish (as adjusted for fantasy gameplay) caverns as dungeon settings? I've always liked the idea but it's not easy for me to work out the representational aspect - mapping a 3-D environment is much more difficult for me as a non-draftsman than the old "graph paper bird's-eye view + possibly a cutaway side view."

    (Even some meaningful advice on making simplified systems seem more three-dimensional and "cave-like" would be of interest.)

  8. Scott,

    The book doesn't actually give any visual representations of dungeons. There is one description of a setting and I describe elements of settings, but without imagery.

    I accept a 2-D representation of my dungeons for mapping - with notes for approximate depth underground to give a three-D impression. For the game, I have a 36" x 48" whiteboard that I sketch on during actual play, quickly scratching out a top-down version and a side-version, usually in a couple of minutes, drawing drafting like arrows to tell the players that this part of the cavern is 10' high or that part of the cavern is 40' deep . . . whatever works to get the visual across. The whiteboard is great for fast erase and new attempts. My computer screen that I use is duplicated on another monitor that the players can see, so that I can show many of the rooms that way as well, expanding the player's views as they move forward while panning around to let them remember where they have been.

    This visual presentation, though crude in aesthetic, can be drawn as fast or as often as needed. Since arranging my playspace with such tools (an easel and plenty of paper is really not that expensive) I vastly improve my players' ability to grasp what is going on and how they are located in the space.

  9. The vertical-view-with-contours you seem to describe is my state of the art ... but I never know if you've developed shit for problems most people didn't know they had, so I ask.

    I've never successfully integrated computers either for gaming or my profession.

    Professionally, it adds complexity to an already chaotic situation and it's not easily stress-tested. Back when I tried cases before juries, I was almost always alone, and I stuck with legal pads and binders because they're simple and there's no risk of looking like a fumblefuck. I can execute on the fly without even thinking about the underlying tech.

    (Like how boxing works fine with just four simple base moves drilled over and over against resisting opponents.)

    In gaming, you can fuck around (and obviously have) with it, try things, err, and figure out what works with a sympathetic focus group. A post or essay on your practices would be welcome.

    (I'm one of those guys who doesn't get to game as much as I'd like anymore, so anything that keeps me from having to invent wheels is good stuff.)

  10. I can understand the relationship you make between computers and chaos, Scott - but I don't share it.

    I'll explain by writing that post you suggest.


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