Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Why a Dungeon?


So, I was thinking the other day while writing up stuff for the Monsters of Karth add-on for Hands of Fate and I came across a question that I asked myself and I don’t think I’ve been able to satisfactorily answer. So I’ll write down my thoughts and see where they take us.

Thinking of ideas for dungeon themed monsters, while trying to steer clear of clich├ęd D&D critters, I thought about what a dungeon means in my games, and are they really something that makes for fun gaming still? My games tend to be more story related, with encounters based around what the party discovers while acting out their characters, and I realised that I haven’t run a good dungeon crawl for a long time. I feel that simply laying out a labyrinthine structure and populating it with monsters sounds like an unimaginative way to spend my precious game time, that the story elements that would be strongest in this gaming environment would be reduced to questions like “What’s through the next door?” or “What does this lever do?”.

This may be enticing enough of a plot for many players out there but the storyteller in me begs for more of an element of mystery and excitement than mapping rooms and killing the bad guys in them. One or two rooms after the first and the party falls into a careful, methodical approach to opening doors (listen checks, trap checks, magical trap checks and then carefully opening the door). Yes, I realise I may be over-simplifying the process and that there are plenty of exciting dungeon crawls out there, especially for the Old School Gamer , but it’s a thought that keeps nagging my creativeness, that doesn’t see the fun in just running room encounter after room encounter. There isn’t enough character interaction, enough character building, or enough ROLEPLAYING for me.

So I struggled to come up with critters for my dungeons, simply because I find encounters out of dungeons to be far more complex and story driven than simply ‘because the monster lives in this room’. There must be a story related reason why the encounter occurs.

This is important in a game like Hands of Fate, and a few others, because it doesn’t reward players with a bounty of xp for each monster slain. It rewards the players on good roleplaying, on furthering the storyline, and for collaborating with the GM to create fantastic stories. A horde of mad Orcs killed to the last gives you just as much xp as a duel with a single, dangerous foe. The game doesn’t need multiple combat encounters, it needs a story. Combat, while fun, can bog down game play significantly; especially if you run with groups of 4+ players. This is one of the reasons why I wanted Hands of Fate to be fast paced, and the result is a very deadly combat system where the players are rather nervous when facing off against a GM controlled character or monster, one well timed dagger thrust to the goolies and it’s goodnight, Sunshine. Combat means a deadly encounter, for one side or the other, and there are consequences for letting a sword thrust go unchecked, even if the party has a healer.

So far, we’ve had great success in wilderness encounters and city borne combat, with a small dungeon crawl that was mostly puzzle solving Indianna Jones style more than room clearing. We’ve done a cave crawl to clear out an Orc lair, but once again, it was mostly just a few rooms with story elements in between. I think the ‘Passing the Narrative’ mechanic makes room mapping and maze running obsolete, as a player who thinks up a good way to use their character’s skills can gain the Narrative off the GM and hand wave the maze away, saying that the party navigates the passageways for a while until they hear an approaching patrol. For raiding fortifications, the party can come up with battle plans ahead of the fight, and they end up choosing where the encounters occur.

I dunno, maybe I just don’t get dungeons.