“Dungeons” are a major trope of RPGs, whether that means actual dungeons, goblin caves, bandit lairs, labyrinthine slums, office buildings, the bowels of a spaceship or a 9-dimensional dream-construct with walls of psychic energy and empathic locks. I’m getting into pretty vague territory here, and there are plenty of things that aren’t dungeons, so let’s aim for a loose definition. In general, a dungeon tends to involve:
- Isolation from the outside world, and being largely self-contained (often simply by being indoors or underground, but sometimes through being inside a pocket dimension or separated from the void of space by a foot of plasteel)
- Subdivision into discrete areas with different natures (great hall, bedroom, plasma lab, torture chamber, bridge, kitchen)
- Restricted movement of both NPCs and PCs between areas, and limited awareness of events in other areas (generally because of walls, doors and other obstacles)
- An unknown environment, which PCs have to explore to find information, items, creatures or simply a way out
- A fairly static environment, with the contents and inhabitants of rooms not changing much without intervention by the PCs
- Passive rather than proactive in interaction with the PCs, with PCs mostly initiating interactions (choosing where to explore, opening doors, fiddling with equipment, walking into armed guards) rather than responding to ongoing events. PCs maintain overall control of the pace and direction of their interaction (attacking a guard might attract reinforcements from the next room, but probably won’t bring the whole dungeon down on their heads)
I think there’s a meaningful distinction to make between dungeons like this and scenarios that take place in open environments (like cities and jungles), or that are based around events rather than locations (which may handwave locations and travel, or adjust them to keep events going smoothly).
Scenarios, even if they start out on a lonely forest road or in a cosy village, often boil down to investigating dungeons, either to kill something or to get something. Why? Partly I suspect it’s a matter of tradition; dungeons are the essence of the classic D&D scenario, plus it’s rooted in gritty picaresque adventuring stories full of raiding wizards’ towers, fighting through beast-infested caves and so on. John Carter of Mars and Star Wars have their fair share of dungeons too. It’s very natural to design and set up storylines based around a dungeon.
Another thing is that dungeons are a nice, contained environment for adventure. They offer a natural way to have groups of NPCs or enemies in close proximity and fairly static. Certain types excuse having a diverse array of creatures: the gloomy caves have stink mould, rats, three bandits evading the law, a band of goblin aescetics and a giant off-white slime. Others suit organised integrated sets of NPCs that interact, from the prison complex (guards and prisoners) to the palace (servants, guards, royals, messengers, petitioners, visitors...). They limit how far off-track the party can get, since it’s more natural to keep exploring the dungeon than to run off entirely, whereas in more open environments it’s easier to get distracted and leave the plot behind. Of course, a dungeon-crawling party might not do what you expect, but you probably won’t have to invent a dozen NPCs, an entire city and a new storyline on the spur of the moment. The containment also constrains the plot and the adventure, so there are natural endpoints available. They’re a natural for published scenarios because they have a clear starting point and a natural stopping point.
The thing is, dungeons aren’t necessarily a good fit for everyone. Sometimes it’s players aren’t that interested in exploring dungeons, or lose motivation, or the PCs always seem to be avoiding them. A couple of interrelated factors here are the specific players and the in-game party as a whole. I don’t pretend to be an expert here, this is just some ponderings I’ve scribbled down.
In terms of players, dungeons are well suited to what Shannon classified as Action Heroes and Explorers. They’re usually full of challenges for Action Heroes to hurl themselves against, and events are mostly dictated by the players. There’s lots going on in a small area, so the PCs aren’t wandering across the land on quests, hoping some action kicks off soon. They tend to be fairly straightforward, so there’s no worry about sabotaging yourself by starting a fight with someone who turns out to be an important official or local guardian spirit, or having a gaggle of orphans turn up accusingly after you kill some guards. Meanwhile, Explorers have a constant and natural supply of New Stuff to see and interact with, more or less at their own pace.
Tacticians and Communicators don’t get such a good deal. Tacticians may well not consider the game worth the candle, and might prefer alternate strategies that avoid the whole “traipsing through an unknown, monster-ridden hole” business altogether. Communicators may find themselves starved of interaction. While dungeons often have a certain amount of peaceful NPC interaction, it’s generally limited and often in self-contained chunks that don’t have much effect on the rest of the dungeon. Being stuck in a dungeon limits opportunities to call in favours or external resources, and dungeon NPCs tend not to be especially deep or interesting because they’re not designed for socialising or long-term play. Either player, by following their inclinations, may simply skip large chunks of content, and wind up without much to do.
The nature of the adventuring party is another thing to consider. It’s a bit of a nebulous thing, influenced by the classes (or equivalent) of PCs, their personalities and goals, and also by the backstory and aims of the whole party. The relationship and interaction between both PCs and players also plays a part. There are parties who see dungeoneering as an end in itself and perk up at the mention of a sinister cave, parties who freely follow quests or hooks that lead to dungeons, and parties who rein in the horses and look for another strategy.
Broadly speaking, I suspect that a party with a lot of combat or sneaky classes is going to be more dungeon-friendly. People tend to pick classes that suit their playstyle, and if you have three fighters and a couple of rogues, they’re probably looking to break some heads, thwart some traps and get some loot. I mean, they might be a trio of professional duellists and their escapologist friends, or three zealous pacifists who seek spiritual purity through combat drills accompanied by two con artists, but it’s less likely. The party’s skill-set also lends itself to dungeoneering (though the lack of healing or arcane magic could get awkward). A party like that is likely to be proactive in looking for trouble, and fairly quick to resort to combat and direct methods when the trouble starts.
In contrast, a party made largely of artistic bards, pompous wizards, scheming tricksters, finicky clerics or precept-declaiming monks might well not be so suitable. Characters like that are inclined to favour socialising over fighting, to avoid unnecessary conflict and look for ways to overcome the dungeon without getting their hands too dirty. Nothing wrong with those qualities, but they do make dungeoneering less suitable as a playstyle.
Similarly it’ll depend on the party background and backstory. A group of roaming adventurers in a gritty and selfish world might see a boding dungeon as an opportunity to get rich or powerful, and not need much more motivation or excuse. A boisterous group of thrill-seekers and self-appointed heroes might actively seek them out, a way to see new things, learn secrets and test their mettle. On the other hand, a set of royal knights on a quest for the king might see the dungeon as an obstacle between them and their goal, an annoying distraction, or even someone else’s problem entirely.
So that’s a few thoughts on how dungeons and players and PCs interact, but no practical help. Thanks, me. What to do if dungeons don’t seem to be working out? Well, frankly I don’t know, but some things might work (in fact, I plan to try some things out). Shannon already made some very good points in Lacking Dungeon Endurance.
One obvious but difficult one would be, if your party and players don’t warm to dungeoneering, don’t use dungeons. It does leave you pretty limited though, and takes a huge proportion of pre-written scenarios or plots right out of the equation.
The other thing is to try and mix up. A dungeonesque adventure doesn’t have to be all dungeon all the time. Some lend themselves pretty obviously to variety, like the castle or spaceship I mentioned earlier; a lot of a castle’s inhabitants are not soldiers, so there’s plentiful opportunity to impersonate a guest and gossip, flirt with gardeners, grill librarians for information, and so on. The machinery and mechanisms of a spaceship can present physical danger, intriguing sources of information, or spare parts. The dream-construct might offer you valuable glimpses into the thoughts of the sleeping world, or visions of your childhood, or the opportunity to spend hours crafting beautiful things from the stuff of raw imagination (they won’t last; they never do). The sinister caves might turn out to be a scholar’s paradise, full of rare and fascinating fungi to collect, or the home of reclusive elemental beings who’ll shyly trade with the party.
Another thing is whether player and PC aversion to dungeons is related. It may be that the players of foppish elven aesthetes are perfectly happy to explore dungeons if their fop has a good reason to, in which case it’s down to the DM to think of ways to accomplish that. On the other hand, if the problem is the player just isn’t into dungeon crawling, they need to be motivated in some other way, or the DM could run a mix of game types so everyone gets some of what they like.
This is definitely something I need to think about before I resume the L&L game, but things are on hold for a while so I’ve got time. More research needed, I think.