Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In Defense of the Dungeon

In Defense of the Dungeon:
I know this blog seemed to be geared towards 2nd Ed. But I’ve noticed a trend within some of the 4E community, a version of D&D I also play. This trend has been the idea of rethinking the dungeon or abandoning it altogether. While they have some good or at least interesting points here and here I feel a need to defend the dungeon and what it is. I also know my argument is incomplete but I felt it was important to say the words while people are still interested rather than refine them until after the point people. care. If you have comments please leave them.

In D&D the Moldvay Basic Set the basic definition of dungeon as this: "A place, underground and often among ruins, where the players adventure."

I feel that is a good description but can be expanded just a little more. A dungeon is any confined place or places an adventure happens. It is where the PCs believe their goal lies, or at least treasure and monsters. It need not be underground and it need not be abandoned.

By my definition a dungeon can be many things. It can be sewers the PCs retreat into after benig chased by the guards because a local accused on of them to be a Witch. Or it could be warehouse the PCs break into to rescue an abducted merchant prince. Or it could be a series of caves the goblins raiding local farmsteads have holed up in. In any case it is likely to be the place battles will happen in and a map will be drawn for. However, the confusion/disapointment most people are railing against is the traditional dungeon. Like those found here.

These traditional dungeons are confined spaces. They help new DMs because it limits the options they can expect PCs to make and reduces the amount of space a DM must flesh out when creating something new. They can be very elaborate or simple in design, but allow a creative DM to tell a story if that is the type of game he or it can simple be a series of rooms that interconnect to create several combat encounters.

D&D is a fantasy game. And Gary Gygax writes in the 1st Edition AD&D DMG  "Wealth abounds; it is simply awaiting the hand bold and strong enough to take it! This is a basic precept to fantasy adventure gaming ... And are not there dragons with great hoards? Tombs with fantastic wealth and fell guardians? Rapacious giants with spoils? Dwaven mines brimming with gems? ... Why the list goes on and on!" All of this is a typical pulp fantasy milieu.  The common folk are too afraid and ill equipped to take the treasure lying around. This treasure and others can be found on the fringes of civilization while people continue to explore further and further out, the world grows older and darker and eventually what once was found is lost again and the cycle repeats.

To frame it in a 4E points of light perspective. Every time a light goes out new dungeons are beginning to form as castles topple and the land takes back what is hers. As the land fills in around a fallen fortress it is forgotten except in myth and legends. Eventually something happens and an opening is revealed. The creatures that are not part of civilization but instead prey upon it find these openings and begin using them to again plague local townships.
But the above doesn't need to happen it could be something that has never ceased being populated but is far enough from civilization that most have forgotten about it if they ever knew it once existed. The type of dungeon is partly dependent on the location and the locations can vary greatly. And also on the type and variety of monsters inside as well as the relationships between those monsters. Sometimes it can be confrontational like the the cults in the T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil and other times it can be helpfully symbiotic like the Orcs and Basilisks in A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity
A secret temple built by a religion to keep an ancient and powerful artifact safe. Might have humans guards on the first level. A few wandering deeper in to keep the monstrous guardians fed. But as you go deeper the wards get stronger and immortal representatives of the cult keep this artifact safe.
A tower created by a mad wizard might have several areas where food can be scraped from walls or conjured via magical portals. Creatures once used for experimentation have broken free and formed small communities after the wizard disappeared. Lines of influence have been drawn and with the exception of small raiding parties these creatures cannot get further in or out from what they have staked out. The creatures have been struggling so long for mere survival the knowledge of the magical items that surround them have been lost to generations.
Above are just two ways in which diverse dungeons can be populated and be seemingly maintainable without stretching too far the veil of suspended disbelief.

As the PCs enter and explore these areas it is up to their creativity to determine how they interact with it. If the DM restricts the space they can adventure in, he or she is not only limiting the creativity of the players by saying you cannot pass until you do complete this task he is also breaking the fragile suspension of disbelief and thin veil of pseudo reality created by the above. This is most notable by limiting the interaction of the dungeon as an ecosystem and creating that sense of pre-generated stagnancy of a dungeon awaiting in suspended animation awaiting adventurers to solve its problems. It also enforces the feeling of safety players get that the DM will only dispense level appropriate challenges and level appropriate times that can always be over come by level appropriate applications of violence.

This is why the traditional dungeon is something that should still be preserved and considered as a fundamental element of the D&D game in this generation and in the future. It is a place where strange things happen. It is the reason not everyone is an adventurer and rich beyond their dreams. It is also the reason we can have a world that "works" in our imaginations but also has monsters that can tear most things to shreds and yet the frail humanoid races without levels can still survive.