Sunday, December 31, 2023

Year of the Dungeon

2023 was the year of the dungeon. 

For me, at least. But 
among the blogs I've read this year that seems to be the case for many others.

I am not just referring to Dungeon23, where participants construct a dungeon over the course of the year by writing one room per day. I didn't participate, and haven't really followed the projects of those who have. Though I thought it was a splendid idea, I was already underway on a giant dungeon project when Sean McCoy issued his fateful challenge. Alas.

From the end of last year to now, the end of 2023, I have created and am in the process of running a megadungeon, with as much attention to developing a "full" dungeon campaign experience as possible. I'm talking about sublevels, secrets, lore, weirdo NPCs, and as many opportunities for the coveted "emergent narrative" as I could manage.

Pedro Correa

Despite playing D&D on and off since I was but a lad in the 3.5 era, this is the first time I've ever sat down to make a full campaign-scale dungeon. My desire was to create as faithful an approximation as I could to a true old-school style megadungeon, which meant adhering closely to the foundational assumptions of D&D while straying where necessary (ie frequently) for the sake of practicality, cohesion, and personal preference. So there are orcs and pit traps and stuck doors but also enough outside material that certain points might struggle to be recognized as classic D&D fantasy. Turns out, when you work on a creative endeavor long enough your individual tastes sneak in whether you want them to or not. 

Obviously, given that what everyone is doing here can in some way be traced back to a game with "Dungeon" in the title, dungeons are a regular topic of conversation. But instead of merely discussing particulars or sharing inspiration, there was starting in about early/mid-2022 a surge of excellent posts about that raw and elemental process of turning a blank set of rooms into a vivid and textured underworld. 

Emil Nilsson

It started in the Spriggan's Den back in 2022, with Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon. Yora identifies the golden ratio of BX dungeon design, figuring a platonic 18-room dungeon with additional thoughts on treasure placement and experience. The act of turning the probabilities of dungeon rooms in BX into a statistically average dungeon is a simple transformation on the surface, but offers a novel perspective on creating dungeons that is arguably easier to build around than the stocking procedure from the book. 

In Bite-Sized Dungeons, Marcia B. at Traverse Fantasy adapts the statistically average dungeon to OD&D, and then distills it into a 6-room dungeon experience, complete with layout, which in a perfect world would replace all references to the 5-room dungeon. While nothing about these dungeons are "mega," this is the formula I have taken to following for secret levels and monster lairs. 

Phlox at Whose Measure God Could Not Take elevated Yora's already-lofty 18-room dungeon with 20-Block Dungeon Stocking, adding incisive and well-reasoned notes on crucial dungeon elements not covered by stocking procedures. The post goes above and beyond basic room stocking to articulate the actual utility and intention behind each step of the dungeon-designing process. The list of recommended dungeon features, added with the platonic dungeon block, should be recognized as a more specific and utilitarian version of the indispensable Dungeon Checklist

Warren D. of the I Cast Light blog has been doing a sensational job getting gritty and granular on room stocking principles. EMPTY BUT NOT NOTHING: Thoughts on Actionable Empty Rooms is a quick, clear, and concise write-up on just how exactly to use "empty" rooms to contribute to the larger dungeon experience. I know there's that other guide on empty rooms, and as a resource for random tables and lists it's still great, but Warren's post packs more value word-for-word and I find it to be overall more practical. 

Vile Cult of Shapes delivered a one-two punch directly to my frontal lobe with How to start adventuring and dungeon generator, two posts that explain both writing a campaign from zero and also just the entire creative process in uncomplicated terms. No, I haven't actually followed the procedures, and no, I didn't need a blog post to tell me that I can watch movies or go for a walk if I need inspiration, but that's beside the point—these methods shows us a way to make wondrous and meaningful campaigns with as little mental clutter as possible. 

Miranda of In Places Deep revealed her Stocking Procedure, offering a straightforward method of building out dungeon floors accounting for monster placement and treasure distribution that is sensible and conducive to good internal cohesion without compromising on organizational ease. Miranda is a veteran blogger whose work I really admire, and reading her describe the basic blueprints with which she builds her dungeons is like hearing some sort of artist master describe their process and thinking "hey I can do that too."

Honorable mention goes to the honorable Nick LS Whelan, whose post Two Week Megadungeon will, I predict, be instrumental in the creation of thousands of megadungeons in the near future. Like a blade through fine fabric Nick cuts down the myth that making a campaign-scale dungeon has to be a huge undertaking, and that all it takes is clear goals and a couple working sessions. The reason this is an honorable mention is purely because I had already largely wrapped up my megadungeon prep by the time the post hit the feed—turns out my approach to making a dungeon is strikingly similar to this one, except that I took like a year instead of two weeks and my maps are handmade but still kind of garbaggio. Oh well. Next time I get the urge to pull out the notebook and start a new megadungeon, whenever that may be, I will by hook or crook finish it in two weeks because of this post.  

There are probably a bunch of relevant posts I forgot about or haven't read. If you know of one or even wrote one yourself, please send it my way. Maybe even drop it in the comments for others to see. 

Anyway, the true lesson I got from all this, one of those things that you understood intellectually but don't truly grasp until you come out the other side, is that all these procedures and methods and best practices are but means to the end of creating a fulfilling and engaging experience at the table. What this means is, in a sense it doesn't always matter if one floor of the dungeon has four special rooms instead of three, but more importantly, you should find or develop a procedure that you know you can trust to deliver those meaningful game experiences. Once you do, you can sit back and let the system of generation work on its own, and you get to have the experience of dungeon crafting be just as much about discovery and exploration for you as crawling is for the players. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Chaos are the bad guys

"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners... many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.” Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“'Those two worlds — and many more for all I know — are in some way the same. The same fight was being waged, here the Nazis and there the Middle World; but in both places, Chaos against Law, something old and wild and blind at war with man and the works of man. In both worlds it was the time of need for Denmark and France.'” Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

“Brigands are loosely organized outlaws and renegade mercenaries who live by raiding towns and robbing caravans and travelers.” Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Expert Rulebook

A big reason why some elfgamers reject alignment is that they feel it's limiting. I disagree. Alignment can be a generative force in a campaign, because at its core it's about conflict

Frankly, D&D shat the bed on alignment when good and evil were added, and shat it again when articulating alignment as personal morals instead of distinct factions, or whatever was going on in OD&D. A lot of people recognize instinctively that these are overly simplistic ways to frame personal ethics (and if you don't, here is a solid summary), but alas we persist in the shadow of this twice-shat bed. With that being said, I'm going to be a shooter for Gygax et. al for a second and explain why the classic perspective of alignment-as-ideology is actually (kinda) an effective formulation of the central tension of D&D's implied setting, working backwards from the assumptions the game gives us. 

There's a lot of talk about what's "implied" about the world in old school D&D editions but tiptoeing dancer-like around the discussion of to what extent D&D can be perceived as colonialist fantasy etc. predicated on assumptions of untamed wilderness and savage others etc. and to what extent this is problematic etc. the most compelling interpretation of D&D's implied setting (meaning what is communicated through the descriptions of monsters, wilderness, and so on) is not some new-world myth of untrammeled wilderness, as many presume, but rather a post-collapse dark age—hence all the dungeons and bizarre magic and treasure for us to find. The dangers that lurk outside of the little bastions of civilization are a direct result of overlapping cultural, economic, and infrastructural breakdowns of a past supercivilization.

Some historians say the fall of the Roman Empire was such a catastrophe that archaeological evidence suggests people in Britain lost the ability to make wheel-thrown pottery. The scale of catastrophe would be indistinguishable from a slow apocalypse to the people living through it. Total bummer when it happens in real life, but ripe territory for D&D: imagine a Mad-Max-style landscape of lawless territories and hard-bitten settlements, with roving warbands of ruthless warriors bearing a motley patchwork of armor and weaponry salvaged from a lost civilization. But in a fantasy setting: less football pads and flamethrowers and more gothic plate mail and halberds (and also maybe flamethrowers).

Where does alignment come in? It's deciding what to do now that the old world has ended. Law and Chaos are not (solely) found in the quasi-religious spiritualism of Moorcock's or Warhammer's cosmic conflict, but in the choices people are confronted with when humanity is driven to the edge. Does one try to preserve what is left and rebuild amongst the ruins, or do take what they can and burn the rest? Both endeavors have their appeal, and more importantly, both have their place within a campaign world. But when perceived through the framework the game offers us, chaos is the anti-human impulse. 

When the brigands take up arms and raid the village, they are not doing so out of any specific malice to the townsfolk but rather pure self-interest and a straightforward disregard for the wellbeing of those they deem lesser. Chaos is the rule of might making right, it's the sentiment that the world can burn as long as I get mine. When you understand chaos through such a lens it makes a lot more sense why Poul Anderson identified fascism as an ideology at odds with the works of mankind in Three Hearts and Three Lions, the book that gave alignment to D&D. In terms of societal structure, alignment can be looked at as the difference between relational and coercive hierarchy. Lawful societies may be strict and repressive, but chaotic societies are ruled purely through the use of force and subjugation. Skulls for the skull throne. 

I am sympathetic to attempts at rehabilitating chaos. The instinct to invert the conventional morality of law and chaos is an understandable one, especially considering how many real-world institutions of authority benefit a privileged few at the expense of everyone else. But while this approach offers a compelling alternate perspective on chaos as a defiant and liberatory counterpoint to law's oppressive authoritarianism, it relegates chaos to that of a response to a status quo; any competing viewpoint is secondary to resistance against the current thing. Instead, I feel that alignment offers more when law and chaos represent their own sets of opposing principles that are in dynamic competition with one another. Of course, this ultimately comes down to personal preference and what kind of narrative you want to engage with.

In this way, the lens of alignment-as-ideology can also be applied to orcs and the age-old issue of "evil" races. Forget about trying to untangle the fraught presumption of monstrous humanoids being objectively evil—they are just in competition with everyone else. And they're doing well enough to pose an existential threat to humanity. Our peak has come and gone. Now it's their turn. Gothmog put it best: "The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come."