Thursday, August 18, 2011

Maps II: The Dungeon

Yesterday, I mentioned my foray into mapping, but after pondering it, I think I still missed the point.

Up until messing around with D&D, my experience with RPGs has been primarily investigatory.  The PCs go around, ask questions, mess with stuff, get drunk, get in crazy fights, and the like.  What Zak Smith over at Playing D&D With Porn Stars would likely call an Urbancrawl, except without the randomized, Gygaxian dungeon element.  Then again, if I'm running, say, Mage: the Ascension in New York City, I can just throw you in some of the rougher parts of Bowery Street rather than randomly determine the statistics of the seedier side of the city (the established setting is either a benefit or detriment of running modern-day games).

I also noted the dungeon as "adventure flowchart," but that's not quite right, either.  The flowchart still stands when you're urbancrawling, the boundaries are just different.  It's less "if you take the left fork, you're fighting a beholder, and if you take the right, you fight the remains of the last party of adventurers to come here," and more "okay, if they don't get the book in time, then they'll go back to their patrons who will direct them to Frankie the Minge, and then he'll..."  It's a flowchart either way; even if the game is a sandbox game, you're doing something, and that something will prompt another something to happen.

No, mapping is weird because the dungeon is a novel concept to me.  I may have building plans in my head, but it's not a dungeon (it can be, but if it's just the setting of a conversation or a fight, it's not a dungeon).  Dungeons are typically artificial, old, and uninhabited (not counting the traps, guardians, and whatever beasts have moved into the dungeon).  The dungeon is almost a character in its own right; even if it doesn't have traps, it oozes atmosphere.  By that definition, I've dabbled in dungeons (the Nephandi are fond of labyrinths, so their lairs tend toward a dungeon-y feel, and the Snake-Bear's lair has a dungeon-y feel — particularly the part that leads into the Underworld), but even those dungeons weren't completely dungeon-like.  The main difference is that characters could rely on their skills to navigate those dungeons; they didn't make meaningful decisions to navigate the dungeon, they merely went the right way or the wrong way.

It's even weirder that I haven't previously explored the dungeon since I've been inundated with them my whole life.  Video game RPGs are all somehow derived from D&D, and they typically have dungeons (some of my favorites like EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and even the RPG-lite series The Legend of Zelda all explore the dungeon environment).  But there you have it.  Modern horror games typically don't make use of the dungeon, which I suppose is a bit odd, given that the dungeon can certainly provoke horror (Call of Cthulhu uses the dungeon as a setting moreso than most RPGs in contemporary settings, but our adventures were typically still urban or in some remote place not wholly dungeon).

If you want to hear someone more eloquent than I wax poetic on the allure of the dungeon, I will (as I often do) refer you to Zak Smith talking about why he likes dungeons (mainly because they foretell your mortality as a player character, which is something I similarly appreciate), and another thing he wrote regarding dungeons.

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