King Arthur Pendragon

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Dungeon Is Not Railroad

When I returned to the roots of our hobby, I made a conscious decision to focus on the dungeon as main environment of the game. This doesn't mean focusing entirely on the dungeon but it will play a bigger part than wilderness and city adventures. In fact, in the early days the dungeon was the basis of all adventures from Gygax's mythical Greyhawk Castle to Descent into the Depths of the Earth and all the modules in between. Books like TSR's T1 - Village of Hommlet or Judge Guild's City of the Invincible Overlord were exceptions. But I digress.

As I conceived my campaign, I came to understand the dungeon as one of the least railroading environments to game with. It's also a highly controlled environment, which can give the DM considerable freedom within its artificial boundaries. Some of the most ardent opponents of the dungeon as an adventure centerpiece will say that the dungeon will be, by its very nature of narrow corridors and rooms, highly railroading but they could not be farther from the truth. However, before I go any further, let me tell you that the following only applies to well-designed dungeons, which provide multiple choices to the players, not the random, "one way in, one way inside, and one way out" dungeons. The kind most of the players consider bad dungeons when they say "I don't play dungeons because we kick the door, kill everything inside, go into the next room, kill everything inside, and so on."

Why is then a well-designed dungeon one of the least railroading environments ever conceived? Consider this: railroading, by its very definition, forces the players to follow a path the DM created. Whatever the players try to do, it won't have any impact on the story or environment because the DM already predetermined what the outcome is. One of the best examples of this style is the Dragonlance series (DL1, DL2, etc.). Not only the players were forced to live a predetermined story, they were also forces to play the pre-generated characters provided and no matter what they rolled, certain events were already set in stone. Whatever qualities these adventures have, it's not what I want for my game. I want my players to impact the story; I want their choices to affect NPCs, events and even the dungeon.

The structure of a dungeon should provide plenty possibilities of multiple choice. The players should not feel they are forced to follow any given path. Consider a more story-oriented game. It is divided into scenes. In each scene, the players have multiple choices and those choices lead to other scenes. Their choices impacts on the scenes' outcome and how they interact with scenes further down the storyline. To give a more concrete example, let's assume that, in the first scene, the group is investigating the death of a city magistrate. They are in his house. At this point they have any number of choices: they could interview the staff, look for clues, examine the body, check the neighborhood, talk to the authorities, etc. Each of these options will, likewise, develop into a full scene and influence the story. If they find the magistrate was poisoned, they could trace the poison to a death cult which leads to another scene. Interviewing the staff reveals the magistrate was seeing a prostitute in a brothel, which leads to another scene. And so on.

If we apply this logic to the dungeon, we can consider each room a scene linked to other scenes by corridors, secret passages, doors, ramps, etc. Each room should have two or more different exits that lead to other rooms or places of interest. If we develop a fully fledged dungeon with this in mind, then the group is faced with multiple choices on where to go. Check any well-designed dungeon and you'll see that this is the logic applied toit. Each choice is not the correct or wrong one, but a choice like any other.

And what happens in each room (scene) should definitely impact later scenes. If in room A there's a bunch of goblins, and there's a fight and one of the goblins escapes, then later goblins should already be alerted to the presence of intruders and even actively hunting for them. If the players go to room B (on the left) and fight a carrion crawler, and lose weapons, hit points and spells then, when they return to room C (the one to the right of A) whatever they face there, they are already under the constraint of having lost some of their resources. The same will happen if they go the other way around: first to room C and then to room B. The structure will be more complex if each room has multiple ways, and some of them even take the players back to where they started. There is no constraint to explore the rooms (scenes) in any given order, which keeps the DM fully focused on everything that happens, and gives the group the maximum freedom.

Some of the best dungeons even provide several entrances to different areas. The players can choose to tackle the dungeon from any angle and even leave and take another entrance, if they choose to. Is there more freedom of choice? On top of this, each dungeon should provide any set of interesting places so the players interest won't flag ("Oh no, another 30x30 room with goblins"). That's why I think puzzles and traps play a big part on this, but that's material for another discussion.

Last, but not least, the dungeon is a highly controlled environment. The group moves within its artificial constrains. Unlike an open world, where the players are free to go wherever they want, inside the dungeon they are free to move wherever they want but cannot go outside the boundaries of the dungeons, unless they choose to leave. For all that it's worth, the dungeon is also a very demanding style of play that force the DM to create an almost complete environment prior to play, but within that environment the players are free to move wherever they go, at the pace they want, tacking the many rooms of the dungeon in any order they want. And that, ultimately, is the anthitesis of railroading.
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