Wednesday, January 21, 2015

GM Wednesday! - Thinking About Dungeon Crawls

I'm taking a hiatus on the sci-fi setting because my brain wants to go in different directions. With creativity coming so difficult to me right now, I'm just going to go with the flow and see where it takes me.

Today it takes me to the dungeon crawl. Why? That's the question. In my mind I have been telling myself that a vast subterranean complex filled with monsters is the cheesiest of GM adventures: just draw a crude map and populate it. Where's the story?

My brain has been dwelling on this so let me do a few breakdowns.

Why am I finding it appealing?

I love archaeology. I love the idea of being amid old history. It's not something you come across much in sci-fi. I have an unnatural attraction for the corpses of places that once thrived with life. It follows that lost places that once served a purpose but have become buried and infested thrill me. To me, exploring the "once was" actually holds more appeal than exploring the unknown.

When I played Asheron's Call 2, I made a point of fighting my way to the ruins of Shoushi and Hebian-To. Those where the towns I spent a lot of time in when playing Asheron's Call (the first one) and since the sequel was set hundreds of years after the first game, I wanted to touch those places where my previous characters had walked. To make a long story short, these places were disappointments. They didn't resemble the original towns and not merely because they succumbed to the ravages of time but because they were just a thrown together collection of art assets (ruined buildings) that ignored the footprint of the original town. It was nothing more than a place with a name stamped on it. Any links to the former world were casually ignored.

Note: The name "A Yelp in the Dark" was actually my first foray into web comics and it was based around my anticipation of AC2. 

Where's the Story?

Again that's one of the reason why I found dungeon crawls so low-brow. The idea is that the party of lucky adventurers are marching through the woods in search of loot (because that's the best place to look for loot) and happen upon a subterranean complex that has been heretofore undiscovered. Naturally, they dive in seeking blood and plunder.

Pathfinder adventures have added some story to this concept but being printed adventures they tend to be very rail-roaded and linear. You are meant to travel through the dungeon in a specific direction, meeting specific challenges that must be overcome to unlock the next section, rinse and repeat. As for story, it typically boils down to "Formerly abandoned area X has been occupied by monsters/cultists/bandits and we want you to go there and clear it out again."

Granted they are writing their games for conventions and four hour play so there's only so much you can do with plot.

But as I struggled to let my mind drift, some interesting ideas popped up in my head. Why does the dungeon have to be out in the wilderness? Imagine what would happen if a town were unknowingly built on top of it. I know this idea has been explored at least once in Pathfinder and in D&D. I haven't had much experience with them so I might be retreading ideas.
So some farmers or town engineers are drilling a new well or sewer when they inadvertently open up a subterranean network. Some may see this as an opportunity for loot but a monster infestation under the city would be an even greater concern. They could try to seal up the hole, but it is too late. The "things that live below" now know that prey exists just a few yards straight up. The creatures may create new ways into the town, like demented gophers. The town needs exterminators.

Now imagine that the tunnels below the city are the remains of an ancient world that ended in a violent cataclysm (not too hard since it is a very popular trope). What if these aren't just ruins, but subterranean prisons that were created to seal away the very threat that ended the glory of the previous age. This may not just be a local/ one of a kind problem. An entire faction of the government may have to employ hired exterminators to keep the darkness from escaping. Enter the heroes.

There is also a sense of urgency when dropping the dungeon under the town like that. In old school dungeon crawls, the heroes can always take a jaunt back to town to heal and resupply. The monsters and treasure aren't going anywhere and the town itself isn't under threat. But when it's below their feet and the creatures do want out, then any moment wasted is an opportunity for the creatures to wreak havoc. There is no such thing as a restful night's sleep when they seep up from the ground to feed.

So I guess the take away for me here is that there is no such thing as trash. I just need to look at old tropes with new angles.

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