Monday, September 9, 2013

Lessons of Dungeon Robber

By now, I imagine just about everyone who considers him- or herself an active participant in the OSR online, whether as a blogger or a reader, has played, or is at least aware of, the Dungeon Robber game over at Blog of Holding.  In a nutshell, it's a simple text-based game of dungeon exploration, using a random dungeon generator.  If you want to know more, go play it, or read the relevant posts on Blog of Holding.  (Word of warning:  It's very addictive, so don't start unless you've got a block of free time, or at least time where you can toggle back and forth between being productive and exploring a dungeon level or two.) 

The purpose of my post, however, is not to plug the game, but to talk about a few things that playing the game has brought to the forefront of my attention. 

Getting lost adds a lot of tension to an adventure.  Dungeon robbers have a chance of getting lost every time they try to backtrack to the stairs up to the level above, when they run from monsters, and when they run afoul of certain traps and tricks.  It's hard for a party to get lost in a tabletop game if they're doing even a halfway decent job of mapping, but traps that divert them to unexplored areas, like shifting walls, elevator rooms, and tilting floors, can accomplish that job.  So can fleeing from monsters - just don't describe too much to the players as their characters are running away.  Suddenly finding the next hoard of treasure becomes a secondary goal to finding a route back to light and safety.

"Unlocking" services in town is fun and provides a sense of accomplishment.  Each time you retire a dungeon robber at a different rank (ranging from yeoman farmer to king) a new building is unlocked, and new services are available to your next character.  A tabletop RPG campaign doesn't have to start with every item on the equipment lists available for purchase, either.  Start in a village that has few services and only basic equipment for sale.  The party rescues a merchant from the orc caves, and the old general store reopens.  They settle a trade dispute with a nearby clan of dwarven miners, and with the increased supply of iron the local blacksmith can make mail and plate instead of hoarding every scrap of metal for nails and horseshoes. They donate treasure to the hamlet's tiny shrine for the building of a real temple, and the church sends a whole order of clerics to staff it.  They find an old book of herb lore and give it to the village apothecary, allowing him to make long-forgotten remedies for wounds and poison. 

As in the temple example above, characters might have to invest their loot in some improvements, and this is a wonderful way to make their wealth meaningful in the game world.  The choice to invest in a temple, a new trade route, a new forge for the smith, or a stage for the inn could determine whether the village gets spiritual guidance, luxury goods, improved metals, or increased visits from bards and minstrels, and whether the PCs get access to holy water and healing, a market for salvaged jewels, plate armor, or a wealth of rumors to pursue.

Jaquaying the dungeon is cool.  Only a few of the staircases actually take you up or down just one level.  Some bypass a level or two.  Some are dead ends.  Some take you up a level only to drop you down a chute to a level below where you started.  And then there are the deep chasms and rivers.  Despite the fact that the dungeon in the game is completely random and each room and corridor ceases to exist as soon as you leave it, I can't help but imagine how all these things could mesh together into some coherent whole.  It makes the dungeon three-dimensional in my mind.

Agency matters a lot.  As much fun as the game is, it's extremely frustrating sometimes because you have so little control over your fate.  Whether you live or die is mostly determined by the (simulated) dice, and most of your choices are either completely meaningless or guided by nothing more than whim.  It doesn't really matter which direction you choose to go at an intersection, because what's next is decided randomly.  There's no way to seek more information before acting.  You can't listen at the doors or look for signs of recent activity or check for telltale signs of traps.  You can, to a certain extent, calculate the risks - you know that a glint around the next corner means increased chance of risk or reward, and that unguarded treasure is likely to be trapped, but the decision is still mostly hunch-based, not a fully informed choice. 

This isn't a knock against Dungeon Robber, as such.  It is what it is, and it's a lot of fun within those constraints.  It's more a recognition of one of the greatest advantages of a tabletop RPG, with a real live game master, over the limitations of a computer-driven game. 

You don't need a lot of complicated game mechanics to make a game enjoyable.  Dungeon Robber uses a pretty bare-bones system, mostly simulated d6 rolls, with d20 and a few other dice for combat.  The things that would make it even more enjoyable are not "more realistic" or even more detailed mechanics, but greater detail of setting that enhances immersion and player agency.

1 comment :

  1. I played Dungeon Robber. I discovered it quite by accident, really. I cannot describe how happy I was to find a megadungeon flash game.

    The Blog of Holding is a pretty cool blog, as well.