Monday, July 6, 2009

Let the Function Define the Form - Notes on Death Frost Doom

I'm terrified.

You see, I sent out the review copies of Death Frost Doom today.

(They're going to Grognardia, Goblinoid Games, Mythmere Games, Brave Halfling Publishing, Troll Lord Games, Elf Lair Games, Fight On!, Goodman Games, Kenzer & Co, Black Blade Publishing, Paizo, and Adventure Game News... as I figure out better who ignores my mailings and who people trust, this list will mutate, contract, or expand)

While I know the adventure works for my style of running games, and the last people to play the full version of the adventure enjoyed it (see here, here, and here), it is not the typical D&D style adventure. I have no idea how it will translate to other people reading the text, gathering the atmosphere and deciding that indeed this is something that should be publicly talked about (and in positive terms!), or maybe even run as part of their own campaigns (which is its entire purpose).

It would be just typical to spend a few hundred euros updating my hardware and going through this business registration rigamarole just to see reviews along the lines of, "Raggi can't write to save his balls. This sucks."

My immediate concern is the layout of the dungeon. Gabor Lux's definitive essay on dungeon mapping and good dungeon design (here) presents an intimidating standard. And I've intentionally ignored and in many ways defied that standard in Death Frost Doom (and in the upcoming No Dignity in Death as well, but that dungeon is considerably smaller and not the main environment for that adventure so it's not as major of an issue).

I'm just not into big dungeons for the sake of them, and I feel Lux's analysis works better for large dungeons. For all the traditional gaming elements I enjoy and fill adventures with, I don't much use large dungeons in my games. I like to ask, "Who built this? And Why?" to satisfy in-game explanations, and then a heaping dose of, "What situations do I want to see the players react to?" The answers to those questions will determine what the place looks like, and in my mind it very rarely looks like that ideal dungeon layout linked above.

In fact, a lot of the dungeons I make for my weekly games are of a limited selection: Evil cults could build dungeons. Natural caverns with their own little ecosystem, yeah, and dwarves build great big underground cities/labyrinths. The more ideal "game dungeon" designs are usually done with a bit of eye-winking, as with the dungeon that was made to guard a shrine (face it, who else besides a bunch of really out-there religious lunatics are going to build an inefficiently planned labyrinthine complex?), with the human guardians there not to stop the PCs, but to be monster-wranglers, stocking the dungeon to prevent the unworthy from finding the oracle.

Most "dungeons" I present are a bit mundane in layout, because I can't satisfy myself as to their internal logic any other way. To me, playing Dungeons and Dragons should be more involved than a "live-action" version of the Dungeon boardgame, so to speak. The "dungeon as mythic underworld" approach is certainly valid, but I use that for certain things and not a universal rule of dungeons in my game. And if it's not in my game, why would it be in the things I publish?

Not that I think Death Frost Doom is a shitty dungeon by any means; just that it has a different feel to its exploration and a specific focus. It's about presenting an atmosphere and encouraging players to open Pandora's Box, and in a lot of ways the adventure is about what happens when they do so.

To me the question of "What will the PCs do when X happens?" is a legitimate adventure format, especially when X has to be triggered by direct player action. By reading the blogs one starts to feel that this sort of thing is considered "un-old school," and I at once don't care (I run my game as I like, not according to what other people say the game is or should be) and worry about perceptions of my work (this being a commercial release for general use, after all). The way I reconcile this supposed contradiction is to just sit back and let the players trigger X on their own, or trick them into doing it, but absolutely not forcing them to do so.

Death Frost Doom gives you a great big X to play with, and it is from the point of X, and not the entry point of the dungeon, that "which way do we go?" becomes truly relevant - and there is no one correct route from there, but of course some are better than others.

In fact, my last playtest session went in a direction I didn't even think possible, because of PC actions within the rather linear prelim area of the dungeon that worried me enough to write this post. I didn't expect their actions, and it's certainly not written there in any form of the text (in fact by reading the text you'd get the impression that what they did after X is simply impossible!), but their decisions and choices earlier on saved them from the lion's share of grief and danger after the fact.

ahhh, hell with it. I've just got "Opening Night" jitters. The adventure rocks.

*shakes with anticipation... damn you, slow paperwork, damn you!*


  1. Cool, I look forward to seeing it!

  2. You've got me intrigued in what your adventure is like. I'm fascinated with the theory of the design of megadungeons and such, but have been struggling recently with the same things you write about-- my dungeons have to have reasons. I feel like I've spent more energy lately trying to find a reason a megadungeon would exist in my campaign than it would to make the damn thing.

  3. I'm really curious about DFD now, James! Just can't wait. :)

    Ignore the reasons and just make the dungeon a tivoli for your players. If that don't work for you, don't force yourself to do it just because it's the way it should be.

  4. "To me the question of "What will the PCs do when X happens?" is a legitimate adventure format, especially when X has to be triggered by direct player action."

    Absolutely so.

  5. Just for posterity, I never intended my essay to be an absolutist declaration on what makes dungeons work. For example, much of it doesn't apply for smaller, lair type affairs.