I’ve written about my thoughts on how to evoke the style of Sword & Sorcery in a fantasy adventure game before in the past. I’ve been thinking about it again recently while looking to find the spark again to continue work on my setting, and my thoughts have been revolving primarily around the role of dungeon crawling in a Sword & Sorcery campaign.
While classic dungeon crawling is a very fascinating and fun form of gameplay in its own right, I think the archetypical dungeon crawl is not a good basis to build a Sword & Sorcery campaign around. The classic dungeon crawl, with its complex underground labyrinths, countless traps, secret doors, and numerous small hidden stashes of treasures all over the place naturally promotes a play style that is very cautious, methodical, and calculated. It encourages players to progress slowly and with care, to examine all the small and possibly insignificant details, and to take any precautions before following through with well thought through plans. In a well deaigned dungeon, this can be hugely exciting and thrilling. But it’s a kind of exitement and tension that is very different from the style of Sword & Sorcery. This is a style that is all about fearless and even reckless initiative, where fortune favors the bold. Heroes are certainly relying heavily on cunning and trickery to take down foes much stronger than themselves, but often these are things improvsed in the heat of the action and more of a gamble than much of a plan. In a Sword & Sorcery themes campaign, players spending a lot of time over maps and rummaging through large boxes of tools to disable a dangerous mechanism with a minimum of risk is something that you want to avoid, not to have as the default approach to playing the game. While a lot of useful things can be taken to create a great Sword & Sorcery campaign from oldschool roleplaying, the classic dungeon crawl probably isn’t one of them.
Still dungeons as a concept and an environment are really cool and absolutely have their place. But I think they need to be approached quite differently.
The first thing that I see is that dungeons should be relatively small in scope. Typically in a Sword & Sorcery adventure, a dungeon is only one chapter of a larger story. As such, I think dungeons of a size that the players can get through in two or three hours should be quite big enough. Heroes usually don’t enter a dungeon to explore its secrets, but to track down something or someone specific that they have good reason to believe to be somewhere inside. Going into a dungeon is usually more a kind of raid than an exploration. Get in fast and quietly if possible, grab what you came for, and get the hell out again fast. The dungeon is not a place to be mastered or conquered, but to be survived.
As I said above, in a Sword & Sorcery style campaign, we don’t typically want the players to stay in one place long and go through everything with a fine comb. There are two main ways to encourage that. The first one is to avoid having the players be weary of traps. If every floor tile could be a trap, things will slow down a lot. And most of the time, there won’t even be any actual danger in the first place. Environmental dangers and constucted defenses against intruders can totally work, but they should be announcing themselves to the players instead of being hidden. Be it obvious pits of spikes, moats with hungry crocodiles, a hallway with mummies in open coffins that line the wall, or two dramatic gargoyle statues on top of the gate. What we want to accomplish is to have the players understand that if a passage looks empty and perfectly safe, there is no point for them to stop and take all the time consuming precautions to make sure there really is no trap. And this has to be absolutely consistent. It might seem fun to have a completely unexpected trap jump at the players now and then, but when you do it once, the plaeyers learn that it could happen at any time when they don’t expect it, and then they will always expect it.
Similar to the placement of traps is the placement of treasure. Having some spare change hidden between the couch cushions to reward players who spend the time to check for there is a great way to encourage them to really search everything in an area they come through, and it can be quite a lot of fun for players to do this easter egg hunt. But just as wit traps, this is something that w don’t really want in Sword & Sorcery adventures. Instead of lots of small portions of valuables being hidden all over the place, I think having just one big hoard of all the treasure in one place works much better. Yes, it’s all the joy of discovering treasures crammed into a single scene instead of having it spread out evenly, but that also means to joy in that moment is more intense. This hoard can be placed right behind the greatest danger in the dungeon, but it doesn’t have to. Getting the whole haul out while the biggest threat is still on the prowl can be even more exciting. And the main pice of the loot could also be somwthing that might be a very powerful weapon against that threat when the players encounter it later.