Exploring Dungeons isn’t exciting

I know, a bold statement.

But think about it? What are the really cool and exciting scenes you love from novels, movies, comics, or video games? And how many of them have the characters walking down corridors and opening every door, to deal with the things they find in each room one at a time? Sure, sometimes there are really cool scenes that take place inside of dungeons. But these usually are not about exploring the place, but generally about seeking something or someone very specific inside that place. It’s the sneaking past the guards to reach the target and then finally confronting it that makes the whole event exciting.

I readily admit that both as a player and a GM, I very much favor a highly narrative style. And a game of managing resources and collecting treasure can be fun. Risk and Settlers are my favorite board games and I spend insane amount of time when playing STALKER to search every piece of rusted pipe and then drag myself back to camp massively overburdened with 40 first aid kits and a dozen high quality assault rifles to sell. But reading GMing advice and keeping up with many of the popular RPG forums, I often get the impression that these two quite different aspects of RPGs get thrown together as if they were the same. Which they are not.

Having a dungeon with lots of unique rooms, that each have special features and often include interesting creatures is a good thing. If you are playing the game to have a dungeon crawl. My personal favorite style of fantasy is Sword & Sorcery and I wanted recreate the special traits of that genre in my current campaign, which I’ve started this January. And while my players all seem to have had great fun so far, I am personally rather disappointed with what I’ve come up with so far. Because, as I think now, I was still approaching the adventures starting with the dungeons. I had my Monster of the Week and laid a track to its lair for the PCs to follow, now all I needed was to add some padding to stretch the game between finding the entrance to the lair and encountering the monster. Actually, a lot of padding, because you just need to have a cool dungeon.

But looking back, the dungeon wasn’t cool and in the end it really was just pure padding. The only result it had was draining some hit points from the PCs, and that really only because they had no priest or any healing potions. I havn’t written the summary of our last session, because there really isn’t much interesting to say. And as I’ve said in another article two weeks ago, if a part of the adventure is not worth retelling later, it didn’t had to be in the adventure in the first place. Instead, I should have spend much more preparation on the encounter with the boss at the end of the dungeon, who really just ended hitting the PCs with his claws as soon as they opened the door until he was dead.

In closing: A dungeon is not an adventure.

A dungeon is the stage for an adventure, but even the coolest dungeon can not substitute for a story. (Which in a dungeon crawl wouldn’t be an issue.) Right now, this is just one piece of insight I want to share here and I don’t have a lot of advice what to do about it yet. But it took me over 10 years to figure this out, so maybe this can be a nudge for other GMs to rethink what they’ve been doing so far as well.

Jump into the deep end! – Starting Sword & Sorcery adventures

About a year ago I discovered a new appreciation for Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and when I started my new campaign this winter, I new that I wanted to take it into this direction. I did start with a fairly simple and straightforward idea, but soon I got all kinds of cool additional ideas where the adventure could lead to in the long run, how it could be part of a much bigger picture, and how some elements are actually connected to things the characters had been dealing with much earlier in very unexpected ways. It’s a really cool concept for what could be an incredible story. For a novel trilogy or a four season TV show. But for a pen and paper campaign it now seem very poorly suited.

Sword & Sorcery differs from the classic Epic Fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time not only in the setting and themes, but also, and possibly even more importantly, in its structure and pacing. Lord of the Rings spends chapters only on establishing two of the main characters¬†and we only learn about the actual purpose of the whole story halfway through the first book. It works, but I still don’t know anything about how Conan came to wander Hyboria or how Geralt of Rivia got his special powers. Might actually be told somewhere, but it’s entirely irrelevant to any individual story. Sword & Sorcery not only tends to be episodic, it also starts at the point where the actual story begins. And so should S&S inspired rpg adventures!

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Reactions, not Reflexes

One rule of thumb you very often get to see about planning and running a game and also writing stories, is that the characters should be “acting instead of just reacting”. But I think except for special cases in which the PCs are trying to establish a domain or something like that, this is not really a good way to describe the issue.

In virtually all cases, every story, both fiction and academic history, is about dealing with an extraordinary situation and returning things back to normal. What is considered “normal” depends entirely on the perspective of the people who are in the center of story. If you have a society in which group A keeps group B in slavery, and has done so for generations, the state of slavery would be the “normal” state of things for people who side with group A. But for those who are siding with group B, the situation would still be extraordinary. It just has been that way for 200 years. But when someone does start getting active in any way, to end the state of slavery, from his perspective it will be all about turning things back to what he considers normal. It does not matter if the extraordinary situation began 5 minutes ago or has been going on for centuries. Any character who feels he has to change things or stop an ongoing crisis does so because someone else, at some point, upset the normal state of things.

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Arbitrary Fantasy

As someone who’s been mostly interested in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, I’ve been having some struggle with the distinction between Sword & Sorcery for quite some time. These pasts days, I’ve had some good discussions with other people about it, but instead of getting some clarity, things got only more confusing.

When I categorize fantasy fiction for myself, the main categories I am thinking in are High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, and Heroic Fantasy. Simple categories that seem perfectly clear to me. But as it turns out on a closer inspection, not to everyone else.

Low Fantasy seems to be by far the biggest problem child. Part of it is because what it really means is “Not-High Fantasy”. Assuming Lord of the Rings is the archetype of High Fantasy, Low Fantasy could be two different things: By far the most common use of the term describes a setting that is an alternative present day Earth (though “present” in this case means at the time of writing), while High Fantasy is a completely different reality that at the most may be set in the “Mythic Past” of our world. However, there is also another use of the term, that seems to have become common enough to cause some serious problems. Alternatively, Low Fantasy could mean a work of fantasy fiction that less glamorous, more gritty, and with a lower prevalance of magic. Which can overlap with the other definition, but also be two completely different things. This second use of the term seems to have become so common that the term Low Fantasy has become pretty much useless. (Though I have doubt if it ever really was that good to begin with.)

But now I did some research on the term of Heroic Fantasy these last days, and I ran into another problem. My idea of the term Epic Fantasy, has always been a type of works that revolve around large scale events, like the end of the world or a global invasion of demons, and tell the story from the perspective of the key figures in these events. In contrast, Heroic Fantasy is all about specific characters and their personal stories. They might rise to positions of power and take important roles in larger conflicts, but the story is still about their personal experiences and not so much about how the details of the conflict or how it might turn out in the end. Again, this is a perfectly serviceable and easy to grasp distinction. But then, I ran into a couple of comments in a number of different places, that stated Lord of the Rings to be a prime example of Heroic Fantasy. And that seemed very odd to me. After all, it has all the important traits of Epic Fantasy, which makes it the oposite of Heroic Fantasy. At first I thought someone just got it wrong, but soon I found more and more cases of it, which use the term Heroic Fantasy as something else than the opposite of Epic Fantasy.

There’s also the term Dark Fantasy, that has been thrown around in recent years, which I think is even more pointless. And now I really think that this whole categorization scheme has lost any usefulness it may once have had. Categories are not bad and they are very helpful and important ways to talk about certain styles and group similar work together. But categories only work if everyone uses at least roughly the same definitions, which in the case of fantasy genres, seem to be entirely arbitrary. So I think that at least for myself, I won’t be using these terms anymore. When talking about these sub-genres, instead of throwing around a fancy sounding term, I’ll have to go back to using a whole sentence to tell people what kind of fantasy fiction I am talking about.

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