Monday, January 25, 2016

The Dungeon's Front Door

Had the chance to re-read The Dungeon's Front Door this morning (Alexis Smolensk's latest offering), and I'm quite glad I did. Some books, like 100 Years of Solitude, come off a lot better with an additional read.

Easy to read, but plenty meaty.
Not that I didn't enjoy it the first time I read it...I got my copy of The Dungeon's Front Door & Other Things in the Deep Dark back in November, and I quickly devoured it. However, the first word that came to my mind was "unimpressive," which was definitely less than what I'd hoped to come away with. Probably, I had been expecting something similar to How To Run, which was one hell of an opus. In retrospect (and upon further review) it's a grossly unfair dismissal: The Dungeon's Front Door is a very different book, not only with regard to structure, but in terms of both scope and objective.

If you style yourself a "Dungeon Master" of this game called Dungeons & Dragons, you'd do well to have a copy of this book in your back pocket.

And it should fit in your pocket...depending on your pant-size, of course (fits in mine and I generally wear 33x34's). The Dungeon's Front Door is a digest-sized soft cover of about 150 pages. Rather than an extensive treatise (like How To Run), you'll instead find a series of essays pertaining to "the dungeon," that hoary environment of fantasy adventure gaming.

The dungeon. There's a reason why the game is called DUNGEONS & Dragons, a reason the trope (and the game) has lasted for forty-odd years. There's a reason why even Mr. Smolensk, who puts so much time and care into the creation of his living, expansive campaign world, still continues to create and include these "fun house" adventure sites. If you don't already have a marked appreciation for the dungeon...what it is, why it's important, what it brings to your game, why the real meat of the tabletop  RPG truly depends on its perilous confines...well, if you don't, you should after reading this book. It's pretty inspiring stuff.

Which isn't to say that Alexis doesn't poke fun at the dungeon's shortcomings or inherent ridiculousness; rather than shy away from the dungeon's flaws, he addresses them front-and-center, even including two chapters of humorous fiction that act as intermezzos between essays while showing the absurdity inherent in dungeon crawls. Dungeons are absurd, if one attempts to look at them through the lens of "reality." The Dungeon's Front Door, however, takes great care in elucidating that D&D is a game, not reality, and that the dungeon is a vital element of gameplay. Viewed in this way, one can accept the inherent absurdity and move on to the far more important issue of elevating one's game, creating (and running) dungeons in method that engages players, providing them with a visceral, immersive experience.

[see my earlier review of How To Run for more information on Alexis's personal agenda with regard to immersion and serving players]

Mostly, it's excellent stuff. My only quibble is with the essay titled Breaking the Fourth Wall...this particular section, which might have been at home in How To Run, feels out of place in The Dungeon's Front Door. The essay offers no information specific to creating or running dungeons,  instead discussing DM technique that, while interesting, is less than pertinent to the rest of the text. For me, it's the only real blemish in what is otherwise a tight, focused book of thought-provoking material.

[I write this knowing Alexis has written other excellent essays on his blog with regard to dungeon economy and ecology that might have served better in place of this chapter]

In summation, I find the book worth the money for anyone who acts (or intends to act) as a Dungeon Master. If you're a person who enjoys running D&D games but feels guilt over the inclusion of dungeons or, worse, a person who cannot fathom why dungeons need be included at all, then this book is probably a "must read." The Dungeon's Front Door has the potential to totally transform your concept of and approach to site-based adventures (i.e. "dungeons"). And that's pretty good for a book this size.

[ha! I just saw there's a quote from me on the back cover. I honestly failed to notice that till just now!]


  1. From your description, it sounds like How to Run and Dungeon's Front Door are two very different books. And it also sounds (if I'm right) that you prefer the former. What if you didn't care for How to Run, do you think his new book might excite readers?

    1. @ Venger:

      Hmm...if I gave the impression that I prefer How To Run, it was completely unintentional. Both books are excellent. Of the two, the second is of more immediate use to the DM who doesn't look at their game as a "vocation;" if you consider the information in The Dungeon's Front Door, you'll find your site-based adventures (and your running of the same) to be fairly kick-ass.

      The information in How To Run is useful for anyone, but new DMs and veterans looking for a "long-term game plan" will gain the most from its reading. It is also the more difficult text to digest...the new book can be finished in a day or so, while How To Run will take considerably longer.

  2. Ok, thanks for correcting my assumption.