Thursday, January 7, 2010

Unfinished Dungeons

No, I am not talking about writing projects left un-done. I’m talking about adventures that have never been completed. For example, has anyone ever actually seen a Kopru in game?

I have NOT…and I’ve run X1: The Isle of Dread at least four or five times. It is, after all, one of my Top Ten Modules of all time. But in all, I think only one adventuring party ever made it to the central “island within an island” and I don’t recall anyone getting beyond the 1st or 2nd level of the temple.

Is this strange to people? It ain’t to me. I’ve run many games that were never finished, their secrets never discovered, their depths never plumbed.

Reading Mr. Maliszewski’s retrospective the other day on S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth reminded me of this. S4 is one of the modules I picked up in that treasure trove of adventures the other day. I had owned it as a kid, and had also thought it was great. I also remember reading it and despairing at the thought that MY regular adventure group could ever uncover the secrets of the central chamber…just in reading it, the thing seemed damn nigh impossible.

I mean, I’d seen my players (I was always the DM in those days) stumble through the Tomb of Horrors, and THAT adventure at least had a riddle of clues to help players through (multiple parties reached the end of S1, even though none had the proper gear to harm the demi-lich in the slightest). But this thing with the doors and the teleports? Who but the most anal-retentive of spelunkers and map-makers could figure out such a thing? Personally I know I would never have the patience.

Plus the booby-traps at the end, should they actually uncover the treasure? Sheesh!

I did make two attempts to run the Lost Caverns, though. The first time, my players were never able to even find the damn thing in the wilderness. The second time I skipped the wilderness altogether and just said, “all right you found it and are sitting on the door step…what do ya’ do?” They never made it past the first level, getting washed out through an underground river as I recall.

Now certainly some of these adventures were left un-finished by my group due to Total Party Kills (even if their PCs were later “wished” back to life by their friends in town, they’d say “I ain’t going back THERE!”). But often I think the modules were simply too long, too large in scope.

While the players in the campaigns of my youth were clever and creative, and adventurous, NONE of them were of the take-it-slow-and-systematic variety. This idea that people make multiple forays into a dungeon, cautiously mapping and retreating to recover strength? Nuh-uh. The only time they were going back to town was to pick up replacement PCs for the guys that had met their ends underground.

Now part of this can be blamed on the DM (me) NOT making resource management a huge component of the game…I have a noted tendency of playing fast-and-loose with certain game systems especially encumberance, time, movement, and food. D&D isn’t a board game, so I never worried too much about characters’ movement rate…until they were in pursuit or being pursued by monsters. And if you stop worrying about movement, you stop worrying about turns…and how long torches/lanterns last (after 3rd level the characters would generally have access to continual light anyway). Better for the lights to go out at dramatically appropriate times (like when they get dropped in the middle of combat) than after 6 calculated turns.

Encumbrance puts a real limit on the amount of time one can spend in the dungeon…at least if one is hauling up thousands and thousands of coins in treasure. But bags of holding and portable holes certainly ease this burden, as does the B/X rule “all miscellaneous goods = 80coins weight.” When I moved to playing AD&D I continued to retain THAT rule.

As a DM, I never enjoyed being caught up in the minutia…I already had enough on my plate, dammit! Knowing the rules and being able to adjudicate, knowing the player characters and how THEIR gear and abilities worked, balancing player personalities, not to mention trying to know the adventure, DM it, and making the whole thing fun and exciting. If the minutia got dropped, it sure wasn’t missed!

But when the only “resource management” that needs to occur is managing of hit points and spells (I’ve yet to see characters ever “run out of arrows,” though we were pretty good about marking off ammunition)…well, it makes for fairly gung-ho players. Right up till the axe drops.

And that could easily happen when you’re three levels deep in the Halls of the Fire Giant King (unless, of course, you’re armed with Blackrazor…that sword was born to be used with a gung-ho style of play) or at the bottom of the Lost Caverns, or trapped between levels 4 and 5 of the Barrier Peaks nightmare without the correct colored card. If you push deep into the jungles of the Isle of Dread and get lost…well, that food issue will catch up to you eventually (if a wandering dino doesn’t use you to solve ITS “food issue”).

I’ve said before that I think S2: White Plume Mountain is perhaps the best adventure module ever designed, not only for its showcase of D&Disms, but for its over-all LENGTH. It can certainly be finished in a session or two, whether a party is taking it slow-and-steady or blazing away (remember the novel of the same name? THAT protagonist wasn’t making multiple expeditions into the volcano). With 27 different encounter areas (28 including the “end note” optional encounter), S2 has less than half the numbered encounter areas of B2: Keep on the Borderlands or X1 or S4.

And it IS the quantity of these numbered encounters that are important, not what they contain. Even a room that is empty of monsters, traps, and treasure will be thoroughly ransacked, prodded, and poked by the average party of adventurers. I’ve played in games where many loooong minutes were spent poking through a pile of rocks in a corridor despite their (to me) obvious use as a simple “no trespassing” sign. 60 to 80 numbered encounters? That’s not an adventure, that’s practically its own campaign!

Now before I go any further, let me say that I am NOT knocking B2 or X1. These modules are DESIGNED to be mini-campaigns, not one-off adventures. They illustrate their particular play rules (Basic – Dungeons; Expert – Wilderness) and give lots of room for exploration and experimentation with those new rules. Of course, neither one has real “end goals” either…there’s no “winning” of B2, unless I suppose you clean out the entire series of cave complex (though there are notes that new monsters will move into cleared caves). The same holds true for X1 (though I suppose you could extinguish every living monster on the island and turn it into some sort of tropical resort). But modules like S3 and S4 are crazy huge, despite having semi-specific “goals” inherent to ‘em. They might as well be called “mini-mega-dungeons” for the amount of time required for exploration…and modules like I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, I3-I5 (Desert of Desolation series), and X4-X5 (Desert Master series)…well I can’t think of these as anything less than mini-campaign settings.

And if your players are like the ones with whom I used to run, this ain’t what they’re looking for. They don’t want to sit down at the game table every week or two and say “ok where are we again? Oh, yeah…still there in that adventure.” My old players wanted new, fresh locales and challenges every session or two. They wanted to explore their characters while adventuring in the game world…they weren’t interested nearly as much in exploring some designer-author’s magnum opus of a dungeon.

When you have episodic adventures…or a campaign composed of them…the PLAYERS begin to create their own meta-plots and story-lines (well sometimes). When you’re stuck in a long, drawn out adventure, sub-plots and such MIGHT form but they become secondary and attached to the adventure at hand…which to me is a stifling of creativity for both players AND DMs.

[hmm…I wonder how Oddysey and Trollsmyth’s current on-going campaign developed. Odd has said this is the first time she’s played in a campaign that took things to this particular depth of character interaction…were her former games played in the mini-campaign or forced plot setting? Or is their current gaming style simply built on mutual rapport and understanding of narrative agenda needs?]

ANYWAY…attempting to tie this back to the original premise, I’ve worked a LOT of modules in the past and have only managed to complete a few…and then only with a lot of diligence and/or particularly “captive” audiences (like my little brother!). And I played A LOT of D&D in the past…the same core group of players, weekly or bi-weekly sessions, with full day and all night stretches. And the majority of these modules were simply never finished. The adventures BETWEEN adventures were (as Oddysey and Trollsmyth could perhaps attest) far more interesting…the intrigues, the rivalries, what was “going on” with the adventurers in the larger campaign world. For me, White Plume Mountain is the biggest site based adventure I want to explore…and think about this: it’s a whole goddamn mountain! Why should a dungeon set in a ruined keep or tower be bigger (what are the dimensions of the biggest tower in the Expert set? 30’x30’ maybe?).

Just some things I’m considering as I set about writing an introductory adventure module to go with my B/X Companion.

: )


  1. You know, this is a really good post and good points. You've given me something to think about. Thanks!

  2. Although once we did manage to find and defeat the Kopru down in their mud-flat caves (my Thief even found the sword +2, charm person), we spent many many adventures on the Isle of Dread that never even came close to the Central Plateau, let alone the island within the island.

    We actually never played that many modules in my youth. My friends and I were always coming up with new dungeon ideas, so like your campaigns, we tended to have a new setting for every adventure or two. And the few modules we played tended to not be completed as well.

    I think a lot of it had to do with our DMing styles. None of us were big on dishing out rumors or hints back then. We'd just let each other's characters stumble around the areas or dungeons until they found some good loot, or were running low on spells and hit points and decided to get out of there. With the dungeons we were creating, that worked fine, as there wasn't usually a story involved with them. They were just deep places of the earth, with lots of monsters and gold inside.

    But with any sort of story module, the DM would know the 'story' but wouldn't really give out enough hints to the players about what was going on. I remember the CM adventure "Endless Stair" being a classic example. There was this whole rivalry between the dead wizard's two apprentices going on, but the players had no idea about it because I didn't give out enough backstory through the peasants/locals, and they didn't ask. If I remember right, they eventually found the hidden tomb and partially looted it, but that was it.

  3. @ CW: glad I could help! Thanks for stopping by!

    @'ll note that in many Old School modules, there ain't much backstory...really just the most basic of ideas. I mean, let's look at B2...why are these Chaotic clerics there really? Both in the keep and out? Are the ones in the keep related to the ones out? Never explained.

    What the hell is going on with the Kopru in X1? Where the heck did Eclavdra hook up with the Ancient Evil Elemental, and why did she turn away from Lolth? For that matter, what's up with Lolth and the devout Drow versus Eclavdra's traitorour house?

    It's left to the DMs to decide...or not. But what there isn't a whole bunch of story and metaplot thrown in...there are connected themes that still allow a huge leeway in creativity. This is missing from most modules post-Dragon Lance. And all that extra fiction? As you point out, pretty much wasted on the average adventuring party. Might as well be writing a book.

    Moldvay's X2 is an exception that I really will have to blog about sometime....

  4. Well, even if there isn't a lot of backstory in many classic modules, my point was that in the few we played, what little there was rarely made much difference.

    "I've got a module!" was no different to us than "I've got a new dungeon drawn up!" In either, we just accepted that this was where we'd be adventuring that day, and went seeking monsters to slay and treasure to amass. It didn't matter if it was just some random series of halls, or some professionally crafted module with lots of atmospheric background to it.

    And as young DMs, we didn't fill in the gaps those modules made. As players, we didn't seek filling in the gaps of the dungeons we created. It was sort of a Field of Dreams thing. If you build it, adventurers will come!

    And with dungeons like that, we never really felt like there was anything to 'finish.'

    As we got older, we started making more adventures with 'ends' but in those early days, and even later on on many occasions, there didn't seem to be a point to an 'end' to a dungeon or a module. It was just there to be explored/raided/looted.

  5. @ Yesmar: : )

    @ Gwd: Point taken...but even though your group treated "goal oriented" dungeons as personal sandboxes, that wasn't necessarily the designers' intention. And if the designers intention WAS for some end goal to be reached, in both your case and mine that intention wasn't fulfilled.

    Certainly as older kids, when my co-DM and I would draw dungeons, there were certain goals associated with them. "Kill the beholder at the center of the labyrinth" or "find the princess's pet animal that fell down the well into the dungeon." While there were dungeons designed that were simple "oh ancient ruins...let's go loot 'em" not all were like that in MY campaigns. But as you suggested, we may have had different DMing styles.

    Hmm...I'm going back to bed. I've got stuff to mull over. : )

  6. I agree 100% JB, and I think that you've basically described the two main approaches to DnD adventuring. One emphasizes resource management and a kind of exploration in which resource management provides a central, global tension. The other emphasizes, for lack of a better word, discrete "puzzles" and it is the completion of these "puzzles" that provides the central tension. A dungeon can be a puzzle all by itself, as can a task like, figure out how to escape. But the thing is tension begins to fizzle if the "puzzle" drags on too long.

    It's sort of like "reader response theory." This is an approach to writing in which the writer is supposed to think in terms of reader expectations. You establish expectations, and it is the desire to have these expectations met that pulls the reader through. A huge dungeon can be a bit like establishing an expectation in the first paragraph, but then going into 20 pages of digressions before that expectation is satisfied. Most readers aren't going to get through that kind of paper.