Monday, 26 March 2018

Dungeoneering fast and slow: some thoughts based on D&D board games

Thanks to the magic of ebay, I recently acquired copies of two D&D-themed board games at knock-down prices. The first one was the Dungeons and Dragons board game, published by Parker in 2003. The second was the Legend of Drizzt board game, published by WOTC in 2011. They share the same basic concept: each models a band of heroes exploring a dungeon, and each uses the same kind of board game technologies to accomplish this, including miniatures, map tiles, and treasure cards. But their conceptions of what the dungeon is, and how the heroes interact with it, are very different.

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The 2003 Dungeons and Dragons board game.

In the 2003 game, the dungeon is essentially conceptualised as a series of discrete challenges. Each room contains a determinate number of threats, some of which - the nature and locations of the monsters - are revealed to the PCs, while others - the nature and locations of the traps - are hidden from them. There's no time limit, and no incentive to deal with more than one room at a time, but the PCs have a strictly limited amount of resources (hit points, magic points, items) with which to defeat the dungeon as a whole. A a result, optimal play consists of  slowly and methodically clearing the dungeon, room by room, until the objective is attained.

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The 2011 Legend of Drizzt board game.

In the 2011 game, the dungeon is the kind of free-flowing, danger-filled environment you might expect to see in the climactic scenes of an action movie. Rather than a series of discrete rooms, each area flows into the next. Threats spawn continuously: everything is constantly exploding, the heroes are always under attack, and the dungeon is constantly damaging the players just for being inside it. The players have a lot more tools than their 2003 equivalents for controlling combat - how much damage they deal, how much damage they take, how often they hit, etc - but far fewer options for controlling their environment: traps just happen rather than being determinate obstacles that can be located and disarmed, and monsters surge abstractly from one zone to the next rather than having to move through specific squares that the players can target or block. Optimal play consists of racing through this murderously dangerous environment as quickly as possible, trying to reach your objective before it kills you.

At first, I instinctively associated these two dungeoneering styles with 'old-school' and 'new-school' D&D, respectively. The 2003 game has the very OSR-ish idea of the dungeon as a logical and logistical puzzle - it even has encumbrance rules! - while the 2011 game, with its focus on tactics rather than strategy and its emphasis on cinematic action, reminded me of more recent editions. But in other ways, the 2011 game actually reminds me more than the 2003 one of the old-school idea of the dungeon as a 'mythic underworld', innately hostile to human life, in which everything wants to hurt you and the pain just keeps coming until you leave or die. It was the new-school editions, after all, which did away with the emphasis on timekeeping and wandering monsters, thus permitting PCs to explore dungeons at their own pace rather than always keeping one eye on the clock.

OSR bloggers often write about taking very measured, systematic approach to dungeoneering: explore everything, search everywhere, accumulate knowledge and use it to deduce the positions of traps, treasures and secret doors, master the environment and manipulate it to your advantage, and so on. It's a natural response to the relative fragility of OSR PCs: you can't just outfight the monsters, so you have to out-think them instead, and that's hard to do if the dungeon doesn't let you gather enough information to base your plans upon. But back when I used to run D&D 3.5 games, I'd sometimes run dungeons in the opposite way, as a kind of stream-of-consciousness nightmare in which the threats never stopped coming and the dungeon was there to be sprinted through rather than meticulously explored. The fact that D&D 3.5 PCs were more resilient than the OSR equivalents made it easier, of course. But it did make me wonder whether the same effects could be achieved within a more planning-and-logistics-focused OSR context, as well...

Imagine a dungeon environment so hostile - so hot, so cold, so poisonous, so infested with aggressive creatures, whatever - that just being inside it would rapidly wear you down. Descending into it would be less like spelunking than pearl-diving, with each dungeon-delving expedition lasting not hours but minutes: a frantic dash into the darkness and then back to the light before the environment destroys you, hopefully with a new fragment of knowledge or progress to show for it. The objective for a delve might be no more than 'see what's at the end of the south corridor', or 'rig up a rope bridge across the chasm to the north', and success would be a matter of gradually linking together the meagre gains from each of these dashes into a strategy for actually accomplishing whatever it was you came there for. Obviously, such a dungeon (or dungeon sub-area) would have to be pretty small, and the PCs would need to have a very good reason for going into somewhere so horrible in the first place. But, in a very literal way, it might make for a entertaining change of pace, pushing PCs to consider a different set of logistics to the ones they normally have to manage. How many of their standard adventuring procedures will need rethinking when proceeding at normal dungeoneering speeds would kill them all within an hour?

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'I really wish we'd come down here in more sensible clothes!'
Here are six possible 'hazard zones' that might lend themselves to this kind of 'fast dungeoneering':
  1. There is no floor. The whole area is an abyss, and awful bat-winged things surge up from below at irregular intervals. Each expedition would aim to attach a few more hooks, ropes, and pitons to the ceiling, gradually expanding the area which could be explored in relative safety - where 'relative safety' means 'fighting bat-winged monsters while dangling from the ceiling on a loop of rope', as opposed to 'being eaten alive by bat-winged monsters while hanging from the roof by your fingertips'. Would not work with a party that has access to flight.
  2. There is no air. The whole area is flooded. Lamps and torches won't burn down there, and your exploration radius is limited by the time for which you can hold your breath. Also there are probably piranhas. Progress would be about locating air pockets and gradually extending longer and longer breathing tubes from the surface, allowing air to be pumped down to people exploring new parts of the complex. Would not work with a party that has access to water breathing magic.
  3. Everything is on fire. Even in fire-resistant clothing, the heat will rapidly kill you, although it doesn't seem to bother the fire-monsters who live down here. Each expedition is a rapid dash through the flames and back again before you die of heat exhaustion, gradually allowing you to construct a map of the complex. Would not work if one or more of the PCs is fireproof.
  4. Everything is frozen. Each expedition is a race against hypothermia. Also everything is slippery as fuck, so a big part of each delve will need to be devoted to hammering in more ropes and spikes to make it easier to retrace your steps next time. There are probably wampas or something down here, too. Would not work if one or more of the PCs is immune to cold.
  5. Everything is poisonous. The air is heavy with poisonous gas, and staying inside it for too long will mean absorbing a fatal dose. Visibility is also terrible. Each expedition will mean simply mapping out a little bit more of the complex hidden within the fog, and maybe figuring out ways to improve ventilation of specific areas, all while dodging the inevitable poison-gas-exhaling zombies stumbling around within the clouds. Would not work if one or more of the PCs is immune to poison.
  6. Everything is haunted. This whole area is infested with angry ghosts which howl in the minds of all who enter, causing hallucinations, panic attacks, and poltergeist activity. The longer the PCs remain within it, the higher their risk of succumbing to possession or insanity. Assuming they have a cleric with them, progress means dashing into the zone, consecrating a tiny area to keep the ghosts out, and then dashing back again, gradually building up a network of 'safe zones' from which the area can be explored. Of course, some of the ghosts take the more direct approach of possessing corpses or objects and straightforwardly attempting to murder the intruders...


  1. These are all wonderful ideas. You are very clever to 1) see the differences in the board games; 2) articulate them; 3) extrapolate that to a new mode of dungeon challenge and 4) think up these six examples. Well done!

  2. I don't know if it 'wouldn't work' if a single PC had a work-around for these things. I ran a dungeon that was frozen, and while one of the PCs found a way to become immune to the cold, it was still tremendously inconvenient that her allies kept having to deal with the hypothermia. She also ended up isolated and vulnerable a couple of times, venturing on her own into areas. So still interesting

    1. I guess it depends how much of the challenge is purely logistical. If the main problem is just navigating the environment, then having one character who can scout everything and lay out all the spikes and ropes for everyone will largely nullify it. But if there are other threats - monsters that she can't fight alone, for example - which require other people to be brought along despite their cold vulnerability, then, yes, I can see how it could still work!

    2. "No no, you'll be fiiiiine. Just- just please don't die."

      While it would be important to use it in moderation, this could be a great way to move the spotlight to the less flamboyant players, by creating something they can interact with beyond the scope of other players. Carefully, of course. It'd be a shame if they slipped and rolled a dozen random encounter checks on the way out...

  3. I have been trying to find a post on another blog that I read a couple weeks ago to no success. It was inspired by an anime (film or series I don't know) that is pretty much the opposite of this. It has a dungeon that doesn't harm the character until they try to go to the surface. The deeper they go, the more horrific the results of returning to the surface.

    As for your post, all of those suggestions would make for a lethal dungeon if they appear in the first level after the characters have entered the third, thus triggering the effect. Once they are out, the dungeon returns to normal to lure more characters to their doom. I have been tinkering with the idea of non-static maps and this can be thrown in the notebook with the rest of the ideas.

    1. You probably mean this:

  4. That's it. It was a couple weeks ago that I found out that Ms. Allen has a second blog.

    Zounds!, you may want to look at what I posted in the fantastic elements thread at today. It was very much inspired by what I wrote yesterday here (and thus derives from your material).