players build the dungeon

Eric raises a good point in comments: players do invest in Old School games by inventing zany in-jokes and peripheral nonsense.  This is fun stuff: I’m a fervent proponent in our mule-based alignment system, and a fanatical believer in the Boss, our made-up deity.

But the fact remains that this stuff usually sits on the sidelines of play.  Eric, our Dungeon Master in that game, has indulged our whimsies through the kindness of his heart, and has done a few things to give the Boss Cult some spotlight time.  But mainly we’re playing Keep on the Borderlands sprinkled with Boss-ism.

So here’s a dumb-as-dirt way to get your players to design a grab-bag dungeon for you.

  1. Get three players.  If you have one player, chop her in thirds.  If you have two players, chop one of them in half.
  2. Explain your setting to players in general terms.  Remember, they are players and have short attention spans. The idea here is to give a general flavor of your campaign setting, like “Curry” or “Hoisin Sauce.”
  3. Isolate your players from each other.  E-mail works well here.
  4. Tell your first player (or the feet of a divided player) to develop three scenarios for adventures–the general mission or purpose for an adventure.  Write these scenarios on index cards.
  5. Tell your second player (or the head of a divided player) to develop three general settings for adventures, including a couple rooms or areas within a dungeon.  Put these ideas on index cards.
  6. Tell your remaining player (or portion thereof) to describe three sets of special monsters & treasures.  Again: index cards.
  7. As the Dungeon Master, riffle through the index cards.  If everything sucks, throw the cards out at your players’ faces in frustration, and find new players who are able to do your work for you.  But ideally your players do not suck and have given you some good notions.
  8. Combine in a mixing bowl: 1 Scenario + 1 setting + 1 idea of special monsters & treasures = basic adventure outline.  This stuff represents rumors or historical lore that has made its way to the players.  Alter one detail in a signficant way, just to keep players on their toes.
  9. As dungeon master, draw the map and stock the dungeon with “non-special” monsters and treasures.

This way, players have some investment in the dungeon that results.

I’m not sure how well this would work, but it’s worth a shot.  At the very least, it seems likely to generate the sort of surreal, eclectic dungeons that seemed to characterize mid-1970’s Dungeons & Dragons play.

4 Responses to “players build the dungeon”

  1. 1 tavisallison
    October 7, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Interesting experiment! We’ve spent a ton of time in dungeons over the last year-plus and it’s been awesome, but I’m not sure it’s the best venue for player investment. What I like best about dungeons is the sense of an external reality – there’s this place that exists in a world of graph paper, and it is objectively lethal; it doesn’t care about me one way or the other, and the DM is there simply to referee my interactions with the graph paper as I try to explore that reality. I suspect that knowing that the dungeon was the way it is due, in part, to my input would interfere with this sense of the dungeon as an otherworld discovered through play.

    That said, I think that I’m reaching the end of a training period in which I’ve relied on dungeons published in the late 70s to teach me about the essentials of the old-school and how to approach it. Moving forward I plan to use more original material, which may yield some insights about how to design an environment that will foster player investment without making them feel that the reality of the dungeon is subjective and it exists only to play on their character’s personal issues (as I sometimes do as a player in new-school indie games).

  2. October 7, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Well, there’s nothing wrong with an adventure that plays on a character’s issues IF that’s what the players want. But generally I agree that it’s good, especially in a game like D&D, to have an “objective” reality out there. The trouble comes from where and how players are allowed to invest themselves creatively in the game.

    The time-honored answer has been, “Get psyched about your character.” But this is actually a pretty sucky answer. First, because characters die like flies–I think we worked out our mortality rate in your campaign to be around 40%. But second, because the dude coming up to you saying, “Let me tell you about my character! I wrote this 45 page novella about him, before he became a 1st level guy!” is universally reviled. But that 45 page novella is a symptom of a deeper problem: he doesn’t have enough “official” opportunities to get jazzed about the game, so he’s basically writing fanfic about his own character.

    It’s not that you shouldn’t get psyched about your character, but that this may not be sufficient or create problems of its own. (“Um, sure I read it . . . And now here’s this adventure which doesn’t involve your novella at all! Thanks for writing it though.”)

    Another obvious but problematic answer is, “Get psyched about the delve!” This is much more promising, but it’s not foolproof. Long-term campaigns, at least the kind we’ve been playing lately, require a certain degree of commitment to truly appreciate. A casual player can get psyched, and yet get a lower return on that investment than someone who’s been there.

    I don’t think this state of affairs is “bad” or untenable or anything. Just that a game based on creativity and teamwork relegates 80% of its participants to a fair degree of passivity.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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