Rambling Monster: The Dungeon Crawl

A week ago, Quinn Murphy of Thoughtcrime Games (and At-Will fame) asked Twitter what roleplaying game does dungeon-crawling best. This is a great question–even though the beginning of the hobby revolved around that particular genre, gaming has since grown to encompass so many more formats, play styles  and stories. The question may now be long gone in internet terms, but I still want to take the opportunity to think about my own answer.

Of course, we should define what the “dungeon crawl” is. I don’t think that’s possible without invoking the first editions of D&D and the clichés that arose from them. Gygaxian naturalism, 10 foot poles, and rolling ability scores in order are some of the tenets that come to mind. The world was harsh–the world did not care about your backstory, your triumphs, your treasure. The world dictated there were 1d4+1 rust monsters in the room, so roll initiative. Here’s a quick list of concepts we can take away from this:

1. No backstory–who you were before the game doesn’t matter. Only the experiences gained (and hilarious deaths caused) in the dungeon do.

2. Unique ecosystem–also called “Gygaxian naturalism” by some, the strangeness of fantasy monsters combined with the unique biome of the dungeon (full of treasure or magic), create an interesting site full of wandering monsters and deadly guardians.

3. Unforgiving harshness–even the most pro-PC GM has to give the party hell to make a dungeon crawl stand out. Traps, monsters, and all sorts of weird magic must stand at the ready to drain hit points and waste spells.

Seeing these, I can’t help but think of X-Crawl, a setting that combines classic D&D with American Gladiators. The setting even accounts for the GM to be represented by an actual character, the Dungeon Judge (DJ, get it?). The GM has very real motive for creating incredibly difficult scenarios for the players. “Are you not entertained!?” I actually wanted to run an X-Crawl game a few years back in 4e, reskinning most everything to fit into a modern setting. While I feel 4e would be a perfect fit for the combat situations in such a game, I’m not sure it’s aged well to really fit some of the other ideals  of dungeon-crawling.

Likewise, since this is a 13th Age-based blog, I want to go ahead and throw out that game as well. Two of the great additions of that game–the Icon relationships and the One Unique  Thing–fall under the first tenet above. Your quirky backstory that links you to the Emperor or the Orc Lord shouldn’t really help you fend of creatures and traps that often. Don’t misunderstand; I personally really like these mechanics, but when you’re talking about what defines this specific subgenre, they don’t really sync well. Hell, if you’re going for a whole campaign based on it, why not replace the standard Icons with dungeon Types, like Lairs or Tombs or Shrines? Maybe if a character takes a relationship point with Tombs, he gets a benefit when he’s in one or an attack bonus against undead?

That’s another post for another day, however. If I were to run a dungeon-crawl today, it’d probably be in Dungeon World, a game which combines the old-school aesthetics with modern design. The players have much more control over the unfolding story than in older games; the result of their die results could add elements of danger on the fly. I have to admit, however, I’ve played only a little of DW and haven’t run it, so I’m mainly going on what I’ve read rather than experienced, but I can’t see my mind changing on it being my choice for a dungeon-crawl game.

If I’m feeling more crunchy, however, I might opt for D&D 3.x or Pathfinder, as long as we’re talking very early levels. 3.x really isn’t my game anymore, but I do feel like it’s the closest we can get to the feel of the early D&D dungeon-crawl without having to touch THAC0; the rules are streamlined from the earlier game while still being crunchy enough to feel right. Depending on the players, I could see using D&D 4e, as long as we’re on the same wave-length and all willing to make some minor rules adjustments to make the game more harrowing and dangerous. 13th Age might well cover those changes, but I’d want to make the changes I listed above, changes you will probably see in a future blog post.

Using the Intrigue Deck

Our 13th Age game is continuing to run strong, despite taking some time off for the holidays. One of our players is now playing with us virtually, using a Google+ Hangout while the rest of us play face-to-face. It’s an interesting setup, and we’re still working out the kinks, but it’s not as difficult as I assumed it would be.

Last time, I mentioned using the Intrigue deck for Icon Relationships; I’ve had a chance to play around with that setup over the past few sessions, and it’s working out pretty well. The idea is, if a player rolls a 5 on an Icon Relationship roll, draw a card from the Intrigue deck as inspiration for the complication that will arise. For instance, last week, our paladin of the City Guard asked around his fellow officers for information on a missing person. He rolled a 5 and drew the “Quell Merchant Uprising” mandatory quest from the Intrigue deck. I interpreted this as him finding out about a protest in the Castle Ward comprised of merchants who were scared for their safety after one of their peers was found dead in his home (which the PC’s had discovered way back in the second session). After some smooth talking on his part, the paladin was able to calm down the protestors and find his target, who had came out of hiding to watch the uprising.

One major reason I like this mechanic is that it turns the city of Waterdeep into its own creature. While 5’s in other 13th Age games may cause situations that spring completely from the GM’s mind, letting the player draw an Intrigue card shows them that there is always something going down on the streets–things that are beyond their control and not just made up by the GM to mess their lives up personally. Much like a traffic accident in real life, these situations aren’t tailored to them; it’s just bad luck that they have to work through to get where they want to be.

Using the Intrigue deck in this way is a great way to introduce elements from the city as complications, but it can also give you cards that are so far off the plot, it may be best to ignore the draw and come up with your own or draw again. Perhaps, before the game, you should go through the deck and remove cards you can’t see making any sense or ones you don’t want to come up at all. One of the first times I used the deck this way, I drew “Real Estate Deal,” which I eventually interpreted as the PC finding out about a recently abandoned house in another district, but since that was already where I wanted the plot to go anyway, I’m not sure I used that complication appropriately.

Ultimately, if you’re looking to use this mechanic, you should look through the Intrigue deck ahead of time and get an idea for how YOU would interpret the cards. Take out the ones you can’t wrap your head around, or leave in the difficult ones and ask your players for help in interpreting them. If you have an idea about what complications you’d like to see, and you know there wouldn’t be any protests from the table, stack the deck with cards you want to see for the inevitable 5  you’ll get. This may be cheating, of course, but you still get the benefit of making it appear to be a random event in the city. (Once again, only do this if you know your players wouldn’t mind).

Any other ideas for how the Intrigue deck could be used?