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.