Sunday, October 19, 2008

Realm of Unreason


Michael Curtis, aka Amityville Mike, in case you’ve been like me and fallen out of the blogo-loop of late, has started an excellent blog at The Society of the Torch, Pole and Rope.

One particular post Mike wrote made me revisit and remember why I returned to the gaming roots that allowed me to enjoy D&D way back when, before I started to become a ‘serious’ campaign and dungeon designer. I think my needless descent down the realism track started with an article by Richard Gilbert that I read in Best of The Dragon Vol. I at some point in the early 80’s. Something about the article, titled ‘Let There Be A Method To Your Madness’, rang true with me at the time, and I tired of certain players asking questions like, “This makes no sense, what do these monsters eat?” or “What are these Trolls doing here? Shouldn’t they be fighting the Ogres down the hall?”

From the early 80’s right on through almost all of my designs after that, I spent a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work on history, plot, motives, rationale and logic. Each room had a purpose. Ecology and realism haunted my every step. Each map was an exercise in questions and answers. All of my dungeons, and there were scores of them over the years, were mission and plot driven, with a clear goal and a definite end. None were larger than three levels that I can recall, and few had more than twenty rooms per level (most were a dozen or so rooms and a big encounter at the end).

Toward the very end of my regular D&D days, before my old gaming crew matured, got jobs, and scattered across the state, my return to the roots began in a short lived mini-campaign I started. It was dubbed The Classic Campaign, and I promised the players that nothing more than AD&D 1e, just the DMG, PHB and MM, was going to be used. The campaign centered around the home brewed Tower of the Overlord. I didn’t know what a megadungeon was, but decided I would tackle a 10 level dungeon, that promised to see return visits and extensive play. Thus was born my largest dungeon right up until I began working on Ulin-Uthor.

This desire to play classic AD&D 1e, and this desire to construct a ten level campaign central dungeon stuck with me for years and years. When I returned to D&D earlier this year, I was delighted to find that there was indeed a sect of old school, dungeon crawl fans out there, and now I even had a term for the large dungeon I wished to focus a campaign around. All was well with the world.

As I dove into my design process for Ulin-Uthor, I basically had to unlearn all I had acquired through those long years after reading Mr. Gilbert’s article. A fine article it is, but why bother with all of this realism when building a dungeon? Realistically, who in their right mind would build down into the depths past maybe one, or even two levels in the earth? I realized to explain the inexplicable I had to engage illogic and embrace the absurd. Thus, Ulin-Uthor is intended to be nonsensical and downright weird. It’s part of the allure of the underworld, that the players are leaving the light of day behind and entering a dimension of mystery and a realm of unreason.

Now, I am able to crank out maps and encounters that I KNOW the players will enjoy while taking on the challenges therein and maintaining that sense of wonder that kept me so enthralled as a youth. What player truly wants to explore abandoned Barracks, Kitchens, Storage Rooms, and Water Closets? “Ho-hum, more cots, chests and empty weapon racks? Seems we’ve been here before.”

Sure, I do indeed have certain regions and areas that are filled with just such trappings, but for the most part, Ulin-Uthor is a departure from attempting to have a ‘method to my madness’. My madness shines when I dispense of the methods accepted as reality. Funky traps, weird tricks, things that go bump in the night, these are the things that make a dungeon fun for the players. There is a certain level of logic, but it’s underworld logic here, not the logic of man.

My greatest deficiency in dungeon design is leaving rooms empty. I have an almost insatiable need to fill every empty expanse of the dungeon. It’s something I’m working on. The point is that it’s OK if a room is nothing more than just that…a room.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

1 comment:

Amityville Mike said...

We're definately in the same mindset. I think that I first started to through off the shackles that I constained myself so long with after reading Philotomy's musing on the Dungeon. He most certainly got my head back where it belonged.

I've been thinking about writing a post entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dungeon," but it seems now that there's no need. You've just done it.