Dungeoneer’s Diary #7 – Some Thoughts About Stupid Dungeons

Posted: November 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

Just another unsuspecting adventure party…

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

In all my time dungeoneering or whining about not dungeoneering, I’ve noticed several related odd things about play in the traditional fantasy set roleplaying games that are specific to the genre. Most other RPG settings and genres along with fantasy RPG campaigns that allow guns seem to self-select away from these particular tropes, in favor of other clichés to be dissected in other posts. Good GM/DM types will work to avoid these head scratchers and/or a Guns OK fantasy campaign will take care of the rest. Stop me only if I don’t end up describing your last ten fantasy RPG adventures.

A party has just cleared a few rooms in that stereotypical dungeon shown in the illustrations in the rule books: walls made of quarried stone blocks, ten-foot wide corridors and doors made of oak planks banded together with cast iron. The dramatic progression of monsters intent on eating, protecting treasure, burying real and metaphorical hatchets in PC heads or just merely getting in out of the rain has been increasingly violent (the GM/DM has read the same screenwriting manuals as the rest of us). Each battle has made a lot of noise, almost musical noise that seems sure to reverberate through these ancient stone hallways and the party contemplates the next door.

Room One sheltered three orcs armed with Nordic hand axes and probably wasn’t too serious noise wise…maybe C 5 on the piano with all that clanking steel. Room Two probably contained two uber-skeletons (extra hit dice for extra difficulty) skilled enough to make Ray Harryhausen smile from Beyond; this fight might hit B-flat 6 or E-flat in the same octave (an allowance for real gamers do, in strict point of fact, scream. Why we are sometimes banished to the card table in the garage). Room Three might have a half-size ogre where the battle noise alerting the monster in the next room might peak at A-flat 7. And then the cruel, vicious DM sends the party into Room Four with a medusa-siren hybrid and this fight will go off the charts for both volume and high-pitched sound. Basically, I’m guessing this femme monster and/or the swordplay will hit A Over High C, just like the diva singing the lead in the Met’s current production of The Exterminating Angel.

This seems to be a lot of noise bouncing off those stone walls, sure to wake up or alert the next monster in the next room. Yet, invariably when the party approaches that next door (probably the smallest white dragon possible given the hypothetical progression), the party stops at the new door beginning the Door Procedure all over again. Listen. Browbeat the thief to test the lock and look for traps. Enter. Slaughter everything that looks like a monster. Assess results and heal damage, if possible. Bathe in ancient treasure before moving to the next door. A good life that avoids anything remotely like a pseudo-medieval day job.

There are good reasons for this odd rhythm of play in a straight up dungeon clearing adventure. Traps exist to keep the party from getting over confident in the same way that football teams run in order to making passing plays possible. And pausing at the next door can also play into the rules for magic and health recovery allowing the party to make it through to the dungeon’s exit.

And some of these tropes are inevitable, especially when we compare the trade of dungeoneering to the slightly related real world trade of clearing terrorists from bunkers. On the surface, the two careers are indistinguishable…a team enters, all the bad people inside get whacked and the team either then bathes in ancient treasure or they high five that they wiped out terrorists that threatened civilians from the home country. But, we have to look carefully at how anti-terrorism/S.W.A.T. raids are actually different from clearing dungeons to see the fine gradations of my point about how the traditional dungeon clear mission needs a savvy DM to avoid silliness that prevents Suspension of Disbelief.

When Delta Force goes through the door we can assume that the team has the blueprints to the structure before going inside. Even halfway civilized cities make a point of requiring new construction projects to file architect’s drawings with a city department that are either accessible through bribery or are online. This allows the team to build plywood replicas and train repeatedly, or to make a plan that adapts preexisting shoot house training to the new layout.

The adventuring party by contrast happens upon an ancient ruined structure for which no one alive has been inside for generations allowing ghost stories to develop about Dracula’s Castle, up yonder on that hill. Not having the plans has a way of naturally forcing most people to slow down and get the thief to deal with the door. Where the art of dungeoneering can go off the rails is when the inexperienced DM still rolls for Monster Surprise and/or Dragon Found Asleep on the fifth or sixth door in the dungeon, when the noise of all that fighting should wake up everybody between here and the sewers of Minas Tirith.

The one exception to this suggestion would come specifically after a team rest period where the heroes take four hours to get back a few hit points and have the next batch of spells memorized. You can sort of rationalize that monsters, like people, might be lulled back into complacency once they stop hearing scary fight noises for a long enough time. But, many monsters are depicted as having language skills implying a social order, learning and advanced thought suggesting that after the first few doors that the DM simply says, “look guys, you’ve made a lot of noise and the ogre in this room knows you were always coming in for the golden spoon it has treasured since birth causing him to set his ten-foot spear against you.”

Going back to the compare and contrast between dungeoneering and bunker clearing, having the plans and wanting to find Osama bin Laden in the back room has a way of driving the mission to go faster. If a colonel understands that there are twenty rooms to clear with a principal in an upper floor back room and twenty goons as protection, then he or she will block out thirty commandos from the unit.

Four to six will cover with sniper rifles and the rest will form four-man mini-teams each designated to leapfrog hitting doors. A team hits a door. Another team hits the room next door and the first team will move to the next unopened door down the hall. Stealth skills trained into everyone on the team and sound suppressors do have a way of hiding movement until just before entering and shooting all the bad guys in the room.

The adventure party is basically reconnoitering the dungeon going in blind hoping to find monsters to slay and treasure to liberate. The dungeon party is by definition smaller than the anti-terrorism team which means that fewer resources exist to clear out the structure in a quick and timely manner (besides treasure is on the line, expect adventuring parties to behave with the mutual suspicion of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). When 4-6 instead of 20-30 people go into a resisted interior space with no preconceived notions of saving the pretty Peace Corps volunteer with a gun to her head, the PCs don’t need to be all that rapid. The gold will still be there when we get to that particular door in thirty minutes…or tomorrow.

Hoping to close out the Delta Force comparison, the single most effective way for a DM to control his players’ behavior is the judicious use of booby traps. As said above, using traps serves to keep the party from treating dungeons like Delta Force raids. I have been in campaigns where after a while new rooms went like this… Listen. Test lock. Seek traps. Kick/pry open the door. Toss in the lit flask of magnesium infused oil (the fantasy RPG equivalent of either a flash-bang or an out and out fragmentation grenade). Slaughter everything that survives. I’m sure our DM hated us and just didn’t say it.

And we’ve seen enough modern rescue missions depicted to know that terrorists set up plenty of booby traps. But, there is a difference in the character of said traps that should be noted by the experienced DM in order to preserve Suspension of Disbelief. I’ve noticed that the traps in stereotypical fantasy RPG dungeons have a mechanical ingenuity/Rube Goldberg feel that real world booby traps aren’t likely to have. Basically, the fictional traps feel built by the same builders of the average pharaoh’s tomb with pressure plates in the floor leading to poison darts or an extra tumbler in the lock that has nothing to do with opening the door but might drop the thief into the oubliette on the floor below. Real world booby traps seem to have a character more prosaic, a tripwire leading to a crossbow or shotgun propped up to cover the door.

My thoughts here are rooted in the one area where the thinking of the people inside the dungeon might be identical, or at least should be treated as such by the DM. It seems a rarity that Delta Force will find a room that has both a trap and terrorists inside. Usually, it seems the bad guys will prop up the shotgun to cover the door because they’ve decided to retreat into a more defensible room with more friendlies or they just want to get out and hide among civilians until the next mission. Or they will stand and fight.

One very sound reason for this suggestion for either bad guys in the room or a trap, but not both is that if you set up a trap the mechanism can also work to kill members of the home team instead of the invaders. If the bad guys set up a claymore directional charge before escaping out the back door, those explosives might go off early. Similarly, the crossbow set up behind a dungeon door impedes the ability of the orcs in the room to do normal things, like going to the bathroom or seeking food. This creates a similar suggestion that most traps will be makeshift and defeated by plastering to the wall out of line of sight to the doorway.

And to beat these suggestions home so that they stick, I have heard of extremely devilish real world booby traps, but only after the opposing army evacuated the area and wanted to demolish the port, building or airfield to deny easy use to the advancing enemy. In World War Two, German engineers wired a building so that a GI peeing on a wall flattened the whole structure. I wouldn’t expect this behavior in a contested structure because saving your own guys for the next fight is a priority for nearly everyone.

By contrast, the Rube Goldberg traps favored by pharaonic tomb builders and punchy DMs seem to take on a character of something designed to protect loot many years, decades and centuries after the ancient users of the space have long since gone to dust. True, old and musty dungeons and haunted castles up on the hill are the bread and butter of fantasy RPGs, but the green DM will sometimes put a monster and trap behind the same door without thought leading to this question – “wouldn’t that ogre get hurt tripping the trapdoor into the oubliette the first time he needed to pee?”

Which leads us to another odd thing about inexperienced DM dungeons…a monster in every room. The progression I described above involves four different sentient or semi-sentient monster races all neatly tucked into their rooms in the dungeon that doesn’t consider lessons learned from how humans pack themselves into multi-family housing.

Do orcs like living next to an ogre? Do the skeletons make too much noise rattling their bones for the medusa-siren’s delicate diva sensibilities? And does the white dragon in Room Five imagine the day when the pins in his curse dolls representing his neighbors will pay off with painful deaths bringing peace? And will an invading party of adventurers bring them all together in common cause?

Basically, the DM who haphazardly throws such disparate monster races together would need to invent a backstory of residential politics worthy of shows like Melrose Place to explain why these disparate races that live together in the functional equivalent of a condo HOA association aren’t killing each other. You can argue that certain types of dungeons might exist as a training center for adventurers. A wizard of dubious character makes money throwing would be heroes who pay for the privilege through a trapdoor.

But, then the monsters in that dungeon suddenly have as much reason to escape as the player characters and we should expect the wizard running the dungeon/shoot house to enact certain cruelties upon his monsters to keep them there. For instance, you kick in the door to the medusa-siren-diva’s room and you should expect to find her chained to the wall with a piss bucket. Chained to the wall will almost always bring about pity on the party of the adventurers leading to all kinds of weirdness the DM didn’t plan…like freeing said diva that would otherwise turn them to stone or make their eardrums bleed hitting A Over High C at 150 decibels.

Otherwise, why aren’t the monsters also exploring the dungeon seeking nicer quarters as far away as possible from the smelly ogre in 3A? This suggests that adventure parties should blunder into monsters out and about stretching their legs in the hallways. Inexperienced DMs forget to do this along with other things.

In the interest of saving metaphorical ink, I will close this post letting my amusement at how we actually play fantasy RPGs wash over you with a tease for a later post about how to do sensible dungeons and adventures. A post for another day.

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