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Get Out of the Dungeon

posted Thursday, December 6th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Dungeoneering might be core to the Dungeons & Dragons game experience, but there comes a time in every Dungeon Master’s life when he has to ask, “What adventures await my players in the world above ground?” Delivering ancient artifacts into volcanos, solving crimes in a major city, and military assaults are all viable alternatives to the traditional dungeon, as The Big List of RPG Plots will attest.

Ultimately, the dungeon is merely a structure which happens to be especially conducive to adventure. An adventure, more generally, is any series of exciting, heroic events involving a group of heroes who set out with a purpose. In the books and movies of this genre, the heroes always seem to pull through despite impossible odds; in a roleplaying game, success is up to the players. In other words, an adventure roleplaying game has three important factors: it must be fun and interesting, the heroes must always have a goal, and the players must make meaningful choices.

These three factors are of constant importance in D&D. An adventure that doesn’t interest your players isn’t an adventure, it’s a chore. Likewise, if a game’s not fun, it’s no longer worth playing. Secondly, adventure without a goal is merely unfocused rambling, and even the most elementary D&D game has a goal of “successfully whomp all monsters in the dungeon”. The third, and sometimes overlooked aspect, is that the players’ choices and actions must genuinely affect the outcome of their goal – otherwise it’s not an interactive adventure, it’s just a regular old-fashioned story.

This isn’t to say you can’t spring unexpected encounters on your players, or have game events attempt to thwart their plans. It simply means that the choice of how to react to that situation must genuinely be theirs, and that whatever they do will affect the outcome realistically. Unless you truly are just telling a story together with your players (and this can be fun, but not necessarily as exciting), it’s important to retain the element of risk and avoid “railroading” your players through your plot.

In any case, what defines the “adventure” is that in each event, or scene, something interesting or exciting happens. In a traditional dungeon, rooms may contain combat, which is exciting because of the risk, as well as the potential reward in treasure. They may contain traps, the mere possibility of which raises tension. They might contain only decoration, or they may include clues that lead to the adventure’s goal. Often it’s exciting just to contemplate what might be in the next room. What’s important is that the players can always work out where to go next, and that un-interesting and un-exciting aspects (empty rooms, long travel times) are largely glossed over or hurried through. Remember that if it’s not exciting or interesting, it’s not really an adventure scene or event, and these are what you want to focus the game on.

Keeping this flow going isn’t quite as straightforward when you have a more open-plan adventure like an exploration or crime solving mission, but it helps to try and think of it as an invisible dungeon, where each room is an interesting scene or event. Just as the heroes’ motives goal naturally leads him to walk through the doors that are immediately evident upon “finishing” the room, so too must the players have one or more clear directions to take after each event. Often, it helps to prepare several “exits” in order to increase the chance that a player will “find” one, since it’s very important that players don’t become frustrated and lose their direction. The story must always advance in some direction, even if the players have to take a more scenic route to the finish line.

Keep the purpose of adventure clear, and this should help guide you through the DMing process. Always remember to keep things interesting and/or exciting for your players, and most importantly, keep things fun.

Comments

  1. KasraKhan

    July 19th, 2008

    I completely agree! (Although sometimes a bit of a set-in-stone storyline must exist, less you write an adventure the PCs avoid…*cough*)

    I have to admit I read this article title and laughed. Most of my players yelled at me to get in to the dungeon, as the vast majority of my events happen in cities.

  2. Jim Ryan

    August 3rd, 2008

    I couldn’t agree more with the point on “interactive-versus-railroading.” Early on as a gamer I used to be guilty of doing the later, not really getting it until a more experienced player in the group pointed out the mistake. It’s tough to realize you’re doing it from that side of the screen sometimes.

    As far as actually being *in* a dungeon, I can say honestly that the last time I actually set an adventure in one such place, everyone wanted to go see the Joker versus Batman in the theater down the block instead. The one with Jack Nicholson anf Michael Keaton.

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