Why We Still Need Dungeons

Further to my previous post, I’ve been considering why the basic dungeon adventure is still so important to the game after thirty years of progress toward more roleplaying-heavy, storytelling-based game styles.

There’s a progression for many players that goes something like this:

  • Non-player: I’ve heard of “Dungeons & Dragons”, it looks interesting, I should play
  • New player: This game is new to me, everything is interesting
  • Regular player: I have played a few games and enjoy dungeon crawling as long as it’s still interesting/rewarding
  • Roleplayer: Dungeon crawling is boring and repetetive, I want something more - plot, or character development
  • Ex-player: I’m burned out on dungeoneering, and want to play a different RPG with more emphasis on storytelling and character

Now, many of these interested “non-players” never make it to being D&D players - the high initial cost of rulebooks, the initial rules complexity and the difficulty of finding players are prohibitive. Every place which sells D&D books should provide methods for prospective players to join groups - in my opinion. Wizards of the Coast ought to see to this.

Rather, D&D is losing a lot of its potential players - young people who are interested in the fantasy genre and hack-and-slash gamesiness of it - to fantasy MMOs which cost less initially, have an easy learning curve and don’t require players to know established gaming groups already. These MMOs provide a lot of the co-operative hack-and-slash of entry-level D&D.

That’s basically what a dungeon crawl is - entry-level D&D. New players enjoy the game enough for what it is and don’t care for story or roleplaying - in fact, some players may be too embarrassed to roleplay seriously unless with a regular group. This means that the entry-level, default D&D experience is simple, straightforward dungeoneering. Some regular players don’t grow out of phase and will happily crawl dungeons as long as there’s always something new and interesting, which is why we still have people playing dungeon crawls after twenty years.

A downside to online MMOs, of course, is that you don’t get to be “the heroes” - when everyone’s a hero, you’re just a regular citizen in a land where magic is boringly common. People who take up MMOs could be enjoying D&D instead, or as well as. People who leave MMOs after getting bored with the lack of creativity, freedom and heroism involved, could be taking up D&D. Again, this is an area that Wizards really isn’t marketing to properly, instead it’s trying to compete with WoW with an MMO - a dungeon crawl set in Eberron, of all things!

In my estimation, the main groups of demand go something like this:

  • New players want anything that’s not going to be overly complex. Especially so with younger players, they will enjoy looting a monster-ridden tomb without demanding logic.
  • Old players who still enjoy dungeon crawls will enjoy the revisiting of the old classics. Even if they now prefer story-based events, they may enjoy the novelty of a one-shot in the old style.
  • More experienced players, including roleplayers, who will enjoy some level of combat and dungeoneering but will only be satisfied if that goes hand in hand with a storyline, events that let them feel like they’re the heroes of the show rather than monster-whomping tomb-looters. They aren’t entirely bound to dungeon crawling, and may be interested in alternate playing styles as long as it’s interesting and fun.
  • Eberron/Greyhawk/Faerun fans, who will find it of the utmost importance that the adventure feels at home in their chosen setting. Eberron DMs in particular will want to be able to mould the adventure path to fit the style of the setting as explained in Chapter 9 of the Eberron Campaign Setting. Greyhawk DMs will want the game solidly placed in their setting using names and characters of yore, and Forgotten Realms fans will want that epic feel wherein gods are watching the party and occasionally tipping their hands to influence events.
  • Hardcore roleplayers, who eschew combat almost entirely and only enjoy freeform adventure, ought to hate dungeon crawls and will probably avoid adventure paths entirely.
  • DMs, who depending on their players and their own preferences may be looking for a creative outlet of their own that lets them shape the adventure path, or they may just be looking for something to run by-the-book for their players.

Comments (2)

Angus McDonald (June 11th, 2006)

You raise some interesting questions … one reason you have overlooked, is that for a time-poor DM, a ready-made adventure is a blessing. After all, they are the ones who have put out the cash to buy the it, so it must help them keep their group occupied.

A story-heavy, roleplaying focussed, adventure will necessarily require a large investment of time and effort by the DM to fit it to their campaign, and gaming group. A dungeon on the other hand can be dropped almost anywhere - especially if it requires little modification of existing story elements. or campaign facts

However, there is also some evidence that Wizards sees adventures as have a limited ROI (return on investment). They cost a fair bit to create, and you are guaranteed that not every DM will want it - and DMs are already a small subset of your pool of customers. hence the preponderance of player guides, aimed at being sold to as many members of your gaming group as possible.

Perhaps a good strategy for Wizards to follow would be to seed the playing public with cheaper (and slimmer) core rulebooks, and move much of the content into specific rulebooks focussed on sets of classes, or game types. Modern print on demand setups would allow them to do this for a fraction of their current printing costs - the only downside being that many players still find thei way into the game through gamestores that sell other material (boardgames, CCGs, games software, etc).

In that case they could aim a product specifically at ex-players of WoW, or NWN, or other CRPGs - and showing them immediately how d20 can exceed their old CRPGs’ in terms of imagination, and the heroic importance of the player characters.

Personally I prefer the slightly more sophisticated style of story-heavy games, but find that my available players are happier with simple fights and treasure grabs. Having a larger pool of players would enable me to get more interesting things happening - although I’d still be looking for the odd dungeon to drop into my campaign in order to provide some quick adventuring possibilities.

Zachary Way (June 21st, 2007)

At the local gaming store that I DM at, we run “D&D By Torchlight” campaigns every sunday for new players. Its $20 for them to get in, they get a prerolled character, randomly chosen. They get a full steak dinner, and a D&D Mini that represents their character. We introduce them to the rules of how to play, and run through one of the small lvl 1 Dungeon Delves that we sell at the store. Since we started doing this about 2 months ago, interest in my freeform campaign that I run on saturday nights has gone from 5 players to more than 15 players that come and go throughout the weeks. yes it makes it more difficult on me to DM the sessions, but we’re hoping that as the new guys learn, someone will want to learn how to DM and start their own games.

I definitly have to say the introductory campaigns have done a great deal to drive our D&D sales at the store. We are running a Monster Campaign for the experienced players on Saturday, they also paid $20 to sign up, get a full Turkey dinner ( no plates no silverware, they’re eating as if they were orcs…lol) and they also get the D&D Mini that represents their character. After all the experienced players saw what we were doing for the newbies, they wanted something of their own. So we decided on a Evil Monster City Raid campaign. The campaign sold out 2 days after we posted it in the store and on the website.

Starting next month, we’re going to be giving away the new “D&D Starter Pack” that comes with the paperback Players Handbook, character sheets, dice set, and a booster pack of D&D Mini’s to 1 player during each of the Newbie campaigns. The newbie campaigns are selling out every week, and we’ve only had 3 people no-show in the past month.

Wizards should definitly think of finding ways like this to drive a new player base. Give shops some prize support for newbie dungeon delves, like those starter packs.

The big problems we have is figures. But hopefully when we get our Reaper Mini stuff in later this month, that will change! Thank god Reaper is looking to sell pre-painted plastic Mini’s in blister packs so we can buy that Dwarf Fighter that we’re missing. Wizard’s should take note!

Also we run Paint’n’Takes for the new players when we get the Reaper pewter mini’s in…I think its $5 and they get to paint their mini with the stores paint, and run through a dungeon delve and keep the mini!

Ideas like these have kept our shop growing strong…we’re almost out of room!

Comments for this article are closed.