Monday, February 10, 2014

Lamenting The Death of Dungeoneering

I have had the pleasure of participating in two Pathfinder games recently, and one thing that has struck me is how the players' approach to dungeon settings has changed over the years. In the old days, navigating the dungeon used to be one of the key challenges in an rpg. Each room was a negotiation between the DM and players, starting with the DM's rendition of the room description and continuing with a detailed account of every PC's action. Who searches what part of the room? Where is everyone standing? Who is opening those moldy old sacks in the corner? Hmm, so I see no one checked the ceiling... (chuckles and rolls behind the screen...)

Whereas before, it was critically important for the players to tell the DM exactly what they were doing, what pieces of dungeon dressing the characters were investigating, and how they were going about it. There was still a lot of combat, but it took only a couple of minutes; this back and forth of description and reaction WAS the game. Today, in many gaming groups, the fights take most of the table time and much of the dungeoneering boils down to a quick, "We search the room," and a host of perception checks.

This is starting to sound like a graybeard nostalgia post. It isn't. Just an interesting observation of how players have changed their behavior over the years. I think there are two main reasons why the emphasis has shifted... and if these damn kids would get off my lawn I would tell you about it.

The first reason -- and perhaps the key reason -- is the fact that our game systems have gotten better (or perhaps just more specific). Skills and talents are the norm in rpg systems now, whereas before, you really didn't have a good accounting of a character's abilities. In 1st edition D&D, you knew if someone found an item hidden under the bed because they said they searched under the bed. You knew if they detected the spider lying in ambush because they said they checked the ceiling.

Now, we have skills and skill challenges, which is great, but it also means that a skill checks have replaced a lot of the meat of dungeoneering. Many games have skills, like Perception and Dungeoneering, that dice much of what had to be described before. I like skill-based games and I like having skill checks as an rpg mechanic, but the double-edged sword of these systems is that they encourage us to dice out what used to be interactive sequences. Conversation skills are one place I see this change, overcoming traps is another, and dungeoneering falls into that dice pit as well.

Another thing to consider is that dungeoneering used to be the focus of games like 1st edition D&D. Early editions of D&D were resource management games where the dungeon environment was the main opponent. Your hit points, spells, oil, torches and provisions were all resources in the pool, being slowly depleted by the denizens of the dungeon.

As you burned your resources, you had to decide whether your group could continue on and face another fight, or trap, that would weaken it further. Even worse, you may stumble on a devious trick, like a sloped passage or a sliding wall, that would make it hard for your group to navigate out of the dungeon -- and every minute you spent wandering around lost, or rechecking your map, brought you closer to a wandering encounter check... and a fight you might not be able to withstand.

And let's not discuss the dreaded pit trap. This dastardly trap was a triple threat. Not only would it damage the group and burn precious hit points and healing resources, but it would negate all of your careful mapping, dumping you into a new area and forcing you to find your way to the steps up. In the meantime, you are fighting for your life on a dungeon level you are probably not quite ready to face... They get harder as you go down, remember???

Nowadays, the focus has shifted from the environment to the individual combat encounter or skill challenge. Navigation is often a non-issue; the GM reveals the map as you explore it. There is no emphasis on getting you lost, after all you can see the map, too. If you have no chance of getting lost or stuck in the dungeon, and running out of critical supplies, like torches, time becomes way less important... and if you take wandering monsters out of the game as well, there is no need to track time anymore.

The dungeon used to be an environment to be conquered. A fair bit of skill and decision-making was required to successfully navigate a large dungeon, and doing so was the strategic part of the game.

Cleric (leader) : "Guys, I know the kobold king is nearby, but the I am down to my last two heals, and the mage is out of spells. If we turn back now, we'll have to face at least 3 wandering monster checks. Maybe we should consider heading out."

Fighter: "Yeah, but remember last time, those damn kobolds set up tons of traps and old Fumblefingers here doesn't really have a good Find Traps percentage. I can't face another one of those black spore traps again... (shivers)"

Cleric: "Ok then. Wizard, get out your wand. We'll try one more door."

Wizard: "But my wand is out of..."

Thief: "Let's do this! I open the door."

Ok... maybe strategic is too strong a word, but there were decisions involved, and a lot of sloping passages and secret doors to be discovered, and pit traps to be dreaded. A lot of that is gone from our adventure designs, and now dungeons are more a way for GMs to arrange encounters in a logical fashion and to limit choices while still offering a few options, but the meat of the game is the diced encounter.

So when we play Pathfinder again, and our group smashes its way from room to room, not marking off torches, or worrying about another random encounter check, I will remember "the old days" fondly and sip my beer and lament the death of dungeoneering.