Monday, February 2, 2009

The Year of the Dungeon

As you might be aware, the Lunar New Year has just passed us by, ushering in the Year of the Ox. It is traditionally held that this sign is one of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. The Ox is patient and, once having set its mind upon a goal, is hard to dissuade. It is certainly an auspicious sign for those of us with large plans for the coming year.

It has been my observation that there’s been a quiet rumbling in the hills of the Old School Renaissance in recent months. Like portents to some grand event, the signs are slowly pointing to a pending eruption. You can get a glimpse of these signs in various places: the blogs, the forums, and the fan publications all bear traces as to what may be in store for us in the coming year. I’m of course speaking of the renewed interest in the dungeon as the playing field of choice for the old school gamers.

There was a lot of banter back and forth last year about the return to the sandbox campaign and the desire to step away from the regimented and structured adventures and campaign worlds that had come into vogue during the years of 3.5. The return to the hex crawl as a valid form of adventuring received much renewed interest in the forums and in the pages of Fight On! While this is all well and good, it think that it time to move back underground and really start digging back down to the roots of the game.

I personally started this blog as an attempt to chronicle my own journey back to this most primal part of the game we all love, mentioning that my attempt was guided by the fact that I had never completed my journeyman’s “masterpiece” of a megadungeon of my own during my initiation into the hobby. While I’ve taken a few temporary detours along the way, that project has remained the centerpiece of the blog and will most likely to continue to remain so for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the works of Sham and Chgowiz, I’ve found a way to share with you my style of dungeon building while still maintaining a cloak of secrecy around my own main megadungeon. Stonehell will remain my example dungeon while I continue to work away on Gloomrisk for actual player consumption.

What has struck me most during this entire process of dungeon building is how intimately personal one’s dungeon becomes as work proceeds in it. In many ways, the dungeon is the singular representation of your skills and style of design and refereeing. On one hand, the dungeon is a very good way to show others the quality of your chops when it comes down to what you do behind the screen. On the other hand, however, it’s not always an accurate representation of your skills. As many a module attests, an extremely well-written dungeon does not always make an exciting locale for adventuring, nor does a poorly written one guarantee a poor quality adventure. The ability of an individual referee to bring such a setting to life is best measured in actual play, rather than by the static example of his notes and maps.

Despite this limitation, I still feel that the dungeon is a viable way for a referee to demonstrate his or her creativity and love for the game. It’s a shame that more referees aren’t forthcoming with examples of their own dungeons for a larger audience to view. This reticence is most likely two-fold. For one, any good referee doesn’t want to tip his hand to his players, so keeping information under wraps and off the grid is only a sensible precaution to keep one or more of his gaming group from stumbling upon it. Secondly, as I mentioned above, the dungeon is a very personal creation. Showing it to the world takes a bit of chutzpah that not everyone might possess.

Luckily, this hesitance seems to be lessening a bit. A change has been building, both in interest in the dungeon and the desire to share ones own construction or participate in a communal project of dungeon design. In just the past few weeks, there have been signs that more referees intend to share their work with a larger audience. Sham posted the first level of the Dismal Depths over the past month. Joseph has begun his attempt to produce a homebrew version of Castle Greyhawk. James is pondering the idea of releasing Dwimmermount in some product form. Fight On! magazine continues its efforts to detail “The Darkness Beneath,” its shared megadungeon project, in the pages of that publication. I’ve been adding my own fuel to the fire with my Stonehell updates as well.

I believe that this is a trend worth building on and one that more people should consider adding their own efforts to. The dungeon is the fundamental heart to this game, but there’s been a growth away from it over the years or at least a change in what exactly the word “dungeon” truly means. As Sham pointed out recently, there was a time when the word meant a sprawling labyrinth for the players to explore and the prefix “mega” was superfluous. While it might be too late to turn back the clock on the need for the word “megadungeon,” it’s not too late to revive it as a valid adventure setting. When 3rd edition debuted, the ad campaign promised us that the game was going “Back to the Dungeon.” Sadly, this wasn’t to be the case. If 3.5 has any legacy, it’s going to be the structured Adventure Path and not a return to the dungeon. It’s time to really take the game back to the dungeon, by which I mean the huge subterranean setting free of a metaplot and the need for sensibility and logical design.

My challenge to you for 2009 is to put your own dungeons on the table. Make a level or three available through your blog if you have one. Submit an excerpt to Fight On! or Knockspell. Polish up the whole thing and make it a .pdf available through the Old School Renaissance Publishing Group on Lulu. It doesn’t even have to me your most recent creation. Pull out some dungeon from long ago and show it to the world. Just get it out there. Chances are that everyone has something that could benefit others by being seen. I personally love mining other dungeons for ideas and inspiration, and the more that are out there for everyone to see, the more this trend will grow. And that’s a good thing for all of us.


christian said...

Inspiring post! In my own, quiet way I've been working on old school material within the pages of my print fanzine, Iridia. Labyrinth Lord has been my system of choice. It's a clean, easy way to run a game without pages and pages of hoo ha.

Kevin Mac said...

>When 3rd edition debuted, the ad campaign promised us that the game was going “Back to the Dungeon<

Oh man, it really said that?

I was DM'ing 1st Ed. AD&D pretty heavily when 3rd came out, and it wasn't even a blip on my radar. I knew when 2nd edition came out that if I was gaming in the future, I would be using 1st edition. Still am. Of course, that was a 1st edition that I had thrown out so much of (I was using maybe 15% of what was in the DM's Guide) it was practically OD&D.

Getting a new group together after several years off, I'm kind of getting inspired to do a Mega, especially after discovering this old school resurgence.

David Larkins said...

I think you're right; certainly in case, a megadungeon is part of my next big project goal. :)

noisms said...

I believe I will take you up on that challenge sir.