In Genre: THE DUNGEONby RJ Grady
In Genre: THE DUNGEONby RJ Grady
In Genre: THE DUNGEON
by RJ Grady
What Genre Are We In?
You are in a 30' x 30' room, with a door to the north and featureless tunnels to the east and west. Sconces hold burned-out torches. On the floor, you see the decayed skeleton of a human. Which way do you go?
This is the thirteenth and final installment of In Genre, in which we return to the beginning. In each column, I have analyzed and summarized a literary or cinematic genre in terms of its roleplaying potential. In the last column, I examined how genres are combined to make something new. While there are hundreds of roleplaying games now of dozens of types, from modern police thrillers to far-future space opera, from diceless games to miniatures-oriented adventure games. But all have been informed by the characteristics of their progenitor, Dungeons & Dragons. Now we delve into the genre of fantasy roleplaying that has grown out of roleplaying in generic fantasy. While there are other games that ventured into the regions now occupied by the modern RPG, D&D was essentially the first comercially available and successful RPG as we know them. D&D arose from a then-thriving wargame industry. Just as the millions of RPG fans have demanded that RPGs move out of the dungeon and into skyscraped megalopoli, the fans of historical wargames delved into every period from the chariot wars of Northern Africa to Rommel's maneuvers there ten thousand years late. It was perhaps inevitible that they devised wargames set in imaginary times and places, especially the Dark Ages-inspired fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien. D&D's original cover described it as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." In 1981, the quirky Fantasy Wargaming could still go by that name, and not once in its pages uses the phrase "role-playing game," although it was one, in a firmly D&D mode. But by 1979, D&D was already calling itself a role-playing game. Something new had happened, something different.
D&D spawned numerous imitators, big and small. The rules-lite Tunnels & Trolls thrust tongue firmly in cheek and aimed for an extremely casual, streamlined experience. Fantasy Wargaming, on the other hand, was a baroque behemoth of rules that anticipated later games such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest. Rolemaster and Harn began as supplements for D&D, but kept adding new rules-sets until they completely supplanted the engine that drove the former. RPGs advanced fitfully into other genres. Some early attempts, such as Traveller, survive in a present day form. Most, however, such as Boot Hill>, Star Frontiers, and Superworld, faded away. In the mid-80s, several lucrative licenses and excellent game designs brought RPGs out of the dungeon forever, including RPGs based on Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Marvel and DC comics.
D&D has changed hands several times. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came into being because of creative and business differences between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the co-authors of the original. TSR owned both D&D and AD&D. Eventually, TSR went out of business, seemingly signaling an end to the giant's reign. However, the body was barely cold before Wizards of the Coast snapped up the TSR properties. It was an odd reversal, in that a small game company become the owner of the original, and still most popular, RPG of all time. However, Wizards of the Coast were running a money press in the form of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Their RPGs became a sideline, and then a non-line. Before the D&D property could be disposed of, however, they were acquired by Hasbro, who intended to turn RPGs into a mature, sustainable industry, a goal which has so far been somewhat fleeting. D&D 3rd edition is the latest iteration in a long line of D&D products.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition
Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition
Killing Things and Taking Their Stuff
The original D&D game was not a very sophisticated pursuit. For the most part, it portrayed the adventures of hordes of player-characters as they fought skirmishes or delved into abandoned castles in search of loot. Very little thought was given to an in-depth world. It was not a game for high storytelling, any more than Donkey Kong is an unparalleled adventure story. Gradually, the storytelling side took over, as it is, naturally, storytelling that separates roleplaying games from miniature wargames.
More sophisticated adventures came about because of the need for stories to tell. As RPGs branched out, people played adventures that not only occured above ground, but didn't necessarily involve smiting and looting at all. Meanwhile, D&D and AD&D mapped out the wilderness and started taling about towns, and before you knew it, people were writing novels set in roleplaying universes.
Play in D&D is, to this day, based on several themes. The first is glory, represented by experience points and gaining levels. It is a game of dynamic, heroic characters who start off merely brave, but end up mighty. The second is attainment, whether wealth, magical power, or personal achievement. The third is danger, typically combat or physical hazards, but danger can also take the form of rivals, ethical struggles, or potential embarrassment. It is worth noting that these themes persist even in more recent, non-dungeon-oriented games like Vampire, Torg, or Hong Kong Action Theatre!. In D&D, though, they take a specific form. Levels, magic items, traps, alignment restrictions, and orcs are not merely game mechanics, they are part of the world in which the characters exist. Young boys from the farm leave home, acquire magical swords, struggle with the temptation of evil, battle with regimented legions of the enemy, and eventually become great heroes... just like in Star Wars.
Alignment is a sore spot for many gamers... not the least because of the dogmatic, "beat them with a stick" approach taken by D&D up until the third edition. However, it is an important part of the setting. The Law and Chaos dichotomy comes from swords-and-sorcery literature, especially Moorcock's Elric stories. Epic Good and Evil appears in a lot of literature, but especially Tolkien and the Arthurian romances. Original and Basic D&D used simply Lawful and Chaotic, which it equated somewhat with good and evil. AD&D decided to have it both ways, and used both, adding an element of true moralism to a metaphysical fantasy. Since you also had the potential for balance, represented by cosmic figures such as Elric as well as moral non-combatants like the Grey Mouser, four squares become a grid of nine boxes. The existence of Alignments and supernatural forces related to them put the PCs in the warzone between ever-changing Chaos and rigid Law, destructive Evil and selfless Good. Creatures may represent one or both struggles. Player characters like paladins uphold society in a lawful fashion, serving the cause of good. Barbarians often embody the chaos that remains at the corners of the world, beyond civilization.
D&D draws a lot of its inspiration from Howard's Conan stories and Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. These fighting rogues defy categorization, although all are unquestionably heroes. Though characters can be champions of law or chaos, good or evil, you aren't restricted to playing such characters. Druids concern themselves with nature, thieves with loot, and fighters with warcraft. Often a character's vocation plays as much or greater role in their outlook as alignment, but alignment remains a useful tool for measuring a character's allegiance and integrity when confronted with divine magic, orphaned kobolds, or the powerful agents of the aligned Planes.
Deities in D&D vary a lot depending on which specific variation you consider. They range from scheming "little gods" and serpent kings out of Howard and de Camp to capricious Greek Gods to stand-ins for the the luminaries of the medieval Church.
Characters in D&D are strongly archetypal, like D&D's influences. Like so many things in D&D, world concepts are expressed in game terms. Characters have a race, such as human, elf, dwarf, or halfling. While Gygax was not a huge Tolkien fan, he did want to give the people want they want, and sprinkled D&D heavily with elements of Middle Earth. In fact, early editions had explicit references to hobbits and ents, munged in later editions to halflings and treants. The different races have their own nations and customs, functioning as slightly more fantastic analogs to exotic human cultures. Often, these races have symbolic importance, such as the metaphysical, transcendent elves or the stodgy, grasping dwarves. While Tolkien's races each had their own cultural divisions, D&D showed an early predisposition to treating races as mono-cultures. Thus, we are left wondering where and how dwarves hunt the meat they eat, or where they get grain for their beer, if dwarves tend to be blacksmiths and not farmers. Some versions and settings lighten this effect, others emphasize it.
Characters also have classes. In the original D&D and in Basic D&D, if your race was elf, dwarf, or halfling, it was also your class. In AD&D, a character had a separate class, even if not a human. While early editions tended to pigeonhole characters into certain roles, beginning with second edition AD&D, options for customizing your character began to appear. In third edition, characters can multiclass with a fair amount of freedom, and Prestige Classes add a layer of customization, but classes remain an important of how a character's role in the group is defined. Most of the classes were based on popular characters. Wizards wore robes, as did Gandalf and Merlin. Rangers existed because Aragorn existed. In Unearthed Arcana, barbarians distrusted and could resist magic, because of Conan's demonstrated iron will and his endless fortune in evading nasty spells. In Basic D&D, thieves could read magic from scrolls, not only to give them something to look forward to at higher levels, but possibly as a nod to the Grey Mouser, their rapier-wielding godfather.
Imitators of D&D vary these elements in various ways. Tunnels & Trolls kept classes, but ditched alignment, and presumed human characters (apart from the optional play of leprechauns). Rolemaster kept classes and exotic races, but set aside alignment. Palladium fantasy kept alignment, class, and race.
Just as D&D was informed by popular culture, so it informed it. D&D gave Warhammer Fantasy back to the wargame industry that birthed it, which in turn gave birth to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a roleplaying game based on the fantasy wargame influenced by the roleplaying game that arose from the fantasy wargaming hobby.
This Dungeon Ain't Big Enough for the 1d6 of Us
The original "world" of D&D was a cavern, or perhaps a tower surrounded by hedge-mazes. Gradually, attention was paid to the nearby towns, and then the nations to which they belonged. Basic D&D and its expansions delved heavily into the conquest and rulerships of Mystara, while AD&D told us how to travel overland in Greyhawk. D&D-based fiction helped shape what would eventually become an attempt at whole fictional worlds. Sometimes the legacy of D&D's Frankenstein-like birth hindered it, other times it provided zany inspiration. Original D&D thrived on unusual juxtapositions, like armored knights traveling with hobbits through lizardmen-infested swamps. Second edition AD&D exiled the monk to Oriental Adventures, but D&D 3.0 brought him back, having learned the lesson that D&D is not about historical plausability, but about throwing together many aesthetic elements of genre fantasy to create something cool involving swords and sorcery.
Mystara: The originally nameless setting for Basic D&D. Demihumans live in closeknit clans. Magic Items were fairly rare, to the extent that mundane buying and selling was essentially unknown, although very powerful adventurers might be able to broker with powerful wizards in trade. Magic item creation was an idiosyncratic process involving rare, legendary ingredients. By the time the Expert set was published, Mystara was a sprawling world with mageocracies, feudal nations, and orc hordes. It remained heavily influenced by the chivalric romances, and placed a heavy emphasis on the attainment of strongholds at higher levels, knighly prestige classes for fighters, and generally benevolent deities for civilized nations. Mystara is a hollow world, and a boxed set detailed the exotic, adventure romance world that existed inside it.
Greyhawk: Greyhawk appeared to fill the need for a baroque AD&D setting. Like Mystara, it was first and foremost a swords-and-sorcery setting. However, it departed heavily from the chivalric romance, instead focusing on mythology, exotic cultures, and quirkier adventure fantasy in the fashion of Dunsany and Vance. Again, magic items were fairly rare, although powerful individuals could acquire them without too much effort. Greyhawk was born hundreds of miles wide, and gave birth to the first D&D fiction.
Council of Wyrms: A Basic D&D spinoff game. You played young dragons or half-dragons. This was a strong departure from traditional D&D.
Dragonlance: Dragonlance breathed life into a flagging gameline. It made AD&D a little different. Halflings were replaced by kender, traditional races had different stereotypes and roles associated with them, and dragons had a very significant place in the setting, rather than being scenery with treasure. While Dragonlance is touted as D&D's high fantasy gameworld, it also has the strongest ties to chivalric romances. Lord Soth is a very Tolkien-ish character, but as if played by Basil Rathbone. It is very similar to Greyhawk in that magic is fairly rare. However, extremely powerful magic has commonplace effects. For instance, while people in Dragonlance use horse-drawn carts, elves can shield an entire nation behind a magical barrier, or entire armies of dragons can attack. Thus, it mirrors the epic fantasy of Tolkien, in which characters like Gandalf or Ring-Wraiths are extremely powerful, but in day to day life, people are still living in the Dark Ages.
Forgotten Realms: The Forgotten Realms zigs where Dragonlance zags. It started with a world essentially lifted from the standard Greyhawkian fantasy, then started changing things around. For instance, Lolth and the drow appeared originally in Greyhawk adventures. It added hundreds of gods, each with their own cult, more in the style of Basic D&D than Greyhawk. It also threw in some celtic fantasy elements. It cranked up the magic to 11. The Forgotten Realms is a high fantasy with strong swords-and-sorcery roots. As opposed to Mystara or Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms is designed first and foremost to emulate D&D. If it can be found in AD&D, it exists in the Forgotten Realms. It has an entire sub-game-world, called the Underdark, which is basically a huge dungeon full of things to kill. FR has a magical economy where the wealthy use magic much like the industrial barons of the Gilded Age of the real world used technology. Unlike most D&D worlds, FR is cosmopolitan, with huge cities boasting demihuman quarters and even savage humanoid and planetouched minorities.
Dark Sun: With Dark Sun, D&D returned to its swords-and-sorcery roots. Mad sorcerer kings, daring rogues, strange wilderness wastelands. It dispensed with the usual "chock full o' gods" approach, and while characters could tap into the divine power of the natural world, good and evil were the province of strong-minded human beings. It also showcased the AD&D second edition psionics. Characters in Dark Sun received a power upgrade, with above average ability scores (just like in Oriental Adventures) and starting above first level, ready for dashing adventures like in the stories. The iconic D&D races were present, but so were muls (half-dwarves) and insectoid thri-kreeen.
Planescape: Another second edition AD&D world, this one took adventures to the other planes of the multiverse. It helped solidify the AD&D cosmology, and introduced the Blood Wars and the planetouched.
Spelljammer: Another second edition oddity. AD&D adventures in space. Characters could travel outside multiverses by piercing an Aristolean crystal sphere, and even travel between AD&D game worlds.
The Mighty Fortress, Celtic Adventures: AD&D for something besides the usual generic fantasy, and therefore largely outside the scope of this article.
Eberron: The latest D&D world, the first for the 3rd edition, echoes the Hollow World adventures, but moves in a very Forgotten Realms mode. A swords-and-sorcery, pulp adventure kind of place, with a Dark Sun-like downplaying of metaphysical alignments. Some elements suggest D&D-inspired anime, others (like the Dragonmarked houses) suggest genre fantasy such as that by Mercedes Lackey.
Many people think of a "dungeon" as a random series of rooms filled with random loot, but that undervalues the dungeon adventure. Dungeons are really all about structure. By organizing the rooms, the DM creates an adventure flow chart, and by filling the rooms with creatures and treasures the DM motivates players to push on. There is no traditional "plot," which if you think about it, plays to the strength of an RPG. Players are unpredictable and dice are unpredictable. Simply getting into and out of a monster-infested cavern is enough to engage and challenge a group for an evening. There are many forms of "dungeon." There are abandoned castles, vast caverns, monster-infested complexes, over-run mines, and wizards' towers. Many dungeons combine elements, such as the abandoned castle whose basement has been tunneled into by monsters, connecting it to a vast, alien world where the sun never reaches. Some dungeons are above-ground; hedge-mazes, ghost towns, and pirate camps can all be "dungeons." Even non-fantasy games use dungeons, whether the virtual maze of a high-tech computer system in a cyberpunk game or the trap-filled fortress of a costumed supervillain.
There are two essential characteristics of a dungeon. The first is that after a certain point, it is easier to go forward than back. The second is that the characters are isolated.
It is easier to go forward than back in a situation like the journey through mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings. The characters have a destination to reach. In other settings, the entrance may become inaccessible after a certain point, because of traps or swarming monsters, forcing the characters to find an alternate route. If the characters must find a relic at the bottom of an ancient underground temple, it would be poor adventure design if, once they attain it, they simply walk back out the way they came. Perhaps there are pools of fresh water and sources of food in the dungeon, or even friendly NPCs to trade with. Perhaps the relic itself allows the characters to teleport to the surface. Perhaps seizing the relic triggers a dangerous trap that seals off the entrance. In any case, a dungeon should never end with "good, we got it, let's go home." In Moria, what started as a time-saving trip turned into a harrowing battle with evil in the darkness; by the time they were halfway through the mines, the characters wanted to find the exit so desperately that escape was itself a prize.
Isolation is important. Like the characters in Alien, PCs in a dungeon know that they can't call the cavalry, they ARE the cavalry. If they aren't delving someplace any sane person wouldn't tread, they are at least far from help. As soon as they step into the darkness, they are pitting their abilities against unknown dangers. A dungeon could be compared to a haunted house or a combat zone. Each step forward represents unquantifiable peril, but once they have committed, they know they have to make it to the end. Even if the characters meet friendlines in the dungeon, they can't be sure about their intentions or even identity. A poor old man in the goblin caves could be a doppelganger in disguise, or even the goblin's leader, a powerful wizard. Some NPCs will actually require rescue themselves. At best, the PCs will meet other adventurers, who may regard them as rivals or even enemies. If the groups do successfully parlay, they will either trade what resources they can spare and move on, or band for mutual protection.
Characters in a dungeon cannot call the town watch, or the police. They can't have weapons or armor repaired. They can't hire more guards or lookouts. They have what they came with. Dungeoneering is like a camping trip into Hell.
Adventures overland have a different character, but the same two elements remain. Traveling between one village and the next, the characters at some point are closer to their destination than home, and can't expect much in the way of help along the way. Characters are alone in the wilderness, like cavemen wandering around in sabretooth tiger country. This means that essentially an adventuring party is a sort of family. No one character is likely to succeed on his own, and his resources are not his alone to enjoy. Even selfish characters must cooperate or perish.
Dungeon adventures are clearly different than your ordinary day. You sleep soundly, you go to work without worrying about being chased by evil marauders, and when you get to the office, you don't expect to be ambushed by assassins. However, you don't actually know, when you go to sleep, that a burglar won't break into your house. You don't know you won't be mugged, attacked, or driven off the road. You don't know if you will be held hostage when you get to the office and end up on the 10 o' clock news. We assume, for the sake of our mental health, that these unlikelihoods will not happen. Underneath, though, we all still possess these animal fears. Adventure stories are one outlet for this anxiety. The dungeon represents our courage in the face of physical peril, our sense of mission despite risks. You don't refuse to drive to work because you might have an accident in the way. In the same way, a clever rogue springs traps and evades orc sentries, risking his life with a goal in mind. We like heroic characters because the challenges they face are more poetic than ours; we also like them because we like to congratulate ourselves. Dungeons are fun because they're weird places, full of giant mushrooms and mysterious altars and creatures and catacombs and lost wonders.
The adventure triller Charade starring Audrey Hepburn works because of the intrusion of the strange into the ordinary. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is nothing more than a story about a decades-long courtship, an arranged marriage, teenaged rebellion, and a police manhunt. While interesting topics of themselves, it becomes an adventure story because of the amazing martial arts, the constant antagonism between the characters, the grand scope (physically and socially), and the movement forward, forward, forward. Dungeoneers are "just" spelunkers and achaeologists... but then, so is Indiana Jones.
Let's Total Up Your Experience
To get the best idea of what to do with D&D, I think it's a good idea to look at what its creators and nurters have tried to do with it. First of all, it's a rolicking action-adventure game. Second, it fuses lots of elements of genre fantasy. Genre fantasy is a huge field with a lot of variation, but its possible to tie many elements together and create something exciting. Third, the way it plays, and the resultant themes, moods, and tropes, depend largely on emphasis. You can emphasize knightly derring-do, as with Basic D&D or Dragonlance, exotic adventure, as with Greyhawk, Hollow World, or Eberron, or roguish adventure and deadly magic, as with Dark Sun and Forgotten Realms. You can also do more unusual things, like the adventures suggested by Planescape and Spelljammer.
While I have enjoyed rambling on about D&D, a game which has been with me most of my life, the real meat of this essay is the media listed below. It begins with the beginning, the sources that influenced the original D&D and the things that have changed it since. As always, the list is not definitive, but intended as a survey and a starting point.
Anderson, Poul. Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Brooks, Terry. Sword of Shannara.
Costikyan, Greg. Another Day, Another Dungeon.
Heinrich, D.J. The Penhaligon Trilogy.
Hickman and Weis. The Dragonlance Chronicles.
Howard, Robert. Hour of the Dragon.
Leiber, Fritz. Swords and Deviltry.
Moon, Elizabeth. The Deed of Paksenarrion.
Rosenberg, Joel. Guardians of the Flame.
Salvatore, R.A. The Crystal Shard.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings.
Vance, Jack. Tales of the Dying Earth.
White, T.H. The Once and Future King.
Gygax, Gary. Role-Playing Mastery.
Shick, Lawrence. Heroic Worlds.
Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch's Mythology.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology.
Movies and Television
Mazes & Monsters (1982)
Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie (2000)
Flight of Dragons (1986)
Dungeons & Dragons (TV) (1983)
Images and edition information for D&D:
Script for the final episode of D&D cartoon:
Obviously, D&D is the most representative game of its own genre, but many other fantasy RPGs have close ties to its mode and ethic.
Basic D&D (TSR)
D&D 3.0 (TSR)
Tunnels & Trolls (Flying Buffalo)
The Arcanum (Bard Games)
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop)
Talislanta (Bard Games/Shooting Iron)
Torg Sourcebook: Aysle (West End Games)
The Dark Eye
Lord of the Rings RPG (Decipher)
The Dying Earth RPG (Pelgrane Press)