Saturday, March 21, 2009

Monte Cook's Dungeonaday.com

Monte Cook has started a subscription site called Dungeonaday.com, in which he plans to present a megadungeon, one new room each day. Today it was reviewed at Grognardia.com, which motivated me to likewise check out the free sample parts of the site.

I must admit that some of what I just read at Dungeonaday.com raised my hackles a bit. I think a decade after the design of 3E D&D, I see that Monte's need for systematization is perhaps enormously misguided. I sometimes half-jokingly call myself OCD, but I honestly think there's a compulsiveness to Monte's system-building which leaves me a bit stunned.

For starters, the very first line of the first sample room I saw (#6) had me sighing. "In this temple to an evil god, everyone has the barbarian's ability to rage..." Mostly discarding any consideration of thematics, the basic instinct seen here is to reach for a pre-written mechanic and just reference it. There's an aspect to the verbosity of 3E, that gets you handcuffed into looking for ways to avoid actually making up new mechanics, and this is one example. As enormous as is the text for this room, the primary mechanic here is actually not new, it's just a reference to something else in the game already.

Honestly, I think that's uninspiring game design. I remember seeing this at a few of the computer game companies I worked at. A crown-jewel example is the 3E proliferation of spells that raise your Int/Wis/Dex/Con/Cha... "Hey, there's a spell to raise Strength; just change the ability name and we can act like we created 5 new spells". Design by expanded systematization I definitely don't like.

This leads me to look warily at his "Dungeon Design Assumptions". Item #1 says this:

1. Things get more dangerous as you go deeper... 3rd Edition created a system that used Challenge Ratings to match relatively appropriate encounters to a given group of player characters (the key word being "relatively"). Matching monster toughness with PC toughness has always been in the game in one form or another, of course. But in dungeon design, this isn't that important, because the dungeon level dictates (or at least suggests) the difficulty of the encounters. Things too easy? Go down. Things getting pretty dicey? Go back up...

Sounds good, right? Well, my concern with Monte is that this italicised dictum will itself turn into yet another set of handcuffs. I recall purchasing Monte's Fane of the Demon God and at some point realizing that every encounter in the entire module was at exactly the same, fixed Encounter Level. My suspicion here is that Monte will be specifying an EL for every dungeon level, and get hung-up on every single room being the exact same EL throughout. If the "go up/go down" is meant to dependably let PCs choose their own EL, then he will have to do this, leading to predictability and a lack of surprises in the general sense of "is this really dangerous for us?"

In Item #2 he says, "In a standard campaign, the DM controls the level of challenge for the players. But in a dungeon like this, the players can choose to seek encounters that might be too challenging for them in order to get bigger rewards, or stay and face easy challenges for low rewards." It's a bit hard to swallow this characterization of a "standard campaign" for someone trying to assert an "old-school" stance on these matters.

In Item #5 he says, "The player characters are not the first adventurers to explore this place, and they won't be the last. As they explore, your PCs will find the remains of previous adventurers. They will hear about other parties coming to the dungeon to test their own mettle. They may even encounter them while delving into the depths themselves. This contributes to the dynamism of the dungeon environment."

In the broadest theory that might be nice, but the problem is that what it really references back to is Gygax's original campaigns where he actually had different competing PC groups meeting every night of the week, all racing to plunder the same dungeon mega-complex. I don't believe that you get the same effect when you attempt to mechanically recreate it with pre-placed NPCs. (Much in the same way that computer AI opponents do not trigger my fight-or-flight reflex the same way that real, human opponent minds do). Something never smells right when I read a prepublished adventure with one "this room was sacked by earlier adventurers" sitting by itself in the middle of a dungeon level (as occurs in Monte's room #6).

Maybe this project will be a raving success. Monte certainly has a productivity level which I can only look at with envy. But when I look at the enormity of the text written for a single room (even quasi-empty, as with Monte's sample room #6), I feel like all the effort is put on exactly the wrong end of ship. I'd like my core rule system to be finely systematized, robust, and short. I'd like my dungeon designs to be large in room-count and atomically brief in room description and statistics. This work seems like pretty much the exact opposite of that.

7 comments:

  1. I think to be fair, D&D has had "this ability is the same as the Magic User spell of the same name" style re-use for a long time.

    But you're dead on in that it seems like a watchword of 3E's design was plenty of room for "drop in" expandability (feats, bonus types and stacking, decoupling race and class completely, prestige classes, etc.). They had an eye towards making it easy for themselves to balloon up the content later on.

    I think this relates to the way many professional (non-game) designers think. They want to make design easy, elegant and clean, and control behavior with lightweight parameters, and allow for future expansion. But a lot of times that doesn't have anything to do with making a game fun to play.

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  2. Dead on commentary.

    Shackling and systematized encounters.

    Then again, what's to be expected? This harkens to the "relevant" rules as now available after 2E and concepts which were even being promulgated in the RPGA designs of yesteryear, so it really goes to show that published designs meant for mass consumption have been seen as "regulation" and regulated for some time. It's breaking that mold that makes unique dungeons, and I feel that that is a lost art for current holders of the D&D name as well as many of their followers.

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  3. I had a similar take on the preview material. The core ideas of the old-school dungeon will be there, but I think it will be designed with the modern flavor. I'd expect a lot of skill check notes (DC's for many things), and a very hard-edged translation of the "appropriate challenge" rules into a dungeon adventure.

    The barbarian's rage comment stuck out to me... when I passed over the material I hadn't read it this way. I have no real problem with rules if they represent what I'm trying to create. One might use the lightning bolt spell verbiage for a laser gun, for example. However, I *can* see the problem of working the opposite way, making the mechanic the focus and then creating an "excuse" to use them. I guarantee you at least one DM won't smooth it over enough, and just break down and say that it's the barbarian's rage mechanic invoked by the room... and players will be calling it "the barbarian room" even though it thematically has little to do with barbarians. All of a sudden, you've lost the point of the theme... the focus is on the rule rather than the adventure. In short, I agree with you.

    I was not that impressed with what I saw in Dungeonaday. I think if I wanted a megadungeon to play, I would not want to wait for this to develop... there's other products that came before this, and plenty of free advice on how to make this sort of adventure on various websites and blogs.

    That being said, a campaign dungeon is like a classic-DM's opus... each one impressive and unique to its creators (in its own right). Monte Cook has set out to create his masterpiece. Doing one room a day is a cool idea that I'd wished I'd thought of sooner. It might have meant I'd be further along on my own dungeon by this point. I don't think I'd want to pay a subscription fee just to read his dungeon though. For some reason I just can't help but read his design "tenets" or notes as more of a marketing mantra before insight.

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  4. Added comment to my own blog post: Perhaps the most important ridiculous thing about sample room #6 is that it's a room empty of monsters. There's nothing to fight in the room, so who exactly is the "barbarian rage for everyone" supposed to be used against here?

    It's like a series of mechanics that have come entirely unhinged from any cohesive reason to use them.

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  5. I think from the perspective of clean and simple rules design it's better to use an already-defined rule than create a new one for every instance.

    In this case there's no way for the PCs to know that they can use that ability here, so effectively it's just something extra for the villains in area 5 to use against the PCs if they're encountered in area 6 or the fight moves there. Why not make those guys barbarians or give them a Bestial God feat or prestige class or something? It raises the challenge of the encounter without giving more reward.

    The room, its background, and the monsters in area 5 that are connected with it are interesting. There's temptation rather than just laying out the loot. The NPCs have simple goals and motivations that the DM can use or not. I'd say it's pretty decent. Just not something I'd pay money for.

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  6. Re: The evil shine- personally I like it. The point of using a pre-existing mechanic in a new way is to combine the virtue of novelty with the clarity of standardization. The bad guys (and possibly the players) get to use a new toy, but the DM (and possibly players) don’t have to learn a whole new mechanic. It allows for LESS time to be spent understanding and adjudicating the rule.

    This is related to 3rd edition’s exhaustive list of clearly defined conditions. While some people might find it confining to have things well-defined, speaking as a player and DM, I found that it enabled more fun play because the players didn’t have to ask the DM as many questions about the parameters of their debility. Anyone who publishes any sort of book should respect the power and utility of an index, and anyone publishing a rule system should respect the value of consistent definitions and standardized terminology. While the sheer volume of 3rd ed’s rules is really not necessary, CLARITY is where the core books shone, and the concept of a game using a toolbox of consistent universal mechanics is not a bad one.

    Delta, I am really taken aback by your comment:

    “Added comment to my own blog post: Perhaps the most important ridiculous thing about sample room #6 is that it's a room empty of monsters. There's nothing to fight in the room, so who exactly is the "barbarian rage for everyone" supposed to be used against here?

    It's like a series of mechanics that have come entirely unhinged from any cohesive reason to use them.”

    Aren’t empty rooms a standby of the old-school dungeon? Isn’t part of the point that they’re places the DM can put his own stuff and use his creativity? Even aside from the simple idea that the monsters who worship at the shrine and live in neighboring rooms might move the fight there (or base part of their defense there on subsequent trips to the dungeon). What about wandering monsters? What if PCs decide to use the room to rest in, figuring that the Rage will be useful in defending against any monsters decide to come a’ calling? Then you get a chance to hit them with the downside that they’re calling on an evil god. Didn’t take me much effort to come up with some reasons to use the rules offered.

    Also, one of my favorite megadungeon concepts is rooms with interesting ongoing magical effects or features which warrant return trips or provide an interesting extra dimension to multiple encounters which happen there.

    While I don’t think Monte’s perfect, or that what we’ve seen so far of his megadungeon is perfect, I really think your particular criticisms here are off base.

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  7. Re: The evil shine- personally I like it. The point of using a pre-existing mechanic in a new way is to combine the virtue of novelty with the clarity of standardization.

    I think that theme has to come first, and mechanics came afterwards to support that theme. The distinct smell I get from Monte's evil shrine is that he reached for an existing mechanic first (it comes first in the text), and then tried to construct a theme around it. It simply doesn't hang together right, and I don't see any "virtue of novelty" to it.

    Aren’t empty rooms a standby of the old-school dungeon? Isn’t part of the point that they’re places the DM can put his own stuff and use his creativity?

    This room isn't empty; it's just empty of monsters. The site mechanic only affects combat, so it would only be triggered if there were monsters present to fight. That's a serious oversight. The truth is, it's a random mechanic in search of some reason to be, and that's backwards game design.

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