My Favorite Dungeon
In all my years of playing RPGs (about twenty, at this point), I’ve had a lot of memorable moments. I won’t list them here–it would take a long time (it’s been two decades, after all)–but I will say this: very few of those moments took place in dungeons.
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
Yeah, we all like getting treasure. Treasure is neat, it makes your character ‘better’ (a silly concept in an RPG, but I’ll touch on that later), but does it really make the game more fun? I personally don’t think so. Imaginary stuff isn’t ‘fun’, and I don’t think an intelligently designed pen-and-paper RPG should hinge upon the acquisition of imaginary stuff with few exceptions. That’s for video games, which need those things and can do them better, since it is adjudicated by a computer and not a person (the GM) and doesn’t have the benefit of being played while sitting in a room with your buddies. In short, video games are not a social endeavor (not even MMORPGs), and must rely on other things to provide entertainment value. You want your character to look cool, make cool noises when she/he swooshes a sword, and kill the larger baddies that hitherto have banished your character to the last save point (something lacking in pen/paper RPGs, and rightly so).
The thing that separates pen-and-paper RPGs from video games is the potential for real, actual conflict. Conflict is only had between people or thinking beings. You can’t be in conflict with a Gelatinous Cube–it’s an obstacle, not a conflict. It only does one thing, it doesn’t think, and you beating it is more of a logic problem than a conflict. Good GMs try to make the NPC monsters or baddies in dungeons into sources of conflict–they have needs, wants, assumptions, and goals that are subject to change and enable them to react flexibly to the assault by the PCs. They can be outwitted just as they can outwit the opposition, they can be bargained with, intimidated, charmed, or even simply avoided by the clever and the resourceful just as easily (or perhaps more easily) as they can be attacked and smashed by the belligerent. Well realized monsters in a dungeon make things much more fun, more interesting, and more challenging. They only go so far, however.
For my money, the absolute best kind of conflict to be had in a dungeon is between the players themselves. I want players to doubt their abilities, I want them to debate the proper plan of action, and I want them to be worried that one or the other of their party aren’t going to hold up their end of the bargain. You need a special group of players to do this well–you need players who like the ‘Role-playing’ part as much or more than the ‘game’ part. These players are able to separate their own emotions from the emotions their characters are feeling. They are in it for the story, not the reward at the end. When I introduce a conflict that forces their character to make a horrible decision (e.g. “You can hold on to your sword and be possessed by the daemon, but kill your enemy OR you can release the sword and watch your enemy escape with your lady love”), I want them to smile and say ‘that’s awesome’. Obviously it sucks for the character, but it makes for some fabulous fun for the player. These kinds of players don’t care so much about their character getting ‘better,’ though it is nice; they much prefer having fun with the character, even if they wind up begging for food in some alley somewhere, with only the memory of glory in their past (which is, of course, when the desperate young princess seeks them out and asks them to swing into the saddle one last time…but at a price).
If you can find a group of players like this, you can build a dungeon like the following. It is, for my money, my favorite dungeon of all the dungeons I’ve ever designed:
This campaign was set in the world of Talislanta (http://talislanta.com/). I titled it The Amazing Race: Talislanta and the premise was two competing parties (Team Love and Team Money) racing across the continent to some unknown land to find a fabulous artifact which, if transported back to the city of Cymril, would earn them a stupendous amount of wealth.
Obviously speed was very important in this campaign, as was choice of route, as were maps (they didn’t really know where the place they were going was, and the only maps I let the players look at were incomplete ones I fashioned myself). I furthermore made a rule that stated if a team wanted to find some treasure, they could let me know and I’d find a way to work in a dungeon of some kind for the next session. Team Money, feeling as though they were falling behind, decided to do so. They wanted to find some kind of treasure that would speed up their overland route, and I obliged them.
The Puzzle Vault of Sharahad
In the mountains of Arim is built a vault near the headwaters of a great river. It was fashioned upon the orders of the ancient Arimite Exarch, Sharahad the Miser, who wished that his riches never fall into the hands of another. He commissioned a master Kasmiran Trapsmith to construct the vault, and it is designed so that, even if someone is exceptionally skilled, they could never manage to steal more than a few coins of the Miser’s wealth, as the danger was far too high and it would require the thieves to have unerring trust in one another to do so. Accordingly, the vault has remained relatively unplundered for all these years.
The basic trap is fiendishly simple. The vault is built beneath a waterfall, and all of its workings are powered by the running water above. The top chamber is the main trap: In order to release the stone over the stairway that leads to the vaults below, someone must put their arm inside a stone lion’s mouth and pull the release switch (a complex device that requires a five-fingered human-sized hand to operate). When this is done, the lion’s mouth locks around the unfortunate’s hand and the switch locks around his fingers, pinning him in place. Then, a massive blade begins to slowly drop towards the pinned individual.
It is then that I, the GM, start the stopwatch. I tell them they have ten real-world minutes to get through one of the vaults, pull the release switch, and get back with the treasure. Beneath were four vaults, each built similarly. There would be a long hallway from which water had been drained, followed by a room with a complex trap (checkerboard floor with drop-away segments, a complicated blade trap, a series of mirrored doors in a maze, etc.), followed by a room filled with treasure in which would be hidden the release switch. Once the switch was pulled (provided it could be found), the players had 1 minute (again with the stopwatch) to grab what they wanted and get out before the hallway they used to get here filled with water and they’d be trapped and soon suffocate.
If the 10 minutes elapsed before they could solve the puzzle, the PC who put his arm in the activator would die (as severing a brachial artery is likely to do without modern medicine) or, at the very least, be one-armed for the rest of the campaign (provided a healer was present, where there wasn’t). Furthermore, the PCs who solved the puzzle couldn’t sit around and do the boring, slow, safe way to solve all dungeon traps–they had to move, and they didn’t have time to be careful. Finally, they couldn’t sit there and assess and weigh each piece of treasure before heading back up–they had to run.
Also (and my players never knew this, since it never came up) the deactivator switch would reset to a different location each time the vault was activated, meaning doing the same vault over and over again was just as dangerous as the first time. The whole thing was fiendishly evil and ridiculous fun.
Team Money was made up of characters who were, essentially, mercenaries brought together by the promise of gold. They didn’t trust each other or even really like each other, and this dungeon was designed to put them at each other’s throats. It worked beautifully, too. When I started the stopwatch the first time, all of my players went white with terror. “Seriously?” They asked.
“Seriously. Better get moving.”
The guy who put his arm in the trap first (Blake), started freaking out immediately. “Go! Go! Go!” he started yelling.
What followed was the most intense run through a trap I’ve ever witnessed in a game. Everybody, including me, was on the edge of their seat. The guy who volunteered to brave the blade trap and find the first activation switch (RJ) only pulled it off by 5 seconds. He had to pocket the first couple things he saw and ran up for all he was worth before his character was drowned or suffocated. Everybody let loose a sigh of relief, examined the treasure, and saw that it was all very very valuable.
I then popped the question: “Want to do it again?”
The debate exploded as to who was going to stick their hand in the trap next. Nobody wanted to, but the lure of the treasure and the possibility of something that might get them ahead of Team Love was too great, and they finally strongarmed another character into it. This time they solved the task by only 2 seconds, and they guy who did it almost died from the series of traps he had to face. They escaped with just a few more items of interest. They risked a third time, but only after making deals and arguing for about half an hour. The third time, two of the three who went down were knocked unconsious by poison darts, and the last one had to drag them out, barely alive, after finding the switch. They escaped with almost nothing that time.
They didn’t want to do it again after that.
The Puzzle Vault was tense, exciting, conflict inducing, and I gave them a flying carpet and a magic, teleporting tent out of the deal (which wound up being major McGuffins for the rest of the campaign). There were no monsters, no slow dungeon crawl nonsense, and no remote-control obstacles that mattered. The real challenge was getting somebody to put themselves in harm’s way so another PC could find treasure. It worked fabulously, and has become my gold standard for all dungeons I design from now on.