Monday, 6 April 2009

Empty Rooms and Underground Playgrounds

Strangely enough one of my fondest memories of D&D as a player was in a session of 2E AD&D where we explored a cave system for about an hour and found ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

On the previous weekend we'd gone into Birmingham to visit the games shop and purchased representative figures for our PCs. So on this session we had floorplans, admittedly just some green dry-erase marker scrawled on half of a scrap hollow-core interior door still finished in it's original gloss white. The DM was sketching out the walls and tunnel mouths and we were placing our lead avatars where we liked.

As I said above - Nothing happened. Whether from some freak happening whereby we only entered the empty chambers or just some extremely odd dungeon design we just went around exploring gloomy empty caverns and poking around to no effect in piles of rubbish.

And I was absolutely captivated.

What is this you say? D&Ding for bone-idle and risk-averse players?

There was something about the game, about the exploring that just seemed to click for me and when we finally ran into some minor dungeon fauna that lasted about two rounds of melee it seemed a bit out of place as if a bored and/or embarrassed DM had chucked it at us in order to avoid the stigma of presenting a dungeon with no traps, creatures nor treasure. But, perhaps because our DM seemed to be a dab hand at improvising little details, we weren't wandering through an uninteresting void looking for the "proper" rooms but lost within a real cave system and genuinely enjoying the exploration.

It's perhaps noteworthy that when I used to be a fan of text adventure games I loved mapping them out and would quite happily get lost for whole Sunday afternoons armed with pen, lots of paper, a ruler and a procession of empty "rooms", obsessively linking sections of map together and wondering where the unexplored doorway to the east led to and whether it would somehow link up to previously mapped rooms elsewhere.

Empty is good.

Too often busy rooms become important for what's in them as opposed to what they are. The room with the ten Orcs in it becomes simply a featureless container to frame "the action" and the thrill of exploration is lost. The Underworld should be a strange, alien realm where the surface dwellers don't belong and long periods of dice-free exploration and wonder serve to draw the players into the world whereas sudden wandering monster attacks can break the mood as the dice and rules and meta-gaming come out of hiding.

With respect to The Netherpit I've been wondering if the early levels (both dungeon and player) could comprise of minimal monster and trap encounters and maximal exploration. Could the first level of a dungeon really maintain the interest if it is a nothing more than a "safe" playground that the PCs can explore, experiment with and discover hidden caches of treasure without too much risk of injury or death? This could ease new players and PCs in without the sudden bangyouredead element common in low level play. Verbal play with minimal dice-rolling and combat used to be held up as somehow "better" than the traditional dungeon game, couldn't a dungeon game be run in a similar fashion, at least until the PCs are tough enough to fight things without too much fear of TPK?

Like most blog entries I haven't entirely thought this through but I will run with the idea and see if it appears to have legs.


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