Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jaquay At Your Own Risk!

There is a very interesting series of essays on The Alexandrian about Jaquaying the Dungeon, which is a coined term referring to adventure designer, Paul Jaquays, who wrote many well-known old school adventures such as Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia.  Jaquays was known for his non-linear dungeon designs. 

Circuitous dungeons with multiple access points and by-pass routes were common features of old school adventures, but have fallen out of fashion in contemporary adventures, which favour linear dungeons that lead the players through each encounter from beginning to end.  I find it interesting how these two styles of adventure illustrate how the philosophy of gaming has changed over the years.  Old school adventures were all about exploration and they tried to maximize player freedom and flexibility.  Contemporary adventures, on the other hand, seem more like frameworks used to link combat encounters together.  Rather than being free-form adventure locales, they are more like a carnival ride; you get on, fasten your seat belt and get shown what the designers want you to see, until it's time to get off at the end.  There is no getting off in the middle, no detours allowed, nor can you skip any part of the ride.

The Alexandrian compares Jaquays's free form dungeon adventure, Caverns of Thracia, with its philosophical opposite: 4E's Keep on the Shadowfell, the poster child of contemporary linear design, and an excellent example of what 4E gaming is all about - a series of combat encounters leading to a preordained conclusion.

Now, I've always preferred the free-form multi-option approach to dungeon design, not just because this is the style of play that I grew up with, but also because, as a GM, it would bore me to tears to sit idly behind the screen and watch the players progress through a dungeon in which there can be only one outcome.  I far prefer to be surprised by the choices that the players make and where those choices take them.  But, as I had occasion to discover during my last game session, a Jaquays-style dungeon can bite an unprepared GM in the ass.

My current dungeon is a series of dwarven mines carved into the cratered ruins of the Tuatha de Danann city of Murias, which was destroyed millenia ago by a meteorite impact.  The dwarfs lost contact with the mining colony long ago, and the mines have become infested with redcaps.  Deep, deep beneath the mines lies the subterranean city of Dragotha and I had always intended that city to be a rest and supply point for exploration of my under-realm of my world - some time in the distant future.  The problem is, I placed a secret access to Dragotha in the third level of the mines, because I needed a way for that level's master, Sothiss the necromancer, to trade with the denizens below.  I never expected the adventurers to actually find the secret route, nor to venture down it if they did find it and, consequently, I haven't even begun to flesh out the city or the under-realm it inhabits.

I think what caught me unprepared was my assumption, based on a lifetime of old school play, that everyone understands that deeper is deadlier, and that there are no guarantees that a character can survive places just because he can get to them.  It was an assumption not shared by my players, and now I'm scrambling to flesh out the centerpiece of a major part of my campaign world before our next session.

I blame contemporary, linear dungeon design, which prevents players from skipping a dozen dungeon levels, and the evil influence of computer games that physically prevent players from accessing areas too dangerous for their level.  This creates a false sense of security for players by assuring them that anywhere they can get to is level-appropriate.

Lesson learned: if you provide alternate routes to places expect the players to take them, and be prepared when they do.  That way you won't get stuck trying to create a major chunk of your campaign in just two weeks.

5 comments:

The Dungeoneering Dad said...

I am currently running a *premade* dungeon that fits this description (Rappan Athuk) and even find it difficult at times. However, the multiple entrances and exits make the dungeon feel so much more living and real, that it is well worth it.

Sean Robson said...

Yeah, dungeons like this are much more dynamic than static sites waiting in stasis for adventurers to 'discover' them. Have multiple entrances and bypass routes also encourages and rewards player creativity, which I like a lot.

Anthony Emmel said...

Chello!

My players inevitably find the back entrance and make it to the end well before they should. This happens to me even in Can games. This past February I was running "Heroes Unlimited" and the players rescued the hostage in the first 15 minutes of the adventure of a four hour time slot!!!

"I think what caught me unprepared was my assumption, based on a lifetime of old school play, that everyone understands that deeper is deadlier, and that there are no guarantees that a character can survive places just because he can get to them."

True, but maybe one can negotiate with what one finds in the lower levels. One should just be prepared to die. :)

Sean Robson said...

This past February I was running "Heroes Unlimited" and the players rescued the hostage in the first 15 minutes of the adventure of a four hour time slot!!!

"Hey, Willie, I found a short-cut through your hedge maze!" D'oh!

I've also had players 'one-shot' bosses in my set-piece encounters, turning what was supposed to be a dramatic and intense fight into a pitiful cake-walk. Such are the vagaries of gaming.

Anonymous said...

It's always wise to let players know at the outset what type of game you are running, so they will at least have been warned of the dangers possible is they assume nothing can kill them. The best idea for you now might simply be to have powerful creatures in the area so the PCs will be driven back or killed, and will realize the new region is much deadlier (and will give you time to adequately flesh it out.)