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Why Dungeon RPGs are Bad
Raymond Long's blog: 2017-Apr-29
Gaming

At its worst, a dungeon scenario is an underground pipe full of fights. PCs walk forward until they meet something, kill it, walk forward until they meet the next thing, kill it, walk forward, kill, walk forward, kill, and so on until eventually they've killed everything and they've won. This kind of game can be fun occasionally, but quickly grows dull.
This scenario design denies strategic flexibility to both PCs and NPCs. NPCs just stand where they start until PCs turn up to fight them. That's zero strategic flexibility for NPCs.
In games like this, players would like to make use of strategic flexibility. Often they'd like to avoid minor fights and skip straight to the main treasure chamber at the end. But the underground pipe they're in prevents this. It's designed to deny strategic flexibility to the PCs. (PCs have tactical flexibility, such as choosing which weapons and spells to use and choosing targets, but this differs from strategic flexibility.)
GMs who run dungeon scenarios tend to get angry when players manage to achieve strategic flexibility. If the PCs can go around the side of enemies to avoid the fights, for instance by teleportation or walking through stone, the GM will be pissed off that the players managed to break the scenario. The GM wants the players to have no strategic flexibility, and is upset when they get it.
Such GM anger is anti-thinking. As a GM, I'm pro-thinking. I'm pleased when players do something clever to succeed (unless they're manipulating the rules to get an unrealistic result, but that's a problem with bad rules not bad players). I like players to use their brains, and it disappoints me when players act like idiots. But the dungeon GM is angered by the players using their brains.
Dungeons tend to be designed to give the PCs a series of fights they can win. This fosters the idea that the GM will hand PCs victories on a plate. Players come to believe that they can plough ahead into any enemy presented to them without evaluating whether the fight is winnable.
In dungeon scenarios, it's common that every NPC encountered is only an enemy. The only actions worth doing are combat actions and their adjuncts, such as healing.
The Alternative
Now let me present an alternative to the dungeon, where PCs and NPCs both have strategic flexibility, and players can't assume that fights are winnable. I'll call this the open scenario.
Don't constrain the action in an underground pipe. Don't wall everything in. Let the PCs avoid enemies by manoeuvring around them. The field of action is open country, not an underground complex. This is a game with a wider geographical range than the dungeon: between encounters the PCs will journey across country, rather than walking a bit further along the underground pipe.
Now, you may object, surely the PCs will just go straight to their final destination (eg. the enemy chief's treasure-filled hall) by avoiding all other opponents. There are three reasons this isn't true.
1. The players don't know where the final destination is, and may not even know that it exists. In the open scenario as in the dungeon, the players don't know in any detail what's ahead.
2. NPCs have strategic flexibility. They move, and can hunt down the PCs. If PCs move without enough speed or stealth, enemies can surround them and all attack at once.
3. Combat isn't the only approach. PCs don't have to fight every NPC they meet. PCs can also negotiate or make alliances with NPCs, or even just leave them alone.
The downside of these open scenarios is that they're more work to write and run than dungeons. When NPCs move, you need to keep track of them on a map. You have to think about the motivations of these NPCs and decide what they'd do, rather than knowing they'll just stand where they are. You have to evaluate things like how NPCs are supplied and how they can find out about the movements of PCs.
An Example
In 1997 I ran a game called THE KING'S MEN. A civil war had just ended, and the new king needed to win the peace. The PCs were warriors of the king assigned an area of responsibility in which some people had submitted to the king's rule and others ("rebels") hadn't. The PCs' job was to eliminate rebellion.
In their area there were, if memory serves aright, six rebel groups, of which the PCs were informed of three at the start of the campaign. They were given a map which grew less accurate further from the area's capital, and had some villages missing.
Players weren't presented with a series of opponents in a preset order. They had to take the fight to those rebels who were sitting fast in their territory, or seek to be ambushed by those rebels who were acting as bandits. Their options weren't limited to combat: they could try a talking approach.
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