Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

I never understood dungeons. Why do they exist? Why are monsters just chilling out in them? What's all the treasure for? Why are there so many traps? Over the years, games and gamers alike have tried to give the dungeon relevance. In 13th Age, dungeons are sentient beings, giant creatures that wander the world. In Earthdawn, dungeons were a sort of fantasy fallout shelter from a magic/monster apocalypse. The most definitive (and all-purpose) answer for the significance of the dungeon of course comes from the OSR, gamers who hold the earliest versions of D&D close to their heart. They'll tell you a dungeon isn't literally a dank underground facility, but rather simple lingo for any enclosed area where one could encounter evil beasts and wondrous treasure.

But the even more definitive, meta-answer is this: dungeons, simply, are the field upon which the sport of tabletop roleplaying games are played. We can try and justify them narratively any way we wish, but ultimately the reason they exist is to be nothing more than a playground for our imaginations. They make no more sense outside of a roleplaying game than a football field does outside of a game of football.

This has always rankled me. I don't particularly like sports. Likewise, I don't particularly like the idea of this abstract place existing only for the sensibilities of a game. I need more context. I need a better narrative. This is probably why so few of my roleplaying games over the past several decades have ever prominently featured dungeons.

Still, though, I cannot deny the awesome allure of the dungeon. The thrill of the wandering monster. The promise of a chest full of gold and magic items. The perils of the trapped hallway. The excitement and wonder of the hidden door. I just wish I could find a better way to make it all make sense narratively.

And then I read The One Ring, and it was made clear to me: the journey. A trip through a fantastic land can have everything a dungeon has, and it can make sense narratively, as well.

Older gamers would scoff at this "revelation." The fantasy journey or "hex crawl" has been a part of old-school roleplaying almost as long as the dungeon itself has. Of course the journey is a fine alternative to a dungeon, they'd say. Of course a wander through the wilderness "works" as a suitable fantasy adventure.

However, like many other parts of older roleplaying, this idea tends to be forgotten as we progress onward. The journey isn't as fondly remembered as the dungeon, and so the journey often gets delegated to a preparatory step towards the bigger, sexier part of the adventure. How many modules begin with the arrival to the big, scary dungeon? How many RPGs have short, abstracted rules for travel across the land, and then whole chapters devoted to the various details of dungeon-delving?

Enough, I say! At my table, the journey is the destination, dammit! I am openly declaring that I love me a good travel tale, and I intend to develop this concept of the journey as the adventure in my future GMing efforts.

It starts with the very game I discovered this bit about myself in, The One Ring. TOR is one of the very few fantasy RPGs I've ever come across where the idea of travel is handled every bit as seriously as what's to be done once the traveling is over. The adventure I'm working on for my birthday weekend is going to make prominent use of these mechanics.

Looking further down the road (no pun intended) to my gaming in 2015, I am going to eventually run some Dungeons & Dragons. I intend for any adventure/campaign I DM for that game to be focused on travel, as well. I admit Journeys & Dragons doesn't quite have the alliterative ring to it that Dungeons & Dragons does, but I will not let a catchy title run my game!

I also want to play a lot more Edge of the Empire in 2015. That game lends itself particularly well to travel, what with all its crunchy details on vehicular travel and exotic planets and such. So I'm excited for that game, too.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I'd like to run games with a more American-inspired sensibility to them, rather than the European heritage embraced by contemporary fantasy gaming. Journeys and westerns go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and that, combined with a friend's generous Christmas gift of Deadlands Reloaded, adds up to inspiration to run that game in the coming new year, as well.

When I inevitably swing back to the lighter, story-gamier side of the hobby, I look forward to taking those games on the road as well. Fate Core, I think, would be particularly good at handling the journeys of heroes.

Looking back at my own gaming, I can see two common motifs: big problems to be solved, and roads to be traveled. I'll write some other day on the former, but know now that the latter is foremost on my mind.

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