A little while back, Erik observed in a comment that sometimes when I post a scenario I can seem to be holding it at arm’s length, as though it’s “old hack and slash stuff you're slightly embarrassed about”.
Well, it’s true that I’ve never really cared for dungeon bashes. I mean by that the kind of adventure that’s just one damned thing after another – a hydra in this room, three orcs in the next. Sometimes with a riddle, but never with any rhyme or reason.
The trouble with that kind of scenario is it fails the criterion that SF author Damien G Walter identifies as necessary to generate a powerful and satisfying experience:
“Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the huge problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.”Now, not all dungeons happen underground. Sometimes you can be on a quest of hundreds of miles across forests and deserts and swamps, but if that’s just an excuse to thread together a bunch of unconnected encounters then – yeah, maybe interesting, as Damien says, but never compelling.
Likewise, going underground doesn’t always lead to a dungeon bash. Empire of the Petal Throne players who’ve visited the wizard Nyelmu’s Garden of Weeping Snows will know that sometimes you can descend into a mythic dreamtime where the journey through the underworld mirrors an inner psychic journey. By the way, that's also why (despite the picture above) I never use figurines. I want players to use their imaginations and be the character, not look down on them like counters on a board.
Most of the times dungeons are just a way to pre-plan a highly structured session so the GM can be lazy and not have to engage with the player-characters. Or have to think up anything interesting, come to that. I’ve perpetrated a few dungeons in my time - mostly for White Dwarf, for which I wrote to order. There are some dungeons too in Dragon Warriors, a concession because we knew the game would initially be played by 10-13 year-old novice GMs for whom a dungeon can be the refereeing equivalent of bike stabilizers. Though I hope (and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) there is something special in those scenarios that raises them above the level of goblins in ten-foot-square rooms.
In my own games, the nearest I might get to a dungeon is something like “The Honey Trap”. More usually the scenario is a set of loose notes that can be fitted around the player-characters’ current activities, as in “Friends in Foreign Parts”, “Just off the Boat”, or “In the Wrong Hands”.
Here are some other scenarios that I most definitely wouldn’t hold at arm’s length. You won’t find an ochre jelly or black pudding in any of ‘em.
- "The King is Dead" - a scenario set in 5th century BC Greece. The version I ran took the sci-fi road into Highlander territory, but you could play it as straight whodunit or throw in a pinch of Cthulhu horror.
- "The Hollow Men", set in the Dragon Warriors world of Legend. In our game the characters were members of a mercenary band out for revenge, but there are other ways in.
- "Silent Night", a scenario and mini-campaign setting in Legend, which you can run with new or existing characters.
- "A Ballad of Times Past", a one-off scenario set in a world where magic is rare and hard to come by. Originally published in White Dwarf 51.
- "Wayland's Smithy", my version of what "finding a magic sword in treasure" ought to feel like.
- "More Precious Than Gold", set in the Ophis universe that Oliver Johnson and I originally devised for Games Workshop's never-published Questworld book.
- "Internecine!" - a Tekumel scenario involving the Hlüss with a few nods to the first season Star Trek episode "Arena".
- "A Box of Old Bones", a very early Dragon Warriors scenario from White Dwarf 71. Are those bones a real holy relic or is it all just down to the power of belief, persuasion and propaganda? You decide.