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Thursday, 6 April 2017

Scenarios


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.
And lastly there's the Champions scenario "The Enemy of My Enemy". Here's something to get you in the mood for that...



21 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I was one of those 10-13-year-olds (so thanks!), and yes, those "dungeons" were well above the goblins-in-a-room level. I can be doubly sure of that, because I've been GMing some of them for my kids and their friends recently. A hobgoblin with a barrel beats a goblin in a room any time ...

    The archetypal fantasy "dungeon" is probably the Mines of Moria. But what's interesting about that is that it's not in the slightest a "goblins in a room" affair. Yes, there are goblins - lots of them, some of them "large and evil" - but they're not waiting around in chambers to be encountered. Instead, the scenario is about trying to sneak through the mines *without* encountering any goblins. And of course there are worse things than orcs in the deep places of the earth ...

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    1. Quite a few fantasy classics have subterranean sequences - The Tombs of Atuan, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, "Red Nails", The Buried Giant. But always, like the Moria sequence, more than just a dungeon bash.

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    2. Oh, absolutely! And the Weirdstone's is by far the best of them, for my money: horribly claustrophobic.

      Another thought that occurs to me is that the classic dungeon/megadungeon complex is almost inevitably too big and unmanageable to make for good practical adventures. Yes, the idea of repeated visits to an evolving megadungeon with its own ecology is nice, but I suspect that the best adventure location is the house (or tower, or castle: the one in The Elven Crystals springs to mind): the lairs of the gnoles or the Gibbelins, perhaps, if Dunsany had afforded his protagonists more luck ...

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    3. Your mention of The Elven Crystals, JC, reminds me that Oliver's novels have featured some very memorable underworlds - not just in his Lightbringer books, but also his new novel The Knight of the Fields. We played it as an RPG campaign a few years back and those "dungeons" were truly terrifying.

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    4. I can't find that Knight of the Fields novel. Is it even out?
      - Alex

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    5. Sadly Oliver hasn't been able to find a publisher. They all seem obsessed by whether it fits the current fashion in fantasy or not. If it were me I'd just worry about whether a novel is good or not, but maybe I wouldn't last long in the job with that attitude!

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    6. When talented, productive people can't find an outlet for their work, we all lose, but not as much as the artist him/herself.

      This bit of news makes me sad, particularly when I consider how much bad, uncreative fantasy there is out there.

      Anyway, thanks for the update.

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    7. I'm afraid that's the way publishing works, along with all other creative industries. It's more about who you know and who you are than about what you can do.

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  2. King Under The Forest... lots of traditional dungeon elements, which is good to get things started, with some very nice twists and turns and themes. Shadow on the Mist and Hunter's Moon are dripping with theme... it's not just a room, it's an old kitchen. With sinister stuff in it.

    Then you get the dungeon crawl with ambushes in Out of the Shadows in the barrow. Twisty and turny! And who can forget the Sins of the Fathers...

    :)

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    1. An old kitchen with sinister stuff... I really like that notion.

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  3. Hi Dave I think I've said this before, but I'll say again that I was one of your intended constituents in 1985/6 and your introductory scenarios definitely had the desired effect. So many evocative images leap easily to mind...I couldn't tell you off the top of my head how many zombies there were to fight in Hob's Dell, but I still remember the creek of that rusty gate opening into the enclosure and the story of who 'Gardener Jack' was in his life before death. Your 'dungeon crawls' were also full of folklore which really inspired my imagination; say that they were tunnels driven through earthy historical realities out of which spine- tingling superstitions grew. You didn't just fill a place with ghosts, you made it haunted too. And Merkyn's Castle... I can still feel the waves lapping at my hurrying feet as the causeway sinks beneath the tide, and I couldn't tell you what level of wizard Merkyn was, but I remember the sad story of how he came to be the Necromancer in despair and self- defence. Thank you very much for all those stories !

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    1. Thank you, John. If somebody had told me 30 years ago that I'd succeed in giving young minds some pleasurable chills that would last them into adult life, that's everything I hoped for :-)

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  4. This morning I've just been reading Alan Moore's comic Providence, and came across the following. (There's nothing new about this concept, but I thought Jung would appreciate the synchronicity.)

    Malone: "Professor Jung would have it that caves, cellars and such correspond to our subconscious mind. Is there much in that, would you say, or is it hokum?"

    Black: "Well, if dreams are parts of us that we've hidden away or buried, I guess it makes sense."

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  5. I like the idea of a 'dungeon bash' with a random monster table wherein if you roll a '6' you encounter a Psychoanalyist (e.g 'a 10th level Freudian') and things really get interesting !

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    1. That sounds like Oliver's latest Cthulhu scenario. I met Freud while wandering in the fog on Jura. He had an office in a hillside and was warning me about Nazis even though this was 1891. And that wasn't even the weirdest thing that happened in that session.

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    2. Intriguing ! And, well, I guess it is natural to shrink when Cthulhu's around ; )

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  6. As the Erik referred to, it's nice to see this list of scenarios!

    I don't get the chance to play much anymore - my old group is scattered to the winds, and I have a second career as an actor that eats up my evenings - but I still get a hankering to try and get enough together for a one off. I keep a small collection of ideas (and scenarios like these!) just in case...

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    1. Thanks for inspiring the post! I enjoy one-offs but they are a lot harder to run and to really get into. You don't have the momentum you get with a long-running campaign, which helps to generate the story - not to mention that when you play a character regularly you can really get inside them. I guess campaigns are like a TV drama series and one-offs are more of a summer blockbuster, ie plenty of action and spectacle but nobody seems to be quite fully believing in it.

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  7. I sympathise with a number of things here, my own Dragon Warriors one shot will hit its sixth session tomorrow. The bastardised adage being that no scenario survives contact with the players, is how a simple journey to raise funds to repair a church roof could result in a tale of bloody revenge and priest murder, and I would not have it any other way.

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    1. Sounds like an archetypal DW adventure, that. I'd modify the adage further: no scenario should survive contact with the players. We have a bunch of scenarios lined up for the blog over the summer that are pretty much guaranteed to fly off at a tangent as soon as you start to run them.

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    nice this blog.
    You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. I’m looking to reading your next post.

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    ReplyDelete