Role Playing 101 #3: Do You Dungeon Bash or Do you Tell Stories?

 When you play old style Dungeons & Dragons, or Tunnels & Trolls, the main story line is usually something like this:  Long ago, an evil wizard named Whatshallwecallit built a complex of tunnels under the city – or under the Harz mountains. He filled it up with monsters, evil creatures, and deadly traps. He hid a secret treasure away too and locked himself up on top of it. And now his evil threatens to take over your nondescript home town with pleasant peasants and fancy fairies. Your task, as the heroes, will be to go into his underground realm and beat the unlife out of him and his minions, meanwhile collecting enough treasure to cause hyperinflation in the local economy.    

Sounds familiar? Even though such a storyline doesn't necessarily make much sense, many players including myself revelled in it. It provides just enough rationale for testing your wits and having plain fun while tabletopping with your friends and throwing a lot of dice. You can play a grumpy dwarf, a brooding ranger, or a haughty elf making snide remarks to your fellow characters, and bash away your weeks frustrations while you bash away at the skulls of your virtual designated evil enemies.  

This kind of game is not supposed to be too real. Its a hack and slay, search and destroy mission.

The Next Step is Story Telling  

But after a while, some players at least may find that their heroes develop backgrounds. Backgrounds above ground. Backgrounds that have very little to do with sprawling mazes underground or neurotic necromancers locking themselves up to wreak havoc on the world. And that's where the root of a totally different sort of adventure lies. Adventure maybe without necessarily bashing your enemies, without going underground, without collecting treasure even. Adventure with other rewards.   

But saving the kingdom – perhaps your own – or your family, or your family's honor, or maybe world peace, are all things that may become goals. Tasks may be to identify a killer in a metropolitan city or at a feast in a remote mansion. To guard an envoy on a diplomatic mission, or even to do the diplomatic mission yourself, and meanwhile find out who is trying to thwart a peace deal, or what's really rotten in the state of Denmark. It might be to conduct war, and to do battle on the battlefield. It might be to travel through the wilderlands to save your true love, or keep her from marrying Prince Pumpernickel. No treasure needs be involved, no monsters, no combat. It's the story that becomes important, and the development of character perhaps.   

Role playing games outside the fantasy setting more often follow this pattern. Like sci-fi games, horror games, games based on movies or books. Maybe because a trap and monster laden dungeon makes little sense in such a setting, or maybe because these settings allow a different way of playing. But fantasy usually falls back to the dungeon. The Dark Dungeon game is an exception in this for a fantasy role playing game – one not specifically based on a book or movie. It is less fit for a straight dungeon bash, although you can use it for that purpose. No, Dark Dungeon is a fantasy game made for playing stories.   

Leaving the dungeon and entering the realm of stories gives a lot of freedom. Possibilities. New realms to explore, and other ways of having fun, and experiencing surprise. But where do you begin? Freedom also gives choices, and how to make these choices so that you actually have an exciting adventure? That question I hope to answer at least partly in following posts.


  1. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive.

    The megadungeon can serve as the "tentpole" for the campaign, while various plots and such are happening outside.

    In that way, the players are afforded a choice; they can spend the evening delving deeper into the dungeon, or they can pursue the various plots happening up on the surface.

  2. The two styles aren't mutually exclusive, they're just fairly hard to combine in my experience. At least, if you consider the typical play styles that go with dungeon bash.

    And of course you can have a megadungeon as a setting to run actual stories in. But if they become stories more and more, the looting and killing become less and less important in the whole.