The Virtue of the Dungeon

I've been running a 4th Edition D&D game for a couple of sessions now. It's a very lightly plotted (from my point of view, anyway), drop-in, drop-out sort of game. The characters are directed by a Duke, who sends them on particular missions. The missions have thus far been combat-heavy, medium rare on the roleplay, nearly decision-free, and have only just started to experiment with the other forms of encounter in 4E - skill challenges.

This has been very interesting for me, as I'm used to running games that are almost the opposite; heavy on the roleplay, heavy on the plot, and with a lot of material stemming from the decisions the player characters make. There are a few immediate things of note.

First and foremost, running a game like this is so relaxing. I don't have to think much at all; it's pure tactics on the board during combat, and I know, more or less, nearly everything that's going to happen in a given session. I nearly tripped up on the first skill challenge, making defeating it necessary for the rest of the plot, but the PCs came through and beat it, and I'll know better than to make them essential in future.

Second, I'm railroading like mad in this game, and I'm quite enjoying it. The players have been told that their characters have no choice but to obey the Duke - he has some power over each of them, be it feudal, blackmail, or whatever, and in most cases, we haven't even specified what that is. They're given mission parameters, and that's what they go and do. Choice is nearly absent, apart from at the tactical level.

However, as you might expect from a game with five adults and one teenager, we're seeing a lot of scheduling issues. Since the character generation session, we haven't had everyone in. In some ways, this is fine - I was expecting it, and have NPCs ready to step in and take up the slack for when characters in key roles can't be present. On an occasion when, though, I have only two players, I'm reluctant to advance the plot. Not because other players will be essential to it, but because explaining what happened to more than one or two people is not completely easy, and completely easy is what I'm looking for in this game.

So my proposed solution for this is to run a dungeon. An actual, honest-to-the-gods dungeon, through which crawling can be done. My notion is to cover it, insofar as I need to in in-character terms, by saying that there are orcs and goblins down there, and there's a royal bounty. In reality, it will serve for the days when only two players - or even only one - can make it, and we can bring out some of the NPCs and roll into it.

It will have multiple levels, easy bits at the top, harder bits further down, some sort of demon boss at the bottom, and so on. It'll have a map done on graph paper, most likely. I probably will not be able to resist putting a story behind why it's there, and having it more or less make sense in an food-chain-economy sort of way, but I fully and cheerfully expect the players to ignore that. It will exist solely as a source of xp, treasure, and dice-rolling.

It will be glorious.

Posted by Drew Shiel at August 23, 2010 2:01 PM

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