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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Classic Rant: On Cynical Dungeons as a Substitute for Real Creativity

Yesterday I commented on a comment thread about an article someone had written on the "negadungeon", which is to say a dungeon or general adventure (often exemplified by the works of James Raggi & LotFP) where the point is all but to murder the player characters, where everything is a trap or a trick, where it is (most crucially) a set up so that the player's own actions end up causing them to unleash the terrible problem (instead of the standard dungeon, where the PCs go in to SOLVE the problem). And it is usually a dungeon with very high mortality and incredibly little reward, the reward often also screwing over the PCs somehow.

Now James Raggi is a very good writer, one of this best in this genre is Death Frost Doom. I've run it twice: in the first case, it did indeed unleash a zombie apocalypse, which I later had the players help to avert with a Cleric army. The second time I ran it, the player characters figured out that things had been sealed up for a reason, and decided to go home without entering; naturally, I gave them the total XP for all the monsters and treasures found in the dungeon, because in this case they DEFEATED the undead army by not entering at all in the first place. The players were very happy with the xp, but they also thought that it was a "retarded" adventure, because what's the point of a dungeon where the best possible thing you can do is not go in?

What's the point indeed? I had an argument on said thread yesterday with James Raggi about this, and highlighting the difference between the particular kind of "weird fantasy" he likes, and the "dark heroic" fantasy I like and use in Dark Albion.

The "negadungeon" is hip right now, but in ACTUAL PLAY its something that gets old really fast. 

Perhaps more importantly, in terms of design, it's always a lot easier (and actually far less clever than its authors think) to make something "against type" seem kind-of-interesting than to make something traditional turn out really interesting.

There are 'negadungeons' which are very clever; but there's a strong element of hipsterism to the obsession with them. In a way, the competition to create ever more pointless fucked-up adventures where PCs only ever get screwed over has become its own meta-negadungeon, a trap those authors who are fans of the concept can't seem to find their way out of; kind of like being ironic for so long you never know if you ever actually mean anything anymore.

And at least James Raggi is a decent writer; god help you when you get a negadungeon by someone more mediocre.

Anyways, they're fine in small doses, but if you live in a "negadungeon world" then the whole becomes swiftly tedious. I guess that's the difference between Raggi's nameless pseudo-europe and my own Dark Albion (which he declined to publish because it wasn't "weird" enough in the sense of fitting his own definition of that word; but I suspect also because it wasn't cynical or ironic enough). Now it's going to be published by and in collaboration with Dominique Crouzet (Fantastic Heroes & Witchery).

It will feature many barrows, tombs, goblin warrens, etc., which should probably stay sealed, or better yet lost, made by the ancient Cymri (the first men) or the Fae themselves; but places that will be opened because those who defeat the terrible evils therein will also gain fame, glory and the favour of the Unconquered Sun. 

Yes, these places will be full of unspeakable horrors: things man was not meant to know, like wraiths, or goblins -- and see, that's the thing too, the difference: the cynical-set wants to make a "tentacle-eyestalk-thing infused with the spirit of collective despair" into something really scary and inhuman for PCs... I want to make an Elf into something really scary and inhuman for PCs. There's a very big difference in that.

I think that it's possible get so stuck on this kind of cynical idea of design that you really miss out on what is the bigger challenge. It's a bit like that time on the Simpsons that Lisa pointed out that while Smashing Pumpkins might be a good band, making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's less 'hip' but takes far more genius to make a song that is actually good and will also make teenagers feel optimistic.

Likewise, any idiot can make a bad traditional adventure. It is also easy for anyone of mediocre talent to make a mediocre "anti-traditional adventure". It might take someone who's fairly talented to make an actually great "anti-traditional adventure". But it takes a fucking genius to make a really great traditional adventure.

Making a cynical and pessimistic dungeon/adventure that:

a) screws over players and demands moral ambiguity of the PCs, while it features
b) some twisted tentacle-creature or whatever certainly something that can be done better or worse. Raggi generally does it well, but it's still a lot LESS clever than figuring out how to make an adventure about:

a) good (having a meaningful chance of) triumphing over evil and
b) where the PCs can (have a reasonable chance of) coming out the triumphant victors (whether morally ambiguous or otherwise as they so desire) that
c) at the same time doesn't seem corny or rehashed, and that figures out a way to
d) make a goblin (or any other archetypal monster the players have seen a thousand times) into the central and fearsome featured enemy.

I can't help feel that, in some sense, the fans of negadungeons don't technically actually TRUST Old-School gaming (and its archetypal concepts and virtues) to be any good; or at least trust themselves to be any good at doing it. That's why they need to twist it around with cynicism and irony. 


(Originally Posted June 28, 2014)


  1. In general, it's just easy to be cynical and back-handed. Critics have an easy job deconstructing "stuff" other people made. (re-watch Ratatouille for a monologue about this)

    No I'm not being meta and being cynical of your cynicism of cynicism: in fact, I agree with you 100%.

    OSR writers who take a risk at creating stuff that's balanced and cool deserve props just for trying. After all, unlike 4th ed where everything is like a piece of code that slots into a gross exercise in non-creativity, OSR requires both wisdom finesse + courage to allow things to happen that you never intended.

  2. isn't it ironic don't yah think? (Sorry that lyric was in my head while reading this). My biggest problem when writing is "at the same time doesn't seem corny or rehashed". I'm always trying to step away from rehash, or atleast but a sufficient twist on it that it makes some sense in the grand scheme of the adventure. As far as using a traditional monster in a different way, I've done that a few times. My first published adventure i wrote had a Minotaur who was basically a mobster shaking hobbits down for gold (Jabba). One could say that is a slight re hash I guess. But the cool thing about it was, the monster had a personality and a goal, backstory. Not just a scary looking bull dude with a hammer and some gold. Anyways as always you make me think.

  3. Robert E Howard made elves into nightmare fuel, Worms of the Earth was deeply creepy. Elves were always scary when we believed in them. Afterward they became fun.

    Witches were horrific because they wanted you to suffer and die. Trolls were fearful because we believed. You can do profoundly frightening as long as treat it honestly.

  4. While I'm not a fan of the nega-dungeon, I am really, really into weird, Lovecraftian tentacled entities.