Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 17, 2011
“Dungeons” – underground or otherwise deeply confined environments – are a staple of fantasy CRPGs. Of course, the dungeons we explore in fantasy RPGs bear little resemblance to real-world dungeons, but we’ve managed to broaden the term quite a bit.
But why do we keep going back? We’ve been exploring dungeons for something like forty years, now. Besides the fact that the first role-playing game had “Dungeons” as half the title, are there any other reasons why we seem to endlessly delve into underground tunnels with swords and sorcery?
Maybe. Here are some suggestions:
A) They make structuring adventures easy
As a designer (pen-and-paper or computer/console game designer), the confining nature of a dungeon makes things a bit easier to structure. Dungeons are not open-ended environments, and form natural barriers requiring predictable navigation. This means designers don’t have to jump through all kinds of contortions to structure an interesting adventure without imposing arbitrary limits on players. Dungeons form natural tree structures (at least well-designed ones do), albeit with loops, which lends itself easily to creating ordered events, choke points, and so forth.
Of course, in many games the players can take some extraordinary measures to bypass them, like spells to pass through walls or teleport. This is very cool if the adventure is structured flexibly enough to tolerate this -it rewards the player for taking initiative. But it’s still an extraordinary event, not the preferred means of navigation. Whereas in an outdoor environment, it’s harder to justify why the player can’t just take a shortcut through the woods to go straight to the next castle.
B) They make player exploration easy
While limiting player options sounds bad, the simplified structure is usually of benefit to the players, so long as it’s not an incredibly boring linear dungeon. Players don’t get quite so lost in a sea of possibilities. As a player, you can look at a map and say, “Oh, I haven’t been THERE yet. Let’s try that,” instead of saying, “Uh, what do I do now?” The choices may be limited, but they are also relatively clear. That’s a good thing.
C) “Dungeons” are inherently oppressive and hostile
Human beings aren’t well adapted to living underground. We are built for being active during the day, in the sunlight. Yes, even we gaming geeks. In our deep subconsciousness that hasn’t quite evolved out of our species from more primitive eras, we recognize that in the darkness, we are prey. This is why it can be a thrill to go to these places of eternal darkness that we instinctively fear, and bring light with us. I think that’s one key that made Minecraft so successful, actually – as that’s what half the game is about. But this is also what makes dungeons so fun.
I’ve been dungeon-delving in one form or another for more years than I care to admit nowadays. I’m not bored of it yet. Sure, some particular dungeons (or game systems) are boring, but a well-designed underground complex still thrills me as much today as the first day I grabbed a handful of dice armed with a character sheet and imagination. And in the world of computer RPGs (and console RPGs as well, to be fair), as a whole they’ve gotten better and better.
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