Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Dungeon Crawling So Old It’s New Again

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 13, 2014

men-and-magicOne concept of early dice-and-paper role-playing games (and some of the old CRPG counterparts) that has been somewhat lost in the modern era is the idea of avoiding combat encounters. Old-school D&D has a not-entirely warranted reputation for being about killing everything in sight. After all, that was how you got XP (experience points), right? For killing things?

Well, actually, no. In the actual rules, you got far more XP for treasure than for killing things. Some dungeon masters chose to ignore this rule, which resulted in far slower-paced games where the only way to make progress was to kill everything in sight. You had to kill a LOT of enemies to get to level two, and in a “properly” run game, you were unlikely to survive that many encounters.

But in the game as designed, there was a huge emphasis in these early games on exploration, and really searching hard for treasure. This was one of the big tricks of the game – if you look in the very early modules for the game, the most interesting treasure (for intelligent monsters) was well-hidden and/or well-trapped. You’d have magic swords disguised as torches via illusion, or false bottoms on chests that were already hidden behind a trapped secret door. That kind of thing. If anything, killing the guardians was “bonus” XP.

Wandering monsters acted as a timer to force a balance between exploration and leaving no stone unturned versus resource depletion (and risk of death). In order to get the big experience points from the treasure hidden deep in the dungeon, it might be best to avoid some encounters even if they weren’t that risky. It was a constant decision-making process – do you keep poking around, or do you move forward? Sure, you would get some experience points from these encounters, but very little loot, making them extremely inefficient sources of progress.

You combine these factors: An emphasis on the “loot” for your reward regardless of how it is obtained; a regular depletion of resources (especially when confronted with obstacles and conflict) which increased risk and made necessary the need to leave the dungeon and lose momentum; and a relatively smaller reward for defeating enemies (again, regardless of how they are defeated). Now mix in some low-risk / low-reward encounters, and some extremely high-risk (nigh-impossible) encounters, and now you have a cost / risk / reward structure that leads to all kinds of interesting experiences.

How about bribing a monster? It’s a small depletion of a plentiful resource (for adventurers) – money – in return for more efficient future encounters without depleting more important resources (potions, scrolls, wand charges, hit points, spells-per-day usage). Hiding from an encounter? Negotiation? Trickery? Fleeing?

What happened over time was that DMs ignored the rules to force the game to play the way they wanted it to play… and, in a sense, they “won” – later versions of the game (and their computer RPG cousins) followed this new style. XP was no longer given for treasure, as treasure was its own reward. Combat was exciting, so it became the only real source of XP. And there are a few articles and letters in old copies of Dragon Magazine suggesting that DMs would reduce the experience point reward if the players won too easily because they were clever about it. After all, what did the characters learn when all they did was drop a rockslide on a giant’s head instead of fighting it toe-to-toe?

(I’d submit they learned the most important lesson: It’s far easier and less risky to drop a rockslide on a giant’s head than fighting it toe-to-toe).

With the growth of computer role-playing games, things only accelerated in this direction. Now you look at the “mainstream” single-player RPG experience:

* Most XP is given as a combat award (there’s often quest awards too, but this is typically secondary)

* There’s little to no emphasis on resource management. Characters often have all their health and mana restored between encounters in many AAA CRPGs.

* There are few (if any) interactions outside of combat with “enemies”

* Few “optional” combats. You are expected to fight to the death all the way up to the end-boss.

* If you can flee an encounter at all, it only means you’ll have to face them later when they are fully restored as well. You’ve lost any resources you expended the first time (ammo, potions, whatever limited resource depletion occurs in the game), with no advantage conferred. You don’t get to bypass the encounter the second time around.

* Having enemies flee is rarer still. Getting any reward for defeated-but-escaping enemies is unheard of.

* There’s little variation in difficulty of enemies. Sure, you have plain ol’ mooks, tougher leaders, and an end-level boss. But you don’t often have a mix of Seriously Too Tough to Handle creatures with “speed bump” packs that present no risk but to your resources. You don’t have an Ancient Dragon mixed in with the level 1 kobolds. Or if you do, the game will treat it entirely like a non-combat encounter and won’t even give you the option of being stupid.

What we’ve ultimately lost is the emphasis on exploration rather than combat. From a CRPG perspective, there’s motivation for this: combat is generally a lot easier / cheaper to develop than exploration content. But if gamers are willing to accept that not every corridor is completely custom and unique (which was a big “if” maybe ten years ago, but a lot more common today), a tile-based approach with a few custom or unique alterations and locations seems adequate.

I keep talking about how we may need to take a few steps back in order to move forward into new and exciting directions. I feel that especially among the indies, that has been happening to a degree. We’ve got a lot of fascinating new RPGs that are rooted in design approaches from twenty years ago. But maybe there’s a lot more fertile ground to mine if we’re willing to take a few even larger steps back.



Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Corwin said,

    I totally agree with you, I love non-combat options and getting XP for using these options. I always remember that PS:T often gave more XP for avoiding conflict than for engaging in it. I trust you are planning to follow your own advice with FK 2!! 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yes and no. Part of this came about because I had to refresh my memory about the “Heart” of Frayed Knights. After seeing some people play, I did feel some pressure of it being viewed as “just another RPG.” Funny, when I started on the first game, there was no fear of that, but other indie RPG developers have been busy since then! 🙂

    But some of the core design is of more modern vintage, and I’m not quite ready to sacrifice that yet. Like more story-driven dungeons. And I’m doing some unusual things to the game system. But… it’s not about the system, or about the story, it’s the feel. I want to accentuate that feel of being around the table playing D&D in the early 80s, but without there being a literal table. It’s still gotta be immersed in the context of the game world, with a minimum of fourth-wall breaking. (Only when it’s really funny…)

  • Felix said,

    “the game […] won’t even give you the option of being stupid”

    Yep… that’s the gist of the problem, right there. The industry isn’t making games anymore. It’s making *virtual theme parks*. Yes, the thing MMOs are routinely accused of applies in fact to all AAA games today.

    That said, I wish roguelikes followed this principle you’re describing here. They’d be far more interesting if they did.

  • ogg said,

    Very interesting post. I feel I should echo Felix above, from the outside roguelikes seem to be very death/combat focused.

  • Maklak said,

    XP for killing monsters and recommended wealth by level are among the chief reasons I dislike DnD. I think XP should be for solving problems, exploration, plot advancement, good thinking, roleplaying, showing up to the session, that sort of thing. Winning combat counts, but so do a lot of other things. Yeah, wealth should be stealable from NPCs and monster lairs, but if the players want to do something like start a business or run a caravan, let them.
    Sadly this doesn’t translate so well to cRPGs, so combat it is. Although cRPGs play too much like canyon-driven mass murder simulators these days.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m rather fond of the rare, “Gain skill points for completing a quest” method that you find in some older Action-RPGs.

    This way, you’ll never be expected to stop and grind. You’ll always be the “Correct” level for the upcoming challenges.

    That said, it has plenty of bad sides. Easy to build a “bad” character and get stuck, less skilled players can never proceed, and so on.

    Large XP from completed quests and small XP from combat is a decent enough alternative.

  • Edward Hamilton said,

    I agree with virtually everything in this post, and I’ve been wishing that the computer RPG design community would start saying things like it. I have trouble disentangling some of the nostalgia I have over my first encounter with CRPGs in the 80s from my critical perspective, but I definitely think there’s been something lost in modern games.

    Almost every memorable dungeon-crawl game that was released in that era (think Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic) did a good job of putting emphasis on the environment as the real “enemy”, with combat just being one element of a broadly hostile environment full of unmapped corridors, darkness zones, traps, teleporters, fake walls, spinners, and riddles. The result was that you felt like the world itself was hostile and malevolent, and that the monsters were just an organic element of it. Getting into the dungeon and back out again in one piece was an accomplishment in itself, and so the game was fun just on its own merits.

    One of the most important psychological elements of play was the inevitable transition from “I’m feeling powerful and I’m out to conquer this new dungeon” to “I’m getting nervous down here, and I feel a little lost and over my head” to “Ahhhhh, giant spiders again! Half my team is dead! I need to run! Please let me run this time!”

    Today, I feel like too many games avoid that full range of responses in favor of always making you feel moderately safe, and use encounters as a way to keep you from getting to the “interesting” part of the game — which is plot development. Too many games are something you’d never want to play if you weren’t constantly being rewarded by boss fights and cut scenes, and the secondary encounters are more like speed bumps that feel like they get in the way of the “real game”. I don’t recall ever categorizing monsters as “trash encounters” back in the days when easy monsters still drained you of spell points or stuck you with an enduring status effect, and made your real objective more difficult. Now they just feel like a “time tax” for playing the game, with no strategic significance.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Edward: Bingo! Exactly. You get it.

    Going back and re-playing the old CRPGs (and playing some modern descendants rooted heavily in the games of that era – like Swords & Sorcery: Underworld, or Darklight Dungeon Eternity, or even the original Diablo), the gameplay is a lot more like you are launching a “raid” on the dungeon, and then returning to “home base.” (Or at least a base camp).

    That was a lot of how the old D&D adventures went, too.

    Some players can grow frustrated doing that, and I understand (I can understand even if I don’t agree), but making sure you can actually escape when you need to was a big part of the strategy of those old games. Assuming no major surprises and a GM playing relatively fair (not having a beholder and a couple of Pit Fiends come in behind you to block your exit), you should always make sure you have enough resources to make an egress. That was part of it, and of course it was frustrating when you failed, and it *can* grow old if it’s always that way without variation. But for us old-school veterans, it was a very exciting and entertaining challenge.

  • Cuthalion said,

    This has me thinking about how I hand out Exp in my tabletop game. I used to do a simple addition of each monster’s exp value that the players defeated (later on, this included any defeat, not just murderating). At some point, I started giving people handwavey amounts that felt right to me based on how much quest or plot progress I’d felt they’d made. During one campaign, I’d give any player who drew a relevant picture or did an in-character journal entry between sessions some hefty bonus exp. My game had a less drastic difference between levels than D&D, so it wasn’t really a problem to have one player at level 12 and another at level 7.

    Then, I tried something new. At the beginning of each session, I asked the players, “So, who can tell me what happened last time?” For every unique, interesting event that any player could come up with from the last session, I assigned the entire party a small amount of experience. They quickly caught on, to the point where they were leveling up every time due to more enthusiastic memories (and maybe a little note-taking)! I was pretty loose with my definition of “interesting”. If they could think of it, and no one else had said it yet, all it really had to be was one step above, “I ate some rations.” Next time, I’ll have to lower the amount of exp per incident or come up with a formula based on the number of players — I had 6 players and about a dozen experiences recalled on an average session.

    Note that word, “experiences“. The more memorable the experiences for the players, the more experience the characters got. It’s an abstraction, but so is exp in the first place! And of course, I still added on exp for any foes they defeated. Combat takes tons of time, after all — something I’m trying to streamline a little — but doesn’t have nearly as many Incidents per Hour as roleplaying. But, very quickly, the players remaining engaged between sessions and doing interesting stuff in-characters became the primary source of experience.

    Plus, it made the recap stage of the game session a lot more… enthusiastic. It gave people a reason to refresh their memories on what happened last time, as a recap would snowball from awkward silence broken by some “Um”s into people nearly talking over each other.

    I think I’ll keep using this method. It worked well — or at least, I liked it. You’d have to ask my players.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Addendum: The main disadvantage I see with the “recap as experience” approach I’ve described is that it basically forces any leveling up stuff into the beginning of the session, when it seems to come more naturally after or between sessions. Plus, it breaks momentum. It would be much nicer to transition immediately from “Last Time on Deep Space 9” to resuming roleplay. I think there were times where the players were close enough, I told them to go ahead and level their characters before the next session, even though the exp hadn’t officially been awarded (or even determined!) yet.