As mentioned earlier, I’ve been very interested in procedural generation and D&D for a while, and last weekend, to celebrate D&D turning 40, I ran another dungeon crawl. Last time, where I had zero story, the players stumbled drunkenly through a chaotic maze, building a silly narrative of a bunch of drunks and their pet slime mold searching for more beer after the bar had cut them off. Laughs were had, and all seemed to have a very good time.
This time wasn’t as successful. I decided, why not add a story to this dungeon, and see if it’ll work out. I had the players pick up where they had left off, having drank the mysterious keg of beer, but revealed it to be throughout the story a keg belonging to a mad wizard who had once used an underground cavern as a lair, but now exiled anyone unlucky enough to cross him down there to die slowly. As a result, there were small parties of survivors who made their way by hunting, cannibalizing, and performing mad rituals. The story aspect of it was something that I was rather proud of, but given that I had to work with a randomly generated dungeon, it made things very difficult to weave a coherent narrative. There were a lot of interesting non sequitor rooms, like a drake chained up to a crib in a nursery, or a giant alchemical torture machine which would be the explanation for a spike trap encountered in the room, but ultimately I found the lack of ability to control the room design to fit the story made it seem very shallow.
Before the game, I spoke with the owner of Tacoma games, who has been kind enough to let me use his store as my gaming spot, and he flat out told me that by letting players design the narrative, it will be better- and that this session probably wouldn’t go as well. He was correct. While people seemed to have fun, we were pressed for time, and I personally was exhausted, having not gotten enough sleep the night before, and in my concern about time, I left key clues out that helped form the narrative on several points- we only had 3 hours, and finished maybe half of the dungeon, so in the end it didn’t matter.
So, the point of these randomly generated dungeons is to learn something. There are three scenarios that I was interested in trying out, and I’ve tried two.
I learned that by creating a dungeon with no story and allowing the players to craft their own, you end up with a fun narrative and a reasonably strong story.
I learned that by creating a dungeon with a more or less coherent story can actually be worse for the players, as they don’t get the character development time. (Note, had I several more hours, I would have given them more RP time.) Also, by using a randomly generated dungeon, it actually hurts any attempt to create a coherent story.
The final test I would like to try is to create a coherent environment for the players, and meaningless dungeons. The way I’d like to do this is to randomly generate a town- I’ve been looking at random town generators and have found a few I like. By giving the players a place for them to openly explore, I think I could allow them to form good player identities, and even if they just wander around, get drunk, pick fights with guards, and accidentally burn down an orphanage, at least they’ve got a story to tell about them as characters. I do intend to throw in a few randomly generated dungeons for them to check out if they like, but by giving them a lot of freedom in a rich, open world, I think the end result should be interesting.
The one caveat is that much of the experience is also based on the group- it would be impossible for me to try every type of dungeon against all the permutations of stereotypical players (rules lawyers, actors, munchkins, explorers/puzzle geeks) but the bottom line for me is the experience as a DM, and what I can discover about the nature of players in what limited experience I can have.
That being said, the biggest thing I’ve found is that as far as feasibility and easiness on the side of the DM goes, it’s really easy to just randomly generate a dungeon and let the players roll with it. Much easier.
One last thing I’d like the players to do in the next session, or perhaps the following one, is to ask them three questions about their characters, and have three physical aspects that somehow reflect their personality. The questions: What is their job/position in life. What’s their family/social life like. What is their life view all about. I created a few characters using this method, here’s a few of them.
The Half orc fighter.
Job: Looking to be an escort for a caravan, guard duty, that type of stuff.
Family: Abusive father. Ran away recently. No friends otherwise.
Life view: They’ve never really had any good social contact, but the one thing they understand is hurting others, so that’s good enough. No real other reason to live, just taking it day to day.
Physical aspects: Strong, but no body fat from a life of living on next to no food. Always glares, when he smiles it’s obvious that his eyes aren’t following suit. Armor he wears is rusted to hell, no personal flair at all, just utilitarian.
Job: Worked in a temple for many years, before settling out to be a traveling missionary.
Family: Good family, merchant line. He decided to join the church with their blessing at an early age and that became his life. He’s got a lot of friends in the order, and is held in good esteem.
Life view: Even though he’s got this great life as a well respected clergyman, he’s having a crisis of faith. The closeness to his god he felt growing up is completely gone, and he keeps that to himself.
Physical aspects: Spotless robes. He keeps himself immaculately cared for and is by all appearances a paragon of faith.
Sickly looking. While he’s not quite sick, his illness if faith shows on his face and movements.
Shaved head. Doesn’t look good on him, and he’s not losing his hair, but he shaves his head as a sort of atonement.
I had a thief I based on Edward Snowden, a mage with low self esteem and an anxiety disorder, a recovering alcoholic Paladin, and a few other characters. Just over the course of a short walk, I came up with these characters using these ideas, and perhaps in my next game, I’ll have the players try doing this themselves. The big question then becomes, is it better to create a character and have him experience the game, or let the experience of the game shape the player? (Or are both things valid, and it’s ultimately based on the personality of the player and the world they’re in. Probably that one.)
Anyway, I’ve got to go back to figuring out this random city generation thing…