Starting from Scratch: The Great Dungeon

With an opening in our gaming schedule, my weekday game group had to decide its fate. We were caught in the tabletop conundrum of the ages – Magic: The Gathering or RPGs? We thus began some soul searching to decide exactly what we wanted our next RPG to look like. This details the process of building our new games, the resulting group goals, and the resulting setting and game choice. My game group chose to split its attention and Wizards of the Coast benefited anyway.

I started a discussion about what we wanted in the game and volunteering to run an RPG. Once everyone agreed it was a good place to start, I tried to ask questions about what the group collectively wanted. After listening a bit, and trying to steer the conversation towards what game experience people desired, I scrawled out a grid of game traits and players. Then, I began marking off what people wanted (and didn’t want).

The group’s preferences began to coalesce around a few traits of “looser” gaming. A theme that dominated was a break from miniature or grid-based tactical gaming. Other roleplaying preferences emerged. Even when we played morally complex characters, the group had basically been heroic in terms of the team’s objectives. There was definite interest in removing our ties to that kind of moralistic goal (I.E. “Save the world, even if you’re all assholes.”). That snowballed us to having an “Evil” party. As part of that outlook, we all decided we would go for a grim setting. Player fatalities, negative outlooks, and for-profit motivation was all highly encouraged.

Finally, everyone had their own opinion about what kind of scenes they enjoyed. We ended up reaching a synthesis: basically saying that combat, exploration, and social encounters should be tied together to create a satisfying stream of events. So, we ended up with the following wishlist: a game balanced between combat, exploration and social encounters featuring a grim setting following unheroic characters and ‘theater of the mind’ over tactical representation.

Having recently played in a one-shot of D&D 5th Edition, we decided we wanted to explore the robust new system. I was open to running this game however people wanted, but confronted with the groundswell of enthusiasm, it became clear that D&D was the right fit for what we wanted and the game that had everyone talking.

I have to confess, I already had a setting in mind, and this wishlist seemed to dovetail nicely with what I had been brainstorming.

The Great Dungeon

World War I meets Dungeon Hacking.

Synopsis: When the great powers explode into conflict with a host of terrifying new magics and startling resolve, none could have predicted the unending war of attrition. As the great powers dig in deeper, forming sprawling battle lines, none are ready for the moment when they dig too deep…

My Own Pet Angle: Collaborative World-Building. Rather than sketching out detailed geopolitical web that has the world’s great powers locked in a trench-fueled death spiral, I resolved to have the players fill in the details. Each player is choosing a different race. Their own ideas will fill in that races traditions, lore, history and that race’s national status. If someone decides dwarves are cosmopolitan and everywhere after the collapse of their mountain kingdom, great! If someone else decides Tieflings wear Prussian war helmets they can be German stand-ins. Its a fast and loose approach, but I don’t want to waste time on fiction that the assembled players won’t care about.

Making it Work with Player Preferences: The setting is propelled by warfare and dungeon hacking. Dungeons can be accidentally unearthed at any given time. The players will be a transnational mercenary band that specializes in clearing these unexpected hazards. The dungeons represent great dangers, but also opportunity, because no one knows where the dungeon might take them. Just like World War I took a massive human toll, the dungeons will do the same. While I aim to be fair, I won’t worry about avoiding player death and will allow new characters to arrive on par with the rest of the party. To compensate, there will be some kind of boon for surviving a mission.

There you have it, The Great Dungeon and how it came to be. Expect a play report towards the end of October.

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  1. I’m SO going to steal your “Starting from Scratch” idea for a future campaign. Excellent idea. On the World War I, Great Dungeon thing… What sources did you use, if any, to incorporate WW1 histrionics? I’m going to be following this one for sure.

  2. I listened to some World War I podcasts recently. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is great, but he hasn’t finished up the entire era.


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