Two recent gaming experiences:

First: I have been trying to run a D&D-type game using a precious snowflake setting I’ve been thinking about for years. I say “trying to” because I do not think it is working. I am not finding enough time to prep, and am frequently finding myself struggling to juggle the competing priorities of preparing actionable content, building out the setting, and embedding my prep in the world in a way that feels true to my (admittedly hazy) vision while still making for Good D&D.

Second: A couple weeks ago, more or less on a whim, I rolled out of bed and ran BX for Marcia with zero prep. I generated a dungeon with donjon and ran it sight unseen. It was fun, low stress, and somehow felt as lived in a world (if not more so) than the one I have been racking my brain over.

What the heck!!

I have been in a few conversations where Warren D. has argued, in various ways, that dungeons are the “tutorial zone” of old-type D&D. Warren’s arguments are supported by the implied (hell, explicit) arc of a BX/BECMI campaign following a transition from dungeon crawling to overland adventuring to domain play. This transition is usually justified in terms of the personal power of characters and even mapped to “tiers” divided by character level; from scrappy adventurer to hero to ruler.

Warren’s claim, however, is that the succession of tiers isn’t just about character growth; it’s about player growth, including the DM. As players dungeon crawl through the first 3 levels, they learn the basic procedures of play, the strengths and weaknesses of the various classes, and how to operate together. The dungeon provides a relatively controlled setting where players’ actions are focused on relatively simple goals. The enclosed space of the dungeon also means the can focus on preparing relatively isolated situations without too many moving parts. Thus, they learn how to prep and run a game with a narrower range of possible actions and outcomes than in higher tiers of play. This also has the important (even necessary) benefit of allowing novice players, including DMs, to develop confidence in their ability to play the game.

I have been listening to Ben Laurence’s Into the Megadungeon podcast. It is a good podcast and you should listen to it. A couple ideas that have really stuck with me.

In his interview, James Maliszewski (of Grognardia fame) discusses how his prep for the original run of his Dwimmermount campaign looked an awful lot like something rolled up using random dungeon stocking tables (because it largely was!). Much of the connective tissue, the details that connected entities from his prep with each other and the wider world of the setting, were more or less improvised at the table. Another advantage of the dungeon is it is both part of the setting and isolated from it; it provides an evocative and contained focus for which the DM can sketch out the background as they go, and so little one-off details in the dungeon can spin out into traces of a wider world. When the players finally “graduate” from the dungeon after level 3, their adventures will have seeded much of the world set off into.

Yet as Miranda Elkins (of Nightwick and other places deep) notes in her interview, James already had a sense of the setting before those first sessions, albeit a vague one. Building your dungeon without some notion of the world it belongs to – a theme, in her words – is likely to produce something that ultimately feels generic or divorced from the world you’re imagining.

Miranda’s point about needing a theme might be moot for a lot of tables. Vanilla is delicious and lots of people like it! But if you’re me, and you’re trying to mash together Final Fantasy, Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach novels, Cold War history, and the hex map and key for Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa, it’s a reminder of why trying to dress someone else’s prep in your setting’s clothes can leave you with something that feels inadequate and alienated from your vision.

Running the procgen dungeon for Marcia made me wonder why I was wasting so much time generating and curating content for my precious snowflake setting when I was able to have just as much fun for way less stress and zero prep work just by running a Normal-Ass Dungeon. I contemplated throwing out the whole campaign and just doing a BX dungeon crawl with dungeons generated completely (or at least mostly) at random. Actually, I am still contemplating that.

But before I give up on the enterprise entirely, I’m thinking I might try using a dungeon as my own tutorial zone for feeling out this setting. Lots of random gen, stocking from tables, etc. But at the core, a few Big Ideas rooted in what I find interesting about this particular world. And with that, time to introduce, build out, and refine those ideas.