Every Adventure’s a Dungeon

04-22-15 Feature Art 800 x 450I’ve got a fun idea. Let’s talk about a video game. For a change. Because I haven’t quite licked all of the detritus off the bottom of that particular idea trough yet. There’s still some crumbs down there.

But enough about how repetitive I’ve become. Today, we’re going to talk about structure, one of the big three elements every adventure absolutely has to have. According to me. In the last article I wrote about adventure building. Now, I insisted that an adventure is not just a series of encounters. Even though that’s how it plays out at the table. And one of the reasons it’s not just a big pile of encounters is because an adventure has STRUCTURE. Structure is basically the glue that holds all of the encounters and scenes together and keeps them from falling into a big gelatinous, gooey morass of utter chaos and confusion. And, when it comes to adventure design, you spend most of your time (a) building encounters and scenes and (b) defining the structure of the adventure. But most GMs don’t think too heavily about (b). They just sort of blunder into it. Or they don’t. And their adventures are gooey piles of ugly sludge.

Screaming Gaming Herpes: Planning Adventures

I have to take a moment here to address “the planning dilemma.” This is a great example of what I like to call Screaming Gamer Herpes: an argument amongst gamers that never goes away. Sometimes it goes quiet, but then it inevitably flares up again on some forum or social media site or whatever. This particular infection of Screaming Gamer Herpes is about whether it okay to plan an adventure.

The answer is: who gives a s$&%. It’s okay to plan adventures. It’s okay to wing it. It’s okay to plan the broad strokes, but improvise the individual scenes. It’s okay to plan out the scenes in detail. As long as the players have decisions to make and those decisions carry consequences, it’s completely okay. Okay? I don’t want to f$&%ing hear this argument cropping up in MY comment section.

Here’s the deal: everything I’m saying now is absolutely, completely, undeniably, axiomatically, demonstrably true whether you improvise your adventures or whether you plan them out in excruciating detail. The only difference between planning and improvising is that, when you’re improvising, you’ve only got a few seconds to plan so you’d better be good at planning in seconds .That’s it. You’re still planning.

By the way, I’m going to come back to this topic when we talk about endings and resolutions. So gird your loins for that. You won’t like what I’m going to say.

We’re going to start this study on structure by studying one of the simplest, clearest, most well-understood adventure structures in all of gaming. Maniac Mansion. No, ha. Fooled you. We’re going to talk about The Dungeon.

The Dungeon: Where the Medium Becomes the Message

Let’s talk dungeon adventures. And then I’m going to show you a trick.

First, let’s talk about what a dungeon adventure actually is. A dungeon adventure is an adventure that takes place in a dungeon. Bam! Easy! Of course, that definition is utterly f$&%ing useless. After all, what’s a dungeon. Well, I’ll tell you that the brilliant Dave Noonan once defined a dungeon as a place where the structure of the game becomes more obvious. And that definition is actually the best damned definition I’ve ever heard.

Okay, if you somehow don’t know and I can’t imagine how you might not know, in gaming parlance, a dungeon is a location in which the heroes wander from location to location on the map freely. And at various locations, they encounter encounters. Obstacles. Monsters. Treasure. Demons. Captives. Traps. Tricks. Talking statues. Riddles. Whatever.

In other words, a dungeon is just an interconnected pile of encounters. From the Chamber of Inexplicable Screams, you can wander into the Den of the Purturbed Duckbunny or you can head into the Hallway of Unexpected Decapitations. The Hallway of Unexpected Decapitations leads to The Head Museum. If you get through the Den of the Purturbed Duckbunny, you can either head to the Pit of Odd-Smelling But Not Particularly Dangerous Odors or you can find the secret tunnel that leads to the Vault of the Dickish GM which is filled with 10,000,000 copper coins and a 5,000 pound solid gold statue of a middle finger that is too big to fit through the door.

Right? Dungeon.

Now, what’s funny is that “dungeon” has become synonymous with “adventure.” Unless you’re one of those obnoxious elitists who spends every week pissing and moaning about how dungeon adventures suck and you’re so much more story driven and you run sandboxes and all that crap (have I got a surprise for you coming). And that isn’t far off the mark. A dungeon map is just a map of encounters and how those encounters are connected. If you add the reason why the party is going into the dungeon and imagine one of those encounters has the goal the party is trying to accomplish at the other end, you have a complete adventure. Motivation, resolution, and structure holding together and providing context for a big ole pile of encounters.

But now, we’re going to perform some magical sleight of hand. Or sleight of tentacle. Bwahahahahaha.

Meet the Edisons

Let’s talk about the classic LucasArts adventure game Maniac Mansion by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. If you’re not familiar with this game, it’s cool. I’m going to tell you all you need to know. If you want to GET familiar with this game, stop by my live streaming page on Saturday, April 25th at 9:30 PM EDT and you can get familiar with it. Seriously. There’s a lot of video game history, a lot of humor, and a lot of good guidance for GMs in that classic game. And if it’s already after April 25th when you read this, you can click this link to watch the video.

Maniac Mansion is an old point-and-click adventure game. In fact, it’s literally the game that invented point-and-click. You played as three high-school kids exploring Dr. Fred Edison’s mansion and trying to rescue Sandy the cheerleader before Dr. Fred could suck her brains out with his Zom-B-Matic machine.

Why do I bring this up? I bring it up to illustrate an important point about adventure structure. In fact, I bring it up to illustrate the MOST IMPORTANT POINT ABOUT ADVENTURE STRUCTURE YOU’LL EVER HEAR. See, Maniac Mansion is basically one big puzzle dungeon. You wander from location to location, picking up items, encountering members of the Edison family and their slimy tentacle servants, microwaving hamsters, and solving puzzles. In fact, if I wanted to, I could even draw it as a dungeon map. Here. Watch. Here’s a map of the first level of the mansion.

Maniac Mansion Floorplan 600 x 771

(Okay, Maniac Mansion fans and purists, you’re right, I had to move some exits around to make the rooms line up properly, but it totally works. Give me a break. I’m trying to make an important point.)

But that map is not how you see the mansion. Nope. You see individual rooms. You click on exits and you are taken to other rooms. Here’s the kitchen from one version of the game.

Maniac Mansion Kitchen 600 x 351

And if I wanted to map out the whole first level of the mansion the way you’d see it in the game, it’d look something like this. Yeah, I can do that from memory. I LOVE that f$&%ing game.

Maniac Mansion Screen Map 600 x 570

Notice that both maps are basically equivalent. Its just that I’ve replaced doorways and stairs and things with lines, like a flowchart. You can still explore the map the exact same way. Honestly, I could even make the clearer by removing the graphics and just drawing lines between room names like so.

Maniac Mansion Map Flowchart 400 x 367

But now, let’s reframe the map a little. Let me tell you a little about the beginning of the game. You start the game on the porch. And if you poke and prod, you’ll find there’s really only two things you can do once you discover the front door is locked. You can ring the doorbell or you can find the key hidden under the doormat. If you ring the doorbell, Weird Ed Edison will answer the door, thinking you are the mailman (an important clue for later). But he will send you away and slam the door in your face. On the other hand, if you find the hidden key, you can enter the front hall.

Now, in the front hall, there’s a couple of different things you can do. But I’m going to simplify and summarize a little bit. You can go into the kitchen or you can go up the stairs. If you go into the kitchen, you’ll encounter Nurse Edna Edison. She will chase you down and if she catches you, she will throw you in the dungeon. Alternatively, you can go up the stairs where you will (eventually, I’m skipping some parts) encounter Green Tentacle (which the sequel reveals is his proper name, not just a description). Green Tentacle will demand food from you. If you give him the right food, he will let you pass. Otherwise, he will send you back down the stairs.

If I wanted to, I could map the game like this, right? After all, these are really the encounters of the game. Weird Ed sending you away. Nurse Edna chasing you. Green Tentacle blocking your path. I could redraw the map of the beginning of Maniac Mansion like this and it would still show the adventure just as accurately. The maps are functionally the same.

Maniac Mansion Plot Flowchart 600 x 623

Remember that map. Because now it’s time for the real Sleight of Tentacle.

Here’s Where the Tentacle Magic Happens

Imagine an adventure where you are called to a crime scene to find the murderer. At the crime scene, you search for evidence. You notice two things. One, there’s this weird smelly bum in the alley across the street. Looks like he’s been there all night. Second, if you search really hard, you find a matchbook from the Club Hapgood. Maybe the killer dropped it. It seems like a lead.

If you ask the bum what happened, he turns out not to have seen anything useful. He was passed out all night. So, you head over to Club Hapgood.

At Club Hapgood, you find there’s a front door and a back alley that leads behind the club. The club is jumping. If you go to the front door, you run into a bouncer. The bouncer blocks your path, demanding a password. An appropriate bribe will probably get you in, though. But if you sneak around the back, you’ll find there’s an open window above the backdoor you can climb in. But the moment you are inside, you see a gorrilla of a bodyguard in a business suit coming your way. You can try to hide or confront the dude. But if he knocks you out, he drags you to a back room so his boss, Don LeChuck can interrogate you about why you’re snooping around.

We can map that little bit of the adventure out a little something like this.

Murder Investigation Plot Flowchart 600 x 652

Notice anything funny?

It’s subtle, but keep looking. You’ll get it.

Here’s a hint. Compare it to one of the previous maps. I won’t tell you which one. Just scroll up. See if you notice it.

Got it?


Every Adventure is a Dungeon Adventure

The truth of the matter is that every adventure is a dungeon adventure. An adventure’s structure just shows how the scenes and encounters are interconnected. But you can map ANY adventure as a dungeon. Especially once you recognize that the hallways between rooms in the dungeon are not really hallways at all. They are just transitions.

What’s a transition? A transition is the thing a GM says to move the game from one scene to another.

“You walk down the eastern hallway. After thirty feet, you come to a big room filled with heads in alcoves.”

“You drive across town to Club Hapgood. You find a parking space, feed the meter, and check out the club.”

“You engage the hyperdrive and the stars streak out ahead of your ship in a way that would make Einstein roll over in his grave, mutter something about “length contraction in the direction of travel” and then go back to sleep. You drop out of hyperdrive an uncountable number of minutes later because time stopped having a meaning as soon as you pressed that button and you find yourself orbiting Planet Skolarion.”

See? These are all just transitions. They fill in the gaps between encounters and scenes. Hallways, lines on a flowchart, roads on map, or hexes of empty space between planet A and planet B. It’s all the same.

Now, you might argue that dungeon adventures are more constrained than any other kind of adventure and so the dungeon map analogy falls apart. But that brings us back to the Screaming Gamer Herpes argument about planning. I mean, if the party in the dungeon decided to mine their way through the wall, I COULD handle that. They might just dig into another room on the map. Or I might go really crazy and have them dig into an entire, unexplored cave complex. But the party usually doesn’t do that.

Likewise, the party in a murder investigation doesn’t act at random. They tend to follow leads and clues. When you put the matchbook for Club Hapgood in the scene, that’s no different from putting a door that leads from Crime Scene to Club Hapgood. And if the party decides to head down to the docks and see if anyone knows anything about Max Sammen getting killed, well, you can handle that. Even if the party IS acting at random. You just add a line and a box that says “Harbormaster Stan” and maybe you decide where that box leads. Either in your head or on your actual notes.

No matter how “sandboxy” your adventure might be, you’re still transitioning from scene to scene, from encounter to encounter, you’re still following a map. And you’re still offering leads, exits, to new scenes.

Now, you might argue that “event-based” or “time-based” encounters are different. But they aren’t. They do add an extra layer. And we’ll talk about that another time. But for now, just understand that the basic structure of every encounter is a dungeon encounter.

You Can Already Build an Adventure

I’ll tell you this much: between this article and the last one, you can already build an adventure. I’ve given you enough to slap your first adventure together. You know you need motivation, resolution, and structure. You know you need encounters. You know structure is just about how the party moves from encounter to encounter and scene to scene. Honestly, you can build an adventure from that.

BUT… there’s building an adventure and there’s building an adventure. How do you create a GOOD motivation? How do you decide which encounters lead where? How do you order them? Why do I keep saying “encounters and scenes?” Is there a difference? How does pacing work? How does tension work? What’s a critical path? How do I deal with failures? Those are all great questions. And we’re going to cover them all. Adventure building covers a LOT of ground. But, you’re already a lot of the way there. If you can draw squares and lines and say “this is why you’re here” and figure out where the ending is, you can build an adventure?

Pretty encouraging, huh? I know. I don’t actually use encouragement often. It feels weird, doesn’t it? Yeah. I’m uncomfortable too.

19 thoughts on “Every Adventure’s a Dungeon

  1. Thanks for the read, I have been designing an adventure to go on after the one I am currently playing in. All of my adventure was seeming pretty flat and bland, but I will take these two articles and revamp my entire idea.


  2. Excellent article. When you start to think about it this way, most interactive systems are a dungeon. Because all well designed interactive systems help their users by constraining and signposting choices in some way. Except on websites we have login and password fields instead of gelatinous cubes.

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  4. Wow, you sure write some thought provoking articles. Thanks for writing them.

    I am personally fine with the more structured “railroad” kinds of adventures – now I have a better understanding of why. 🙂


  5. The few times over the years I was a player instead of a DM I mapped dungeons this way – circles with arrows and lines for transitions/doors. Much easier than trying to be a cartogrpher.

    Can’t say I’ve used it as a DM. I think it would make non-dungeon sessions easier to run. Specifically thinking of open ended city adventures or hex exploring type setups.

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  8. Excellent article, truly a masterpiece. Gygax would be proud of you Angry. But you didn’t tell us when the next article is coming and a month has passed already. Is everything ok?

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    • I read Angry’s articles for detailed, yet clearly presented, expert information on refereeing RPGs. I listen to Mr. McArthur’s obtuse, pseudo-academic waffle for it’s powerfully soporific qualities.

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