The inherent problem with making your fantasy world one Big ol’ Super Random, Character Killing, mondo, MEGA-DUNGEON of DOOM!

Don't feel sad... 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

In those halcyon days of Junior High gaming yore, my friends and I believed that if the small introduction of a single, isolated random, dangerous encounter was a good thing, ipso facto a Big ol’ Super Random, Character Killing, mondo, MEGA-Dungeon of Doom must be the RPG scenario equivalent of the Bee’s Knees!

You hear buzzing. Roll Initiative.

Yeah, those knees!

And by Bee’s Knees I mean at least a hive-full or so Giant 3HD Bees with a THAC0 of 12 and 1d8/1d8/1d12 knee/knee/sting attacks against your paltry band of 1st level characters. Not to mention the Queen.

Heck, let’s make ’em some mutant Africanized killer equivalent variety to boot.

Yeah, those bee’s knees.

Cause we all know that’s what makes a cool encounter… right?

So by simple feat of logic a never-ending string of these types of encounters all generated randomly to keep it fresh and exciting must make a cool setting… can I get an AMEN!

But years and maturity have taught me that games with the core features of Random, Killer, and Massive aren’t actually any fun at all… at least not to me.

Now before you all cite examples of the random, or killer, or campaign mega-dungeon a la Gygax et. al. as being an homage to the Masters and quietly dismiss me as a kook not holding to the Old School way of RPG Bushido… consider the following in my defense:

A universe of difference lies between the distinction of OR versus AND.

Big ol’ Super Random

There’s a lot to be said for including some random encounters in a game. I’m fond of them myself from time to time just to keep the unknown less known.

A few properly played random encounters or situations can indeed up the ante on keeping players and characters on their toes.

Character Killing

There’s a valid point of view among a certain camp of gamers who considers it pointless to play a game where death for the characters isn’t on the line.

While I may not be in this school of thought per se, arguably there’s merit to making a game challenging to both the players as well as the characters.

For some players risking the death of a character is the ultimate gamble leading to the richest reward. I begrudge them neither their opinion nor their gaming style.

MEGA-Dungeon

The concept of the world as a dungeon is certainly one many GMs try to capture. There’s little doubt such a setting doesn’t bring out the adventurer in us all.

And without adventure, why take the path less traveled? Why seek fortune and glory if the world offers naught?

of Doom!

But each of these is an extreme. And there’s an inherent problem with casually using extremes. Namely the simple truth that they’re extremes (and not the norm) for a reason. Taking too many and combining them as the core feature of a setting will eventually lead you down the path of ruin.

Sure, some will claim that such a world is…

“… so chock full of interest and mystery and whatnot that it just defies all logic and is therefore by definition always fresh and new.”

… or some nonsense like that. But they’d be wrong.

The issue doesn’t lie with one of these concepts solely, rather it’s the layered combination that leads to logic breakdowns and frustrations that cannot be eliminated if random, killer AND mega are the features of the realm.

Inevitably such a setting will lead to impasses and incongruities that really can’t be hand-waved away. And when they finally appear, you’re sunk… or worse, you’ll fiat the result away. Eventually the Doom will be your own.

And here’s why:

Big ol’ Super Random

Dice Dice Baby!

I’ll let the dice do the talking

Random can be interesting if done right.

Random encounters and treasures add that sense of wonder and mystery when used to spice a setting.

If done wrong, it can just leave players wondering if their characters were born under some cursed star.

When random is used like pancake batter so that each encounter has no relevance to much of anything, players can no longer effectively asses risk and threats strategically.

Removing these key tools for adventurers can severely handicap a party.

At times you may wish to do this, but when that handicapping is a constant, it will eventually lead to players finding themselves making decisions based on frying pan or fire considerations.

Think of it this way, if you’re headed to Grandma’s house and have to cross two major landmarks:

  1. Going over a river.
  2. Traveling through the woods.

You should be able to somewhat assess the risks inherent in the trip. What’s more, you have options that should lead to a more successful outcome.

Sticking to the road should avoid some threats.
Traveling during the day should also lessen hazards.
Going in a group should discourage intelligent creature encounters.
etc.

But in the kingdom of Super-Randomalia, each time you get to the bridge over the river you’re confronted with a randomly selected threat. No common sense lends itself to the rhyme or reason for the situation you encounter; instead the dice decide what you face.

  • Perhaps this time it’s peaceful.
  • The next there’s a horde of goblins.
  • The next a water elemental has taken up residence.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.

And all in four consecutive travel days…

Who knows what randomly generated awesome threats will be lurking in that forest… the dreaded gazebo?

While the GM of Super-Randomalia may think he’s created a vibrant, exciting and challenging world, what’s really been done is to break the realism of the setting.

Even in a fantasy realm, some semblance of logic must hold sway. To remove it completely is to break a pathway to immersion and acceptance.

Constant, impossible to predict frying pan or fire decisions are neither interesting nor adventuresome.

Sorry Grandma, I don’t think I can visit this year.

Takeaway #1:

  • Under no circumstances should spices ever be applied like pancake batter.

Character Killing

Time to roll up a new peep

You know, I really thought you’d survive that encounter…

Let’s state for the record that I’m not opposed to characters dying. It happens.

What I’m opposed to is playing in games where the deck is blatantly stacked against me.

Games where the enemies routinely outclass the combined capabilities of the players isn’t what I would consider a fun time and I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this camp.

Usually the issue is one of scale.

Most fantasy games don’t actually scale well when the encounters are up-shifted but the characters aren’t.

Inevitably players will begin to question the edges of your fantasy fabric. If dangers so great lie so close to civilization, then what lies further out where the hazards grow unchecked? What horrors roam the wilds and why would anyone be foolish enough to travel such a dangerous road?

As a GM you have an unlimited scale to up the power of the hazards faced by the characters. In contrast, the upper limit of the characters is typically well defined. Your duty is to provide interesting situations for a variety of actions within the scale of character power to be played out.

When the responses of the players as portrayed via the actions of their characters is to become biggest gun one trick ponies simply because you’ve not offered them the chance to use something lower on the scale, then you’ve offered then a false choice; and an uninteresting one as well.

The power scale envelope should not be ignored, it should be explored as well as pushed.. at both ends of the scale.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really a fan of Game Balance being the final edict of the rules, but when 1st level fantasy RPG characters regularly face off with 4th and 5th level enemies, the end result is nothing short of obvious.

And in fantasy RPGs, the outcome of that obvious result is death.

When the inevitable does happen, it’s only natural for a player to feel like they’ve been set up.

And in truth, that player would be right. You set the inevitable in motion and SURPRISE! it came to fruition!

Unless of course you’re fudging the dice rolls.

But then what’s the point of putting the characters in situations where they’re forced to face off against enemies obviously more powerful if you’re not willing to pull the trigger when the inexorable hand of fate decrees death?

Worse than dropping the characters into a constant random meat grinder is backing away from, and being unwilling to face up to the logical outcome.

If you’re going to set up a no win situation, then you’re doing the game a disservice to let the players off the hook just because you don’t have the fortitude to see your handiwork to fruition

Takeaway #2:

Sub-Part a:

  • Constantly riding the throttle leads to false and uninteresting choices.

Sub-Part b:

  • If you’re going to set up a killer environment, let it kill. Under no circumstances should you blunt the outcome of a deadly setup.

MEGA-Dungeon

Dare Ye Enter? Nah, here looks safe.

Riches and Glory… and Death

The concept of everything outside your door being part of the “dungeon” is an intriguing one to be sure.

However, when faced with a constant, chaotic world that so greatly outclasses them, then given the opportunity, players will eventually find themselves isolated on an island of semi-safety they’re unwilling to leave.

When going forward leads to inevitable disaster, but so does going back, safety lies in the impasse of doing nothing. Suddenly the adventure grinds to a stalemated halt.

If stepping off the porch yields an encounter that ultimately should end in my death, why would anyone ever step off the porch?

And should by some chance survival is achieved, certainly why would anyone step off the porch twice?

This is the death knell of the game. So ends the majesty that is your wondrous realm. With nobody willingly offering to explore it, what’s the point of it existing?

When that happens, as a GM, you really only have 2 choices:

  1. Offer a false choice by forcing the characters to leave that island by eliminating their safety blanket in some fashion.
  2. End the game.

Takeaway #3:

  • Adventure should be something sought, not a constant onslaught.

of Doom!

Of Doom

Why is my game going down in flames?

So where does this analysis lead us?

While you may be able to mitigate the issues prevalent in each of these extremes alone, claiming that they are somewhat manageable in singular, combining all three can only lead to disastrous situations where:

  • Players quietly wonder how simple trade and commerce occurs between towns where nobody can leave for even half a day’s travel on the road without being overrun by creatures far beyond even the adventurer’s capability.
  • Or are really left scratching their heads when camping next to a river leads to near death for members of a well armed and prepared party of adventurers, but commoners routinely travel the same river with skiffs and wooden poles to fishing holes.
  • Or with survival so bleak that you need to outfit the newly created 1st level characters (and everyone else) with magical equipment yet even decking new characters out with magic items does so little to defray the threats posed by the environment.
  • Characters become one trick ponies because they’re only ever offered the false choice of leading with their biggest gun.
  • At some point the risks knowingly outweigh the rewards and the players refuse to budge from the safety of top-dead-center.
  • Almost worst of all, players cheat to gain some advantage over the environment to which they’ve been subjected.
  • And finally worst of all, players leave and never return.

Let’s take another look at those takeaways:

Takeaway #1:

  • Random is an accent, not a blanket.

Takeaway #2:

Sub-Part a:

  • Constant overpowering hazards leads to false and uninteresting choices for the players.

Sub-Part b:

  • If the obvious outcome is death, let it happen.

Takeaway #3:

  • Adventure should be the path less traveled, not the main interstate highway.

Taking an environment to multiple extremes begins stretching the fabric of the imagined reality (even in a fantasy world) so thin that it stops being worth the trouble to explore.

And when the game isn’t worth playing, it won’t be.

Cause when you’ve tried to spice up the classic…

  1. Open door…
  2. Kill creatures..
  3. Collect treasure…
  4. Next door…

ad nauseum dungeon boredom by making absolutely everything Uber-Deadly AND Super Random, you’re actually guilty of just making it worse.

I think instead my 1st level character will just sell his magical equipment and live out his halcyon days as a common fisherman; the wooden pole and skiff seem to keep all those threats at bay.

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