Thursday, August 10, 2006

Adventure Games, Part Three: Dungeon Delving

In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the first ever roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. It grew naturally out of the wargaming industry. In 1972's second edition of the Chainmail miniatures game Gary Gygax introduced all sorts of fantasy critters--including wizards, heroes, hobbits, dwarves, balrogs, and ents--to the world of medieval wargaming. Dungeons & Dragons was just the next step. It gave players the opportunity to take the individual roles of some of those heroes in smaller-scale skirmishes.

I use the word "skirmish" purposefully because that's what the earliest Dungeons & Dragons games really were. A look at the earliest D&D supplements reveals that they were little more than tactical exercises, where players moved from one room to the next in a dungeon, cavern, or other carefully keyed location--and fought whatever they found within.

Roleplaying games matured slowly. There were a few village adventures early on, which offered some ability to interact with people other than at the tip of a sword, but they were scattered and far between. It was at least 1984, and the release of TSR's Dragonlance before people started to realize that roleplaying adventures could tell stories too.

Which is all to say that it's an entirely modern bias.

A Brief History of Adventure Game

Which brings me back to a topic that I've covered in two previous columns: adventure games. I previously discussed how Fantasy Flight Games is recreating the genre (in part 1) and how card games have also advanced the genre (in part 2). This week I want to talk about a second major player in the genre, Atlas Games, but first I want to finish up that history of the genre that began with those early roleplaying games.

Adventure games have generally been very closely tied to the RPG genre. Dungeon! (TSR, 1975) was one of the earliest examples and it really wasn't that different from the Dungeons & Dragon game which had released the previous year. Both allowed the play of individual characters whose main purpose in life was to wander a dungeon and kill monsters, and neither was really that much about roleplaying. Magic Realm (Avalon Hill, 1978) was another game that tried to be a board-based roleplaying game. Afterward the adventure game genre cooled down a bit, and a pen-and-paper model of roleplaying started to dominate.

There was a lot of experimentation in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the previous hey-day of the adventure game really ran from the mid 1980s to mid 1990s.

Talisman (Games Workshop, 1983-2003) used a similar model to those other early adventure games. Players each played a specific character over the course of a game and tried their best to meet their goal--arriving at the center of the board. It's main difference from an early Dungeon or Magic Realm was that it was massively supported. New characters and boards kept the game lively up through 1988, then the game enjoyed a brief resurgence with a new edition and a few supplements in 1993. A few years ago Games Workshop released a grossly overpriced fourth edition, then promptly announced that they were done with the line.

Arkham Horror (Chaosium, 1984) wasn't well supported at all, but it continued the trend of early games like Dungeon and Arkham Horror by explicit connections to an actual roleplaying game (here, Call of Cthulhu). We again see the ties between RPGs and adventure games, because Richard Launius was genuinely trying to produce a board game version of Chaosium's horror RPG.

HeroQuest (Milton Bradley, 1989-1993) was the other hit adventure game of the previous golden age. It offered the closest simulation yet of an RPG, with a gamemaster who laid out rooms in accordance with a scenario and individual characters who could actually improve from adventure to adventure (by collecting money, then improving their lot with better items). Several supplements each offered new "adventures".

Since the demise of the two major 1980-1990 adventure game lines, the genre has been pretty empty. We've had the near-adventure card games that I mentioned in my previous article, plus many others like Munchkin (Steve Jackson Games, 2001). Foreign publishers have gotten in on the genre with games of various sorts from Return of the Heroes (Pegasus, 2001) to Candamir (Kosmos, 2004)

But there's nothing truly notable until you come to 2003 & 2004. In 2004 FFG really kicked off a new era of adventure games with their first Runebound (FFG, 2004) and their Doom (FFG, 2004) boardgame. But the year before that another strong adventure game would appear, and one that was uniquely a card game: Dungeoneer (Citizen Games, 2003). The result has been another golden age of adventure games, with continued and well-supported releases from FFG and a whole new set of Dungeoneer boxes from their second publisher, Atlas Games.

So, adventure games have a long, though sporadic history. One of the really striking aspects of adventure games is how closely they match the aesthetics of early RPGs. Just like the original D&D (and that early Dungeon!) they continue to be about storming through some mapped lairs and improving the abilities of your characters while killing stuff.

On the flip side, adventure games haven't really grown a lot since their debut almost 30 years ago. HeroQuest's style of gamemaster-based gaming was a big innovation as was their idea of a continuing campaign. Though some of the modern FFG games use gamemasters, the idea of campaigns seems to have largely been lost.

Though it hasn't yet reached its full potential, I think that Atlas' Dungeoneer is another adventure game which offers the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of the genre.

Dungeoneer: Quest for the RPG

Dungeoneer is uniquely a card game that's also a true adventure game (unlike all the pseudo-adventure card games that I discussed last time). You use some of the cards to lay out an actual map of a dungeon (or wilderness), then explore that dungeon with characters, avoiding tricks and traps and trying to pick up items and complete quests along the way.

One of the flaws with having a dungeon master in adventure games is ultimately that one player tends to have less fun or more responsibility (depending on how you measure such things). Dungeoneer does away with that by effectively having everyone be the dungeonmaster. Each player gets to sick monsters and bad events upon the other players depending on how much peril those players have collected. Likewise each player gets to participate in laying out the map for the dungeon/wilderness by laying down a card on his turn.

The most unique element of Dungeoneer (and the place where it can outpace some of the adventure board games) is that over a half dozen card sets have been published for it, and they're all compatible to various degrees. You can mix multiple dungeons together without problem. You can use wilderness and dungeon decks in parallel. (Each wilderness deck has numerous "portal" cards which can lead to dungeons.) Only the newest deck, "epic dungeoneer" is a little less compatible because it offers an adventure at a different level (levels 4-7 rather than 1-4).

The result is an always variable adventure game that can be fine-tuned for the exact adventure that you want.

I've said elsewhere that I think that adventure games miss a few notable elements of RPGs, namely: roleplaying, storytelling, and campaigns. Though Dungeoneer doesn't yet support them, I think the current system is versatile that it could expand to include them.

1. Roleplaying

This is the hardest element to include any official support for. The main problem is that a board game is, out of necessity, entirely objective. Conversely roleplaying is entirely subjective. It takes an unbiased observer (the gamemaster) to determine the success of roleplaying in RPGs, and the model for adventure game gamemasters thus far has mainly put them in the role of biased participant.

Thus I don't see much opportunity for true roleplaying in adventure games except as a natural outgrowth of the game's theming and color, and therefore a side dish rather than a main course. Dungeoneer does have decent theming and color, but so do most other adventure games. Though its tightly concentrated card decks, Dungeoneer might get a slight leg up, but not much.

2. Storytelling

Likewise storytelling is a somewhat hard sell in adventure games. The only way to really accomplish it is through a coherent story told via the game components--which Dungeoneer provides.

However, one of the advantages of a totally modular system of the sort that you find in a card game design is that you can always mix and match cards as you see fit. Thus a player could, if he wanted, create an arbitrary mix of cards which told the precise story he wanted. The most recent release, Epic Dungeoneer: Call of the Lich Lord also showed how to extend this card-based storytelling by including certain quests and monsters which are laid out at the start of the game, and through an "event" which has a permanent effect upon the game until it's resolved.

Fixing cards doesn't require any new components. Likewise, writing an event that takes place doesn't actually require a card to do so. You could write it on a piece of paper. Thus, it'd be pretty easy for a player to create some unique stories with the cards of Dungeoneer.

Which leads me to another idea that I've discussed before: scenarios. Atlas Games could easily release a set of scenarios for Dungeoneer as a gaming book. Each scenario would require one or more decks of cards to play, and might be composed specific cards from those decks. More importantly each scenario would have special events and special quests which existed only in that scenario writeup and which would have various notable effects upon the game.

3. Campaigns

The idea of campaign adventure games, where players use the same characters over multiple games, has only been well-explored by HeroQuest. However, Dungeoneer is tantalizing close to this ideal. Especially as I look at the new Epic adventure, I consider ways in which a player might raise his character all the way up from level 1-7 (or 1-10 when Legendary Dungeoneer) is released.

Here's one method I envision.

Each game is played as a competition, but players don't actually increase their levels during the game. (They just collect their quests, and use those as victory markers.) So, you play a level 1 game, then a level 2 game, etc. Each time, you still have to complete three quests, and whoever does so first is considered the "winner" of the game. At the end of the game each player marks down a number of items & traits that they had at the end of the game (probably a number equal to the level of the game they played or maybe half the level). When the next game starts they get to keep those items & traits.

Thus, you get a campaign of 10 games (by the time Legendary Dungeoneer comes out), with continuity of character and slowly increasing power throughout the campaign. Each week you play in a different wilderness or dungeon (probably iterating from one to the other, to represent the traversal of geography).

Here's another method I envision:

Players set out a huge map with a wilderness and three linked dungeons (for heroic, epic, and legendary levels). The wilderness also has global quests for all the levels of play, so that at any point a player can choose to try and complete wilderness adventures or else dive into the appropriate dungeon. You make sure to keep the decks for each locale separate, to preserve the feel of each dungeon.

Players thus level up from 1-10, through a massive interlinking set of plays.

The downside of this is that it'd be a very long game. A Dungeoneer game can last 1-3 hours, with Epic seeming to go a bit faster than the original. If that power curve continues, you're probably talking 5-8 hours for a full 10-level Dungeoneer game, plus a massive amount of table space.

But, it's possible. And if you could figure out ways to preserve your state (say with special electrostat boards which could maintain the layout of a set of cards even when put away), this would become much more reasonable timewise.

Given that there's only one Epic game out thus far, and no Legendary decks, this is all a flight of fancy, but I think it's a good one, and I look forward to see how it evolves officially in the future.


Adventure games have a long history, but they haven't grown as much as they could have over that timespan. I think that Dungeoneer if well-expanded and developed, shows part of the potential of the gameplay style, and it's something that I hope will continue to grow.


DWTripp said...

Outstanding article.

I tend to not enjoy games like Dungeoneer but Runebound appeals to me. You correctly discern the failing of adventure games though, which is exactly that lack of subjectivity that having a game master adds.

I actually don't care for RPG's either... but that's usually because there is so much data and so many ways to out-lawyer the DM that most games end up being what adventure board games are anyway... a quest for the biggest weapon and the most hit points.

One thing I believe sets apart board gamers from role-players is the desire in an RPG fanatics little world to bend the world to his/her wishes. This is often done by buying scores of books in the quest for the "character grail" that will satisfy.

I consider that similar to electronic gamers who play their games with cheat codes.

Board gamers, in my opinion, get satisfaction from working within a limited frame, a sharply defined set of assets and liabilities and reaching for an understanding about how best to balance everything in such a manner that they can win the game.

Just my thoughts. Keep them coming Shannon!

huzonfirst said...

Shannon, the unique thing about D&D in the early days was how user-driven it was. It's true that the early supplements included little room for storytelling. But the first sourcebooks were so basic and included so many holes in the rules that players entranced with the basic idea used them as a framework for their own worlds and their own mechanics. And many of those games were heavy on storytelling.

I was introduced to D&D (and roleplaying in general) in 1980, at the rather advanced age of 24. The folks I played with had all been playing for several years. The sessions I was involved with, and the ones they had played before I showed up, put a lot of emphasis on storytelling. I have no idea if the majority of adult games went that way, but surely a large percentage of them did.

The supplements were there to assist the players who lacked either the time, incentive, or imagination to create their own dungeons. This group was largely made up of teens. But that didn't mean that storytelling wasn't around until 1984. You really couldn't tell what the state of roleplaying was like in those early days just by looking at what the publishers released--the players themselves were a very dynamic part of the hobby.

Shannon Appelcline said...

I started playing D&D in 1980 too, but I was ... 8. I know we had many a dungeon crawl for many a year;).

I think your point about players expanding beyond what they're offered is true, but I also think the supplements are a pretty fair representation of the general trends. There was storytelling before 1984 (and you could actually find it in other non-TSR publications), but I'm pretty confident it was an outlier.

Compare the average adventure book in 1980 and 2006 and the difference is notable.


And DW: if DMs let players out-lawyer them, they're honestly bad DMs. A good gamemaster uses the rules as a guideline, not a bible.

Fellonmyhead said...

Shannon, you forgot two of the classic adventure games - The Sorcerer's Cave and The Mystic Wood.

Both by the same designer, they were my path into the RPG universe (again around 1980); perhaps they just weren't as popular over there?

But before I finally went for D&D I got bitten by the Fighting Fantasy bug (Warlock of Firetop Mountain etc).

Simon J said...

little more than tactical exercises, where players moved from one room to the next in a dungeon, cavern, or other carefully keyed location--and fought whatever they found within.

This is exactly the way we played during my teenage years in the early 90s. We got a copy of the D&D Cyclopedia and spent most Suunday afternoon wondering through dungeons full of monsters and traps. We were like ten years behind the actual roleplaying world.

Fraser said...

little more than tactical exercises, where players moved from one room to the next in a dungeon, cavern, or other carefully keyed location--and fought whatever they found within.

That's the way most people start playing D&D. Roll playing - particularly common, but not unique to, teenage boys. In my experience after a while they progress, usually without the aid of printed supplements, to role playing.

Possibly showing my age a bit here, but we were playing fully fledged D&D campaigns by the late 70s. We rarely used printed modules for adventures.

Anonymous said...

One game along the lines of Dungineer that was printed in the mid 90's was Arcadia by white wolf. It was a CCG in format but the play much more closley resembled what you describe as an adventure game than it did L5R or MtG. Play involved the players creating a map, hiding rewards on the map and then taking a character across it to complete a quest