How leaving the dungeon left a big void in role-playing games

Nowadays, designers of role-playing focus their game’s design around an answer to a central question: “What will characters in the game do?” Modern RPGs focus on some core activity and optimizing the system so players have as much fun as possible engaging in that activity. For example, fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons focused on characters that show off flashy stunts and powers in dynamic combat encounters. The system reworks the non-combat pillars of the game into an activity that, as much as possible, plays like combat. For more, see my post, “The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked.”

While the first role-playing games did not optimize their rules to support a style of play—at least not intentionally, see “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” the first role-playing games all recreated the dungeon-crawl experience of D&D. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) devoted rules to the underworld, and explained dungeons as buildings and civilizations lost to the “Time of Darkness.” Tunnels & Trolls (1975) recreated the D&D experience with simpler rules. Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) moved the dungeon into space in the form of the drifting starship Warden.

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

Levels of the Starship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha

By 1977, designers began to see the potential of role-playing games. By then, if you asked an RPG designer what characters in his game will do, he would probably answer, “Anything.” Part of what made RPGs so exciting was that characters could do anything. Rather than focusing on a core activity, designers of the newer games strove to model game worlds as thoroughly as possible. This led to a game like Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), “the most complete rule booklet ever published,” with rules for everything from mass combat, to courtly love, to the One Ring. C&S offered a game so open ended that a table of players with randomly generated characters might fail to find any common activities that their characters could do together. In “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun,” I had some fun at the expense of C&S, while showing how the game downplayed the dungeon crawl, but struggled to find a fun, group activity to serve as a replacement.

Traveller also arrived in 1977, and grew to become the hobby’s most successful science fiction RPG. (If you’re interested in Traveller, see this outstanding look at the game’s roots in written science fiction.) Perhaps the game owes some success to the way it pioneered role-playing’s most common adventure hook:

One specific, recurring goal for adventurers is to find a patron who will assist them in the pursuit of fortune and power. Such patrons will, if they hire a band of adventurers, specify a task or deed to be performed, and then finance reasonable expenses for the pursuit of that task. Some tasks may be ordinary in nature, such as hired guards or escorts; other tasks may be for the location and procurement of items of great value.” (Book 3 Worlds and Adventures, p.20)

This notion of characters seeking patrons for jobs hardly matches the high concept of the dungeon crawl, but it became the dominant adventure hook in just about every RPG, including D&D.

But once hooked, what will the characters do? Traveller offered a single paragraph of guidance: “Once the patron and the adventurers have met, the responsibility falls on the referee to determine the nature of the task the patron desires, the details of the situation (perhaps a map or some amount of information), and to establish the limits of the patron’s resources in the pursuit of the task.

Traveller’s patrons provided an enduring and now pervasive hook for adventures. The actual adventures opened the door for anything, anywhere in the universe, but nothing in particular.

In 1977, I ordered that original Traveller box from Game Designer’s Workshop, and then devoured the rules. As a young, unsophisticated gamer in a new hobby, the game proved so open-ended that I struggled to create adventures for my players. Of course, I was just a kid. Surely sophisticated professionals could do better.

Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society No.1 Annic Nova

In 1979, when the first issue of the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society brought the Annic Nova adventure, I hoped to see a model for adventures. Annic Nova was an abandoned ship drifting through space, ready for the players to explore. At last, I thought, it’s like a dungeon in space. But it wasn’t at all. Unlike, say Metamorphosis Alpha’s starship Warden, Annic Nova held no monstrous mutants or aliens, no automated defense systems, just an abandoned ship drifting. Annic Nova provided only an adventuring location and gave little help to me.

With an entire universe to play with, the professional designers went on to create more starship deck plans, which they then used as dungeons…in space. GDW and Judges Guild followed up Annic Nova with the following adventuress:

  • Adventure 1: The Kinunir (1979) presents a 1200 ton battle cruiser as a location for adventure.
  • Dra'k'ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station

    Dra’k’ne Station (1979) is “a vast alien research station hollowed out of an asteroid…still protected by its automated defense systems and one surviving alien.”

  • Darthanon Queen (1980) consists of deck plans for a 600 ton merchant ship along with a crew and a passenger roster. The adventure suggests a few scenarios to stage on the ship, including one cribbed from Alien.
  • Adventure 2: Research Station Gamma (1980) describes an arctic laboratory that players must infiltrate.
  • Adventure 3: Twilight’s Peak (1980) takes characters to a location with “many of the elements of a haunted house,” and then to an alien base complex.

When Traveller debuted, the hobby was just three years old. The general public still struggled to understand games that you could not win. The only experienced game masters were the guys named on the box cover. Leaving the long shadow of the dungeon took time. Traveller enthusiasts rank the last adventure on my list, Twilight’s Peak, as a classic. While largely location based, this module provides a fully-realized adventure that stands with modern designs.

Eventually, we all learned. Now, an experienced game master would mix the Annic Nova with an untrustworthy patron, a second team of lawless rivals, and some other wild cards to brew up an adventure.

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