Last night I was talking with Nirkhuz about the setting he has started developing this week when suddenly he threw at me a little gem: a list of characteristics for a dungeoncrawling-style setting. I picked it up and added some comments. Maybe it is too obvious, but I find it interesting nontheless. Complains, dead threats and thank you notes in the comments, please.
The characteristics are:
- Lack of a strong state power that can deal with threats by itself.
- Lots of danger outside settlements.
- A need to travel for a lot of reasons.
- A lot of opportunities to get rich... or die trying.
- Ruins. Many ruins.
a. Lack of a strong state power that can deal with threats by itself.
Yeah, that's one of the keys. If there is a stablished militia or the kingsg/nobles can put together troops to keep the peace, our dungeoneering breaks down.
The most obvious reason is that characters will have no reason to make a living as defenders of small villages and monsterslayers. They would only have to enlist and that's all. And that can be interesting, but it isn't the starting assumption.
And even if adventurers don't kill things for the goodness of their hearts, an efficient peace-keeping force would destroy characteristics b, d and e. There wouldn't be any outsidse danger, all the gold would be on the hands of the powerful already and the ruins would be all explored by now.
So, where can we find an enviroment like that? Well, in history, of course. In fact, the most common cases are frontiers: be it defending it, conquering it or repopulating it.
Three examples of each one. The defense of a frontier can be seen on the Marca Hispanica: a string of little counties between the Carolingian empire and Al-Andalus. As a conquest we have Vikings or the conquest of America by the Spanish. And as repopulation we can look at the first times of the Reconquista where the objective was to repopulate the no man's land between Asturias an the Caliphate, or the Wild West--you get to a relatively uninhabited place, you settle it and wait for trouble to come to you. About this last example, I think I am not the only one that says that D&D sometimes can be the Wild West with swords.
But on many of these examples there is an interesting commonality: it is not that the state's power is too week, but rather that it is usually too far away to help. A good dungeoncrawling setting is like Golden Age Western, before the West was tamed and Civilization arrived with its trains. In this way the peripheral goverment would be usually overwhelmed and the central government would only intervine in case of dire need.
This could also work for isolated areas where that aren't regarded by any central authority, but that would mean that there is nothing valuable there, wich leaves us without the characteristic d.
b. Lots of danger outside settlements.
This is usually a consequence of point a and it has two implications.
The first one is that going from one place to another is dangerous. Why? Because that's interesting, it's what creates conflict, otherwise it would simply be a stroll. In the actual Middle Ages, if you wanted to travel, you had to deal with the lack of roads, the weather, wild animals, bandits, unscrupulous nobles, any enemy raid if you live close to the border... And that's by land, don't get me started on sea voyage. Add trolls and orcs to the mix and you'll be able to see how difficult it can be.
The other implication is that it defines better the line between civilization and wilderness. Civilization is made of points of light in the middle of a lot of hostile territory and the worst part is that there is a profit to be made out there, as we will see on the next point.
Also, another important aspect is that, as in real life, the further you go from civilization, the more exposed you are, the more danger there is, more beasts lurk around, the terrain is worse, etc. But still, there are reasons to go there, as we will see.
c. A need to travel for a lot of reasons.
Regardles of how hostile the land can be, people can't just stay behind the walls of their villages and fortresses. They have to look for food, to hunt, to trade...
But the ones that travel the most are adventurers, because in this kind of setting, adventure is out there. I don't remember who said that towns were only a boring place to restock--that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that, in general, adventurers should be people in constante movement.
Going from town to town working as bouncers or getting gear to explore dungeons, never stopping anywhere for too long, usually unable to adapt to society and holding a honest jobe, as they are forced to set out to adventura again everytime they run out of money or have a misunderstanding with the authorities. Does anyone recognize the stereotype of the lone rider?
Up until now we've been talking about conventions, of course, but this is an important one: there are many rewardsa and many risks, but the latter would usually be proportional to how much you can get out if you make it. That's why the further away you are from civilization, the more likely you are to find something valuable.
It sounds paradoxical, eh? But the genre is like that. Think if you will of the classical megadungeon by levels: the more down you go, monsters are more terrible in the same measure that the treasure they guard becomes bigger. As we said it's an issue of convention.
It is also a way to give more agency to players. Nothing is more encouraging than getting a fair reward for our efforts (well, except getting a bigger one).
On the other hand it makes clear what is the main motivation of the adventurers: money. Maybe no in other genres, but when it comes to dungeoncrawling, everything is measured in precious metals. You can search for other goals, that's true, we have clerics serving their gods or wizards looking for knowledge, but it the end money is money.
That, as we are discussing, turns the characters into rogues in the most classical an of the word: materialistic, in a hostile world, constantly traveling... Anyone who has heard about picaresque could see the similarities. And with something like the Lazarillo de Tormes you don't even need a frontier, just a place were life is as shitty as 16th century Spain. And there it wasn't that the government was week, just totally corrupt.
e. Ruins. Many ruins.
This is more of a theme or a sterotype than a characteristic, right?
But yeah, you don't really need ruins, but their purpose is clear: signalling where you could make a profit. In a classic game of D&D, if you see some ruins, you know that there will be something valuable inside. It's something that serves to give you a clear idea of where to go when you are looking for adventure.
On the other hand, dungeons are useful as a self-contained enviroments with few or no relation to the outside. That allows it to work with its own rules. Also, getting in one is a clear example of frontier or conquest situation.
Well, now I can rest. Do you think any of the characteristics should be taken out? Have I forgotten an important one? Come to Hell and we'll discuss it.
Thanks for reading. Valmar Cerenor!