I have a confession to make. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the truth of the matter is that I hate dungeons. Endless poorly lit corridors with random encounters, challenges that get tougher the deeper underground that you go. I want no part of it. Can not stand them. Probably the last place I want to take a group of adventurers. Please don’t take my d20 away for this. I can deal with some caves, an underground passage that leads somewhere interesting, and maybe even some mines if something halfway decent is going on in them and they don’t follow some sort of monotonous layout for hours. But a real dungeon filled with T intersections, wall sconces, and bags of rotted things? No thanks. I don’t see the fun of placing player characters into an environment that is so one sided and thoughtless. There just doesn’t seem to be much to do other than walk from room to room and kill whatever you find. And take the treasure after wiping the blood off of it. Right? Even the classic dungeon crawls in the annals of D&D bore me. Tomb of Horrors? Really, what the fuck is that supposed to be? That’s fun? Queen of the Demonweb Pits? Come on, look at that map! Aside from being absolute nonsense (granted, I realize that it does exist on some sort of plane of chaos…) it is nothing but an exercise in rolling dice and hoping that the ones you roll come out better than the ones that your opponents roll. And we’ll ignore the fact that Lolth lives on a weird pirate ship, I suspect that some people think there is something cool about that. I am not one of those people.
Perhaps if I understood the general ecology of the dungeon better I would appreciate them more. But as it stands, they really make no sense to me in terms of how they actually exist. Some of these fantasy dungeons really are very impressive feats of engineering; traps all over the place, incredible architecture, secret passages cleverly hidden into the stones of some well carved walls, enchanted statues that animate and kill people unless the proper words are spoken. This is some serious shit going on. But that’s actually the part that really infuriates me. You mean to tell me that the same evil genius lich that had the chutzpah to put this entire operation together, is the same dude that sits in a tiny alcove all day hoarding some fantastic magic items (but not actually using them) and doing nothing proactively to stop the adventurers that are rampaging through his lair and killing all his minions one by one? It just seems inconsistent. And none of these monsters are smart enough to decide, “Hey, maybe we should all work together to kill these guys before we are all slaughtered one at a time.” That never occurred to them? They would rather play a card game behind a closed door and wait until it gets kicked down and a horde of murdering lunatics storm into the area and annihilate them? It just seems to me that all of these danger filled dungeons exist solely to be a foil to adventurers. What if the adventurers never arrive? Did the dungeon really even exist? I understand that a lot of them have some sort of flimsy backstory to explain their existence, but I’m not buying it. I like realism in my fantasy!
The point of all of this is that I have been thinking a lot about urban settings in fantasy worlds, and mainly about how much I like them. It’s true that they are much more challenging to run from the DM/GM/ZM/Keeper/Referee standpoint because of all the options that are available to the players, but that’s what makes them come to life and feel like you are actually having an open adventure as opposed to a semi-scripted jaunt through a dungeon. There are only so many decisions that you make at an intersection. And the worst part is that a slog through a dungeon generally reduces a character to nothing more than their stat sheet, they are usually only worth whatever they bring to combat and trapfinding. Come on, let’s be honest. Dungeons are lame and lazy on the part of the DM. I don’t think I have ever seen players get real excited about the prospect of trekking through the subterranean darkness in the way that they light up when learning some juicy information from a well placed NPC or in slaughtering the adversary that had been hanging around town and taunting them. Towns and cities have structure and laws, whereas a dungeon really has neither of those things. Having laws, customs, and structure forces players to think about their actions and to balance risk versus reward, as opposed to operating inside of the pseudo vacuum that is the Dungeon of Evil Wizard. Who cares what you do in there? I guess that I am just at the point in my roleplaying career in which I have seen every monster, given out every piece of treasure, and watched players die in every sort of horrid manner that there is. I want more than that and I don’t think I will be finding it inside of a dungeon.
I like creating and designing cities for PC’s to run through. Coming up with an unusual shopkeeper or a tavern with a weird theme is fun for me, finding ways to work interesting combat situations into an urban environment is a rewarding challenge. Generally I homebrew all of this stuff, but there are lots of sources that I have drawn on over the years for both inspiration and examples of how this information should run and look. I’ve talked about my love for the City of Greyhawk boxed set before, but over the next couple of posts I am going to look at some of the other urban fantasy sourcebooks that I have used in the past.