Unpacking Dungeonia, Part I: The oral history

Every now and then, Dungeonia comes up in my online conversations about RPGs. Then questions invariably arise and I always promise I’ll say more about it at some point. The shortest answer I can come up with in response to the question what is Dungeonia is the following: It is a multi-DM game of D&D that I’ve been playing with my friends, on and off, over the span of ten years. This answer, while concise, doesn’t get to the meat of what I find exciting or fascinating about it. Thus this series of posts. I’m planning to write at least two more parts, one focused on the practical side of it (How do you run a Dungeonia game? Why does it work when it does?) and the other a bit more philosophical/lit. crit. Some friends who ran these games have promised to provide commentary or guest posts. Questions are always welcome.

Dungeonia is not about the mechanics (it has been played with several systems), genre (it disrupts it) or setting (it perpetually recreates it). The closest thing I can compare it with is a campaign frame in the vein of Ben Robbins’ West Marches. It’s a social contract-level thing. The impermanence of the DM role is its foundation. The round robin, rotating role of the Game Master pops up here and there in the history of gaming. Ron Edwards informs me that the earliest example of it that he’s aware of is from the 1989 Prince Valiant RPG. We certainly didn’t invent it, or did anything particularly novel with it. But before I go off about theory, I want to talk about the history¹ of Dungeonia.

Part 1: The oral history of Dungeonia

To stress this is oral tradition: there is no agreed spelling for the game. It is interchangeably written either as dungeonia or donjonia (or some other way) because it primarily exists as spoken between us and is only written out of necessity (like now). If you’re into stuff like post-structuralism, you might take note of this for a later post.

About 10 years ago I suggested a game of D&D to my friends (with Pathfinder being the mot du jour at the time). The premise was that the entire world is a dungeon². I can’t be entirely certain but I remember saying: “I want the game to be difficult and deadly. I’m not gonna pull any punches as a DM, so expect your characters to die. But because dying sucks, if I kill your PC, you get to be the DM as a prize.” We quickly found out that the “if I kill your PC” part was a superfluous and unnecessary gimmick, we’d just switch on agreement. Everybody wanted to DM anyway and that was exactly the thing that made the game entertaining.

So we explored an endless maze of underground tunnels and caverns with no prospect of an Outside. I only remember fleeting images and names whose meaning is lost to time. A large stairway leading nowhere. The Butter Village. Something about lobsters. I started out DMing but quickly found myself playing, too. I played this guy:
I dug out the above drawing from a stack of old notebooks while visiting my parents over Easter. He was presumably a halfling rogue and while I don’t remember what he did, exactly, it must have been freaking hilarious because I do remember us all crying from laughter and my friends still reference that moment to this day.

The game eventually petered out because of college etc., but the fun still resonated. So many years later, while organizing a fresh D&D campaign with some new friends (and a couple of old ones) we quickly agreed: we’d run a game where every week a different person would volunteer to be the Dungeon Master (but it would all take place in the same world, with the same cast of characters) and we’d call it Donjonia.

What ensued was a roller-coaster of brilliant nonsense. The campaign took place in a “dungeon” existing inside the walls between worlds. If our characters would die, they would wake up again in the “Nexus”. I played a fishman wizard, a friend played a kenku gunslinger, another played a half-orc barbarian. One week we’d explore a malfunctioning aquarium, another we’d help the trickster god Bill Murray get his groove back. One week we’d be fighting the evil Dravograd corporation from taking over the multiverse by harnessing imagination, the next we’d bargain with the lich-form of Robert Oppenheimer. Genre (in the sense of commercially-established purity or even personal aesthetic) was demolished, as were notions of authorship or ownership of fictional details (but previously established facts were respected and not contradicted). Recurring villains, weird plots, warring factions and NPC melodrama would emerge from the interplay of each DM’s contributions, building upon, twisting and intermingling with what each previous session established. It was an absolute delight. Here’s a “world map” I made at some point during that campaign:

a partial world map from our second game

You could compare the overall outcome (but not the process!) to the spitballing in a writer’s room on a long-running show like Adventure Time or The X-Files: throwaway gags become recurring characters, minor things are reincorporated to become important elements of worldbuilding and genre is fluid episode to episode. We eventually tied up the loose ends and gave the campaign a fitting finale. We wanted to end on a high note, before forthcoming changes in schedule could bring it down. Then several years later, we tried again. Same framework, different setting, different line-up of players. This time it was an infinite tower, blasted by unnatural forces from outside, corroded by intrigue and warring factions from inside. Real life commitments killed the game off after just a few sessions but we nevertheless learned things: a certain consistency and unity of place was important, having some kind of map and orientation was important, regular play was important etc.

Which brings us to 2017. We got some of the old crew and a couple of new folks together and started over. Now instead of tower levels or interdimensional dungeon corridors it was islands in an archipelago beset by unreality. We sailed to and fro, met bird god-kings and bird anarchists, got swallowed by a leviathan, negotiated with fire-men on ships of volcanic rock, stole magic fruit from titanic world-banyans, hung out with a cat-person called Dog, got granted powers by a kilometer-high monolith, outfitted our ship with an endlessly regenerating hydra-heart, killed an island made of flesh. At the end we manoeuvred, bluffed and fought our way between two imperfect deities, destroyed the world and became the gods of a new one (while level 8).

So that’s the four Dungeonia games we’ve played so far and we’ll certainly do it again at some point. The first one was in a larval state and the third one prematurely ended. In total, I’d say it amounts to about 18 months of weekly sessions spread over a much longer time. I don’t think we’ve got the method 100% down yet (and I don’t necessarily think we ever will). Each time we made mistakes and learned something new. It didn’t always work, but when it did it produced some of my favourite RPG moments since I started gaming in 2001 or so.

There’s a number of things that I love about this way to play D&D but here are a few key aspects:

  • There’s less of a time pressure on the individual DM to come up with stuff, because you’re only running every 2-4 weeks instead of every week.
  • There’s less of a worldbuilding pressure on the individual DM because each time you run you’ve got a few sessions’ worth of material to build upon. Saying “yes, and” to other DM’s material and jamming with them instead of playing a solo every session.
  • At the same time there’s a friendly, competitive pressure on the individual DM to come up with new, inventive, interesting stuff, to prep cool encounters and action-packed sessions. Every time you play, you’re thinking how to one-up the current DM. How to make the game even more fun. People often talk about DM burnout. What we found with Dungeonia was, we we’re itching to DM. We’d play our characters and have fun, but really we’d just be devouring plot cues and eagerly waiting for our go at the wheel.
  • There’s a freshness and unpredictability to the fiction. Nobody is really in charge, so nobody really knows what’s going on. Yet, as with a cut-up, meanings emerge from chaos, disjointed elements coalesce into new coherent wholes.

These are all elements shared with other games with rotating GMs, but applied to a game that usually thrives under one DM with a singular vision and the results are rather fascinating. More next time.

¹ Or genealogy, if you would prefer.

² I’m guessing I got the idea from Arx Fatalis or Ultima Underworld and I think that at the time I referred to the campaign as either Dungeon World or Dungeon Planet, titles that have been since claimed by other games. Either way, the setting was not what was interesting about it.

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