Unpacking Dungeonia, Part II: The logistics

In the first post I rambled a bit about how I remember Dungeonia coming to be and the good times we had with it. This post is going to be more to the point on the technical aspect of it. So how did we make it work? How can you make it work?

Group setup
1) You will need a steady group of about 5 people that can play regularly. My sweet spot for most games is GM + 3 players but for Dungeonia I found I prefer a slightly bigger group (I think our most successful game had 7 people at some point), mostly because…
2) 3 or even 4 people (or perhaps everyone in the group) should be excited to DM. We found out it’s probably best if the DM for the next session volunteers at the end of the current session. We’ve also had great results introducing new DMs into the game because they have the safety net of all the other DMs laying the groundwork for them and it’s (apparently) easier to test the waters.
3) You should have a schedule that permits you to meet and play on the regular. Longer breaks or pauses can be fatal for any campaign but here they are doubly so. Having irregular players or an inconsistent cast of PCs (while great in a West Marches or Tentpole Dungeon game) is also very detrimental here. Because of the volatile and emergent anarchic nature of the setting, you need steady PCs and steady play to keep it all anchored, coherent and meaningful.
In sum, what seemed to work best was 4 to 7 people, at least half of them also DMs, playing on the regular.

We used Pathfinder early on, then D&D 5E for the more recent games. Dungeon World was considered at some point but not used. More broadly speaking, anything supporting a diverse cast of characters and a semi-episodic, quasi-picaresque structure should do. I’m planning to use this format to run an X-Files game some day, with a system that’s not D&D, we’ll see how that goes.

I don’t think we used any particular houserules or hacks to make it work. I don’t think mechanical changes are necessary because, as mentioned before, this is more of a social-level hack. Using modern D&D we did find it more or less necessary to change XP from the assumed [per challenge/at x challenges per day] formula of contemporary D&D. Tying XP and level either to some kind of “milestone” in the fiction or acquisition of certain objects/material in the game seemed to work much better. The latter is basically just like “Gold for XP” in classic D&D but replace gold for something more relevant to the game (tarot arcana keycards that open dungeon portals, globs of primordial amber that fuel reality-stabilizing engines, etc.). The point is to tie the reward/XP cycle to some concrete element/action made in the setting. Speaking of which…

The DM role and Setting
Once you have your basic premise (infinite tower, dungeon of portals, archipelago of strange islands), I believe the first DM in line should come to the table with a very strong and imaginative vision. The first session sets the tone and the possible plot threads, it seeds the game with some core concepts and images that can be cannibalised later on. However, only prepare a very small area/situation, just enough for an evening of play, hint at other stuff, give glimpses of remote islands, closed gates, roads not taken, things on the horizon.

At this point lies the step that seems to terrify a lot of GMs. Once that evening is done, you’re done. It’s out of your hands. You have to kill your authorial voice, you have to rescind the ownership of your fiction. You have to trust in your co-players and co-DMs and let go. Perhaps you introduced an island with a lighthouse on the horizon in the last session and perhaps you had an idea what was inside. Next session, someone else is DMing and their vision might be entirely different from yours. Maybe you introduced a NPC, thinking you know what their deal is, but not establishing it in play. The next DM might reveal the NPC’s deal is something 180° from what you envisioned.

If you can trust yourself not to be upset about that, if that’s something you don’t find bothersome but exciting, this is the game for you. If something is not established in play, it doesn’t exist. You need to walk the thin line between dumping your brain on the table, over-establishing everything and not committing to anything. Individual DMs must make commitments to plot or setting exposition sometimes, but most of the time you’re just throwing stuff out there for other DMs to play with later. You establish visions, places, ideas, suggestions and let others fill in the blanks, while doing the same for them.

You introduce things in the game where you can go “look at all this cool shit I made” (which is a huge part of the appeal of D&D DMing, for me) and show the other players how clever or imaginative you are. But a lot of the time you’re just putting stuff in the game so you can go “I wonder what’s up with this” and then be genuinely surprised at the answer. If we’re talking in Apocalypse World terms, one of the reasons to play is to play to find out things about the setting, but not just in the sense of not making foregone conclusions in prep and then answering them in play, but constantly shifting between asking and answering, week to week and moment to moment.

Aside: Having just written that out, and since Ron is following these posts, I’m relatively certain GNS would consider this game overall incoherent. A lot of it is standard D&D challenge-oriented play, fighting monsters etc., but then the driving force of the whole enterprise is a kind of intensified setting exploration and both successful games culminated in premise being addressed with the PCs being torn between big moral choices pertaining to the fate of the setting.

Death and Maps
For some reason we found it necessary to eliminate or alleviate the problem of PC death. I think this has everything to do with the PCs being the thread that holds the fiction and the world together. Because the setting is always if flux, if the PCs aren’t stable, the whole thing might go to hell. I know some are of the opinion that without PC death, there can be no meaningful challenge. I think failure was always an option and death still a considerable setback (even if the PCs always came back). But it remains an open question. I’m still interested in playing a Dungeonia game one day where death is permanent and see how that goes.

In the same vein, what we also found was that having some kind of map of at least the immediate area (over the course of a few sessions) was extremely helpful. Because the shared imagined space doesn’t have a traditional DM “voice of god” that always tells you where’s what, a map makes the player’s choices where to go, what to explore and what questions to ask more obvious and tangible. If I added a building on the map last week, it’s way easier for the players this week to ask the current DM “hey, we wanna go over there, what do we find?” strengthening the sense of a persisting place, where otherwise my contribution could have been forgotten and the shared fiction weaker.

In conclusion
Again, the volatility of the setting makes these social/fictional/ephemeral linchpins seemingly necessary:
-a relatively large and stable group with at least three DMs, playing regularly
-willingness to entrust/abandon one’s creations to another
-consistent PCs that tie the scattered, episodic play into a unified narrative
-a map or other physical representation of the PCs’ environment across several sessions (or the entire campaign), for the purposes of establishing setting consistency from one session to the next & making PC options overt/visible

The rest seems optional or contingent. I think more actual play will be needed to make it even more transparent.

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