Friday, March 3, 2017

Why I dislike "escape the dungeon" as a campaign approach

Over at Gnome Stew there is an interesting post about a forest-based megadungeon. I like the concept, although it's potentially going to be set up as "you're lost in this woods, now get out!" instead of "there is this crazy woods with stuff in it you want done, now get in there!"

Naturally I noticed this become of traffic referrals to my blog, which is awesome. Rather than comment there, because that would take some minor work of signing up and logging in, I just decided to write some comments here on the "escape the dungeon" approach.

I see some downsides to "escape the dungeon" or "locked in the dungeon" as a campaign.

Backwards Incentives

First off, the incentives in the game are backwards. Instead of seeking adventure, adventure is an obstacle to your goal. Instead of accomplishing things, you're hoping to avoid entanglements that drag you down. Instead of an iterative process of discovery you're in a linear process of attempting to escape.

In other words, if the goal is "run from" instead of "run to," your incentive is to just get away not to go and do once you get there. You aren't drawn to what makes a big sandboxy play area fun - clearing, looting, fighting, exploring, meshing the knowledge gained at point A with that from point B to discover point C, you're just trying to get out.

You've basically inverted play in a way that makes most of the activities that drive this sort of game obstacles not rewards. Even treasure is an obstacle - that stuff will encumber you.

Wasted Work or Forced Participation

Second, unless you structure the dungeon or play area as a fairly linear or looping-back maze, much of it will not be used. Simply put, if the goal is to get out, PCs are incentivized to leave the area and bypass as much as they can. You'll need to force them to go through areas to ensure they'll actually make it there. Once they're physically past the beginning areas anything they bypassed is wasted unless you give plot or structural game reasons for them to go back. If you do this often enough, players get the impression that everything is required and it's a linear game in all but name.

It can be frustrating as a player, too. Nothing drives players more batty than a place they want to get into but can't. Nothing drives them to more bored frustration than a place they want to leave but can't. "We're stuck" is a terrible feeling, and it wears on you in a way that "I can't figure out how to get into that bit of exciting play area" actually quite enjoyable, especially when you figure it out.

Failure is the norm.

Every session that ends still in the dungeon is a failed session. It might be progress towards success, but you haven't succeeded yet. You're still stuck in the dungeon or the maze or whatever. Contrast that with a go-and-do dungeon - even the act of going there is a partial success as you've made another iterative attempt to get things done. Every little bit you do gets you more options, and your "to do" list grows with success. In an escape situation, every little bit gets you closer to success, but it's still technically failure as you haven't escaped. If the goal is "go into the dungeon and get stuff!" then any going, getting, and stuff is at least a small success. If the goal is "get out" not getting out is what happens the whole campaign until it ends.

It Must End

A game where you're escaping a place has a written end - it ends when you escape. If you are drawn back into it by unfinished business, you may as well have made the game about the unfinished business and put that in as a drawing point. A classic dungeon may have an end, a classic megadungeon may have one (chute to China, W*E*R*D*N*A on level 10, etc.) but might still draw you back in later on. It can be extended ("Hey, there was a secret entrance to five more levels this whole time!") if people want more. It's harder to do that in a positive way when the game is about escaping the dungeon. "Turns out, you escaped the dungeon only to find the outside . . . is another dungeon!" feels more like a gotcha. It's every horror movie that ends with a setup for a sequel, except you've told people that more adventure is more failure to escape like you're trying to do.

For those reasons, I prefer to have a game with a magnet than an anchor. I like a draw to go somewhere for some kind of gain rather than something you're forced into and have to escape.

I really try not to be negative on this blog. I'm hoping this comes across more constructive than critical. Using "escape the dungeon" as a sub-theme works. It's how I've launched a number of games, and it's the backbone of some very solid published adventures and adventure arcs. But makes it so easy to use in a short burst is what undermines it in the long term - it's ultimately something you need to end, not prolong.

All of this said, it's not really unfair to have a bounded area of play. It's also not unfair to give people a reason to be rooted down in a particular spot, either. I just find it is more effective and has less downsides if you give reasons to stay than to blatantly force you to stay somewhere.


  1. I've never used this before for a dungeon/wilderness or anything else, but it sounds like it could be viable as a framing technique, so long as the adventure accounts for the issues you address. Key among these issues is that an "escape" adventure should not be run like a sandbox/hexcrawl because the expectations are quite different. I think an "escape" adventure also would work better as part of a larger story subvert the idea by borrowing from a separate medium, two excellent film examples of how an escape adventure can work are found in Star Wars IV and Mad Max Fury Road.

    1. I agree it works as an adventure. I've even pointed out that I've used it myself. As a campaign framework? Well . . . I don't see a way around the issues I mentioned without basically saying "You're locked in this place where you want to stay anyway" and it's indistinguishable from a place you aren't locked into.

  2. Would scale and options mitigate the issue?

    If the place you were "locked into" was big enough and complex enough, it could be something along the lines of "I'm on this world, and I was to find out a way to leave it". Your goal is find the bits you need to make an escape. The escape itself is then a small part of the campaign (the climactic session or two?), but the doing all the things to get to that point could be more or less like any other game...?

    1. The adventure is still based on failure to get out rather than on wanting to stay. Either the players get more and more desperate to leave, or they succumb to Stockholm Syndrome and stay on the planet as their new home.

    2. Hmm. Maybe it's not clicking for me, because I've tended to run "campaigns" as open-ended things, and with durations that as "long as they need to be".

      Like, I could run an "escape" campaign, because it could easily be followed by a "now that you've escaped..." campaign, that could involve what was learned/gained/stolen/etc. in the "escape" campaign.

      If I imagine someone running campaigns that end with the retirement of the characters, I can see better where you're coming from...

      Another example: the TV show "Lost" was kind of like an escape campaign, wasn't it? I know movies/tv/books aren't the same things as RPGs, but on the level of a premise, it's a situation that the characters more or less want to get away from as motivator #1... It could still be entertaining. Simple failure-and-back-to-square-one might easily be bad, but failure-but-ye-gods-that-detail-I-never-saw-coming could be a different beast, eh?

    3. It sounds like a terminology issue - for me, a campaign is the entire sequence of play from beginning to end. If part of it is "escape" and then part of it is "now that you've escaped" I'd call those two different adventure arcs within a larger campaign. Even so, I'm not sure how long it's sustainable, no matter what scale you set it on. For short duration, yeah, it works.

      I never saw Lost, so I can't comment on that directly, and shows/movies/fiction really don't match up well with gaming in my personal experience. I do know I like to watch shows with story arcs that I would not want to play out, however, and vice-versa.

  3. Right, it may be terminology.

    To me a campaign is a self-contained "event" -- but can be continued with another "event" more or less right away, or maybe there are months or years that pass, and there's another campaign with those same characters.

    And the point of bringing up Lost was mainly the idea that, if in trying to get away from the island you don't manage to get away, you could still learn things that make your next attempt more informed. Failure doesn't just leave you clueless (still), but at least gives you info or resources. Like, if you're running a mystery adventure, you don't solve the mystery in one go, you gain insight as you go along, and in time that pays off in solving the mystery.

    Small victories within the on-going struggle mitigate the sustained failure to solve the main issue.

    But if it's just literally "can you escape tonight?" for many, many sessions, I can totally see that sucking.

    I can't see how the goal of getting out isn't the same as the goal of getting in, unless the assumption is that there are no incremental progress/victories along the way.

    Again, terminology may be in our way...

  4. I think the escape makes a great way to introduce a mega-dungeon, but agree that it makes a poor mega-dungeon by itself.

    For me, the ideal use goes something like this:
    The PC's are captured by one of the dungeon's residents, such as evil cultists who live underground worshiping their dark god. The PC's are stripped of their gear and taken down, deep deep into the earth to the makeshift prisons the cultists have set up. Here, they're left to rot until the cultists need some more sacrifices. During that time, the PC's figure a way out (the wizard casts some spells, the barbarian rips the gates off, ect). They search around, retrieve their gear that was guarded by one inattentive person, and make off. The goal is to make it to the surface, but along the way you make comments like "The guard had a set of gold bangles around his wrist, similar to the ones the other cultists wear." and "As you watch the cultist perform their dark ritual in the distance, the wizard notices that their leader has a magic sword at his hip and a magic bracer on his arm."

    As they get higher, the signs of wealth lessen but don't disappear. The PC's escape back to civilization, but the dungeon is an obvious source of wealth for those willing to risk it again. (better prepared this time!) PC's that didn't live up to expectations can gracefully retire now and new PC's can join having heard the tales. As a bonus you've given them an example of how the dungeon is more dangerous the deeper down you go, and set up an antagonist that they can fix their sights on for the first few sessions. (The cultists, with obvious wealth)

    1. I like that as a megadungeon introduction.

  5. A further thought I had...

    A formative RPG experience I had was an adventure called "Naked Doom" - the essence of which is "escape this dungeon if you can".

    That may be why I don't see the concept as a non-starter. The flesh you put on those bones are crucial, but that's always the case.

    1. Like I've said a few times - it's fine as an adventure. I just don't see it lasting as the start-to-end of a campaign, with "campaign" meaning the entirety of play, not just a smaller part of some larger game.

      So it's not a non-starter. I just don't it has real legs compared to a game where there is something to run towards, not from.

    2. I think I'm pretty clear on what you've said.

      Forgive me if I've misinterpreted the comments area as a place to discus ideas...

    3. It's fine - but unless it's clearly addressed to someone not, me, I assume it's addressed to me about the post and answer it that way!

  6. Hey, few comments:
    - You can sign in at Gnomestew with facebook, Google, twitter, yahoo, steam, or windows live accounts too. You don't have to make one. I've seen a few people saying "I can't be bothered to make an account." Guess we don't advertise that well.
    - As I'm reading through the comments on that article I get directed here, start browsing around and think "Oh wow! completely relevant! I'm reading this one!" Then find out it's actually a REPLY. That's surreal. I tend to imagine nobody actually notices when I write things except on rare occasions.
    - I think everything you're saying here is spot on. On the one hand I tell myself that the game is about sweeping, exploring, developing the keep as a settlement for the townspeople and that should keep everyone's interest indefinitely. On the OTHER hand, I'm probably just fooling myself to say that. As soon as, for my convenience, I say btw this is the area the campaign is in. Stay here and or ENFORCE that, I know SOME players will chafe at that lack of freedom and struggle to escape, whereas oddly enough if I had never said it they might have happily done forest adventures for years without ever being worried about leaving. People, huh?

    1. I had no idea you could log in with Google, obviously I've got an account since I've got a Blogger blog.

      I think the "develop this keep and environs for the locals" is fine, and can work. You need to do a few things:

      - get player buy-in. Tell them to make PCs who want to stay and develop or explore the area, not ones who want to leave or are drawn to leave. Those that leave are those that leave the game.

      - second, make it clear it's a limited sandbox. The keep is set at the center of the area of most interest in the world. The further you go from there, the less interesting stuff you find. In other words, Here Be Adventure.

      - You don't have to tell people there is a reason to flee. Set it up as "you flee to here. Some people want to leave and you might benefit from helping them leave, but your chances of moving up in the world are right here in front of you." Or just frame it as people fled to that spot and intend to settle. No "Eastward, ho! Back to the ports and then back to the Old World!" because they've just gotten to where they think they want to be.

      Some players will chafe at anything - "I'm in the center of the land of opportunity with the world at my feet and everything interesting is happening in and around me? Great, my guy wants to leave, it's his only goal" - but you don't actually have to let that fly. That's not what the game is about. But framing it as the place they want to stay helps - give that player bound and determined to leave a place they can't get into, instead, and see if that helps.


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