Dungeoncrawling by default

D&D is the “default” system many people use, for a variety of reasons, even if it really doesn’t fit the game. There’s a related trend I’ve come across, mostly in OSR: “default” gameplay.

I should say upfront I’m really not an OSR person. But I’m curiuos about it, and as part of this curiosity I got myself a few recent Kickstarted games: Electric Bastionland, Ultraviolet Grasslands, and Seekers Beyond the Shroud, as well as looked long and hard at MÖRK BORG. I’ll describe them in brief, see if you can spot a commonality between them.

Electric Bastionland is a game set in The Only City That Matters, currently going through electrification. There’s aliens from living stars walking the streets side by side with plush and wire mockeries, while Underground is an unreal space that connects everything and is populated by machines that just want to test people.

The characters are losers who failed at their previous careers (failed careers taking up most of the book) and now have to pay back their massive debt. Together they dungeoncrawl.

Seekers Beyond the Shroud is a game I couldn’t bring myself to play, and the first time I actually noticed this trend. It is a solo RPG, which is what initially attracted me, taking place in a modern day occult setting. The player is, unsurprisingly, an occultist. Learning spells, summoning spirits, going on missions.

Every day you choose a single thing to do, and there’s a very interesting mechanic where deterministic star alignment and the like makes certain activities easier or better at any given day. So you can plan your week ahead: make potions on Tuesday, perform a ritual on Wednesday, go on a mission using both of those on Thursday. I’m vague on details by now, as I’ve only read it once, and it was some time ago.

The missions, the meat of the game, are dungeoncrawling, mostly against regular humans. Ten or so skills for every kind of weapon were an early warning sign. There’s also astral missions, which I didn’t even get to, but I expect they’re dungeoncrawling against sprits.

I haven’t read MÖRK BORG, but here’s my understanding of it from the preview materials and some conversations about it: MÖRK BORG is a black metal artbook of a game set in a dying world. There is a random prophecy verse table that will eventually proclaim the end, and that’ll be that. Characters are scumbags trying to get theirs in the last days or years they have.

Together they dungeoncrawl.

Why do they dungeoncrawl? Nothing in the previews addressed this, and utlimately I decided against buying the book.

I haven’t read Ultraviolet Grasslands yet, as I’m still waiting for the physical copy to arrive. It is described as a psychodelic metal trip across a “vast and mythic steppe filled with the detritus of time and space and fuzzy riffs.” I fully expect dungeoncrawling to be the default activity as well, but there it does seem to fit better.

You may have noticed by now that I use the term “dungeoncrawling” very loosely here. To me, it’s the general ethos of a session being made up of a series of potentially hostile encounters (and it encompasses various other ___crawls). Indeed, EBL has some discussion on adventuring in the city, making every shopping trip an adventure, mapping out its transport lines and having encounters along the way, etc. Even though, unlike SBtS and MB, the adventures are not literally happening in a dungeon, the core gameplay remains the same.

In the one session I’ve had in EBL so far, the players didn’t want to fight anyone. Not because their characters had moral objections to violence, but because they were in the middle of a (the) metropolis, and were a failed newspaper intern, a failed urchin, and a failed lecturer. They ran, bribed, were detained and waited for release, and even when presented with a clear opportunity to attack their opponent absconding with the treasure they chose to trick him instead. It was a good session! It barely used the rules.

And I know, I know, that’s how OSR operates. The rules are light and only brought out when needed. But there’s a difference between not using the rules for fighting while avoiding the fight through cunning, and not using the rules for fighting while navigating tangled streets or dealing with power-mad bureaucrats. And there’s barely any other rules! Even character growth/change covered by the rules happens when you take damage.

EBL does have a simple structure for random event tables, and you could go far on those. So why aren’t there a dozen tables to start us off for essential city activities? There are several given as an example, of them only Engaging in Bureaucracy is something players would do to actually achieve their goals in the game (as opposed to Going Carousing or Ordering “The Special” – fun distractions). Of course, I’d also want to have some codified way for players to influence these random events, not just roll a d6, and there I go designing a system that would actually do weird metropolis gaming.

Having an in-setting justification for dungeoncrawling through the streets would have helped, I think. Bastionland doesn’t seem to be an active war-zone, after all. Unfortunately, EBL paints its setting in extremely broad strokes, a technique worthy of further examination, and doesn’t elaborate beyond “the city can be dangerous.”

We don’t have to play in Bastionland itself. We could go outside into the wide world of Deep Country where presumably any OSR module would fit in with little issues, and our disinherited socialites and failed avantguardsmen (best “class” name ever) won’t fit at all. At which point… why are we playing EBL?

This may sound like I hate EBL, and dungeoncrawling, and OSR, and fun. I really don’t. EBL is a fine game that does exactly what the author set out to accomplish. Presumably it’s exactly what the audience wanted, too. At the end of the day it’s my personal problem if a game is not doing what I wanted it to do.

Maybe it’s the other way around, and this is my personal blind spot. Maybe others are happily playing these games to their fullest without feeling like dungeoncrawling is the one thing they are supposed to be doing. Then again, here’s a really cool dungeon generator for MÖRK BORG.

In all these games and undoubtedly plenty more, it feels like the authors started with the default gameplay they know and love, and built a pretty setting around it without once questioning how they fit together or whether there is some other kind of activity that would also be fun to engage in, and expect the players to do the same. I wish I could.

P.S.: now I’m curious what a non-dungeoncrawling OSR game would look like, if such a thing even exists. Any recommendations?

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