Of Dice and Men

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posted 2/24/2009 by Shawn Sines
other articles by Shawn Sines
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The dungeon is the archetypal location of adventure in the fantasy RPG. We all recognize that often the first games we played or the first gold we looted were found in the depths of dank caves populated by subterranean beasts or far underground in the secret experimental mountain citadel of an insane wizard.

Catacombs, crypts, entire underground labyrinths often populate even the more high-brow fantasy role playing games. Evolution hasn't diminished the importance of the unknown setting, distant remote outpost or ruins of a long forgotten empire as places where great heroes overcome foes and unravel plots to alter the course of entire civilizations. Science Fiction or Modern era games still seem to adopt these concepts albeit with a different veneer. We have lost space hulks or the spooky asylum on the remote island. Everywhere you look RPGs return again to the dungeon as a means of propelling story.

Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, Runequest, you'd be hard pressed to find a classic fantasy game that didn't revolve around the dungeon adventure and with the recent return to “classic form” in the D&D 4E rules its not hard to understand that the focus is firmly on the tactical nature of a dungeon encounter, even if the setting is not necessarily a dank stone lined ten by ten room. The 4E rules support a variety of styles of RPG play – from miniature based boardgame-style tactical battles to sweeping period romance tales full of court intrigue but at their core they are a return to the dungeon encounter as a means of advancing a plot.

Not all storytellers are great planners. While many game masters prepare long, sweeping plots full of epic adventure and grand heroics not every tale teller is going to be a master at designing the tactical encounters needed to advance that plot. Learning how to balance and manage or design unique and challenging battles can be a great task for even the most experienced Dms. Sometimes a story needs a thematic break, a side-trek and a simple intermission appears that can't be anticipated. Dungeon Delve, the latest 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons book is an answer to this problem. Loaded with drag and drop scenarios meant to easily be inserted into any existing game with little overall preparation or as a means to spur a new game the book offers 30 levels of pre-generated locations and monsters for storytellers to drop in and get up and running with.

Its hard to judge the utility of Dungeon Delve except to say that the audience for this book is most definitely not the players of D&D, its a DM only book. There are no new player options here, no fluff to expand on character backgrounds, etc. , this is a book of encounters for the dungeon master alone. To this point 4th Edition D&D has done a pretty good job of addressing the traditional issue of promoting the idea that aside from players books the game runner tends to bear the burden and utility for later published sources.

Books focused on monsters like the Dragonomicon or Open Grave balance the player-friendly content with DM specific things like settings and new monsters. The Power books like Martial Power definitely serve players with new options, but this is triely the first book with no value to the majority of D&D 4E adopters.

The 30 levels worth of material do provide some interesting excursions that could easily serve to rekindle interest in a fading campaign, or work as one-off adventures to introduce new players with little problem. There are hints with each setup to help Dungeon Masters use, integrate or expand the content but in many scenarios I was left wanting a bit more. Some of the scenario designs seemed to beg for expansion and personally I was disappointed that the brevity of information in the book for each encounter was so minimal. They work well mostly as a setup for a few nights gaming or a convention game but aren't quite meaty enough to take and run without some DM work.

Early in the book the history of the Dungeon Delve term is explained – a simple DM vs. player sort of scenario made popular by the Wizards of the Coast crew at conventions over the years and it even mentions that this alternate way of playing D&D could be expanded to a tournament style system. Unfortunately the details or guidance to make this viable, the peek behind the curtain used by Wizards at those cons is missing from the book. It reminded me little of the 3.x X-Crawl setting and I saw a missed opportunity to introduce yet another style of D&D play to the fan base unfamiliar with competitive or adversarial D&D.

Dungeon Delve as a tool left me wanting more. In the descriptions, scenarios and even in the concept of implementing the Delve gameplay style itself. There are some interesting encounters in the book that will no doubt serve as excellent inspiration and filler in many campaigns but the limited applicability outside the game mastering side of the house keeps this from being a “must have” 4E book.

I entered into the Delve hoping for a fast D&D flavored skirmish system or suggestions on how to run a fun fantasy flavored dungeon crawl with suggestions on playing this style of game but found none of that here. Maybe returning to the dungeon is a good move, but Dungeon Delve left me disappointed.
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