In the third booklet found inside the 1974 Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, which is usually referred to today as “OD&D” for “Original Dungeons & Dragons”, we read some curious words:
Before it is possible to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons, it is necessary for the referee to sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper. Unquestionably this will require a great deal of time and effort and imagination.Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Book III, page 3
The Alexandrian, in his blog post “Game Structures Part 3: Dungeoncrawl”, says:
The most successful scenario structure in the history of roleplaying games is the traditional dungeoncrawl. In fact, I believe that much of D&D’s success rests on the strength of the traditional dungeoncrawl as a scenario structure.
Dungeoncrawls are great for players because they know exactly what to do. The default goal is to “find all the treasure”. Some players take this a step further and view the dungeoncrawl as having the goal of “killing all the monsters”, or even, “clearing the dungeon”… but, for me, the pure goal of the dungeoncrawl is for the players to “find all the treasure”.
The game is also great for players because they know what to do. As the Alexandrian says, there is a clear default action:
If a player is standing in a room and there’s nothing interesting to do in the room, then they should pick an exit and go to the next room.
The player always knows what to do next: look for the treasure; if there’s no treasure, pick an exit.
Dungeoncrawls are also excellent for Game Masters because they are easy to prep and easy to run. It’s very hard to screw up the dungeoncrawl, even if you are a totally new player… or, for our purposes, coming back to gaming after a long period away. To quote the Alexandrian again:
Collectively, [this means] that even first time DMs can reliably design and run a dungeoncrawl without leaving either (a) their players stymied or (b) themselves confused. This is huge. Thanks to the dungeoncrawl, D&D can reliably create new DMs in a way that most other RPGs can’t and don’t.
It’s a structure but not a straitjacket because neither the players nor the Game Master is limited by the form. You can put almost anything in dungeon and the players can always choose any other action in addition to the default action of “pick an exit”.
Returning, as I am, to the Wilderlands of High Adventure (powered by GURPS) with players at an Open Table, the dungeoncrawl is the perfect starting point.
For the first session, I let the player characters delve down a hole in the crypts below the town’s Temple to The Lawgiver.
Having started this on a few index cards, it’s really simple to add the second level and expand the dungeon. Equally simply, I can offer some other small dungeons to the players in the locality and invite an element of choice. Thus, session two can either be a delve deeper into the initial dungeon – which may or may not turn out to be a much larger structure – or an expedition into a different small location to explore.
The main point is that, for all of us, the dungeoncrawl is familiar and simple to play. I enjoy making the dungeons interesting and a little different, but they are also built using the classic game structure which has plenty of space for tropes.
I don’t know why we are so often “down” on the classics. In my experience, they are a good safe starting place and dungeons particularly lend themselves to beginners and returning players alike. Familiar and reliable, these are the basics of roleplaying in a fantasy realm. There’s nothing wrong with dungeons… at least until we begin to crave something deeper (if you’ll pardon the pun).