The Dungeon Ouroboros

Dungeons loom large in the mental landscape of role-playing games. They are inescapably linked to its very roots. No matter how much we embrace story and issues and explorations of the human condition, sometimes it seems like marching down hallways and listening at doors is in our blood. Just try shouting “who wants to play an old-school dungeon crawl?” in a crowded room and see what happens. Stampede.

Reading about folks in the UK using Microscope to make the history of a dungeon a while back got me thinking. It sounds like they were just using the “life of the dungeon” as the concept for their history, but lots of folks are using Microscope to make a setting and then playing a traditional GM+players game in the world they built together. Which is pretty cool stuff.

But instead of just using Microscope to create the setting and then switching to a “normal” game, what if you went back and forth? Play a session of Microscope to explore the history of your dungeon, then play a session adventuring in the dungeon, then play more Microscope to reveal more detail, then adventure more, then history more, ad infinitum.

During dungeon crawls it would be a normal GM+players setup, but during Microscope the GM would be a player just like everyone else. The GM would make the dungeon and keep expanding it between sessions, incorporating facts and themes revealed during Microscope sessions. It would work the other way too: trivial details from the dungeon crawl could inspire whole chunks of history.

The GM is sketching out a new section of the dungeon that’s going to connect a bunch of surrounding areas. He decides to make a whole complex of chambers and halls that were once glorious but have now fallen into ruin: crumbling pillars, tumbled arches, lots of collapsed walls and dead-ends, etc. Rather than put a big lair-monster that would logically block other dungeon critters from moving around, he litters the place with creeping slimes and slithering oozes. They’re hiding in the shadows, crawling between the rocks and dropping on unwary trespassers. Done and done.

During the dungeon crawl, the party explores the ruins and gets bushwhacked by slimes more than once, since they keep cutting back and forth through the area and the DM has loaded the wandering monster tables with jelicious treats. Eventually the party mapper writes a note next to the rooms: “here thar be oozes!” And underlines it.

Later when they’re playing Microscope, that player is still thinking about the creepy crawling ruins, so she jumps back and makes a part of the history where a clan of troglogytes dwell there and worship their strange gods, vigilantly defending the borders of their realm until they are driven out and scattered by the endless encroachment of oozes from the deep caverns. They even play out a scene where the strongest son of the troglodyte chief rebels against his father (who refuses to see the writing on the wall) and departs with his followers to make the perilous pilgrimage to find a new home.

As the doom of the troglodytes plays out, a player creates a scene asking the Question “why are the oozes attacking so relentlessly?” The surprising result is that these halls are where the slimes were spawned long ago. They’re mindless but they’re migrating home instinctively, like trout swimming upstream, so no amount of slaughter will stop them.

Which sparks an evil flicker in another player’s eyes, but she wisely keeps quiet until its her turn to spring her idea:

Far, far back, in the ancient times of the dungeon’s history, the oozes weren’t the mindless creatures they are now. They were intelligent and civilized, cold and calculating lords of their own alien domain. These ruins were part of their ancient realm, fashioned by the worker-slimes and the unfortunate morlocks they kept as slaves and cattleā€¦

All the stuff that happens in the Microscope game is true and part of the history of the dungeon, but it’s up to the DM to decide what to reincorporate when building more areas for the dungeon crawl. Did the troglodyte refugees find a new home and flourish somewhere else in the dungeon? Is there a whole undiscovered kingdom of still intelligent and incomprehensibly malevolent oozes in unexplored caves, far beneath the earth? Or are they long dead, their works destroyed ages ago by earthquake and enemy? It’s up to the GM.

I think it would be an awesome mix. You’d get the fun of old-fashioned dungeon crawling (doors will be listened to, doors will be kicked in) but with a whole deeper context and meaning for the players. Do the adventurers know the history their players created? Doesn’t matter! When the adventurers find ancient drow runes alluding to “the Faceless Ones” who once held terrible sway over these caverns the players know what it means. The players know it’s appropriate to have their characters shiver at the ominous yet incomprehensible (to the characters) warning. The players know what it means even if their characters don’t.

Even when the adventurers just kill critters and get loot, the players know they are walking in the shadow of giants. That could be a hell of a dungeon crawl.