Friday, 8 December 2017

Would You, Could You, on a Train?: Linear Dungeons

A linear dungeon is one in which there are, deliberately, no or very few options for lateral movement. The PCs either go forwards or backwards. 

One example would be a mile-high tower or skyscraper which the PCs ascend or descend. Each floor is a small level with a couple of rooms or, in the most high-concept version, a single room only. Instead of 10 dungeon levels each with an average of 30 or so chambers, you get 100 levels each with an average of three or so chambers - or 300 levels each with one chamber. 

Another would be an abandoned oil rig or mine shaft with the PCs simply going down, down, down, down, a very long and narrow hole. Periodically there are ledges where they get a chance to rest and fight ghost worms, sverfneblin, insane servitors, etc. 

A third idea is a train. Imagine a train made up of many carriages travelling through, say, the quasi-elemental plane of radiance on a vastly long track between two very distant places. You can't get out of the train because you will be blinded instantly. All you can do is move up and down the train, carriage by carriage. And in each one there is a different passenger. 

I find the possibilities of the long, narrow 'dungeon' intriguing. If the 'dungeon' is just train carriages or small floors of single/few rooms one after another, then you (of course) get to take advantage of a pattern. The DM can use, essentially, the same map over and over, with relatively minor changes. He just has to concentrate on content. The PCs, at the same time, also get used to the same patterns, so they can both forecast to a certain degree how things are going to look from level to level, but also be surprised when the DM throws them an occasional curve ball by mixing things up. 

The semi-linear dungeon is one which looks linear but where the PCs are able to advance (or retreat) in leaps and bounds by temporarily going outside it. Instead of descending the mile-high skyscraper floor by floor, sometimes they open a window and abseil down ten floors. Instead of moving carriage to carriage on the train, sometimes the PCs strap blindfolds over their eyes and try to clamber onto the roof and of the car they are in to make their way forward or backwards more expeditiously, and so on. 

15 comments:

  1. The movie Snowpiercer is pretty much exactly this.

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    1. Never even heard of it. Not sure how that escaped my attention.

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  2. I think this can work occasionally if you treat the dungeon as an environment, not as a linear sequence of fixed encounters in the Paizo & 4e-WoTC manner. The critical thing is player options/choice. Something like the first Die Hard movie, for instance, with the Nakatomi building, could be a good model.

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    1. Yeah, I think basically linearity can work if there is an actual in-game reason for it - like a tower block - rather than a meta-game reason for it (a railroad).

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  3. I think that linearity comes and goes. I pride myself on my sandboxes, but there were a couple of game sessions, where they were pursuing the bad guys across the 7 miles of rough terrain. Instead of a railroad there was a trail left by retreating marauders in an aftermath of a village slave raid gone wrong thanks to players. At that moment it was linear as anything, with players charging forward enraged suffering hasty traps and ambushes the enemy was trying to do to waylay the pursuers. Natural linearity?

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  4. Reminds me a bit of a recent Dr Who episode that featured a 400 mile-long spaceship accelerating away from a black hole, with the result that time goes much faster at one end than at the other. Great potential for strange time-travel plot-lines.

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  5. One thing you could do is increase the 'depth' or mutability of each encounter and the interrelationships between them.

    I think with 'depth' I'm talking about inner complexity and consequence. So an encounter could be both morally complex, with multiple different points of view, each with their own validity, and also tactically complex, and also with problem-solving elements.

    Because its a line as well, you can force PCs into the kinds of decisions and situations that they would (quite rationally) avoid in open or sandbox play. Not sure if that is good or bad but surely there is something you could do with it.

    And the consequences of each encounter could 'roll over' and compile more than in a sandbox or web structure, since you could be pretty sure in which order PCs would encounter things.

    So you could have a choice in Box A, which gives you a negative consequence much later in Box D. But by the time you get to Box H, the consequences of that choice have actually become positive for the PC's.

    And all of these could compile in different ways, with different 'waves' of choice consequences cascading down the line, all operating at once. And since they are all linear, they could amalgamate into some very complex results.

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    1. Yeah, the tactical complexity was what I was initially thinking about. I had this idea for a wizard's tower that was many stories high but each floor was a single chamber with a guardian or guardians. It would literally be a series of different challenges for the PCs if they wanted to ascend, but I like the idea of choices playing out in consequences "upstairs" as you describe.

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  6. I just posted a similar idea to a Gamma World thread on rpg.net- the characters are stuck down a deep hole that is the very top of a buried arcology. They can go up and down, but not much side to side.

    This also reminds me of a strip mall or arcade of shops that seems to go on forever.

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  7. There's a recent Japanese small-press RPG that prominently features linear dungeons, ガラコと破界の塔 (something like "Galaco and the Towers of Destruction"). The setting background is a bunch of technicians were sent to terraform a planet before the main migration, but the main migration never showed up so hundreds of years later the world has developed in strange ways.

    Sometimes mech-like machines originally used in terraforming go rogue and build towers in the wilderness. Left alone "queen" robots at the top of the towers create new robots that will gradually terraform the surrounding area into an unlivable poisonous zone. Typical PCs are people hired to hunt and break up these towers before things get out of hand. Because the towers are spontaneously thrown up by rogue machines, they're basically just a stack of three or four rooms.

    Other kinds of adventures are definitely possible, and there's an adventure book I don't have that breaks up the model, but in the core book the example adventure is a tower and some space is given to generating variations.

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  8. This reminds me of a discussion at theRPGsite a couple years back about a giant tree as a 'dungeon' site. I'm not personally fond of what I call 'stovepipe dungeons' - my conception of the giant tree was as a town rather than a dungeon - but I definitely think they have their place.

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  9. It reminds me of an episode of Adventure Time, aptly names "Dungeon Train", with a circular train going over and over filled with renewed monsters and encounters.
    The hack-and-slash type of character (Finn) enjoys the fights and loot, but Jake soons gets bored .

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