Dungeon Contractor: Eco-Yucky
A term like "ecology" means specific things in gaming context. So many things in games come about on fiat. Why do trolls regenerate? Regenerating monsters are interesting foes. But being a proto-intelligent humanoid with regenerative powers is strange. How does it work? How do they work? What is their culture like? How do they go about living? These questions are unanswered.
The whole notion of dungeon ecology has some serious flaws. Then how is it that a series of essays on it be justifiable?
A term like "ecology" means specific things in this gaming context. So many things in games come about on fiat. Why do trolls regenerate? Regenerating monsters are interesting foes. But being a proto-intelligent humanoid with regenerative powers is strange. How does it work? How do they work? What is their culture like? How do they go about living? These questions are unanswered. Game balance or game design dictates things, and afterward it is necessary to make sense of those things. There are as many possible examples as there are games.
So game ecology seeks to explain the strangeness. It s a necessary touch of realism, which can then be exploited by crafty Referees. Dungeon ecology is an attempt to make sense of dungeons, rationalizing their existence and prevalence.
What is so wrong with this goal when it comes to dungeons? Nothing is wrong with it, but it shows the myopia of gaming. I have seen articles dedicated to impassioned pleas for realism in dungeon design. The arguments generally go as follow:
- First, all dungeons should have their own internal logic. Caves should be built - formed actually - like caves. A crashed starship infested with Qullizzim should be first designed as a functional starship. A dungeon has to be built by someone, and that builder will have a purpose in mind. Form follows function.
- Second, the dungeon should be ecologically sound, and I don't mean non-polluting. Ecology is both the engineering questions (drainage? ventilation?), biological questions (what do they eat? drink?) and sociological (why are the monsters there? how do they interrelate?).
Perhaps "ecology" is the wrong term for these sorts of questions. I would prefer "economics," in a stricter sense of economics than is commonly used. Economics is really just the question "how do people get what they need to live?" It just happens that varying utilizations of capital and currency tend to be the most common answers from a human perspective.
So why is dungeon economics a silly thing? Terry Prattchet, when asked about how to design a fantasy world, made a comment along the lines of, "first, figure out the sewage system for the city." Such a taste of realism is one of the qualities that makes Prattchet distinctive. Such a stand, I believe, is correct in practice but not in principle.
Look, people, it's fantasy. It is not supposed to make sense. Not a few people find the Mitochlorian issue the most objectionable quality of The Phantom Menace. Suddenly The Force, which previously had been a metaphysical expression, now has a funky pseudo-scientific explanation. No explanation was necessary. Magic is magic because it bends reality. It may have its own mystaphysics, but grounding it in actual reality is not only ugly, but self-defeating. It misses the point of magic.
Besides, what is the utility of the dungeon? It serves to be a challenge of one sort or another that must be overcome to further an altogether greater plot. Dungeons exists so that heroes may enter them, kill things, solve riddles, outwit traps and return with treasure. It is a zone things happen in, not important in and of itself. It is not Mead in Samoa, it's a carnival fun house.
The most damning issue in my mind is the imbalanced application of ecological and economic studies. Making things realistic is a slippery slope, because "the action," not so much the literal action but the meat of the story, takes place in dungeons, there is a greater impetuous to make them realistic. But a Referee only has a certain amount of energy and space for designing parts of the game, not to mention a limited, or at least differing, level of sociological or geographical know-how. I have read adventures where the make up of the dungeon made ten times the sense of the make up of the town visited prior to it. I have seen dungeons that detailed out the personalities of each and every tribal leader, when not only was their point to get killed off, but then placed upon a map that made as much sense, geologically speaking, as petuna flavored ice cream.
Now, allow me a qualification. A realistic game is not a bad thing. However, it does have baggage. Once a commitment to realism has been made it needs to be followed through. It should never exist for its own sake.
On a practical level, if you make a point of the realism you will be tempted to make a show of it as well. If you expend the effort to create and work out underground fungi farms you will want to show them off, even if such an action is not fitting within the context of the plot. Such facts will then come off as showy and extraneous.
In short, know the pace of your own internal logic. Hard fantasy is acceptable, but it takes commitment and tells a much different story than the normal kind. Do not worry about environmental consistency issues if the deviations make for a better story.
Next time - pit traps: are the spikes worth the money?