Dungeon Contractor: Steal from the Best, Swipe from the Rest


The singular most important skill of any dungeon designer is the ability to plagiarize. If you are going to make it to the top in this business, you are going to have to steal as much as you can. Why? Everything you steal is one less thing that you have to think about. It's like that old saying about midgets and giants.

The singular most important skill of any dungeon designer is the ability to plagiarize. If you are going to make it to the top in this business, you are going to have to steal as much as you can. Why? Everything you steal is one less thing that you have to think about.

It is like that old saying about midgets and giants, which has been attributed to just about every famous scientist. Lone brilliance is worthless. The more context that you have, the more astounding sorts of thoughts you will have, regardless of some notion of innate intelligence. It is the only way.

Why is it important to steal? You have a lot, a whole lot, to do in the progress of a single adventure. This is doubly more difficult in a dungeon setting, for when in a dungeon, weird, hard to track details get magnified ten-fold. Marching order generally is not mapped out when the party steps into the local tavern. Everything about the dungeon is risk and trouble, so the physicality counts. And players will get mad when arguments occur over whether or not they were or were not close enough to the trap, or whether they would have walked into what, in retrospect, was such an obvious ambush that there was practically a road sign warning of it. That fact is only the beginning of a considerable list. Included also are things such as the need to bounce numbers, to be ready to take on any surprise that gets dealt by players who like to do screwy things, to be constantly the focus of attention and to wonder if you are getting taken for a ride with the whole salsa thing. You have to be on. It is on you, fair Referee, that all the demands are being placed. It is easy to fall short.

There are two ways out: become better at multi-tasking or start to cheat. I will leave the multi-tasking to the psychic gurus and assembled organizational experts outside, and instead just encourage you to cheat. Steal from the best, steal from the worst, steal from everyone until you can't even remember what you stole. Plagiarize like you're a certain famous historian who tends to write about World War II. Take it and use it.

Okay, maybe I am casting the issue in too serious a light by using words like cheat and plagiarize. I apologize for being inflammatory about it, but the point is so necessary to drive in that it cannot be understated. It is an unfortunate fact that some of the best stuff out there belongs to other people. Some people have time and talent, and it shows. They write mean adventures. And, typically, those mean adventures have some mean dungeons in them. Now, this may seem incredibly self contradictory having just come off an essay claiming that the only good dungeon is one that fits with a plot. A pre-made adventure should be one of the worst adventures. After all, there is no fit to take place with plot. A dungeon stolen remains a hostile organ.

And it is for this reason I see it fit to emphasize the notion of plagiarism and not some more prosaic concept. "Oh, wow, that's a neat idea for an oil trap," robbery is okay and should still be continued, but do not think that such a path is the end. Do not shy away from wholesale appropriation as necessary.

There is no reason that a dungeon cannot be used in whole as long as the proper modifications are made to the dungeon to get it in line with the current plot. Obviously objectives and motives must be considered, but do not forget mood. Mood is as important a quality to change as any sort of mission goal that might be present. The best dungeons are going to evoke something in people. Make certain it is evoking the right sort of thing for the moment in the game.

And remember, this plagiarism does not hurt anyone's feelings or legal status. If it means lifting a dungeon whole hog, then do so. If, however, it means lifting only the first level and redesigning the remainder, do so as well. This latter possibility is, in my mind, more fulfilling, simply because you get to make your indelible mark on the game itself. Besides, then the unused level can become part of yet still another dungeon, getting maximal mileage. Furthermore, it is always a fun twist on players who think they know what is going on because they have read the adventure before, when suddenly the library is not guarded by that cat o' doom.

If you don't cheat? Well, your adventures better be worth your not cheating. It is possible to design well without plagiarism, but with the same amount of effort and plagiarism, you can go even further. Thus I do not see it as a real choice.

However, do not limit your plagiarism to the world of gaming. I am not about to extol trolling around in Russian literature for plot threads, but you could, I suppose. I instead mean the more subtle form of plagiarism that is observation, and more on that next time when we talk to Janice, our stained glass guru.

J.S., I couldn't agree more. It is the destiny and fate of any GM to cheat. Players will often require answers and responces to their actions, that not even they themselves could have predicted, and unless the GM's IQ is the square of the other players total IQ, cheating, fudging dice and lying is going to be a necessity. I agree with copying and modifying a good chunk of an adventure; I also am a fan of "patchwork-zomby" adventures, that take multiple fragments of many adventures and stitch them together. These are exceptionally powerful, incase there is a GM/player who is playing amongst the group that might have read one of the sources. They might recognise a part of one adventure and then realise it isn't what they think (much like the cat-o-doom, CR7 I believe?) when all sorts of famliar things come up, but none from the same book.

I also agree that a good copy isn't breech of copyright. Afterall, the fact that all an adventure wasn't fit/adaptable to one's current scenario, but a fragment of it is, only honours the designer. Pretending a copied piece of work is one's own, however, isn't very kosher. Afterall, everyone's dungeon was inspired and grown from impressions left from other dungeons he read about/played.

Nice piece of work, and I can't wait to see the next installment of Dungeon Contractor...

Great article but dammit D.C! Don't tell them all of the secrets! What are you going to leave us Elder Gaming Hacks with to amaze the masses?
(/playful irony off)

To misquote Elvira, "I ripped of- er, it was inspired by..." is one of the big secrets in gaming. Attempts to create a thing from whole cloth is not easy and most gamers, despite the naysaying of others, have lives to get on with so for the gaming table, plagiarism is necessary.

On the other hand, plagiarism in products should be given suitable contempt - mind you, the whole concept of intellectual property in RPGs is something that's a very touchy issue with gaming companies, to the point that some companies restrict use of their content on fan web sites. Hmmm.

Bonzo, I too have animated a number of patchwork zombie scenarios, in fact one or two campaigns have had visible stitching from time to time. I however, will be very surprised if someone claims a whole scenario is their own work after filing off the serial numbers.

The ultimate question however is it a breach of copyright if it's done for profit? Most people I know are absolutely indifferent if it isn't.

Again, great article D.C. Next awaited with interest.

Are you saying that DM's are simply good at spying and gathering information.

DM Requirements:
At least +12 skill ranks in Gather Information

I would have to disagree. I am a upcoming DM and in my few campaigns I have run one, yes one, campaign that wasn't all my own ideas. My players got so fed up I just changed the ending and led it on. I am not sure if I have a gift or what but having played allows me to write a brief outline i.e. a page max

This page has a few basic points, reference numbers to monsters, a few floor plans and names. As far as I am concerned they find out what they can do. Such quests will put them to their limits but they often choose to stick around town. I had a whole campaign where they made sniper hides by the main trade route and ammassed wealth. Sure I did compel them to change with things like a bounty hunter and stuff except they stuck with their plans and had the times of their lives.

I did not steal this from anyone except the players. They say: If we meet and goblins and I get +2 to attack and my magic sword does an extra d8 damage I can bet they will meet goblins. Where is the use of a PC having a cool magic item or wish if they never get to live it out.

I don't see my job as a DM to enforce the rules but entertain the players and myself. I haven't met a DM yet who hasn't been faced with a similar line to: I attack the darness.

DMing is FUN
DMing can be ORIGIONAL
DMing is as good as the DM makes it :)

Enjoy yourselves DM's and don't listen to this post about 'everyone' who DM's steals materials as it isn't true,

Live long and DM,


Topgun, I agree with your sensitivity to your player's desires, to a point. In fact, I saw a DM ruin several games because he used a device to deprive a magic-wielding character of her ability to use magic. In his defence, he thought it would heighten the dramatic tension, but really, it drastically lessened her ability to contribute to the game, singling her out. Neutering players in such a contrived manner is not a successful way to run the game. The challenge should be set higher, rather than depriving characters of powers they have rightfully earned, which make their contribution in the party unique.

On the other hand, I have seen DMs cater to player whims, running to the extremes that you have outlined above. For players, it works as a short term indulgence, but in the long run, it turns people off the game. Players need to be challenged fairly. Nothing too easily won, nothing that crushes them whimsically. Without challenge, there may be story and role-playing, but there is no game. Some would say that without challenge, there really is no story either - just a telling of events. It's the RPG equivalent of wanking.

In campaigns I've played in, with people who've been playing for 15+ years, I saw a gradual erosion of the casual players (and me too) from one particular DM. Why? We couldn't die. We couldn't fail. Without that threat, there may have been role-playing, but there was no game. Without a game, we were just a bunch of kitchen-table thespians eating too many Cheezies.

To the DM, it seemed to be art and a story he was telling us, rather than a story in which our choices mattered. 8 hours may be a reasonable time to play a long game, but it is too long to sit through a performance.