Dungeon Contractor: The Meat Grinder


Opening Aside: Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is a title that makes me laugh endlessly. The image in my mind? A group of adventurers walking in, looking around, saying "yep, still evil" and leaving.

Opening Aside: Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil is a title that makes me laugh endlessly. The image in my mind? A group of adventurers walking in, looking around, saying "yep, still evil" and leaving.

Come on, people, it is the Temple of Elemental Evil. Even something like "return to the Dark Tower" is preferable, for the tower, while dark, is not necessarily evil, and maybe I am a little interested to find out what happened to it after we slew ZarZaz the Left Handed. Maybe a nice family of Zorn moved in. Maybe the remaining skeletal hordes are living in socialistic bliss, and you need to save them from the zombie developers looking to gentrify the neighborhood.

But the Temple of Elemental Evil? There's no way that place is anything other than Evil, and not run of the mill Evil but Elemental Evil. Why in the world would you go back? Evil didn't get fully squelched the last time, or was it that, now the Evil is defeated, it's time for the Elemental to be defeated as well. I don't know - as I said, I can't bring myself to read the thing without throwing a fit - and it might be a well-reasoned and exquisitely written adventure, but hearing about it.... well I want to write a counter-adventure where someone's descendants hire the party to hunt down an older party of adventures for breach of contract.

"No, no, no, we've already hired another group to deal with the latest infestation of demon-spawn. What we want is for you to get this subpoena to the 'town heroes.'"

Today, we will discuss the basic principles of Bleeder design. Designing a bleeder is easy to do, but hard to do well. So, what's a Bleeder for? Maximal carnage. Justification? Well, some people like or expect this sort of thing in any given role playing game. It makes an interesting challenge for the players and characters, in a resource-allocation sense. Sometimes, XP or treasure sopping will be called for, and for that a Bleeder works wonderfully. It is fun, because it is the point of highest game in role playing game, where there is the most to do with luck and the dice. Finally, it's a part of culture. A Bleeder is a dungeon, archetypically, and I'd wager a majority of games end up in one or two.

The cardinal maxim for a Bleeder is to maintain an active sense of hostility. It's us against them, boys. Some might see this as a derivative of the older agonistic styles of Refereeing, but I see it as a sort of moral jujitsu. As long as there is an intractable, or at least definable, them, there is an us, and the slaughter is justified. The point is not so much to support the destruction and slaughter, but to condone it, to make it palatable.

I am sure to take flack for the high horse position, but even if you disagree with my take on it, the principle remains. Your job as designer is to take 'em out. The party needs to get killed, and you are to throw every weapon at your disposal, every ounce of creativity and cunning to achieve this.

There is a flip side to this idea: design antagonistically, run passively. A designer's job is to off the players, a Referee's job, during the actual play of the game, is not, or not as maniacally so. You don't win if they die, they only lose. Now, they might like losing if you kill them well, but the point is not to kill them. In running a Bleeder, you are such the Nuremberg defense. Give the game spice, but don't do it by messing with the dungeon itself.

But what is the goal, if not kill? The goal is to establish the credibility of the threat. Consider the opening teaser, the first "real" encounter, the first moment of the ground sinking out and the players finding the real threat. Note that I said the players. Revealing an army of Orcs behind the door is startling, but not so startling to the players as to the characters. Perhaps with good role play or exquisite description they should be startled, but chances are (notably in a known Bleeder) they will remain somewhat passive to it. So make sure they know there is trouble to be had. A nasty ambush scenario is the obvious way to get there, but it needn't be so. Being ready to kill them, should they screw up, is the point of a Bleeder. People like them because they are high-tension and require serious resource allocation. Get to that point by making your dungeon threatening, not your command of that dungeon.

Making a clear threat will frighten them, and to this extent a tangent is called for to discuss the ...Horror. I've called the ...Horror a Bleeder-Storybook, because it is not just a horror game. Arguably, a horror game can be had in any of the classifications. A spooky compound is an Organism, not a ...Horror. A ...Horror is at least two-thirds Bleeder, designed mainly under Bleeder constraints, but with a darkling edge, with a sense of wince-worthy ick. That texture comes from the Storybook edge, in small tricks and slight events making the scene always a little more grim. A ...Horror is a Bleeder that cheats, which is not fun unless it has a quality to it, and a dark quality fits in with all the slaughter quite well.

The easiest way to think of it is a Bleeder is just a dungeon, but there's something always not right about a ...Horror, the trap is always more deadly than it looks, the monsters are never quite normal and there are no simple encounters. The main difference between a Bleeder and a ...Horror is that while a Bleeder will use a serious threat early on to establish credibility, a ...Horror will never quite reach this state, leaving the players in a continuous state of agitation over what the real threat is or when the real trouble will start. To put it another way, players will wonder whether they will survive a Bleeder, they should hope not to survive a ...Horror.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the Bleeder over the other types is the supremacy of genre. Your job is to create cool situations and interesting challenges. Creativity first, coherence second. Think of it as an action movie. The suspension of disbelief for the sake of wham-bang is the highest you will have it in a Bleeder. So go crazy, and take the dungeon out in as many directions as once, as long as the result is neat.

Bleeders get to drink straight from the font of a pulp mentality. Gnashing villains, imperiled maids, irrational secret passages, Warwick Davis, heaps of glowing treasure, hero's getting there in the nick of time and the bodies of villains not being found; all these are parts of the system for you to use and abuse, with considerable leeway. It is not that every dungeon has to have an end boss, but why not have one? It is not like you can get away with such a video game mentality in every game.

Tune in next time to watch me question the sanity of the paint job.

You're right about the RttToEE. It's very much hack-and-slash unless the players make some attempt to make it otherwise, and I'll tell you now it's getting boring as Baator to DM that. There's not much provided in the way of responses to, say, wiping out an entire elemental temple, and then leaving to recuperate. What's everyone else supposed to do?? I need to go plan out defenses, most certainly.
I'm not an experienced DM, so I can't easily modify the thing into whatever I want, and don't really have the time to do so anyway. Mainly, though, I just need to get some time under an experienced DM, just having fun playing a PC. :p

Great article!