Dungeons & Dragons. Roleplaying games. For a long time, those terms have been synonymous to a lot of people. When an uninitiated friend or relative asks what I do on Saturday nights, I will sometimes tell them that I play Dungeons & Dragons to save time and explanations, even if the actual game in question is Vampire: The Sparkling. As the title clearly states, a major facet of what Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson dreamed up back in 1974 is the dungeon. Even more than dragons or their miscellaneous spawn, the dungeon has shaped D&D in everything from its game play to its marketing. The fireball is designed specifically to clear out a 20 foot room. The Rogue has a myriad of abilities for spotting traps and hidden doors. There may never be an image more iconic of D&D then that of two adventurers prying the ruby eye from a demonic statue. However, all of that is starting to change. New RPGs are published every day that have nothing to do with the moss covered, orc filled corridors of the dungeon. Gamers are looking beyond caves and underground ruins to the potential of the world above.
Bringing a campaign out of the dungeon is difficult, but I can tell you from first hand experience that the rewards are worth it. I do not mean to say that dungeon crawls are a bad kind of game, but they are extremely limiting in terms of storytelling. There are only so many kinds of tales that can be experienced in a goblin labyrinth, David Bowie jokes aside. Leaving the dungeon behind opens the game up to a new range of possibilities. Take the original Star Wars film as an example. The only part of that film even remotely workable as a dungeon would be the death star infiltration sequence, and even then the pacing was too fast for a traditional ‘crawl.’ Any group looking to simulate that experience would need to bring their game out of the dungeon by necessity. This is true of most existing franchises turned RPG. Even Lord of the Rings, the work on which much of the original D&D was based. The fellowship spent as much or more time playing politics in Rohan and Minas Tirith than they did plumbing the mines of Moria.
The fact is that the variety of NPCs who will hang out in a dungeon is limited, which in turn limits the kind of social interactions that can take place there. Setting a game at the king’s court allows for political intrigue and plotting. Sending a team of secret agents to infiltrate a ruthless mega-corporation means a race against the clock to hack the main frame while disarming a bomb while charming the mysterious femme fatale and/or her dangerously handsome gentleman partner. The list goes on.
Make no mistake, there are challenges. When I first started bringing my games out of the dungeon back in high school, I found myself facing down a whole list of potential problems I had never considered. The dungeon creates a rigid structure that can be very helpful for new players or an inexperienced game master. This was my first challenge. The dungeon ensured that I could always be sure exactly where my player characters would go and what they would find. I wanted them to fight a lich, so I put one in the final level and let the mayhem commence. Once the PCs had freedom of movement, they wouldn’t always want to go where I wanted them to. I would plant an adventure hook in the town of Problem-ville, only to find they were way more interested in exploring the city of Solutiontopia.
After much despair and gnashing of teeth, I discovered that these new obstacles could be overcome once I stopped thinking in the dungeon mindset. My PCs needed to follow my adventure because they wanted to, not because they were in a corridor with only one exit. I learned to use NPCs to give more compelling reasons for following a certain path, and I learned how to make my stories enticing enough that the players would go after them on their own. I also figured out that if my players really thought there was something interesting about Solutiontopia, then maybe that was a better place to have the adventure.
There is also the simple fact that once outside the conceit of a dungeon, players will start to expect more realism. They will wonder why there is a chest of gold hidden behind a secret door. Who put it there? For what reason? When I first encountered this, it seemed like a real problem, but after a while I realized it was actually an opportunity. If the players demand a more developed world and the GM delivers, everyone gets more engaged in the game. The gold chest turned out to be the ill gotten war spoils of Arch Duke Bloodbain, and of course he came after the PCs because they had his booty and knew too much. Having this kind of world can be taxing on GMs who are used to the security of a dungeon. Their first instinct is often to try and map out every possible aspect of said world, and I can say that 99% of the time this is a bad idea. It’s impossible to predict with certainty where the players will want to go, or what they will want to do. Rather than plan for every contingency, I have found it much more useful to get in touch with my world to the point where I can fill in the blanks for my player’s unexpected actions.
The bottom line is that games outside the confines of a dungeon require a different dynamic of play. The players must be given a greater degree of agency over their story, or they will start to chafe, and without a set of stone walls it is much harder to keep PCs in an adventure they don’t want. There are several ways to accomplish this, but in my experience the best method is to talk to the players. Find out what they want and what kind of story they are interested in. If they have interesting ideas for their characters, even better. Weaving a story around the PCs rather than dropping them into an existing one helps keep everyone at the table engaged and interested.
With all that in mind, choosing the system for a non-dungeon based campaign is a very important decision. In general, I recommend something with good social interaction rules and more realistic abilities for the characters, but tastes will vary. There are already dozens, if not hundreds, of good RPG systems out there, and more are coming out all the time. In some cases, it can be easy to find a new one. If the group is interested in a specific kind of game, then pick a system that delivers. Fantasy Flight’s new Star Wars RPG is good if the group wants to play in the Star Wars universe. Shadowrun is great for the dystopian cyberpunk near future. If a group is not exactly certain what they want to do and is just looking for something to try that is beyond the scope of a dungeon crawl, I recommend the base New World Of Darkness system by White Wolf. It is simple, fairly realistic, and easy to use for a variety of different stories and scenarios.
The key to bringing a campaign out of the dungeon is, as with all things in an RPG, to have fun. New settings and scenarios open games up to whole new forms of play that will enrich the experience of both the players and the GM. Since a huge part of role-playing is to experience situations we never could in real life, I see this is a natural extension of the medium, something that can only make it more fun for everyone. There’s an entire world outside the dungeon, and it’s just waiting to be explored.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.