The Vault News

The Quest for the Perfect Dungeon Crawler Part 1: The Problem

Like most regular folks, I’ve always been interested in sending fistfuls of hardy adventurers into dangerous underworld environments on my tabletop. I have searched for years, nay decades, to find the perfect game that does everything I want it to. I want co-op gameplay, exploration, an interactive environment, exciting combat, character advancement, shiny treasures, coherent setting. And I want it in reality, on my gaming table, with miniatures. Not on some fancy pants computer.

My Demands

1. Co-op Gameplay. I want to be able to sit down and go adventurin’ with my pals.  If in some game I end up having to play the bad guy, we might as well be playing D&D. In games like Heroquest or Conan I automatically slip into Dungeon Master mode and try to make sure the other players are having fun rather than actively trying to win. I wanna play, not run the game from behind my DM screen! Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I am so intrigued by solo games and how each tackles how the game’s artificial intelligence is run.

2. Exploration. I want to be just as surprised as my buds are when something new and exciting happens. Or if something inexplicable occurs, we get to imagineer how that event came to be. I want my little miniature dude to walk through a doorway and nobody knows what’s going to happen until the game engine makes it happen. I do not want the entire map laid out beforehand, I want it procedurally generated as we go.

3. Interactive Environment. Each room must be unique, with items and furniture and so forth. And this stuff should not just be in the way, but should be able to be manipulated in some fashion:  taken, climbed on, searched, or smashed. If my whim is to stand on every table in the Dungeon of The Villain That Digs Up Porridge, by Grud let me do so.

4. Exciting Combat. “Hit Troll with Sword.” If I want to do that, I’ll bring up DOSBox and play some Zork. Give me an interesting combat system, give me cool weapons, give me thematic skills and abilities and options that allow me to make decisions in the midst of combat. Variable activations! Different stances! Parry! Dodge! Semaphor Maneuver! (I made that up)

5. Character Advancement. Has to hit that “just tough enough” sweet spot. Probably the most difficult aspect of a game to balance correctly. How to make it fun regardless of the party’s power level? How to make the players feel like their little dudes are actually improving as they play? Easy to flub.

6. Shiny Treasures. My murder hobos (I hate that term but I chuckled a little as I typed it so I guess I don’t hate it as much as I think I do) demand rewards for their labors. And those rewards should not just be “sack of 12 gold pieces.” I want cool things like “Gilt statue of Saint B’Glaven” and “Coffer of Spices from the Orient” mixed in with the inevitable “Longsword” and “Leather Armor.”

7. Coherent Setting. For me, one of the worst things a game can do is present a handful of isolated adventures with no connections, just floating in a grey void. When all you have is effectively a paper/dice/cards artificial intelligence acting as a DM, how do you end up with a coherent setting or story? The game’s designer must create a robust campaign engine and populate it with both adventure and settlement locales, and allow players to “plug in” additional adventures. Some adventures must be included with the game, and some made available for integration at a later date as the initial adventures are played out.

The Failures

My first dungeon board game was either HeroQuest by Milton Bradley, or SPI’s Deathmaze, it’s tough to remember all the way back to the early nineties. What strikes me now as I think about it, the state of the dungeon crawler hobby has not significantly advanced since then. Oh sure, miniatures manufacturing and printing techniques are improved. But the gameplay in many modern games is either stale or an afterthought.

Game companies discovered a few years ago that the key to a successful Kickstarter is to throw hundreds of miniatures at the backers and skimp on the gameplay. It seems recently the backers of games by CMON (Massive Darkness et al) have become wise to such tricks, as CMON lost over $4 million so far in 2018 as their KS campaigns have faltered.

Gimmics such as Myth‘s card play mechanic are an interesting diversion, but Myth failed to deliver reasonable character progression. Likewise the new Warhammer Quest games have moved incrementally towards increased depth of gameplay but aren’t there just yet.

Sadly, many gamers consider the original Warhammer Quest to be the ultimate dungeon crawler. True, it checks off a number of items on the “My Demands” list above. Perhaps it’s just my many negative experiences with the game that soured me on it. Experiences such as the infamous endless spider hallway combat, or the invincible-levitating-magic-pit-casting wizard. I sold it all years ago and never looked back. And Advanced HeroQuest is next on the chopping block.

So what, then, is a gamer to do?

The Solution

So what can a fellow (or lass or whatever) do when the market does not offer what a fellow (etc) wants? He musters his can-do spirit and his trusty companions, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to work. Yes, that’s right, it’s time to use a dash of imagination and an embarrassing amount of lifted intellectual property (for personal use only) to create the perfect dungeon crawler!

Keep your eyes peeled for the startling conclusion of this epic screed in “The Quest for the Perfect Dungeon Crawler Part 2: The Solution!”