The Dungeon's Front Door

The Dungeon's Front Door

It is a small book, small in size, it feels compact, you want to pocket it and take it on the streetcar or into the dungeon. It has thirteen essays, and the first one, the longest of them, hauled me on its back for a 31 pages one-breath ride.

D&D is not a tutorial in high minded virtues. It is an instrument of fabrication, where we're free to ignore virtue. Life is full of boundaries, limits, restrictions, expectations and respect for decency, all of which close doors against freedom for the good of others and us. In fantasy, no one needs protection. We're free to indulge, to conduct ourselves with all the trappings of delusion, being whatever hero or villain we desire.

Morality has no place in our dreams. Acquisition gives us experience, more health and more combat prowess — thereby providing greater power to plunder more and more. It is a lovely system.

This resonates with the way I experienced the game when I was a teenager. The ability to transgress had a strong appeal. It was a kind of valve for pressure.

The essay goes further and locates this valve in the dungeon itself.

We should define a 'dungeon' as any place where the players are secure about their interaction with the events at hand. Whether this is a castle, a tomb, an isolated village, a point crawl or a railroading adventure, the dungeon is a place where the players are able to grasp how action A leads predictably to consequence B.

Where this is not clearly understood, the scene becomes the 'wilderness' — where the framework is vague, uncomfortable and uncertain.

He distinguishes between the Dungeon and the Wilderness. What happens in the Dungeons stays in the Dungeon (except for the loot). Also, in the Dungeon everything has a target sign on it, unlike in the Wilderness in between.

When the 'rules' are known perfectly to the DM and not the players, the situation is unbearable.

The trick is to make every part of the world like a dungeon — even the outdoors; even villages where there are few enough combatants for the party to handle at their level. Every part of the world should be as comprehensible.

I love the play with words here. Com prehendere means to take with oneself, "Every part of the world should be as lootable".

Good rules are not measured by their approximation to real life, but by the challenge or the satisfaction they provide. (...) Spin the bottle is both shaming and wonderful; Truth or Dare is humiliating. Yet these games thrive from generation to generation because they allow people to act stupidly in a structured way.

That brings me back to my teenager enjoyment of D&D, acting stupidly in a falling apart structure that was extremely fun. Unease at the lack of limits of play, challenge and reward within the constraints of game.

And a final quote for some DM humility:

Players are far more in love with the game than they are with any DM. It serves us well to remember this. We are not indispensible. Players will only ingratiate themselves for so long. If truly driven, they will fight to create their own worlds, if only to play the game as they feel it should be played.

But, how will they create their own worlds? By becoming game masters? Or by clamouring for something more like a story game? Regime change? Most likely by immigrating towards another referee.


Alexis Smolensk blogs at The Tao of D&D and his books can be found on Lulu. Once I'm done with this excellent "The Dungeon's Front Door", I'll read "How to Run", it's not as pocketable, but I'll loot it anyway.