Classic Dungeons and Dragons and Old School Gaming

D&D etc.

"Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of rust: to rituals' footprints ankle-deep in stone."

-Mervyn Peake

"...and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped."

-Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Image of the Dungeon

I want to write a bit about Dungeons/Mega-dungeons and Architecture/Urbanism.  When I started this blog I
intended to focus on architecture and design of dungeon environments, so it's about time I get around to it!  I
started this post and got sidetracked by the content of the Megadungeon Planning posts.  Now that I have that out of my system (for now) I'll return to writing about:

The Image of the City Dungeon

A while back at D and D w/ p. stars there was a fantastic post  where he sort of reverse engineer's an essay
from Rem Koolhaas' S,M,L,XL as if it were about mega-dungeons.

I want to do a similar sort of thing with this book:  (though with less theory mumbo-jumbo.  Really I just want to steal his analytical tools to give an underlying structure to megadungeons)

If you went to school to study architecture or urban planning then you probably had to read this.  If not,
you've probably never heard of it.  Kevin Lynch is a big deal when it comes to Urban Design, and I want to look at how his ideas could be used in the creation of and running of megadungeons.

One thing I want to make before we dive in is that while I'm using the term "dungeon," I really mean
megadungeon.  Something at the scale of a city rather than a single building.  The Mythic Underworld, vast and unknowable is the territory that we'll be exploring with this little forray into Lynch's book.  Of course, it's
the DM's job to know the unknowable, and the PC's job to map the unmappable!

This is how the book begins:

"Looking at cities dungeons can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be.  Like a piece of architecture, the city dungeon is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time.  City Dungeon Design is therefore a temporal art, but it can rarely use the controlled and limited sequences of other temporal arts like music.  On different occasions and for different people, the sequences are reversed, interrupted, abandoned, cut across.  It is seen in all lights and all weathers.
    At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, an setting or a view
waiting to be explored.  Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to it's surroundings, the
sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences... Every citizen  adventurer has long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings."

That text is clear and I don't feel like I really need to unpack it too much. The important thing is that we are thinking about the way this giant place is perceived and that the way it is perceived can't be planned by the DM. (unless you're a railroader, which is fine if that's what your players are into, but you might as well stop reading this now if that's the case)  I think the bit in bold is especially applicable to Megadungeons as opposed to dungeons (which are more likely to see one use, with one group of adventurers, and be approached from one way only)

"Moving elements in a city dungeon, and in particular the people and their activities, are as important as the
stationary physical parts.  We are not simply observers of this spectacle, but are ourselves a part of it, on the stage with the other participants.  Most often, our perception of the city dungeon is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns.  Nearly every sense is in operation and the image is the composite of them all."

The dungeon is effected by the Adventurers.  also by monsters and  NPCs of course, but (this obviously isn't stated by Lynch) it's the perception of the PCs that matters to us.  It's not just City=Dungeon, but also City=Dungeon=Stage.  Also, we are talking about an image, but all five senses contribute to that image.

"Not only is the city dungeon an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of
widely diverse class and character, (you know, like magic-users, thieves and half-elf barbarians) but it is the product of many builders who are constantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own.  While it may be stable in general outlines for some time, it is ever changing in detail.  Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form.  There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases.  No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities dungeons for sensuous enjoyment is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature.  It may learn a great deal from these other arts, but it cannot imitate them."

The dungeon changes from one adventure to the next, but also it's original form is determined randomly by Wandering Monster tables at least, maybe even by random room generators and the like.

What Lynch is aiming for is "Legibility" or "...the ease with which its parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern."  Now, for gaming this legibility is especially important (even though it might sound kind of boring now, just wait) because there is no actual city, I mean, dungeon.  The whole thing is a construct in the minds of the players so communication about the environment and the events in that environment is critical, especially in old school games where there is less reliance on game mechanics and more reliance on description of the scene and actions.

"Although clarity or legibility is by no means the only important property of a beautiful city kick-ass megadugeon, it is of special importance when considering environments at the urban scale of size, time, and complexity.  To understand this we must consider not just the city dungeon as a thing in itself, but the city dungeon being perceived by its inhabitants (and more so the interloping adventurers)."

What really matters isn't the dungeon and all of it's special little one-of-a-kind snowflake qualities, back story etc. but how the PCs experience it.  If the Orc Chief hates the Spider God but that never comes up in play or the PCs don't pick up on it then it might as well not be true.  In their experience it isn't true.  Managing the perceptions of the PCs is how you make the dungeon awesome.

"Many kinds of cues are used: the visual sensations of color, shape, motion, or polarization of light, as well as other senses such as smell, sound, touch, kinesthesia, sense of gravity, and perhaps of electric or magnetic fields."

In an RPG it's usually one step removed: the verbal description of those senses rather than the actual senses.
Lynch talks a bit about wayfinding and how the "mental picture of the exterior physical world that is held by an individual" is how a person finds their way in a city.  This is even more so in a Dungeon, if you don't imagine it, then you're not there.

Lynch diverts a bit into the deeper meaning behind this giant structure:
"A striking landscape is the skeleton upon which many primitive races erect their socially important myths."
Right?  What was buried down there that those primitive races started mythologizing?

And he acknowledges that some chaos can be good:
"It must be granted that there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment."  Important enough that there is a 1 or 2 in 6 chance of it. (surprise that is)  And if you crawl around in a cave for long enough you are sure to get lost at some point but being completely lost the whole time isn't usually fun.

Ok, up to this point I have mostly just been cherry picking cool quotes that make it sound like Lynch is talking about dungeons, but now I'm going to wrap up and the really useful stuff will have to wait for a future post or posts.  Lynch says that an environmental image is made up of structure, identity and meaning.  of these, structure and identity are what he mostly concerns himself with in this book.  Works for me. What we are trying to do when we DM is communicate an imaginary physical world to the players, if we want to worry about the meaning behind that we can, or we can run a fun-house and retroactively rationalize it if we feel the need to, or something that makes sense/would be cool comes naturally out of play. 
I want to slide one more quote in along those lines:

"The image should preferably be open-ended, adaptable to change, allowing the individual to continue to investigate and organize reality: there should be blank spaces where he can extend the drawing for himself."

So whether you call it Legibility or Imageabilitiy or Visibility (Lynch uses all three) How the DM communicates the game world to the Players is... well that is the game or half of it anyway.  A strong Image of the Dungeon comes from: Clues to the nature of the identity and structure of the game world that keep the game moving and describing the game world in a way that helps the players to really create their own image of the game world, and contribute to it.

The next time I post about this will be about the Five Elements that Lynch uses to analyze the image of cities dungeons: Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks.  I'll look at how we can use those five elements to make huge kick-ass dungeons.

1 comment:

  1. Lynch's Image of the Dungeon--brilliant! Why did I never think of this? And more importantly, is it at all possible that I can get my copy back from that dude I loaned it to 15 years ago?