Thursday, June 4, 2020

Italo Calvino and dungeon crawls

I have been crafting a couple of micro crawls (MiniSkull Caverns and 8-Bit Dungeon, in case you are curious) while reading Time and the Hunter by Italo Calvino, which has been a weird combination of head spaces. 

Time and the Hunter is sort of, kind of the second volume of Cosmicomics. It definitely contains some Cosmicomic stories but other parts deconstruct life and space and time in a little less whimsical way. Does DNA’s programming mean there is no present or future or free will but only a constant repackaging of the past? Is a traffic jam one contiguous entity that offers no options for any part or is there a way to create your own piece of time and space within its confines? Did Calvino read the same Count of Monte Cristo that my Classic Comics edition was based on?

Dungeon crawls have been a part of board games, video games and role playing games for decades. (I remember an early edition of Tunnels and Trolls outright describing the setting as a world of dungeons) You would think of the dungeon crawl as a dead horse at this point but it’s clearly not.

And that’s because it is so effective and simple as a narrative structure. Dungeons crawls are a way of setting one challenge after another in a way that makes sense. There’s a lot of room for nuance, don’t get me wrong. I have some friends who argue that Keep on the Borderlands (one of the ur-adventures of D&D) should be played as a diplomatic adventure.

That said, I remember more than one D&D campaign where we all relaxed when we hit a dungeon. No more political intrigue or wilderness journeys. Just a good, old fashioned dungeon crawl full of combat and treasure.

But with Calvino in my mind, I find myself thinking of a dungeon as a microcosm, as a tiny universe that ends with the dungeon walls. And with some dungeon crawls, like the ones I just finished making copies of, the dungeon is indeed all the real estate and the universe that exists for he game.

More than that, with so many dungeon crawls, each area is its own encounter. Each room is its own event, unrelated to any of the other rooms. You only take the treasure and the damage from room to room. (And,yes, any game master worth their salt isn’t going to run a dungeon like that. I remember dungeons where the first fight managed to draw most of the inhabitants out as waves of reinforcements)

But if a game is ‘programmed’ without a game master, which can be the case in board or video or even role playing game, having each encounter be a singular entity is a mechanically sound choice. It makes play manageable.

So now, I am not just seeing a dungeon as entire tiny universe unrelated to anything beyond itself, each area is its own singular moment in time. Time doesn’t become one event after another, not a continuity of events. Instead, time is determined by geography.

I am currently seeing a dungeon crawl as a deconstruction of time and space, thanks to Italo Calvino. The when is not important. The where might not be important either. All that is significant is that an event occurs.

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