So NetHack has warped my mind in weird ways. I’m obsessed with playing it and it’s uniquely randomized AD&D dungeon delving has me pondering what I can lift from it in order to improve my own games. It’s challenged me to look at D&D in a different light. A very difficult and uncompromising light.
Taken from the NetHack wiki:
“NetHack is designed so that death is permanent (except for the amulet of life saving, of course). This adds difficulty to the game, but also adds depth. When making a mistake might cost a week of gameplay, one thinks longer about each action, and investigates more fully the possible repercussions. It also adds excitement: taking risks with a carefully cultivated character becomes more exhilarating when the stakes are higher.”
NetHack is essentially solo-DM-less D&D. Some of the items and monsters and roles (classes) are taken exactly from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. But if there were a DM (let’s call the game itself the de facto DM), its DM would be cruel, brutal, unforgiving, and the type to make that sweet new armor horribly horribly cursed and now you’re stuck with it.
Some aspects of NetHack make no sense to try and use as a DM at the table. Like nobody needs to worry over-much about step by step movement through a dungeon (I tried this when I ran Tomb of Annihilation and it failed miserably). Or stopping to make sure every single dagger I find isn’t cursed would dramatically slow down play at the table.
But the very real possibility of permanent death? The overwhelming joy of one magic item wiping out a room of baddies you never thought you could survive? The sweet satisfaction of descending deeper than you have ever explored balanced on a razor edge against the overwhelming fear that you have no idea what’s through the darkness?
That’s some fuckin hardcore main-lined D&D go-juice right there.
It used to be, back in the day, that all one would do at the table was explore dungeons. It’s in the fucking name. It used to be that in the old Dungeon Master’s Guide Gary told DMs to create 4-6 of their own dungeons and they absolutely needed them. I mean duh, hence the name, Master of Dungeons. For years and gods known how many sessions across groups and across states everyone was just dungeon delving. Then players and DMs started asking questions. “Ok, so why should we care?” or “What’s this goblin’s story?” or perhaps even “Yea screw rescuing the blacksmith’s daughter, can we explore that wild forest you mentioned a second ago?”
So was born world-building, campaign settings, city books, continental maps, and everything else we could think of to populate a living breathing world of fantasy.
But The Dungeon never dies. The Dungeon is always there. Calling us to explore just how deep it goes and what treasures are guarded by horrific beasts. But piles of gold are absolutely worthless if death isn’t possible and viscerally real. If any fool with a wooden sword can wander down into the dragon’s hoard and a merciful DM allows them to survive, well then, what the fuck is the point?
We’ve grown so used to forgiving stories. The kind where the hero or heroine always comes out on top eventually. The day is saved. The sitcom wraps back around and the cast learns something they should have known all along. We fail the Red Quest and hit restart and go back to a previous save. But life is not like that, and personally I don’t want my Tabletop RPGs to be as cheap and predictable as the hundreds of other medias I could just watch instead. When I run D&D i want there to be a Challenge.
A challenge for my players to find a way to keep their characters alive. A challenge for me to calculate the machinations of villains and the ramifications of character actions. A challenge for the table to risk it all on the one die roll that could spell disaster or overwhelming success.
I guess what I’m trying to say is:
I want to run a Mega Dungeon. D&D on Nightmare mode. Create 3 characters because your first choice might not make it to Level 2 type of shit. A campaign heavily inspired by NetHack where random tables are the real gods, and the DM is just the messenger. Where a 1st Level Character could randomly find a Ring of Three Wishes. Where a 3rd Level Party could stumble into a Red Dragon’s Lair. Where every corridor and room is randomly determined and it’s up to the party mapper to draw out a safe way back. You WILL Die. You MAY Die heroically and save your friends. Only to pick up your next character as a lost adventurer in the next room. See how far your party can go on just 3 Character Sheets.
I dunno. I think it could be fun.
The real challenge is convincing my players to buy in.