Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Gamemaster's Guidepost: Beyond the Hack n' Slash

Guest Post by +Alex Raymond

Dungeon Fantasy is, for many, a synonym for RPGs altogether. The whole concept of a skilled party that scourges through catacombs and bandits for a greater goal is no stranger to anyone slightly acquainted with roleplaying games. GURPS presents us with the blessed versatility and genericity that we all learned to love, and it enables us to go even further and expand those concepts to whatever you basically want (asparagus, anyone?).

GURPS also enables players to explore worldbuilding and creating scenarios, sometimes because years and years of old-school classic Dungeon Fantasy games can get us bored - and since the system allows us to go beyond, why not do so? Historical settings, futuristic campaigns, a story about your neighbours - you name it. 

While I am a strong supporter of alternative settings (and had quite a handful of gaming experiments in the past 17 years), I reject the idea that Dungeon Fantasy obliges us to pursue other tropes in order to enrich the gaming experience. Dungeon Fantasy does not have to be shallow. It doesn't have to be easy, or obvious. Characters needn't adhere to strict templates, and the story doesn't have to follow the classic templates of quest scavenging, loot piling, and monster bashing.

A memorable campaign I played a few years ago required the adventurers to reclaim a castle taken by enemies in a distant place. The mission went quite well, and we raised our banners at the end of the quest. Little did we know that this was the beginning of the real challenge. The GM then rewarded the PCs with titles and land, and that required the characters to actively manage and run their property, dealing with unimaginable tasks for an otherwise hack n' slash party.

"The mine workers are fleeing with a certain frequency, milord. It seems that they are concerned that there is not enough pay for their labour. Also, the Crown delegate is arriving in a fortnight to collect the taxes. How would you like to distribute the profit between wages, taxes and profit?" says the assistant to the newly-appointed Baron, who's a former thief with Greed and now runs a gold mine for the new province of the Kingdom.

This kind of dilemma creates tension and a certain excitement in seeing the consequences of the choices taken by the players. "The Church sends a missionary to evangelise your peasants to the Common Religion. The missionary is extremely influential with the King, but also a fanatic. He is preaching and convincing the peasants that mages are evil entities sent by the Dark Lord," details the GM. How would the group's wizard deal with an unfavourable political environment?

Philosophical, social, and psychological issues can be inserted into a Dungeon Fantasy plot to enrich and deepen the feeling of "belonging" to the world that players need to have. Knowing that their *other* actions can also influence the world is nothing short of amazing for players that have just discovered the new possibilities ahead of them.

Removing the obviousness and determinism from traditional Dungeon Fantasy games adds a new dimension to be explored by GM and PCs. Character development can be pursued in this new axis, which can be incredibly rewarding when done correctly. But, of course, unless the players really want otherwise, keep the classic elements alive and kicking frequently on your game. Don't turn Martus Sharpblood, The Deadliest Dwarf in the Eastern Lands into a boring bureaucrat. But wouldn't it be fun to see how he deals with negotiating a truce with the two largest mercenary organisations in the Capital?


  1. This is a good post! However, is it really needed? I mean, in a Dungeons & Dragons context this would be utterly redundant.

    If for some reason this encouragement for going "Beyond the Hack n' Slash" is needed, I still wonder why Dungeon Fantasy should be narrower in scope than Dungeons & Dragons (for putting a supposedly known example).


    1. DF is very specifically hack and slash. It was designed this way from the very beginning. No one I know other than two or three people PLAY it that way, but this is how it's designed.

    2. You mean that it has been designed with that narrower scope? But then the same would apply to Dungeons & Dragons, and it's not the case.

      For Dungeon Fantasy I only can see a succinct treatment of the genre, having into account that they are brief books.

    3. No, I'm saying that Sean Punch designed Dungeon Fantasy with that narrow a scope and all authors who've contributed have been told to do the same thing. Don't you think someone would have come up with a "Dungeon Fantasy+" supplement at some time? The line is built to be this way and despite people not gaming it that way I highly doubt it's going to change.

    4. Hi! This text was largely inspired by Travis Ellis' post (as to present an opposite viewpoint):

      I present an opposite point of view in order to show that a Dungeon Fantasy doesn't *necessarily* have to be narrow, provided the GM creates opportunities for other, non-adventurous actions, to play a significant role in the plot. This applies to players who might not enroll into DF games because they like broader, deeper plots.

    5. Hi Cristopher: I don't mean a change in the line. By the way, the sourcebooks already made are full of possibilities, including and at the same time surpassing the sphere of hack and slash . . . But seemingly there isn't a desire to acknowledge it.
      All I'm saying is that the design you're mentioning is, well, the same than the one of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for instance, and in this latter, the encouragement of this entry toward roleplaying would have been completely redundant. Why the difference, then?

      When you have a roleplaying game with templates for Knights, then there are castles as well, and it implies princesses and thrones along with the chance of rescuing them and gaining lands as well. The same goes with other templates and concepts. It's only natural, while instead imposing an "only dungeons" scope is meaningless and artificial. Most fantasy concepts that Dungeon Fantasy includes aren't really ownership of any designer and speak for themselves about a broad world of meanings, which can't be really avoided.

      Hi Alex: yes, I agree and understand the intention, while my own isn't really to criticise your article here. What I'm pointing is: what makes necessary this kind of obvious advice? Why nowadays some people is so reductionistic and shortsighted when it comes to "Dungeon Fantasy roleplaying games"?

      The entry by Travis Ellis you're linking in your answer seems to be an example of it. While there isn't anything wrong with playing in the way mentioned there (if one really likes it), it should be obvious that the scope and potential is much greater than that. What would be the point in denying it? (*) And it being obvious, it shouldn't need to be stated. However again I'd say that I understand that here you're reacting against this specific trend which imposes silliness and narrowness into the genre.

      (*) There is more in this than just conveying the idea of "ease of access" to GURPS games along with a lack of exigencies due to its reputation as a sophisticated and complex rule system. Indeed this can be made just adjusting dials for the specific goal, without disabling any potential.


    6. Well, Axel, the entire bit (from what I understand) is they don't want to change the line's tone. They want to keep it light and free of plot. Basically, go to dungeon. Kill monsters. Come to town and sell lot. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Now, lots of folks USE it as a way to kickstart a fantasy campaign...but that's not it's official use. And like all things GURPS you can use it however you like. TL;DR You've highly unlikely to see anything that's not of those themes in the official line.

    7. Without the intention of expanding the subject anymore:

      I don't see anything wrong with a light approach, but it's different with parodies, which are far of being inspirational and also destroys symbolic potentials.

      About the "official thing", it seems to include also the crushing attitude we sometimes can see in the forums (for instance:, demanding Dungeon Fantasy be taken as a purely silly thing, a sort of authorial imposition very contrary to "use your own criterion".

      Even if that isn't very inviting, of course one can do as he pleases and I'm not going to deny that this material is used as springboard for normal fantasy campaigns, which you point.

      Concerning the tone, I agree with what you're saying here: it's a powerful thing that I've mentioned in other places as well, and by the way, for what I remember it isn't a problem (the same with parodies) with other authors of Dungeon Fantasy sourcebooks, which keep it neutral (in your case I haven't read DF 19: Incantation Magic, but I'm aware of Pyramid articles you have written).

    8. Well, it CAN be. The thing is when we (as authors) write DF stuff unless it's an "alternate issue" we stick closely to certain things - at least from my experience. Ditto on books. You know what you should do? Go to the forums and create a poll and ASK people how they play it. Do something like "I play straight DF" "I play Straight DF with light elements of fantasy" and so on. If you want to email it my way I'll be happy to help. Just hit me up in a PM and we can discuss from there.

    9. Christopher: I have been pointing at the issue, not asking you for a solution :)

      But yeah, it's a suggestion. However polls are so closely related to a commercial point of view that I'm seriously skeptical at them. Also that would be a very demanding thread and my online availability is very limited and sporadical.


    10. Ah, well then. It would have been an interested look at how people play. Carry on. :-)

    11. In any case thanks Christopher for your attention and the kind answers.

      See you around

    12. Not a problem. If you take the time to post something to the blog I'm definitely going to take the time to respond. :-)

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