We had a lot of choices to make while we were designing Bag of Dungeon. While a lot of the early development and playtesting was about simply making it work mechanically, much of the later development focused on game balance, specifically how challenging the game should be for players. Too easy and it would be no kind of adventure. Too challenging and players would become dispirited at the prospect of yet another defeat, and the game would inevitably become exclusively available at all good car boot sales or charity shops.
We had another balancing act to perform too, and that was our desire to come up with a game that could be enjoyed by seasoned gamers but wasn’t specifically designed for them. A core concept from the start was for the game to appeal to a wider audience of non-gamers: from the hobby-curious at the vanguard of this great renaissance in tabletop gaming to the traditional family games afternoon. To try to harness that spectrum of interest we decided to design something akin to what excited us about the hobby all those years ago, such as when we created entire fantasy worlds (mostly in our heads) from within the black and white pages of the first edition of the Tunnels & Trolls RPG or the carpet-hogging The Sorcerer’s Cave. Hence, we went for a good old-fashioned dungeon crawler of the type your gaming uncle (or aunt) would reminisce about given half a chance but a game that would also sit comfortably in WH Smith at Dover ferry terminal for the delight of bored children and screen-embattled parents off on their holiday.
That didn’t mean we wanted it to be easy.
The best games are a challenge, testing your skill, experience and decision-making, helped, as in many of life’s challenges, by a little luck – universally rewarding factors whether you’re a seasoned old-timer or a newbie without a single dent in your brand-new suit of armour, providing game satisfaction and replayability. We felt that it was our responsibility to our Kickstarter backers and our buyers, to the hobby, and to lo-fi family entertainment in general to produce a game that would have people coming back for more, however unpredictable the outcome.
For certain, Bag of Dungeon can be something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. At first glance, it looks like a pretty straightforward bit of light adventuring. The rules are simple, the play time is manageable and nothing about it looks too diabolical or life threatening. Get in, get the Ring, and get out with more ‘kills’ than your friends. “Keep my pint of Double Damage warm, landlord, I’ll be back in time for the darts match and a plate of the cook’s indigestible, indeterminate meat stew.”
Not so fast, mister.
At the core of Bag of Dungeon lies a beating heart that cares not for your ambitions of fame and fortune or your continued existence. It is, to borrow a term from Dungeons & Dragons, chaotic neutral. Random. Disinterested in order. When you begin to play Bag of Dungeon you have no idea what lies beyond the entrance. Only the tiles will tell. The dungeon could be big and sprawling or it could be small and claustrophobic. It could have a satisfying symmetry, worthy of a double-page-spread in Ideal Dungeon magazine, or it could represent the diabolical diggings of an insane and malevolent force, full of dead ends and irrational interior design decisions. It could make perfect sense or make no sense at all. Death could come quickly from the formidable Reacher waiting just around the corner from the entrance or, arguably more tragically, at the end, from a friend with whom you have exhaustively fought your way through a multitude of adversaries to reach the exit, the setting sun casting a cruel light on your final moments as the Ring – your ring – is prised from your dying fingers by your former so-called comrade.
As designers, we want you to be the first to experience your dungeon. If it turns out to be relatively easy, lucky for you: you’ve stumbled on a creation where the inhabitants were clearly more preoccupied with symmetry and presentation than they were with their own survival. (“I was thinking I’d put the mud monster here, next to the Healing Pool, as it’ll be easier to keep the floor clean.”) An unfortunate lack of foresight on their part and easy money for you. But if you find yourself in a nightmarish labyrinth of madness and disorder, well… welcome to a world where the bad things sometimes just hold all the cards.
We always intended for Bag of Dungeon to be at times challenging and at other times relatively straightforward. Critically, we wanted each play to be unpredictable; a trip into the unknown. What we never wanted to do was control or subdue its unpredictability, because this is an essential, possibly defining, element of adventure. That’s the lure of a dungeon crawler, surely? That’s what gets your heart beating a little faster as you ready your sword, right?
We have created simple rules, solid mechanics and a populated world, but we never promised an easy ride. Most of the time, that’s up to you. The deliberately divisive element within Bag of Dungeon (the appearance of the Ring) that pits player against player is there for your own moral conscience – it’s not mandatory. You decide. And sometimes, just sometimes, no matter how well you play, no matter how strong the bond of loyalty between you all, the dungeon layout and the monsters you encounter will be nothing short of a suicide mission.
Plenty of games have players returning to the table specifically because they don’t promise an easy ride. An obvious example, thematically at least, is DungeonQuest, which is celebrated in no small part for its casual brutality and the tension that arises from the game’s cruel indifference to your survival. Another is Shadowrun: Crossfire which, despite some criticism of its difficulty to win, makes it into respected reviewer Rahdo’s top ten games of the past five years. And few games have their players leaping for joy at winning against the odds like The Mind. Let’s face it, we love a challenge, and we shun easy. But what we really love is not knowing how things will pan out.
This is dungeoneering for the brave and the bold, not the feint of heart or the Sunday delver. It’s called dungeon crawling, not dungeon skipping. Be honest, what’s the more impressive image of a returning adventurer? A ravaged warrior trailing the blood of many across the floor of the tavern as he or she staggers to the bar for a very well earned pint, or Lord Whatisname, absently flicking a piece of dust from his expensive hand-stitched surcoat as he demands a glass of Prosecco and proceeds to regale anyone who will listen with the story of this little ring he managed to pick up on yet another casual stopover at the underworld (again)?
So, yes, Bag of Dungeon really can be a bit of a party killer. Though not always. We really couldn’t say. Only you will know what lies beyond that Start tile as the entrance slams shut behind you.
See you in the tavern. Hopefully.
Paul Sharville, Lead Writer, Gunpowder Studios