FUBAR Dungeon - a successful disaster

This is going to be a long article offering a bit of design theory, and actual play, and a post-mortem analysis of it.

FUBAR Dungeon is a new gmLess project focusing on what I see as old school dungeon crawl adventuring. My personal vision comes from different sources of which the most important, and the most useful for this article, are:
  • my own experiences as GM and Player and Designer through the years
  • the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch
  • the OSR Gaming series of vlogs by Steven Lumpkin
  • a long list of articles and podcasts too long to list here

First of all, allow me to avoid the use of labels. Everyone and their mom has their unique opinion on what Old School or Old School Renaissance means, so it’s pretty useless for me to hang on to this or that term. Instead I’ll list here briefly the main goals that FUBAR Dungeon strives to achieve in terms of playstyle:
  • survival and wonder, not fighting and micromanagement
  • play to win, but find delight in losing
  • less rules, more rulings
  • less numbers, more fiction
  • player skill, not character score
  • learn by dying
  • forget balance
  • dungeons are puzzles, dead ends are opportunities

And then there is a bunch of design goals that the game should also achieve. Being gmLess and zeroPrep, because I’m sick in the head that way. Being as pick-up as possible. Maybe even being meaningfully playable in 1h segments.
Stuff like that.

The Actual Play

FUBAR Dungeon is still very much in development, but have now reached a stage where basic playability is possible. And so I played it with two friends. Long story short: it just took 90 minutes to setup the Quest, generate a party of three Adventurers, and experience a TPK so brutal that I can’t even.

J. and A. and me sat down and grabbed some paper sheets while I acted as facilitator, briefly explaining the game and its mechanics. J. got assigned the role of Cartographer, A. was appointed as Leader and I took on the duties of Quartermaster. Then we started the setup of our delve.

Randomly generating the Quest details we discover our mission: to uncover a legendary treasure hidden in a castle of many walls where everything looked huge and towering, inhabited by beasts and animals.
After a very short brainstorm it turned out that the place was the ruined and abandoned residence of a fallen king, ruler of an ancient and now extinct civilization of humanoid people four meters tall and with a knack for architecture; a sort of “giant dwarves”. The object of our quest was to find the crown of this king, fabled to be so big that a human could wear it as a belt!

The party counted Grimnir, an old dwarvish mechanic played by J.
Sir Pilade, a young and studious not-yet-knight played by me.
Fex, a sly and greedy explorer played by A.

By design we knew that everything was going fine until someone screwed something up and all hell broke loose, forcing the party to flee. Elaborating on this, everyone ended up putting the blame on a different person:
Pilade and his delusions of grandeur! If only he did not organize this whole accursed expedition...
Fex should have been more careful with that ornate statuette! If only he did not break it while trying to steal it...
But what really fucked things up was Grimnir and his stupid fixation with mechanisms! If only he did not try to mess with that ancient door then the THING would not have come out and forced them to flee...

map01.jpgNo matter, there we were. Dirty, torn, battered and with almost no equipment left except for what could be carried in hand and a few leftover supplies. And, because the universe is generous, we were in a small, empty, safe room. The actual delve, the active game, started here. In darkness. As the Cartographer began drawing the map it became apparent that our safety was not going to be long lasting. Our small room turned out to be a sort of interspace possibly intended as part of a ventilation system or a passageway for servants (of obviously smaller size than their ancient masters). We ended up in such a narrow passage trying to get away from a rampaging rat-ogre. You see, the ruins of the old giant castle got apparently overrun by a brood of humanoid rat-people, or something. Anyway, the rat-ogre was in the broader room, searching for us.

At first we discussed the situation, what to do, where to go. But in pitch darkness there was little point in planning with no hard info to go on. So Pilade started touching the walls and following the shape of the room until he stumbled into a narrow but tall passage leading out of their small interspace and into a new segment of the dungeon. Grimnir offered to lead the way.

Because there was no way to be cautious about stumbling in the dark, Grimnir’s action triggered a Delve move rather than an Explore more. This basically meant that, when generating the new section of the dungeon, he exposed himself to whatever risks he might have found, but in exchange he also wasted less time thus being allowed to do more stuff. Dice were rolled and descriptions were made and what we discovered was small area with many passages. Maybe a node in the ventilation/servants system? But in darkness we could not know, so we opted to light up one of our few torches. What we saw was a bunch of tunnels going in at least five different directions. Unfortunately all were in ruins, blocked by crumbled down blocks of stone.


Sir Pilade took the initiative.
There must be a way past this!” he said, setting out to explore more closely the rubble, climbing on some big rocks to get a better view and see if any rubble was loose or if there was a passage just out of sight.
This action was inspired, but not very careful, thus it triggered the Operate move instead of the Prod move. As before, you risk more but act faster. Full disclosure: I just acted without thinking, I was not aiming for the mechanical bonus.
Dice were rolled and descriptions were made and that’s what happened: a horrible spider as big as Pilade’s head crawled out of one of the holes between the rocks and bit him hard on an arm. As green-purple venom oozed out of the wound, Pilade moved a few steps towards his fellow adventurers, then collapsed. Dead.

As Fex recoiled in horror, Grimnir charged forward, swinging his hammer to squish the spider that was now on top of the young knight's corpse. Unfortunately, his Attack move went poorly. The spider jumped on top of the hammer’s metal head, and from there it jumped straight at the dwarf's neck, pumping it full of venom. Death was swift, but not painless.

Two things are noteworthy here. One, the lethality of monster attacks is one of the things that needs tweaking. Right now it’s too high. I’ll discuss this more later. Two, when and Adventurer dies their Player does not stop playing. Instead the Player becomes an Enemy, lending human intelligence and purpose to the mechanics governing the dungeon.

Repressing a scream of terror, Fex left the torch and his two companions on the ground and run back from where the group had initially come, into the darkness of the interspace. The spider on one side, the rat-ogre on the other, he chose to try and use the darkness and his relatively small size to his advantage. Breathing as lightly as he could, he Faced Danger in order to sneak towards the other passage, the one they originally came from while blindly running away from the rat brute.

This way he Delved into a new area. A bigger room faintly illuminated by a sinister green luminescence emanating from a hunchback creature, a rat-man dressed in long robes and many jewels, working at what looked like an alchemist bench. The glow was just enough to make out what looked like a pile of carcasses on one side of the room.


Luckily for Fex the “shaman” had not noticed him.
Unluckily for Fex, the moment he started to move into the room to hide behind the carcasses, he set foot on some sort of mechanism. With a sound CLICK an area of the floor was depressed by his foot, and heavy metallic grates fell down, closing the only two passages in and out of this room. Which also startled the rat shaman.

A bunch of successful Face Danger moves followed, allowing Fex to act unscathed, for a while. He rushed the shaman and overturned one of the benches, having lots of vials and potions crash on the ground. One caught fire with a bluish flame, starting to fill the room with a thick and greasy smoke. The shaman screamed for help, and from outside the ogre answered, starting to hammer one of the grates with his bare fists.

Then Fex threatened the shaman with his dagger “Tell me how to open the grates!” but the rat creature did not know how. He even got the rat to explain a bit... so he discovered how the rat people did not really know anything about the ruins, they were just shelter for their litter. And how they never had problems with pressure plates or such things, as even in total darkness they were able to perceive and avoid them. And then, then the rat-ogre smashed through one grate and into the room.


Fex scrambled to avoid the monster’s charge but got caught by a glancing blow that had him fly through the room and hit the wall. This smashed his last flask of lamp oil (his supply of Light dropped to zero) but landed him near the overturned alchemy table. He grabbed an hominous looking flask and threw it at the ogre’s face. Acid burned and blinded the creature, which started flailing aimlessly.

Now Fex run towards the area where he had pressed the floor plate and, with the light provided by the blue flame of the burning chemicals, tried to discern anything useful there. The plate was in fact a huge mosaic shard, the central piece in the eye of a face of some sort.
Avoiding some random blows from the blinded ogre Fex got to the other eye of the mosaic face hoping to find another mechanism, something to open the grate blocking the exit... but his Operate move revealed nothing special about that section of the floor.
And as his hope died, so did his body, finally hit by a full blow from the ogre.


As far as I am concerned the test went much better than expected. I guess because I expected a disaster. Which it wasn’t. Yay! The core structure held together well and now I have a long list of annotations that will help me go through the current document and update all that needs updating.

The dungeon generation procedures, at least for such a short exploration, worked fine. The players had no trouble establishing both the general structure and the finer details.

There are obviously a lot of balancing issues to address. The game is supposed to be lethal and unforgiving, yes, but that spider should not have insta-killed two of us like that.

Being Unprepared

Sir Pilade
But even more interesting are the observations that I was able to make after this first test!
Apparently we all, me included, had problems with the Old School mentality, although we thought we knew what to expect.
We were prepared for a dungeon crawl.
We were prepared to face challenges.
We were prepared to roll dice.

It turns out we were totally unprepared to... be cautious, avoid combat, ask a LOT of questions about the environment, think in the kind of way that is required to solve a puzzle.
We did none of that.
We were bold and careless ... and it killed us.
We contented ourselves with superficial descriptions ... and it killed us.
We got fixated on one plan instead of adapting to the situation ... and it killed us.

Being Un-Protagonists

My gut feeling is that we kept thinking as “protagonists” would, expecting to have narrative protection just because we were the heroes of the story, expecting the rules to open up ways for us just because we were the center of the story.
Only, we weren’t.
And for this, we died like flies.

The main critique I got after the test was about this very thing: the game mechanics worked to create a dungeon filled with challenges, but they didn’t help the story to move forward.

This is very interesting as it outlines a fundamental difference in the gaming style between “modern adventuring” and “old school adventuring”. In the old way there is no story, or if there is it only serves as a hook to get into the dungeon. Which means that there are no protagonists, no heroes, no incentive for the game to safeguard the adventurers in a narrative way. You do something stupid? You pay for it.

Case in point.
Sir Pilade stuck his hand into dark holes in the ground within an ancient ruin, moving stuff around just to see if it could move at all. And a poisonous creature bit him. It makes perfect sense. But he could just as easily have provoked a landslide. Or had his arm crushed and trapped under heavy rubble. He acted stupid. I mean, his chosen weapon was even a friggin wooden staff for crying out loud!!!
But it didn’t occur to me to use it.
And I earned my personal Darwin Award.

Uncaring Universe

Another critique along the same lines was that the rules should support Player ideas. As there is no pre-planned dungeon, any idea should be equally good, right?
Well, actually, no.
If a thing is not there, it is not there. It matters little whether the thing is not there because the GM prep says so before you even ask, or because the procedural rules generating the fiction say so after you ask. Dead ends can happen, and the old school attitude is to treat them as a scientific negative: plan-A does not work so let’s come up with a plan-B. It’s part of the fun, an opportunity to think about an alternate route.
By the same token if an idea makes sense for all the people at the table, then it could work. But it’s not the same as saying that it must work. A good idea could fail for thousands of contingent reasons.

In this kind of gaming style it is not the place of the rules to have things go the Player’s way. On the contrary they only need to generate a fictional “truth” that the Player can face and toy with.

Don’t Panic!

Even so, the current design of FUBAR Dungeon does include tools to help Players help their PCs: points, resources, traits. But no amount of mechanical help can (or should) fix a serious lack of ideas. If you draw a blank in a critical moment, you die.

Case in point.
A. could have done lots of things to save Fex, especially considering the very lucky string of dice rolls he had. Instead he panicked. He set his mind on the idea that there had to be a way to open the grates from inside the room, disregarding the fact that it made little sense to me and J.; something we openly commented on during play, while he was still alive, going as far as making jokes imagining how a clumsy ancient guard would have to spend the night trapped in the room until, the next morning, more guards would came along and free him.

But he had his idea, and that was it. So much that he chose to ignore the other options he was presented with.
ANd being convinced to have the right answer also led him to other consequences.
When he inspected the pressure plate the move gave him the opportunity to ask as many questions about the object as he wanted, only limited by what Fex could perceive by sight (because A. only described Fex looking at the plate in the floor) but he was only interested in one detail: is the plate part of something? a picture? a pattern?
When the answer turned out to be YES he draw his conclusion: if one eye of the mosaic face closes the doors, then the other eye will also be a pressure plate, and it will open the doors ... right?
Unfortunately that was not the case, and as a result... nothing, that was it. He had no other ideas. And afterwards commented that he felt like he had no other options, nothing left to try, there was no way out from that situation.
I told him I disagreed. Fex could have done plenty.

He could have just gone away through the grate smashed open by the rat-ogre. Yes, the other room had a venomous spider in it, but a room with one spider should have been more promising than a room with a raging rat-ogre, a hostile rat-shaman, a spreading chemical fire and a thickening cloud of toxic smoke. And if the spider was busy eating his dead companions, maybe he could have avoided it completely, having time to maybe find a way past the rocks blocking the other passages.

He could have convinced or forced or negotiated for the rat-shaman to control the rat-ogre, which seemed to be at his service and command. The beast could have smashed the other grate too. Or be told to stop attacking.

He could have tried to mess with the pressure plate, remove it with his dagger, tamper with its mechanism, see if that caused a reset or some other effect.

He could have thought that the grates were built to trap giants, people four meters tall. He could have asked for more informations on them, because maybe his human size could have been small enough to fit between bars.

To his defense, and to my delight, the situation felt very panicky and frantic even though no one was pushing to make it so. This is an amazing feature of the gmLess structure: it makes it easy to vibe off each other’s ideas (if not each other’s plans). There was no one telling A. to rush, that the situation was hectic, that the time was ticking. No mechanical count down or rule effect to force his hand. And yet at the table we all felt the pressure of the situation. Thinking clearly under pressure is not easy, and if you have one clear idea in mind it becomes very hard to let go of it.
A very interesting side effect.

This first test turned out to be extremely valuable. It not only revealed holes and problems in the ruleset, but also in our preparation and mindset as players. I was careless, A. panicked and J. was simply unlucky. And yet this “disaster” was fun, no one got cut off from the game.

The road ahead is still long, but it’s definitely an encouraging start.
In the meantime the development document can be found in my Patreon Sketch Folder.