I originally posted this to Detritus so that my players wouldn’t read it while it still contained spoilers. But as of yesterday this is no longer a secret to them, so I’m sharing it publicly because I think it’s really interesting.
Lots has been written about Jacquaysing the dungeon, often in the abstract. We talk about “increasing player choice”, non-linear exploration, meaningful decisions, etc. For a lot of us it’s become something we just do out of habit or out of feeling like it’s the “correct” way to design a dungeon. We’ll add loops, multiple entrances, shortcuts to deeper levels, and just trust that it makes the dungeon “better”.
Last night I ran my fourth session of The Isle, and so far this whole campaign has been a fantastic example of how much Jacquaysing a dungeon adds to a game. I want to talk about something specific that happened last night and how it’s going to impact the game going forward, but here’s a quick rundown of some other things that have happened to lead us to this point.
- In session 1 the group didn’t want to break the seal under the monastery that is the “entrance” to the dungeon, so they explored and looked for another way in. They found a shaft in a rock outcropping that lead them to the 2nd level of the dungeon (though they didn’t know that at the time).
- In session 2 they decided to us the “correct” entrance and see if they could fill in the blanks on their map. They realised that they had gone deeper the first time.
Session 3 was largely exploring more of the first level, and last night was where things got really interesting from a mapping/Jacquaysing point of view. The session began with them traversing a very deep pit that they’d put off crossing in previous sessions because it represented a commitment to exploring. Previously they’d been able to get back to the entrance to the dungeon very easily, but this skeleton-filled pit was a real obstacle. They decided this time that it was time to do it.
The group immediately got separated, with one member on the far side of the pit being chased by skeletons and another member plus hirelings on the “safe” side. Monette fled, running through a new section of the dungeon that she was unable to map and trying to find a way to loop back around to the south side of the pit. She was unable to do that, but she did find a secret door hiding a slime-coated staircase that headed down.
Earlier in the adventure they had located a carving of a door on a wall, with no actual doorway present. Donny had a trinket in his possession, granted at character creation, that simply read “Faerie Folk Lockpick” with no additional information. He decided to use it on the carved doorway and see what happened.
When I looked at my map, this doorway lined up with the secret room that Monette was hiding out in. There was no passage there but I thought, fuck it, this is cool, and I allowed the lockpick to open a path between the two rooms that Donny and the hirelings could run down. The passage sealed itself shut again and the lockpick burned up, never to be used again, but the group was reuinted.
This left the group with a decision to make – head back the way Monette had come, mapping and exploring and hoping not to run into the skeletons that were chasing her, or head down the stairs to the second level. Because they’ve been mapping, they know that there’s an exit in the northwest corner of the second level that they’ve previously used to enter the dungeon. Their theory was they by heading down the stairs and then travelling northwest, they’d eventually fill in the blanks on their map and find that exit.
Sounds good, right? Except for one thing – the stairs don’t lead to the second floor of the dungeon. They lead to the third floor. And the group don’t know this. So now they’re deeper in the dungeon than they have any right to be, heading northwest to an exit that isn’t there. What lies in the area they’re heading towards is something much weirder and scarier, that they’re definitely unprepared for.
One thing we often forget is that the GM should be allowed to have fun, too. People will very often say “the GM is a player too!” but that thought doesn’t really go any further than that, and in fact is often used to deny the fact that the GM and the players controlling individual characters have different roles and different modes of play.
Watching this group crawl through the third level of the dungeon, heading steadily northwest to eventually clear the fog off their partial map and find the exit they believe is there, all while I know something that they don’t (i.e. they’re not on the level they think they’re on) is *fun* for me.
Some might call this “adversarial GMing” or “lying to your players”. I call it “allowing me to enjoy some narrative tension”. Hitchcock talked about this sort of thing with regard to cinema in his AFI Master seminar, and while film analysis and conventions aren’t hugely relevant to organic play, this is something I’m thinking about right now. He said:
Four people are sitting around a table, talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it, very dull. Suddenly a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens.
What have the audience had? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience "there is a bomb under that table, and it will go off in five minutes". Well the whole emotion of the audience is totally different, because you’ve given them tha information that in five minutes time that bomb will go off.
Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital, because they’re saying to you, "Don’t be ridiculous! Stop talking about baseball, there’s a bomb under there!"
You’ve got the audience working. Now the only difference is – while I’ve been guilty in the picture Sabotage of making this error, I’ve never made it since – the bomb must never go off. Because if you do, you work that audience into a state and then they’ll get angry because you haven’t provided them with any relief and that’s almost a must. So a foot touches the bomb, somebody looks down and says, "My god, a bomb!"
Out of the window! Then it goes off. Just in time.
Obviously I’m not going to put my thumb on the scales and start manipulating what happens in play to make it more satisfying for me, but I’m still getting to enjoy this little bit of tension while it’s going on. At some point they’re going to get to where they believe the exit is and they’re going to realise they’re in entirely the wrong place, and then we’ll all be on the same page again.
This isn’t a gotcha moment. I didn’t set this up to trick anyone. This arose naturally through play, as a result of the combination of the dungeon design and the fact that the players have been drawing their own maps. I’ve written before about how having players draw their own maps increases mystery because they don’t know where the bounds are. This also wouldn’t have been possible without that surface entrance to the second level of the dungeon, which found before they ever explored the first level.
Sometimes “common wisdom” is shit, and it’s always good to examine the things we’re told about writing/design/play/whatever to see if they bear any fruit. In this case I was really happy to see that these principles of dungeon design that we so often repeat really do lead to exciting, meaningful moments in play. I’ve had good experiences with Jacquaysed dungeons before, but this is the first time a session has really made me sit back and think about how much better this campaign just became as a result of it.
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