Friday, May 29, 2020

Is 5E Becoming a Cargo Cult?

Yesterday I was catching up with my blog roll, and Feedly, and some synergistic posts revealed themselves.  I came across Justin Alexander's discussion, The Decline and Fall of D&D Adventures, shortly followed by the Wandering Gamist's (final) review post of "Five Torches Deep", a rules set that tries to port "OSR styles" into 5E.  Justin's post about the Decline of Dungeons is signaling that 5E never really provided a strong tutorial on how to build or run a good dungeon adventure, and now he's seeing published attempts that wildly miss the mark on what's required in terms of information and presentation.  John at Wandering Gamist points out that as Five Torches Deep over-indexes on elements around resource management, they ignore the most important elements of an OSR style of dungeoneering - actually building a good dungeon and having strong procedures to manage dungeon exploration.

So let's get this cargo cult question out of the way.  The idea of a cargo cult goes back to World War 2; pre-industrialized people encountered modern technology when airfields were built on remote islands during the Pacific campaign.  They saw that airfields and airplanes and radio towers meant awesome stuff coming onto the island via cargo boxes.  When the armies moved on, the people built wooden mock-ups of the planes and towers hoping the good stuff in the boxes would come back some time.  I've seen the term used in the corporate world - people that go through the motion of following old processes or procedures, no one even knows why they exist any more, but we keep doing it hoping for our cargo - a box of K-rations or something.  Our office spaces are full of this mindset.

Both my blogging colleagues are touching on instances where they've encountered modern gamers attempting to follow older styles of play, but missing the mark by pursuing form over function.  Doing things without understanding them - how to actually draw and key a dungeon, and why, or how the point of planning and resource management isn't for the resource part of the game to be the primary challenge, it's to support the actual goal - dungeon exploration balancing time and resources.  In both cases you don't have a good game without high quality dungeon - plus a well made map, a good dungeon key with compelling story, and sound procedures for managing the exploration by the players.

I had no idea procedural dungeon exploration was even a gap in the 5E PHB!  There's a loose discussion about time intervals and movement, but the book never puts it all together into a coherent example for the new players.  Nor is there any sample dungeon in the DMG or an example of actual play.  Those were prominent components in those older rule books! The Tower of Zenopus, Koriszegy Keep in Moldvay BX, Bartle's dungeon in the Mentzer Red Box, even the monastery dungeon in the 1E DMG were all prominently featured to transmit how play works.  Who can forget Black Dougal's death scene?  Those actual play examples demonstrate how the Q&A interaction between the referee and players advance the game state, how a mapper or caller fits into exploration, when do you roll for wander monsters, that kind of stuff.  I had no idea any of that was missing in the Fifth.  I just carried along working procedures from the old games into 5E and kept trucking.  Upon my fresh reading, I did see that the PHB allows characters to explore in a single minute more than older editions would let the players cover in an entire turn (10 minutes).  Apparently none of my players read the PHB and caught that, either. 

Why would WOTC omit sample dungeons and examples of play?  Maybe they figured 5E players are already players from older editions, or new folks would join existing groups and receive institutional knowledge from their surroundings.  Maybe they expected new players to head out to YouTube or Twitch and learn how to run a game there.  YouTube is my go-to for learning simple home repairs - repairing drywall, or fixing a leaking faucet.  Why not how to build or run a dungeon?  Possibly WOTC didn't think it's that important in the modern age - lots of people seem to have eschewed dungeons for scene-based adventures.

I would imagine everyone who checks out my blog would have started gaming before 5E, and already have a good grasp on building and running dungeons (or at least exploring them as a player) from an older edition.  (If you are that one new person who never played D&D before 5E and happens to see this place, please drop a hello in the comments - and welcome!)  But I also see evidence there are segments of newer gamers that don't understand how to finesse the site-based or dungeon exploration format.  For instance, referees either love or hate Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, a 23 level megadungeon for 5E.  The haters see a giant dungeon, no scenes, no overarching plots, and they're not sure what to do with it.  Hard pass - I'm moving on to the next Adventure Path.  And no wonder - neither 5E (or the adventure itself) has fully prepared them.  Dungeons, especially megadungeons, require more and different from the referee.

Anyway, while I'm waxing on old knowledge, here's one that cracked me up - I came across a group of "grognards" who started playing in the old days - you know, during 4th edition!  Or maybe 3rd.  Out here in the real world, grognard means 1970's D&D, accept no substitutes.  (Except the real grognards, the ones that painted the Napoleonic miniatures in the 60's and 70's and used sandtables for their war games, would poke some fun at we roleplayers, I'm sure).  Don't take yourself too seriously, I guess is the message.


  1. And the *real* grognards, who were the Napoleonic veterans those war-gamers were painting miniatures of. =)

  2. Speaking as someone who started with 5e, and reads your blog (amongst others) AND is trying to write a publishable adventure, you just made me very paranoid I'm doing EVERYTHING wrong. So thanks for that LOL

    1. Do a deep dive over at The Alexandrian (linked at the start of the post) and read some reviews at and you'll be well on your way to a solid foundation

    2. Best of luck with the project, Fightthatthing. I agree with Bloodsbane's advice to check out Bryce's reviews - he has a category labeled "the best" and I'm sure there would be some site-based dungeons in there to get ideas from other self-publishers. Bryce prioritizes usability at the table, interactive dungeons, and interesting/evocative descriptions.

      Drawing good maps is it's own art form; Alexandrian's "Jaquaying the Dungeon" has several good essays on improving maps.

  3. The comments about YouTube and Twitch are interesting. I think a lot of newer gamers are learning how to play by watching others on these venues, rather than by reading about it. Perhaps that's why the 5e DMG doesn't go into depth with an example of a keyed dungeon map. (It does have a decent section on things to consider when mapping out a dungeon, and it certainly provides plenty of random tables for keying a dungeon, but I agree - it doesn't synthesize that into a comprehensive whole like Moldvay did, for example.)

    The one issue I have with learning from online D&D videos is that it distorts one's expectations about how the game is played. I am currently prepping to run the Curse of Strahd campaign and I've been watching Chris Perkins' "Dice, Camera, Action" run on YouTube. It's great, and Chris Perkins is a great DM, but it is very cinematic and theatrical. A lot of rules get ignored for the "rule of cool" and you can often tell where Perkins is pulling the strings (maybe in cahoots with the players) to add dramatic twists and turns. It's great fun as a performance but not really representative of how D&D is traditionally played.

  4. Hey! another young'un here who started in the 5e age. glad to be here!

  5. Pardon an old grump here...

    I think the comparison with cargo cults is misleading, regardless of the precedent set by misuse of the term in the world of business.

    If anybody is a "cargo cult member" among gamers, though, look no further than players who imagine they are playing 1970s D&D in the year 2020. As you say, "people that go through the motion of following old processes or procedures, no one even knows why they exist any more, but we keep doing it hoping for our cargo."

    The self-anointed "grognards" (of any age group) ignore the history of their hobby. Otherwise they couldn't complain the way they do. They obsess about D&D among the hundreds of games that we played in the actual old days, dreaming of a fictitious "old school," pretending that gaming was always about "quality dungeons." Getting D&D *right*? I thought it was about having fun, not following a prescription of somebody's else's idea of a good time.

    There have always been other ways to play, from the beginning. This is so amply documented--and remembered!--that it should not need demonstration.

    Anyway, real dungeons varied enormously already in the '70s. Are any DMs running tournament-style dungeons? There were players who wrote, back then, that they hated Gygax's style. These were actual old-time gamers, not the pretentious "old-school" purists of our current age.

    Sorry to be a grouch, but there sure is a lot of myth-making among the so-called "Old School" people, and we don't need more dividing up of the hobby.

    As for me, I sometimes run dungeon games. But I don't think 5E gamers are playing wrong if they don't know how *I* do it. Kids, if you are having fun, don't let old people tell you that your games are "not correct."

    As for WoTC, the only reason they will do anything is to make money off of you. We're talking about a subsidiary of Hasbro. Of course, it's a giant company that seeks to profit from hobbyists. If they draw in new players, maybe that's good for the old timers. They hobby sheds some of its stigma when it goes mainstream. If you have fun with D&D products, good, get your money's worth. But I'm guessing they don't explain how to make a dungeon to the satisfaction of the purists because they want people to buy their glossy, hard-backed campaigns and sign up for online resources so they can track your preferences and market to them, and, most importantly, because not all role-playing games are about dungeons, nor should they be.

    If aging so-called old-school gamers are still obsessed with D&D today, among all possible role-playing games, it's because they fell prey to TSR's marketing and control tactics in the old days, joining the "cult" of those times and ignoring the *real* DIY stuff that they could have been a part of. Gygax crushed amateur creators and fledgling companies and tried to control the hobby for himself. Now there's a legion of Gygax footstools who think they are the real thing!

    Youngsters, if you are having fun, but an old guy tells you that you are "attempting to follow older styles of play, but missing the mark," you don't need a self-appointed authority to tell you that your fun is not authentic.

    Grump session concluded! :)

    1. Wait, are you implying the OSR movement was about recreating a mythical form of gaming that never actually existed back in the 70's and 80's! :GASP: Scandal. Yeah, there's been a fair amount of revisionist history in the movement.

      The point still stands, 5E's books don't prepare referees the for either creating or running site-based dungeons like those older rules sets. I can see how that can be viewed as a feature - finding your own fun with the game.

    2. I like that you say OSR movement "was." :) I do think that most gamers who brand themselves as OSR people don't see it your way, from the tone they take. Not like my point of view matters to them, anyway.

      About 5e dungeoneering, I just asked to see my son's 5e DMG. There are about *twenty pages* on dungeon design, between a ten-page section on how to map them, stuck doors and traps, etc., and an appendix of random dungeon-generating tables of the kind that people seem to love these days. Maybe I'm missing something, but it sure looks like a lot more than Moldvay Basic's information about dungeons. Or is the point that it's not in the Player's Handbook? Players these days not getting trained in "skillful" dungeon exploration?

    3. Hmm. I think a confusion in this back-and-forth is about what the core disjunct is - or, to put it differently, why does it matter that good dungeon design and player skill in exploring dungeons are both neglected?

      I think the point is that earlier editions of the game set up an implicit world (rules forming world) which tended towards those things; later editions keep the outer trappings of that but are hollowed out, so that dungeons make a lot less sense now. I don't know if that's really a cargo cult thing, though I appreciate the metaphor.

    4. I appreciate your view. To a great extent, I have to take your word for it, because I have been away from gaming for long enough that I probably don't know how most people are playing D&D. I don't know if the response is aimed at a media image in WOTC products or actual players. Coming back to the hobby recently, though, I am endlessly perplexed at the divisions in the hobby over "the right way to play." What does it mean to say there is a right way to make a dungeon?

      Let me explain. In the '70s, when the hobby was new, players had precisely the complaint you are raising: dungeons didn't make sense. There were ardent pleas in Dragon magazine and other venues to create dungeons that were not senseless funhouses, that had back-stories, that made more architectural sense, etc. The procedural part could also be taken to great lengths, with players writing articles about how to rig (imaginary) devices to douse mummies with flammable wine, etc. That was, for them, player skill: defeating the DM's environment.

      I do wonder if it's right to say that "player skill" is neglected. Haven't people been making a manifesto our of Matt Finch's Guide to Old-School Gaming for twelve years? My own take on player skill is different.

      So was Gygax's. He wanted players to compete with each other to be the "best player" and they made ranking systems and actually ranked themselves. The "Old-School" gamers have forgotten that.

      Anyway, a lot of the discussion about dungeons today seems to be echoing things said in the first years of the game.

      I very much appreciate that you post your views and allow this discussion!

  6. Hello!

    I discovered DND about fifteen years ago in middle school, during 3.5e. I had no idea what dungeons were really FOR for years, until I found Goblin Punch and then the Alexandrian.

    I'm still not sure I've ever run or been in a "real" dungeon crawl, though I feel pretty good about my Cave of the Snow Beetles and Tomb of the False Lich (I think I nailed the naming convention).

    It's a weird science, and I think gets to the war/sport/story divides/spectrums

  7. My first D&D experience has been 5e, and while I've really enjoyed it overall, I noticed really early on that the PHB and DMG didn't actually tell me what to do when I was running a dungeon. I've just kind of been winging it for a few years now. I don't really like tracking stuff like ammo, torches, or time, so going as exacting as it's written in, say, B/X is really not for me.

    There needs to be some kind of "round" system for exploration, preferably where the party moves as a single unit unless they actively make the decision to split up for whatever reason. If nothing else, it provides timing for rolling random monsters, and I feel like THAT part is really important to leave in there.

    I feel like I've been circling around a specific mechanical procedure for this that still measures time and resources, but doesn't push the game quite into the same level of simulationist thinking that guided the original design. Maybe that's a fantasy, but it's a fantasy game, right?

    1. It's worth noting that B/X has a *lot* less resource management than you'd think from hearing people talk about OSR stuff.

      Encumbrance as a whole is explicitly stated as an optional rule in Basic.

      There are actually two versions of Encumbrance rules included in B/X: a "simple" variant where your encumbrance depends entirely on your armor type (except if you're both wearing heavy armor and carrying what the DM judges to be a significant amount of treasure, in which case you move even slower), and a "coin weight" variant where encumbrance is measured in terms of coins (like a suit of plate armor weighs as much as 500 coins).

      It's worth noting that neither variant actually creates any mechanical limitations on the amount of torches/lantern oil/rations/etc... you can carry into the dungeon: in the simple variant that isn't factored into encumbrance at all, and in the coin weight variant *all* misc supplies (torches, spikes, ropes, lantern oil, etc...) are given a single, fixed, constant collective weight of 80 coins no matter how much you carry. This is actually a lot simpler and more abstract than the baseline encumbrance rules included in 3.5 and 5e, which make you track the weights of each individual item on your person (though nobody ever *uses* these rules for understandable reasons).

      Really, the only resources to manage in the original game are time, HP, spell-slots, and consumable magic items.

      It's also reasonable to say that the original design wasn't exactly guided by "simulationist thinking": B/X exploration speeds are actually pretty patently ridiculous from a realistic standpoint. A person in a suit of plate armor can explore 60 feet every 10 minutes, or ~1.2 inches per second. That's barely faster than a literal snail's pace.

      The exploration rates and time management make way more sense if viewed as a game-y abstraction, the equivalent of being able to move a certain number of spaces per turn in a board game or something.

      (As an aside: I used to run B/X style time management very abstractly, just advancing a turn whenever I felt like 10 minutes had passed, and it worked alright, but actually playing in a game that used the exploration speeds and counted out 10' squares as-written was a revelation. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but it's definitely something you should try before writing it off.)

  8. Bit late to the post here but just found the blog and reading through. First D&D set is 5e, so hello! I've been on a deep dive on the Alexandrian recently, learning how to key and basically listen to all the advise I can to make my games better.
    Currently working on a hexcrawl/sandbox game, as it's always intrigued me, so I've been going through the posts to soak up as much as I can (even did some 'homework' and keyed an official dungeon to try and understand the methods and get into the habit).
    And, of course, I'm trying to understand and not just cargo cult everything and not continue bad habits xD