For various reasons, I’ve had dungeons (and possibly also, to a lesser extent, dragons) on my mind of late, which I’ve already posted a bit about on here. While I’m known today as a horror writer, to those who know of me at all, I grew up with sword and sorcery every bit as much as I did with horror, and especially sword and sorcery as filtered through D&D, Warhammer, and various adjacent games – not to mention countless JRPGs played on the Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Playstation, and so on.
Those who have been following my aesthetic thread on Twitter or my board game coverage at Unwinnable, or, indeed, just following along around these parts, may not find any of this surprising, especially since, over on Twitter, I posted some art from some particularly formative JRPGs such as the various Shining Force games.
Indeed, this may also not be news to anyone who follows my writing closely, as, even before I started working on the new, 5e-compatible Iron Kingdoms: Requiem books, I had already done a considerable amount of work for Privateer Press over the years on their Warmachine and Hordes games, as well as their previous Iron Kingdoms RPG. In fact, my first ever novel – and, until recently, the only one I had ever published, though my occult cyberpunk (another perhaps unlikely subgenre) novel is currently being serialized on the Broken Eye Books Patreon – was a fantasy tome written for Privateer Press, set in their Warmachine universe.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that, while you won’t find much “gothic fantasy” in the Ravenloft vein in a lot of my work, my fascination with pulp horror and pulp fantasy has always existed side-by-side and intertwined, even while I tend to like my fantasy brighter even as I like my horror fun – not that there aren’t exceptions, after all, as Castlevania (the video games, not the Netflix cartoon) remains one of my favorite things ever.
Recently, for various reasons, I’ve been crossing the wires a little more often, resulting in things like my column in the latest issue of Weird Horror from Undertow Publications, in which I discuss a few of my favorite recurring themes, such as dungeon crawls, hollow earths, and, of course, the monsters that call both home.
Dedicated readers will probably also remember that I wrote a few stories in what I called a “story cycle” dealing with the Hollow Earth and other things, one of which was “No Exit,” which made it into the Best Horror of the Year. I’m not done with that cycle just yet, though COVID and other things have delayed the planned timeline a bit. There’s still more stories coming, though, and I have plans. Just you wait.
In the meantime, I’ve been playing games more, sometimes solo and sometimes just with one other person (thanks again, COVID) but as vaccinations have all happened ’round these parts, we can start getting together in groups more, playing actual D&D and the like. All this, along with other factors, including that aforementioned board game coverage at Unwinnable, has led me to a few conclusions about the dungeon crawl and my relationship to it.
The dungeon crawl is, at its base, colonialist. We have to grapple with this, just as we have to acknowledge the fact that Lovecraft was a fucking racist if we’re going to enjoy his work responsibly. But it has an undeniable appeal, even to (some of) those of us who oppose colonialism and its various fruits. There’s something about that subterranean ecosystem – something that I tried to capture in that Weird Horror essay, something that I’ve tried to capture in some of those “Hollow Earth” stories – that keeps my monster-loving heart circling back to it time and again.
In some ways, this can be epitomized by a video game I haven’t previously mentioned here: Torchlight, which I became taken with some years back. Its first sequel provided an improvement in pretty much every aspect of gameplay while also adding in overworld areas that opened up the setting considerably. In so doing, however, it also lost a little something: that idea of a multi-level dungeon beneath the eponymous town, each level something entirely different from the one before, all buried in sedimentary layers beneath the small burg with its adventurer-centric economy. There’s a magic there.
Plenty of board games have been made that explore this idea in various ways, some better than others. And I’ve been infatuated them since before I ever even tried to roll the dice in a game of actual D&D. Since the days of HeroQuest, whose box art and board decorate my writing space, I have been dreaming of taking journeys in the dark.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that in spite of this, I seem to not be the target audience for most modern dungeon crawl board games. More and more, these games seem to try to get as close as possible to the experience of playing a campaign of D&D, without (in some cases) the need for a dungeon master. But if I want to just play a game of D&D, I’ll do that. No, when I come to a board game dungeon crawl, I want something else.
Thanks in part to Massive Darkness, which I wrote up for Unwinnable a while back, and in part to Warhammer Quest: Cursed City, which I was thrilled to pick up when it came out, I think I’ve nailed down what it is. Most of these games advertise their wares by offering increasingly lengthy and immersive experiences. If they’re offering a single campaign that lasts 30 hours, what I actually want is 30 different adventures that are less than an hour each.
I don’t want the commitment and the time sink. I don’t want to sort through a thousand cards and a million tokens, playing the same game across a dozen nights. I want something that’s ready to plug-and-play. Earlier games of Warhammer Quest (mainly Silver Tower, and its previous un-subtitled incarnation) nail that in ways that Blackstone Fortress and Cursed City have moved away from. Massive Darkness, with its on-the-run leveling, nails it in some ways even more.
But, again, I seem to be in the minority in a climate where most games are striving to be the massive boxed experience that is, say, Gloomhaven. And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that experience – it merely isn’t, I’m coming to learn, what draws me to the game. Of course, the great thing about the moment we live in is that it’s got Massive Darknesses and Gloomhavens (and everything in-betweens) rubbing shoulders, so there’s something out there for everyone.
If you’re willing to dig for it…