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Random Dungeons: The Unique meets the Unknown.

by Dean M. DeLongchamp


From the inception of RPGs, the random dungeon has been a stalwart staple. From the simplest, colored-ASCII Moria game of my youth to the unwieldy behemoth Diablo II of my decrepitude, random dungeons have entertained and fascinated us. Why? Two reasons: Unique Freaks and Information Overload.

Unique Freaks:
Many RPG players must have a character that is fundamentally different from any character that anyone else might conceive. Perhaps this reflects some aching need for distinction, attention, or exceptional glory inherent in our type of gamer. As I recall from my nerdly past, half of the excitement in pencil/paper RPGs was character creation. We rolled dice for stats, tipped them when nobody was looking, got 17 or 18 for every stat except charisma, then chose race, profession, background, in the most anal (and banal) detail possible at our caffeine consumption level.

In console RPGs, there are fewer ways to allow Unique Freaks to have their way: you can make character customization very complex, or you can make the character environment unique for each player. The former gives the player complete control and is manifested by job systems, ability points, materia, espers, etc. The latter takes control from the player (not always a bad thing, more on that later) and is manifested more or less exclusively by the random dungeon.

The compulsion to have a unique play experience is often very strong. In my FF1 days I would invariably wander off to an area that was too difficult for my party. "Hehe," I would thrill as they all died in a single round, "I'm having a totally unique gameplay experience." The random dungeon game gives you this kind of thrill (often killing you or your party in a heartbeat) and it's built-in so that you don't have to go looking for it. As long as there are gamers looking for vicarious distinction and unique power, the random dungeon will remain.

Information Overload:
It's impossible to play a game that isn't covered by gamefaqs. It is disheartening to finish and then read an FAQ written by somebody who played the game better. In fact, you can derive half the excitement of playing a game just from reading a Walkthrough. What's the point?

Information Overload plays off the Unique Freak concept because the ready availability of FAQs nullifies character customization opportunities built in by game designers. There's always a way that's slightly better, and the massive population wants the best, damn it! Every Diablo II Barbarian is a whirlwind lancer and every Sorceress is a tweaker. Everybody finishes FFIX with the same equipment and practically the same skills equipped. You know every boss' elemental weakness in advance and prepare appropriately. Each game, same story.

The random dungeon provides a simple way around the depressing number of spoilers and "how-to-play" missives bombarding us all. One might write strategy or outline salient plot points, but the bulk of the game will contain the unexpected, the surprises that get the blood pumping and make games worth playing. Who knows what's around that corner? When did you last save? This time, it actually does matter. As long as there are gamers looking to be surprised and excited rather than expectant and bored, the random dungeon will rule!

Aside from all the rhetoric, I love random dungeons. It's early in the game. You take your fresh character and enter an obscure little dungeon, tucked off to the side. Something flies at you, hits you fast, and you just barely manage to kill this thing that's way too strong for you. You have 1 HP left, no herbs, no potions. You approach the treasure chest it dropped. Open it. Inside, a blessed blade of divine retribution. You know that you're not supposed to have this... it's way too powerful... but you do. What do you do now? Go down another level.

Notes:

This is a very well written article, and it is very direct, listing exactly why he thought random dungeons were appealing and why he found random dungeons very appealing, and this rivals the winner with his own insights and good points. However I found that there were a couple of grammatical mistakes ('a unique play experience' should be 'a unique playing experience' for example) and couple of generalisations that just nudged it down below Adams' entry.

Regardless, this is a very well written piece, and it's a shame we only have one prize to give.

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