Around the World: True Dungeon

true-dungeon-logoThis entry might consume a little of the site’s “near-topic” credit, but the game it discusses is sufficiently close to being on-topic and sufficiently interesting that you’ll hopefully enjoy reading about it anyway.

Since 2003, True Dungeon has been an annual feature of the giant GenCon tabletop gaming convention that happens annual in August(-ish) in Indianapolis. It is a swords-and-sorcery-themed live action game that sees teams of players form an adventuring party to defeat a number of thematic challenges placed in their way. On a matter of semantics, many – most? – consider it to be a slightly different kind of game to a role-playing game as the players are not actually required to adopt characters, though players do adopt character classes, powers and capabilities familiar from the genre. It would not be too perverse a misinterpretation to consider the overarching game to be a series of seven consecutive, linked, 12-minute exit games with unusual mechanics.

Many traditional RPGs require the adventuring party to defeat creatures that they encounter through combat. Instead of the traditional dice-rolling of a tabletop game, or the padded weapon physical combat found in many live action RPGs, combat here is simulated by the physical challenge of a shuffleboard-like game where the sliding of a disc determines whether a blow lands and how much damage it does. Attempts are made to give as many different characters as thematic an experience as possible; players representing classes associated with the study of magic have some degree of real-world memory test in order to perform their spells (etc.) with maximal effect, and players representing rogues may have a physical dexterity challenge to perform in order to achieve in-game feats. (Possibly with real-world consequences if this real-world challenge is failed!)

Traditionally, the same story has been offered to players in two slightly different formats. Some people like to emphasise the simulated combat encounters, and these can be dialed up slightly. Alternatively, it is possible to play through the same story with less of an emphasis on the combat and more of an emphasis on puzzles. To an extent these take the form of the riddle trope found in fantasy stories; to an extent, some of these can be quite abstract. Possibly the best way to get a feel for them is the images gallery from over the years. Some of the brainteasers do feel rather familiar, though they need to be put in proper historical context. For instance, the challenge that is effectively a 7×7 irregular word sudoku was featured long enough ago that it would have pretty accurately blended unfamiliarity with accessibility at the time.

The game does feature plenty of physical aspects by way of attempting to trigger as many of the senses as possible. The rooms contain actors and reportedly spectacular animatronic creatures to this regard, arguably drawing from the US haunted house tradition. (Sadly for me, they have incorporated sufficiently many aspects of this haunted house experience in the past that I would happen not to feel quite safe trusting the game’s sense of taste.) A very considerable budget goes into making the game happen; participation is priced at $48 per player for a two-hour experience (of which, essentially, 84 minutes is the live game) which is probably on par with most US exit game tickets, on a minute-by-minute basis, these days. There are multiple stories and multiple difficulty levels offered each year, so people can and do find it worthwhile to play several times over the four days of the con.

Additionally, some players choose to show patronage by purchasing real-world tokens which offer in-game advantages. While this trading-card-game-like aspect has flourished over the years with a thriving secondary market, there is a fine balance to keep the entirety of the story accessible and enjoyable for those who choose not to participate. The forums suggest that the most dedicated players devote as much passion and resources to this single game as they might to a trading card game over the course of the year; these optional purchases contribute, I get the impression, a sum of the order of tens of thousands of dollars per year towards the cost of making it all happen.

Being played in one place globally for four days per year, this is something of a niche game. Nevertheless, most of the players who like it really, really like it; almost 8,000 tickets became available just over a week ago, 93% of them were sold within 32 hours and you might have to scrabble round to find a spare ticket, possibly by resale, even now. The existence of True Dungeon makes the gaming world a richer place.


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