I mean, if we're going to grow as a thing, then maybe in the 40 years since its inception, we no longer need the first half nor second of the D's. Dragons? Pshaw. In my humble opinion, the Freudian and Jungian power of the Dragon is much reduced, of late. You can get them at Best Buy and rent them for 2 dollars from the local video vending machine. A dungeon, a good dungeon, on the other hand, has power and draw and smoldering je ne sais quois that well, words fail. I haven't got adequate words.
I mean, why, of all things, a dungeon? What makes a group of fellows in Wisconsin in the mid-60's and early-70's, interested in Napoleon and D-Day and all that fancy ass war-games stuff, what makes them horny for dungeons and dragons, of all freaking things? I had an argument with an OSR luminary once about Gary being an accountant, or an actuary's son or something, and that was why all the random tables and charts and statistics. They are like actuary porn, IMHO.
The Dungeon, though, the Dungeon is something else. A friend and I had a conversation about how come agency is important. I invite you to admire an argument from +Daniel Bishop about how story and agency and the dice coalesce into a thing that is not a guy telling some other guys about how they are characters in a story he wrote. You can get that in this field of phun - you get a guy with a story he wrote and some fellows (lads and lasses - the Greek admits of both genders) show up all ready to impose their wills upon a fantasy, and then everyone gets swept up in a story that somebody (the DM/Judge/Keeper/Head Trog) wrote. He has a plan, and his story goes like this, and the story does not admit of your care-free whimsy and clever thinking. It unfolds in the way he (usually a he, although I have met and played under some rail-roady women Keepers) has already determined and the PCs are merely set dressing.
I find this is a problem with a good number of modules, even some of my favorite 1st edition favorites (e.g. The Oasis of the White Palm). There are only a set number of paths to the Big Bad, and the puzzles ought to be done and done and done just so and then BOOM access to the big dirty shot of Bad Guy menace all over your characters' faces like OH YEAH ITS SO GOOD ALL OVER YOUR FACES
I don't know. I feel dirty that way. So, the Megadungeon. The Sandbox. To me, it's much preferr'd. A whole expanse of world opens before your small group of misfits/heroes/mutants/freaks/what-have-yous
Which way shall you go? There is something to be said for the delivery of the STORY in a ready-made arc like that season of Buffy or Fringe or whatever. Then, on the other hand, there is a couple of people sitting around a table/virtual space, ready to make humor and desperation and fun heroics from whatever comes with no pre-determined goals or requirements other than whatcomes? and havefun!
I think the best games I've played and have run seem to arise like an improv session, with some informally agreed upon limits - maybe like the setting and genre conventions. That's it. I happened to get this a good deal with the Scourge of the Barrowmaze. LIKE nothing seemed as important as discovery of the Horror Around The Corner and Whether We Could Survive, and what kind of hilarious shit goes down because that guy missed his die roll? I don't care if the characters live or die, as long as it's dramatic and fun, and they don't TOTALLY CLOBBER everything that they come acrost, because (see my previous posts on desperation ad nauseam) there's no fun in WINNIN' without stress. You need the illusion of difficulty, at least, for the money shot to count for anything. The NPCs are as nothing, and only as scurvy or sneering or cowardly or villainous as circumstances dictate, and in whatever way allows characters to shine in the way they want. Often, we had hilarious rip-roaring fun with the most blood-curdling murderhoboisms that one could contemplate. The literal murder of whatever came through the fog, no matter what the end result may be. Other times, players stepped up to the moral-compass plate and set things in the awful little universe we were creating a-right.
The megadungeon, the sandbox, the West March. Exploration, discovery, desperation. Home and healed just in the nick of time. Mourn fallen comrades. Vengeance upon enemies. Liberally sprinkled with vanquishment of terrors and psychological empowerment and vicarious stress-relief that we all want.
I love almost all games I play lately, but when I get the signal that the thing is decided already, I almost frantically and desperately try to make the PHUNs through humor and improvisational character building, and stupid unlikely schemes. I go out of my way to engage other players - since I DM a good deal, also, I try not to squelch the DM nor other players but if everyone is nodding and riding the railway then I crank it up to like 8 or 9 and see what comes. I think I'm a little bit of a spotlighter if there isn't one already, but if there is I try to roll with that person and help them out. Do I actively try to derail a railroad? I don't think so.
If I've done it to you, then I apologize. Get thee into the DUNGEON good sir or ma'am as the case may be, where the oozing walls will rectify the broadness of our choices and the ways our characters may unfold. The reason we restrain our views of the sky and stars is that it causes madness and ambition of the worse and baser sorts. Beneath the ground, where we know our enemies and our places and our tasks, we are not free to choose the other ways, except that the henchies may die and DO I KEEP THIS OIL OR THROW IT UPON THESE ZOMBIES? Life is simple and clear and right and the whole dungeon unfolds before us in endless possibility of a certain comforting kind.
I ramble. Anyways, it seems clear to me that the tradition of the D&D sort arises from a couple of simple and common psychological needs, and that an examination of them and how they play out, and the infinite varieties available even under seriously limited circumstance are the things that drew our esteemed forebears into the crypts and passageways of yore.
I offer, as Joesky tax, some examples of what other folks have thought about the prospect of level and adventure design.
Here and Here, for starters. This on the heels of some thinking I did about (no shit) professional wrestling, "KAYFABE", Whose Line Is It Anyway, TheaterSports, Improv Comedy, and collaborative story-gaming. I don't think it'd be productive to argue it all out - there's nothing I can drop in the pot of soup that hasn't been said already, maybe. Andy Kaufman said of Classy Freddie Blassie that he wasn't so much an actor as a man who absolutely and resolutely refused to believe in the world OUTSIDE of the fiction that the wrestlers-as-actors made together. I think it shows, and I think we can learn from the notions of building "heat" and engagement in real-time with others. If you can think of a better character than ANDY KAUFMAN WORLD CHAMPION INTERGENDER WRESTLER, then... well, good. Play that character as best you can.
Now I'm thinking about LARPS. I felt this way around last year at Camp Nerdly.