One of the events I was determined to get into for GenCon this year was True Dungeon. True Dungeon is kind of like a cross between a haunted house and a D&D campaign, and it’s SUPER popular at GenCon. The tickets sell out in a matter of hours (and the more popular time slots often sell out in minutes). We really wanted to book out all ten spaces of a time slot so that we could do the run with just people from our traveling group, but alas it was not to be. We ended up with five tickets together, so our run consisted of us plus five randos.
Mark (wisely, of course) decided that at least some of us should go to one of the free “True Dungeon 101” seminars offered before we tried to do the actual run, so on Friday he and I spent an hour in class learning all about the game. Turns out this was a really good idea, because Friday night we ended up staying up until 2:30 IN THE MORNING drinking beer and doing a Magic draft. We were all dragging pretty bad on Saturday morning and I’m fairly sure that if we had rolled up to True Dungeon hung over AND completely ignorant of how the game works, we’d have been in trouble.
So, hung over and hating life just a little, the five of us wandered over to Lucas Oil Stadium to sign in for our run. When we got there, the staff made us sign not one but TWO waivers, which I’ll admit, made me a little bit nervous. I didn’t actually read either waiver though, so I’m not really sure what I agreed to. Hopefully I won’t get sued for writing this.
After the waivers, they gave each of us a wristband and a little drawstring bag containing our starter pack of tokens, then ushered us into a waiting area where we basically stood around in the dark for a while because we were super early. Eventually, we were shown to a “coaching room”, which is a little cubicle with tables set up in a U shape where everyone decides what character they’re going to play, uses their tokens to outfit said characters, etc. The “coach” eventually comes in and writes down everyone’s character sheets, answers any questions and then sends you on your way.
Now, in the seminar it was made to sound like the “coach” actually, you know, COACHED newbs that needed it. There was talk of them helping people pick which character to play, helping them outfit characters, etc. Maybe I read too much into that and had unreasonably high expectations, or maybe it was just that our “coach” had ALSO been up until 2:30 in the morning swilling beer, but he seemed super hands-off. He also could have totally won a Tommy Chong impersonation contest, but that’s really neither here nor there. The point is, I went in expecting a modicum of hand-holding and what I got instead was a few raspy re-tellings of dungeon runs past and a half-hearted scolding for having some of my tokens in the wrong places on the character mat.
After the “coaching room”, we were sent to the skills room where we got a tutorial on how combat works in the dungeon, along with a chance to memorize any of the stuff that might pertain to our characters for skills tests. For example, I played a druid. Druids have spells to heal people and also to deal damage to enemies. I could just cast the spell by telling the GM that I wanted to cast it, but if I wanted the spell to be stronger (ie: heal or cause more damage), I could do a skills test. If I failed the skills test, my spell would still work, it just wouldn’t be as strong…so there’s not TONS of pressure to ace the skills tests, but still. We’re nerds and it’s the principle of the thing, you know? My skills test as a druid was to identify different leaf shapes when shown pictures of them (elm, maple, oak, etc…not made-up ones, thankfully! That’s exactly why I went for being a druid, in fact. I know leaves. I’m not sure WHY I do, but I do). The wizard had to be able to give the names of a bunch of different symbols, the cleric had to be able to tell what certain beads did…or stood for…or something. I’m iffy on that one because I was too busy trying to memorize the leaves I didn’t already know. The combat-oriented characters like the ranger and the barbarian didn’t have skills tests to worry about so they spent their time practicing combat instead. Combat in True Dungeon is done on what almost looks like a shuffleboard. It has a picture of the monster you’re fighting on it, and sections with various corresponding numbers of hit points. You have these little pucks that hold your weapon tokens and have felt on the bottom so they slide across the surface of the board. When you’re in a combat situation, each player takes turns shooting their puck on the board to try and get the highest hit points possible. After everyone has taken a shot, the GM adds up all the hit points and, if the monster is not defeated, everyone shoots again. This continues until the monster is defeated (or kills everyone. The monsters deal damage each round).
Once we were all skilled up and ready to go, we were led through to the actual start of the dungeon. This is where the haunted house bit comes in. The dungeon is a series of rooms built with partitions, curtains, etc. You work your way through each room, either solving puzzles or fighting monsters. There are no lights on at all. You’re given a teeny little LED light so that you can read your character card in the dark, but other than that the only light sources are from props in the rooms themselves. The adventure we were doing was set in a series of underground caverns, some of which had rock formations, lava pools (which were all lit up from inside to look like actual lava), etc. There were even places where there were little bits of fake vegetation growing out of crevices in the rocks. We were guided through the rooms by a person playing a drow (a dark elf). She had a little clicker that would light up certain things in the rooms, either as part of the puzzle or as special effects. Her delivery was a little stiff, but gods only know how many times she’d had to say the same lines over the course of the weekend. Plus, she was in full kit with a wig and full face paint and it was plenty stuffy in there, so I can’t blame her for being a little unenthusiastic.
There are two separate adventures / campaigns available to play, and you can choose either a puzzle-heavy or a combat-heavy version of the adventure you sign up for. Being newbs with no tokens or knowledge of how anything worked going in, we opted for the puzzle-oriented version of our adventure. Unfortunately, some of the randos in our group had been doing nothing but dungeon runs all weekend, so they had already solved a lot of the puzzles we encountered and weren’t shy about saying “hey guys, the answer is THIS”. It wasn’t catastrophic or anything, but it would have been more enjoyable if we’d all been actually working together to figure things out rather than just being told a lot of the answers. Anyway, the puzzles usually originated from riddles posted on the wall. You had to read the riddle, figure out what the fuck it was talking about (not my strong suit, I’ll be honest), then do the actual thing it wanted you to do. In one case we had to take a bunch of wands with colored light-up ends and figure out the specific order that they had to be arranged in so that it would unlock the door to the next room. In another one, we had to essentially figure out the combination to a lock. There was one where we had to spell out an incantation to get a big rock to move, and one where we had to put a bunch of different weapons in a specific order according to the number of letters in their names, but certain weapons had to be in certain places in order for things to work. It was fun and challenging, but not like, “this is hard as shit, why did I waste $56 on a ticket back to fucking algebra class” challenging.
At the end of the dungeon we had a boss monster to defeat, then we were ushered out the back to an area where we got our prizes, which were in the form of more tokens we got to pull from the treasure box. Tokens as prizes might sound kind of lame, but because True Dungeon is so popular and because everything is token-driven, there’s actually a really big secondary market for the tokens and some of them are quite valuable. For example, one of our party pulled a rare token that someone else later found for sale at a booth in the trade hall for like $75. Some of the ultra-rares can go for $120 and up. Plus, you can keep all your tokens for use in future runs, trade them, lend them out to other people, etc. If you have a big group of people who all like True Dungeon and collect tokens you can end up amassing a pretty big pool of tokens to draw from, which benefits everyone in the group.
I enjoyed the True Dungeon experience overall…BUT. I have some criticisms (shocker, I know).
First of all, I think it would be better if they could come up with some sort of “first timers” sign-up option which allowed complete newbs to be grouped with other complete newbs if they preferred. And some newbs might very well rather be in a group where someone has already experienced the puzzles and can give them hints…but we were not those newbs. Having people in our group that already knew the solutions not only basically negated the purpose of an entire character in our group (we had a rogue. Rogues skill-test for hints to the puzzles), but it also meant that we were solving most puzzles really quickly and that led to a LOT of time just standing around in the dark waiting for the next room to be cleared so we could go in. It’s kind of hard to keep up the ambiance and stay focused on the adventure when you’re standing around twiddling your thumbs for seven minutes after every puzzle. I just think having the option to say “we as a group are new to this adventure and would like to experience it for ourselves” would be good. And maybe we COULD have said that to the randos in our group who kept telling us the answers, but it kind of felt too late at that point.
Second: after all the reading I did about True Dungeon, I was expecting there to be more live NPCs (non-player characters). We had just the one, the drow that was with us through most of the adventure. I was expecting it to be more like a haunted house where people are in costume doing various stuff throughout the run. And, to be fair, maybe that IS the case in the more combat-oriented runs – maybe there are actual monsters that come out and do things.
Third, the price felt a little steep. Like Mark said afterwards, “it was cool, but I don’t know if it was $56 a head cool”.
All in all, the props were neat, the experience was fun, and I like the idea of making a dungeon run with our group of friends a yearly tradition, but I don’t think we’d ever become those people who basically do nothing BUT True Dungeon all through the con. Once per year is probably enough.
Just kidding about the novella part. I’m only up to 2050 words. That’s barely even a short story. It’s more like an essay that needs some serious editing, probably. Which, really, is the case for any essay I write. And also my life.