Preston Burt: For the two newbies to Gen Con, our GeekDad initiation wasn’t complete until fellow contributor Rob Huddleston and I completed the rite of passage that is True Dungeon. A Gen Con staple, this live-action role-playing game confined within a physical walk-through dungeon is often a highlight of the convention, and our expectations were high. With the growth of Gen Con, this was the first year that True Dungeon was located at Lucas Oil Stadium, so there was plenty of room to explore the wondrous maze of geekdom that the folks at True Dungeon laid out for 2016.
If you’re reading this and have no idea what True Dungeon is, then you are as ill-prepared as we were heading into our 2-hour gaming session. However, for the benefit of you, dear reader, we will explain. True Dungeon provides a real-world role-playing experience where players pick character classes (warrior, rogue, wizard, etc) and enter a physical maze to solve puzzles, fight monsters, cast spells, find treasure, and, hopefully, come out alive. With a long history of participating in the dungeon crawl, my fellow GeekDads were well-prepared (so they thought) to lead our merry band of geeks into the deep, dark dungeon, and we knew we would have to rely on the expertise of the seasoned veterans around us to show us the ropes.
Rob Huddleston: Our adventure began in a dimly lit room where we were assigned our characters and given the opportunity to equip them. Gear and armor and magic items and all the rest are represented by small poker-chip sized tokens. You are given a certain number of these when you purchase a ticket to True Dungeon, but many, many more are available for purchase. Thankfully, the GeekDad crew has accumulated a hefty collection of these over the years, so we just had to sort through them and decide what we wanted to use. We newbies found this whole process a bit confusing since we weren’t really clear on what we might or might not need, but we had plenty of help both from the True Dungeon people assigned to our team and our teammates.
PB: With a full party of ten members, we were able to cover every class of character. I’m not sure how Rob managed to pull it off, but he scored the role of a rogue, while I unwittingly accepted the role of bard. It wasn’t until later that we were informed that not only did each of our characters come with unique items, utilities, and weapons, but we would soon be forced to put our unique character skills to the test.
Jonathan Liu: I do feel that, despite having been through True Dungeon a number of times, the “outfitting” portion of the experience still felt a little rushed, not least because we didn’t really talk ahead of time about which roles each of us might want to play, and I think we also failed to realize how little we’d prepared our teammates for what to expect. Next year, I think we should try to select roles ahead of time, and start sorting out our tokens beforehand, rather than trying to pass them around in a dark room lit mostly by tiny flashlights.
RH: After getting our gear together (the majority of tokens, we wouldn’t end up needing to carry with us), we were taken to another dimly lit room to practice our skills. Magic users had to memorize spell positions on a chart in order to be able to use them. Fighters got to practice hitting bad guys, which essentially becomes a game of shuffleboard: you put the token representing your weapon into a thing that kind of resembles a hockey puck and slide it down the table, hoping it will land on some part of the enemy that will do it some damage. And I, the rogue, got to practice my skill, which involved tracing a pattern in a channel on top of a box without touching the sides of the channel.
Finally, we were ready to begin our adventure. We met our first Drow, played by a young woman who was one of the highlights of the whole evening. We never learned her real name, because she absolutely never broke character, even for a moment. She helped us through the first several rooms, but not too much–we were in the version of the dungeon that involved problem-solving, and she made sure that we actually solved the challenges ourselves. But along the way, she didn’t hesitate to make fun of our mistakes.
PB: I’ve been a fan of haunted houses since I was a teenager, and regularly attend Netherworld, a permanent but annually-changing haunted house in Atlanta. While the quality of the props and rock-lined walls aren’t a match compared to the million-dollar production of one of the top haunted houses in America, they are certainly top-notch and really add to the immersive experience. Whether through glowing lava, wall-mounted weaponry, moving monsters, or eerie ambient sounds, True Dungeon obviously worked hard to make a memorable experience.
RH: These rooms posed a mixture of genuinely hard challenges and a few fights. The challenges, which required that we work together quite a bit, were hard (potentially too hard), but most of the team members enjoyed figuring them out. There were times when some of the characters had too little to do, though. And the fights were a bit underwhelming. I’m not sure how they could do it differently without us whacking on someone in a costume with fake swords, but the way they were done abstracted the battle to the point of it really losing any tension.
PB: I learned, after the fact, that there were two campaigns we could choose from. One was geared more toward fighting monsters while the one our group chose was focused on solving puzzles. I was absolutely no help in puzzle-solving, but I was able to contribute my questionable singing voice in my role as the bard by belting out some Journey songs to the frustration of our final monster who dealt me 10 points of damage to shut up. The fighting looked fun when the warrior characters slid their tokens on a shuffleboard-style table to deal damage, but in my role, I was limited to the periphery while Rob searched high and low for hidden treasure.
RH: In the end, our team failed to resolve the final challenge and, despite having entered the room at full health, were simply informed that we all died and that was it. It was definitely an unfortunate end to an otherwise enjoyable half hour.
On the plus side, True Dungeon is an interesting take on the traditional role-playing dungeon hunt. The dungeon itself was nicely set up and provided plenty of surprises. And the woman who played that Drow definitely deserves a lot of praise.
However, several of us were left feeling a bit… empty. The adventure ended so suddenly that we were a bit taken aback. And perhaps we were spoiled by our Drow, but most of the other people we encountered in the dungeon weren’t nearly as committed to their roles as she was, which again lessened the overall experience.
Dave Banks: Like many aspects of Gen Con 2016, my highlight of True Dungeon was experiencing it with my son. Ever since I first went through True Dungeon four years ago, it has been the one thing he’s wanted to do more than anything else. The outcome, for him was so-so… for a couple of reasons. I agree with the sentiment that the puzzles seemed to be a little tougher than they have been in the past. I think some of this is because, in the adventure we were lucky enough to experience, the puzzles were largely word-driven. This is in contrast to the past where puzzles tended to be more physical. I don’t think we were ready for that and adapted poorly. The second reason is that, because we were kind of clueless, it felt like a few of our group took charge and took over the game. For a 14-year-old kid in a room of adults, that really affected his experience. Still, he was pretty impressed with the entire experience and really wants to give it a try again in the future. In fact, he was already asking as we trudged back to the exhibit hall. For me, it’s difficult to imagine a Gen Con without True Dungeon. Each year is packed with clever and fun monsters and amazing puzzles, and I can’t wait to see what they dream up for next year’s 50th anniversary of Gen Con!
PB: Only after having gone through the gauntlet of True Dungeon do I finally feel like I’m ready to actually play my first campaign. As someone who only has limited experience in traditional role-playing games, I definitely think an instructional video or a longer training session could have heightened my experience. And although everyone eventually joined me in singing a disturbing rendition of “Lights,” I don’t think I would ever choose to be a bard again.
I may not be a hardcore RPG fan, but it was obvious so many others who played were and they had an absolute blast despite dying in a fiery inferno. It definitely would have been a better ending if we were able to pull out a victory this time, but I’m glad I finally had a chance to see what all the other GeekDads have been hyping up all year. When it’s all said and done, I commend True Dungeon for creating something that makes for a memorable Gen Con experience.
RH: The video below reveals all of the dungeon’s secrets. Where was this before we went through?!?