The Writer’s Game: Dungeonmans

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Dungeonmans from Adventurepro games is a parody of fantasy games in the roguelike style.  As a titular Dungeonmans (the title is used no matter the preferred gender) at Dungeonmans Academy you sally forth to crush monsters and find treasure.  Near-inevitably your character will die, but their legacy lives on to assist the next student.  Eventually, you accomplish the all-too-common goal of finding the Big Evil and beating it up, then faffing around and exploring if you so wish.

Dungeonmans doesn’t aspire to a unique plot – the game’s charm is that it embraces all the tropes of fantasy and the roguelike genre.  Among the kill-and-loot mechanics and laughs there are multiple lessons for writers – because comedy is challenging.  Fortunately, Dungeonmans is fun, funny, and educational for writers

Embrace The Tropes

The game embraces every trope of fantasy and dungeon-delving games without a single inhibition.  Dungeonmans has dungeons, treasure, towns in need, and everything you’d expect from the umpteenth fantasy adventure game or story.  It doesn’t feel boring or repetitive, because the unoriginality is needed as it’s a parody.

By embracing the tropes, the game meets expectations of gameplay, but also allows it to mock them.  A player gets exactly what they expect in play and story, while also getting to see them taken apart and parodied.  You can’t parody from a distance, you have to embrace it.

Come to think of it, you can’t do anything with a genre without diving in, can you?  Other wise it’s half-baked, whereas Dungeonmans is perfectly prepared.

Explain The Tropes

Good worldbuilding in any story is needed so players understand what’s going on, or think they do.  When you’re playing with tropes, say in a parody game like Dungeonmans you have to explain what’s going on.  The tropes need to be explained as that’s part of the parody – because parody is often taking things to ridiculous lengths or exploring them.

Dungeonmans goes out of the way to explain what’s going on.  Dungeonmans are a recognized profession in a world overrun with monsters and evil.  An Academy was put in place to train such adventurers because they have to come from somewhere.  Some villains you face are even failed heroes, suggesting a kind of “economy of evil.”

The game is thus funnier because of the worldbuilding.  All the things you take for granted in a fantasy game have reasons, reasons both funny and thought-provoking.  Imagining the social and economic implications of professional but expendable monster-killers takes you places like any good story.

Funny Needs Details

Dungeonmans explanations arent’ just broad strokes.  Every item you find or create has a name and text explanation.  What is this wand made of? Why does this ridiculous sword exist?  Is the name of this weapon really twelve words long?  There’s all sorts of little details in the game that make it more interesting and funnier.

Good parody – and any good writing – has those little details that draw you in.   When you’re “in” the world of a story or game, you appreciate it more and feel those chills, thrills – or laughs in the case of parody.  Dungeonmans is filled with these little details, and you might find yourself pausing to read the description of the latest treasure you find.

Into The Depths of Humor

For me, Dungeonmans was the rare experience of a game both funny and engaging.  I kickstarted it, played it at least twice in early access, then once after it was released, and once after many updates.  Every time it was fun, and every time I’d get a good laugh, even with material I’d seen before.  Over these years, I realized these were lessons worth sharing.

Lessons for Writers:

  • If you parody something, embrace the tropes enthusiastically.  That meets expectations while letting you poke fun at the elements you’ve targeted.  You have to know a trope to take it on.
  • Disinhibition is necessary to embrace tropes, or you might do it halfway, and that is often miserable.
  • In parody – or anything involving tropes – you’ll need to explain them.  That makes the world believable, and is even more important in parody or extrapolation.
  • Details matter in any story as they draw the reader in.  They are important for impact – even when the impact is a good laugh.

Steven Savage

The Writer’s Game: Demon’s Winter

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I continue to analyze what video games I’ve played provide lessons for writers! This time, a blast from the long past!

Demon’s Winter was released in 1988, a sequel to Shard of Spring which I never played.  Though it had mixed reviews, I found it to be excellent and replayed it at least three times.  Not only was it a fun game, it had excellent storytelling which provides valuable lessons for writers.

The core of Demon’s Winter is something we’ve seen all too often (more so since the 80’s).  Monsters destroy your village so you inevitably sally forth with a group of diverse characters to fight evil.  Demon’s Winter went beyond the stereotypes with excellent story and setting elements.

Spoilers follow.  Yes, for a game from 1988, but I feel I should say it.

One Step Beyond

The first thing I noticed playing Demon’s Winter was the class (profession) and skill system.  Many games of the time essentially stole from Dungeon’s and Dragons and called it a day.  Another party with a fighter, a mage, a thief, etc.  Demon’s Winter did its own thing while building a setting.

First, gone were many typical generic classes.  Combat characters had to choose between a wilderness-wandering Ranger, a holy Paladin, etc.  Wielders of magic drew their abilities from multiple styles.  There were even two pantheons of gods for religious characters to follow.  Each character could be customized further, adding to the richness.

The manual of the game explained the character choices in detail.  I learned why it was hard for Paladins to learn certain magics – they avoided anything that wasn’t healing (or you paid a lot of skill points).  The two pantheons of gods were described in detail.  The manual helped the setting feel alive and refreshingly different.

For writers, this is a good lesson that you can play with tropes audiences expected while still making them interesting.  Explore the tropes your own way and add your own details and worldbuilding to bring it together.

Say It And Show It

When playing Demon’s Winter, I was pleased to see that places and story elements mentioned came into play.  There was not a pile of generic fantasy names and flummery, but actual things you’d see and deal with.  Something said in passing might be very important later.

My favorite part of this was discovering a seemingly throwaway line about a Dwarven Forge was real.  My party trekked across a strange island and found this hidden place that made weapons.  Needless to say, we left well-armed to fight evil, and I enjoyed the game’s rich continuity that much more.

This is a classic element of writing – foreshadowing, say-it-see it, etc.  But it’s nice to see it well done and in a way that matters.

Shake The World

Fantasy Epics often see the world changed and threatened.  Demon’s Winter was more than happy to break the rules of the setting when the bad guys got busy.

How broken?  The first major plot twist in the game sees the demonic villain of Demon’s Winter murder the gods.

There I am, slightly past the halfway point of the game, when I am informed the gods have been dead.  Clerics and shamans in the party lose their powers and seek out elder deities to get them back.  The impact of that moment stays with me to this day.

Demon’s Winter didn’t stop with deicide.  As your party closes in on the villain, he plunges the world into eternal winter and destroys it.  Cities and towns you relied on are gone, the graphics change, and survival becomes harder.  The game’s final arc takes on a post-apocalyptic bent.

None of these moments felt cheap because they fit the story and the setting.  The world broke in ways both impactful and believable, and I felt those moments.

For writers, it’s a good reminder it’s fine to break things up and shake them up if it makes sense.  Doing that can make the most sense, and it engages your audience. 

End It Well

Finally, I remember Demon’s Winter for the endings.  Once you defeat the big bad, you had two impressive possible endings.

First, you can join with one of the older gods and achieve dietyhood.  This is a nice ending, but the game suggests that your new career may be in danger when evil rises again!  A solid ending with room for a sequel.

The second ending is one that stands out.  If your heroes choose to stay mortal, they each get a different ending based on character class.  Depending on your party composition, you get a different set of stories and a satisfying conclusion for each character.  The team Theif may become a legend while seeking great treasure while the psychic Visionary becomes an advisor to the new ruler.

This second ending added personalization to the ending, drawing the curtain on your adventure in ways that felt real.  You had closure not just on the story, but your characters in a way that gave your tale personal meaning.

Unfreezing Ideas With Demon’s Winter

Demon’s Winter went far for a game, let alone a game from the late 80’s in an genre often filled with derivatives.  It built a world where characters meant something, smashed their world when needed, then gave them personal and satisfying endings.  By embodying these important lessons, it provides an example of how impactful they can be.

Takeaway’s for writers:

  • You can use tropes, but give them your own twist and the details to make them living and believable.
  • If you call out or bring something up, it probably should be part of your story later.  That also helps with worldbuilding.
  • Be willing to shake up or break your world in ways that fit your tale.  Give such things meaning and impact because sometimes you have to shatter expectations to fulfill them.
  • Make your endings personal so make the characters’ journeys relevant and impactful.  This doesn’t need to be complex, but it should be meaningful.

Steven Savage

The Writer’s Game: Approaching Infinity

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Welcome to the start of a new series analyzing how games and game systems provide lessons for storytelling.  I will focus on what games teach us in general, though my focus is on advice for non-game tale-telling.  Now, onward!

Approaching Infinity

Approaching Infinity is a space adventure in the “roguelite” vein.  Like the classic game “Rogue,” the game is usually over when you die.  Games become a little easier as players unlock resources available for the next adventure into a hostile cosmos.

The game contains all the elements of classic space adventure in a simple retro style that draws from decades-old genre tropes.  Travel in space, blast aliens, trade goods, explore planets, the usual.  The lessons come from how these tropes work within more significant stories and how they come together to make a unique tale in each game.

Approaching Infinity‘s story elements exist on three levels and provide valuable lessons on writing.

Great Rivers of Story

At the “top” of Approaching Infinity‘s stories are different factions, about a dozen as of these writings.  Players can take missions for these factions, and most missions unlock further opportunities and advance the tale.  When the player completes a faction’s linear chain of missions, they usually unlock an ending to the game.

Each mission chain provides a background story on the faction and its place in the galaxy.  The player’s activities have meaning in the context of the game.  Faction missions also provide a sense of a bigger picture, filling in blanks as one plays the game.  One could play the game many times before they saw everything or understood the backstory.

These “big arcs” remind writers that stories work with an overall, meaningful tale.  Such arcs don’t have to be complicated (Approaching Infinity‘s quest chains are mechanically simple), but they should have truth in them.

These multiple story possibilities also provide a potential writing exercise.  When one looks at all the possible “big picture” stories in a work, work out multiple endings – alternate tellings.  Such work helps you understand the tale you ultimately tell, as you’ll understand why things happen and what might have been.

Choice in the Flow

The “big arcs” in Approaching Infinity also interact, depending on player choices.  Choosing to help one faction can alienate another faction.  Completing part of one mission chain may make you enemies as you’ve had to blow up a few enemies.  You can try to please everyone, but you can’t, as which “big arcs” you follow lead you down specific paths.

The game handles this with a simple diplomacy score.  The score goes up when you do things a faction likes and goes down with the opposite.  When you have about a dozen factions competing and random and procedural events happening, the game becomes complex.

Story-wise, this is a good example of how smaller-picture actions cause “big arcs” to collide.  How many great tales hinge on that one choice or one mistake?  Approaching Infinity creates that feeling of tension in a complex-to-evaluate, simple-to-understand way.  A player’s (or character’s) choices pile up and life becomes complicated at some point.

The individual parts of a story don’t have to be complicated –the “big arcs” can be simple.  The interactions, the choices, they make a tale delightfully complicated.  Plus, playing with those choices lets you ask “what If,” much as players of Approaching Infinity see their suddenly-destroyed starship and ask what they could have done differently.

All Those Tiny Waves

The sweeping adventure and juggling alliances of Approaching Infinity happen in a procedurally-generated galaxy.  Each game is random, meaning new sectors, planets, caves, space wrecks, and more await you each adventure.  Each game also starts with giving you a choice of ship models and commanding officer.

This randomization and choice mean minute-to-minute happenings are personal.  Around every corner is a new planet, new piece of equipment, a new discovery.  The fine details of your adventure are personal and unique to you and your game.

If you’re on a mission from a quest chain to defeat a space monster, you have many choices.  Do you craft a new weapon for your starship?  Dash deeper into more dangerous parts of the galaxy to buy one?  Raid enemy ships for parts and equipment?

These choices may also affect your quest chains, your “big arcs.” Even when they don’t, they’re uniquely yours, part of your adventure.

For writers of any kind, this is an example that a tale is driven by discovery.  A story may be linear and straightforward, but it’s the moments that bring it to life.  When every scene, every chapter is unique, personal, and meaningful, a story grips us.  Even when a scene doesn’t surprise or suddenly switch up the big picture, it matters.

Of course, the tiny picture might create a sudden, surprising change in plot.  In Approaching Infinity, an unwise small choice might just affect the big picture.  Even when it doesn’t, there’s the tension that it might.  In many a game of Approaching Infinity, I kept an eye on my diplomacy, knowing I might make enemies I didn’t want to make!

Closing In On Infinity

Approaching Infinity‘s mix of simple “big arcs” and personal, minute-to-minute experience makes the game a Space Opera simulator.  Using simple roots, it creates a replayable adventure seeped in both lore and individual experiences.  No one element is overly complex, but their interactions are – just like many good tales.

Takeaways for Writers:

  • Having backstory-driven “big arcs” gets you to the truth of your tale.  They can – and often are – simple.
  • Plot multiple “big arcs” even if you don’t use them to understand your setting better.
  • Possible “big arcs” interacting help you craft a meaningful tale.  Those smaller moments of interaction drive the story.
  • Complexity can come from the simple interaction of simple “big arcs.”  The results are often far from simple.
  • Those moments where character choice sends them down one path or another are meaningful.  They also let you play “what if” and evaluate your work.
  • Storytelling is gripping when events, even small ones, are personal and meaningful.  Events don’t have to have big impacts.
  • Small moments and choices bring tension because they may have huge impacts.  Even when they don’t and the story goes along, that tension engages the audience and is meaningful.

Steven Savage