For my first example of how a modern televised dungeon crawl could be done I’m going with a very dark tone: The PCs are convicts. They could be legitimate criminals, sentenced to death for their crimes. They could be political prisoners a totalitarian regime wants dead. They could have been falsely accused and sentenced to die so as to provide more fodder for the blood sports. This could even have gone so far as too make minor crimes punishable by death. (As in Larry Nivin’s Gil Hamilton/Gil the Arm books.) Then they are given an offer: they go on a ‘Delve’ into a manufactured dungeon armed with medieval armour and weapons. If they survive 10 delves all charges are dropped.
Traps and poison should feature heavily into this type of game as they have a habit of feeling unfair. Not just simple scything blades either, but massive deathtraps, with spikes and fire and such. For monsters I see Warhammer type demons and flying skulls and whatnot (I’m not a Warhammer person but I read the W40K website a lot when I was younger and I think corrupt vile demons would fit nicely, also indicating that the people running the demons are evil enough to deal with them). Undead would also be good as they feel evil and have a habit of draining stats and levels in a number of games.
Character could be forced into death fights with other inmates to earn a spot in the dungeon delving program. After that the dungeons themselves could be done a variety of different ways. Converting part of the prison into a crude dungeon would work, perhaps as an early ‘house league’. This would explain the crude traps and weak monsters. As the players level they get sent up to move and more expensive killing complexes, I mean, dungeons. Converted factories where the equipment has been modified into deathtraps would make good dungeons. Giant swinging blades, arc wielders, assembly lines all are giant and scary. Converted shopping malls could also work, with monsters attacking from the top or bottom level and a miniboss in the food court. Finally as they get to the highest levels they are doing events with as many viewers as the superbowl. These could be obviously modern complexes as previously or perhaps finally crafted dungeons of meant to look like something from D&D.
I’d be very tempted to have huge body counts in this version. Dungeons filled with insane traps, heck run them through the Tomb of Horrors. Perhaps you could give them an offer like survive 10 delves and the prisoner is set free. Have them meet someone 1 run away. Have them talk about how they can’t wait to meet there kid and wife again. Then kill them. With his wife and children watching. If you use Dungeon Jockeys as XCrawl does or similar they should be sadistic and cruel. If the players survives 10 delves they should find themselves shunned by society, as everyone knows they are a criminal. Unable to find work they return to the games as a free man, slightly better of but still forced to risk life and limb for the amusement of the masses. Alternatively you could work with the players for reasons to return to the game. A character with political ties could join the games once again as a means of getting publicity for his or her cause.
Technology level is always a question in this game. It makes a lot of sense for prisoners not to be given firearms or explosives, too much risk of an escape vs swords and bows. If you do want them with guns and are using a fantasy game I suggest re-skinning bows or crossbows instead of stating up your own weapons as I find people NEVER balance firearms, but this is just my opinion.
I view commentary as an integral part of this type of game. In a dark game the commentators should be cruel and vicious. Laughing as the PCs struggle, mocking their failures. When PCs die, I see the prisoners standing solemn and mournful, seeing their own fate in their companions death. Meanwhile the crowd roars and jeers, bets are paid out and the commentator mocks the dead person irreverently.
The spectators should be decedent and corrupt. Corpulent oligarchs denied no luxury with young bratty kids along, the kids screaming that they ‘wanna see someone die’ (See the kid in George R. R. Martin’s game of thrones series who wants to throw someone out the window. Heck, see his entire family. Actually a lot of that series gives a good ‘feel’ for this type of game.)
While I do not have a ton of experience with different game systems D&D 4e seems to be a bit too heroic for this, though I suppose you could send them against overleveled opponents. I like the cruelty the new disease system can have, as well as the traps you can set up with skill challenges (see Kobold Quarterly #10) but still, it makes you feel like heroes, which I normally love, but doesn’t seem right for this. I’ve heard Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is good for that sort of thing. I think retro-clones or old D&D (By which I mean 2e or older) might also be good for this based on stories I’ve heard. Dark Heresy or Rouge Trader’s systems might also work though I have no experiences with them. However they are designed to run a dark universe so I suspect they are a pretty good fit. The general aim is to find a game where life is nasty, brutish and short then just re-skin it.
Now this isn’t a game I’d play, I WANT to feel like I’m a hero, and I’m not sadistic enough to DM it. An idea I’ve been kicking around for this type of game is players either have a stable of characters, so they can rotate in another one. Perhaps using the old idea of playing your henchmen as PCs when they level up. Or assign XP to the player instead of the character, though you should find some way of punishing them for dying.
Inspirations: Most of these are just for tone, not content.
XCrawl: Adventures in the Extreme Dungeon Crawl League
The Bolo series by Keith Laumer
Any SF with escaping prisoners & blood sports
The Black Company by Glenn Cook
Gil Hamilton/Gil the Arm books by Larry Nivin
The Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martian
Neromancer by William Gibson
The 10th Victim by Robert Sheckley
I’ve not seen it but Death Race probably fits this as well.
Edit: The Dr Who Episode “Bad Wolf”
Well, my next writing on this subject will be a more light hearted approach, focusing more on reality TV with Paranoia as an inspiration. Until that time, Stay Geeky!