So, uh, I’ve been pretty fixated on the idea of a dungeon-crawl-slash-cooking show—a Dungeons & Dragons game where you kill what you eat. A few questionably-spent days of vacation after spawning this ludicrous idea, I found a way to mod Dungeons & Dragons to accommodate my cooking fantasies. And, surprisingly, it turned out great.
The mod, like most good things that sound freaky at first, was inspired by a manga. A friend who enjoys both my scone experiments and Dungeons & Dragons games recommended a manga called Delicious in Dungeon, in which an adventuring party cooks their way through a treacherous dungeon. Struggling to save a lost party member, they encounter a very resourceful dwarf chef who spent the last ten years self-sustaining in the caverns. Its tagline, predictably, is “Eat or be eaten.”
The dwarf’s philosophy is simple: The party will starve if they don’t eat, and to stay on their toes, they’ve got to eat well. So, by mining the dungeon’s plant life and knocking a few animal heads together, he scrapes together some pretty crazy meals. He makes a hot pot of dried dungeon slime (washed with citrus juice, dried for days in a slime net) with giant scorpion meat and walking mushroom. The leftover dungeon slime is used to congeal a man-eating plant tart’s filling. Later, after roasting a basilisk with scavenged herbs, the dwarf fries up an omelette with squishy basilisk eggs and screaming mandrake heads. Soon after, he slices up some giant bat meat with an ax triggered by a floor trap, much against the rogue’s council:
Fuck, I thought. That’s brilliant. That said, one thing about Delicious in Dungeon proved frustrating: that I couldn’t participate in it.
Dungeons & Dragons is at its best when the game asks players to solve puzzles creatively. If you’ve ever been broke and shopping at a grocery store, you know that’s what meal-planning is all about, too. How many distinct meals can I make out of how few supplies? How can I efficiently gather new ingredients while also finishing off perishables? If I roast chicken and vegetables, I’ll make couscous with leftovers for the next day’s lunch, but if all I’ve got is duck to work with, will my knowledge of chicken-roasting help me out?
Enter: the “Doomvault.” I wrote a Kotaku article a while back deeming the 2014 Dungeons & Dragons map, which was recently revamped in the 2017 book Tales from the Yawning Portal, “for sadists” and “a creation of pure evil.” It’s a couple dozen rooms containing a monster arena, golem laboratories, predator pools and sprawling forests. Terrible beasts are locked up in the caverns. The traps are devastating. And it’s run by a lich king and his devotees. I would adapt the Doomvault’s terror maze into a Delicious In Dungeon-style dungeon. Players would progress by completing cooking challenges, many of which were gross and ethically questionable. Instead of promoting necromancy and evil, my dungeon’s lich king would be a great figure in molecular gastronomy, a painfully inaccessible and strange cooking style with many famous followers.
I would call it the “Doomfridge,” because it’s good for D&D players not to take themselves too seriously. Are you still with me?
(People who are playing in my campaign: Do not look at this map. Kotaku readers.... hello.)
I whiled away the second half of my vacation in a blur of D&D campaign preparation. Chefs hiding out in the Doomfridge would task players with cooking-related quests that required some combination of wit and might to accomplish, like finding the two biggest creatures available, leading them back to the arena, making them fight, and then cooking something fierce with the survivor. One mini-quest asked players to craft the best meal possible when locked in a room with only a dripping ceiling, a dirt floor, and some suits of armor (actually, a ceiling ooze, a buried Ankheg and suits of armor maneuvered by mollusks, a la Delicious in Dungeon). After defeating the monsters, the players assigned a fire elemental they had rescued to fry up the mollusks in scavenged animal fat. Earlier, they’d plucked some mushrooms and rosemary from a garden, which would pair nicely. Then, they diced the Ankheg and, using a fountain’s rosewater they’d stored, made a bisque, which they served quite creatively from inside the Ankheg’s gutted carcass.
Coming up with mechanics for cooking in D&D was the trickiest bit. If taste hinged only on dice rolls, players would feel that their ingenuity went unrewarded. But if all they did was describe the cooking process, it wouldn’t be D&D.
I decided to divide meal-making into three parts: prep, execution and appearance. Players with a high “dexterity” stat would excel in prep, which requires deft dicing or cutting around poisonous organs. Players with high “intelligence” would excel in the actual cooking bit, since that requires knowing how long a steak should be on the fire and the like. And aesthetics-minded players would excel in presenting the food in a way that’s appetizing. Players assigned to these tasks rolled dice and added their bonuses. The dungeon master—me—granted or took away points depending on how good players’ ideas were. So, for example, I rescinded a point because the dexterous rogue sliced the Ankheg meat before cooking it, which is a bad way to retain moisture; but I rewarded another to him point for thinking of serving the meal from inside the Ankheg. The average of these numbers would reflect how good the food tastes.
I’m still fiddling with the idea, which is admittedly an experiment. Surprisingly, the first session was a great success. Watching players collaborate to design a meal was hilarious, but also wickedly charming, and especially in contrast to the typical D&D game’s focus on cut-and-dried combat.