Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lacking Dungeon Endurance?

Players and GMs are both interesting creatures, not least because what is exactly one person's cup of tea is another's cup of arsenic. Some people love dungeons where you roam from room to room, killing monsters, and they require very little reason to explore each room. Others grow bored by the 10th room, finding the whole thing rather dreary and repetitive and need much coaxing to get into the whole thing. You may well get both popping into the same game. Heck, the GM may be one thing, while the players are another.

I have to admit that I fall into the latter camp. I'm not big on dungeons. I don't care if it's a haunted house, a cave, or a sewer complex, if I have to trawl from room to room smacking baddies over several sessions then it's going to get old fast. You can extend my interest through a number of different ways so, in telling you about how you can wrangle dungeon play out of me, maybe I can tell you how to wrangle dungeon play out of your own players, or GM.

The Five Cardinal Rules.

Keep it Short. Does that castle really need us to explore ALL of its rooms? Wouldn't it be more interesting if we could somehow make a beeline to where we need to go? I mean, even in action movies they don't waste time with repetitive scenes in the same location. Instead, they vary up the location even if they don't vary up the pace or events. I mean, it's not like we can't do the castle this session, smack some gnolls as we head to a second castle next session, then deal with the other castle in the third session. Must we spend six sessions all in the one place?

Keep it Varied. A series of traps is about as boring as a series of monsters. Keep varying it up and don't make it all static set pieces. An ogre could knock down a column to bar our path (forcing us to Climb / Jump it later) before rushing out to get us. A trap could lead to a monster. A monster could accidentally set off a trap. The structure might start collapsing. A lightning spell could set off a hovering storm. A monster might surrender or barter for its escape, turning a physical challenge into a social one.

Keep me Guessing. Wait, what? This isn't a haunted house at all but a place at a connection to the Abyss whose energies are slowly warping the structure and everyone inside? Now you've got me! A castle dungeon where we also have to figure out who killed the king by going through old clues and interrogating the few living, friendly NPCs? Cool. Throw me a mystery and I'll doggedly explore.

Keep it Interesting. Make sure the rooms aren't ho-hum. Make me feel like I'm really exploring somewhere I'll never get to visit through fantastic room descriptions or, failing that, fabulous set piece locations. Give me places I'd like to explore and keep enough variation into those locations so that I don't think I've seen it all already.

Keep Accepting Me. Put me in a castle for six sessions and I'm going to try and talk to monsters. I'll use Charm spells if I have to. Waste scrolls. Try to trap one. Or I'll slow things down by chatting to PCs while we're sleeping, making sure we set watches, and trying to learn about their back stories. Accept it unless it's actively hurting your game (and by hurting it, I don't mean boring you). You can set time limits, say, 10 minutes of in-game chat every hour maximum. Put an hour glass on the table. That's fine. But don't try to remove it all or I'll grow fidgety and fidgety players are ... well. We don't really need to finish that answer, do we?

DISCLAIMER: I never advocate derailing someone else's game. I'm just pointing out here that I'd sneak in little actions to blow off steam. Its the same as an action hero in a largely political game sneaking out to the pub for a random punch up that leads to nothing more major than a few cuts and bruises. If it helps them cope with a game that's not much their thing, and doesn't disrupt the game, then good on them. Its worth accepting.

So there we go. Another article. This one inspired by a comment by Shimmin Beg. This should also cast further light onto the Ship-Based Campaign which I'll be varying it up every session and keeping up a constantly evolving pace (hopefully). No giant mega-dungeons there, I assure you.


  1. I kept meaning to reply to this but stuff's been complicated. Good article, I think they're all nice useful points.

    It strikes me part of the awkwardness is that scenarios incline towards dungeons by default, and they’re not always a good fit for the party or the storyline. I think it’s partly just tradition, and partly that they’re nice controlled environments where you can easily plan and place a lot of content. But there are parties who see dungeoneering as an end in itself, parties who cheerfully follow quests or hooks that lead to dungeons, and parties who rein in the horses and look for another strategy. Your Action Hero and Explorer types are most likely to head off at the sniff of a dungeon, the others are a bit more reluctant. Similarly it’ll depend on the party background, so a group of roaming adventurers might see an opportunity, while someone on a royal quest sees an obstacle or even someone else’s problem. I should do a post on that sometime.

    I think the first point is really strong. You don’t want to poke through twenty bedrooms for visiting nobility, you want to investigate the north wing and find a swathe of opulent bedrooms which you search with a single roll and find a key, then scoot over to the secret room in the tower. Unless you really are ransacking a ruin for treasure, checking loads of rooms is just a distraction from your actual mission. Plus you should be able to intuit what doors are likely to be useful and where your objective is likely to be, saving time.

    Basically I think it’s about abstracting some of the exploration the same way you do long journeys – does that make sense? And it ties into the fourth one because it’s really hard to make noble bedroom #18 properly interesting, so why not skip it and have one cool description for the whole lot? That automatically should cut down on repetition and give more space for variety.

  2. That's a really good point about abstracting it. I did that with Curse of the Crimson Throne's castle as they were high enough level to wind walk it.

  3. Oh cool, did it go well? That's some nice creative thinking.

    I did actually write a bit of a post about dungeons and parties (here), though I'm not sure it goes anywhere.

  4. I like your piccie in your blog article (and the shout out) but I'll comment on it over there. As to your question, yeah, it did.

    *minor spoiler warning*

    A lot of the final castle (not Scarwall) is just a series of described rooms that have little to do with the plot. In fact, there's not all that many encounters there and, unsurprisingly, not a whole lot of traps.

    Since the players were the ones who came up with the idea of Wind Walk, I had them stealth past the lower levels grunts that would've been boring for them to fight and just let them seek out, overhear, and notice all the encounters that were there.

    Seemed to work out well.

  5. Glad you liked it! The pic is actually from Wikimedia Commons, it's the only open-licence dungeon pic I could find. I wish mine were that impressive, but no...

    That seems like a really neat way to run dungeon scouting and put out the idea of a big, busy castle without having to step through it all. I might steal that. Even for lower-level players, it could work as a plot device with an NPC caster or magic item giving them a wind walk to reach their target undetected. You could do something similar with water breathing, and tree stride or transport via plants would be great for getting someone into a keep or a wizard's greenhouse.

  6. There's also always stealth rolls.

  7. Keep Accepting Me. Put me in a castle for six sessions and I'm going to try and talk to monsters. I'll use Charm spells if I have to. Waste scrolls. Try to trap one. Or I'll slow things down by chatting to PCs while we're sleeping, making sure we set watches, and trying to learn about their back stories.

    This one makes me a bit uncomfortable, mostly because it immediately makes me imagine the complementary statement from a more action-focused player: "Put me in a royal court for six sessions and I'm going to try to stab the king. Burn the castle down. Throw the queen out a window. Try to nick the crown jewels."

    Obviously the group has a responsibility to accommodate all of its members, but that isn't the same as those members having a right to try to force their playstyle on the group. If nothing else, it feels counterproductive. If you're not enjoying being in the dungeon, surely the *worst* thing you can do is to make things take *even longer*.

    The flip side of this, of course, is that the GM absolutely *should* provide you with real opportunities for social interaction in the dungeon setting (just as they should provide the more action-focused players with real opportunities for combat in a courtly setting). And obviously I'm not suggesting that players should never be proactive, but I don't think it's a good idea for a player to decide *unilaterally* to change the focus of the game session.

    1. That's not quite what I meant. I was just trying to give a bit of an exaggerated and humorous statement of how a DM needs accept me for who I am and what I want to do as I am there to share in an enjoyable experience - not that I have the right to cast those charm spells.

      Having said that, six sessions at about four hours apiece adds up to twenty four hours. If I have to do something I don't particularly enjoy for twenty four hours, then I'm either going to quit (more likely) or act up. I would also totally understand if an action hero who had politely sat through twenty four hours of courtly intrigue without any pay off and therefore acted up (or quit).

      Also bear in mind that someone who wants investigation and socialising will be quite happy for a dungeon to 'take longer' if that extra time is devoted to the sort of things they would like to do. To them its not taking longer, its just getting better!

      Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify.

  8. I was just trying to give a bit of an exaggerated and humorous statement of how a DM needs accept me for who I am and what I want to

    That's more or less what I figured, I was just a bit concerned because I know some people who really do advocate deliberately derailing games you aren't enjoying.

    Also bear in mind that someone who wants investigation and socialising will be quite happy for a dungeon to 'take longer' if that extra time is devoted to the sort of things they would like to do.

    True, but in the long term it means you're spending more time in the dungeon where there's nothing in particular to investigate and nobody much to socialize with.

    I think this is one of those things where as a GM I'd be seeing massive, massive warning signs. If you're so bored with the situation you're in that you'd rather spend your time discussing who keeps watch that evening than explore another floor of the dungeon, I have probably done something very, very wrong.

    1. Hey, don't worry. It's always a good idea to get a clarification. Even if you were pretty sure that I was saying something different, others could get the wrong impression from my words. Deliberately derailing another person's game is always a bad thing. Its like kicking over someone else's sand castle because you don't like how it was made. If it really bothers you, go build your own.

      As for your second comment, true enough. The reason why I said that some people will slow down the dungeon crawl when they hate dungeon crawling is because they genuinely enjoy fireside chats. There are some players who really would love to sit around for hours and find out how an elf wizard ticks or what motivates their dwarven friends' love of Torag.

      So I was pointing out that if a GM wants to run a dungeon crawl, they would need to accept that at times I will want to have such fireside chats. If I'm allowed to do so, I may well be fine to do nothing but kick in doors and kill monsters for the majority of the sessions. It's not ideal, as you've pointed out there are more engaging ways to GM for most players, but hey ... sometimes you gotta compromise.

    2. Disclaimer added. Just in case someone gets the wrong idea and takes the bad side of that advice.