Category Archives: dungeon design

Pointcrawling in a Dungeon!

Formulating my thoughts on a subject always helps my putting my ideas into focus. And so after writing yesterday about the challenges of using a pointcrawl map for a large dungeon I came up with some new ideas for how this problem might be solved.

Pointcrawling really is all about navigation by landmarks or travel along marked paths. During overland travel this is usually the only way there is to pick where you are going. This makes is very easy to take a hex map and convert it into a point map by simply removing all the hexes that don’t have keyed sites or encounters or lie along a path that connects two of the keyed locations. And you can easily convert a point map back into a hexmap by simply overlaying a hex grid on the chart of sites and paths.

But with dungeons this is not the same. As people discovered very early on in the history of RPGs, dungeons are very different environments from outdoor landscapes. In a dungeon you don’t chose your path or destination, you can simply go forwards and backwards in a corridor and pick from a fixed number of other corridors at junctions. When you want to go dungeon crawling with a point map, you can’t just take any grid map dungeon and convert it to a point map. This doesn’t work and you only end up with nonsense that has the same complexity as you started with. Instead, you have to design the entire dungeon from the ground up with a point map in mind.

A dungeon that would be very easy to do with a point map is a ruined castle with an open courtyard. In fact, Chris Kutalik’s ruincrawl is really an attempt to explore cities, not buildings. With an open castle, you can have the first area be the gatehouse that has one entrance and one exit. Once the players reach the exit of this area they can overlook the courtyard and see the various buildings that make up the interior. There may be a keep, a chapple, stables, a tavern, a warehouse, an inner gatehouse, and lots of uninteresting small sheds. The sheds and the patrol corridors in the walls have nothing interesting in them so they can be ignored and are not getting mapped. The other buildings each get their own small map and are marked on the point map as distinct areas. From their position at the exit of the outer gatehouse the players have a clear path to the stables, warehouse, tavern, and inner gatehouse, and if they go through the inner gatehouse they can also walk over to the chapple and the keep. What the paths in the courtyards look like is irrelevant. That’s a basic and simple pointcrawl.

This doesn’t work in a dungeon that is entirely underground, though. Simply because you can’t see other areas from a distance. You can’t say “let’s go over there” when you can’t see “there” and don’t even know that “there” exists. Ina grid map dungeon this is not a problem since you simply follow the corridors and then see where they lead to. With navigation by landmark being out of the picture, following marked paths is the only remaining option. But the whole point of pointcrawling a dungeon is that you want to strip out all the empty halls and chambers that make up the majority of the place and only have the players interact with the most interesting areas. I think the solution to this conundrum is to design dungeons for a pointcrawl along a network of highways. Coridors that clearly stand out from the rest and serve as main connective routes between major prominent area of the dungeon. Dozens or hundreds of minor side passages branch off from these leading to living quarter and storerooms, but they are not included in the map and can not be actively explored by the players. To look at a part of the dungeon in detail there has to be something that visible stands out and draws the attention of the PCs to the fact that there might be something worth looking at.

This is of course a few steps removed from the complete hands off approach you can have with grid map dungeons where the GM really only tells the players what they see and what happens as consequence of their actions. By designing a dungeon like this the GM takes the previlege to tell the players that their characters are not interested into exploring certain corridors and rooms and that they simply continue on their exploration along the provided path, which might not sit completely well with everyone. But really, this is exactly what outdoor pointcrawls do too. It’s an aknowledging nod towards the fact that games are abstractions of adventures and not accurate simulations. It takes away player choice, but really only choices that the GM knows in advance to be completely irrelevant. I don’t think many players would feel sorry about not having to explore 80 empty rooms in a room before they find a room that has something in it. When you look at fiiction this happens all the time. If you take a book or movie at face value, characters are instantly teleporting around all the time between scenes. But everyone is in agreement that the characters did walk between locations and that they probably talked during that time and perhaps even had some encounters that are completely inconsequential to the story. This is the underlying idea here.

A secondary issue I had been pondering is how to indicate the border of an area when each area consists of multiple rooms and is surrounded on all sides by more or less indentically looking rooms. What I think might be the best approach is to construct the whole dungeon not as one continous cluser of rooms but instead as multiple self-contained cells, which each cells having only two or three exits that lead to other cells. This is one of the things that makes it necessary to design a dungeon as a pointcrawl from the ground up. Grid map dungeons usually don’t have such clear cell structure and a great number of possible connections between thematically linked areas.

A system of self contained grid mapped cells connected by highways running through otherwise nondiscript cells is my solution to having huge dungeons that don’t involve long stretches of tedious searching through empty rooms or being implausibly cramme with treasures and monsters. Or at least my current attempt at a solution.

What about sub-mega dungeons?

When I started doing research about good dungeon design, I made an interesting observation. Pretty much everyone who is writing about the design of dungeons is talking specifically of the rather special case of megadungeons. I can understand the fascination with these massive places that can remain not fully explored even after multiple campaigns set inside of them. But when you start looking into the details of what people are writing about the design, you find a lot of recommendations that I don’t think carry over well into games of exploring multiple different dungeons over 1 to 4 sessions each.

The whole logistics are really quite different and the journey to and from the dungeon takes up a much bigger role in the campaign when the party constantly has to relocate their base camp. Like most advice that is around for worldbuilding, megadungeon advice mostly concerns itself with the really big pictures. But what seemingly gets overlooked is the small scale design of encounters and individual rooms. These are problems that a lot more GMs are having to deal with, yet it seems that nobody really has anything smart to say about this element. As a GM poorly experienced in running dungeon crawls, I’ve been doing a lot of searching for such information, but it appears to be curiously absent.

The Ancient Builders

Ruins play obviously a great part in the Ancient Lands and someone has to have build them in the first place. While I don’t want to have a generic post-apocalyptic world I decided to keep things simple and focused and have the majority of ruins be from an ancient time and build by fey races instead of being build by past humanoid civilizations. Ruined castles can have signs of past inhabitation by people, but people-build ruins are going to be almost all abandoned villages. Mortals just don’t have the ability to build castles like spirits can, and never did. It’s not that mortals lost knowledge and abilities they had in the past, but simply that spirits are just much more powerful in every way. Fortunately for mortals, most fey castles have long been abandoned and only few of them are currently inhabited. The fey races are not particularly attached to stability and leave lots of stuff behind when they are done with them, but these tend to remain around for a very long time after that and over thousands of years those abandoned castles add up.

Naga

Of all the old builders, the naga are the ones that still have a strong presence on the material world and inhabit and maintain many of their ancient castles, particularly in the southern lands. Around the Inner Sea and the northern lands these are all long abandoned, though. Naga ruins often consists of steep, tower-like ziggurats surrounded by smaller buildings with flat stone roofa that housed vast numbers of elven slaves. They can easily be identified by their lack of stairs, with levels being connected by ramps. They are also generally found near coasts.

Tower Builders

The tower builders were a civilization of shie that built a large number of citadels throughout the northern parts of the Ancient Lands. All their castles have a square base and smooth walls that slighty narrow inwards until reaching a flat top. These towers are build from huge stone blocks that are very accurately fitted together and each have a completely unique shape. Inside, the ceilings are held up by massive supports that start close to the walls and lean sharply inwards to form a kind of trapezoid arch and provide a lot of cover and hiding spaces.

Rock Carvers

Ruins of the Rock Carvers are mostly found in the area of the Inner Sea, particularly the Akai and Tavir Mountains, but also in various places in the steep rocky cliffs on the coast. Rock Carver ruins are often seemingly low and bulky constructions compared to the other styles of castles, but are mostly located underground, which hides their frequently massive proportions. Often the only parts visible above ground are a steep and extremely thick wall and an only slightly higher citadel that guard the main entrance to the rest of the stronghold. Often these have very few windows that are barely more than arrow slits, but castles in well defensible locations high up in the mountains sometimes have large numbers of great balconies and tarraces overlooking the landscape below. Smaller ruins are often completely invisible from the outside and appear only as easy to miss caves that reveal themselves to be spectacular underground castles. While the working of walls and tunnels is always extremely precise and without any irregularities, many ruins include large natural caverns that have remained entirely unworked and kept in their magnificent natural form.

The identity of the Rock Carvers is a complete mystery to everyone but they have often left behind many enchanted stones and gems.

Tree Weavers

The Tree Weavers were another group of shie who created numerous castles and palaces in the Ancient Lands. Their ruins are widely regarded as the most magnificent ones and appear to have been grown from gargantuan petrified trees and living rock rather than build by masons. Except for floors and stairs, which are covered in tiles of polished marble, there are no flat surfaces or straight angles to be found anywhere in these ruins, with all walls slightly bulging outwards and all ceilings being domed. Many ruins consist of tall towers that often have smaller side towers branching off from them in seemingly impossible angles like enormous stone trees. Other buildings have large marble roofs made from a single piece that look like the shells of colossals turtles.

Tree Weaver ruins are often home to a great amount of plant life, much of it being dangerous and even deadly to people getting too close.

Glass Makers

Ruins of the Glass Makers are the most mysterious ones and widely regarded to be by far the oldest. Many even believe that they were build by spirits that have long retreated into the eternal dark of the Underworld. Ruins of this type are made or a very hard dark material that greatly resembles glass an comes in various hues. Surfaces require a great deal of force to damage and tend to merely chip rather than fracturing. Rumor has it that at least in some ruins such damages slowly heal over the course of decades and centuries but they are so infrequently visited that nobody has ever really seen it happening so far.
The architecture of these steuctures, if it can even be called that, tends to be highly bizarre and often seems to serve no discernable purpose. However, they all share in common that they contain large underground sections of which generally much less information is available.

Glass ruins often have areas of high corruption and are sometimes haunted by trapped demons. Sorcerous relics can often be found in them and they are highly sought after by naga and sorcerers.

What does an Ancient Lands adventure look like?

In the end, a campaign setting really is just a stage for adventures. And adventures are generally the only way through which players are interacting with it. This really deserves an article of its own, but when it comes to designing a campaign setting you really need to start with chosing the kinds of adventures that will be set in it. I believe the fact that I am only explicitly making such a list now has a lot to do with all my worldbuilding work only really taking shape in the last half year or so.

So here you go. When I think of the Ancient Lands as a stage for adventures, these are what I have in mind:

  • The Lost City
  • The Isle of Dread
  • Quagmire!
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God
  • Dwellers of the Forbidden City
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Deep Carbon Observatory
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes
  • Aliens
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Dark Souls
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Red Nails
  • Stalker
  • Super Metroid

You could say a microsandbox. Or a mesodungeon.

Veins of the Earth

So Lamentations of the Flame Princess has released a new book by Patrick Stuart that is about weird adventures in the Underdark, and it’s almost 400 pages long, and starts with a big monster section, and has special rules for light, and a system for food and cannibalism, and random 3D cave environments, and…

It’s looking really good so far. Though most of it is so weird that I am not even sure what I am looking at. Many times it is more tell than show, but it still works quite effectively. Not sure what I might be using from this book, but it sure gives me ideas what I want to do in my game.

The darkness is following them, surrounding them. It infiltrates slender claws behind shadowed columns, reaching towards the lantern, hungering to snuff it out. It backs away reluctantly before the light, it follows carefully and relentlessly, creeping as close as it can. It leaves chew marks in the corners of your sight.

The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing. Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players; you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a ten foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

You’re a Hero, Willy!

Or “I hate rat quests”.

As I mentioned previously, my attempt at building a sandbox for LotFP had hit a wall and I went all the way back to square one to go on a spirit journey and find out why my campaign never turn out as I imagine them. And it really comes down to me accidentally locking all the good content that is meant to be the main feature of the setting away until the PCs have become powerful enough heroes to be able to face them. Looking back it was incredibly stupid, but… Well, there is no real but. It was stupid. It happens, and I believe it’s a pretty common mistake people make. I’ve seen it often enough and warned other people about it. Why I still did it I have no clue.

In my previous post I talked about finding what it really is that the Ancient Lands are about and what needs to be part of every adventure and dungeon in the campaign. But even with that knowledge I was still struggling with coming up with ideas for dungeons that characters at 1st to 4th level could explore without running into unbeatable and highly lethal opponents. And I think I found the solution for that as well.

I took the first step towards oldschool gaming and laid the groundwork for my current worldbuilding when I first looked into the E6 variant for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which basically comes down to PCs and NPCs being capped at 6th level but monsters keep all their abilities. It allows you to play low powered campaigns without all the 4th to 9th level spells while still being able to play with the rules system you’re already familiar with. It got decently popular and saw great praise, but the one big question the original creator left open, somewhat on purpose, was what it means to be 6th level? Is a 6th level character a legendary one in a million hero, or is he still just as impressive as a low mid-level character in a 20 level D&D campaign and there are hundreds like him all over the place?

When I switched to B/X based rules and leaving the terrible d20 system behind, the question still remained. B/X has 14 levels instead of 6, but like OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed. it has this idea of adventuring being 1st to 9th level and the game then turning into something else. Nine levels plus a handful of legendary figures of world fame beyond that seems like a good yardstick to find the appropriate class level for NPCs based on their powers and accomplishments. But I still was thinking in the categories of low-level, mid-level, and high-level characters. And that was the source of all the problems. A low-level character is a guy with inferior equipment who goes on rat quests in noob dungeons. Whether a character reaches mid-level by 8th, 5th, or 3rd level doesn’t matter. You’re still forcing the players to begin by spending a good time doing things that are “safe” and for “ordinary people”. The whole concept of D&D is extraordinary people doing extremely lethal things, and in LotFP even more so!

Again, like so often, I blame 3rd edition for putting this stupid idea into my head and it did it with the idea of NPC classes. NPC classes are similar to ordinary character classes but are weaker and have fewer abilities, but they still let NPCs go from 1st to 20th level. And that’s just stupid. It’s not just the 20th level commoner that is stupid. Even the 5th level expert or the 7th level adept are stupid. Why do you need a carpenter that has more hit points and fights as well as a 4th level fighter? Why is that powerful orc spellcaster not a sorcerer or a cleric? Even just the harmless looking 2nd level warrior town guard or 3rd level expert blacksmith fly in the face of the idea that PCs are extraordinary people. 6th level PCs are noteworth people and 1st level PCs are noobs who barely can keep up with the plot relevant civilians.

That’s bullshit and I established quite some time ago the paradigm that in the Ancient Lands any NPC without a proper name is automatically a level 0 character. NPCs who are not noteworth warriors or spellcasters are also 0 level and have 1d6 hp and +0 to attack. But even with that I still had that meme in my brain that proper adventures start only once the players have fought their way up to mid-levels. (Basically the content of the first scene in Inception.)

Understanding how I went all wrong very quickly solved my problem with not having any content that can appropriately scaled to 1st level parties. I am just taking a lot of content that I had planned to be suitable for 4th or 6th level parties and adjust the monsters so 1st level parties won’t be instant-splatted. And when you’re playing in a B/X context that’s actually not that hard. Most pretty big monsters are not that well protected and often meant to be encountered in groups of sometimes considerable size. I am still very much in love with the idea of the Nameless Dungeon and to adapt it to the Ancient Lands it will be inhabited by shie, a custom fey creature with 4 Hit Dice. My logi went: 4 HD is meant for 4th dungeon level, whicb is meant for 4th level parties, so if the dungeon is full with them the party should be at least 5th level before getting anywhere near it. But that’s actually not needed. A dungeon build around the shie does not have to have lots of rooms with groups of shie in them. It can still be about them if the players only rarely run into one or two individuals. Or take for example the famous Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: To have an adventure about hill giants you don’t need a party that is able to fight 20 hill giants at once. The most famous giant story is Odysseus and his men in the cave of th cyclops. Only one giant that had the heroes outmatched all by himself. Foreshadowing that the master of the cave is a giant can make exploring a cave full of goblins and giant rats still a giant adventure.

No more “Mr. Kimble I don’t like this Noob Dungeon…” There is no Noob-Dungeon!

Hostile environments not meant for people

My Ancient Lands setting never felt like I wanted it to when I ran adventures in it, and I think I know understand why. Even though the whole concept of the world is one about dealing with alien spirits and witches, almost all my adventures were pretty generic empty ruins inhabited by animals and bandits. There’s some wisdom in the claim that the unnatural only feels unusual if it’s set in contrast to a very natural world, I took it much too far by making the normal stuff dominating the campaigns.

I am still not sure how to give the supernatural otherworld the center stage that it should have, I think it really starts with the idea that there are places and environments where people are not meant to be. Not just are the native creatures are great direct threat, the environment itself gets in the way of the characters and puts them at an even greater disadvantage to the native inhabitants.

Here are some generic factors that make an environment work against the players even when it does not actively try to harm them.

  • Don’t let the party have rechargable magical light sources. When torches and lamps run out they are completely blind when underground (or at least some of them) until they can find something to light on fire or glowing worms or something like that.
  • Track food and make edible plants really hard to find in dungeons and spiritworlds. Leaves and grass won’t feed people and fruits might not be healthy.
  • Use a lot of water. Even when the party has magic to breath underwater their torches and lamps won’t be working there.
  • Little weak monsters that wait to attack the party until they are weak and need to recover. And not just once, but repeatedly.
  • Great differences in height and monsters that can fly.
  • Huge open spaces and monsters with ranged attacks.
  • Fog that blocks sight and creatures that are sneaky.
  • Ground that slows characters down or hurts them when they trip. But not the native creatures.
  • Wind that can make characters fall and interferes with ranged weapons.
  • Low ceilings that force characters to fight crouched or narrow passages that make large weapons unusable and keeps parties from fighting as a team.

Dungeon Crawls and Antagonists

During my planning for a new campaign based around loosely connected dungeoncrawls instead of a longrunning epic quest or an open world sandbox I realized what always had been missing for me from dungeon modules. (Aside from plots, since I used to be young and stupid.) It’s great villains. Great antagonists are one of the big draws of Sword & Sorcery and pulp adventures and even though some boss monsters from early D&D have become famous, the early modules consistently had a lack of actually great villains.

The main problem with a generic dungeon crawl is that it has enemies in fixed places and some enemies who are randomly encountered wandering around. And any supposed villain was almost always in his throne room or something to that effect, waiting there at the far end of the dungeon to be the big final fight for the dungeon. Saying a few arrogant lines before a fight to the death does not make a great antagonist. A great and memorable enemy for the players is a villain who does things and they have meaningful interactions with. In movies villains often have most of their scenes in which they show how cool and badass they are far away from the heroes and they only run into each other very late in the story. In an RPG that does not work. You only get the moments where the villain interacts with the heroes to make him cool.

There are several ways to do that before the final fight in which the villain is killed. A really neat idea that I’ve seen in many wuxia stories is that the world of martial arts masters is actually pretty small and everyone knows absolutely everyone else. Even if they’ve never met before, people have heard enough about each other to get a good idea who they are dealing with. In a campaign in which every NPC without a name has no character levels and the majority of named characters are only first or second level this can easily be made to be plausible as well, regardless of the specific setting. When a major antagonist spots the party he might be able to recognize them simply by their appearance and weapons and react to them accordingly. This is not so easily done when the players encounter a new NPC, but any NPC friendly to the party might be able to tell them about some of the people who have been seen near the dungeon or in the company of the dungeon’s current master. Though that friendly NPC might only have heard some vague rumors that could be of greatly varying accuracy and might be misleading the players to expect someone who turns out quite different in person.

Another good method is to drop plenty of clues about the presence and status of a powerful NPC in the area before and after they meet him in person. Captured enemies might talk about their masters and superiors or the party might overhear them talking about them. Or the villain placed a lot of recently made traps ib an area that seems otherwise uninhabited. Corpses of monster killed by antagonist who are nearby are another alternative. Lots of corpses full with arrows, cleaved into pieces, or burned to cinders will give the players certain expectations who they might be facing in the near future.

Something that is easily forgotten and never appears in published modules and adventures because it requires a lot of flexibility from the GM is that every NPC who isn’t killed can show up again in later adventures. Sometimes even if they have been killed (but don’t do that too often, it gets lame very quickly.) Often it’s presented as the default or even only option that any encountered enemy will automatically attack and be killed. But that’s really not necessary and also quite lame. Except for mindless undead all enemies want to live and rather escape than die. If you make use of that option you will end up with a lot of enemies who escaped alive pretty quickly. For the main villain of a dungeon I would even plan ahead to let him fall back a few times before the players might corner him. But only if it’s tactically possible. If the players manage to cut of escape routes or get a few lucky hits that kills the enemy leader in the first or second encounter than that’s what should be happening. It’s not necessary that he will still be able to fight in the last fallback position. The minions might fight on for a while by themselves before they flee from the party or a lieutenant might take over command for the big bad. That lieutenant might turn out to be the actual big antagonist the players are going to remember from the adventure.

If a prominent antagonist survives an adventure, I would not usually use him agaib right in the next adventure and go after the party. That would only encourage the players to never let anyone survive. Wait three or four adventures and then let the players have an unexpected run in with an old acquaintance of theirs.

Though all that being said, I think a dungeon crawls should still be about the dungeon first and everything in it optional. Instead of making a major antagonist the final goal of the dungeon, he should simply be the main attraction. The villain’s lair shouldn’t be in the farthest and deepest room of the dungeon but better in a more central area. This way the players are given plenty of opportunities to avoid a confrontation with something scary like an undead sorcerer or a dragon, but they also will get close to the lair several times throughout their exploration, which gives the villains more opportunities to be on the players’ minds, making them more memorable.

Bounties and Rewards are also Treasure

In B/X and I believe most OSR games these days the primary source of experience points for PCs is treasure which they bring back from their adventures. If you go with the rules as written the XP gained frok overcoming enemies is tiny to the point of being marginal if you want to have even a modest pace of character advancement in a campaign.

I quite like this approach as it makes lethal combat a means to an end instead of being the end in itself. And only one means among many others. But while giving one XP for every gold piece found in a dungeon and brought back to town works well enough for a game about treasure hunters it does have it’s limitations in pretty much any other scenario. I think mines are a great environment for a dugeon crawl, but how much treasure can you hide down there in an at least somewhat plausible way? Or take adventures in which all the opponents are wild animals or spirits with no use for treasure. Simply putting big pots of gold in random places is neither believable, nor fun.

A simple workaround for this are bounties and rewards. An owlbear with 1,000 gold coins in its cave would be silly. But an owlbear whose head is worth 1,000 gold coins when delivered to the village elders really doesn’t stretch plausibility in any way. (Aside from gold being apparently worth almost nothing in most fantasy games.) Yes, a trophy is not exactly a treasure. But there is plenty of precedent of valuable tapestries and paintings whose only worth is that someone in town will give the party a bag of coins for them, and they have always been regarded as treasure that counts towards calculating XP. Treating reward money for things done in a dungeon as treasures taken from the dungeon is a perfectly valid thing to do.

Another nice trait I like about NPCs announcing rewards for certain things is that it’s more noncommittal than having an NPC hiring the party for a quest. When you send the players on a quest it brings with it the expectation that there’s a planned plot that the players are meant to play out and I think I’ve never seen players deciding to just not complete a quest unless they were obviously set up by an evil NPC. A notice of reward is much more open ended and more of an optional objective that can be done when doing stuff in the dungeon. If there’s plenty of other stuff to do and grab, players are more likely to think twice about asking a dragon for his head or taking a gem that keeps an underground garden alive. Decisions are always the most interesting when there is no obviously better option to pick.