Dungeons & Swords & Sorcery

I’ve written about my thoughts on how to evoke the style of Sword & Sorcery in a fantasy adventure game before in the past. I’ve been thinking about it again recently while looking to find the spark again to continue work on my setting, and my thoughts have been revolving primarily around the role of dungeon crawling in a Sword & Sorcery campaign.

While classic dungeon crawling is a very fascinating and fun form of gameplay in its own right, I think the archetypical dungeon crawl is not a good basis to build a Sword & Sorcery campaign around. The classic dungeon crawl, with its complex underground labyrinths, countless traps, secret doors, and numerous small hidden stashes of treasures all over the place naturally promotes a play style that is very cautious, methodical, and calculated. It encourages players to progress slowly and with care, to examine all the small and possibly insignificant details, and to take any precautions before following through with well thought through plans. In a well deaigned dungeon, this can be hugely exciting and thrilling. But it’s a kind of exitement and tension that is very different from the style of Sword & Sorcery. This is a style that is all about fearless and even reckless initiative, where fortune favors the bold. Heroes are certainly relying heavily on cunning and trickery to take down foes much stronger than themselves, but often these are things improvsed in the heat of the action and more of a gamble than much of a plan. In a Sword & Sorcery themes campaign, players spending a lot of time over maps and rummaging through large boxes of tools to disable a dangerous mechanism with a minimum of risk is something that you want to avoid, not to have as the default approach to playing the game. While a lot of useful things can be taken to create a great Sword & Sorcery campaign from oldschool roleplaying, the classic dungeon crawl probably isn’t one of them.

Still dungeons as a concept and an environment are really cool and absolutely have their place. But I think they need to be approached quite differently.

The first thing that I see is that dungeons should be relatively small in scope. Typically in a Sword & Sorcery adventure, a dungeon is only one chapter of a larger story. As such, I think dungeons of a size that the players can get through in two or three hours should be quite big enough. Heroes usually don’t enter a dungeon to explore its secrets, but to track down something or someone specific that they have good reason to believe to be somewhere inside. Going into a dungeon is usually more a kind of raid than an exploration. Get in fast and quietly if possible, grab what you came for, and get the hell out again fast. The dungeon is not a place to be mastered or conquered, but to be survived.

As I said above, in a Sword & Sorcery style campaign, we don’t typically want the players to stay in one place long and go through everything with a fine comb. There are two main ways to encourage that. The first one is to avoid having the players be weary of traps. If every floor tile could be a trap, things will slow down a lot. And most of the time, there won’t even be any actual danger in the first place. Environmental dangers and constucted defenses against intruders can totally work, but they should be announcing themselves to the players instead of  being hidden. Be it obvious pits of spikes, moats with hungry crocodiles, a hallway with mummies in open coffins that line the wall, or two dramatic gargoyle statues on top of the gate. What we want to accomplish is to have the players understand that if a passage looks empty and perfectly safe, there is no point for them to stop and take all the time consuming precautions to make sure there really is no trap. And this has to be absolutely consistent. It might seem fun to have a completely unexpected trap jump at the players now and then, but when you do it once, the plaeyers learn that it could happen at any time when they don’t expect it, and then they will always expect it.

Similar to the placement of traps is the placement of treasure. Having some spare change hidden between the couch cushions to reward players who spend the time to check for there is a great way to encourage them to really search everything in an area they come through, and it can be quite a lot of fun for players to do this easter egg hunt. But just as wit traps, this is something that w don’t really want in Sword & Sorcery adventures. Instead of lots of small portions of valuables being hidden all over the place, I think having just one big hoard of all the treasure in one place works much better. Yes, it’s all the joy of discovering treasures crammed into a single scene instead of having it spread out evenly, but that also means to joy in that moment is more intense. This hoard can be placed right behind the greatest danger in the dungeon, but it doesn’t have to. Getting the whole haul out while the biggest threat is still on the prowl can be even more exciting. And the main pice of the loot could also be somwthing that might be a very powerful weapon against that threat when the players encounter it later.

Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon

Getting to work on some dungeons for my next campaign, I want to stick as close as possible practical to what the Basic and Expert rules actually advise as guidelines to see how that really plays out in actual play. I have found that most of the moving pieces in this game are set up very deliberately to form a larger system, and not everything does what you first expect them to do coming from later games. I have learned that it’s almost always best to first pinpoint what you don’t like about the results of a mechanic before you start modifying the mechanic. It’s hard to improve something when you don’t know how it actually performs as designed, and you can easily miss out on something cool if you replace it before having it properly tested. So straight up B/X with only the TSR attack roll procedure replaced it will be for the start of the campaign.

The GM guidelines for making a dungeon in the Basic Rules recommend about 1/3 of rooms to have creatures, 1/2 of which possess treasure; 1/6 of rooms to have a trap, 1/3 of which are guarding a treasure; 1/6 of rooms with a special feature like magical effects or weird machines; and 1/3 of rooms being empty, 1/6 of which have a hidden treasure. For simplicity, lets assume here reaction rolls are made with no Charisma modifier, so half of all creatures encountered will be hostile. In practice, it’s can be considerably less.

In an 18 room dungeon, these fractions come out as nice even numbers, and it’s also a good scale for a mid-sized dungeon or level of a larger dungeon. This gives us the following lineup of rooms.

  • 3x monster with treasure
  • 3x monster
  • 1x trap with treasure
  • 2x trap
  • 3x special
  • 1x hidden treasure
  • 5x empty

Assuming the party spends 1 turn in each of the 18 rooms and 6 turns exploring and mapping the corridors, we get a total of 24 turns. After every 5 turns, the party needs to rest for one turn, which is 4 additional turns for a total of 28. There is a 1 in 6 chance for a wandering monster every 2 turns (or just 1 in 12 every turn), so we can expect 2 random encounters over those 28 turns. With the six monster rooms, that’s a total of 8 monster encounters, and rolling their reaction gives us an average of 4 fights.

(Those 4 fights cause additional wandering monster checks, which at a 1 in 6 chance produce an average of 2/3 encounters, or a 1/6 chance for another hostile creature. Small enough to ignore here.)

I think thia is quite an interesting tally for an 18 room dungeon: We can expect about 30 turns spend in the dungeon, with 4 fights, 4 nonhostile encounters, 3 traps, 3 special features, and 5 treasures. This is much less than I expected. And I love it! With a distribution of content like this, I can see how a place can feel like an old abandoned ruin. Very different from the fortified outposts that make up most dungeons I am familiar with.

Something that had never occured to me before is that 2 out of 5 treasures located in a dungeon will be in the possession of creatures that mean the party no harm. That puts the players into an interesting position. They probably won’t try to rob a group of nonhostile elves who are exploring the dungeon themselves, but what about a pair of ogers who can’t be bothered to try beating up the PCs? Players might still want to steal from them, and perhaps even kill them to prevent future attacks on travelers on the nearby road. Very interesting stuff.

The Basic Rules also recommend that about 1/4 of XP players gain in a dungeon should come from monsters, the rest from treasures. You could use the treasure tables to generate treasure hoards, but that’s something I always found too bothersome, as a dungeon full of simple insect monsters would have completely different amounts of treasures than a dungeon that is a big bandit lair. My prefered method is to tally up the XP values of all the room creatures and multiply that by 3 to get the amount of gp for all the treasure in the dungeon. (Nothing for wandering monsters, because those are supposed to be undesireable to enconter.) Then I just put the coins in the treasure hoards on the dungeon map as seems appropriate, with the arbitrarily chosen magic item added here and there. (I actually put another amount of treasure equal to the XP of the room creatures into hidden secret rooms that I don’t expect the players to find most of the time, as an additional challenge.)

Interesting stuff. I can’t wait to see how this will play out in practice.

The Pencil is mightier than the Board

You know all these kids these days, with their battle maps, miniatures, and VTTs? I think it’s one of the worst aspects in which RPGs have gone into the completely wrong as they developed, following right behind the total mistake of adventure paths, campaign books, and “telling a story” (the curse of Dragonlance).

It’s gonna be this kind of post.

Now I am not that old. I actually played way more videogames than I’ve run RPGs in my life, and been doing it for much longer. Baldur’s Gate was my first introduction to D&D, and in my early days as a GM I spend way more time as one of the admins on a German Neverwinter Nights server than playing at a table with my first group. It’s not that I am opposed to any of that on principle. But in my opinion, when it comes to playing an RPG with character sheets and dice, and having a thinking GM running the show, all this stuff like highly detailed battlemaps and fancy looking tokens don’t actually work as visual aids, but instead are serious distractions from the game.

This also doesn’t have anything to do with 5th edition or how kids these days are playing the game. The whole issue goes back to at least the launch of 3rd edition over two decades ago, when the game was designed from the ground up to revolve around position markers on a square grid. (Which was a really strong incentive to entice players to give the publisher more money for miniatures, which were already a money printing machine for Warhammer at that point.) But it seems to me that even with 5th edition significantly cutting back on that as the game mechanics are concerned, all the tools available to make very impressive looking maps yourself, various brands of plastic dungeon floors and walls being around, and the ease with which people can show of images of all swag (I know, “old man”…) seem to have made all this stuff much more prominent.

But my stance is that all this superfluous stuff does not make your campaigns better, but instead detracts from them. It might very well be that this perception is impacted significantly by how ADD affects the brain processes information, but to me, highly detailed battlemaps or fancy toy soldiers don’t inspire my imagination. Instead, they lead to a greater abstraction and create distance and detachment from the scene. I am very much in favor of running adventures with basically an empty table. To me, the table is a surface to roll dice and put your papers down to write. Indoor maps can – and should – be nothing more than a simple sketch to communicate the general layout of the area when explaining it verbally woul be too cumbersome, and regional maps are best handled as props in the form of sheets on paper that look like someone in the game world drew them by hand.

Ingame map from Thief.

The less visual input you get from stuff that is on the table, the more the mind is encouraged to create an environment in your head that reflects the details in the GM’s description of what you see. At least in my own personal experience, when you shove tokens around on a square grid, you start perceiving the encounter as a logic puzzle that is to be solved by computing an optimal sequence of moves.

Something like this looks very fancy and perhaps even evocative. When you first look at it, you might even start imagining for a moment what the place would look like if you were a person stepping into it through a door. But as the encounter progresses, all of that color that hints at an environment starts to fade away, and the only thing you really keep seeing is the grid lines and the barriers that block ranged attacks and spells. Because those lines are what is relevant information if you play like that. The grind lines are the signals, while the colors that hint at a stunning and memorable environment are  only noise.

To take the most extreme case, who ever imagines the battlefield, hordes of peasant levies, mounted knights, and war elephants that are represented on a chess board? It doesn’t happen. They are simply a grid on a board and abstract tokens that can be moved within certain rules. And even when you have the action of a fantasy RPG being connected to a non-mechanical story, I see this mental process of abstraction happen all the time. In an RPG, encounters should be scenes. They should not be logic puzzles. Or as someone phrased it many years ago, “don’t look for solutions to obstacles on your character sheet”. That’s not what RPGs are supposed to be for. That’s not where their amazing unique potential lies.

Moving tokens around on a terrain map is something that goes back to wargaming before roleplaying games were ever a thing, so it’s not like there ever was a moment in which they were introduced. But wargames have a completely different intention to RPGs. Their whole point is to be an abstraction and a simulation, to play out  how battles might have turned out differently if certain tactical decisions had been made. Making things more objective was the goal for both military planners and armchair generals. Imagining yourself as an officer on a hill talking with messengers delivering reports and orders was never the goal. But that’s exactly what fantasy RPGs are about.  To imagine yourself stepping through great ancient gates, or descending down a damp stone staircase into the darkness. To see vague forms slithering in the shadows and staring into the face of a demon as it rises from a burning pit. Putting a toy demon on a square grid just doesn’t deliver that.

There are many situations where less is more. And less visual aids means a more vivid imagination. (If the GM is doing a decent job with descriptions, but that’s a different story.)

Another thing that keeps happening to me is that any time I work on a new world map, I always get fed up with whatever shiny map making program I have and keep going back to go grab a pencil and some graph paper. Not quite sure why, but the process of designing environments always goes so much better and faster by just using a pencil. I guess in some part, it might be because of the limitations of the tools. There is no choice of colors or different line strength. Putting down a line is really easy, as is adjusting one. And there is no temptation to make everything right and good looking the first time so you don’t need to redo it all later, because you know the result will be a smudgy mess and making a nice handout to show the players has to wait until all the placement decisions are locked in. I’m not even hyperbolic when I say designing maps is probably 10 times faster on paper than doing it on a computer.

Why do I never see links to All Dead Generations?

Looking back, the prime days of OSR lie now a decade behind us, and while a number of people are still around, occasionally sharing some new thought or insight every couple of months, very little of any meaningful significance is added to the discourse of B/X and AD&D that hasn’t been thoroughly examined years ago.

But one thing still does stand out that really brings something new (back) to the table that has significant value to help understanding how those old games tick and how you can make them really work without existing experience going back to the 80s. Which is Gus L’s “new” site All Dead Generations. This is an excellent resource I never really see mentioned anywhere.

When I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign a year ago, one of the realizations that I gained from it was that I just didn’t get the concept of dungeons. What a dungeon is is obvious, but I never understood how going from room to room filled with monsters and random crack-wizard puzzle-devices was supposed to be fun for anyone involved. As someone who got into D&D in the last days of 2nd edition, when the 90s Metaplot craze was still in full swing, fighting monsters in rooms never seemed like something that contributes to the plot of an adventure or a campaign. And it doesn’t. That’s one of the key things to take away from the many long pages of All Dead Generations. Thinking about a plot when going into a dungeon to explore is already the completely wrong approach. I never figured out how to make it work in 20 years, because that’s never how it was supposed to work. Dungeons & Dragons under WotC has been a cargo cult game, that emulates mechanics from the 70s and early 80s because they’ve seen these things being a major part of D&D, but with no apparent understanding of what they are for and how they work.

All Dead Generations has been a massive eye opener for me and got me super excited about an all dungeon crawl campaign just after I had given up on using dungeons in my games entirely. It’s a fantastic read for anyone who wants to understand how B/X is actually supposed to be played. And yet, nobody seems to be talking about it. I guess partly because there are few people still around who could talk about it, but to do so they’d also need to hear about it in the first place.

So here’s a big shout out to Gus. Which is a bit weird from a marginal nobody like me to one of the well known big guys of oldschool RPGs, but it is what it is. Go check out All Dead Generations.

Return of the Mapper for online games?

Have you heard the good message of our savior Gus L? I learned entirely by accident that he didn’t stop writing RPG stuff but instead has been sharing new stuff on his new site All Dead Generations for the past three years. All the stuff on the site is about what he calls Classic Dungeon Crawling, which is basically OD&D and early Basic D&D, and how that style of Dungeon Crawling is an exploration fantasy game and not a combat fantasy game. A fantastic resource that I recommend to everyone, though it comes in hefty chunks that take quite a while to chew on.

After my overall pretty great D&D 5th edition campaign last year, I was throwing the towel on trying to make dungeons work, because I just could not figure out how to make a dungeon an interesting place that is not simply a warehouse for nonsensical puzzles. All the advice I was coming across on that front was “Well, sometimes funhouse dungeons can be fun.”But now, after 20 years as a GM, I finally get dungeons!

I have seen the light!

Dungeon Crawling and exploration in general isn’t just an aspect of an RPG, it’s even more a system of multiple mechanics than I previously had realized. Treating the whole dungeon as one big puzzle that will reveal the safest ways to the best treasures when figured is a great focus draw players engagement with the campaign. Especially when there’s no plot and characters don’t get shiny new toys every time they level up.

Part of solving that puzzle often is to fully grasp the layout of the dungeon and gain the ability to pinpoint the likely locations of possible shortcuts or otherwise completely inaccessible areas. Gus mentions that having players draw the map themselves is particularly bothersome in online games, where the GM can’t peak at a player’s pencil drawn map to spot obvious misunderstandings of his descriptions. (Minor errors in dimensions are desirable though.) But I took a quick look at Roll20 and found that at least in this case, this thing is actually very easy to do.

Roll20 has the paintbrush tool, which also has a shapes tool that draws rectangles by simply clicking and dragging. As a lifelong diehard user of pencils and grid paper, I think this is actually a lot easier and quicker than drawing lines around squares with a pencil. To correct errors, you can just click on one of these shapes and delete it, without any messing around with erasers. Now I’m definitely going to bring back this aspect of the game in my Great River Campaign. At least giving it a trial run. I’ve been told that there isn’t a function like this in Fantasy Grounds, but I’ve never used that myself. Which seems like a shame, since this is something really simple and basic. Though I guess when you do your mapping like this, you might not be bothering with something as fancy as Fantasy Grounds.

Mapping a River for pointcrawling

While tinkering further on my Rivercrawl idea, I cam up with this notation to map a huge river network.

First I made a Melan diagram of the main river branches for my river and marked the branches in different colors, which then looks like this.

I then turned the same information into a big table. Below you have a heavily cropped down version to show the principle of how it works. The real thing I made actually has 180 rows over five pages, but most are still completely empty at this point. The principle is basically the same as in Ultraviolet Grasslands, but without the illustrations. I find this easier for river that curves and fans out, compared to the more or less straight trade routes in UVG, and it also allows to make more notes without making a huge unreadable mess. As a tool for GMs to use at the table, I think this plain look isn’t a bad thing.

Getting the whole thing set up was a bit tricky, so here’s how I did it: Since I have only three main branches at any given point of the river, I made a table with seven columns. I think you could also do it with four branches and fit nine columns on one page, but more than that probably makes the thing more a nuisance to read than a help. I found that my river has seven different combinations of parallel running branches, so I made the table with seven rows as well. At this point you first set the column widths that you want, because this will be a total bitch if you try adjusting those later. After that you merge cells together as the river branches fork and meet, which in my case looked like this.

At this point, you can simple select and row and use “add rows below” or whatever your program calls it, and you should get an identical row to the one that you had selected. Then add mile markers to the leftmost row, and you’re done.

Now to the new neat feature that I actually came up with myself. The River Ratings. Each river section row has a little field on the left side that quickly shows the GM the water conditions the players are moving into. It’s fairly self-explaining when you look at the legend above. The letter says what size categories of ships can enter that section of the river. In case of my emerging setting, it’s galley size, junk size, dhow size, and canoe size. Ships larger than that will get stuck on the bottom of the river. (The width of the river or any obstacles in the water are not considered as a separate factor for the sake of convenience. Either your ship can continue on, or it gets stuck on something.) The number indicates the speed of the current. This number is added to your ship’s speed when you travel downriver, and subtracted when you travel upriver. If the speed of the current reduces your speed below 1 mile per hour, you can’t continue by water. I had been thinking to mark the type of terrain on the riverbanks as well to calculate overland speed, but that would mess the readability of this format with too much clutter. For the setting I want to make, it’s going to be “dense forest” pretty much everywhere anyway. I did a bit of looking around for average speeds of the boat types I listed, and the numbers I went with seem to be quite realistic. They are actually leaning to the lower end, as I suspect the original numbers were based on strong ocean breezes, so it would be slower further inland.

My plan for the campaign is that there is an adventuring season of 8 month, which is then interrupted by a flood season of 4 month, where the water speed is simply too much along the whole river to get upstream. I think it would be cool to make a roll at the start of each new adventuring season to see if water levels are exceptionally high or low this year. A high river increases the size rating for the whole river by one, while a year of low water levels reduces it by one. The players might find that the expedition they had planned either needs to be canceled or attempted with a much smaller boat as the river conditions make reaching the destination in a junk or dhow impossible. You could also have a randomly determined special event that changes the water level or speed halfway through the season, which can lead to very inconvenient complications hundreds of miles away from civilization.