Aug 22

August RPG Blog Carnival: Devious Dungeons



My previous contribution to the RPGBA Blog Carnival was a post about the Albino Blood Leech, for the July Carnival hosted by Hereticworks.



This month, the Carnival is hosted by James Eck at Mind Weave RPG. James describes the theme for the latest Carnival as follows:

So, let’s talk about dungeons. Dungeons are first and foremost a way to present Challenge in the game. While they can also enhance the story, the puzzles and battles found in a dungeon appeal to that primary aesthetic of the medium. This is where, cut off from relief, TPKs never to be forgotten occur. This is where insurmountable obstacles are overcome and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. This is where legends are born.

In this month’s carnival, I hope we can explore together the things that make a dungeon fun to play, fulfilling, and memorable. What makes a good dungeon, in your opinion? What are good puzzles in dungeons like? Is it system dependent? How do you incorporate believable combat encounters in dungeons?



The Role of the Dungeon

This month’s Carnival is a tricky one for me, as I do not really use dungeons as the primary aesthetic of my campaign. I can see how they hold a central role in the origins of our hobby, and doubtless remain a key part of the OSR movement and many f20 campaigns.


Yet, as I have embraced the narrative approach to gaming, I find myself moving away from using dungeons in the game. Ironically, we are currently exploring some catacombs in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign, but this is the first true dungeon in the current cycle of tales, and likely to be the only one. As my Players and I push for more story in our games, I find the slow, attritional slog through vast underground complexes to be less rewarding for the style of game I seek.



Narrative & Faster Prep

However, there can still be a place for an underground complex in a narrative game. If drama comes from conflict, then there is sure to be plenty of drama in a dungeon. My current campaign is exploring a complex of tombs and we are finding plenty of story in the sequence of chambers.


These catacombs were also the subject of my June RPGBA Carnival article.


So, how does a narrative GM stock a dungeon? Well, this narrative GM simply did not want to go through the traditional room-by-room prep routine. I have done this in the distant past, only to find it something of a time sink. Plus, for all those rooms that my Players simply ignored, I had outright wasted my time.



The Story of a Dungeon

Instead, I needed a much faster method. I still wanted to hit the elements of the main narrative, which meant writing up some of the rooms. So, I created short descriptions for the highlights of the story. This covered the entrance, the dwarven guards, an arcane war machine that related to the broader campaign history, a few chambers of walking dead and the final chamber holding the goal of the dungeon quest.


This still left me with about half the rooms empty. Rather than double my workload by making notes for each of these, I just created a list of potential room contents. This list is really little more than some improv-style notes, but it serves to reinforce the main themes of the tombs.


Dungeon Table

As the location to be explored has a tight theme, a network of tombs, it was an easy matter to list the five types of chamber that could be found:


  1. Clockwork Mechanism, defunct – No threat to the Heroes
  2. Shelves of Servant Corpses – Eerie, but harmless
  3. Generic Tombs – Standard dwarven tombs, with nothing of note
  4. Clockwork Mechanism, active – An active trap to be disarmed or bypassed
  5. Treasure Tomb – More ornate tomb with valuable contents
  6. Roll Twice – Combine results


Whenever a Hero walks into an “empty” area of the tombs, I roll a d6, consult the table and describe accordingly. Simple, effective and quickly stocks the peripheral areas of the dungeon with minimal prep from me.


Advanced Options

It is possible to take this idea further, and add a little more variety to the outcomes.


First of all, the 6 result represents an exploding re-roll. If another 6 is rolled on the initial re-roll of two dice, than another two dice are rolled. Furthermore, if a double is rolled on any re-roll, then there are also 1d6 Walking Dead in the chamber.


Secondly, beyond a certain point in the dungeon, as the Heroes near their goal, two dice are rolled for each chamber. Once more, sixes are re-rolled with two more dice. Doubles will also result in d6 Walking Dead. This increases the variety of results, with more combined entries. Plus, it better reflects the overall pace of the story, namely that the stakes are increasing as the Heroes near their goal.


Bigger, More Intense

The next step up would be to simply increase the size of the table. I shall use the example of eight entries, but the principle could be extended further. This would give us the following, expanded table:


  1. Clockwork Mechanism, defunct – No threat to the Heroes
  2. Shelves of Servant Corpses – Eerie, but harmless
  3. Generic Tombs – Standard dwarven tombs, with nothing of note
  4. Clockwork Mechanism, active – An active trap to be disarmed or bypassed
  5. Treasure Tomb – More ornate tomb with valuable contents – +1 to all Rolls, max +2
  6. Roll Twice – Combine results – +1 to all Rolls, max +2
  7. Dwarven Ghost – Attacks all non-dwarves
  8. Tomb of the Dwarf King – Armoured Dwarven skeletons and ancient crown treasure.


As before, this table uses a d6. However, once a five or a six are rolled, then modifiers are added to the subsequent rolls. This ensures that the defunct clockwork mechanisms are only encountered in the early parts of the tombs. Likewise, the shelves of servant corpses will also cease to appear once the second modifier is added.


Conversely, once the modifiers are in use, new areas of the tombs can be encountered. Eventually, the climactic Tomb of the Dwarf King will be rolled. If there are still more rooms to be explored, then treat this as a unique encounter, and re-roll twice more on the table. Otherwise, this dungeon will have run its course and it is experience points and waffle time.


It is possible to add more encounters to the table, but this example is enough to give you the general idea.. Ensure that you adjust the maximum modifier number to allow for the upper numbers to be rolled.



Using a table to generate the rooms in a dungeon that are not central to the plot will ensure you focus on the important narrative locations. Yet, this simple method gives you faster prep and can create content for many lesser chambers. For larger dungeon complexes, you could create one such table for each themed area: tombs, orc nest, mushroom forest, etc.


What sort of tables would you create? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Check out all the entries to the August Carnival at the Mind Weave RPG site.


Happy Gaming


Follow this link to learn more about the RPG Blog Alliance.


Something for the Weekend next week: Yes/No and Little Wizards, a synthesis of interesting outcomes.

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