While I have had some recent experience running dungeons, I still don't feel ready to write that post. But this is a start in that direction.
Looking back on my past experiences running ACKS dungeons in contrast with RatHell, I recognize a critical mistake. My previous dungeons were very undead-and-vermin heavy. Of my six previous ACKS dungeons and ~50? sessions of ACKS, I recall about 15 dungeon encounters with sentients, most of which led to immediate violence and extermination. I think only about three of the sentient groups encountered ever mattered in a later session. A far cry from the "factions in the dungeon" that I mentioned in my previous post, but apparently failed to use in practice.
Relatedly, I also realized that my NPC game in ACKS has, historically, been extremely weak. I'd create a couple town NPCs, and they'd mostly be ignored or killed. The most mileage I got out of a townie NPC was that time an assassin guildmaster got out of Dodge before the party could catch him. They sent spies after him and lived in fear of his return and it was great. But ultimately my primary source of interesting NPCs was actually henchmen who defected - the party had an emotional investment and interest in them, and were on neutral footing; not out to kill 'em, but not friendly and downright helpful either. This is where interesting "let's make a deal" interactions happen. Also a good place for mutual suspicion and sudden but inevitable betrayal.
I think these things, lack of recurring intelligent monsters and lack of good NPCs, are very much related.
When the majority of the party's time and attention is in the dungeon, the dungeon is the correct place to find and create NPCs, and for the DM to spend effort on fleshing out NPCs. And by NPCs, I mean "people the party wants to talk to rather than stab on sight," using "people" loosely. Intelligent monsters who aren't necessarily immediately hostile and who survive multiple sessions are A+ NPCs.
Named NPCs in RatHell that the party knows about:
- Duke Kasimir: He's in charge of town.
- Seljuk the Tatar: He runs an institution where townsfolk can bet on which adventurers will survive dungeon expeditions.
- Pox the Piper: Late ratman chieftain, RIP.
- Scarface: Ratman taken prisoner and interrogated, named for "gruesome scarring" mortal wounds result from the fight where the party captured him.
- Scabies: Ratman distiller, location noted on Scarface's map. Party has heard that he is a very reasonable businessrat, and they want to visit him.
- Limper: Ratman who fled after the party shot him in the leg with a crossbow.
- Dogeater: Ratman hero who killed the party's dog and their cleric and escaped to tell about it. I think he deserves a bigger hat and another hit die.
At this point, my tentative rule is that any intelligent monster who escapes an encounter with the party gets a name until I've filled out a reasonable roster of dungeon NPCs. The joy of emergent ratman names is that I can use the sort of thing my players would've nicknamed them anyway...
This shift of the focus of NPC-creation to the dungeon mirrors the "the game is in the wilderness/dungeon, not in town" philosophy of the Western Marches. Town is boring. Townsfolk are boring. They don't have anything you want that you can take without getting in deep trouble with the law. Dungeon NPCs, on the other hand, have treasure and information and strength that can be applied to other critters in the dungeon, and you can kill 'em and take their stuff. So much potential!
Another benefit of making heavier use of intelligent foes is that it is entertaining and intellectually stimulating for the DM, much more so than running stupid monsters. Even with the orcs in Midnight, I felt constrained by the orc-nature, and my players' expectations of orcs as not very clever. But ratmen are an unknown quantity, which leaves me free to make them reasonably devious. It's a much nicer way to run intelligent foes than having to deal with classed/demihuman NPC stats. I have been enjoying the counter-for-counter with my players, and being a ratman-bastard DM in general.