Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Old-School DMing Blogiography 2: Of Dungeons

Continued from Part 1

Old-school dungeoncrawls are conventionally resource-constrained.  Hit points and spells are limited, and the more time you spend in the dungeon, the more treasureless random encounters you'll have, which are a poor use of your resources.  The party is not in the dungeon to kill everything that moves.  Old-school dungeoneering has as much in common with the heist genre as the action genre.  Get in, get the goods, get out alive.  Players should reach consensus about the expedition (not adventure)'s objective before reaching the dungeon, and know when to call it quits and head back to town.  Retreat is an option; encourage players to exercise it regularly.  Does winning this fight advance the aims of the expedition?  How much (spells, HP, time, ammunition) will it cost you to win?  Any individual fight might be winnable, but they add up, and there's always the chance that there'll be one more random encounter than you expected on your way out of the dungeon.  Let them know these facts.

It is possible to build dungeons sufficiently small as to be clearable in a single expedition.  This is inadvisable.  Dungeon reuse is good, because it contributes to the emergent worldbuilding mentioned in the Dungeon of Signs link in part 1.  Players can experience the effects of their actions on the environment - if you kill all of the giant spiders, the bat and rat populations are going to grow out of control.  If you unseal the crypts, undead might start appearing as wandering monsters throughout the dungeon.  Stories and lore grow up around reused dungeons; the iron spikes, chalk marks, soot, blood, and corpses your players leave around provide emergent detail, and the dungeon takes on a character of its own.  Reusing a dungeon is also very prep-time efficient; once you've done the initial work of mapping and stocking, having some new monsters move in to replace the ones killed last session is very quick.

If your system of choice permits resources to be restored within the dungeon (ye olde Short Rest), this makes it somewhat more difficult to make a dungeon highly reusable, because the PCs will tend to rest in the dungeon instead of leaving and re-traversing territory.  This can be partially alleviated with "the park closes at sundown"-type rules for a supernatural underworld (pdf warning, see page 22)-style dungeon, especially if you keep careful track of time until 'doomsday'.  If taking a short rest trades limited time for spells and HP, parties will have to make careful resource-management decisions, which are one of the pillars of old-school play.

A half-sheet of graph paper of dungeon, stocked and ready to play today, is infinitely better than a ten-page megadungeon that you never finish building.  I've gotten about ten sessions out of a sheet-and-a-half-of-uncramped-graph-paper dungeon.  If you intend for your party to keep their own maps, you should take ease-of-duplication into account when designing your dungeons - rectangles are easy to describe precisely in words, curves and 37-degree angles are less so.  If you want to build reusable dungeons, you should Jayquay them - lots of entrances, exits, paths between levels, loops, and other topologically-interesting paths.  Re-traversing a linear dungeon many times is boring, and a linear dungeon also provides no paths around obstacles like particularly-deadly monster lairs.

Other considerations for building reusable, old-school dungeons: competing NPC/monster factions in the dungeon can add a lot of potential for divide-and-conquer, tenuous alliances, mutual betrayal, and other satisfying emergent narratives.  Empty rooms are great - they build tension and provide buffer zones between lairs of different types of monsters, good places to restock replacement monsters into, and areas for players to retreat through.  Building proper megadungeons on a hobbyist time-budget is really hard unless you take shortcuts like node-based design or filling in the blank spaces on the map during play.  Avoid Bad Trap Syndrome - Hack & Slash has many quality traps, which I heartily recommend.  Just as Hack & Slash emphasizes providing hints, clues, and actionable information about traps to PCs so that they can make informed decisions, you can (and should!) do the same for monsters within a dungeon and in the wilderness.

Most OSR rulebooks have plenty to say about filling dungeons with monsters and treasure.  I have little to add, save that building a custom random encounter / dungeon stocking table per level is great for differentiating / theming your dungeons, and that I find it works better to figure out how many monsters you need, then roll and place them sensibly, than to roll for each room and end up with nonsensical arrangements.  Pretty straightforward.

When in doubt, err on the side of too much treasure.  It's good for player morale and keeps the pace of levelling up, especially as PC deaths pull XP out of the party.  XP-for-treasure is a great rule, because it incentivizes interactions with the game-world other than violence.  There's no such thing as level-appropriate treasure - sometimes you roll a +3 suit of full plate in a first-level dungeon, and it's awesome, but ultimately it just means the party can play a little more aggressively, taking on stronger foes and greater risks.  Since monsters aren't tightly level-appropriate either, this isn't really a problem.  Magic items that would be wildly level-inappropriate in a new-school game become storied and important to the party as a whole.  I've seen players mount rescue missions for characters separated from the party because that character had an awesome magic item that the party was unwilling to lose.

Characterize your monsters.  Old-school statblocks don't differ all that much, but a few behavioral changes can make interactions with two monsters with similar statblocks very different.  This is hard to do on the fly, so it's wise to consider during prep.  Traveller's critter reaction mechanics and old D&D's morale and number encountered statblock entries are part of this, but a little extra effort in characteristic monster behavior can go a long way.

Next up - actually running an old-school dungeoncrawl.


  1. Good advice. I wish you had read this before I wrote my book on the subject; this would have stirred my brain to fill in a few holes here or there that I missed. Well done.