Friday, November 6, 2020

Gauntlets and Embracing the Funhouse Dungeon

I was perusing my archives and came across this post on Dark Souls.  The section on gauntlets jumped out at me.  As noted previously, I've been considering trying to run an open-table OSE game, stealing bits from ACKS and elsewhere.  But I would need a dungeon.  I haven't been able to bring myself to make one.

My past dungeons have been fairly simulation-driven.  What was this place before, what was this room when it was inhabited.  And my players never really...  seemed to realize that background was there and make inferences based on it.  And because they were built to be "real", my dungeons tended to be similar to each other, most of the time.  I can point to definite similarities in the layout of the mountaintop monastery in the Bjornaborg campaign and the necromancer academy in the Shieldlands campaign, four years apart.

I think it was some combination of boredom and too much work that made me tired of making dungeons.  Rathell was a reaction against this, and I consider it a partial success - it was topologically interesting and fun to build and run NPC opposition in.  But it was too much Rathell.

Gauntlets provide an interesting out for "too much of the same".  Take a large dungeon.  Split it into "levels".  Jayquay connections between the levels.  Make the levels "test" different things.

  • Class gauntlets - does your party have / have enough
    • Clerics - undead (especially incorporeal), disease and poison
    • Thieves - most dungeons are sort of thief-checks already.  Traps, locks, sheer surfaces, secret doors, enemies who sound alarms.
    • Fighters - hard to say, because they are already so central / default.  I guess in ACKS where fighters cleave up, decent-sized groups of enemies who aren't big enough to waste a sleep on.
    • Wizards - also hard to say, because they do too much.  Big non-undead lair fights where you need sleep, as a low-level example.
  • Gear checks
    • Ranged weapons - open areas with lots of broken terrain and pits and enemies who have ranged weapons 
    • Melee - fog, lots of small rooms and tight corners
    • Reach weapons - enemies who are dangerous to engage closely (poison blood, damage auras) or who have reach themselves
    • Small weapons - confined spaces, enemies who grapple, enemies who swallow whole
    • Iron spikes - areas with lots of portcullises and evil doors that shut by themselves unless spiked open
    • Rope - pits
    • Lanterns - wind that extinguishes torches (before continual light anyway)
    • Axes, shovels, picks - wood, earthen, and stone barriers (or Barrowmaze's bricked-up doorways, for example)
    • Lycanthropes and vampires already sort of fit this model as "gear check monsters" 
      • And gargoyles and other enemies immune to nonmagic weapons
      • Are shriekers and cave locusts silence 15' radius checks?
    • Spell - maybe the right way to look at wizard checks is areas that get a lot easier if you have a particular spell available, and to consider it on a per-spell basis.  Detect Magic, Read Language, Dispel Magic, and the elemental resistances seem like sort of obvious ones.
  • Culture / practice / adaptation checks
    • Mapping - mazes, areas with lots of very similar rooms where it's easy to get lost if you don't map or do it badly
    • Speed - areas with long hallways that take lots of time to traverse and "the park closes at sundown" areas.  Fast enemies who pursue.
    • Encumbrance / carrying capacity - heavy treasure, heavy doors that need a lot of strength to open.
    • Big party - 20' wide or wider hallways, where holding the line with just PCs isn't going to work
    • Small party - 5' wide hallways, where large parties just get strung out and can't bring their power to bear on any particular point.
    • Diplomacy - big sentient lairs who you can negotiate with but who are very dangerous if approached aggressively
    • Courage / resolve - Strong but low-morale enemies, magic tricks that reward the first player to solve them (as also seen in Barrowmaze)
    • Temperance (vs greed) - monkey traps, where the encumbrance is sufficient that if you try to take all of the loot you get got on the way out

And then you pick multiple.  So you might have a crypt with lots of locks and traps and undead which is a lot easier with both clerics and thieves, or a maze of narrow twisty passages full of portcullises which needs mapping, iron spikes, melee, and small parties to traverse efficiently.  And then if there's an area that your party is ill-suited for, you explore for routes that let you bypass it for areas that are better for you.

The interesting combinations are probably the ones that put you on the horns of dilemma.  Stacking both fog and lots of narrow corridors isn't very interesting, because they both encourage melee.  An area full of pits and portcullises and archers and high wind is interesting because you need a bunch of different gear and it all competes for encumbrance.

I'm not proposing to go maximalist with this.  Obviously players will find novel solutions, and that's good.  And there's no need to make every area so tightly-themed that (say) there are no living monsters in the crypt.  And if you can find a way for it to make sense within the world, great.  But using checks / testing as a source of inspiration for mixing things up sounds very useful.

I feel...  sort of dumb for not looking at designing dungeons for old-school play this way.  It's a very gamist lens.  It's very consistent with the conception of D&D as training.  It might also work especially well with an open table - if, on any particular day, you happen to get a weird party composition based on available players, that might allow them to punch through parts of the dungeon more easily than might be possible with a more normal / balanced composition.

And if you were a mad wizard building a funhouse dungeon to reward the best heroes, maybe this is what it would look like.  Proving they can do anything is part of proving they're the best.  It would probably work well with the Dungeon Dimensions too.

I worry a little about doing this though.  If your players know that you're doing this, does it detract from the immersion of the place?  But if they don't know that different parts of the dungeon will vary wildly in difficulty by party composition, then they're probably going to complain a lot when they beat their heads on stuff.  When they need a large party the one guy who doesn't like dealing with henchmen will be salty, and when they need a small party the guy who has all the henchmen will be salty.  I dunno.  Is it worth it?

If I write a blog post about it and spoil it, will I only get players who are already totally on-board with doing whatever is necessary to win, the players who "have no style at all", who don't benefit from this lesson, while players who might benefit from the challenge avoid the game?

The other predictable follow-on question: if this applies to building dungeons, does it apply to building wildernesses?

A final thought - looking at dungeons in this way, as structures composed of challenges first and foremost rather than places within a world being simulated, is very compatible with the sort of "multiple DMs, each of whom has their own megadungeon, running for a shared pool of players and characters" style of organization that was reportedly common back in the early days.


  1. Actually I think you identified the key difference between Ruins and (Mega-)Dungeons. A mega-dungeon campaign is all about "beating" the dungeon. In order to keep it both challenging and interesting, it needs to be fairly unpredictable. So having a variety of challenges that lets individual characters shine as well as rewarding experienced players (not characters) is very, very important. In contrast, in a "normal" (non-mega-dungeon) campaign, there should be various and sundry ruins containing MacGuffins (villain or artefact) that are fairly realistic and heavily themed but much, much smaller than a mega-dungeon.

    Back in 1980, my players and I grew tired of dungeons finding them to be stupid and repetitious monster hotels because neither I nor other DMs around knew any better. Had I designed a dungeon more like the gauntlet you described, that style of campaign would have lasted a lot longer.

    Oh and don't forget to mix up the monster types within the same dungeon encounter. Out in the wilderness, we'd never fight fire and cold creatures simultaneously. But in a dungeon...!

    1. That's probably a good way to cut the space of possible adventure sites, into realistic ruins vs fantastical challenge-dungeons.

      And yes! Mixing monster types is something that I miss from the 3e era and was thinking about the other day that is hard on realism but great for gameplay.

  2. I think this is kind of a cool way to think about a dungeon - and I especially like your thought that if the party isn't well-equipped to deal with a particular section, then they can try to navigate around it.

    1. Thanks Anne! I have thought about jayquaying as offering ways for players to explore a dungeon while avoiding hard fights/lairs until they're ready for quite a while; extending it up one level of scale to avoiding hard areas until they're ready seemed like a logical extension.

  3. Is there a reason you're interested in running an OSE game specifically? Your review of it didn't seem tremendously positive.

    1. It seems to be a sort of lingua franca for open-table style online OSR games lately, and it sounds like less work than finishing adapting ACKS for open-table play. Also as noted at beginning of OSE review, the ACKS discord has been saying that I would complain less about ACKS if I had run B/X, so maybe I ought to. I don't think I've found another retrocloney system that I like better than ACKS or OSE yet.

      Although I've been reading OD&D...