Tactics and Tips08/03/2007

The Dungeon Crawl, Part 2
Sibling Rivalry

A good story hook is only half the battle, though. A dungeon benefits greatly from interesting story elements, but it only sings when that's coupled with entertaining game play.

But for that, you'll have to wait until next month...

Last month, our authors talked about the story elements that go into making a memorable dungeon crawl. But as we alluded to, that's only half the equation. A story falls flat if the execution of the plot doesn't involve exciting game play. So this month, the authors look at the other side of the coin from their favorite dungeon crawls....

Andy: It's easy to say "dungeons need entertaining game play," but a bit trickier to describe exactly what that means. As the saying goes, though, I'm pretty sure I know it when I see it. Here are a few of my favorite clues that indicate an adventure author understands what makes for a fun play experience.

  • Big rooms. Simultaneously the easiest problem to spot at a glance and the hardest habit to break, too-small dungeon rooms are the bane of fun gameplay. It dates back to the time when combats occurred entirely in the minds of the players and DM, so the size of the room didn't matter much. It's much easier to run a fight with six orcs and five PCs in a 20x20 room if you're not relying on a scale representation of the battle (that is, a battle grid and miniatures).

Encounters are more interesting when everyone has room to move around. A 10x20 trophy hall seems like an enormous room in real life, but in D&D terms it's tiny. That encounter instantly becomes more entertaining in a 40x60 chamber.

Greg: In running my military campaign through The Red Hand of Doom [spoiler alert], I realized that the two climactic battles in the Ghostlord's Lair could potentially take place in rooms sized 20x30 or smaller. How was I supposed to fit four PCs, three hobgoblin monks, two clerics, and a stormsinger in that room . . . not to mention the hell hounds the two clerics were supposed to summon? Plus, each room was at a dead end, giving the villains no ability to move the battle to more advantageous ground.

Andy: The truth is that pretty much every adventure author in the world has screwed this up. Look at just about any published D&D adventure and you'll find some rooms that are simply too small for the fight that has to occur therein. In my own Lord of the Iron Fortress, maybe two or three rooms are really big enough for the fights that they're supposed to hold.

Greg: At first I thought about doubling the scale of the entire map, but there was a practical problem with that -- it wouldn't fit on the battle mat anymore. So I did a little creative scale adjustment to a few key rooms (making sure doors and hallways still lined up properly). The real success came from changing the tactics proposed by the authors of the adventure to move the encounters into more fluid spaces. The encounter with the hobgoblins moved into a bigger room with multiple exit points (great for the invisible creatures to sneak away), and the climax with the lich moved out of his sanctum into a main chamber. Turns out when you light his sacred tree on fire, he doesn't just sit back -- he comes looking for a fight.

Andy: Look, regardless of whether your D&D experiences date back to the Caves of Chaos or you just don't want to use up all your graph paper at once, your dungeon rooms are probably too small. If you don't want to redraw maps, doubling your scale (1 square equals 10 feet instead of 5 feet) is a good first step toward increasing the fun.

Next time you draw a map, throw in some really big rooms (80x100 or even larger) and things will really get interesting. Though often too wide-open for multiple consecutive encounters, the maps from the Fantastic Locations product line are great for big individual encounters.

Don't be afraid to experiment -- it's well worth the effort and occasional mistakes. Eventually, you'll find a mix of room and encounter sizes that your group really digs.

  • Rooms with interesting features. This may be the simplest but most often forgotten trick to creating fun game play in your dungeon. Featureless dungeon rooms are easy to draw, but boring to play. Anything at all that changes the expected interaction of characters and monsters makes players think a little, and in turn makes that room more fun.

    Pillars, ledges, or piles of rubble are a good start -- they can be added to just about any dungeon room. Jumpable crevasses, clouds of poisonous mist, or acid rivers floating through midair are better. A grand temple chamber complete with balcony overlooks, climbable statues, an altar that radiates an aura of fear until the rogue disables it, and a semi-sentient orb of necromantic energy that floats around attacking the nearest living creature each round... now that's a memorable encounter!

Heck, even just nonrectangular rooms go a long way. Put a few nooks and crannies into your rooms, or connect a couple of rooms with a short tunnel to create a multiroom area. You might be surprised how much of an impact it makes.

Greg: Think of memorable action sequences in movies. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader don't stand rooted to the ground at the end of The Empire Strikes Back -- they go through three or four rooms before ending with Vader's soul-crushing declaration and Luke choosing to plummet thousands of feet rather than join his pop. Jack Sparrow and Barbossa battle back and forth across a huge chamber in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, all while Will and Elizabeth fight the other zombie pirates. Find inspiration there, and visualize a moving battlefield.

If movies don't get your dungeon-crafting juices flowing, think about other games. Back in the Island campaign, the PCs found their way to a weapons forge. I assembled the main floor of the forge out of Robo Rally board pieces, coming up with game rules for the conveyor belts, flame throwers, pits, smashers, and the like. Although the fight didn't quite extend as far into the room as I had hoped, it was still a lot of fun . . . and forced me as a DM to explore some new design space, really getting me thinking about interesting environments.

Andy: Just about every great battle I remember fondly from a D&D game I've run or played was a battle that moved around. That's not just coincidence -- that's causation.

  • Good monster combos. Pair your monsters with other creatures that synergize well together, or with terrain features that favor them. Yeah, four wraiths are scary, but they're even scarier combined with an evil cleric who can bolster or heal them, or when encountered on a precarious ledge or in a crowded labyrinth.

These combos are even more effective if the PCs have already fought some of the monsters in more "normal" circumstances. The first time you fight an incorporeal flying undead creature, that's scary enough, but you learn to deal. When your well-honed tactics for wraith-fighting are challenged by unusual terrain combos, though, that forces you to think on your feet.

  • PC-exploitable elements. Not everything in the dungeon has to favor the monsters. It's fun for the characters to find parts of the dungeon they can use to their own benefit. Maybe that's a terrain or layout element (hold this bottleneck and only one of the ogres can attack at a time), a dungeon feature (this sacred circle helps us but not the monsters), or a puzzle that, when solved, gives the PCs an edge for an encounter or two.

Greg: Funny that example should come up. Just last weekend in the very same Ghostlord Lair mentioned above, the characters faced six lesser bonedrinkers (with max hit points, making them very tough) in a large room. Clearly outnumbered, Sergeant Finnvhar ordered the troops back into a narrow intersection so they could face the little buggers one at a time. Antheric went from being grappled by two and attacked by three others to dealing with them on his terms, and it turned into a pretty gruesome assembly line of destruction.

Andy: Really, all the suggestions here boil down to one goal -- make each encounter feel different from the ones that came before and the ones that come after. Ensure that the same PC tactics won't work in every fight, and even their third battle against ogres will feel fresh and exciting.

Greg: Y'know, it's funny how so many examples of entertaining game play keep cropping up from the very last session I ran . . . must be a statement about the high quality of my DM'ing.

Andy: Okay, folks, time to wrap this up before Greg's head swells too much.

And speaking of wrapping up, this will be the last Sibling Rivalry column (at least from these siblings). We've had a lot of fun writing them, and we hope you've enjoyed reading them. If you'd like to see more columns from either or both of us in the future, be sure to send a polite note to our friendly neighborhood webmaster.

Don't feel like you have to praise both of us -- Greg's ego has taken enough abuse as the younger sibling that he can handle being ignored by the adoring fans.

Greg: I'll be in my box, drying my tears with torn-up character sheets of yore. Good night!

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D , Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.

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