Monday, August 2, 2010

Minimal Dungeons

In the last post I mentioned that the dungeon I created for the Gold Anime folks was an experiment. I call it a minimal dungeon. The idea came to me through reading various discussions about Blackmoor, El Raja Key, Tegal Manor, Greyhawk, etc. Whenever you see part of notes they look almost ludicrously minimal aside from a few detailed setpieces. Something like Kitchen - 5 Orcs HD1 HP 5,5,4,3, Treasure 100 gps in a sack on the table.

So what going on here? Especially when we hear that many of these places were huge sprawling megadungeons. When we see official releases many times is it is a fairly large box or thick book. More often we just don't see anything at all.

I am beginning to think that everybody's expectations got skewed when the most of the early modules were tournament modules. In tournaments you need make things clear to make sure the module is fairly run for everybody.

I don't think we need that level of detail at our tabletop. Yes if you are publishing you will need some words in there to teach the referee what you think the module about. But beyond a certain point extra verbiage is excess weight.

But where is that point? Where does it quit being something that save you time in making a fun session and changes into something little better than what you get from having a computer randomly generate a dungeon.

I don't know and right now I don't have the answer. But hopefully what I am doing will enlighten to what would be a good answer. And hopefully you will get something out of it as well.

In addition a lot of people slag the Old School Renaissance for being too nostalgia oriented, or too backward oriented. I always thought that was hogwash with all the new things that many blogger, forum folks, and publishers do. And it no different for me with this exercise. While learning how the first campaigns were run is fun what I am looking to do is something more practical. How to make a dungeon that is useful, that you will buy, doesn't cost a lot either in time to write or page count, and just as important allow you to make it your own.

The dungeon I will be using will be this. It from an old composition book of graph paper that has a dozen of my earliest dungeons (those that survived). The key were long lost so I set out to reuse the map and writing it up anew again.

After some reading and consideration I decided to use the Moldavy random dungeon content as the foundation. Added to that I used the original version of the Monster and Treasure assortments. For the upper levels that I am detailing today I am drawing from the 3rd level charts. I know Swords & Wizardry has some charts but I will try them at another time.

Like my sandbox fantasy settings there will be an overarching theme. In this case this site was the home of an old Elven Temple community devoted to the god Silvanus. I apologize if I get vague on the background details but the group just ready to go down to the level below and I don't want to give too much away. Everything here they already been through.

So I roll up 24 locations according to Moldavy's chart and came up with this.

1a - Empty
1b - Monster, Treasure, No
1c - Empty
1d - Monster, Treasure, Yes
1e - Trap, Treasure, Yes
1f - Empty
2 - Monster, Treasure, No
3 - Special
4 - Monster, Treasure, No
5 - Special
6 - Empty, Treasure, No
7 - Monster, Treasure, Yes
8a - Empty
8b - Trap, Treasure, No
9a - Empty
9b - Special
10a - Monster, Treasure, No
10b - Monster, Treasure, Yes
10c - Special
10d - Special
10e - Monster, Treasure, No
10f - Monster, Treasure, Yes
10g - Monster, Treasure, No
10h - Special

#1 - Elven House
1a Entrance Chamber

1b Ruined Living Room
5 Orcs: HD 1; HP 3x7, 2 x 3; AC 6[13]; Atk 1 spear (1d6); Move 9; Save 17; CL/XP 1/15; Special: None.

1c Empty Room with debris

1d Resting in this room is the warleader of the Orcs.
Orc Warleader: HD 4; HP 12; AC 6[13]; Atk 1 spear (1d6+2); Move 9; Save 17; CL/XP 1/15; Special: None.

1e, ruined bedroom.
Spike Trap 2d6 damage. A board with a spike is rigged to swing across the door opening
On the remains of a dressed is a jeweled box with over 1,000d treasure and paralyzation needle trap Save or be paralyzed for 24 hours.

1f Bedroom Closet

Since this ruined elven temple is found in Dearthwood which is infested by Orcs having an orc lair is an easy call.

2 – Meditation Chapel
13 Giant Centipede (small, lethal): HD 1d2hp; AC 9[10]; Atk 1 bite (0 + poison); Move 13; Save 18; CL/XP 2/30; Special: poison bite (+4 save or die).

To me the Mediation Chapel is an elven thing where they go to commune and relax. Probably need the above line if I publish this. The 13 giant centipedes can be nasty if the party not smart about taking them out.

3 – Ancient Well
An overgrown well untended for generations, withered flowers and pitted bowls of rotten food are found in niches. If a new fresh offering is made the pixies living in there will grant a +1 bless lasting for 1d6 days to the entire party.

The first special. Set it up as a boon for the party.

4 – Amphitheater
An ancient elven wight lives in room at the bottom of the Amphitheater. The room was used to store props and as a changing room.
Wight: HD 3; HP 18; AC 5[14]; Atk 1 claw (1hp + level drain); Move 9; Save 14; CL/XP 5/240; Special: Drain 1 level with hit, hit only by magic or silver weapons.

Probably need to explain that it is sunken into the ground. As the map can be looked at either way.

5 – Dining Hall
When entered the party will see a hall with tables laden with food. When they sit down and start eating it will disappear showing the true ruined appearance. They will hear a sigh and get a feeling of great sadness. This will reset the next full moon.

The transformation of the Elven realm of Silverwood into Dearthwood was a tragedy this is meant to convey some of that sorrow. The second special result.

6 – The Kitchen
Rotten remains of a kitchen.

I like to write locales that make sense. While I can understand the appeal of funhouse dungeons they are not really my forte.

7 – Storeroom
This room was the kitchen storeroom. Amid the piles of refuse are the two Giant Snakes and their treasure. A Potion of Fire Resistance and a jeweled Necklace worth 1,000d.

Giant Constrictor: HD 6; HP 28; AC 5[14]; Atk 1 bite (1d3), 1 constrict (2d4); Move 10; Save 11; CL/XP 7/600; Special: Constrict

d = denarius = 1 silver penny = 1 silver piece. I price everything in silver, call the coins pennies as a flavor thing.

8 - Cottage
8a – Bedroom
The ruined remains of the Bedroom of a Cottage

8b - Closet
The topshelf of the closet is rotted causing it to collapse when the door is opened. Save or suffer 2d6 damage. In the fallen junk you find 1,200d.

Trap with treasure at least there is some consolation for the pain.

9 - Cottage
9a – Bedroom
The ruined remains of the Bedroom of a Cottage

9b – Closet
In the pile of junk there is a music box.

There a reason for the music box, but I can't get into it yet.

10-Temple of the Elves

In this section I will go through each room

10a –Temple Steps
8 Giant Rats surry around the temple steps
Giant Rat: HD 1d4hp; HP 4 x 3, 3 x2, 2 x 2, 1x 1 AC 7[12]; Atk 1 bite (1d3); Move 12; Save 18; CL/XP A/5; Special: 5% are diseased.

10b – Rubble pile
2 Monstrous Rats lie hidden guarding their treasure of 2,800d.
Monstrously Huge Giant Rat: HD 3; HP 10, 8; AC 6[13]; Atk 2 claws (1d3),1 bite (1d6); Move 12; Save 14; CL/XP 3/120; Special: 5% are diseased.

The party approaches the temple there are giant rats scurrying around the steps. I think this is a great evocative scene. However I think I need to explain the setup with the Monstrous Rats a bit better. Basically the players will see piles of refuse and check them out. The Monstrous rats are a gotcha moment.

10c – Alcove of Elders
The half dozen statues along this wall depict various noteworthy elders, scholars, and sages of the elves. Meditating in front of one of the Statues will cause the following spells to be cast. One time for 1 person every full moon.
1 Cast Healing (4d6+2 hp healed) , “Virtue is healing.”
2 Cast Dark Vision “One must see one’s enemies”
3 Create Food, “An army doesn’t walk on it’s stomach.
4 Shield (duration 24 hours, AC 15 melee, 17 missile), “A good defense helps when a good offense fails”
5 Haste (doubles speed and attack for 24 hours), “A good offense is better than a good defense”
6 Strength (duration 24 hours, 2d4 strength, fighter, 1d6 strength clerics, theives), “Sometimes power is best when brought directly on your enemy”.

10d – Alcove of Heroes
The half dozen statues along this wall depict various noteworthy heroes of the elves. Meditating in front of one of the statue will confer the following effect for 24 hours 1 time only for all six.
1 Raises Strength (1d6) “He could bear the load of a dozen.”
2 Raises Intelligence, “He outfought his enemies by his wits”
3 Raises Wisdom, “None was a better strategist”
4 Raises Dexterity “If you saw his blade, it was too late.”
5 Raises Constitution, “He persevered where others fail.”
6 Raises Charisma, “Thousand would gladly follow him into the abyss.”

This is was a fun set of special to write and it played really well. Probably need a sentence or two explaining the setup a little better.

10e - Altar
A centipede swarm lives around the altar.
Centipede Swarm: HD n/a; AC n/a; Atk 1 (1hp + non-lethal poison); Move 4; Save 18; CL/XP 1/15; Special: non-lethal poison.

This played out totally hilarious in the game as one member of the party rushes to check out the altar.

10f – Storeroom
Various items used in the temple were stored here. 2 evil Curates are here preparing to haul various items to begin a ritual to desecrate the main temple. In a large chest along with ritual implements is +1 Sword of Silvanus (they planned on destroying this in the ritual) and 600 gold pennies.

Evil Curate; AC 2[17]; 5th level Clerics; HP 24,16; HTB +2; ATK 1 DMG 1d6 (Mace); MV 60’; Save: 10: Mace, +1 Mace, 30d; Spells: Cause Light Wounds, Protection from Good, Hold Person, Curse, Prayer

The main fight of the ground level. If I publish this need to add a few sentances here and at the beginning to explain that this is a Temple of Silvanus that these guys are going to desecrate for their evil plan. That they are demon cultists

10g – Vestry
This is was the office of the Head Druid of the Temple. Now there are 12 Orc minions of the curate lounging around eating and drinking. If they hear fighting outside they will respond in 2d6 round as they are more than a little drunk. A party has automatic surprise on the Orcs.

Orc: HD 1; HP 3x7, 3 x 3, 3 x 5, 3 x 8; AC 6[13]; Atk 1 spear (1d6); Move 9; Save 17; CL/XP 1/15; Special: None.

The drunken orc bit could be consider a bit of a funhouse but also plays to the naturalistic side of how I run things. Not every orc guarding a chest in a 10 by 10 room is going to be on the ball.

10h - Closet
This is a locked closet where the vestments and items used in temple services are stored.

Could just be ignored as flavor text but players into roleplaying could use this as a way of renewing the temple for the glory of Silvanus. I also need to flesh it out to show that these are of Silvanus not the Demon Cultists.

I think things will come together the more I write using this format along with running game sessions. One thing I noticed is that I got more verbose the further I wrote. During the writing of Level 1 I kept the short and simple descriptions more consistent in length and brevity.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post greatly. A nice example of finding the balance. Very inspiring.

Jeff Rients said...

I agree that the tournament modules have skewed our ideas of dungeon design. I think that early megadungeons involved combination of a lot of ad libbing (which I find very fun) and a lot of notes that served merely as handy mnemonics for the ideas previous designed in the DMs head. Spelling out the dungeon precisely in advance removes a lot of the sense of play from the DMing role and discourages stealth incorporation of ideas appropriated from the players.

Telecanter said...

This whole issue fascinates me and seems central to designing dungeons.

I became aware of it with the first one-page dungeon contest-- How much info does a DM receiving an adventure need? Where does the artistry of dungeon design hide, just in the map, the layout of rooms?

One way you could probably get even more minimal is eliminate most stat blocks. If there are six giant rats in a room, just saying that might be enough. Special monsters would need more detail, and you might want to give hit points so a DM doesn't have to roll any, but there are a lot of commonplace monsters that would be pretty standard across systems.

Justin Alexander said...

For me, minimal detail in dungeon keys is absolutely essential for home prep.

But if I'm paying money for something, I want the additional detail. Why? Because one of the specific reasons I spend money on adventure products is to inject someone else's creative vision into my campaign. (It's very similar to the reasons I enjoy performing in plays by William Shakespeare or Neil Simon instead of only performing in original scripts.)

So something like "Kitchen - 5 Orcs HD1 HP 5,5,4,3, Treasure 100 gps in a sack on the table" just isn't particularly useful to me. I could certainly run an encounter from that, but it would be an encounter almost entirely created by own my creative impulses.

In addition, it's just not that difficult to generate "Kitchen - 5 Orcs HD1 HP 5,5,4,3, Treasure 100 gps in a sack on the table". So what am I really paying for? I've created entire dungeons on the fly, so a bog-standard map populated by a bunch of specific-yet-undeveloped encounters is only an inhibition to my creativity.

OTOH, words for the sake of words are even less interesting to me. If the only concepts you have to communicate are (a) there's a kitchen; (b) there are 5 orcs there; and (c) there's a sack of 100 gold pieces on the table, then the short-and-sweet entry is sufficient. And a few encounters like that throughout a published adventure are probably acceptable.

But what I want from a commercial product in general is for you to make that encounter memorable, interesting, and/or flavorful in some unique way.

JeraldSr said...

Sorry, I just really liked the wording of this comment "stealth incorporation of ideas appropriated from the players" by Jeff! This is something that Rob is really good at!

And - to add that when actually playing any dungeon DM'd by Rob, you are going to have fun! One thing that he does that can not be put into a published "schematic" of the adventure, is clever use of miniatures and props - even if they are only just extra dice to represent individual wolves in a pack. Even the "piles" of debris scattered around the chambers were physically represented - as was the alter, statues, campfires, some doorways, chests, idols, tables, fireplaces, etc.!
Rob's campaigns are bursting with details and unique encounters, and are constantly changing as he appropriates the many ideas of the players into the flow of the adventure - I suppose the problem is how to condense a living & breathing world into something as limiting as a DM floor plan with notes.

Melan said...

Justin Alexander: Those are good points. Someone's homemade key could be generic, but there is a lot in the game which comes from presentation, interaction and extra detail. When we are talking about something being published, it isn't possible to bottle the group dynamic, but there is a need to convey some of the context. I would at least incorporate the extra material that comes up at my table - expansion through play, which solidifies the rough concepts, draws attention to issues that might not come up in the original wtriting process, and generally gives every adventure a further pass.

One place where a very sparse key did not work that well was Geoffrey's Carcosa module, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer. It is obvious Geoffrey is an extremely creative GM, but in his desire to make the module universally useable, he whittled it down to a degree that it read tto similar to Descent to the Depths of the Earth, without the details that would make it Carcosan. It is the same reason Castle Greyhawk as a product imagined by the fans is an impossible dream: so much of it was dependent on Gary Gygax as the GM, and probably the entire game environment, that alone, it would be a disappointment to all but the dedicated archeologists (which, granted, would include me).