Monday 22 October 2018

Three Step Dungeons

I recently ran a group through the start of the Tomb of the Serpent King, and thoroughly enjoyed it. My dungeons often end up as ultra-non-linear piles of weird toys with a notable lack of anything that's an outright hazard or reward, and definite lack of a climax.

Sometimes it's nice to pull yourself a little closer to sanity, so I'm going to write a small dungeon that teaches players about its more unusual concepts as they are introduced, with a focus on leading towards a challenge for a reward, and multiple opportunities for an end-of-session climax.

In doing that I created a sort of procedure, because of course I did.

The Three Step Process:
  1. Introduce First Concept
  2. Introduce Second Concept
  3. Challenge involving both concepts and an additional twist, typically with a reward. 

First think of a bunch of interesting concepts you want to include in your dungeon. They can be monsters, items, hazards, or anything between.

You don’t really need to include things that are dead simple like “skeleton warriors” or “pit traps” but if you plan on putting a twist on them then add them in too. You can also skip out anything that has no real element of danger, say a crystal ball that lets you see other areas of the dungeon.

For this example let’s steal some fun stuff from other dungeons. Forget making a coherent theme for this, we’re just looking at how we would introduce these concepts.
  • The Green Devil Face
  • Wraiths
  • Portal Gun
  • Crossbow Snipers
  • Smoke Elementals
  • Reserve-Gravity
  • Quicksand
And we’ll be introducing them two at a time. This could be a small dungeon that only introduces two new concepts, or a sprawling dungeon comprised of smaller sections that each focus on two concepts.

The Introductions
Ideally this is an opportunity for the players to get information about the concept in a mostly safe way before it really challenges them. It needn't even be a direct encounter, the common example being a statuary that introduces the presence of a Medusa.

For the Reverse Gravity example you’d have a Reverse-Gravity room with one majorly obvious hazard so that they can get used to how it works, and the Sniper would be introduced as a lone sniper in an area with plenty of cover, and make them immediately visible (even if not immediately accessible). The Intro and the Challenge could even feature the same individual monster encountered in two separate environments, if the Intro leans towards a non-hostile introduction.

I lean pretty heavily into giving lots of information, so you may find that less works for your group.

The Challenge
Sometimes just combining the two concepts is enough, but usually it’s better to add something else in. Some ideas could be:
  • A beefed up version of the regular concept. 
  • Adding an “opposite” element to the monster, such as a hyper-intelligent variant of a previously dumb monster, or a pacifist version of a hostile monster. 
  • Adding a load of basic monsters.
  • An environment that makes things more difficult for the players. 
  • A restriction on how the players can act.
  • Removing a safety net that was previously in place.
  • Remember to put a reward in there, Treasure being the most obvious but even just passage to a new area would work. 

Adding Extra Stuff

If you go straight from concept one to concept two to a combination of both it can end up feeling quite game-y, like you're playing a Megaman level that's built around new enemies rather than a real place you're exploring. This isn’t a bad thing if that’s what you want, but if you want things to feel more organic then consider that a Three Step Dungeon need not be a Three Room Dungeon:

  • You can have simpler areas in between that don’t require introductions or just give some clues for the larger dungeon. 
  • You can include basic elements that don’t require explanation or previously introduced concepts. 
  • You can have nonlinear layout but keep the Introductions on the “main path” as best you can. 
Example- Wraiths in the Quickbog

We’ll assume this is a branch off a larger dungeon, linear except room 4 which branches off from room 3 as a dead end.
  1. Wraith (Intro 1) patrolling a hedge maze. 
  2. Precarious ladder. 
  3. Ghouls (let’s say these are civilised Ghouls, so more NPC than monster) hanging around Quickbog Patch (Intro 2). It's quicksand but gross and boggy. 
  4. Ghoul shrine (mostly just some fluff and to give the Ghouls a bit more territory to roam)
  5. Flooded cavern
  6. Treasure being guarded by three Wraiths, surrounded by Quickbog (Challenge)
This is all very vanilla so go back through and add another layer of detail on top. A nice trick is to add an unexpected or opposite element, rather than just adding another layer of the same coloured paint.
  1. Wraith patrolling a hedge maze is a pathetic lonely outcast looking for friends, but can’t help inflicting its chill touch. 
  2. Precarious ladder leads down a shaft, Ghoul Graffiti covers the walls and it’s mostly terrible poetry. 
  3. Ghouls hanging around Quickbog patch. They’re having a banquet, half sunk in the bog themselves, and arguing over which of them is going to give themselves up as the main course. 
  4. Ghoul shrine. The altar has a valuable crystal skull and the Ghouls say anybody that takes it is cursed. 
  5. Flooded cavern. A ghoul is chained to the bottom, doomed to drown forever. If rescued they reveal themselves to be a life-worshipping Ghoul-Heretic. 
  6. Treasure being guarded by three Wraiths, surrounded by Quickbog. The treasure is a helmet being worn by one of the Wraiths, the other two are jealous. 
Now what's happened is the Ghouls have almost ended up being too interesting to count as a basic element, but I figure they're fine if they're mostly interested in their own affairs, not hostile to the characters. 

Knock out a handful of these Three-Step Dungeons, have them branch off a hub area or lead into each other, and you've got yourself a decently sized dungeon ready for your next game.

It might look like this:

I messed up some of the labels in that diagram, but you get the point.

Each boxed-off section represents a Three Step Dungeon, with our example being D2. The hubs and "fluff" sections in between can still be fun, but they should either be safer areas or deal with simpler concepts that don't need introduction.

Oh and I should write up those monsters at least:

10hp (immune to physical damage). Chilling Touch (d10, ignores Armour)
  • Repelled by light or fire. 
  • Mostly want their tombs to be left alone. 
  • When a victim takes Critical Damage they will continue to drain them until they reach STR 0 and become a Wraith.

Civilised Ghoul
3hp, Claws (d6. Critical Damage: Bite to paralyse and drag away), Surprisingly Fancy Clothes. 
  • Revel in the macabre.
  • Fetishise death but have no appetite for killing. 
  • Try to maintain their humanity in spite of their horrible lives. 


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