|Welcome to the Dungeon, we've got gobs and games|
The basic idea is that you can build a simple, compelling dungeon (and therefore, story) in 5 stages. It's actually six, but let's go over the basic five first.
- Room 1: A Dungeon Guardian. This asks the question, "Why hasn't this dungeon already been explored?"
- Room 2: A puzzle or social encounter. This constitutes rising action, and due to the role-playing nature of these challenges, asks the question, "What was the purpose of the dungeon?"
- Room 3: A twist, setback, or challenge. This asks the question, "Can the characters overcome this situation without spending too many resources?"
- Room 4: The Dungeon Boss. This should always be a combat, and asks the question, "Can the characters reach their goal?"
- Room 5: The Twist, revelation, or hook. This asks the question, "Now what?"
Of course, this format can be modified and expanded. In the end, it's just taking the most common elements of dungeon exploration and arranging them into a nice rising action plot curve.
But it's also a convenient way to make sure your players are satisfied. The Bards and Rogues get their puzzle or social encounter, and there's at least one combat for the fighters. Those who are interested in exploration and discovery can learn about the dungeon, those who are drawn in by narrative and fantasy will enjoy the plot hook at the end of the dungeon, and those who simply want to beat up some goblins will have the opportunity.
However, the original article doesn't say much about why the characters are present. If you read carefully, you might have noticed there is actually a need for a "Room 0". We need the players to have a reason for coming to the dungeon before Room 1, and a goal in mind before Room 4. So there's actually a bit of setup you'll need to do before you stick your PCs outside the dungeon entrance.
The article also skips over using these dungeons in a hexcrawl, except to say "you can do that." I think there are some points to using these dungeons in an exploration-based game (like I plan to run) that I want to touch on.
One of the challenges of running an exploration-based game is the lack of direct motivation for the PCs to go anywhere. There's no time pressure, no set goals, and no impetus for finding a dungeon other than "the players stumble upon it."
Of course, you can draw goals from the world and from the characters. If the players have been attacked by tons of goblins, they might become interested in finding the goblin base and destroying it. Or if a character's backstory says they are searching for a lost heirloom, you can include rumors and hints of the heirloom for them to follow.
But for 90% of your adventure sites, you'll need a hook built into the only part of the dungeon your players will see before they explore it: the description.
If you tell your players they found a cave, they likely won't care. But if you say it's a cave surrounded by human bones, feathers, and pawprints, or their guide tells them this is an Owlbear's Cave, then they will probably return as soon as they feel like fighting an Owlbear.
In my case, the fact that there's a certain type of monster in the cave will tip them off to a type of loot they could find in the cave. But even if you don't make a particular monster the prominent feature of a site, you could find other ways to hint at what's inside. The Paladin could pick up a fiend's presence, the smell of cooking could emanate from within, or strange sounds might be heard from outside the area.
Once you have a defining feature of your adventure site, you can give it a name. Make the name evocative and memorable. It's not just "Owlbear Cave", it's "The Fane of Fur and Feathers" or something. If the adventure site is unusual, like a dungeon in the boughs of a tree, make sure the name reflects that. If the area is an ancient ruin, you could even have the name of the site already on an old map or chiseled into the architecture.
Once the players actually start exploring the dungeon, they might get another goal, but we'll cover that later.
|Room 1: The Thing that tries to kill you before you start|
In a hexcrawl, many of the locations the players explore will be natural locations located in dangerous wilderness. And that in itself can be a reason why nobody has explored this area: it's dangerous!
Perhaps this site, though interesting to the players, isn't something a normal hunter/scout would risk their neck to explore. Maybe it's smack dab in the middle of Goblin territory, and the little cretins are too stupid to realize it's there. It might even be concealed, meaning your players will only get a description like "area of suspicious landfall/rubble" and they'll have to fend off random encounters while searching for the entrance.
In these cases, your "Guardian" can be a random encounter. I planned for this in the system I want to use, so that whenever the players choose to explore a site they have to roll on the random encounter table.
For more traditional (but still very natural) guardians, you could have a stronger monster have taken over the entrance to the area, like a bear living in the shallow part of a cave. In these cases, your "Dungeon Boss" should live much further down the cave, and not really use the entrance all that much. Otherwise, the "guardian" wouldn't have picked this location.
For higher-level adventure sites, you might actually have a designated guardian. If it's a ruins, an immortal creature such as a Stone Golem or Sphinx is best. You could also have a stronghold or watchtower where the guardians are actual guards, such as goblins or orcs.
This doesn't mean you can't use a random encounter and a guardian. But if you do, it might be better to make the guardian into a puzzle of some kind. The Sphinx's riddle is a classic, but many other puzzles/problems could be applied. Perhaps the cave is on a cliff face, used by a creature with flight. The only way up is a perilous climb!
For adventure sites that involve settlements or mysteries, the guardian can be one of several things. It could be an actual guard that tells the PCs the village has been locked down until the mystery is solved. It could be the fact that nobody in town really knows what to do, and they need someone with a particular set of skills to solve their problem.
Finally, I wouldn't recommend making the dungeon hidden as a way to complete room 1. The players already have little reason to explore this place, and if they can't find it, it will never get used. Also, if you're using my exploration system, you can simply place difficult-to-find locations higher on the discovery table.
Instead of hiding the locations, try concealing them. For example, the PCs come across a ruin that smells like cooking meat, but until they dispel a magical ward over the area, they won't find the witch's hut that the spell is coming from.
|Room 2: Something for the Bard to do|
Room 2 is a puzzle or social encounter. In a constructed area or village, this is pretty straightforward. The designer of the building put a magical lock on the door. The players need to interrogate a witness or investigate a crime scene to solve the murder. Usually this flows directly from the history of the location or the current events happening there.
But in a natural location, it's a lot trickier to implement such a challenge. That's why you should look for problems, not puzzles, for this type of site.
A problem is just what it sounds like. There's an obstacle in the way, and the normal way the PCs would deal with it doesn't work. Want to jump over that pit? Well, the ceiling is too low to make the leap. Problem.
The idea is that every problem forces the players to come up with a neat solution using their skills and role-playing ability. Fill a room with toxic fumes, set up a lingering wild magic effect, place a trap in the room - anything to make it cost them resources if they just barrel forward. By limiting these to natural causes, you can allow the brains of the party to do their thing without needing an elaborate puzzle.
When you put together these problems, you should have a vague idea of what abilities your party has. If you have a character who has Boots of Flying, your pit trap won't be much hindrance for them. Think about the way your PCs would deal with a situation. Read up on their class abilities and try to keep a list of the magic items they have.
However, don't entirely discount social encounters just because you are in a natural location. Friendly monsters, ghosts, monster babies, or trapped explorers can all provide a dose of social/skill-based challenge while giving the players a reason to slow down and talk through a problem. Perhaps an Animal Handling check is required to get the Owlbear babies to like you.
For these adventure sites, this room is also where you can start introducing lore and goals to the area. Once they are in the entrance, they start noticing ancient carvings in the walls. The cleric recognizes them - could this be the location of the fabled +1 mace of zombie bashing?
Essentially, you're adding another hook here. The players already had their own reasons for exploring the site, and might be drawn in by the name/description of the location. But what's on the other side of this trap that is worth continuing to delve for?
If they have been looking for monster loot, add signs of the monster. If they were drawn in by some sensory effect, give another hint as to what it might be. If they are here just to explore, you can add lore about the site and hint that something valuable might be deeper within.
Remember, your players often won't have a reason to explore a location other than "it sounds cool." And that's not a great reason to risk injury or death.
|Room 3: You didn't expect this, did you!?|
This room is kind of flexible, meaning you can add more combat or puzzles if you want. But the hallmark of this room is that the players can choose to avoid it. If they do, they can save time and resources (like HP). If they choose to engage, they might get a cool prize for doing so.
The easiest way to do this is with an optional combat. A combat costs resources, but can grant loot. If the creature is symbiotic to the dungeon boss, all the better. You can make the monster waste a specific resource, like making the party use up their torches and oil fighting a troll when the final encounter is a mummy that is weak to fire. You can also have the monster flee if it is alive after the dungeon boss is killed, so the players can't simply return and make up for the choice they missed.
That's another key to making this choice matter: the players really should only attempt it once, or it should cost them resources for each attempt. Since in an exploration game, you don't really have time pressure, you'll have to get creative. Perhaps there's a tunnel that leads to a valuable type of plant, but the tunnel is filled with biting insects. Maybe there's an ancient treasure in plain sight, but it's secretly cursed.
Of course, this can also be a social challenge. Maybe a lone goblin captures the talking badger you found in Room 2, and is now demanding valuables or the beast gets killed. Perhaps the ghost betrays you. If your players are into social challenges, this is the room to give them more.
Speaking of which, if this site is a mystery in a village, Room 3 should be a tricky deal, side job, or red herring. Again, anything to make the players choose between giving up resources and getting something good.
|Room 4: Professional Big Bad Evil Guy for hire|
This is where the goal of the adventure site should be. I'm planning on granting the players experience based on if they meet this goal, so whatever I set up in Room 2 should be wrapped up here.
This is usually the room where the main monster of the site is waiting for them. D&D is a combat engine, so this should be a good combat. Set up terrain, give some nice combat effects, and tailor the combat to make it challenging and interesting! This combat is in between them and the goal!
Generally, you shouldn't ever deviate from the combat climax. If you're running a mystery game, give the PCs a chance to fight the killer (or the townsfolk if they failed their investigation). Otherwise, you'll disappoint those characters that are built for combat scenarios. And it's D&D, so that'd be all of them.
Of course, the monster itself can be the prize, and the monster can be unrelated to the prize. Sometimes a wild beast simply doesn't realize it made a nest at the foot of an ancient alter. So, much like the guardian at the front of the dungeon, you don't have to specifically make this fight about defeating the creature to get past them. Make it fit the theme of the dungeon!
|Room 5: Where to next?|
This room is generally not strictly considered a standalone room, but rather the lead-in to the next adventure. The players have achieved their goal, but a new perspective is added that might change the way they feel about it.
Normally, this would lead the players to a "twist" or "gotcha" moment. But in an exploration game, we don't really have many narrative threads to twist, so we can use this room to add information and give the world a new light.
The first way to do this is to use the adventure site to add to the world. Perhaps the cave they are exploring appears natural, but they find ancient mining tools at the end of their path. Who was mining here? Why? Where did they live?
By adding to your world, you are beginning to create an overarching story, the story of those who came before the PCs. This isn't a deep plot hook, but it is a reason for the characters to keep exploring and find out more. If one of the characters is an archaeologist type, this could become their driving motivation.
You can also use worldbuilding to foreshadow future plots. Maybe those mining tools belonged to goblins, and the players are just about to enter goblin territory. Perhaps there is a treasure map carved into the stone alter, and the prize is not too far from here. Or maybe the item the players were looking for is missing, and signs of previous explorers are all over.
However you write it, you can build more hooks into your exploration world by adding hooks or lore at the end of the dungeons.
The second option is to use Room 5 to re-contextualize the dungeon. The players have killed an Owlbear for its meat and fur, but they didn't expect to find a nest of owlbear babies! The Owlbear was just defending her young, and they will die if the players don't do something. Perhaps the gemstone they were looking for is holding up a pillar at the end of the ruins, to remove it would mean destroying the site.
These sort of re-contextualizations hinge on the idea that they won't affect anything but this particular adventure site. The players should be given a problem they can solve immediately, and don't have to worry about after they leave the site.
Of course, you can make a combat out of this. The surprising second phase of a combat, the revelation of the real monster who rules the cave, the dungeon boss coming back to life... these are all twists that would work well in Room 5. Of course, these are more narrative in nature, but they are playing with narrative elements that are limited to this single dungeon site.
|And a bunch of other stuff!|
At this point, you might be thinking that 5 rooms isn't enough for a single session of D&D. Well, even though the format is limited, I often find that combats take up quite a bit of time, and 2-3 of them plus a couple puzzles/social encounters can fill up about 2 hours, making for a good exploration chunk. We might do multiple chunks per session, but being able to choose how long a game is (2, 4, or 6 hours) while the players are in that game is fantastic.
I think the real thing that's missing from this format is a sense of space. These rooms are functional, but they should almost never be rooms in the literal sense. In fact, these challenges should happen in tunnels, on rooftops, on separate floors, miles apart, etc. And the way to create that space is by describing how the players move from "room" to "room".
If the players are invading a goblin stronghold, they might have the following rooms.
- Room 0: Let's kill the goblin overlord!
- Room 1: Kill the goblins guards outside
- Room 2: Get past the goblin traps
- Room 3: There's hostages that will be killed within the hour. Should we fight to save them?
- Room 4: Goblin Boss and his minions!
- Room 5: The goblins were being controlled by a lich?!
But to give a sense of space, you'll need to put a lot of things in between those encounters to make the players feel like there are more than just 7 goblins and their boss here.
So, in addition to setting up those 5 rooms, I would also prepare the following descriptions.
- Room 0: The area around the goblin stronghold. Are there traps? Patrols?
- Room 1: The exterior of the stronghold. Perhaps an old, abandoned castle that has arrow slits the goblins keep watch out of.
- Room 2: An entrance hall with plenty of lore that contains the traps, and a few empty rooms that look like goblins have used them.
- Room 3: More goblin living quarters, a torture chamber, maybe even a single goblin encounter that the PCs can easily win or use to gain information.
- Room 4: The minions are outside the bosses room, and there are more minions inside with the boss! Not to mention that this is the throne room, Room 5 is somewhere else!
- Room 5: Goblin Boss's quarters, more lore, maybe some treasure in addition to the revelation
When you guide the players through these descriptions, your goal is to make the space sound real, big, and dangerous. Make rooms seem lived in. Describe several twists and turns in the path, or note that they walk for a good amount of time before finding the next room. Describe scenery along the way. And make them nervous. If this is a patrolled area, any shadow could be a monster. If it's an ancient magical ruin, describe how something hums, clicks, and then nothing happens. If they burn spell slots or arrows on this, perfect. It means they feel the threat.
Of course, because you already have your challenges prepared, the things they encounter shouldn't be anything close to combat. Here's some ideas for mechanical things to add between major challenges.
- Add a small, one-time use trap
- Make the players do a skill check
- Have a combat with one weak monster
- Create an obstacle that requires a spell, rope, an arrow, or another resource to pass. Let the obvious answer work - don't make it a problem
The best part about these descriptions is you can add more lore to an area, or foreshadow certain challenges. If your players have crossed several pits by tying rope to the other side, they will need to get creative when they get to Room 2 and find a pit with no place to tie a rope to. You can set up expectations before hitting them with the real challenge.
So although you can add more rooms to this format, it's important to remember the arc of the dungeon and the time constraints placed on the players. 4-5 challenges is a great amount for a couple hours of role-playing, and with rich descriptions in between, you won't need to expand the formula very often.
On the opposite side, I could easily see all 5 rooms taking place in the same physical space, if the encounter was with an intelligent monster and its minions. Fight a minion, talk to the monster, make a bargain with the beast, fight the monster, find out the truth behind the monster's motives. All nice and neat in a single space! It could even happen at the end of a regular 5-room dungeon as the twist. Which begs the question...
If you want to make a bigger dungeon, couldn't you just link multiple 5-room dungeons together?
|Well? Couldn't ya, punk?|
This is also a great way to allow your characters an option of faster leveling. If a Goblin stronghold is a single 5-Room dungeon, it would be worth 2 exp and take 2 hours. An Orc stronghold could be a 10-room dungeon, take 4 hours, and grant 4 exp, and a Giant's Castle could be 15 rooms, 6 exp, and 6 hours. Those characters who wanted to gain nearly a level in a single day could take on the Giant's castle!
Personally, I wouldn't go much further than that, but if you were building a Megadungeon, you could break down each set of rooms into "Days of Adventuring" and have the players make delves to find more and more treasure.
Perhaps someday I'll do that... or at least run the one I linked to! For now, I'm happy with an exploration game and plenty of small sites to explore.
Thanks for reading!