Thursday, May 16, 2013

Integrity, the Living Dungeon and Module Design

Ha! How's that for a title? The kind that beats a mild case of writer's block.

So let's start with this post by Mike Mornard on RPGNet, and a follow-up here that clarifies what exactly he's talking about. This is what I'm calling integrity: the concept that the fictional world in the game exists independently of the characters who are going to adventure in it. This is important, because various types of fudging and "modernist" rules can violate this integrity. It's also crucial for game design, because once you embrace world integrity the idea that, frex, things should follow a CR system go out the window. There were trolls on level 1 of Castle Greyhawk. They were there whether you were 1st level or 12th level, because they were there in the fictional world. So there's that.

So that's a picture of Gary Gygax, with his dungeon binder open. It's a tremendously complicated series of rooms, but Gary just has a single page of handwritten notes, one line per room at the maximum. That's all he needed to run his games. I've talked about this before, but I'm bringing it up in the context of Mike's quote: what Gary had on his paper, that's what was written in stone about his world. The rest was a living thing that came about in play through memory and winging it. Which brings me back to the living dungeon.

This really hit me about modules when I sat down to write the Caverns of Temeluc (the Dungeon Crawl #2 adventure). Specifically, I had an environment where it didn't make sense to me that the inhabitants would sit in one particular cave/room and not be moving about. So I took it to the maximum and had the monsters and treasure be dynamic and based on the referee, with some of them doubling as wandering monsters. I liked that approach, but I'm thinking it went a step or two too far, and that there may be a middle way. (Which I'm planning to experiment with in my Dungeon Crawl #3 adventure.)

One of the things I would have preferred in Temeluc was to have the treasures in fixed locations. It just allows things to be much more interesting; a treasure hidden in a weird part of the room, a puzzle, a loose stone - whatever it is, there are great places to stick a treasure in a dungeon. I also want the next dungeon I put out to have more of a sub-region feel where different monster types tend to congregate, with a "monster roster" of total creatures that are encountered between four or five rooms, and in random encounters, etc. I've used the same subsystem before and it lets you have a neat mechanic specific to certain areas.

How I'm thinking this will work is as follows:
  1. The module will be keyed with treasure, immobile objects, and a few single-room monsters in the main key.
  2. The map will be divided into 3 areas, each consisting of 10-15 rooms. Each area will have a separate list of, let's say, 10 potential encounters.
  3. The referee will pre-populate 5 or 6 of these encounters per area. The remaining 4-5 encounters will go into the wandering monster list while in that area.
  4. The wandering monster chart will have 6 "global" wandering monsters and the rest will direct the referee to use local monsters.
So: does that sound useful? Would you be more or less likely to use it than a module set up like B1 or Temeluc where no room/treasure/monster combination is set in advance? Is it too complicated, am I barking up the wrong tree here? Does it get the "living" dungeon feel I am going for, or is it too "in the background" as a method?


  1. I will say that I've noticed that the default within some gaming cultures is for the players to assume...

    A) That the campaign's integrity will be readily sacrificed in order to ensure balance, victory for the players, a lack of death, and keeping everyone engaged regardless of their choices.

    B) That there will be no ongoing negative consequences for their actions in the context of the "living campaign" aspects to the game.

    They go into shock even if you try to introduce these things slowly. My solution to this issue is to hold firm in some locations of the campaign setting, but also give the players a variety of adventures to choose from with varying difficulty levels and campaign parameters. Specifically, some places have a strict hex-crawl framework "always on" and others have an easygoing infinite respawning of new players in the big city with the dungeon-next-door.

    1. I played with the unwritten rule "A" for a long time, until I started running OD&D, at which point I realized that players still had fun even when PCs died. I've never liked "B" and in high school campaigns had PCs who had gotten banned from the Free City of Greyhawk.

      It's funny because I've been using non-combat encounters in my Stonehell game to clue the players in on some of the long-term consequences of their actions. They killed some orcs and have a magic axe that belonged to an orc captain, so the orcs HATE them and have started putting bounties on their heads.

      So any players who don't comprehend that violating "B" is where all the fun comes from, probably wouldn't fare well in my games.

  2. You might consider giving the monsters a home base and a range in term of the number of areas from that. Then each encounter is chosen randomly from the monsters that could be in that area.

  3. I've been keying a dungeon map, and since it seemed to have a lot of empty rooms, I've included three things I've never seen in a published module. Firstly, passing through certain "crossroads" type chambers and corridors that would likely see heavy traffic calls for an extra wandering monster check (these areas can sometimes be bypassed by using secret or partially collapsed passageways). Secondly, some entries on the wandering monster table are humanoid "parties" with named members who are fairly powerful and carrying significant amounts of treasure. I mean, if monsters have portable treasure it makes sense for them to keep it on their person, rather than in a treasure chest. Finally, one area of the dungeon has allied monsters and guards posted - any combat within this part of the dungeon has a chance of attracting nearby monsters which will leave their keyed areas and arrive in 1-6 combat rounds.

  4. For a semi-dynamic key I would recommend finding a copy of Hellpits of Nightfang by the Judge's Guild. Essentially, every room's occupant is defined by a die-roll including possible monsters off a standard list. Thus, in one run Nightfang, the "boss" villain will be in area K but in another N and in a third encountered as a wandering monster.


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