THE DUNGEON IS FIRST A QUESTION OF SPACE
The first leg that the classic Dungeon Crawl stands on is “Exploration Play” - a description that points to (or obfuscates depending on how understandable the following is) the Locus of Play in the Dungeon Crawl. Characters in Dungeon Crawl scenarios or games are first explorers - adventurers even - not combatants, designed with abilities and ‘builds’ maximized for destroying specific potential opponents. Nor are characters in the Dungeon Crawl personalities first - they don’t require meaningful information about their pasts or goals (not to say these aren’t potentially fun elements) to play and the Dungeon Crawl isn’t designed with story growth in mind. Exploration play may include a good amount of role play, but it doesn’t focus on emotional character development in the sense of the examination and resolution of character flaws, traumas or desires. It also doesn’t ask the players to deeply inhabit their characters as representatives of a genre - a Dwarf fighter won’t succeed or fail in a dungeon crawl based on how well the player performs aspects of ‘Dwarfiness’ or ‘Fighter’. None of these other types of play are bad, but they aren’t at the core of the Dungeon Crawl experience. Instead the game is found in the characters and players direct interactions with the location itself.
|From the 1st Edition Player's Handbook|
Another way to say this is that there is no overarching plot to provide tension, and no predetermined, expected or rules generated climax that will become the moment of greatest risk and reward. I don’t want to suggest that you can’t have plot or set piece encounters in your game and still incorporate dungeon crawls - but if one is running plotted large-scale narratives it may be best to think as the crawl itself as a single scene or plot point. Nor is this to suggest that characters’ motivations can’t be tied to a location - a character may want to explore a location for personal reasons, and the GM can, even should, still accommodate that. A character’s backstory can be worked into a dungeon - a missing brother may have joined a faction within the dungeon or a lost heirloom might have been stolen away to the dungeon’s fastness - but this is an afterthought. Characters’ individual stories can advanced while exploring the dungeon, character background might even be a useful hook to initially encourage exploration, but personal character stories shouldn’t be the focus - both because this fails to offer incentives for other characters and because the Dungeon Crawl’s Design Principles make scene based revelations and narrative structure difficult to include without forcing the spatial complexity of the dungeon into a linear mold, scattering clues and scenes haphazardly or engaging in sleight of hand that degrades player trust. I don’t want to suggest that a good GM can’t pack a lot of story into a location or that a good location based adventure doesn’t lend itself to creating stories, and I’ll get try to address some ideas about how this works when I discuss the importance of factions in a a Dungeon Crawl, but the Design Principles behind exploration aren’t related to any kind of extrinsic story or narrative.
Instead of story elements (such as internal and external conflicts) the location itself builds tension, fuels anticipation and offers risks and rewards. The dungeon is a risky environment to spend time in because of random encounters, unknown dangers waiting ahead and a constant depletion of player resources. The most obvious and traditional of these resources is character HP, but other resources: food, spells, henchmen, light sources and other supplies can also be modeled and slowly worn down room by room and hall by hall. Of course the best rewards are deep in the dungeon, so overcoming attrition by finding new entrances/shortcuts, creating safe spaces to rest, or learning to neutralize menaces efficiently (even by knowing what one should run away from) become useful means of triumphing over the dungeon environment. The lack of overarching story also liberates the GM who is no longer burdened with the task of directing the characters and players through a series of narrative peaks and valleys, balancing risk and reward to make sure that the adventure is properly plotted; instead the GM becomes only set designer and judicious arbitrator charged with providing interesting information about a world full of puzzles (combats, mazes, traps, secrets, negotiations and strange effects or artifacts) while responding fairly to the players efforts to unravel them all.
ELEMENTS OF EXPLORATION
I’ve been repeating that the fundamental questions or puzzles in a dungeon are spatial puzzles - how to access what’s advantageous to characters and avoid or overcome what’s disadvantageous. While this is often a question of adventure design, it also gets to the core Design Principles of the Dungeon Crawl and even defines which mechanics (which I hope to examine as they relate to 5th edition in detail at a later time) are important to making this spatial puzzle fun. Players win, or defeat a dungeon when they understand how it works, or at least they have a far better chance of plumbing its secrets, removing its hoarded wealth or killing its most dangerous denizens when they can move freely about, minimizing risks and applying the characters’ greatest strength at the most opportune points. Yet, even knowing this, without the right Design Principles and Mechanics its very hard to make the dungeon’s spatial puzzles interesting and to encourage the type of open ended problem solving that makes Exploration fun. A dungeon where the character can wander about, unmolested and free to carefully map and weigh their decisions will usually make for a slow and boring game. Tension and risk are necessary to make the spatial puzzle more exciting and this depends on several other elements. Resources I’ve mentioned above and might be the most easily accessible aspect of Exploration, but both orientation and secrets are other ways that encourage and add to the fun of Exploration play.
Orienteering: Success or failure in the dangerous environment of the dungeon often depends on the players knowing where their characters are. How far from an exit or choke point for an obvious example but other details can be a key to successful adventures as well: the hunting territories of alpha predators, the domains of dungeon factions, how sub-levels connect via underground rivers, shafts or chimneys. Many of the most powerful spells are about providing or preventing access to parts of the dungeon, from hold portal and knock to earth to mud and dimension door - but these spells are largely useless if the caster doesn’t know which door to spell shut or which floor to dimension door through.
Orienteering is the basic puzzle of exploration, understanding how a dungeon level works and obtaining a positive result through that knowledge. Traditionally a second puzzle was added to the basic one of learning a dungeon’s corridors; the puzzle of mapping the dungeon based on the GM’s descriptions. This might still be a fun challenge for the right players and the right GM, especially for an in person game. It’s difficult to manage online (it’s hard to show a map to a GM for clarification), is generally time consuming, and can be boring when the GM goes over every room’s dimensions and entrances as the first part of description, but in certain circumstances player mapping adds an interesting fear of getting lost to dungeon exploration. Mapping also makes certain players very excited because they have a strong incentive to create a record of the adventure, but it’s an acquired taste and providing mappable descriptions is an acquired skill for most GMs.
Complexity is what makes orientation difficult, this means larger maps, but it is also found in spatial or mapping puzzles such as one way doors, teleportation traps or an entire dungeon that moves and shifts based on a predictable pattern or other puzzle. In many of the adventures from the golden age of Dungeon Crawls (the 1980’s), dungeons are large, rooms are oddly shaped to make mapping difficult, along with traps or puzzles that move the dungeon or characters about and multiple levels increase complexity. One need not embrace this level of complexity to make a good Dungeon Crawl, and doing so for an unprepared group of players or when one isn’t playing a marathon session on a summer vacation sleepover is likely to be more frustrating than fun, but a substantially larger map (likely drawn at a larger scale) with at least a third of the rooms empty can make orienting their characters in the dungeon much more exciting for the players.
An Adventure Design Principle related to Orienteering that is often underutilized is Dungeon Ecology or even Dungeon Ergonomics. A location that makes sense both in for its present use and also (though this might trail more into the category of secrets below) its past uses is one that a crafty player can understand. The opposite of the ‘Funhouse’ Dungeon where challenges, interesting sites and puzzles are scattered about without consideration for how they might interact or the dungeon inhabitants’ safety and comfort, a dungeon with an ecology has a logic. Factions within it have access to food sources, water and shelter. Intelligent creatures build defenses, post guards and set patrols. Traps are placed to guard specific areas and in ways that don’t constantly inconvenience the creatures that set them. For example in an ecologically sound dungeon a band of morlocks that has captured a ½ tamed owl beast won’t put the unruly creature in a room between their barracks and kitchen where its endless hooting will keep them up and its bad temper makes food service chores potentially lethal.
Secrets: A good fantastical location has secrets - both extrinsic secrets that impact the world and large (its history - providing the revelation of timeless wrongs or ancient horrors within struggling to free) and intrinsic secrets. These intrinsic secrets are more important to running a location well (though the extrinsic ones can be very exciting for players to discover). Things as small as the location of secret doors, hidden area that can serve as sanctuaries, or alternate entrances and exits can dramatically change what part of the dungeon characters can access, and so provide the thrill of discover and means to better unravel the larger spatial mystery of the dungeon.
Unraveling more general puzzles and safely negotiating traps also fall into this category - directly applicable, often spatially significant secrets (such as elevators, trapdoors or teleportation mechanisms) that can be utilized to thwart enemies and provide faster access to as of yet unexplored parts of the dungeon. Other secrets that help explain why the dungeon exists, its purpose and provide clues to puzzles, the motivations of its inhabitants or puzzles within it are also a goal of exploration. Many players enjoy figuring out the history, ecology and ergonomics of a dungeon and placing secrets or other “dungeon dressing” (scenery that has no specific purpose) can provide this thrill of discovery as well as offering clues to challenges.
Resources: The point of exploration games is to make the act of investigating fantastical spaces as exciting as fighting fantastical creatures, and as much as excellent descriptions, weird evocative locations, mysteries and pretty maps might help, at the core of every game is risk vs, reward. In exploration play (as in tactical combat games really) the best way I’ve found to model risk and reward (beyond the immediate, but sometimes irksome, risk of traps) is the semi-predictable depletion of resources that the players can track and decide how to expend. Hit points, spells, exhaustion (with negative mechanical effects), light, equipment, food & water all make for excellent resources and for a complex and exciting Dungeon Crawl it’s useful to have mechanics that make all of them important. In future posts I’ll offer specific ideas on how I like to mechanically model each of these resources or what changes might be necessary to existing 5th edition rules to make them significant - but the first principle regarding resources in an Exploration game is that they need to be scarce.
There needs to be both a real risk and dire consequences for resource exhaustion for players to feel that their characters are making meaningful decisions and taking risks when engaging in play outside of combat. Combat always threatens to deplete characters resources, especially their Hit Points, and the risk of losing all of one’s HP is immediately obvious. In exploration risks are best if they are less immediate (combat - and the threat of random encounters being one ot the best risks in exploration games), so having multiple resources makes the calculation of risk vs. reward less obvious, as challenges will demand different types of expenditures and are best when they can be solved in multiple ways.
A lot of newer games (and older house rules) ignore exploration risks because they don’t seem exciting, or simply because they are annoying to keep track of, and this is an understandable view - especially when one is trying to run a game with a more epic or heroic ethos. Mythological heroes don’t worry about running out of torchlight in the underworld or if they need to discard a bundle of torches to carry a piece of treasure - deciding if this decision is part of your game is a question about Aesthetics and Ethos of Play, but it’s one you may want to consciously make. For resource depletion to be a factor the keys are a functional timekeeping system and a strict, even punitive for shorter expeditions, encumbrance mechanic. Encumbrance and time work to make light, equipment and food meaningful resources for dungeon crawling, and a lack of mechanics makes them trivial or annoying, Hit Points and Spells require a different tack as the mechanics around their recovery and use are more well defined in 5th edition. The rest and cantrip mechanics (as well as perhaps some of the combat mechanics that appear to assume recovery between battles) in 5th edition push against using either spells (or light with the light cantrip) effectively in Dungeon Crawl scenarios, but this can be changed. Spells in exploration, again the magnificent utility spells - like hold portal or spider climb, are powerful tools in an exploration game and they usually represent a way to circumvent a specific kind of obstacle per use.
The Mechanics, Ethos and Principles behind Resources are each worth several posts, but for this overview it’s enough to say that without meaningful decisions about resources the Dungeon Crawl tends towards boredom and a sense that one is spending far too much time walking through empty rooms and poking at dungeon dressing without meaningful choices.
A NOTE ON EXPLORATION vs. CHARACTER BUILDING
|From the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide|
Unfortunately a focus on building characters for combat advantage can be painful to other players, who play with goals other than putting on glorious displays of rules virtuosity. Whatever joy there is in character builds is also somewhat dulled by the existence of online forums and a community where they can be shared, honed and perfected - making them less a singular obsession for a small number of players and more something that’s expected, especially in the sort of competitive play set up by Wizard’s of the Coast through its Adventurer’s League.
Exploration play makes character builds far less useful.
When the various challenges are in play, a character optimized for combat cannot necessarily shine in other aspects of play, such as: Orientation, Secrets and Resources. Dungeon Crawls and Exploration doesn’t center combat, often using mechanics such as XP for GP (rather than XP for combat) to make combat a risk or fail state for the characters. When combat is something to be schemed around, cheated at or avoided rules based virtuosity at it has less use both because combats aren’t balanced for a specific level of character power and because they aren’t the Locus of Play. If character building and grid based combat are something you enjoy, Dungeon Crawls and Exploration play might be unsatisfying to you, but likewise if they aren’t what you want in every adventure, a more classic style of play may be an solution.