COMPLICATING THE RISK ECONOMYSlow building tension and risk is one of the goals of the Risk Economy, a way to encourage exploration by offering the chance and creating a need to find the best routes through a location, unpuzzle secret entrances into new areas or discover safe havens within the dungeon. Yet, time and space alone won’t make a compelling Dungeon Crawl. Wandering endless halls can still feel like a time filling chore rather then slowly building tension and a constant concern that the characters have delved too deep. For the Dungeon Crawl to work there needs to be palpable slowly increasing risk. Random encounters provide one essential form of risk, but by design they aren’t predictable and calculable to the players - they may create dread or a sense of danger, but it’s one that only incidentally increases over time as the dangers of the dungeon become better understood at the price of depleting party numbers, spells, equipment and hit points.
Light, food and equipment are another, far more regular, character resource subsystem..
|Jeff Easley's cover to the 1986 |
"Dungeoneer's Survival Guide"
SUPPLY & RISK
One popular complaint about classic Dungeon Crawls, but even more, about modern efforts to implement the Dungeon Crawl is the high lethality and arbitrary nature of puzzle obstacles. Critics reject adventures where players quickly come to fear traps and dungeon dressing that threatens or conceals instant destruction. To some extent this is a playstyle problem - a player ethics of completionism (likely borrowed from computer RPGs), or a GM problem of antagonism and performative rigor - but it’s also a mechanical problem.
If HP and character survival are the only resource that obstacles can meaningfully deplete, every obstacle or risk needs to attack character survival and HP - every trap or puzzle needs to be potentially lethal. For example imagine a stone treasure chest, topped with a huge unbalanced statue. The puzzle is removing the statue to get at the chest. Without timekeeping and the associated threats of random encounters and light/food depletion the only way this simple puzzle can offer risk/complication and a place for player ingenuity is if the statue threatens to fall on anyone who disturbs it. This is not a hard puzzle - while levitation and other spells offer an immediate solution (as they should!), ropes, pulleys, scaffolding, levers and other simple physical interventions are all obvious solutions. So obvious that in a game where there’s no down side to these crude solutions there’s a need for the designer or GM to add a negative consequence to using them if the puzzle is to provide any space for play. Without other options, those consequences have to be HP damage from interacting with the statue. Beside being somewhat bizarre, a statue that falls on characters even when they take precautions seems both arbitrary and overly deadly.
Timekeeping with consequences resolve these problems. Where Random Encounters exist, using rope to pull over a multi-ton statue both takes time and makes enough noise to require immediate encounter checks. Likewise the time to figure out a plan and implement it depletes player supply and the plan may damage or destroy equipment such as ropes, poles and even weapons that are used to pry up the statue. Having these alternate player resources to threaten allows puzzles and obstacles to be less dangerous, because they can deplete resources that are don’t directly impact survival. Having supplies can make your game a less lethal one which better encourages puzzle solving and setting interaction, because the GM has options for risk and reward, trade-offs and threats.
SUPPLY & DEPLETION
Supply is the term for equipment equipment, and most typically the survival equipment of light sources and food/water that is slowly depleted as a consequence of basic exploration. Weapons, armor, magic items, spells, Hit Points and ultimately party members also typically deplete over an adventure, but these usually decline as a direct result of play action or confrontation with NPCs - direct and obvious losses, apparent to most players as the way the game tracks their success and failure. Dungeoneering equipment may be equally important to character success, because of its use in overcoming environmental challenges (i.e. a rope and grapple to climb a cliff), but there’s rarely a mechanic to deplete it and a lack of things like rope, spikes and poles is more likely to discourage further exploration then result in character death.
Light sources and food are different, their lack threatens character survival as well as exploration progress, making them the most meaningful Supply in the traditional Dungeon Crawl. Yet unlike other resources they are only meaningful with good Timekeeping - the depletion mechanic: lights burning out over time, and exhaustion slowly overtaking the characters requiring rest and (at least with the mechanics I prefer to run) rations. Without a depletion mechanic, Supply, torches and rations becomes mostly meaningless; torches may still be useful for dropping down pits to test their depths, lantern oil as a crude weapon and rations a way to distract some creatures - but Supply never risks being exhausted, and the individual items are rarely worth serious consideration. Likewise Supply becomes meaningless without some limitation on the amount available to players. Tracking time and reminding players that their lamps are burning low is meaningless when the party wizard can cast light as a limitless cantrip or the party can collectively carry over 100 flasks of oil without suffering any negative encumbrance effects. In these situations Supply is a nuisance without gameplay significance rather then a way of building tension or creating risk - hardly worth the GM or player time and effort to track.
Scarcity and consequences make Supply meaningful as a tension building element of the Risk Economy: the players’ sense that their non-combat decisions and choices create risk which if successfully managed will lead to greater rewards. Managing scarcity is relatively simple, requiring encumbrance mechanics that also allow for consideration of how treasure recovery should be included in the game. Managing depletion however is another question - especially how to manage it’s final, likely deadly stages. Death or defeat because the players forgot to bring enough light sources or the characters became too exhausted to fend of some weak wandering creature sounds anticlimactic, and perhaps it is, but it’s worth remembering that the classic Dungeon Crawl style of play isn’t about insuring narrative peaks and valleys - but instead about creating an open field for exploration and discovery. If exploration is an important part of the game characters who fail to plan for exploration or manage its risks should face consequences just as serious as those who fail in combat.
Encumbrance: How much characters can carry is a surprisingly sticky problem in TTRPGs, one with very few workable solutions. In the first version of Dungeons & Dragons I ever played, the 1981 Moldvay Basic Rules, encumbrance is defined two ways - either by a “coins” of weight system where armor and weapons are given weights in coins (as obviously is treasure) but equipment and supply get a single, smallish bundled coin weight. This system (or the alternate/simplified version using armor type and treasure possession) is entirely focused on determining movement rates - useful perhaps for grid combat, but very fussy and extraneous to either the games I played as a child or anyone using the sort of abstracted timekeeping I describe in a prior post. AD&D manages to make things more bizarre and complex using both pounds and coin weights, adjusting them for character strength, but then using all this complexity mostly for combat movement rates. 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons does no better - weight is in pounds and rather simplistically defined based on strength. In all of these rulesets the emphasis is on heavy armor slowing movement in combat rather then the supplies and tools that a character can carry into the dungeon. While grid based or miniatures based combat has long been a part of Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve never been fond of it where the locus of play isn’t tactical combat because it takes much longer, requires additional play aides and isn’t suited to the scales of map that a wide ranging dungeon crawl requires.
|Also from the |
"Dungeoneer's Survival Guide"
DEATH BY DEPLETION
Worrying about supplies, exhaustion, hunger, being lost in the darkness and dying ignominiously because the party couldn’t decide when to retreat or remember to bring enough torches may feel exceptionally bad to some players, it may seem boring, or at odds with the sort of fantasy game they want to play, and of course this is fine. Not everyone wants to play a game with survival mechanics. Yet, it's also very useful for playing a Dungeon Crawl game which remains interesting outside of lair encounters.
Understanding that these mechanics may be at odds with players expectations and the Ethos of Play for your setting is important, because in a classic Dungeon Crawl it’s expected that mistakes and oversights in preparation will be dangerous or even lethal. Despite potential aversion, as long as the consequences for running out of light or collapsing from exhaustion are clear to the players when they are planning their supplies there’s nothing unfair about characters dying because they allowed their lights to run out rather then because they were overpowered by a superior enemy.
Accepting that negative consequences of resource depletion can occur is different from running them, and the while rule books, both old and new, frequently talk about resources as necessary, very few have meaningful rules for what to do when a party exhausts theirs. This is somewhat comprehensible. In old games the act of simulating a party’s slow death by thirst, lost the darkness, assailed by random encounters that aren't, battling and stumbling about blind sounds bleak and not very fun for most players. With the more contemporary ethos of heroic characters moving between encounters, death because the party ran out of lantern oil adds absurdity - a jarring deviation from player expectations. It may be that the Dungeon Crawl as a whole is inappropriate for heroic high fantasy games, and for those that enjoy running such settings it seems worthwhile to consider this before trying to run one, but for settings and groups that are low fantasy, non-heroic or Dungeon Crawl based the possibility of death or loss from supply exhaustion can be streamlined and made less miserable.
Fiat Lux: In classic dungeon exploration games light is an obvious and constant need. Dungeons are often very dark, and filled with nightmare creatures that are perfectly at home in the pitch blackness. It’s very easy to understand that characters wandering blind through the dangers of a dungeon will be in grave danger and even if they avoid being eaten by a grue there’s the obvious right of getting lost or falling down a pit. However the mechanics for the danger of lightless wandering are rarely detailed.
Light mechanics are found in all older editions of the game. 1981’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons emphasizes light’s necessity: “Most dungeons are dark and it is necessary for characters to bring their own light source with them. A torch or lantern will cast light 30 feet in all directions. A torch will burn out in 6 turns (1 hour); a lantern filled with one flask of oil will burn out in 24 turns (4 hours). It is important to remember which characters are carrying light sources. A character could not, for example, carry a lit torch, a drawn sword, and a shield at the same time.” Pg. B21. While the note about the necessity of a free hand to carry a lit torch is a useful reminder, there’s no real discussion of what happens if the party runs out of light, beyond a note in the light spell’s description emphasizing its offensive use and revealing that blind creatures can’t attack.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has almost less on the subject of light - simple lists of distances for light sources and remarks on how light effects surprise (having lights makes it hard to surprise foes) and encounter distance. Neither the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide has much information on how to run a scenario when light is exhausted. The oracular fragments of the original 1970’s editions of Dungeons & Dragons say only that “In the underworld some light source or an infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to “see” the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.” - Monsters & Treasure, Pg. 9. Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons likewise mentions the paramount importance of light, with little discussion of how one might mechanically model its lack. “The most fundamental tasks of adventuring - noticing danger, finding hidden objects, hitting an enemy in combat, and targeting a spell, to name just a few - rely heavily on a character's ability to see. Darkness and other effects that obscure vision can prove a significant hindrance.” 5th Edition Player’s Handbook, pg. 183.
This insistence on the central role of light without meaningful rules on its absence (beyond rules for blindness - combat and skill penalties usually) suggests a couple of things. First, that a lack of light/vision will not come up either because players are so cautious about having sufficient supply or because there’s no check on supply. Second, that the lack of light is such a threat to survival that being trapped in the dungeon without a light source is certain death for the party. Indeed, in all but the oldest editions of D&D various forms of dark-vision seem to exist for almost every player race except humans, and in newer editions cantrips allow wizards to create light on demand without penalty. With these rules as written light will never present a risk or meaningful limitation on exploration. This greatly inhibits the Risk Economy and may be one small reason that exploration play has become less and less prevalent.
In order to make light Supply necessary one needs both mechanics that limit it and mechanics that penalize the party for a lack of light sources. The first of these needs is a fairly simple set of changes to 5th Edition:
- Remove light cantrips and other at will light generation abilities. Light is a powerful spell, especially in the context of an exploration game. Not only does it provide a chance to create light when mundane means are gone or don’t work (underwater or in a room of volatile gases perhaps), but it’s traditionally been a means to blind enemies and dispel magical darkness. It deserves to be an actual spell with limited use.
- Darkvision is no longer the ability to see in total darkness. Sure some creatures can sense or even see in the absolute stygian depth, but not player character races. Even those peoples that live underground or traditionally have darkvision can only see normally in dim light (like a cat or other nocturnal animal) - still a useful ability, but not one that negates the need for light. Alternatively remove darkvision of all sorts from most (or all) playable races.
- Be extremely careful providing magical or mundane items that produce continual light. Magic swords have traditionally produced light, and there is of course the continual light spell. One way to limit the continual light spell that’s worked for me is to make it a spell that is rooted to a specific place but has the additional benefit of producing bright, daylight style light (hated by many underground creatures) and even filling the whole space (any single room or chamber within reason) with a protection from evil aura (or protection from whatever the deity involved considers evil - which is of course another topic). This last set of change is of course highly dependent on level, and as there may come a point in your campaign - even one built around dungeon crawling - where the survival concerns of carrying enough torches and lanterns aren’t a desirable play element anymore.
There’s an existential and primal horror of being trapped in the darkness though, something one doesn’t really want to abandon completely in game because of its potential to create tension, a sense of danger and the joy of a narrow escape. Furthermore it feels as frustrating to simply end the game in a total party kill when the characters are deep in the earth without light, anticlimactic and maybe unfair. Obviously a lot depends on your table: your GM, your players and the expectations and procedures you’ve built for your game, but my own thoughts have led me to propose a hybrid mechanic somewhere between playing out a blind scramble for the exit and simply fading to black and rerolling characters.
Begin to play through the being trapped in the darkness.
- Remove all maps whether GM provided or player drawn.
- Stop giving description in with compass directions (a wall is no longer the north wall, but rather a “the longer rough stone wall”). Doors simply become numbers or letters. If the players start being smart and asking about sounds, smells and air currents be ready to give them this information.
- Reduce movement rate to half if using grid movement and unless the players have a method for finding and selecting specific doors (e.g. following a wall left or right around a chamber) roll a D6 each time they leave a room with multiple exits. On an even roll the party has gone through a different exit then they intended.
- In combat characters have a -4 to hit and -4 to AC penalty.
- No skill use and all stat checks/saving throws are at a disadvantage.
This condition should be set before the issue of light depletion comes up in play so that the players can better judge the risk of being trapped in the darkness. Likewise, it’s absolutely appropriate to let players see the table and understand the mechanics you’re using.
ESCAPE THE DUNGEON - A Sample TableHOW TO USE THIS TABLE: Roll a D10 on the table below and add one point to that roll for each room away from an entrance (any entrance, not simply known ones) the party is at the time they become lost or despair.
- Escape without incident.
- Escape. Exhausted and harried, all party members begin next session with -1 HP per level.
- Escape. Forced to cache all treasure in a random room.
- Escape. Battered and injured by foes, hunger and thirst - 1d6 damage per PC (can kill).
- Escape. Only the intervention of some horrible old god or dark power allowed survival at the price of a grim pact to do its bidding or die.
- Escape. Permanently disturbed by the dungeon. -1 to all rolls on future expeditions within.
- Escape. Forced to drop all treasure gained due to terror and headlong flight
- Escape. You have no memory of reaching the entrance, but here you are naked and bruised.
- Escape. Stumble into the light with terrible wounds, all PCs 1d10 damage per level (can kill).
- Dead. Vanished utterly.
- Escape. The darkness is inside you now, and it’s screaming, all PCs lose 1D6 WIS.
- Escape, Injured Abandoned. PCs with injury must roll 4D6 vs. CON, those who roll over were abandoned wounded within the dungeon.
- Escape, Some Captured. Each PC must roll 4D6 v. INT, those that fail have been captured by the dungeon’s inhabitants.
- Captured. Entire party has been captured by one or more dungeon faction.
- Escaped, Some Dead. Each PC must roll a D100, any roll over current HP is Dead
- Dead, Lone Survivor. Each PC rolls a D20, PC with highest roll is lone survivor.
- Dead, Angry Dungeon. The party is dead, but the residents of the dungeon resent their intrusion and unify to attack any local haven.
- Dead, Haunting. The party is dead, but their spirits remain, angry and unsettled, haunting the dungeon as a new and dangerous faction.
- Dead, Hunting Spirits. While they have died in the dungeon, the uneasy spirits of the party now roam the land (as a wilderness random encounter) hunting adventurers and travellers.
- (or higher) Dead. The corpses of the party are lost within the dungeon and their supplies and equipment are within, abandoned or in the hands of the denizens.
In the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide there are a few hints about exhaustion and how a GM might manage it. Page 39 notes that “The DM must also know how long it has been since the last time the party took a rest. A party should be required to rest at least one turn in six (remember, the average party packs a lot of equipment), and in addition, they should rest a turn after every time they engage in combat or any other strenuous activities”. The only mechanics provided are for forced overland marches which threaten a chance of losing levels and eventual death (like a wraith's energy drain) the longer the march continues. Level drain is never an especially fun or easy to manage mechanic, so like light we’re left with a seemingly important topic with almost no mechanics, and no easy to implement mechanics. Unlike light there’s not even a spell equivalent to darkness to rely on and adapt into an exhaustion mechanic (Ray of Enfeeblement simply reduces Strength Statistics and perhaps attack damage on unarmed monsters). Interestingly, and again much like the topic of light, the Basic D&D (Moldvay 1981 again) uses the same overall scheme as AD&D, but with a simple mechanic. The rule on Page B19 requires explorers rest one turn in 6 or suffer a -1 to hit.
|The cover of "Unearthed Arcana"|
The Exhaustion effects in 5th Edition are negative, and quite debilitating, so easy recovery is a necessity. Exhaustion should act as another lever for the GM to increase risk and another issue resource management for the players to factor into their risk calculations. As written exhaustion is recovered very slowly - an 8 hour “Long Rest” to eliminate a single level of exhaustion. The rest system in 5E doesn’t work especially well for a dungeon crawl game, it’s very very dangerous to take even a “Short Rest” that calls for six random encounter checks, and a “Long Rest” of 48 checks should be suicidal. This can function perfectly well when these rest periods grant large amounts of healing in exchange for a great deal of risk (though 5th edition adventure designers and GMs using them should perhaps consider what intelligent enemies will do with an hour or eight to prepare for the characters). Linking rests to Exhaustion is punitive, and perhaps unplayably so. Given that one exhaustion level will accrue every hour (on average) with additional exhaustion after combat, crossing freezing streams or climbing up 100’ ropes, a single turn break to eliminate a level of exhaustion with a rest and a meal eliminating all exhaustion in a turn.
Exhaustion Conditions: 5th Edition’s Dungeon Master’s Guide already includes many environmental conditions that cause Exhaustion: heat, cold and freezing water whose individual effects are quite functional and whose specific mechanics make them work well with a turn based fatigue mechanic. To make these environmental conditions special consider making their exhaustion effects semi-permanent, using the basic Exhaustion rules that require magic, some special condition or an 8-hour rest to eliminate them. Thus characters exploring the frozen ice caves with inadequate gear must making increasingly difficult saving throws every hour or gain a level of Exhaustion that they can’t remove with a meal and a few minutes of relaxation. Meanwhile the normal turn based exhaustion accrues, adding dangerously to the semi-permanent cold exhaustion. If the party decides to ford a freezing underground stream they will gain an additional level of exhaustion, making it extremely dangerous. A smart GM could also allow for specific cures to this cold exhaustion - warming up with a meal next to a large fire for 20 minutes will eliminate a level of cold exhaustion, while drying one’s clothes for 20 minutes by stripping and hanging them in front of a fire eliminates the freezing water exhaustion. While this is easier than a few days of rest, the risk of starting a large fire, stripping naked and waiting around in a hostile dungeon is one that players might choose to take but is obviously dangerous.
Supply and Level: Concerns about supply, light, and rations doesn’t need to be a constant in your campaign, and as characters increase in power level it’s entirely possible that resource issues are something they will outgrow. Increasing variety and numbers of spells, magic items and large numbers of henchman to carry items limit the importance of light and supply in classic games as level increases, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t. Challenges can change over time, but the GM should be aware of this change and plan for it. Providing a magical glowing sword offers a huge boon if it can substitute for a lantern: it can provide light in magical darkness (maybe) and underwater without the risk of running out of fuel, and will replace the party’s need for a lantern entirely even if it has no other bonuses! One shouldn’t do this as a simple matter, or without thinking - rather consider if your game is ready to retire the issue of light exhaustion and lighting supply. It might be, other complexities may make supply tracking less interesting and being lost in the dark may have become only a minor inconvenience (a party that can teleport home for example need not fear a darkened maze).
Supply and its associated mechanic, encumbrance, provide a second leg of the dungeon exploration tripod along with timekeeping and random encounters. While alone it may simply offer annoyance and more detail to track for players and GMs, when it is woven into the question of survival - it improves puzzle encounters by offering another currency besides damage to pay for suboptimal solutions and provides players with another concern to complicate their risk and reward calculations.