In the last post All Dead Generations looked at the general design principles in Wizard’s of the Coast’s new campaign tome Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, and compared them to the classic style of open world, location based dungeon crawls. Descent into Avernus is not a classic adventure, it is not meant to be played as an open world and even its locations which have some of the trappings of dungeons, or are named dungeons, aren’t in any mechanical sense. Rather the majority of Descent’s dungeons appear to either be small lairs, arenas to facilitate a specific encounter, or a series of linear scenes sometimes laid atop a map but largely unconnected during play.
The Dungeon of the Dead Three is the last of these: a selection of encounters partitioned off from the location largely as a means of introducing or ending them each with filmic or novelistic flair - to create a predesigned “moment” of gameplay. This is obviously a very different play style then the classic dungeon crawl, and it seeks to produce predictable narrative moments at every opportunity - willingly sacrificing many aspects that define the classic dungeon crawl to do so. Still, The Dungeon of the Dead Three and Descent into Avernus in general show care and creativity, and the contents of the individual keyed areas within it can be evocative enough that even a reader who doesn’t like the encounter based playstyle must recognize that Descent’s design choices are intentional.
The Dungeon of the Dead Three in particular deserves a closer look, because of anything within Descent it is most like a classic dungeon crawl, and seems to want to evoke the feeling of one - even if it pays no attention to the exploration elements of timekeeping, supply or risk management. Yet, despite disfavoring an exploration playstyle (which is hard not to with the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons mechanics) Dungeon of the Dead Three includes many aspects that superficially make it appear to be a classic dungeon: a looping map that includes empty or nonessential rooms, traps and secret doors as well as a traditional feeling of the dungeon crawl - the infiltration or exploration of close corridors in an alien underworld. Here of course that’s focused on a sewer, which unfortunately is also a popular video game cliche, but at least it avoids including wererats. Because of these inclusions, it’s easier to conceive of the The Dungeon of the Dead Three as a classic dungeon, and despite its designers clear intent for it to play very differently, one can interrogate it in the context of running a resources, risk v. reward dungeon crawl.
Beyond modifying or including rules that better encourage exploration play (e.g. random encounters, timekeeping, meaningful encumbrance, and lighting) the question of “how does one design a dungeon that facilitates exploration play” remains. With the larger elements of the adventure: map, concept and basic structure in place, or at least not actively working against the dungeon crawl play-style, the core of the design process is in the individual location keys.
Keys are the basic building block of adventure design, information that the designer believes most important to understanding the location, provided in a way to allow the reader to run the adventure.
There's a variety of techniques to keying locations, from the ultra minimalism found in some of the first published adventures, to boxed text designed originally for tournament adventures, and bullet points or other, mixed types of formalism. The style used in Descent is mixed one: short boxed text, sometimes preceded by and always followed by GM directed text about room contents. Areas without encounters (combat in Descent) lack boxed text and have only short paragraphs. The writing itself is serviceable, but it doesn’t appear to have been intended as writing for a location based adventure, and it’s not well focused on usability. The organization that exists is a haphazard use of bolding to set off paragraphs about treasure or traps in some of the locations. This sort of effort is good, but without consistency it doesn’t help a GM run the location by highlighting the most important information in the key so that it stands out. Descent does make laudable effort to limit the length of its locations, but because of uninspired writing may do so at the cost of dulling down the play experience of the dungeon as a whole.
Boxed text is always a concern, it exists to regularize play experience, an understandable goal in the tournament modules that pioneered it, but unnecessary for players and GMs that aren’t in a tournament. Like all design choices, it has a cost as well as an advantage and that cost is generally a risk of confusion for both players and GM. There’s a lot of potential sins for a designer writing boxed text (or simple keys without read aloud text), and below is a list of some of the most obvious with notes on how well Descent’s Dungeon of Dead Three manages them.
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