Monday, October 12, 2020

The Risk Economy - Part 0 - Orienteering and Exploration


This is Adventuring!
1st Edition Player's Handbook Cover Painting

In past essays All Dead Generations has focused on the “Risk Economy” as the engine of classic dungeon crawl Roleplaying - a precarious tower of danger where the players are expected to balance multiple currencies of supply and character survival against the risk of the dungeon’s inhabitants and obstacles while accounting for time’s slow attrition. All Dead Generations has covered ‘Risk’ -- mechanics and design principles, but it hasn’t looked much at the other side of that economy: Reward.

What is the basic reward in the dungeon crawl? As with most styles of classic play the reward for continued play, or perhaps for successful play, is leveling one’s character -- though giving the problem solving nature of classic play it seems likely that this is a less effective reward then it might be in a system that puts more mechanical weight on level, one with a steeper power curve. “Fun” or “play” are obvious from a meta-game standpoint, but without denigrating the ludic joys of roleplaying games, that’s too broad a category to usefully interrogate for mechanics and design principles. However, focusing on this overall goal is a good place to start, to narrow it down and ask “what kind of rewarding fun does the classic dungeon crawl offer?”

I don’t want to suggest that dungeon crawl games offer a unique reward in play, but they do have specific focuses, different from other playstyles. Classic dungeon may offer the gambler’s highs and lows of random success or failure and the storyteller’s joy of creating a fiction, but the mechanics aren’t set up to deliver these kinds of fun, at least not as much as they are to provide the satisfaction of solving a problem or puzzle (the dungeon crawl’s main mode of play) and offering the joy of discovery, ideally the wonder of the strange or unexpected. Revealing description of a fantastical universe through play is hardly unique to a classic play style, but it is emphasized, and made a cornerstone of play in the dungeon crawl through the mechanical weight placed on exploration, the way play demands interaction with the described physical environment. Unlike problem and puzzle solving, this mode of play, the discovery and interaction with the fictional environment hasn’t been specifically described in a past All Dead Generations’ post, though it has been mentioned several times as the concept “Orienteering”.


Orienteering, play that arises from navigating complex fictional spaces, is a means of encouraging player choice and allowing player failure to overcome obstacles without frustrating impasses (Blockades) that stall play -- while still imposing a cost for doing so to encourage planning and persistence.

Tomb of Horrors
Picking the Right Path as Play

The idea of exploration itself as a puzzle and name “Orienteering” come from a collection of skills and concepts used for outdoor survival and hiking -- the things one needs to do to avoid becoming lost in the wilderness: planning, map reading, pace counting, and landmark reference. In the context of role playing games Orienteering is meant to distinguish elements of play and design that focus on the spatial design of the adventure and the navigational complexities of adventure rather than the tactical, social or narrative ones. To utilize Orienteering as a dominant element of play depends on several design principles and mechanics, but these are already part of classic play and have already been discussed at length in previous essays: timekeeping, supply, random encounters. All of these dungeon crawl elements, including the packet of Design Principles that is Orienteering exist to support puzzle and problem solving play, and each do it slightly differently.

Orienteering, and the focus on the design of imagined physical space that accompanies it, aids problem solving play by allowing greater player choice and eliminating the risk of obstacles that prevent play. A common danger in role playing games is the risk of impeding play, creating a blockade that traps players on a problem that for whatever reason they can’t solve, creating frustration. The classic example of this (one that still appears in far too many adventures) is the secret door or puzzle that the player must find or solve to move to the next room/scene/challenge. In a linear orienteering free adventure these sorts of blockades present a huge risk of stopping play entirely -- especially when advancing past an obstacle requires a specific die roll. There’s two ways of dealing with the blockade problem -- avoidance and player choice.

The first, making sure that no obstacles exist that the players can fail at (or at least ones where failure ends in character death so the game can end or restart at that point). Difficult “boss fights” in computer games are an obvious example of this solution, but then the technical limitations of computer games are different then those in in-person roleplaying games. While understandable in computer games, this method seems increasingly popular in contemporary traditional adventure design as well - it’s found frequently in Descent into Avernus for example. Another popular way of preventing blockades is to always allow partial success or “advancement on failure” -- narrative gaming’s distaste for “pass/fail” mechanics. There’s nothing wrong with these solutions, where a bad die roll or failure of imagination might create an impasse they prevent that and thus prevent player frustration and more importantly don’t blockade play.

However, Orienteering helps make way for the second by better creating environments with multiple solutions to obstacles. An ethic of classic play is to center player choice, the ability of player decisions to direct narrative and inspire reactions from the fantasy world, regardless of the outcome. It may be better to say that the ethic of play here is centering the possibility and consequences of player failure. However, in allowing player failure, and accepting that its terms can create impasses, the classic play style appears to risk blockages, and it does. However, it also emphasizes the players’ choice to retreat, keep pushing at a problem, or use alternate methods to overcome blockages -- going so far as to allow a frustrated group of players to abandon an adventure (simply leaving the location). Leaving an adventure location and finding another isn’t an ideal solution, so instead complex spatial environments allowing for retreat and multiple paths -- non-linear maps or adventures -- serve to offer the possibility of alternative solutions or ways around blockading obstacles.

In many ways this is similar to the partial success resolution to blockades, because the necessary dungeon crawl mechanics that make exploration risky (supply, time keeping, random encounters etc.) also make retreat, backtracking and finding another path around a blockade risky - they extract a cost, just as a partial success mechanic might. However, unlike partial success, the multiple paths of non-linear design don’t assure success, instead they prolong and redirect play away from the blockade with the temptation of an alternative solution to the blockade or an alternate goal. This cost (usually only the increased risk of random encounters) also encourages players to persist at problems that aren’t immediately resolved or encourages scouting and planning as a means of discerning which obstacles they want to overcome.


Exploration as a type of play must be supported by mechanics and design principles that make it exciting in the same way other exciting kinds of play are supported but it must also clearly present risk, allow players to investigate and make educated choices and offer rewards for smart play.

Orienteering isn’t just a way to describe the result of an Ethos of Play, it’s a set of Design Principles backed up by mechanics that make Exploration both more meaningful and more mechanically significant. The mechanical significance is provided by the Dungeon Crawl mechanics mentioned frequently on All Dead Generations, but the Design Principles are also worth describing as they allow the mechanics to assume greater importance during play. Timekeeping isn’t meaningful if your locations are so small that they will take only a few turns to explore for example. The goal of these Principles though isn’t just to support mechanics for making risk management and problem solving important parts of play, but to gamify the idea of exploration to encourage, facilitate and reward curiosity, investigation, scouting and other types of interaction with and contemplation of the fantasy location’s spatial aspects.

Exploration becomes important when it allows for a variety of experiences and solutions, when player knowledge of the location translates into greater success in play. The simplest way of doing this is to make the layout and design of locations complex but coherent - to allow players who pay attention to predict what’s in the next room with some degree of success or to use their knowledge of the location to overcome its obstacles. These ideas go back to the very beginning of role playing games, and Volume 3 of the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons,  Underworld and Wilderness Adventures gives the following advice on adventure design.

“In laying out your dungeons keep in mind that downward (and upward) mobility is desirable, for players will not find a game enjoyable which confines them too much. On the other hand unusual areas and rich treasures should be relatively difficult to locate, and access must be limited. The layout of a level will affect the route most often followed by players. Observation of the most frequently used passages and explored rooms will guide the referee in preparation of successive levels, which, of course, should be progressively more dangerous and difficult.” Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Page 6.

Mobility, and the large size, rewarding but hard to access locations, and the importance of routes through the dungeon are all hinted at in Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, and they remain the core concepts in classic dungeon design and exploration. However, other early sources, such as the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide or Players Handbook and Basic Dungeons & Dragons have scant practical advice or elaboration. As noted when looking at supply mechanics, Gygax and other early Dungeons & Dragons authors seem to have largely assumed knowledge of or perhaps the inevitability of an exploration style of play, perhaps as a result of the mechanics themselves. There are warnings about avoiding unnecessary combat or excessive caution and examples of tricks or traps that transport the party unexpectedly, confusing and endangering them, but the paragraph above is the most succinct and complete advice about the goals of early dungeon design.

B1- Search For the Unknown
Deduce those secret chambers!
The most traditional and obvious example and technique of using spatial design and orienteering is the inclusion of secret doors, especially doors that can be discovered through deduction. In many early adventures there are secret doors whose presence is indicated largely by voids in the map where one would expect rooms. The map for B1 - Search for the Unknown holds several examples of this, spaces (Rooms 8 and 9 are especially obvious) where if one had a map without the secret rooms on it one would notice a suspicious void. This technique however assumes an element of play that’s uncommon today -- mapping. Mapping is an enjoyable mini-game for many players, especially for in person games, but it has costs in time and the nature of GM description (see below). One can be quite brazen with this design trick though, Search for the Unknown is fairly subtle, and it always brings a bit of excitement and a feeling of discovery and triumph to players when they successfully deduce the location of a secret door, only slightly reduced if they haven’t been drawing their own map. To make deductive secret doors more obvious a designer can also use symmetry and oddly shaped rooms with the secret chamber is obviously missing from a map.

The design concerns related to secret doors generally offer an excellent example of how design and orienteering work and lay out some basic principles. As mentioned in the section about Blockades to play, secret doors shouldn’t prevent access to entire regions of a dungeon or conceal the likely goals of explorers. Rather secret doors exist largely as a bonus or shortcut for canny adventurers providing unexpected rewards (a secret treasury), or ways to avoid risks and dangers, including entrances and exits to deeper levels or more distant regions in the dungeon (secret shortcuts). Part of understanding this approach to secret doors (and location design in general) is to see the fantasy space not as a narrative structure or series of encounters, but as a complete environment that the characters must move through, investigate and learn -- to explore.

Yet, the idea of exploration alone isn’t sufficient, movement through and investigation of the location must be mechanically significant, it must be play with similar tension to other arenas of play, for example, combat. In contemporary traditional games such as 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, combat offers clearly defined tension (the risk of character injury) and risk as well as the opportunity to gamble with those risks. Preparation (character building), investigation (recognition and adaptation to a foes abilities), inspiration (novel or unexpected use of environmental or ability based tactics) and gambling (risk and rolling the dice) are all part of a good combat encounter, and if exploration play is to provide the same thrill it must offer the same opportunities. Time pressure from supplies and random encounters as well as traps provide the risk and gambling aspects, but investigation, inspiration and preparation are left largely to the design of the location itself, with consideration like those around secret door placement and use.


Designing for exploration demands both mechanics and orienteering challenges to support it: multiple paths and clues to various naturalistic and consistent obstacles as well as map based complexity and size.

To make exploration an arena of play as significant and impactful as combat requires the players to accept that exploration itself is risky and that they can obtain rewards through it, both the reward of enjoyable play, and the in-game rewards as discussed at the end of this essay. Risk is a recurring theme, but both are best understood within a larger framework -- the concept that the dungeon and its spatial considerations are a puzzle, the first and biggest puzzle of the adventure. The layout of the dungeon conceals, protects and allows access to the rewards of treasure (or other story goals) and as the players’ understanding of the location grows their ability to safely traverse it and achieve their goals increases.

Caverns of Thracia

Orienteering challenges are the way this process of planning investigation and risk taking becomes play, and while rarely described this way are a well known part of classic dungeon crawl design. Primarily they take the form of maxims and techniques of map design, often described with the shorthand “Jaquaying the Dungeon”, after Jennell Jaquays, one of the more talented early adventure designers, and author of the excellent Caverns of Thracia. One can perhaps think of these techniques as a Dungeon Ergonomics, and like the architectural discipline, their goal is to make moving through and interacting with the dungeon more efficient.

In a series of essays, The Alexandrian blog details these methods: non-linear dungeon design, the use of looping corridors/rooms, multiple entrances, landmarks, and the sort of vertical connectivity referred to in Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. The Alexandrian lays out an exhaustive list of these techniques, but it’s worth thinking more about why one would use them and what they accomplish while noting the ways they interact with other classic dungeon design strategies.

There’s more to exploration and orienteering beyond map-based design techniques.

In addition to exploration supporting mechanics, two design principles are helpful to build on basic Jaquaying techniques: coherence and size. Coherence here is something more than simple theming, it’s attention to environmental and spatial elements that offer players clues about the obstacles and the makeup of the rest of the dungeon. From the overused (especially in tomb dungeons) symmetrical layout to smaller key specific techniques all share a goal of creating spaces and environmental aspects of the dungeon that preview future risk, or repeat so that an early experience offers players understanding of a more dangerous later obstacle. Examples of these techniques include sprung traps similar to later traps or a vantage point (like the rim of a chasm) that reveals a deeper part of the dungeon. Additionally naturalism, or at least a stilted simplified naturalism suggested in the 1st edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s section on Ecology provides a valuable coherence and source of player information:

“This is not to say that you must be textbook perfect, it is merely a cautionary word to remind you not to put in too many large carnivores without any visible means of support. Some participants in your campaign might question the ecology- particularly if it does not favor their favorite player characters. You must be prepared to justify it. [...] Dungeons likewise must be balanced and justified, or else wildly improbable and caused by some supernatural entity which keeps the whole thing running - or at least has set it up to run until another stops it. In any event, do not allow either the demands of "realism" or impossible makebelieve to spoil your milieu. Climate and ecology are simply reminders to use a bit of care!” (see Pg. 87 - 88)

This flippant warning and related ideas often receive the nickname “Gygaxian Naturalism”, a term coined by the blog Grognardia back in 2008.

However, unlike many topics in the Guide, this caution isn’t just an odd throwback or insight into Gygax’s personal obsessions, but a useful concept - problem solving is fed with information, and exploration play that provides information is rewarding. Knowing where a faction gets its water or what fragile ledge a well fed giant likes to sun himself on are tools that can help players past these obstacles, but they can only exist if there’s some order to the dungeon and only become useful if they are logical or naturalistic enough for players to deduce them.

All of these techniques: layout, repetition/previews and naturalistic logic provide a dungeon’s internal coherence and present a fantastical space that still has predictable and discoverable spatial and other relationships. Such coherence in turn allows players to discover information and deduce the solutions to obstacles within the dungeon outside of the mechanics. Even in a mechanic heavy system, coherence and the hints it offers can tell the players the odds of various schemes -- which skill tests and which die rolls to appeal to for the best results.

Demanding the players solve the dungeon’s physical space is part of a specific style of adventure, exploration, one that isn’t always necessary even in classic play. A fortress or lair with a single faction may have less need of spatial complexity as it doesn’t depend on the same aspects of intrigue and interrelationships as a multi-faction dungeon. In general, size is profoundly important to using Jaquaying techniques, because without a significant amount of space to explore the rewards of mastering the dungeon layout will be few. Four entrances to a five room dungeon may be usable and interesting if the puzzle is unravelling which entrance to take from rumors, riddles or another external pre-adventure source, but simply presented as a location this is more a set of rooms to encounter in a random order then a dungeon.

Dungeon complexity isn’t created only by the spatial design of the map and naturalism in its keying, but by the placement of challenges within such as faction territory or set-piece lair encounters, puzzles or other obstacles -- each adding complexity to the raw orienteering challenge of finding the best or fastest route through the dungeon. Coherence and naturalism also benefit from a bit of complexity and the possibility of multiple solutions, paths and options for the players to unravel. Complexity is best accomplished by size, and a Complex dungeon where orienteering becomes a key type of play must be fairly large, generally at least twenty or thirty keyed rooms. This need is where another often misunderstood element of classic design comes into play -- the empty room.

A complex dungeon with thirty keyed locations, each with an encounter or puzzle will take a huge amount of play to explore. Each ‘full key’ with an obstacle, puzzle or encounter requires at least 15 minutes to play, and when using a system with complex combat mechanics such as 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, any combat encounter will take even longer - perhaps 30 minutes. At six complex locations every two hours of play or so, it’s just not feasible to make every room in a reasonably sized dungeon complex. Convention games or those envisioned in the early days of the hobby may last for a full day, six or eight hours, but with online play such marathon sessions are no longer popular, and two to three hours seems around the comfortable maximum.

Obviously thirty rooms of complex encounters and obstacles will take a huge amount of time, but empty rooms alleviate this. Even a room with some ‘dressing’ for players to investigate, a brief clue perhaps, will take only 5 or 10 minutes to describe and explore, meaning the empty room saves time. More important than allowing parties to travel longer distances into the dungeon, numerous empty rooms also perform useful service by creating a buffer between encounters/obstacles, adding complexity/potential alternate routes, and increasing risk by creating additional chances of random encounters, using up supplies and lengthening the distance from the safety of the dungeon entrance. Like the necessity of time-keeping and encumbrance mechanics to make random encounters and supplies important, these mechanics require time and space to really become important to play. Traveling through a dungeon of significant size and complexity will create greater risk of random encounters while reducing supplies to a greater degree between obstacles and set-piece encounters.


White Plume Mountain - Lots of Obstacles...

Layout and naturalism are designed to encourage player choice, but they can also set the stage for limitations of player choice -- access to in game rewards can be constrained or made easy by obstacles and shortcuts, including non-spatial ones, that require the players make orienteering choices about how to approach them.

Exploration mechanics, significant size, a non-linear map, and complex naturalistic keying make orienteering a meaningful part of play, but dungeon design can go further in placing the fantastical location itself at the center of play. While navigating a complex dungeon is itself an accomplishment and designers should be mindful of creating blockades to play, it can also be very useful to put some rewards behind obstacles -- always leaving ways to bypass them and explore elsewhere in the location.

Obstacles such as locked doors, chasms, fortified outposts, underground rivers and magical barriers offer challenges that aren’t always immediately approachable and may even require obtaining special knowledge or supplies to bypass. This encourages players to scout the dungeon or return multiple times, leaving some obstacles untouched until they are properly prepared. In turn the existence of such obstacles and knowledge (derived from clues, dungeon coherence or rumors) of the rewards they protect encourages the planning and navigation considerations of Orienteering.

In addition to obstacles that prevent access to regions of the dungeon or specific rewards, pathways through a complex dungeon are themselves a reward for the players to discover. Shortcuts via secret door or the good graces of a dungeon faction that bypass especially risky regions, or just save time, can be valuable for a party that wants to get to a specific part of the dungeon (perhaps a previously discovered obstacle they have come equipped to pass) but likewise understanding the best or most efficient paths through the dungeon are also the goal of successful Orienteering play.

Finally an often underappreciated element of complex dungeon design (and overland travel play) is the inclusion of landmarks. Usually empty rooms with significant and memorable features or dressing that allow the players an intuitive understanding of dungeon layout by firmly fixing their location. Landmarks work especially well if they are also hubs or linkages between multiple dungeon regions or contain several exits and access to the loops that mark Jaquayed map design.

Part of encouraging and promoting Orienteering is making successful navigation rewarding by placing more dangerous or less efficient ways through the location, as well as including various obstacles and choke points that good players can recognize and feel a sense of accomplishment in avoiding. Obviously better and worse options make spatial considerations themselves part of cunning players’ strategies as well: trapping choke points or even carving new paths through the walls of the dungeon. Dungeon residents can also use the spatial layout of the dungeon to their advantage, creating coherent and reasonable (if not always predictable) responses to player actions in a way that makes faction intrigue more important and gives a location a sense of naturalistic life.


The layout and spatial design of dungeons matter to play and offer opportunities to enhance player choice, enliven dungeon crawling mechanics and make exploration an important part of play through making orienteering, navigation through the fantastic space matter. To do this requires supporting mechanics and good map design, but also attention to adventure design and a certain minimal size for locations.

When thinking about this sort of play a GM or designer can map layout and location design as itself as a puzzle for players to unravel. A naturalistic and complex space that maintains coherence while providing clues, multiple paths and a variety of obstacles will work best to encourage player acceptance of the puzzle by making solving it rewarding.

The goal of complex map making and other orienteering design is to place dungeon exploration at the center of the play experience and to make the use of dungeon crawling mechanics a rewarding variety of play. None of them are absolute, but the entire edifice of mechanics and play style work together to create a specific play experience.


Orienteering and complex location design - all the tricks and considerations above as well as the design principles behind them create a specific exploration playstyle, but there are still other common elements of classic play that emphasize and build off them. One of these, a wonderful accompaniment to a well designed dungeon crawl is the “Session Length Expedition”. Complex dungeons with multiple paths, factions and obstacles are usually too large to be meaningfully explored in a single session, even a long one, and the chance to scout, plan and return offers an enjoyable play loop.

Creating the expectation that the party will exit the dungeon at the end of each session (and reserving a few minutes of play time at the end of each session to accomplish that retreat) is a valuable tool as it adds value to orienteering discoveries and learning the layout of the dungeon - such as the relationship between its multiple entrances and landmarks within. It also allows for better application of rules around treasure (such as basing XP on gold recovered from the dungeon), swapping characters and players between sessions and interaction with the setting outside the dungeon. More importantly it gives an opportunity for the dungeon to change and adapt to player intrusions: new creatures move in, rival adventurers create time pressure, faction conflicts within change and evolve, new traps and new tactics devised. A further expansion of the naturalism and ecology of the dungeon that can make the place far more interesting and lively adding to the variety of play within.


In early discussions of dungeon crawling play a single assumption arises again and again -- that the players will be deeply involved in mapping the location. Mapping becomes a sort of mini-game, the way that Orienteering is most clearly placed at the center of play. Yet mapping has fallen out of favor, likely for several reasons, most importantly the decline in the importance of Orienteering, Exploration and Dungeoncrawl play. While it’s obviously essential not to simply offer the players a complete map of a dungeon they are intended to explore (a partial or in-game artifact map is different with the assumption that it’s not entirely correct) there are pragmatic reasons to avoid player mapping -- for the GM to draw out the dungeon on a whiteboard or reveal the map as it’s explored as a screen share. Many players find mapping a frustrating chore, and this becomes a problem even if some within the group don’t because the type of description necessary to map properly also consumes more time and demands a particular dry style of feet and directions.

Including player mapping has a cost then, especially in online play, where the GM can’t simply reach across and amend player maps (though use of a whiteboard meeting program can help) in time and perhaps player enjoyment as the description it necessitates tends to be drier. Like many such slightly burdensome mechanics or methods of play (tracking encumbrance say), mapping is something that doesn’t make much sense for some varieties of play. It may however add a good deal to a dungeon crawl focused campaign where the players feel a strong pull towards exploration and orienteering.

Mapping can also be simplified, and like many older dungeon crawl mechanics, some of the fault lies in the war game roots of early D&D. There is little reason to map in 10’ x 10’ squares, though it can help players deduce secret room locations, this seems a petty advantage to such a time consuming activity. Simplified non-combat movement and the sort of turn based timekeeping with exploration dice that All Dead Generations champions work in tandem with simplified map making. If players move through one room per turn the exact size of those rooms becomes far less important, unless one is devoted to grid based combat, but even then exact distances only matter for locations where combat occurs. During most of the exploration part of play it’s sufficient to know that a door on the North side of room ‘A’ leads to room ‘B’ and that a long passage winds East from ‘B’ to ‘C’. The map can become more nodal, a series of rough shapes and lines rather than carefully drawn on graph paper. This of course does have some disadvantages and may make orienteering more difficult -- especially when players try to determine what walls to smash down or dig through.
The choice to encourage or require player mapping is then one that has obvious advantages and disadvantages while entirely dependent on mechanics and player interest. Worth considering in dungeon and Orienteering focused games, but also an element of play that’s neither necessary or always beneficial.

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