FIVE ROOMS DON'T MAKE A DUNGEON
This blog is largely devoted to repeating a single message about game design, hammering away at the same subjects for what I hope is a growing audience. At times it feels repetitive and foolish, but then when one looks out into the larger Roleplaying Game community there’s still a lot of confusion about these same subjects -- the “Dungeon Crawl” style of play.
So once again what is a Dungeon Crawl? Why might some adventures or play styles that call themselves Dungeon Crawls fail to deliver on the promise of the genre? To explore this topic I’ll discuss a design exercise/theory and adventure format popular in the Contemporary Traditional community, the “Five Room Dungeon”. To some extent this distinction is one of definition, but I think it’s a useful distinction as it will hopefully introduce some players to the Classic style of play or at least provide tools to think about the differences between play styles and examine what sort of experience one’s table provides.
The Contemporary Traditional community has its own ethos of play, values, design principles, preferred mechanics and of course play style, and my goal isn’t to pass judgment on them, denigrate, or otherwise offend. Rather I want to present some reasons why designing and playing following the Five Room Dungeon format may not feel much like dungeon exploration and why it doesn’t fit within the (or my) definition of a Dungeon Crawl derived from or following the Classic play style found in such adventures as Caverns of Thracia.
This is all certainly not to say that Five Room Dungeons are bad or don’t work for the play style that they are designed for, only that they aren’t a panacea for adventure design or a great place to start when learning about Classic play or the Dungeon Crawl. To help understand why, it’s necessary to describe what goes into a Dungeon Crawl, or perhaps a “Crawl” more generally, as the Dungeon Crawl shares key elements with wilderness adventure designed as Point, Hex, or Wave Crawls. The basic structure of the Crawl style adventure contains three elements: Space, Exploration and Procedure.
Crawling Into the Past
What does the Dungeon Crawl promise? To some it’s a label for any adventure set in an underground maze or even any fantasy adventure regardless of design and mechanics. To me and as used here, the Dungeon Crawl label implies something more: an adventure in a complex environment filled with danger: traps, monsters, secrets and mysteries -- something beyond just combat or NPC interactions where the location and environment is an important character in the game. Focusing more narrowly, the simplest definition I have for a Crawl as a set of design principles is to say that it’s a play style or adventure where the locus of play is:
A fantastical SPACE that is EXPLORED PROCEDURALLY.
I’ll be looking at each of these elements a bit individually, and they may already be familiar to regular readers of All Dead Generations, but I’ll only be discussing the definitions and how the elements work holistically rather than the details of their history or supporting mechanics.
Obviously Space in the context of a tabletop game can’t mean real, literal space. You don’t need to go running around the steam tunnels to play a proper dungeon crawl. Space in this context refers to mechanics and procedures that model space, concerning themselves with distance or time and the spatial relationships between obstacles and treasures. Traditionally this is accomplished by tracking supplies (light, spells, rations, hit points and other player currencies) that the characters expend to “move” through the dungeon and whose exhaustion threatens the characters. Encumbrance, timekeeping, and most importantly random encounters are the primary mechanisms for modelling space so that it’s meaningful in play, and in the context of adventure design, including the Five Room Dungeon, that means two things. First the designer needs to create a space where time and distance matter, and second where the obstacles or encounters are interrelated.
Making time and space matter is tricky, it’s nothing less than turning the entire location into a spatial puzzle itself, a sort of “maze game” with secrets, shortcuts, best routes and information that the players can learn and apply to overcome the spatial puzzle. Landmarks, theming, inhabitants with information, rumors, and partial maps are all tools to do this, but the most important one is size and complexity.
Interrelation works to support the creation of meaningful space by defining relationships between its inhabitants and obstacles - another form of theming that makes it advantageous for players to investigate and understand the layout of the dungeon and enables them to consider or ideally predict routes through the dungeon. Traps that mirror traps later in the dungeon, levers or puzzles that shift its layout, faction territories of its inhabitants, all operate as ways to make the visualization of the dungeon as space more important and more enjoyable. Again greater complexity and size allow for more interconnection.
However, when defining the Dungeon Crawl, the important aspect of both interrelation and meaningful space is not simply size. Yes, smaller adventures with fewer paths, obstacles, and inhabitants make for simpler, shorter, Crawls and so are more difficult to create within the style, but the important aspect is the overall structure and presentation of the adventure as an interrelated space, rather than a narrative that can be explored and investigated, progressing through scenes to a climax. Spatial complexity encourages this because it is antithetical to linear adventure design, it breaks down continuity between obstacles, forcing choice about which to engage with onto the players, and so ideally making exploration the locus of play.
Exploration can be a confusing concept, especially for players coming to RPGs from games with such a strong focus on tactical combat that they don’t have much time for it, like 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. It can mean quite a number of things, but is often now conflated with wilderness travel. While some types of wilderness travel are exploration play, in the Classic play style, as this blog uses the term, Exploration is focused on dungeon crawls: the room by room investigation of locations, a scale where information density and player choice are high enough to themselves become the center, the locus, of play.
Exploration as the locus of play is perhaps this blog’s primary concern and repeated argument about the value of older fantasy RPGs and the Classic play style. The core of such Exploration focus is that decisions about where to move matter to the characters to the same or a greater degree as decisions about combat and NPC interaction. That is to say a game where navigation and supply use -- interaction with the Space described above -- matter to the same or a greater degree as choices about combat tactics such as spell and ability use is a game focused on Exploration.
Exploration isn’t really a complex concept, and I don’t mean to mystify it. At its core Exploration is a way of maximizing player choice about where the characters and adventure is headed and how they will get there. Which corridor to take, but also what schemes (faction intrigue, brute force, trickery, stealth, etc.) the party will use to take what they want from a location, or conversely the manner that they will fail to do so. Exploration rejects predefined narrative and hands it largely to the player - the nature of the adventure's conclusion is something that the players will determine through their actions and decisions.
To free movement and the ability to choose when and how to overcome obstacles, the Exploration style adds interaction and investigation - obstacles offer open- ended problems rather than a fixed skill challenge. The players are expected to unpuzzle them using the fictional environment as well as their character’s abilities and supplies, while the resources of the entire location are available . The red door may still open to the red key but the players are not restricted to searching it out and may: pick the lock using skills, negotiate for entrance from a dungeon faction, tunnel through the wall besides the door, grab a statue from another area of the dungeon to use as a battering ram, melt the lock with grey ooze, or use any number of schemes to overcome it. However, because the map of the adventure isn’t linear, they may also backtrack and go elsewhere: either to find another route or to challenge themselves with another obstacle.
Procedure can also be a lot of things - all games have procedure - the order of turns in monopoly and how you use “Free Parking” are procedures. In the context of the Classic Dungeon Crawl the important procedures can also vary, but all impose a cost on movement through the fictional Space.
The “Exploration Procedure” is a collection of varied design principles reduced to specific mechanics that works like this: timekeeping depletes supplies, which are important as limited resources because of encumbrance, and triggers random encounter checks which create risk for navigating the map. The mechanics here: the Exploration Turn, Encumbrance, the Random Encounter and Movement Speed can vary - it’s not especially important if one uses coin, pound or slot based Encumbrance for example as long as they function to produce the same tensions and impose a risk and cost to navigating the fictional space.
This understanding about when to use specific mechanics (which can be reduced to an order of operations and provided by a system, but rarely is), why to use them (which is almost never provided by rules documents) and how they work together is the procedure, and if that sounds a little vague, it’s because it is. Procedure is the holistic set of mechanics, ethics of play and design principles that govern a specific sort of actions: combat procedure, exploration procedure, character generation procedure.
Newer games tend to lack Exploration Procedure, even if they retain some of the specific mechanics that provide it. For example 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons has Timekeeping and Encumbrance, but they are rarely used, vestigial, because they aren’t incorporated into a procedure that meaningfully impacts play. Without the threat of random encounters due to the complexity and tight balance of 5th edition combat, time matters little, and with characters who have little need for supplies (most can see in the dark and even if they can’t a single torch will last through a whole session) timekeeping becomes a pointless chore and with it there’s no meaningful decision to be had in deciding how to explore a fictional space. The Dungeon Crawl doesn’t become impossible, but instead becomes something worse -- a boring chore without risk or tension.
THE FIVE ROOM DUNGEON
I’m not sure who popularized the “Five Room Dungeon”, but it seems to currently be the most popular form of Contemporary Traditional starting adventure design. It consists of a single adventure “location”, built for a relatively short number of sessions and defined by a structure of encounters: “Entrance/Guardian”, “Puzzle”, “Setback”, “Boss Fight”, “Reward”. Usually these encounters are placed in a linear manner, though some Contemporary Traditional designers recommend several different arrangements of the encounters. Whatever the exact fiction around a specific Five Room Dungeon, none are Dungeon Crawls in the sense that they aren’t designed for the play style and aren’t intended to produce an exploration experience. Instead, the Five Room Dungeon is a way to quickly build a narrative adventure within the context of Contemporary Traditional encounter based design.
First, the Five Room dungeon is not defined by its spatial relations, but by the discrete encounters within, which while they may share a theme, aren't interrelated in the way a Classic dungeon is. The Guardian at the Entrance won't join in on the Boss encounter unless defeated or even warn it. Each 'room' is a discrete obstacle/scene/challenge, often designed to allow a specific character archetype a chance to shine. Looking over theory for Five Room dungeons, the only concern that even approaches spatial design is the arrangement and ordering of the encounters, but since the individual challenges remain fixed and discrete these are more a question of narrative structure. Additionally, without the risks associated with Classic procedures (supply and random encounters) the five room dungeon doesn’t incorporate navigation as a meaningful player decision. There will never be a significant cost, even in a non-linear Five Room Dungeon, for engaging with one of its obstacles before another or travel between the scenes, and Five Room Dungeons aren’t designed to allow clever players to avoid some of their obstacles.
Second, a Five Room Dungeon is not intended as a location to explore, so much as a story to progress through, a set of encounters focused on and built around the actions of the characters rather than any internal logic and ecology. The entrance is guarded, trapped or locked, to offer a combat or skill challenge of a specific sort and any inhabitants likewise exist to interact with in a specific predetermined way. Each room is named for the type of scene which the players will approach using specific tools before proceeding to the next one and the adventure will always end with a “boss” encounter, a climax before providing a reward (though this reward may simply be the entrance to another segment of Five Room Dungeon). It’s a tightly wound narrative package, but it’s not one open to player ingenuity outside of each scene and this is a primary place where the Design Principles of Classic and Contemporary Traditional Play differ. Obstacles or challenges in a Classic Dungeon Crawl are part of the level or location as a whole, set within an overall spatial puzzle that demands the players navigate it before their supplies are exhausted and characters become too weak to escape. One might derogatorily refer to it as a maze between obstacles, but it’s one where the obstacles themselves, especially its inhabitants, are also potential tools to solve other obstacles.
The Five Room Dungeon does not offer this style of play, it's not designed with the same concerns as a Classic dungeon and it's not meant to. While it might be possible to bend a Five Room Dungeon into a very small Classic adventure, it doesn't highlight the advantages of the Classic play style, even if one were to run it in a Classic system. I think it's worth pointing these distinctions out simply because of the Five Room Dungeon's popularity, and the number of times I've seen it (especially Matt Coleville's Delian Tomb) recommended as an introductory Dungeon Crawl for Classic systems. Running the Delian Tomb or another Five Room Dungeon, a location designed for Contemporary Traditional scene, skill roll and tactical combat based play in a system designed for location based, puzzle solving exploration if likely to be rather unsatisfying, much like trying to play chess with a set of checkers - the basic forms and ideas behind the game may be deceptively similar, but it will take a rare group of players and a lot of extra work to make the game work well at the table. If you want the Dungeon Crawl experience, then use the systems and adventures specifically designed for it, and if you haven't you might find they offer a different sort of enjoyment then more contemporary systems and adventure design. Likewise if you want to run a narrative campaign of high fantasy heroism and tactical combat the Five Room Dungeon might be the design building block you need.
The art used to illustrate these pieces consist of modified images of the painting of Carlos Barahona Possollo, a contemporary Portuguese painter who works with themes of antiquity and romantic art's relationship to it. These fantastical paintings of Egyptian tomb scenes seem believable because of popular conceptions of ancient Egypt but are utterly fantastical and to me they are more of a comment on the place of Egypt in the European imagination then on Egypt itself.