The “Procedural Dungeon Crawl” gets mentioned a lot on All Dead Generations” and many of the pieces here describe its theoretical underpinnings -- but what exactly is the Procedure in the Procedural Dungeon Crawl? Not “What is Procedure?” in some abstracted way, but specifically, what Procedure does one follow to produce a Turn of Classic Exploration play?
Below are two lists that breakdown how I would run a Turn of Exploration in both a Classical way (using OSE similar clones or 1981 Moldvay Basic [B/X] mechanics) and how I actually run my own games (using house ruled 1974 Dungeons and Dragons.) Both function just fine with the other rule set however (some movement distances are different, and by the book OD&D adds procedures for incidental traps that I omit because not every square foot of every dungeon has broken pit traps in it) as they are Procedure rather than mechanics.
Before I go into detail about how and why they work, here are the “Classical” and my own “Neo-Classical” (with plentiful ideas from other bloggers and designers) methods of running an Exploration Turn as I understand them:
CLASSICAL EXPLORATION PROCEDURE
A. Referee calculates and Players note equipment and/or status changes due to passage of a 10 minutes.
B. Random Encounter Die Events are resolved. (Can Open Encounter Procedure).
C. Referee describes surroundings (Can open Encounter or Combat Procedure).
D. Players ask questions about surroundings or events and the Referee clarifies.
E. Players state actions.
F. Referee confirms player actions with clarification of any mechanics used.
G. Actions are resolved. Any movement is calculated.
H. Players note any status or equipment changes on Character Sheets.
I. Roll Random Encounter Die for next Turn.
NEO-CLASSICAL EXPLORATION PROCEDURE
AA Referee describes surroundings (Can open Encounter or Combat Procedure) and applies Exploration Die results from the prior Turn.
BB. Exploration Die Events are resolved and noted. (Can Open Encounter Procedure)
CC. Players ask questions about surroundings or events and the Referee clarifies.
DD. Players state actions.
EE. Referee confirms player actions with clarification of any mechanics used.
FF. Actions are resolved.
GG. Players note any status or equipment changes on Character Sheets.
HH. Roll Exploration Die for next Turn.
There are a few distinctions between the two sets of Procedures, and they may look small but they have big effects, and the second set manages to be both more streamlined, and give a greater impact to exploration risks both mechanically and intangibly. To do so one first has to accept that the goal of play isn't fidelity to a narrative structure or genre, but equally that it's not the realistic simulation of spelunking or tunnel fighting. Classic Dungeon Crawling play at its core is the "Procedural Exploration of a Fantastical Space". In turn that Procedure (above) is built with mechanics that use Time and Space to trigger risk from Encounters and the depletion of Supplies. In play this means players explore and unpuzzle the dungeon to gather its treasures and escape before they are destroyed by its inhabitants/obstacles or run out of supplies and perish.
I've talked about most of the specifics above generally, but here the important points are on how these procedures differ, and to a lesser extent how they function.
Three basic shared mechanically supported elements create Classic Dungeon Crawl play by forcing the players to make risk v. reward calculations about where they will go, how long they will take to explore and how cautiously they will approach the dungeon’s dressing, inhabitants and obstacles. As hinted above and repeated before on All Dead Generations these are: Time, Risk and Supply. The Procedure offered impact and utilize all three.
Time (A/AA): Both Procedures start with Time. The ten minute Time Keeping of Classic play and it's abstracted Turn Keeping progeny. While in the fiction, within the setting, the characters presumably experience time as a constant flow, table top play cannot. In game time must be broken into sections for the mechanics to take hold. To do this time has to be broken up into Turns. The Turn triggers all the following procedures: it's how the referee and players agree on distance travelled, track supplies used, and determine when risk manifests as threats via random encounters.
Risk (B/BB, HH/I): Random Encounters are the embodiment of the risk of exploration. Yes, the dungeon is full of other obstacles and risks, but one of the aspects of Dungeon Crawl play, and why spatial design with multiple paths is so important is that these static risks (though foes can certainly chase the characters): lairs, traps, physical obstacles are largely optional. Retreat should usually be an option for the players and finding a route around some obstacles is a large part of play - Navigation. Even facing obstacles head on, caution, whether using ambuses and attrition to deplete an enemy faction or carefully checking a suspicious hallway for traps is a great tactic for players -- a tactic that Random Encounters make risky. Random Encounters, because they are linked to the passage of Turns act as a counterweight to caution with players needing to balance each decision to delay against the risk of encountering potentially hostile inhabitants. This of course leads into another element of Classic play, the demphasis on combat as a play goal and a lack of reward for it.
Supply (BB, I, H/GG): The Exploration Die roll has the additional effect of removing character supply items: torches, oil, magic, and food, but supplies tick down using Classic timekeeping as well, with durations coming due over time. Supply acts as a second currency (beyond the hit points threatened by Random Encounters or traps) for players survival and its inclusion both complicates Dungeon Crawl play and offers another, less important, way the environment can threaten characters. Running out of torches is likely a Total Party Kill, just as running out of Hit Points is, but it’s one that results from different choices, including player decisions about what to bring into the dungeon (which of course means the play style requires encumbrance mechanics to limit supply). Supply depletion is thus useful to provide another factor that players need to judge (besides the risk of Random Encounters and decline of Hit Points and combat ability), and one that is threatened at a more constant rate and primarily by exploration. Torches are expended backtracking down a hall, exhaustion and encumbrance threaten fighting ability, but can be alleviated with rations and discarding equipment, and equipment like ropes are depleted by obstacles like holes (characters should be careful about not leaving a way to quickly retreat).
The Play Loop
The entire middle section of the Procedure (C,D,E,F,G/AA,CC,DD,EE,FF) is dedicated to the core play loop of exploration adventure. Classic Dungeon Crawling as a style of play is extremely granular, with a high degree of detail, and cognitively complex. The basic play loop is a sort of Observation (via referee description), Orientation (through clarifications, existing location knowledge, and setting knowledge), Decision and Action (sometimes with an appeal to mechanics) loop. This is an involved play loop that seeks to avoid or puts off appeals to the mechanics far more than some other play styles. In idealized Classic play, players rarely act by directly invoking mechanics, relying on interpretation and narrative prior to mechanical modelling to elide risk or tilt their chances.
In other words, skill challenges are disfavored for problem solving and narrative solutions preferred. This is perhaps an ideal, and it would be perfectly possible for the “Action” element of this procedure to always include a mechanical action. This of course would reduce the need for descriptive clues and solutions that appeal directly to the fiction/setting, and sometimes this exists in Classic play by default. Players rarely describe how they will pick a lock and instead declare they will be using a character skill to do so. When expanded beyond skills like lock picking and sword swinging that are inaccessible, unreasonable or inefficient to replace with player knowledge a robust skill system can create a very board game-like feel, but will dramatically reduce the amount of time needed for this kind of play. Dungeon!, the 1975 board game version of Dungeons & Dragons, would be the first example of this sort of play, but it has a great deal of influence on the non-combat portions of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and other post 1980’s editions.
Utilizing the Classic description and question loop is a large part of the Classic Dungeon Crawl and because it relies so heavily on referee description/interpretation and player questions, Classic Dungeon Crawling places a correspondingly large cognitive load on the referee. This means that for the majority of tables and referees, myself included, simple mechanics and clear procedures are necessary. In the past I’ve noted that the early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, while they emphasize exploration, don't always support it well mechanically, and when they do the mechanics are often confusingly presented (i.e. AD&D's multiple forms of encumbrance - coins and lbs or Moldvay Basic's casual use of "Turn" to describe exploration Turns and combat Rounds), complex and demand bookkeeping. I suspect it’s precisely Gygax and Arneson's lack of explanation about the use of exploration mechanics, and the complexity of rules they do provide that so quickly caused early play to turn away from Classic to other play styles where narrative and genre emulation were emphasized.
The Classical procedures demand a great attention to detail and place the burden of tracking time and supply depletion on the referee. One suspects that for Dungeons & Dragons early designers this sort of record keeping and attention to logistics detail (movement speeds, torch vs. lantern burn times under multiple timescales, and specific item weights) were expected to be assumed knowledge among a war gaming public. Of course one also sees Dungeons & Dragons quickly move outside the war gaming scene where the complexity and gaps in explanation of procedure become glaring.
For a modern RPG public, especially those used to current editions, unfamiliarity with logistics and record keeping as part of the game persist, and even for players willing to incorporate these aspects they demand attention and take up precious play time.
The “Neo-Classical” Procedures are an attempt to redress these issues, to minimize and distribute the tasks of memory and tracking among the players, and to remind everyone when mechanics are invoked or record keeping is needed. For this reason I far prefer the "Neo-Classical" Procedures I offer here, because what they give up in (rather tawdry?) simulation they make up for by streamlining play and emphasizing Exploration.
To do this the Neo-Classic Procedures incorporate: the Exploration die, Turnkeeping, and Abstracted Movement. These three simplifications remove much of the calculation and cue much of the notation for supply and exhaustion mechanically. At first these may seem like subtle, even frivolous differences (the distinction between 10 minutes of character time and a Turn for example), but they work together to increase the speed and focus of play as well as simplify the cognitive load on both Referee and Players.
Abstracting time and space by first removing an exact time scale from the Turn (and Combat Round) and then eliminating movement rates from exploration (movement rates are still useful for combat and pursuit), especially when one wants to reduce the amount of complexity that moving and exploration take or is using a location with a high degree of density and detail. The Exploration die works in tandem with abstracted space and time because it automates much of the tracking, and makes the passage of each Turn far more significant - the passage of a Turn will almost always have some result on play: loss of supply, and encounter, a clue or exhaustion and players know this, making the decision on how to spend a specific Turn more important. Again the exploration die works best for denser, smaller locations (or larger locations with several entrances and exits that can be explored over several sessions) because, especially coupled with stricter limitations on supply, such as slot based encumbrance, it tends to deplete supply more quickly -- much more quickly then the typical game, where supply depletion is easy to overlook and difficult to track.
These Neo-Classical procedures and mechanics offer what I think are clearer procedures and a lighter cognitive load that become even more useful as the amount of creativity, improvisation and decision making for the referee increases. They are to a degree gamified, and may annoy some players for whom clear timelines feel more comfortable, but the insecurity of the Exploration die’s somewhat random supply depletion and the tight reign that Turnkeeping puts on the number of player actions between rolling it also add risk to exploring even small spaces, and make player decisions about how to explore a dungeon far more important. I find that some lack of acceptance brought about by unfamiliar mechanics is far outweighed by the ability to present players with a constant, Turn by Turn set of meaningful choices and sense of looming risk. I also find that the automation of many Referee record keeping duties is a profound relief, and makes running a Dungeon Crawl far more enjoyable, giving the Referee enough mental space to adapt to player schemes and creatively describe the environment and its inhabitant instead of worrying about minutia.