6 Tips On How To Tie Dungeon Encounters Together

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1203

Brief Word From Johnn

Last night I found a great course on Udemy about video game design. In part, it dives into the tension between player agency versus game designer agenda. Open world games versus plotted story paths.

This is old hat for us though. The first moments behind the screen we realize we’re either pushing gameplay onto our players or they are pulling gameplay from us. (Wizards of Adventure, see Push vs. Pull: The Four Levers That Inevitably Pull Players Through Your Adventures, Musings Compilation September 2018.)

Whether you homebrew, run published adventures, or fall somewhere in between, we are always making judgment calls on what’s happening in the game. This translates to cognitive load, tension, and for some, anxiety, as we fret on steering play one way or another based on our GM agenda of either following a plan, thinking a step ahead of the party, or both.

This caused me multiple GM burnouts over the years. You can tell when those bad periods hit from the RPT archives, which have been running since 1999. The newsletters with burnout tips from me and your fellow GMs are when I was most afflicted.

I woke up today thinking about the course and my upcoming OSE campaign which will mostly be improvised, and wondering if I should write some improvisation tips to help GMs who struggle with this game of building the road as the party gallops headlong down it.

Is there any desire for improvisation tips?

Please do me a couple of favors if you have time. First, take this one-question improvisation poll to help me understand your GMing preferences better.

Second, where do you struggle with improvisation? Please drop a comment in the thread below the poll or hit reply. There’s more to improv than strategic prep. There’s coming up with words, reading the table, making unexpected choices, and so on. It’s a full set of smaller skills, each worth understanding and applying so you can improve with practice.

(FYI, poll vote and commenting need forum registration, which is free and does not result in me spamming your inbox except for the one-time optin confirmation. If you have a Campaign Logger subscription or free trial, you can use the same login with the forum to save you time.)

Wizard of Adventure Updates

In other news, it’s the last Saturday of the month this weekend, which means the monthly Wizard of Adventure Zoom Q&A!

This month, Jochen shows us how to get from an initial idea to a worked-out 5 Room Dungeon using Campaign Logger. It’ll be a fantastic demo of creating a solid adventure outline. Plus there’ll be the usual campaign Q&A and sharing of GM wisdom from the group.

There are also new OSE Campaign Design Diary episodes available. Watch the first 11 here with more coming soon.

More updates and links available here in the just-published Wizard of Adventure Newsletter #5. If you are not a Wizard of Adventure yet, join now to catch the Zoom chat and all new campaign diaries as they get released.Find out more loot details here.

6 Tips On How To Tie Dungeon Encounters Together

Wizard of Adventure Paul asked me a couple of tricky dungeon-building questions the other day:

How do you build a large dungeon that is logical, not simply a collection of rooms?

Looking for a holistic approach to a large dungeon vs a bunch of “rooms”, while still allowing room for some great set piece encounters.

I’m looking for a logical reason a bunch of different creatures would be in a single subterranean environment yet somehow separated enough that they don’t gang up on the players and kill each other.

Great questions, thank you Paul. If it were my campaign, I’d do the following:

The Basics: Genre, Theme & Tone

A rational dungeon is consistent. It’s a consistent game experience in the form of your game system, house rules, and GMing style. It’s a consistent story by putting the main objective, be it foe or treasure, at the end and using previous encounters to set the stage for an exciting grand finale. And it’s consistent to the workings and precedents of your game world.

We can have all kinds of weird stuff in our dungeons. And we can handwave tricky areas via magical or esoteric origins. So our creative hands are by no means tied with our three quests for consistency: game, story, world.

For example, we put two factions on a dungeon level. Most encounters will now be flavored by those factions, giving us consistency by resident type. Rooms will likely have a faction use, faction furnishings, and faction inhabitants.

And if we make the factions enemies, we put our dungeon into a state conflict and flood our corridors with tension. One faction could be sentient blink dogs. The other, cunning blink cats.

With these few facts, we already have a strong feeling of how rooms and encounters are connected and what the story of this level is about. And despite the goofy faction choices, we’ve got dungeon consistency.

In the end, I believe we aim to create a strong theme and tone that aligns with our genre to help make our dungeon feel consistent during and after play.

Begin With Dungeon’s End in Mind

Here’s a trick if ever staring at a blank Campaign Logger entry, unsure what to type. Envision the grand finale of your dungeon adventure. Where does it take place? Who’s there? What’s there? What happens during the encounter?

You don’t need to plot the end out. We’re not defining a railroad. Instead, we want at least one idea for an ideal best case grand finale scenario. If we can’t think of such, then we have bigger problems than tying our rooms together.

Then, with the grand finale in mind, we work backwards to figure out the theme and tone, encounter seeds (map, monster, treasure), and dungeon layout.

When stuck with no idea on how to make a rational dungeon, begin with its end and work backwards.

Make Your Razor

Long-time readers will have heard me talk about this tool before. In a nutshell, pick two or three dungeon concepts and mash them together. The mashup is called your Razor.

Then make each piece of your prep and GMing congruent to your Razor. As each word, sketch, detail, and small decision add up, you will produce something consistent to your Razor, which means you’ve automagically got a consistent dungeon.

For example, Hunger Games meets Conan the Barbarian.

Get Curious About the Natural World

Alas, I have a tough challenge for you: try to learn more about how our world works. I know, it’s tricky fitting the time in. And textbooks from school made it so boring.

However, if you could manage any additional knowledge, you can use that to improve your dungeon designs without extra effort. The more you know, the easier it will be to have inspired ideas on how to make your design rational, logical, and realistic.

What I mean is, metaphorically speaking, if you teach yourself addition, then you can add any two numbers together, regardless of what the digits are. You simply follow the rules of “the math game” to win. Likewise, if you have mental models for how things actually work, you can use those in your designs or, even better, use them as a foundation to warp and twist for your cool dungeon ideas.

For example, if you took a couple minutes sometime to wonder what the states of matter are, you’d learn there are four fundamental states: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Now, how often do we look at our dungeons in terms of these states? Gaseous treasures, liquid traps, and plasma monsters? Sign me up!

If you are interested in this type of knowledge to level up your idea reservoirs, here are my favorite YouTube channels. Each creator produces videos around 15 minutes or less. Just one video a day starts blowing your mind about mother nature, our world, and our universe.

Please note, these creators have their own views, filters, and biases. Take all information with a grain of salt. But for gaming purposes, I find these channels help fill me up with understanding “the addition” of reality so I can wield it for great dungeon crafting.

What are your favorite information YouTube channels? Hit reply and let me know. I’m also hungry for more lore.

Create Your Dungeon’s Origin Story

Another fun way to ensure dungeon consistency is to examine how the dungeon was created. What’s its origin story?

Because when we vary the beginning of a dungeon, we can create all kinds of variants that help us serve fresh new adventures to our friends.

For a complete breakdown on how to do that, see my article here: Adventure Design: Build From The Monster’s POV.

Consider Mission-Based Dungeon Crawling

For my final tip today, a consistent narrative also makes a dungeon feel rational during gameplay.

For example:

Without narrative: Your players start mocking your dungeon after encountering a zombie, unicorn, screaming fungus, and psionic dire dolphin. And that was just behind the door on the left.

With narrative: “The mayor needs your help! The arch wizard’s menagerie has somehow escaped their cells and now roam free in his underground zoo of experiments.”

We can make dungeons feel realistic and rationale by applying a Mission. This is a dirty GM trick, and it works well, Now, instead of players focusing on the dungeon itself, they see the dungeon as a means to an end. And instead, they focus on how every dungeon detail impacts their mission.

You’re changing what matters to the party. This distraction makes a huge difference in what your group pays attention to. It’s like driving to work when you’re late. You do not stop to analyze the details. Instead, you’re looking ahead for the best path to reach your destination the fastest (and safest).

In this way, your players will experience your dungeon design through their mission-based visors. As a result, your dungeon will make sense, be exciting, and feel like a connected series of encounters.

For tips on Missions, check out:

Thanks again for the question, Paul. Johnn, how do you make dungeons thematic and not just a mere haphazard collection of encounters?

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That’s it for this week’s newsletter.

If you want to chat with fellow RPT GMs about today’s tips or ask me questions, join the conversation here at my forum.


Johnn Four

Have more fun at every game!