6 Methods For Making Dungeons More Interesting
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #156
- Give Each Player A Goal Or Something To Do
- Put A Time Limit In Effect
- Change The PCs’ Size
- Use The Five Room Dungeon Model
- PCs Must Muster Allies
- Turn It Into A Competition
- Readers’ Tips Of The Week
The following tips from myself, the GM Mastery list, subscribers, and a couple of previous issues will help you liven up routine dungeon adventures and breathe fresh life into dungeon-ruts. If you’re not a fantasy GM, then when you read the word “dungeon” think symbolically. A dungeon is any story crucible that suits your genre and the tips below should still be of value–hopefully. 🙂
Give Each Player A Goal Or Something To Do
The best way to avoid tedium in any game is to make sure every player has something to do. With my group, that generally means at least one use of Bardic Lore, an opportunity to sneak around and disable traps, NPCs who must be cajoled (Diplomacy/Bluff) into revealing information, morally ambiguous characters for the cleric to lecture, and big combats for the barbarians.
Make sure each portion of the dungeon has something for each character to do and you’ll stave off tedium just fine.
[Comment from Johnn: excellent tip, Ivan. A great way to manage this is to start a Player Journal. Place each player’s name and character overview (class/profession, skills, abilities) on a sheet of paper.
Next, write out what you know about each player’s gaming preferences (i.e. combat, likes high fantasy effects, social player, etc.). Then, write out ways you can entertain and/or challenge each player’s PC. This becomes your “theory” section–draw a line across the page and start the “journal” section.
In the journal section, watch your players during games and note exactly when an individual is having a great time. What are they doing? What is their character doing? What’s happening right now in the session?
Also note on paper if any of the elements from your theory section work out well so that you have an instant in-game resource if you get stuck for ideas.
If you make a few theory and journal notes like this for each player, you are guaranteed to build a realistic profile over a short period of time to help you successfully plan for each session.]
Other dungeon tips:
Where do the inhabitants get their food? Trade with a nearby tribe or town? Raid other levels of the dungeon? Cannibalize each other? Any of these answers will change the feel of the dungeon as well as the reaction of the inhabitants to invaders. Traders may welcome a new presence, weak monsters may seek to use the players as allies against raiders, cannibal cultures will require a good deal of caution to retrieve one’s wounded and dead. You can come up with more, of course, as well as combine ideas.
Why do the inhabitants live here? Protection for themselves? Protecting something else? Driven below ground and forced to remain by something powerful inside or out? Again, answers may vary, but it will impact the plot and character of the dungeon.
Do any of the PCs have backgrounds you can use to create subplots in the dungeon? Perhaps a monk’s long-lost master is a prisoner here, or the orphan finds a tapestry portrait of herself in tatters on the floor. This allows a subplot without impacting the main plot of the central adventure and relieves tedium for the dungeon-bored-players involved.
Put A Time Limit In Effect
One piece of advice I would give: put a timer on it. Tell the PCs they have such and such many days (or hours…) to get through a certain dungeon area, grab the McGuffin of stupendous power, and get it to the temple of whatzizface before all hell breaks loose.
[Johnn butts in: thanks for the tip Trav. Related to this tip, time limits, you could have the dungeon slowly becoming more deadly for some reason:
- Filling up with water.
- Filling up with lava.
- Filling up with gas.
- Slowly shifting to another plane.
It’s a race to either get out or find a way to stop the danger.
Add a role-playing angle: there’s intelligence behind the increasing danger that can be negotiated with, or a being who could be convinced to fix the problem. i.e. a xorn (an earth type creature) could be convinced to re-route the lava flow into a gigantic empty cavern with its burrow through rock ability. Or, the creature whose poisonous breath is filling up the place could be convinced to move elsewhere, temporarily or permanently.
Anybody else have time limit ideas?]
Change The PCs’ Size
Has anyone ever played the AD&D module Dungeonland EX1? The PCs are shrunk down to about 1″ tall and all the boring old obstacles become new and challenging again. I suppose one could watch “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids VIII” for inspiration.
The biggest benefit to your dungeon in this situation is that the players get to perceive things in a fresh new way. What other ways could you dramatically change player perception of your dungeon?
- The PCs are made intangible, gaseous, or ethereal.
- The PCs are cursed with permanent invisibility. Cursed, you ask? I’m sure crafty GMs can make a dungeon where the PCs will wish they were visible again. 🙂
- All the typically dumb creatures are super-intelligent and the normally good creatures are evil.
Got any other suggestions?
Use The Five Room Dungeon Model
One thing that kills dungeons for me as a player and GM is length. If a crawl goes on and on I get bored and crave a change in play style. Not everybody feels this way, which is fine, but if you’re like me then you might consider trying the five room dungeon formula:
Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Room 3: Red Herring
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
Room 5: Plot Twist
A two to four-hour dungeon romp quickens flagging campaign and session pacing and can be squeezed into almost any on- going story thread. It also grants a quick success (or failure) to keep the players keen and excited, is quick to plan for, lets GMs “theme” dungeons with greater ease, and can be plopped into most settings with minimal continuity issues.
Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
There needs to be a reason why your dungeon hasn’t been plundered before. A rule of thumb is, the older the dungeon the more difficult room 1 needs to be–else the place would have been discovered and sacked well before the PCs come along. Also, a guardian sets up some early action to capture player interest and energize a session.
Room 1 challenge ideas:
- The entrance is trapped.
- The entrance is cleverly hidden.
- The entrance requires a special key, such as a ceremony, command word, or physical object.
- The guardian was deliberately placed to keep intruders out.
- The guardian is not indigenous to the dungeon and is a tough creature or force who’s made its lair in room 1.
- Turn room 1 into a puzzle by creating a special requirement that lets the PCs pass (i.e. a riddle to solve).
Room 1 is also your opportunity to establish mood and/or theme to your dungeon, so dress it up with care.
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
The PCs are victorious over the challenge of room 1 and are now presented with a trial that cannot be solved with steel. This will keep the problem solvers in your group happy and break the action up a bit for good pacing.
Room 2 can be an independent puzzle, or preferably, one that grants approach to rooms 3 and 4. It should allow for multiple solutions and engage more than just the rogue or wizard in the party.
Room 2 ideas:
- Ye old classic death trap.
- Magic puzzle, such as a chessboard tile floor with special squares.
- An intelligent entity grants access to the rest of the dungeon but must be befriended, not fought.
- A being far more powerful than the PCs must be roleplayed/ negotiated with.
Once you’ve figured out what room 2 is, try to plant one or more clues in room 1 about potential solutions. This will tie the adventure together a little tighter, will delight the problem solvers, and can be a back-up for you if the players get stuck.
Room 3: Red Herring
The purpose of this room is to build tension. The players think they’ve finally found the treasure, confronted the stage boss, and achieved their goal only to learn they’ve been tricked.
The best red herrings allow the PCs a choice between choosing room 3 or room 4 and then issue a penalty to those who choose room 3. In other words, avoid railroading PCs into taking room 3 because it will dampen the red herring’s tension-building effect and puts a GM on thin ice as far as issuing a penalty is concerned.
Room 3 ideas:
- “The passage ends in a ‘T’. The right looks well-travelled and the corridor is unremarkable. The left looks untouched, smells faintly of cinnamon, and there’s a mysterious orange glow that can barely be seen at the end. Which way to do you go?” The left passage leads to the red herring.
- A fake sarcophagus that contains another guardian.
- A collapsed structure blocks part of the area. The debris is dangerous and blocks or hides nothing of importance.
- Contains a one-way exit (so the PCs must return and deal with rooms 1 and 2 again). i.e. teleport trap, one-way door, 2000 foot water slide trap.
- Room 3 does contain the PCs’ goal but hides the presence of room 4, which contains an even greater reward.
Another potential payoff for room 3 is to weaken the PCs to make them more vulnerable for room 4. Perhaps room 3 simply contains a tough combat encounter. If this is the case, try to weaken any strengths that would give the PCs an advantage in room 4.
For example, if room 4 contains a mummy monster that is quite susceptible to fire, then make room 3 a troll lair (another creature often susceptible to fire) so the PCs might be tempted to burn off a lot of their fire magic, oil, and other flammable resources. This would turn a plain old troll battle into a gotcha, and thus a red herring, once the PCs hit room 4 and realize their mistake.
Don’t forget to dress room 3 up with your theme elements to lend it credibility!
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
This room is The Big Show. It’s the big combat or conflict encounter and is the final challenge before the Big Reward. Try to make the environment interesting, engage all the PCs, and provide opportunities for PC tactical advantage so thinking players will be rewarded.
Room 5: Plot Twist
Here’s your opportunity to change the players’ bragging to “we came, we saw, we slipped on a banana peel.” Room 5 doesn’t always represent a complication or point of failure for the PCs, but it can. Room 5 doesn’t always need to be a physical location either–it can be a twist revealed in room 4.
Room 5 is where your creativity can shine and is often what will make the dungeon different and memorable from all the other crawls in your campaigns.
Room 5 ideas:
- Another guardian awaits in the treasure container.
- A trap that resurrects or renews the challenge from room 4.
- Bonus treasure is discovered that leads to another adventure, such as a piece of a magic item or a map fragment.
- A rival enters and tries to steal the reward while the PCs are dealing with the big challenge in room 4.
- The object of the quest/final reward isn’t what it seems or has a complication. i.e. the kidnapped King doesn’t want to return.
The five room format is simple yet allows for variety and permutation, thus it’s a powerful little GM tool. I feel a GM is always better off improving their dungeons by making them smaller because it gives them more planning time for clues, plot hooks, character involvement, twists, etc.
PCs Must Muster Allies
From Michael S.
One thing you may want to think about is letting your heroes incite a local town or militia to come help them clear out the evil dungeon denizens. After all, with enough numbers townspeople can take on the monsters–all they need is a little leadership to overcome their fear.
[Comment from Johnn: great idea Michael. Create a dungeon where the foe is too tough for the PCs to handle by themselves so they must seek allies. A nice twist is if the characters must approach their rivals for assistance!]
Turn It Into A Competition
From Michael S.
One easy way [to make crawls interesting] is to populate the dungeon with several groups of NPCs that are all competing with each other. Even within a single tribe of goblins there can be several factions vying for power.
[Comment from Johnn: The XCrawl d20 setting and the Running Man movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger are good examples of a competitive dungeon environment. The presence of rivals also turn crawls into fun competitions as well.]
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
General GM Advice: No Winners, No Losers In Roleplaying
If you ever hear yourself laugh maniacally and you’re not roleplaying the bad guy, this applies to you. If you rub your hands together before you roll damage, yep that’s you too.
Many GMs (and players) forget this: a good roleplaying game is not about winning, it’s about creating a story. The GM has ultimate power in the game. If the GM decides that he just wants the thrill of killing his players’ characters, the second that they walk in the door s/he should tell them “Go home you’re all dead…”
The GM has infinite resources. He can kill everything with a thought, so slowly and tediously killing the PCs unfairly is a bit LAME.
If you’re sure you want to kill all your PCs, remember: story, story, story. The story ends when the main characters die. DEAD PCs = DEAD GAME. Not that you can’t have a good tragedy–Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, every one dies–but hey, it worked for Bill.
I’ll share a way in which I’ve used dreams in past campaigns. This method works best if you have a couple players in on the scheme.
The basic idea is that the dreamer doesn’t know it is actually a dream they are experiencing. The presentation of the dream takes the form of a normal session. What is actually happening is one character is experiencing a dream. I usually pick out a ‘victim’ player, perhaps the newest player or a player who tends to be risk averse with their character actions.
When running the dream, ask for player actions like normal. The players that are in on the scheme can help you by encouraging actions that lead toward the ‘meat’ of the dream. You’ll have to coordinate this with them before hand. You need not reveal the whole dream before hand. Small snippets will suffice: “When we reach the cave entrance, have your fighter volunteer to check it out alone.”
Begin by determining when the dream will occur. Example, the character is asleep during second watch (it always seems to be second watch, doesn’t it?). At that point in real time the dream begins. All events and actions you describe from that point on are part of the victim’s dream.
In general, for dramatic reasons, you want a session that is going to have a lot of physical confrontations and minimal reasons for character-character or character-NPC interactions. Perhaps the party is on the road getting ready to assault the evil overlord’s lair. Have the dream occur the night before the assault or perhaps 2 nights before. As long as the players are expecting a very action based session anyways, this will work.
When running fights within the dream, don’t be afraid to be a little meaner with your tactics. In fact, be brutal! After all it’s just a dream. One caveat, avoid killing the victim within the dream unless it is used as a bridge to another portion of the dream. At this point, the dreamer will know it is a dream. If you use the bridge, change the dream to one more symbolic in nature. You now dictate what the character does and sees and can use this like the other dreams mentioned in the original article by Jonathan Hicks (foreshadowing, plot hints, etc).
I like to end dream sequences right at a critical moment; When the death blow descends, as the character falls over the cliff, as the arrow pierces the overlord’s armor. Use these as a trigger for ending the dream for increased shock value.
The dream ends when your objective is achieved. Perhaps you want to warn the party that they aren’t ready for the overlord. Maybe they need a special weapon to defeat him. Then, within the dream as the overlord lands the killing blow on the dreamer, the dream shifts to one that shows a vision of where the special weapon can be obtained.
Be careful about having the players find powerful items or large amounts of treasure within a dream. They are going to disappear at the end of the dream and this may cause some player disappointment. On the other hand, this can be a time to let a character ‘play’ with a powerful item you wouldn’t normally allow. In that case, I suggest it be one of the players that is ‘helping’ you with the dream.
Maybe the dream serves as a way for the group to scout the overlord’s lair without having to physically scout it out. After the dream is ended, the characters arrive at the cave entrance and find it is identical to the one seen in the dream.
This method can be way to put your victim through the emotional journey of a comrade’s death or even their own character’s death without lasting effects on the group. Imagine the despair your victim will feel at seeing their character’s death after losing other party members and then the reversal when it turns out to be just a dream.
Handle experience points (or skill points or whatever) as if the entire session was composed of real time events. If the group kills a monster within the dream they get the experience as if they really killed the monster. You may wish to give a bonus to the victim or to the player-helpers.
One last thought. You can nest a dream within a dream as well. The outer dream is of the type I’ve described where the player is unaware they are dreaming. The inner dream is a traditional symbolic type dream. You can even nest the unaware dreams within each other. But as Jonathan suggested, be sparing with the use of dreams.
The key is in the use of the dream. What happens in the dream versus waking up and finding out that it really didn’t occur and that it was only a dream. Dreams have a greater impact if they’re tied in with an action based scenario instead of one where most of the session is spent in interaction. This isn’t an absolute, of course, but imagine a couple sequences.
- The group is about to return to their home city from an adventure. Much of the session would normally be spent with PC-NPC interaction such as innkeepers, priests of holy orders, patrons and the like. This type of session might normally be used to lay a new adventure hook or let characters advance in status or level. There’s plenty of opportunity for role-playing (versus roll-playing).
- The group is about to assault the evil overlord. It’s combat and skill check intensive and most likely has limited verbal interactions.
Now imagine waking up from dream number 1 and compare that to dream number 2. To me it feels like a larger impact to find out you haven’t really faced the overlord when compared to you haven’t really made it back to town to ‘level up’.
Again, it all depends on what you want the dream to accomplish. Number 1 could be a dream where the characters experience a major threat to their nice and cozy home base. You can bring their perceptions about their safety crumbling down within the dream. Or, after they’ve had discussions with their patrons they learn that it was only a dream and then later actually do the interaction and have the whole deja vu experience.
Run A Background Story Thread At All Times
From Alan D.
I’ve started keeping a general background plot thread for a number of reasons. It provides a reason for the characters to get together and stay together. A general background arc provides something to fall back on if you’re out of other ideas (I can always give them another clue to the overarcing mystery). It also gives the game a stronger sense of continuity.
That said, I’m currently working to keep the overarcing plot in the background as much as possible. In my previous campaign the overarcing plot grew to dominate things, destroying opportunities for anything beyond the primary goal. (The distinction is the one between the Lord of the Rings and the X-Files. Frodo can’t take time to investigate something interesting but unrelated to his primary task. Mulder regularly investigates things completely unrelated to his sister’s abduction.)
Four Miscellaneous Tips
Again, thanks for the excellent e-zine. It is an endless well of assistance to the struggling DM!In regards to dreams…
Those people playing D&D 3E will find an excellent set of game rules for lucid dreaming and even a dream realm in the Manual of the Planes rulebook. If DMs wish to explore the world of dreams in a more in-depth way, I highly recommend this book.
In regards to poker chips and figs…
In my campaign, I have two characters that regularly fly and we started using bottle caps to represent the fact that they are flying. Another use for the poker chips is to count off rounds of an effect. For example, if a player is held immobile for 5 rounds, you can give them 5 poker chips and each round they turn in one chip until they are gone. Alternately, you can place them under the miniature.
In regards to GMs being right…
When my group comes to a point where there is a disagreement on game play, we usually open up a brief discussion of the situation and try to come up with a reasonable rule and possibly set a precedent. However, in those cases where one side or the other will not be swayed, the DM gets the final word so the game doesn’t come to a stop, but after that game session, everyone can have an opportunity to talk out a solution that everyone can use.
In regards to time limits…
If there is a ‘long ranging’ time limit, I like to use a real world clock. For example, if the PCs must escape from the tunnels beneath a volcano that is on the verge of erupting, I will use one hour (or whatever) in real world time until the volcano erupts. That way I’m not forced to track the precise passage of rounds in the game when the party is moving down tunnels or doing other ‘non-round- bases’ actions. However, if the situation is something where there is an immediate danger, such as the room filling with sand at a rate of 2″ per round, I use regular round-based time and keep the players acting in initiative order.