This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:
- The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
- The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).
Sometimes I don’t even get that.
Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.
So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.
Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.
There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.
I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.
It ain’t easy, though.
If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.
In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:
Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.
As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.
When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”
These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.
To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.
By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?
Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.
Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?
Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.
Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).
To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.
With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.
Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.
Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.
Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.
Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.