In episode 12 of the Misdirected Mark Podcast the chat I had with Shawn Merwin covered a little bit on dungeon crawls and how to keep them interesting. I thought it was some good advice so I decided to try and put together the discussion into a list you can look at and use for your games.
Make Your Players Think
If your dungeon crawl is fight after fight the players will probably get bored. If this is happening feel free to throw something in there your players can’t just kill with their big guns. Give them reasons to think about alternate ways to overcome certain enemies and obstacles. In Rappan Athuk, a very cool mega dungeon created by Necromancer Games, there is a mindless magic slime roaming the 1st level you just can’t kill. It’s mindless and not very quick so you can run away from it, work your way around it, or trick it. It’s also hilarious when someone gets murdered by it. In any case something like this should get your players thinking with more than their sword.
Get Them Talking
Instead of something to slay give the players someone to speak with. NPC’s in your dungeons, whatever shape they may take, can provide more than just breaks from fighting. They can foreshadow things to come, provide an interesting decision for the players to make as in what to do with them, and even providing alternate goals such as saving the NPC for a reward or finding a dying NPC who begs them to save someone close to them deeper in the dungeon.
Change up the Environment
One of my favorite tricks when running a dungeon crawl is to change up the dungeon whenever the players decide to leave and come back. I don’t mean move the areas around or anything quite so drastic but do things to the previous areas the players would notice. For example, in a dungeon I was running the players would kill and leave their enemies bodies lying around. Every time they left and came back the bodies were gone and there were blood stains and drag marks leading deeper into the dungeon. I had my big bad take the dead bodies down into the temple and raise them as zombies. Eventually he had an army of them since the players never did anything about the bodies.
If you want your dungeon to feel like a living breathing thing have the denizens of the place react to having their space invaded. If the dungeon has intelligent creatures have them react as their intelligence and motivations dictate. If the things living in your dungeon work more by instinct then take a look and figure out what would happen if the ecology of the place changes. If one of the alpha predators in an area is killed what would the beta predators do? Where would they wander? How would the areas of dominance change?
Puzzles, Mysteries, and Telegraphing
I like rooms with stuff in them which hint at things to come and provide mysteries for the players to solve. For instance I created a three level dungeon that was actually a bunch of steam punk mage labs around a giant sized boiler. The boiler was so large people could crawl around in the fire tubes, furnace, and water reservoir. The furnace was powered by a bound fire elemental and the water levels and return lines were maintained by a water elemental. They were both bound in this place by the steam punk mages who built and experimented with their clockwork and steam creations. The place was a giant puzzle where the players had to fix the boiler so they could enter the laboratory/tomb of one of these steam punk mages to get the MacGuffin. I never told them the place was a giant boiler but the giant pipes, workshops with gear relating to clockwork constructions, and a control room for the boiler which they eventually found, along with the elementals could clue them in. So how does this all relate to Mysteries, puzzles, and Telegraphing?
The mystery was in figuring out what this place was for as well as why it was abandoned. The mystery wasn’t necessary for the players to figure out to achieve their objective but an option for them to engage in if they so choose. I also included some extra useful information if they pursued this course of action in dealing with the clockwork guardian of the tomb they were trying to get into.
The puzzle was fixing the boiler, it was a relatively simple puzzle once you had all the information but getting the information was the challenge. I spread the pieces around so they needed to explore and learn about the place.
Telegraphing is like foreshadowing but more direct. In this boiler dungeon the first thing they encounter is a steam powered clockwork door. It pretty much telegraphs that they’ll be dealing with steam powered clockwork things which they did.
I always try to break these things down so here I go:
Mysteries in the dungeon are there to give players a sense of something happening they can try and figure out which will probably help them in the long run.
Puzzles are things for the players to overcome. I suggest making them not to difficult as long as all the information is present. Think of Wheel of Fortune. As the contestants get more of the puzzle it becomes easier to answer but if you can figure it out earlier it’s better, usually. If you also want to throw some crazy hard puzzle in your games then I suggest you make the puzzle something optional to the story. Getting it is a big bonus to the characters but not getting it doesn’t hurt them.
Telegraphing is preparing the players for what’s coming. If you can be more subtle and use foreshadowing then more power to you. In my experience subtlety at the game table doesn’t always work so well.
Well there are some of the things I’ve managed to garner from my conversation with Shawn and from thinking on it these past few days. If you have any interesting ideas for how to take the crawl out of the dungeon crawl please feel free to leave a comment here.
Chris “The Light” Sniezak