If You Build It, They Will Come

After running my players through slightly modified versions of three pre-written dungeons (the Blue Box Basic introductory scenario, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands and B1: In Search of the Unknown), I finally wrote up a single page dungeon scenario—a total dungeon crawl with nary a visible trace of Gygaxian naturalism—and ran four of my players through it. They got halfway through the dungeon in their last session and are excited at the prospect of tackling it again!

A few lessons I’ve taken away from the experience of creating and running a small dungeon level:

1) Writing your own boxed text is no substitute for remembering it. I built the first room in the dungeon around a magical trap, then added enough other details—a magic mouth, doors that lock themselves, and monsters emerging from doors masked by illusions—that I forgot to deploy the trap! I wound up relocating the trap to another room, so the idea wasn’t wasted, but there wouldn’t have been any problems if I’d written my notes in a less florid manner, or simply re-read them more thoroughly before starting play.

2) It’s great to devise unusual phenomena in your dungeon, but you need to think through their effects during the design process. Last session’s dungeon included a maze with invisible walls (credit goes to Infocom’s Sorcerer) which also hid objects behind them. Thus, while you could see the outer (non-invisible) walls of the room, you couldn’t see the monsters stalking around inside the maze. But I didn’t consider that this would also affect the PCs, so that as soon as the party turned a corner, the people at one end of the marching order would be invisible to their fellows!

3) When designing tricks and traps, there’s no sure way to predict a party’s level of caution. The same players can shift from paranoia to recklessness and back again at seemingly random intervals. As a referee, sometimes you just have to roll with the party’s actions and see what happens.

All of these lessons apply to pre-generated dungeons as well, particularly the first. But it’s worth noting that designing the dungeon yourself may not, in and of itself, provide additional insight into the place, nor does designing it with your players in mind assure you that they’ll react like you expect them to.

3 Responses to “If You Build It, They Will Come”

  1. October 26, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I missed that session, so when people were talking about the level that seemed to be intentionally hard to map I assumed they’d wandered into the minotaur’s lair in the Caves of Chaos!

    I also recently drew my own first from-scratch dungeon map for the White Sandbox (the tunnels dug by Otirsdottir the goblin stonemason that connect to Lotur’s pawnshop, the Golden Balls). I think this signals an emerging consensus that the training wheels are coming off; we’ve played enough stuff as faithfully to the historical record as possible & internalized its lessons sufficiently that we feel more comfortable spinning our own.

    I know people say that by-the-book is the opposite of old school; I prefer to think that we have a productive tension between scholasticism and DIY ethic. Plus, back in the day there wasn’t so much to unlearn; it’s taken a lot of on-the-job training for me to understand the old texts for what they are, rather than the assumptions I bring to them. Without a lot of intentionally trying to stick just to what guys like Gygax, Arneson, Bledsaw, and Jaquays actually wrote, the way I would have winged it would (I think) have been very unsatisfying & have missed the essential concepts of old school as a method, rather than an ideology.

  2. October 28, 2009 at 2:12 am

    Hmm, those are interesting points, Eric! I think with the caution/recklessness thing, it’s like a pendulum (at least with me). I try to take reasonable precautions, but sometimes when I get fed up with micromanaging stuff I will take a risk – and then realize that maybe I should go back to micromanaging. It’s also possible that certain things don’t register as risks at all.

  3. May 3, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    This makes me feel nostalgic.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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