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Abstract Dungeon Track (dungeons without floor plans)


Abstract Dungeon Track (house rules)

I'm the kind of DM who loves to design huge dungeons covering multiple pages of graph paper (in at least 2 if not all 3 axes). There is a drawback--all the time and effort that has to be invested. A good DM will take care not to railroad his players' characters, and so inevitably there will be areas of one's dungeon that will never get seen/used (as originally intended, anyway).

I got to thinking about how to abstractly run a dungeon crawl in a similar way to how overland travel is abstractly played out with some random encounters and generally consistent terrain features appropriate to the region and climate being travelled through.

The main difference between the two is that circumstances in a dungeon can change from one room to the next. Therein lies the temptation to draw out a dungeon (even a large one) room by room, so there is no question about distances between areas within a dungeon or sizes of rooms, and also making it possible for the players (and DM) know exactly how much room there is to maneuver around during a combat encounter. The more abstract you get in your dungeon design, however, the less certainty there is.

With an outdoor random encounter in the wilderness, you don't have to spend hours huddled over diagrams and you are free to whip up a reasonable field of combat without losing the suspension of disbelief. You can guess what terrain features are likely to exist, and the distances between them, and spend 5 to 10 minutes at most drawing the battle map on the spot while the players figure out how they're going to handle the monster/s they just ran into.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, so there must be a sweet spot in between. You want to run a trek through a series of underground passages abstractly without having to plan in advance any given twist or turn, dead end, T-intersection, or 4-way, yet still be able to present a believable and interesting surrounding environment for each "random" encounter with creepy-crawlies.

So here's some house rules (in beta form!) that's supposed to accomplish this. I wouldn't be surprised if someone's already had similar ideas so rather than reinvent the wheel, it would be better to take what they made and tweak it. Otherwise, any advice for improvement is welcome.

* * * * *

Required Materials
As with a conventional map, you need pencil and graph paper, or you could try using an electronic spreadsheet instead.

General Concepts
In an abstract dungeon, the locations of most of the hallways, doors, rooms, and hazards relative to one another is mostly irrelevant. The abstract dungeon is known to occupy a certain chunk of three-dimensional space in the game world, and the locations of any exits are fixed relative to the outside, but the interior configuration of the dungeon is purposefully left indefinite from the players' perspective. This player knowledge (or lack thereof) must be differentiated from PCs' knowledge. From their perspective, they remember how each room visited in a dungeon connects to its neighboring spaces and any intelligent creature has the ability to mentally navigate their way through areas of a dungeon they've become familiar with. In other words, a party's knowledge of a dungeon's layout is also treated as abstract--the knowledge itself (such as the position of any one room or door) is less important than what the possession of it allows the PCs to do. So either they know where they are, or they don't. Either they know where their destination is or they don't. Either they know how to get to there from here, or they don't. Either they know what they'll run into when they go a certain direction, or they don't. In an abstract dungeon, a character's exact location in it is less important than their ability to avoid getting lost, and their ability to find their way back out.

The Dungeon Track
In its simplest form, the dungeon track is a row of squares representing the party's progress in navigating the dungeon. One of the most straightforward dungeon designs has a single entrance and a single exit--one end of the track represents the entrance (or whichever entryway the party used to gain access), and the opposite end represents the exit. Finally, all the squares in between represent roughly how far the party has penetrated into the complex and how close the exit is. These shouldn't be confused with square footage or even individual rooms. You could designate a prison-dungeon as having a track of three, ten, or twenty squares when it actually consists of several dozens of rooms laid out in an interconnected web of corridors and prison cells. The actual number of squares is only relevant in terms of the pacing the DM wants to set for exploration of the dungeon. As the party progresses through the dungeon, this progress should be noted on the track. If the ever-exciting decision is made to split the party, each character's or subgroup's progress should be tracked separately

Advancing on the Track
Navigating a dungeon consists of more than simply wandering from one room to the next. There can be multiple paths between two locations in a dungeon, or only one path. In a complex dungeon, there are many, many more wrong turns than right ones. Just as one has to navigate the right and safe path to a known destination on the surface, the party must navigate their way through the subterranean maze to reach their destination. Each square on the track represents a measure of progress, requiring a skill check to advance. In a sense, 'beating' a given dungeon is like subjecting the whole party to a single, lengthy Complex Skill Check. (Complex Skill Checks :: d20srd.org) The actual skill to be tested could be any of the following: Survival, Knowledge (dungeoneering), Perception, Climb, or simple Intelligence, and the requisite check can change from one square to the next--and it is the DM's job to explain the relevance of the skill being tested, to make the dungeon environment seem more real to the players.

Each square on the track should also represent a certain passage of time spent travelling, the time spent simply walking from one milestone decision to the next concerning which way to go--a choice to turn to the left or the right, or perhaps to choose to take the side tunnel or keep moving forward, etc. Of course, the overall speed of a party varies from one to the next, limited to the slowest member. This is why actual distance travelled is not that important when nothing exciting is going on. Most of the time, it doesn't matter whether a party can cover 1,500 feet in ten minutes or only a thousand; what matters is whether they make progress through the mines to reach the next town on the other side of the mountains, or get hopelessly lost in some forgotten side-tunnels and run into a really nasty trap or deadly creature as they try to find their way back to the main passageways.

We may consider the actual travel time per square to represent the overall size of the dungeon, and consider the number of squares to be a measure of its relative complexity. A smaller dungeon with a track of 42 squares, with one square equaling 10 minutes' travel time, would be more complex and take more time to transit through (minimum 7 hours), than a vast dungeon with a track of only 5 squares and 1 hour's travel time per square (minimum 5 hours).

Random Encounters
As with any pre-designed dungeon, the abstract dungeon can have multiple random or pre-designed encounters with monsters, traps, treasure chests, environmental hazards, and whatever other obstacles the party could find in a dungeon. Every square on the track could (but need not) have an encounter with one or a combination of the above obstacles--dungeons that are "busy" or infested with monsters should have frequent encounters, whereas dungeons mostly empty of living creatures should have very few or none. It is really a matter of DM's taste, but a given square could be assigned the chance of a random encounter, or a pre-set unavoidable encounter, or no encounter at all.

It's important to take into account such factors as light and noise signals coming from the party. It is harder to be stealthy and avoid the wandering monsters when everyone is hustling through the caves, singing at the top of their lungs and carrying Everburning Torches. The odds of a given random encounter should consist of Stealth checks made by every PC, vs. Perception checks made by the monsters they will encounter if discovered. (If the players agree, this can be simplified by having the PC with the lowest Stealth modifier roll against a Perception check made by the monster with the highest Perception modifier).

Getting Lost
Going by the rules for getting lost on pp 424-425 of the PFCR, the Survival DC is 8 of getting lost in a dungeon. As with any rule, this can be tweaked by the DM in the interests of increasing the suspense. (I am going by the assumption that you are letting the players make their own characters' skill checks for them, and will not meta-game if their PCs are supposed to be lost and be unaware of their error.) The DM can raise this DC for any number of reasons: past cave-ins requiring long and winding detours, varied and frequent branches of alternate passageways which might confuse the characters about which is the right way to go, relying on an inaccurate or deliberately deceptive map of the dungeon, being under the influence of mind-affecting magic, encountering an overpowerful monster that forces them all to panic and take flight, and so on. As well, there are also ways to lower the DC and to counter penalties such as the above, which I will refrain from addressing here.

When a party becomes lost, this is to be represented by a digression off the track. Assuming you have drawn out your dungeon track horizontally from left to right, the digression would be one square above or below the point of departure, the square at which point they got lost. The skill check DC to avoid getting _more_ lost starts at DC 15, if the unknown areas are rarely visited or consist of difficult or dangerous terrain.

You may infer that the dungeon "track" is actually a grid of squares, with multiple paths diverging and returning to the main path that leads to the exit. If you wish, it might be interesting to assign special rooms or special encounters to specific squares not on the main track. Bear in mind that the farther your special square is from the main track, the less likely the party will discover its secrets by accident.

When a party has gotten lost (perhaps one or two or even three squares off the main track), and gotten their bearings again (after having made the appropriate skill check to recognize they're lost), their progress should be represented by movement back toward the main track, or at least movement to the left or right in parallel to the main track, according to DM's discretion.

You might plot several dead-ends all over your grid. These are essentially "freebies"; there's no way of getting even more lost at that point, since there is nowhere to go but back the way you came. Some dead-ends might be worse than this, though--being a lair for a monster or containing a trap to teach intruders a lesson.

The Combat Encounter
At last, the party has run into a wandering monster. But alas, you have no floor plan drawn up of the dungeon! How are you going to know where everything is supposed to go?

One wonderful thing about abstract dungeons is that you can make up your floor plan for a given encounter as you see fit. Unless you and your players are eager to hear about every last 3- and 4- way intersection and the dimensions of every corridor they enter, you are free to sketch and tweak a plausible encounter area as you will, up until the moment you call for initiative rolls. Going along with the principle of space and distance being less important than knowing where you are and where you are going, there's no need to pre-design the whole dungeon, only the sections of it which you'll be using to host combat encounters. Otherwise, your main concern will be the obsessive need of veteran players to organize themselves into a tactically-sound marching order. They should discuss ahead of time the marching order they will use for single file, double-file, and other formations they might use. If you want to ambush them with monsters ahead and behind in a 5-foot wide tunnel, the party needs to know in advance that they've entered a narrow passage; it's reasonable to assume that, given the opportunity, the party will have sorted themselves into a single-file line automatically. Whenever the PCs come across the breadth of a corridor that's unusually small or large, the players will need to know this in advance. The one exception to this is when the party has just entered an area of unusual architecture and the combat encounter begins immediately afterward--in circumstances like these, there will have been no time for the PCs rearrange themselves prior to the initiation of combat.

So, unless you and your players like to "wing it" old-school, without miniatures or 5-foot squares or anything, preparing for a combat encounter (even a random encounter) means you do need to be able to draw out the surroundings in which the PCs will do battle (or run from it), surroundings of an extent to contain outer boundaries of the field of battle. You will also need to be ready to ad-lib believable escape routes adjacent to the immediate surroundings in case any PC or monsters wishes to flee from combat and is pursued.

In short, combat encounters are the only time the players and the DM need to care about what a dungeon's floor plan actually looks like from one 5- or 10-ft square to the next.

Variant Dungeon Designs
So far, we have only addressed one basic dungeon design: a dungeon with one entrance and one exit on the far side. But what about dungeons with multiple points of entry and dungeons with only one point of entry?

If you desire to run an abstract dungeon with multiple entry points, you should be mindful of the relative locations of each entry point. If the dungeon complex has two northerly entries, an exit to the west, and an exit to the south, you will need to plot out these entry points on your gride, and their approximate distances from each other. Moreover, within the grid, you will need to plot a track between every pair of entrances--tracks need not be straight shots, but you should avoid the temptation to embellish your dungeon's internal structure. This would defeat the purpose of dungeon abstraction. All other rules apply--even if by "getting lost", the party might accidentally stumble across another track leading to a different exit they had not known before.

Dungeons with a single point of entry are comparatively easy to do. You should still plan out your dungeon track, deciding beforehand which end represents the single exit. The other end of the track is not an exit but only represents the party finding the outer wall or boundary of the dungeon--beyond which is merely solid earth or stone.

Concluding Thoughts
Abstract dungeons are by definition ad-hoc. No good DM lets themselves be slave to their dice. If you roll a random encounter and don't want one, ignore the result and keep going. And vice versa.

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Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
I like this a lot, thanks for sharing. It's much more than a skill check, but less mind-numbing for players caught up in complex surroundings.

I've only read it once through very briefly, but my personal inclination would be to use a system like this not so much as an entire dungeon (mine tend to be conceptually pretty simple), but rather as a complex zone within a dungeon: maze beneath the temple, warren off the mansion's basement, hive tunnels, sewers, or the like.

This seems to be a really nice way to handle, for example, a labyrinth beneath a ruined castle. From an play perspective, the castle is mapped/explored room-by-room. but when the PCs descend into the maze below it, the game shifts into this more abstract mode. Things shift back when the PCs stumble into the monster's lair at the maze's center.

I'll definitely be looking at this a bit more in depth as I get time.


First Post
I used to do this in mega-dungeons my party would enter by using my JavaScript app-ified 1E DMG random dungeon generator (just click a button, and voila, instant dungeon extension for the blank spot), but with your system one doesn't even need a map most of the time. Nice idea!

I know for a fact that the main party mapper in my first campaign never drew out every single room and corridor; he just drew generic rooms with notes explaining what was in them and lines connecting them abstractly. This idea essentially reverses that.


Someone from a different forum came up with a good suggestion to add to this ruleset.

You could go with something like a multiple outcome method that depends on the results of the fight to determine which path they take after. For example:
Team enters room, encounters a monster.
If they kill the monster easily, They take this path or make that dicision to RP on.
If they take casualties, act accordingly. Drag your wounded and dead into another room and face another person and find a healer or ditch the body or whatnot.
If they die, Duh, game ends.
And the GM could add other stipulations to the battle like a time limit for access to the gate or finding an Item before or after killing a monster.

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