Dungeon layout, map flow and old school game design

Psion

Adventurer
EricNoah said:
It helps when, with experience, you get good at disguising linearity a bit. Bending, twisting, the third dimension, etc. can help, as can the occasional branch or self-contained loop.

I think the thing to keep in mind about linear versus branching or looping design is this: with linear design, the flow of play is predictable (which has upsides and downsides.) The less linear you are, the more randomized the number and nature of the encounters is, and you get things like two different groups reporting entirely different experiences. Non-linearity essentially randomizes the number of encounters in the game.

This can be important if you are trying to manage your time. Nobody wants to be stuck in the middle of a dungeon on the last game before a vacation. On the other hand, I have no problems pulling out a nice branching/looping dungeon like Rappan Athuk or Undermountain if I am just interested in running a few encounters and kicking back with some friends, and am not really concerned about reaching a goal at the end.

THAT SAID, I use Undermountain in a fairly linear goal-oriented fashion fairly frequently, simply by providing maps and guides. So sometimes, the wall and corridons don't tell the whole story.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Shouldn't parties that are good at finding treasure find more than parties that suck at it? Isn't that what the search skill is for?

Ken

Hussar said:
As far as secret doors goes, well, we run into the idea that adventures should be loaded up with two or three times as much treasure because the PC's will only find half of it. Unfortunately, that assumption shouldn't be made by game designers. If I assume that the party will only find half the treasure and your adventuring party finds 90% of it, then my module has just taken a nice big doo doo in the middle of your campaign.
 

Hussar

Legend
Haffrung Helleyes said:
Shouldn't parties that are good at finding treasure find more than parties that suck at it? Isn't that what the search skill is for?

Ken

I dunno, I use search for all sorts of things - finding traps, maps, non-coin kinds of stuff.

If a module contains three times the wealth that is appropriate for the level, but assumes that the party will only find a third of it, I would say that that's a poor design. Those additional rooms are either filler for parties that don't enjoy going over everything with a fine tooth comb or they pretty much consign a game to the halls of Monty if the party does.

I would say that adventures that take a big dump in the middle of my campaign are poorly designed regardless of the maps that generated them. :)
 

Mark

CreativeMountainGames.com
Hussar said:
As far as secret doors goes, well, we run into the idea that adventures should be loaded up with two or three times as much treasure because the PC's will only find half of it.


I don't think that's the assumption. Treasure needs to be spread around, IMO, near where a challenge is overcome and in appropriate measure to those challenges. If you don't get beyond a secret door, you don't face the challenges beyond that secret door, and don't glean the rewards. However, the challenges prior to a secret door need to have their own rewards. I've never been one to pile all the treasure up at the end of an adventure. Sometimes, too, it is good to dole out some specific treasure near the beginning to be sure the group has the tools and resources to overcome later challenges. Of course, it needs to be decided what incarnation or form such treasure takes but all DMs and designers are clever by birth, right? ;)
 

T. Foster

First Post
Hussar said:
If a module contains three times the wealth that is appropriate for the level, but assumes that the party will only find a third of it, I would say that that's a poor design. Those additional rooms are either filler for parties that don't enjoy going over everything with a fine tooth comb or they pretty much consign a game to the halls of Monty if the party does.

What if the dungeon contains double the wealth that is appropriate for the level but hides two thirds of it, so that a careless party that doesn't find any of the hidden treasure comes out poorer than what's appropriate, a reasonably thorough party (that recovers 1/4 of the hidden treasure) comes out even, and a very thorough (or just lucky) party that recovers half the hidden treasure comes out a bit ahead of what's appropriate? That seems pretty reasonable to me -- punishing careless play and rewarding careful play.

As for the theoretical party that is so thorough that they discover all of the hidden treasure, there are already correcting mechanisms within the rules (the OD&D and 1E rules (which are the only ones I know) at least) for this -- more time spent searching equals more wandering monster checks; encumbrance means you can only carry so much treasure now matter how much you find; experience caps mean if you get too many XP (more than enough to go up 1 level) the extra amount is wasted; the measure of challenge system means if you dawdle facing opponents that aren't your equal you get reduced XP awards. Combining all of these factors, skillful players will recognize that trying to recover every last bit of hidden treasure has a poor cost:benefit ratio and they're better off recovering just enough treasure to get to the next level and then moving on to bigger challenges (with corresponding richer rewards).

Plus, the fact that the dungeon isn't stripped totally bare makes it reusable -- unrecovered treasures remaining on the first dungeon level while the main party is busy exploring dungeon level 4 means a second group of players (or a second set of characters for the original players) can explore dungeon level 1 and find the treasure that the first party missed without the DM having to turn back the clock or "magically" restock the place. The fact that as the second group explores they'll see evidence of the first group's passage helps create the atmosphere of the "living dungeon" that is so vital to the ongoing mega-dungeon style campaign.
 

riprock

First Post
Monsters Moving in Loops

EricNoah said:
A loop certainly makes it more possible for creatures to move about in less predictable ways. That can make for a fun portion of an adventure -- when you loop back to what you think is an explored region to find it is newly inhabited!

I really like the original article. I feel one of the things that gives D&D a great deal of atmosphere is the fact that the aesthetics of dungeon exploration are unlike anything in history -- it combines the thrill of an archaeologist opening King Tut's tomb with the thrill of a commando killing enemies on a mission. If you are preserving that weird thrill, then dungeons with lots of exploration and loops are great. (Also passwall and divination spells are powerful!)

The original article reminded me a lot of Deus Ex's level design -- the original Deus Ex was designed so that there would be at least three ways to get to any interesting detail. That way, there is a stealthy way, a gun bunny way, etc. Even if a player is bad at one game skill, he can probably have a fair chance to find the neat stuff.

Also, the original article made me recall my first criticism of dungeons is that living things don't like to live in holes with just one entrance. Rabbits, dogs, humans -- all of us are smart enough to make sure we have a back door to run out in case the front door is blocked. Many linear modules put in escape routes, but they cheat because they don't have exits labelled on the map. You could comb the wilderness and never find the escape route exit.

If dungeons have multiple entrance/exits, then maneuver becomes more realistic and more fun.

Getting to Eric Noah's quote above, moving monsters do indeed move in loops. Consider the way humans use a fairly large suburban house. They have a front door, a garage door, a back door, and they use them at different times for different purposes.

If I have one "lesson learned" from D&D maps, it's that it can be hard to balance challenge with survivability.

E.g. if the dungeon is fairly realistic and the monsters have an alarm system (e.g. a gong or drum as suggested in the AD&D books) then it's usually easy for a group of monsters to surround invaders and crush them with overwhelming force.

My own history with D&D is that I tended to start with dungeon exploration and move on to more outdoor adventures with a large maneuver warfare element, where cavalry tactics became very prominent. However, as I progressed, I lost the characteristic thrill of D&D -- I lost the "archaeologist" thrill and only got the "commando" thrill.

I am a very big fan of immersion in RPGs. Immersion is easily lost in wargames and combat simulations. D&D's weird thrill -- combining the archaeologist, the commando, etc. -- often was rooted in very atmospheric modules which really produced a "sense of place" in the reader.
 

Ourph

First Post
Hussar said:
If I assume that the party will only find half the treasure and your adventuring party finds 90% of it, then my module has just taken a nice big doo doo in the middle of your campaign.

So many people have commented about having to strip much of the treasure out of those old modules because they were so overloaded. I don't think that they are complaining for nothing.

Well DUH!!! What do you think Rust Monsters are for? (kidding :p )
 

Melan

Explorer
Hussar said:
If a module contains three times the wealth that is appropriate for the level, but assumes that the party will only find a third of it, I would say that that's a poor design. Those additional rooms are either filler for parties that don't enjoy going over everything with a fine tooth comb or they pretty much consign a game to the halls of Monty if the party does.

I would say that adventures that take a big dump in the middle of my campaign are poorly designed regardless of the maps that generated them. :)
You are still operating from the assumptions that
a) a party's wealth has to be balanced by level and player skill should not be a significant factor;
b) a dungeon will be designed for one use only, strip-mined of loot and encounters, and never revisited.
Naturally, there is no accounting for taste, but neither assumptions should be taken as evident.

riprock: good first post!
 

Treebore

First Post
Hussar,

You were really starting to annoy me with all your argumentative attitudes on so many posts, but then it just hit me you are one of those people who likes to argue to see if anything truly brilliant comes out if it. You'll even argue positions you don't personally agree with just to see if who your arguing with can give you an interesting new perspective.

Now I think your A OK. ;)

You going to GenCon? I am. Lets see if we can share a drink at the Ram. Do some friendly arguing. We'll have to keep our language pretty clean, though. My daughter is coming with me.
 

Hussar

Legend
Melan said:
You are still operating from the assumptions that
a) a party's wealth has to be balanced by level and player skill should not be a significant factor;
b) a dungeon will be designed for one use only, strip-mined of loot and encounters, and never revisited.
Naturally, there is no accounting for taste, but neither assumptions should be taken as evident.

riprock: good first post!

After we've cleared out the baddies, why would we keep going back? Take Keep on the Borderlands for example. After I've gone through all the caves, why would I go back? Actually, after I've gone through a given cave, what reason would I have for going back?

As far as party's wealth being balanced by level, I would think that that's a self evident goal. Monty Haul campaigns have existed since the game started and have been universally condemned. Sure, it might be fun for my 3rd level character to be waltzing around with a Frost Brand, but, generally, that's considered a bad thing.

If playing in Module X means that every adventure that I use afterwards has to be massively adjusted upwards because Module X has far too much treasure, then, well, I would never say that Module X is well designed.

An adventure shouldn't screw over every other following adventure.
 

Keith Robinson

Explorer
A very interesting thread and an excellent post by Melan :D

It made me look at and think about my own dungeon designs. I may even use the models to design some future dungeons. Mostly, however, I find that dungeons I am designing evolve organically and then get filled later. I have a basic premise to work with (so there are x number of chambers or rooms that will be required to house these specific denizens), but then I fill out the rest as I feel fit. Often, this will then get revisited as I revise the dungeons by adding, removing and changing things.

Often, some of the more unusual or interesting encounters will actually evolve from the map - you just look at part of your creation and then think oh, this would be a good idea for there. Often enough, the map will get changed again to fit the new idea.

Working from a template to design a dungeon would be an interesting idea and one, as I say, that I may adopt. After all, the template doesn't stop the flow of imagination or the dungeon evolving dynamically - it just allows you to have an understanding of how the dungeon dynamics will work.

As for there being one better dungeon type than another, I think this thread has shown that not to be the case, as all sorts of people have all sorts of opinions and preferences. And besides, some kinds of dungeons just don't fit the concept.

A very interesting and thought provoking post and thread. Thanks for sharing :D
 

Melan

Explorer
Hussar said:
As far as party's wealth being balanced by level, I would think that that's a self evident goal. Monty Haul campaigns have existed since the game started and have been universally condemned. Sure, it might be fun for my 3rd level character to be waltzing around with a Frost Brand, but, generally, that's considered a bad thing.
That's not a Monty Haul campaign. A Monty Haul campaign is one where rewards aren't balanced out by threats. If low level characters operate highly efficiently and get treasure beyond their normal PC levels by being clever, it is not Monty Haul gaming - it is just rewards for being clever and effective. Outsmarting the DM, performing well above expected norms. If a third level character gets a frost brand in the process, so be it. He gets to keep it, and as long as it can be held onto (for it will be desired by thieves and other, higher level NPCs, not to mention the possibility of corrosive oozes, rust monsters, crushing ceiling traps and whatnot), it can serve the PC's purposes. It is a great reward for the smart player.
 

Hussar

Legend
So, tossing in a Frostbrand into a 3rd level adventure is a sign of good design?

And, if the players actually get said Frostbrand, the DM should automatically go into adversity mode and actively try to strip that reward from the player. So, how is the clever player being rewarded again?

How is finding a secret door and getting that Frostbrand "outsmarting the DM"? If the DM didn't want the party to have it, it shouldn't be there. Putting stuff into an adventure with the idea that no one will ever find it seems awfully strange to me. Sort of a Nelsonish "Ha ha" moment when the party blithely walks past the secret door they had no chance of finding anyway.
 

Melan

Explorer
I feel I am sucked away from the original topic of this thread, but...

Hussar said:
So, tossing in a Frostbrand into a 3rd level adventure is a sign of good design?
It is a question independent of good or bad design. An adventure may generally be calibrated for a certain level range, but may include challenges and rewards outside that area. For example, the upper levels Necromancer's Rappan Athuk is generally for 5th to 7th level PCs, but there are challenges like
the Well, the archmage tomb on level three, the rakshasha
which are much more difficult and much more rewarding.

That, plus instead of "adventures", in the case of "old school" games, we should be speaking of environments. Adventures happen in these locations based on the risks the players are willing to take through their characters, and this is the primary way game balance is achieved instead of CR or some other game mechanism. High level areas may be immediately available (again, Rappan Athuk is a typical example), but probably not "advisable" to explore. If the environment is freeform, the PCs may play safe and go where they will meet threats and rewards at their level of competence, or play above their league for extra rewards, substituting player skill in the stead of character power. Rumors, consultation with sages, recon, sending in lower level probe teams may all be useful tools to gauge which area is dangerous and which is an acceptable challenge. [As a side note, I find these kinds of player strategies very, very fascinating. They were features of 1970s gaming but were eventually forgotten or superceded by other forms of game management - generally by much stricter constraints.]

And, if the players actually get said Frostbrand, the DM should automatically go into adversity mode and actively try to strip that reward from the player. So, how is the clever player being rewarded again?
The players have chosen to play above their league, found a reward granting them additional power. If they can exploit that power cleverly, they get to keep it. But it is only logical - not to mention fun to a certain extent - for the DM to test them if they are worthy of it. It even has that verisimilitude stuff, to boot.

How is finding a secret door and getting that Frostbrand "outsmarting the DM"? If the DM didn't want the party to have it, it shouldn't be there. Putting stuff into an adventure with the idea that no one will ever find it seems awfully strange to me. Sort of a Nelsonish "Ha ha" moment when the party blithely walks past the secret door they had no chance of finding anyway.
Nope. Some players will never find anything concealed by secret doors or otherwise secreted. Others will find small amounts. A select few will find those which are hidden by unconventional means through lateral thinking. There is no need for all treasures to be found by all groups.

But again, I think we are departing from the subject of mapping and straying into a discussion centered around "what goes in those maps". ;)
 

riprock

First Post
Melan said:
You are still operating from the assumptions that
a) a party's wealth has to be balanced by level and player skill should not be a significant factor;
b) a dungeon will be designed for one use only, strip-mined of loot and encounters, and never revisited.
Naturally, there is no accounting for taste, but neither assumptions should be taken as evident.

riprock: good first post!

Thanks, it's nice to relax and talk about something other than my Chinese classes.

By the way, I heard a war story of an in-depth player who liked getting deep into the story. At one point his 16th level D&D party cleared out a mountain that was full of tunnels. With all the monsters dead, the player recalled that there was a homeless tribe of dwarves wandering around. The player character invited the dwarves to take over the mountain as a new home.

The player character in question was a paladin, but he was hoping the dwarves would be grateful enough to become his allies in his quest to defeat the lich who killed his brother. The campaign ended with real-life acrimony over differing play styles, but the player gets my kudos for combining in-character paladin generosity with in-character strategic thinking.
 

Evreaux

First Post
Hussar said:
After we've cleared out the baddies, why would we keep going back? Take Keep on the Borderlands for example. After I've gone through all the caves, why would I go back? Actually, after I've gone through a given cave, what reason would I have for going back?

I think your totally reasonable question highlights something that should be made explicit--namely that two things are being discussed in this thread, dungeons and Dungeons.

To me, a dungeon is an episodic set piece that probably occurs in the midst of a larger campaign filled with other dungeons, as well as wilderness and urban adventures. It probably has no more than a few dozen rooms (and sometimes far fewer), a clear goal, and a relatively static environment. The Keep on the Borderlands is a good example; some orcs in a raiding party may return, but by and large you can clear out the baddies and there isn't any reason to return. It is, in simplified terms, a discrete underground area with monsters.

A Dungeon, on the other hand, has hundreds of rooms (mine has over 1200), is teeming with creatures, and changes both in reaction to and independent of the party's actions; such a place most likely forms the centerpiece of the campaign itself. It is quite literally impossible to clear out the baddies and, thus, multiple parties can go back in again and again, encountering new monsters and discovering new areas every time. The original Dungeon under Castle Greyhawk is the ur-example. It is, in simplified terms, a vast and unfathomable region of the mythical underworld.

In my experience, there are different design values implicit in each concept. They serve different purposes and play different roles in the campaign. I agree with Melan that this is getting slightly off-topic, but I do think the distinction is important when analyzing what style of map design is most effective for your adventure goals.

Just my thoughts on the issue. YMMV.
 
Last edited:

grodog

Adventurer
Melan said:
I feel I am sucked away from the original topic of this thread, but...

Melan, it seems that some folks find it difficult to separate the encounters from the maps, per your original intent: whether because the maps influence the encounters, they hide encounters too effectively, etc. Perhaps you need to provide some more suggestions on how the dungeon environment plays an active role in the game, rather than a passive one: the mapping process, the varied environmental challenges excemplified by Roger Musson's "The Dungeon Architect" articles from White Dwarf or some of Gygax's "Up on a Soapbox" columns about Greyhawk Castle's development, Rob Kuntz's brilliant dungeon design in the Maze of Zayene #1 Prisoners of the Maze, etc. Some of those interesting design recommendations include:

  • use of the vertical dimension
  • lots of interlevel movement; voluntarily via stairwells, trapdoors, sloping tunnels, etc., and involuntarily via pits, teleporters, chutes, sloping tunnels that are very hard to detect, etc.
  • use of challenges that allow PCs to learn the dungeon environment from their successes and mistakes; some good examples of this occur in Scott Casper's Greyhawk Castle gaming fiction written @ http://kinazar.com/SouthProv/viewtopic.php?t=336&start=0 (down at the moment, but will likely be up again soon)

If the players need to be educated about the differences evident in this kind of Dungeon vs. dungeon (to borrow Everaux's phrase, or a dungeon vs. a lair, as some folks use the terms), there's nothing wrong with teaching them through play how to approach the environment. That way the players can learn the paradigm, and they can develop their PCs appropriately (in 3.x, more emphasis on Spot, Search, etc., perhaps). As an example, some folks commented over in Quasqueton's Tomb of Horrors design thread that putting secret doors in a pit was just beyond evil: who would ever think to look there? Well, after the PCs have found one, that should certainly alert them to the possibility that more may exist. If you're a kind DM, perhaps you when an (AD&D) elf falls down into a pit, he detects a concealed door there, or the PCs find a secret door in a pit that's already been opened by other denizens. Then, in the future, they know to check for these kinds of features/opportunities. Gygax's "Up on a Soapbox" article entitled "Lesson #8: Ain't it the Pits? - A Trap for all Occasions" from Dragon # 294 is a great exemplar of this principle (and some of the posts in Scott Casper's GHC fiction illustrate this well, too): see http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/gh_castle_sources_soapbox.html for others.
 
Last edited:

riprock

First Post
rounser said:
....as has been noted from D&D's first dungeon, Castle Blackmoor, PCs tend to clean everything out as thoroughly as possible, and take everything that's not nailed down.


My gaming experience is heavily skewed by long association with one large group, so I may be speaking from a non-representative sample.

But ... in my experience most gamers don't *like* having to search and loot. Most folks I've played with hate the notion that there might be hidden treasure and they might be missing vital treasure if they don't search every nook and cranny.

I think the early groups started a lot of memes, and some of them worked wonderfully. I'm sure if Gygax or Arneson were running the game, they could make searching fun. Heck, the old module descriptions are often very well written, with neat room quirks to make people *want* to search.

However, this can degenerate with less skilled DMs into what computer gamers call a "pixel hunt." Searching becomes like trailing a mouse pointer over a computer screen, trying to find the one pixel which will make it highlight.

When I read my AD&D DMG, as I frequently do from sheer nostalgia, I run across passages that go something like, "Your players kill two ogres and expect 2,000 G.P. in neat little sacks. Instead, give them 2,000 G.P. of highly encumbering loot like well-polished armor, fragile statues, and more copper than they can carry. If they don't get it all in one trip, other monsters will come and grab it."

I'm sure Gygax could have made that a lot of fun in any module. Some modules are set up so that the players have a very convenient base guarded by Lawful Good folks who can be trusted to guard whatever the players bring. Cycling from dungeon to home base *can* be fun. But I, and most folks I game with, have a lot of trouble making that fun. We tend to de-emphasize looting, just as we de-emphasized traps until D&D 3.0 suggested awarding experience for traps located and disarmed.
 

riprock

First Post
Garnfellow said:
You know what I’m talking about: strange magical effects that would only be produced if one were to correctly place the right number of mystical items in just the right combination at precisely the right moment. Put three rubies in that magical censor and you would be instantly disintegrated, no save. But put two EMERALDS in the censor, and you would open up a gate to the Elemental Plane of Water, where a powerful demigod would give you a permanent +2 to your Wisdom score!

I never got anything like that to work the way I had envisioned it. I would often get grandiose schemes and backstories for my dungeons that got ignored.

I am happy to say, however, that as a player I was lucky enough to have DMs/GMs/referees who could usually make things much more accessible. Usually they would let the party run wild 90% of the time and then they would railroad like mad to make such the neat stuff got triggered.

I have developed a highly simplified form of this which lacks their grace but keeps things moving.

It goes like this:

Riprock: [Gives all kinds of hints which get ignored.]

Players: [Totally fail to get it.]

Riprock: Everybody roll an Intelligence check. [Pause.] Okay, you [pointing at those who made a decent number] figure out, and tell the others, that the secret is [insert secret here].

It's not elegant. It's railroading. But it's better than I used to be.
 

riprock

First Post
Mark said:
I don't view secret doors as a device to keep things hidden from PCs but rather to explain why other NPCs or creatures haven't discovered what is beyond them.

This could be a neat idea. You could either use "secret" doors in D&D or "access controlled" doors in a sci-fi setting.

I have a vague adventure idea for either case.

[in-character voice]
D&D: The mad wizard Bellairs built a mansion whose main design feature is magically concealed and locked doors. His numerous alchemical creations, summoned magical beasts, etc. cannot see or operate these doors. I am his son and lawful heir. Now that he is dead, I am giving you this magical talisman which will allow you to see and open all these doors. Clean out the monsters and I will richly reward you with platinum and gems. As for treasure -- it's mostly family heirlooms of no interest to you, but I will use my crystal ball of ESP to watch your progress, so don't pocket things and expect me not to notice.

sci-fi: There has been an infestation of semi-intelligent aliens in Space Station X. Fortunately the aliens haven't yet figured out how to defeat our card-keyed security doors. You need to kill, subdue, or frighten them off, and whatever you do, don't let them capture a keycard. May I remind you that we have security cameras watching our valuable data and equipment, so no monkey business while you're in the restricted area. Lock and load.
[/in-character voice]

In either case, it's just one twist to put on the idea. There are many other better ideas that could be done with this. It would be much better if it were more subtle, and I'm not very subtle under the best of circumstances.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top