D&D 5E More Organic Dungeons

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Right now, I want you to make all the organic dungeon jokes you can think of. Um... I'd love to have organic dungeons, but they're more expensive than standard dungeons! Um... organic dungeons... what's next, cage-free dungeons? Um... I prefer my dungeons organic and non-GMO!

Okay, got it out of your system?

First, a little backstory...

I had an experience recently as a player that made me think about a cross-section between verisimilitude and fun. My goblin paladin and the rest of the crew were facing against some kind of animated armor that dropped spider swarms as it got damaged. As more and more swarms popped up, I had the thought, "Surely the adventure wouldn't have encounters we couldn't defeat..."

This made me reflect on what I expect in a session as a player. I realize that I have a subconscious expectation that what we find in a dungeon will be more or less appropriate to our level. Some encounters will be a little more challenging, some a little easier, but overall they should be appropriate challenges to face at whatever level we currently are, or will be reaching soon.

On the one hand, that provides consistent challenges that can generally be overcome. On the other hand, it really does break verisimilitude, and makes me a bit lazy in my combat strategies.

I'm between running campaigns myself, but in my next campaign I want to design more organic dungeons.

More Organic Dungeons

What I mean by this is that I want my dungeons, and the world in general, to feel more lived-in. If it would make sense for a Hill Giant to live in the area, I think there should be a Hill Giant, no matter the level I expect characters to be when they wander through. At the same time, if the lair of the ancient red dragon would have CR 1/2 Myconids living in it, I want there to be Myconids, even if they can be stepped on by the characters.

I want my players to feel like whatever is lurking behind that dungeon door is there because it makes sense in the world, not necessarily just because of their level!

As a DM, it would be fun to design dungeons and other settings in which the monstrous inhabitants tell a story. For example, if I am designing the Webwoods, a forest of dead trees and web-walled labyrinths, I'm going to be occupying it with giant spiders (CR 1), spider swarms (CR 1/2), and ettercaps (CR 2). But it might make sense that the woods were cursed when a Drow Arachnomancer (CR 13), exiled from the underdark, made her home here. And it would also make sense that the Arachnomancer would have some Drider (CR 6) guards!

So is the Webwood a low-level zone, meant for early adventurers to whom giant spiders at ettercaps are challenges? Is it a mid-level zone, where they will face swarms of giant spiders, spider-swarms, and a couple driders? Or is it a high-level zone, where giant spiders will flee, and the characters will face the Arachnomancer?

I'm not sure!

Communicating Challenge Levels to the Players

I find a lot of the time the way I design settings communicates a certain level of challenge to the players. For example, characters might start in a Hub Town. The areas near the town are usually filled with low-level encounters, and challenges become more deadly the further characters wander from the Hub.

Or I might drop a big mysterious temple near a village that's supposed to be a high-level danger zone. I will set up guardians or encounters outside the temple that are very challenging, communicating implicitly that whatever is in the temple will be as (or even more) of a challenge.

One of the dangers of more organic dungeons is that the implicit expectations communicated by adventure design get thrown out the window. In other words, a 1st-Level Character wandering through their first dungeon might encounter something super deadly, like a Behir (CR 11), if it makes sense. Players unfamiliar with Behirs might assume that this is an appropriate challenge for their characters, and then watch helplessly as they get restricted and swallowed whole. Yum.

I predict that a lot more communication has to happen in an organic dungeon. If such a dungeon contains extra super deadly encounters, there should be skulls littering the hallways, warnings written in blood on the walls, rumors and legends told in town. Characters with high Passive Perception should be hearing the breathing of a huge beast from many rooms away. There should be a smell of static in the air, or an unnerving lack of other natural predators. By the time the characters encounter something far above their level, they should already have encountered many warning signs.

Relying on the Exploration Pillar

Perhaps one way to design organic dungeons is to really push exploration as a goal, rather than purely combat. If players think they're expected to kill all the bad guys in a dungeon, they may be confused when encountering something above their level. On the other hand, if the goal is to find the Platinum Medallion of Royalty, and it's hanging on a chain around the neck of a Mummy Lord (CR 15), now things can get interesting. Heat Metal, anyone?

Organic dungeons would also be really good for multiple delves! The players will remember that there's an Adult Black Dragon (CR 14) sitting on a huge pile of treasure in that very first dungeon they explored at 1st Level, and when they've leveled up they can return and have some fun!


So what do you think? Do you design your settings to be organic, or level-appropriate? What are the challenges of creating or using more organic dungeons? What are some of the dangers? Do you think players would enjoy it, or does it breach the contract of player-DM trust?
 

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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
"Surely the adventure wouldn't have encounters we couldn't defeat..."

AKA famous last words. Or a realization that probably should have happened much, much sooner. (My current players had it for the first time, in some cases, decades ago).

In terms of setting expectations: simplest is an early but kicking. But there are lots of other ways to telegraph.

In the classic Saltmarsh adventures, its very clear for both adventures 2 and 3 that just all out attack will get the pcs killed very fast. Each has an element of infiltration. To the point were some people don't like them, but it certainly switches up play.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Yeah, all I can say is "Bree-Yark!".

For a long time, Caves of Chaos was my go-to module. Starting players would usually enter the goblin caves first and encounter the 20-or-so goblins in one of the chambers and gleefully start a battle. A round later and with the throw of a bag of coins with the yell "bree-yark", not only would the players be outnumbered 3-to-1 or more, an Ogre would now join the fight...

I've always built my dungeons and environs for any of what fits, and that generally means at least one encounter or area that's over the character's head where flight is the much more sane choice than going toe-to-toe with an enemy (though telegraphing the danger is a wise thing to do). When PCs get desperate, they learn to get creative in their solutions - or they get dead and get more creative the next time around.
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
.....


For a long time, Caves of Chaos was my go-to module. ...


I mentioned Saltmarsh above...but both Keep on the Borderlands and the Village of Hommlet have deadly encounters for low level characters.

They will get the message, one way or another.
 

Being an old school DM, I've generally run this way. During the playtest, had a party enter a xvart lair, and wandered into the common area containing about half the residents. It wasn't a balanced encounter, it was just where they'd spend most of their time, so it made sense that at any given time about half the population would be present. Rather than fleeing immediately to a more defensible position, they doubled down to fight in the large open room. Eventually they knew they had to withdraw, and one PC had to stay behind to hold the exit to give them time to flee. This was a wake up call to one player who'd only ever played 4E, who expected to win every time.
 

Reynard

Legend
I mentioned Saltmarsh above...but both Keep on the Borderlands and the Village of Hommlet have deadly encounters for low level characters.

They will get the message, one way or another.
I think that has always been true to some degree, but now whenever WotC includes an early deadly encounter in their adventures people lose their minds screaming "bad design!"
 



Reynard

Legend
As a DM, it would be fun to design dungeons and other settings in which the monstrous inhabitants tell a story. For example, if I am designing the Webwoods, a forest of dead trees and web-walled labyrinths, I'm going to be occupying it with giant spiders (CR 1), spider swarms (CR 1/2), and ettercaps (CR 2). But it might make sense that the woods were cursed when a Drow Arachnomancer (CR 13), exiled from the underdark, made her home here. And it would also make sense that the Arachnomancer would have some Drider (CR 6) guards!

So is the Webwood a low-level zone, meant for early adventurers to whom giant spiders at ettercaps are challenges? Is it a mid-level zone, where they will face swarms of giant spiders, spider-swarms, and a couple driders? Or is it a high-level zone, where giant spiders will flee, and the characters will face the Arachnomancer?

I'm not sure!
This part specifically is pretty easy: the closer you get to the "center" (the Arachnomancer's seat of power) the more dangerous it gets. Maybe the PCs have to cut through the Webwoods early on (a la The Hobbit) and must be careful to avoid getting et. Later, maybe someone hires them to collect giant spider or even drider poison.

One thing you can do is create zones within a region that have higehr and lower chances for weaker and more powerful denizens. Don't make it impossible to encounter a drider in the "low level zone" (remember, not every encounter MUST be a combat) but make it less likely.
 

aco175

Legend
I think that some needs to be talked over in session 0 and then even telegraphed as you go. The DM should not encourage the PCs to go to the 10th level dungeon at 3rd level, but also should let them if they ignore the signs on the way there. Some may depend on the experiance of the players at the table with new players needing more coaching.

I think that there is also more prep from the DM needed. While you only need to keep a week or two ahead of the players for detailed information, you need to have a lot of areas mentioned with some notes and seeds to know something about areas.

I also think that generally the higher level dungeons are farther away from towns than the low-level dungeons are. Sure there may a secret cult in the sewers that is 10th level, but generally larger threats like giants and a dragon are more remote and the goblins are close causing problems for the farmers around town. This tends to keep parties close when starting out and allows for further travel and options at mid to higher levels.
 

dave2008

Legend
I've used "organic" dungeons for years now. Both 4e and 5e are forgiving enough that you can throw almost anything at the PCs and even if the PCs go where they shouldn't they can typically find away to get out of an unfavorable situation.

IMO, it is so much easier to create what makes sense for the environment/setting and not worry about the PCs.
 

So what do you think? Do you design your settings to be organic, or level-appropriate? What are the challenges of creating or using more organic dungeons? What are some of the dangers? Do you think players would enjoy it, or does it breach the contract of player-DM trust?
I've always designed dungeons organically, I think because the first home-written adventure I was shown was organically designed, and I didn't even come across more game-y, tile-based or setpiece or similar types of design until later.

I don't think there's any real contradiction between organic and level-based, because what is organic is so flexible, and ultimately, you can simply change the dungeon so that it's still organic but doesn't demand the presence of the too-threatening being.

Usually it's pretty easy to signpost threatening beings even if they are present, and you can literally have NPCs warn PCs about them in a lot of situations - many threatening beings will be badass enough to be part of local myth and legend. There definitely needs to be more communication than with a standard "rooms full of monsters/traps" dungeon, but I think it tends to happen, well... organically and helps build the atmosphere of the dungeon.

In fact, this has always been one of my major bugbears with non-organic dungeons - they're often written in a way such that there's no way to anticipate what is coming, despite monsters having been there for decades or centuries in some cases. I'm sorry but 20 hobgoblins living in a barracks is going to have an impact on the local environment, and they're one of the neater enemy-types! Often you get the idea the dungeon was assembled in individual parts with little regard to the whole, or they just decided which monster goes in which room at the last moment. This absolutely includes professionally-developed and fairly recent dungeons too. 4E's official launch adventures were absolutely appalling for this, with very little consideration to the "ecology" of the dungeons, or why or how creatures would live there. A lot of basic questions like "how do they get food" or "where do they sleep?" were impossible to answer, and some bits of the design were actively contradictory to themselves even, because they were so poorly-considered (one even featured the classic "dragon in a not-very-big room" (I believe there was some dodgy figleaf of an excuse at least, but it wasn't great).

I don't think player trust is relevant unless you've somehow always used extremely artificial, video-game-y dungeons, and silently swap to a more organic/quasi-realist design. If you that is the case, it's probably worth flagging to them at the start of the dungeon, as an OOC/meta comment.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I've really enjoyed the discussion so far, thanks for all the contributions!

Thinking about this further, the way I've always designed dungeons has been through Encounters By Day. That is, I'll put 6 - 8 encounters varying from Easy to Deadly in a zone of the dungeon, then figure out which monsters or NPCs fit that description. I'll also make sure to have those encounters have the potential to be combat, exploration, or social.

I can't say my dungeons have been bad or not fun... But my suspicion is that I'm making environments that are too "safe" for the players. That is, I'm doing the work they should be! I think I want the players - and the characters - figuring out if they can push further, if they should retreat, if this threat is manageable, rather than the dungeon design deciding that for them.

Anyways, I'll be continuing to read these responses!
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
To me the desire for more organic dungeons feels at odds with encounters being at appropriate CR. But worse, it takes away the element of danger, fear, and caution that I like in my games. I like dungeons where an incautious, un-scouted, wrong turn can lead to the party in way over their heads.

I also like when a party encounters an unbeatable evil early in their careers which they have to run away from and avoid, and it becomes this thing in background, still causing problems, that they can't do much about. Then one day they can. It is very satisfying when you finally defeat the once unbeatable foe. Perfectly balanced encounters all the time is weak sauce for me.
 


Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I like to use my random encounters table to foreshadow bigger threats eg if the current adventure involves goblins, I might have a couple of random encounters like a hole in newly disturbed ground where something burrowed through or maybe three gutted goblin carcasses hanging from a tree with their ankles tied together - they show theres something more than goblins around, which the PCs may never meet but which are still an option
 
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Voadam

Legend
I am not sure how this differs from sandbox style of play.

There is stuff out there, say the Arachnomancer forest with the spider's underground tunnel lair. It has stuff but it is mostly not determined by the party, it is there for the party to explore and tackle or not and might be more dangerous for them than their level would generally dictate in a planned encounter designed for their level.

5e's bound accuracy and generous dying rules means you can do a lot of stuff with both higher and lower CR stuff than most editions and have it work decently.

Also random encounters that are not level based can work.

I remember rolling a green dragon in a 1e forest random encounter roll and the two moderately levelled wild elf assassin brother PCs decided hiding as it flew overhead was the best choice of actions and then heading a different direction.

Part of it is playstyle, some want to face big challenges they come across, not run away from them. their character concept is charge in for the fun of the fight, so be aware of that.
 

Voadam

Legend
Right now, I want you to make all the organic dungeon jokes you can think of. Um... I'd love to have organic dungeons, but they're more expensive than standard dungeons! Um... organic dungeons... what's next, cage-free dungeons? Um... I prefer my dungeons organic and non-GMO!
I know Eyes of the Stone Thief is free range, but is it organic?

Is this elven dungeon vegan?

My warforged artificer is organic dungeon intolerant.
Okay, got it out of your system?
No. :)
 


Quickleaf

Legend
I've really enjoyed the discussion so far, thanks for all the contributions!

Thinking about this further, the way I've always designed dungeons has been through Encounters By Day. That is, I'll put 6 - 8 encounters varying from Easy to Deadly in a zone of the dungeon, then figure out which monsters or NPCs fit that description. I'll also make sure to have those encounters have the potential to be combat, exploration, or social.

I can't say my dungeons have been bad or not fun... But my suspicion is that I'm making environments that are too "safe" for the players. That is, I'm doing the work they should be! I think I want the players - and the characters - figuring out if they can push further, if they should retreat, if this threat is manageable, rather than the dungeon design deciding that for them.

Anyways, I'll be continuing to read these responses!
One of the dungeons I ran for my 3rd level four-person group a few months back was the Ossuary of Hept-Na – the burial place of the dozens of clones of a long-missing necromancer (he plays a role in the setting similar to famous D&D named wizards like Bigby or Otiluke), occupied by death cultists being duped by a demon.

We're running a structured sandbox, so this particular dungeon was designed with 3rd-6th level PCs in mind. They happened to venture into it pretty early and through some poor luck triggered the full alert of the cultists in the dungeon. It became something like an intense 20-round combat across two sessions.

If I were designing in a "paint by numbers" approach using the Adventuring Day XP Budget in the DMG, I would have put no more than 4,800 adjusted XP worth of challenges in their path. Instead, I put over twice that amount.

However, my mentality was much more about keeping it organic, and then as an afterthought tracking the maths to make sure it was in the rough ballpark (3rd-6th level) range I had in mind.

One way this was organic is that there were several elements I didn't know how they would play out until the players interacted with them:
  • Half the cultists were inside the dungeon, and half were returning on camel-back with a captive. PCs were caught in a two-front fight due to some poor luck, but the persevered, and got some useful info from the rescued captive.
  • The main evil worshipped by the cult – a fledgling nabassu – was impersonating their revered leader Hept-Na, feigning that he'd been transformed. If it devoured enough souls, PCs, sacrifices, or cultists, it would become a terrifying CR 15 nabassu.
  • There was a ghoul named Shat who – as a break between the intense combat – acted as a creepily courteous butler, buying time for the fledgling nabassu to heal. The PCs interacted only a little with Shat and killed him quickly, which worked to their advantage.
  • There was a cultist imprisoned in a cage for getting kinky with zombies. My players made an alliance with him and he helped in the battle (he had a special power to cast shadow step on an ally within 5 feet), but that interaction could have gone a number of directions.
  • A section (Area 8) of the dungeon had magen and a nasty ash/poison gas trap lying dormant, but the PCs happened to trigger it.
  • The lower level (Area 10) had a necrophidius* (bone snake construct) that could be negotiated with or could present a lethal threat to the depleted party. The PCs encountered the necrophidius at the very end, once the poison gas trap was triggered and filling the dungeon, and its transfixing gaze nearly got a PC killed.

0heY6tg.png


Breakdown of challenges/monsters in each area...

1. – (the party encountered 10 cultists on camelback wielding homebrew lassos, and a few more cultists from inside)
2. –
3. Akeroch the fledgling nabassu* (CR 5), 10 cultists led by the death cult fanatic* (CR 2) Takarat, and 2 ghouls gather here nightly to perform sacrificial rituals
4. –
5. death cult fanatic* (CR 2, imprisoned, the PCs made him into an ally)
6. –
7. 3 bone crabs (CR 1/2)
8. 2 hypnos magen, quasit Zazhifer, urn spell-trapped with increased range choke cloud of Hept-Na (homebrew 4th level spell)
9. 3 bone crabs (CR 1/2)
10. Xenoth the necrophidius* (CR 3)
 
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