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Surprising the GM, or, Random Content in Dungeons

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
GM: Ravenshiv, when you peek behind the door, the first thing you notice about the next dungeon room is the smell. It's stale, as if the roasty air from the wood-fires and torches of the previous rooms hasn't reached here. (Rolls on monster table) you get the feeling that no one uses this room.

Ravenshiv: what is it, a broom closet? Empty pantry? Wait, I know. Yoga studio. These orcs look a little out of shape. How big is it?

GM: (Rolls on rooms table) it's too dark to see. Yanniweh's torch is twenty-five meters behind you, and around a corner.

Yanni: And I didn't want you to go alone in the first place.

Ravenshiv: I didn't become a great treasure hunter by needing backup everywhere I went. Anyway, no lock, no creatures, no fire. No reason to trap this room. I'm going in.

GM: (Rolls on traps table) nope. No reason at all. Definitely no reason for a bear trap to be lying on the ground in front of your foot. Roll physical to react!

Ravenshiv: Oh, this could hurt. I'll use Detect to hopefully add some hair-sensitivity to my poor, soft-leather-wrapped foot. (Rolls) 13?

GM: Snap! You gain a Flaw: Bear Trap on Foot. (Rolls on peril table) uh oh. And the noise of the clamp on your foot, whether or not you decided to scream, must have awakened something in the room. Because you...(has to reconcile the appearance of a subordinate BBEG with the no-monster roll earlier) hear some metal scraping, and the sound of rock crumbling from a short distance ahead of you in the dark. Almost like a wall being torn down!

Lend me your experience! I want to put some random generators in a game module. I know they've been around for a while - I still have the loose-leaf random monster encounter tables from AD&D 2e. But have you seen or used a random dungeon generator? Would you run a dungeon crawl without knowing what's in the dungeon?

What if a GM's role changes from planning out encounters to challenge PCs, to rationalizing unknown elements in a dungeon and attempting to keep the party alive in a plausible way?

Let's hear your good, bad, and ugly stories about random generators and GM surprises!
 

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atanakar

Hero
I do it once in a while. You should look at solitary RPG products. They have great systems to generate random encounters in the wilderness, dungeons and cities.

The most famous is the GM Emulator.

I also like: The Solo Adventurers Toolbox (5e). But usable with any D&D edition.

You can use both these products to design interesting random encounters for your regular games.
 


atanakar

Hero
Here is an exemple of solo play that could have been a regular multi-player game. I explain the system I used to generate the semi-random adventure :
 
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I think it's best to have some planned and some random elements. Too much of one or the other and it starts to feel like the PCs are just along for the ride. I routinely include sections in my adventures that I have no idea what's going to happen or how the PCs are going to solve it. And when I'm in a pinch for ideas, I will absolutely grab a book with some random tables and use it in the middle of a session.

One of my favorite DMing stories from the old days was when 2e was still in the progress of coming out. We had the 2e PHB, but the rest was still 1e. I decided to run a completely random dungeon crawl with the 1e DMG's appendix A (I think). It ended with a memorable encounter with a lich that ended up being a recurring foe for the campaign.

The experience made me feel in a lot of ways like I was a player alongside them. I did not know what was coming next, and only had scant seconds from dice roll to implementation to come up with something.

All that being said, I think the main problem with Appendix A is that, depending on the dice rolls, you could end up with a whole lot of "nothing happens." Or worse "Ah, yeah, sorry, the dungeon is just a single straight corridor going on forever." What I want from random generation these days is something that sparks ideas, like The Dungeon Alphabet.
 


uzirath

Adventurer
What if a GM's role changes from planning out encounters to challenge PCs, to rationalizing unknown elements in a dungeon and attempting to keep the party alive in a plausible way?

I'm intrigued by this idea. I wonder if, at this point, it wouldn't be more interesting to share the GM's role altogether. As I read your description (and the quoted passage from another thread), I thought it sounded like more fun as a player than as a GM. So maybe the GM role rotates around the table by encounter or people can just jump in if they experience the creative spark. This might not work for everyone (I know plenty of people who have zero interest in GMing), but I could see it making for a really fun and unpredictable game.

With that said, one of my favorite online collections of random generators (of many types) is donjon and a derivative project intended for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Random Dungeon Generator. While there aren't tools here to generate a dungeon one room at a time, there are some features that could be used in tandem with such a system.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
The experience made me feel in a lot of ways like I was a player alongside them. I did not know what was coming next, and only had scant seconds from dice roll to implementation to come up with something.

All that being said, I think the main problem with Appendix A is that, depending on the dice rolls, you could end up with a whole lot of "nothing happens." Or worse "Ah, yeah, sorry, the dungeon is just a single straight corridor going on forever."
Good to hear - the chance to feel like a player might be a way to entice people to master games. I enjoy standard GMing, but an added, player-perspective element of "what could be next?" sounds like a fun addition.

Too much "nothing happens" is bad, but some "nothing happens" is just enough to be scary. And I have to say, the corridor-that-goes-on-forever sounds pretty cool, in a weird '80s movie sort of way.

I'm intrigued by this idea. I wonder if, at this point, it wouldn't be more interesting to share the GM's role altogether. As I read your description (and the quoted passage from another thread), I thought it sounded like more fun as a player than as a GM. . .

With that said, one of my favorite online collections of random generators (of many types) is donjon and a derivative project intended for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy: Random Dungeon Generator.
Passing the GM conch is a bit too much for me. Once you do that, you need to have rock-solid agreement amongst players that everyone has the same goal (and hopefully the same theme), or you need rock-solid rules that each new "GM" has to follow. My approach to random dungeons is more of a time-saving tool for GMs ("oops, forgot I had to make a map for tonight!") than a style of play. But yeah, as I mentioned above, it might help the GM feel more like a PC.

I've been to the donjon. Seen its depths. No one comes back the same from that.
 

Reynard

Legend
Random encounters are the perfect sure for the GM ruts. We all do it, leaning on the same tropes and cliches because they are comfortable for us. We choose the same monsters and villains and themes and repeat the same descriptions. Adding random generators to the mix not only allows us to be surprised along with the players, it forces us out of our comfort zones and to be creative on the fly. I think ALL adventures -- no matter how much of a railroad adventure path -- need random elements thrown in and fairly regular intervals.

Note that those elements don't have to be, and in fact shouldn't be, just lists of monsters to fight.They should include descriptions of places and things and trappings. They should include personality quirks of NPCs and eccentricities of monsters. They should include events, both mundane and magical. They should happen in the dungeon,on the trail, in the wild and in the town.
 

I created my own dungeon room description generator. Originally designed for FG, I created a XLSX version that allow you to generate a room description with click.

I'm not a fan of random generators, and even less of random encounters when used "as is". BUT, I think generators are great for spurring creativity and keeping things from going stale. I created this one because I am working on an old school version of Undermountain. Fully detailing each and every location, thousands of rooms. I quickly found myself reverting to a few different generic rooms, this keeps generator helps me keep things fresh. And allows me to tweak what the generator gives, or roll up two or three and then mix and match.
 

ninjayeti

Adventurer
I've had good results using random generators as part of prep rather than on the fly. As @Reynard states, they are a great way to break out of a creative rut. When I find myself creating yet another goblin cave or tomb full of undead I have turned to random tables to come up with some fresh ideas (the ones in Ch 3-5 of the DMG are pretty solid).

By randomizing as part of prep, I can use the tables as source of inspiration rather than a straitjacket. Sometimes the random generators are going to spit out a meatball sundae - something that is not going to work no matter what. Other times you get some good and some bad, so it is helpful to have a chance to build on what works and get rid of what doesn't. I'd agree with @Ralif Redhammer that random generation is best mixed with a healthy amount of "intelligent design."

I'd also say random generation works best when the players don't know its random. Let the PCs find an ivory statue of a monkey holding a crown and they will invest a lot of energy trying to glean its significance (sometimes coming up with good ideas for the DM to run with). If they know its a statue of an [animal] made of [material] holding an [object] they will blow by it without a second thought.
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
I think it's best to have some planned and some random elements. Too much of one or the other and it starts to feel like the PCs are just along for the ride. I routinely include sections in my adventures that I have no idea what's going to happen or how the PCs are going to solve it. And when I'm in a pinch for ideas, I will absolutely grab a book with some random tables and use it in the middle of a session.

One of my favorite DMing stories from the old days was when 2e was still in the progress of coming out. We had the 2e PHB, but the rest was still 1e. I decided to run a completely random dungeon crawl with the 1e DMG's appendix A (I think). It ended with a memorable encounter with a lich that ended up being a recurring foe for the campaign.

The experience made me feel in a lot of ways like I was a player alongside them. I did not know what was coming next, and only had scant seconds from dice roll to implementation to come up with something.
I 100% agree, I think you want a mix of planned and random material. It simply more fun for everybody at the table.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
I've had good results using random generators as part of prep rather than on the fly. As @Reynard states, they are a great way to break out of a creative rut. When I find myself creating yet another goblin cave or tomb full of undead I have turned to random tables to come up with some fresh ideas (the ones in Ch 3-5 of the DMG are pretty solid).

By randomizing as part of prep, I can use the tables as source of inspiration rather than a straitjacket. Sometimes the random generators are going to spit out a meatball sundae - something that is not going to work no matter what. Other times you get some good and some bad, so it is helpful to have a chance to build on what works and get rid of what doesn't. I'd agree with @Ralif Redhammer that random generation is best mixed with a healthy amount of "intelligent design."

I'd also say random generation works best when the players don't know its random. Let the PCs find an ivory statue of a monkey holding a crown and they will invest a lot of energy trying to glean its significance (sometimes coming up with good ideas for the DM to run with). If they know its a statue of an [animal] made of [material] holding an [object] they will blow by it without a second thought.
I'm glad someone acknowledged the tables as more than just something they're too good to need. I don't think I need it either, but all the tables have helped far more than I even want to give credit to. Before, I was thinking that I can create every detail of every room from my mind until my players said "Man, there's never anything but monsters, traps, and treasures in these rooms." And I realized that I skipped over parts of descriptions that would've added to a more immersive experience. Now, I can quickly and assuredly describe the air, sound, furniture, random molding and everything else that makes my locations seem alive.

Sometimes they don't match up, true, but it's fun coming up with reasons why there's a room with random mushrooms in desert temple (secret underground water pool?) But if it just makes no sense, I can always roll again or just choose.
 

the Jester

Legend
Lend me your experience! I want to put some random generators in a game module. I know they've been around for a while - I still have the loose-leaf random monster encounter tables from AD&D 2e. But have you seen or used a random dungeon generator? Would you run a dungeon crawl without knowing what's in the dungeon?

Yeah, I have used the random dungeon generator from the 1e DMG in 1e, 2e, and 3e. I've also used several other random dungeon generators. I have both used them on the fly and used them to generate a dungeon, or sections of one, in advance of play.

One thing to bear in mind is that, if you're randomly generating monsters from a large list, you are almost certain to end up with a funhouse style dungeon that may not make a lot of sense unless you impose some sort of story-based justification for the weird mixes you get.

What if a GM's role changes from planning out encounters to challenge PCs, to rationalizing unknown elements in a dungeon and attempting to keep the party alive in a plausible way?

The DM's role should never, in my opinion, involve attempting to keep the party alive. It should involve using appropriate challenges (by which I certainly don't mean always level-appropriate) and fairly adjudicating those challenges. But that's a playstyle choice.

Regardless, I think what you describe is part of the traditional DM role already, but only a part of it. But when you throw in a dominating role for random tables, you're moving towards a playstyle that's pretty far to the sandbox side of the sandbox-to-story based game spectrum. So the various DM skills and techniques that are useful to sandbox play really come into play. You'd probably want to focus on your ability to think on the fly for things like the motivations of and relationships between npcs and monsters, though 5e's DMG has tons of charts that can aid in randomizing all that kind of stuff. Even so, you still need to be able to think through what's going on and how it relates quickly and on the fly, and to follow the pcs where they lead as far as when they try to negotiate or bypass vs. engage in combat (even when the other party to the negotiations seems like a weird choice, such as parleying with manticores).

Let's hear your good, bad, and ugly stories about random generators and GM surprises!

I'm not saying I'm a random table addict, just that I really love them. I prefer to randomize a great deal in my game. I'm also a fan of chaos effects, like things where you stick your hand in the weird frog and get a strange, random effect; I have a d1000 Chaos chart with like 30 subtables that might come up.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Sometimes the random generators are going to spit out a meatball sundae - something that is not going to work no matter what. Other times you get some good and some bad, so it is helpful to have a chance to build on what works and get rid of what doesn't. I'd agree with @Ralif Redhammer that random generation is best mixed with a healthy amount of "intelligent design."

I'd also say random generation works best when the players don't know its random. Let the PCs find an ivory statue of a monkey holding a crown and they will invest a lot of energy trying to glean its significance (sometimes coming up with good ideas for the DM to run with). If they know its a statue of an [animal] made of [material] holding an [object] they will blow by it without a second thought.
I'd take away an XP from you if I could, as payback for putting the idea of a meatball sundae in my head.

I wonder if the possibility, itself, that the GM is mixing random gen. with intelligent design is enough to get players to investigate the ivory monkey. If not, the fact that it could be a magic item is; players love that stuff. Of course, if the players ignore it and move on, you could always make it grow to its full-golem-size and attack from behind :geek:

Sometimes they don't match up, true, but it's fun coming up with reasons why there's a room with random mushrooms in desert temple (secret underground water pool?) But if it just makes no sense, I can always roll again or just choose.
That's the fun I'm interested in. It's a little taste of on-the-fly chaos from behind the screen, instead of the usual flow from the front of it. But what if it's full-flavored, like a meatball sundae? What if the next dungeon room could be a pit into Hel? Then the GM's stakes are much higher: the equivalent of being a PC and watching your character die. The GM's game is about to die, if he doesn't find a valid way for the PCs to negotiate the situation.

Now, the PCs, of course, will help shape that outcome through their decisions. But the GM has to make it flow. If Megatron (yeah, it was a really unlikely set of rolls) doesn't immediately try to disintegrate them with his scope (yes, that's actually what it was), he'd better have an interesting reason for doing so. Or, if he just starts shooting, it has to feel Hel-and-Megatron deadly to the players, even if the GM is actually pulling punches.

The DM's role should never, in my opinion, involve attempting to keep the party alive. It should involve using appropriate challenges (by which I certainly don't mean always level-appropriate) and fairly adjudicating those challenges. But that's a playstyle choice.

Regardless, I think what you describe is part of the traditional DM role already, but only a part of it. But when you throw in a dominating role for random tables, you're moving towards a playstyle that's pretty far to the sandbox side of the sandbox-to-story based game spectrum. So the various DM skills and techniques that are useful to sandbox play really come into play. You'd probably want to focus on your ability to think on the fly for things like the motivations of and relationships between npcs and monsters. . .

I'm not saying I'm a random table addict, just that I really love them. I prefer to randomize a great deal in my game. I'm also a fan of chaos effects, like things where you stick your hand in the weird frog and get a strange, random effect; I have a d1000 Chaos chart with like 30 subtables that might come up.
Never? "Appropriate" and "fairly" must have a pretty interesting connotation if it doesn't include keeping the party alive. Note that "party" does not protect individuals :devilish:

Thanks for mentioning the sandbox. You just reinforced my marketing approach on this. But more to the point, isn't it weird how applying random generators - effectively filling in the blanks for the GM - requires more skill from the GM? Or is it just different skills?

Yeah, I think random generators can be awesome too. I guess it just struck me as odd that D&D would give you all the random monsters you (or the weird frog with your hand in it) could swallow, but not the random dungeons to go with them.
 


the Jester

Legend
Never? "Appropriate" and "fairly" must have a pretty interesting connotation if it doesn't include keeping the party alive. Note that "party" does not protect individuals :devilish:

In my preferred playstyle, it's entirely the party's job to keep themselves alive. The DM's role is to set up interesting challenges, with enough telegraphing of the difficulty that the players can ascertain when they're about to bite off more than they can chew. But if they take that bite, the DM's job is not to pull the half-eaten challenge from their collective mouth in order to prevent heartburn.

Thanks for mentioning the sandbox. You just reinforced my marketing approach on this. But more to the point, isn't it weird how applying random generators - effectively filling in the blanks for the GM - requires more skill from the GM? Or is it just different skills?

I'd say different. You don't need the same level of story-writing, npc-motivation-building, intricate tale-weaving, etc skills if you're going with heavy random generation- you need similar skills, but I do think they're different.

Yeah, I think random generators can be awesome too. I guess it just struck me as odd that D&D would give you all the random monsters you (or the weird frog with your hand in it) could swallow, but not the random dungeons to go with them.

I am pretty sure that most versions of the DMG have random dungeon generators in them- or at least the DMGs from odd-numbered editions do.
 

Bohandas

Adventurer
Yeah, I think random generators can be awesome too. I guess it just struck me as odd that D&D would give you all the random monsters you (or the weird frog with your hand in it) could swallow, but not the random dungeons to go with them.

There's a random dungeon generator in the Dragon Magazine Compendium (and presumably also in whichever issue of Dragon that it's from)

Also, the D&D Adventure Games are all random dungeons. (And you could probably adapt them to play full D&D pretty easily; just use real character and monster stats instead of the Adventure Game's simplified stats)
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
There's a random dungeon generator in the Dragon Magazine Compendium (and presumably also in whichever issue of Dragon that it's from)

Also, the D&D Adventure Games are all random dungeons. (And you could probably adapt them to play full D&D pretty easily; just use real character and monster stats instead of the Adventure Game's simplified stats)
I'm fairly sure appendix A of the DMG also serves as a random dungeon generator. It does leave much to be desired, though.
 

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