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General Taking the "Dungeons" out of D&D

Reynard

Legend
I realize that a lot of people play D&D without much if any dungeon exploration, so bear with me.

Many of the rules of D&D, including 5E, are artifacts of the dungeon exploration mode of play. The thing is, very little fantasy beyond D&D (and those things directly inspired by it) does dungeon exploration. Even the original inspirations for the dungeon were much less onerous than actual dungeon exploration. Vast Moria was basically a 5 room dungeon connected by a few skill challenges.

So, what does D&D look like if you presume that you will be emulating not dungeon crawls but Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings? What mechanical elements, specifically, need to change, be removed or added to make D&D a general fantasy RPG rather than a genre unto itself? And can you do that and still have the game*be* D&D.

A quick note: "Play another game" is not a helpful response. Nor am I asking you for advice on how I can make my game like this. I am just starting a conversation. We're just brainstorming for fun.
 

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Reynard

Legend
The obvious starting point is with the basic assumptions of six encounters in a day. That's something which basically never occurs outside of a dungeon scenario.

Following up from that means addressing basically every aspect of resource management, especially Hit Dice and spell slots.
Milestone rests might be a quick and dirty solution. That is, if an adventure has 3 acts, the party gets a short rest after act 1 and a long rest after act 2, or something along those lines. I am not sure how you might do it with a more sandboxy approach, but that's a problem with the current system too.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Milestone rests might be a quick and dirty solution. That is, if an adventure has 3 acts, the party gets a short rest after act 1 and a long rest after act 2, or something along those lines. I am not sure how you might do it with a more sandboxy approach, but that's a problem with the current system too.
If you spread those milestones out over the course of months, sure, but it's liable to cause more problems than it solves. A mid-level spellcaster in D&D is expected to cast more spells in a single day than most fictional spellcasters will cast in their lifetime; addressing that issue would involve a vast reduction in total spell slots available (or just house ruling every class to use warlock mechanics). Hit Dice basically only exist to guarantee that anyone can survive a second encounter in a day, no matter how badly they were beaten in the first one; but such a mechanic is actively counter-productive in any game where you aren't forced into mandatory combat. It would take a lot of work to make this game work well outside of a dungeon scenario.
 

aco175

Hero
I never cared for a massive Greyhawk or Undermountain crawl, I'm even getting sick of playing Elemental Evil line with all the crawls. I like to have places to explore and a Moria may be only 5 rooms of encounters and challenges, but the description and feel is that it is massive. The players should feel like they can explore all they want even if the DM has only a few things planned and ready.
 

Dausuul

Legend
So, what does D&D look like if you presume that you will be emulating not dungeon crawls but Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings? What mechanical elements, specifically, need to change, be removed or added to make D&D a general fantasy RPG rather than a genre unto itself? And can you do that and still have the game*be* D&D.
Well, hold on now. Are we emulating "Song of Ice and Fire," or "Lord of the Rings," or "Wheel of Time?" Those are three very different styles of fantasy and they will require different elements.

The primary focus of "Song of Ice and Fire" is politics and intrigue, with a side order of realistic medieval warfare. Magic does exist, but it is extremely rare, and it is dangerous and unpredictable. Even professional spellcasters, like the warlocks of Qarth or the red priests, have little understanding of the powers they wield. An RPG along these lines would have well-developed social mechanics, gritty combat rules that emphasize martial skill over magic, and probably a mass combat system of some kind.

The primary focus of "Lord of the Rings" is a mythic clash of good and evil. Intrigue and war, while present, are mostly just a backdrop for spiritual conflicts--we are told repeatedly that Sauron cannot be overcome by force of arms. Instead, it is by the faith and virtue of the protagonists that he is defeated. I'm not sure how you would emulate that in an RPG; I think you'd need to junk the entire D&D model and look to story-driven systems to really recreate the feel of Tolkien's saga.

The primary focus of "Wheel of Time" is the breasts of the female characters... okay, okay, I'll quit snarking. The primary focus of "Wheel of Time" is conflicts among magic-wielders. Magic is very powerful, fairly controllable, and a lot of people can use it. Even the non-channeling protagonists get magic powers: Perrin's wolf-magic, Mat's luck and amulet, the supernatural gifts of the Warders. Anybody without magic is apt to end up in a supporting role. An RPG emulating WoT would have a very well-developed magic system and would give at least some magic to pretty much every PC.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest
As far as mechanics go, a number of people around here would be advocating for more robust mechanics for social interaction because that would likely be a larger proportion of the game than your typical dungeon crawl - but I honestly don't think it's necessary. I don't think there really needs to be any changes in mechanics in D&D - the change in focus from dungeons to bigger and broader issues and above-ground settings and politics mostly just involves a change in focus for the gameplay. It would still be D&D. Dungeons (and Dragons) are strictly optional.
 

Greg Benage

Adventurer
So, what does D&D look like if you presume that you will be emulating not dungeon crawls but Game of Thrones and The Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings? What mechanical elements, specifically, need to change, be removed or added to make D&D a general fantasy RPG rather than a genre unto itself? And can you do that and still have the game*be* D&D.
I don't think any mechanics or rules need to change. Your game just might not engage all the dungeon-based resource-management systems and mechanics at all. If the PCs are supposed to figure out who killed Jon Arryn and why, none of that stuff (rests, Hit Dice, etc.) is really relevant to the challenges they'll face. You just don't use those systems.

Other things (such as detect thoughts and speak with dead), you will have to address, but these have nothing to do with dungeons.

(You also have to make sure you don't retcon the solution to your "mystery" in such a way that it makes the entire investigation plot extremely unsatisfying. I'd recommend not "plotting" a murder mystery by the seat of your pants.)
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I don't think there really needs to be any changes in mechanics in D&D - the change in focus from dungeons to bigger and broader issues and above-ground settings and politics mostly just involves a change in focus for the gameplay.
Yes, well, the things we NEED are like, oxygen, water, food. Beyond that, we are not all going to agree on what "need" really means. We don't actually NEED all the combat rules either. Have you tossed them out yet? No? Why not?

How about "should have", rather than "need"? You should have robust rules for the areas of play that you want the players to engage in. If you want them to swing swords and spells around in fights, you should have robust rules for that. And lo and behold, we have those.

If you want the players to engage with politics, social positioning, war, and interpersonal relations, you should have robust rules for that and... in D&D, we don't. We have hand-waving. There should be ways for them to plan tactics and have special abilities around persuasion and intimidation, for example. In general there should be feats and class abilities that relate to these areas of play. There should be rules for use of resources on larger scale than small squad battles. And so on.

If you don't have those rules, the players cannot reliably form cogent plans. The rules are their handles on how the game functions. If you don't give them rules, then they start to play the GM's personal quirks and tendencies as a set of rules. However, the GM's operation is generally a black box, which can be frustrating and unsatisfying.

Our rules systems help assure that players have reasonable and interesting things to do within the context of whatever the action is, which effectively helps make sure everyone gets a bit of spotlight time. No rules? Unless the GM is very attentive, the bulk of play is apt to go to the most personally persuasive player, which is kind of bogus. The GM should have tools that help them organize play in a way where spreading the action comes out of the process of play.
 

Greg Benage

Adventurer
If you want the players to engage with politics, social positioning, war, and interpersonal relations, you should have robust rules for that and... in D&D, we don't.
I don't really agree with this. Rules and robust structures are more useful for some things than others. Something like combat, IMO, needs more of that than politics or interpersonal relations. Larding those areas of play up with more rules and robust structures is, to me, detrimental to the game. OTOH, I think we could use some more rules and structure around exploration--I know these are all subjective preferences.
 

I think others have nailed, the only real key consideration is how you want to handle fewer encounters per day...I mean you could have 6-8 encounters per day in an outdoors area I suppose, but I think it makes sense in most worlds.

This could be formal houserules to address recharging or just a note to players that long rest classes may get to nova more and look stronger than they do on paper. If you want one idea to help with recharge I posted this recharge concept just the other week to help with fewer encounters per day:
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
It looks the same. The adventure still has a goal/objective and something like 1-6 obstacles of varying difficulty between the adventurers and the goal. There are transitions between scenes and a light amount of resource management.

The only real difference is that in a dungeon, the structure of the adventure is apparent (it’s walls and halls and rooms). Whereas outside the dungeon, the structure is less like physical boundaries and more like chasing down objectives on a scavenger hunt.

When you really “pull back” and think about adventures as an organizational tool, you’ll find it easier to write your GoT or LotR scenarios. The physical scale may be different (and there are rules for travel you might brush up on), and the obstacles may be less straightforward than locked doors, monsters, and traps. And really, we could have benefitted from some stronger guidelines for social interactions in the DMG (not tongue-fu, though, social combat is a bad idea).
 

Political intrigue adventures can run similar to a dungeon in form and function, because time constraints can easily limit resting. This leaves overland travel/exploration as the problem, since putting enough challenge into a day is both difficult, and unfair to short rest classes.

On solution is using the Gritty Realism optional rule. Making characters need to take 7 days for a long rest means that they'll travel several days, then need to rest a week once they're safe. The downside to this is that if you have a site for detailed exploration (similar to a dungeon), you have to limit it considerably or else the party won't have enough resources to return to safety. You could switch between Gritty Realism and standard resting depending on the type of adventuring, but I find this option contrived and unrealistic.

If you want to have adventure at locations, but want the overland travel to have consequences, I'd suggest stealing the exploration rules from the Middle Earth book (sorry, forgot the name). Some adjustment will be required, but it's not that difficult.
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester
I think Dungeon crawling is a big part of a LOT of fantasy we consume, whether video games, movies, television series, or books.
It just doesn't necessarily look like D&D dungeons, and tend to be less designed like 1986's The Legend of Zelda's underworld labyrinths and more like 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's Hyrule Castle: open world exploration of cities and ruins etc.

D&D has a heavy dose of Indiana Jones in its DNA, and that's not a bad thing.

Certainly when it's all about dungeon crawling or getting from the end of one dungeon to the beginning of another, the game starts to lose it's grounding in when compared to modern fantasies (I compared Zelda before, but most fantasy stories outside of the video game medium do not send the party to go gather 3 magical stones to get a sacred sword out of a pedestal and then 6 more magic mcguffins to unlock the seal to the big bad's lair).

Most fantasy series do have a driving plot, and often seek for a sweeping view of a country, continent, or fantasy worldspace to give a taste of various different morsels. This means that the outdoor exploration tier tends to be heavily represented in fantasy fiction, but D&D's dungeon-crawling roots aren't as well suited/adjusted for "The Fellowship Travels Across Country" portion of the game.

Unfortunately discontinued (at least for the time being) TTRPGs The One Ring and its 5e-compatible adaptation Adventures in Middle-earth provide a useful feature to the game that tracks the sorts of challenges a company or fellowship might face in the wild and how they might work together over large scales of time and distance. It's a good idea to zoom out when exploring, only to zoom back in for the occasional wolf pack or bear attack when relevant.

When I play Breath of the Wild, most of the adventure is just me and my wits and stamina against the elements (most often against the rain, darn slippery rockfaces! But also against the cold of the mountains, or the heat of the desert or volcano, or the darkness of a forest enveloped in magical night). In a given playthrough I might run into some bokoblins/keese/octoroks/chuchus, or moblins/lizalfoes/lynels/hinoxes/moldugas if I'm unlucky or venture into dangerous places, but most of the time I can explore safely, or find a safer route around the problems so I can focus on my fruit, veggie, bug, and mineral collections, or focus on making it to that next major landmark or far off in the distance.

Exploration Pillar needs a lot of work. I don't think D&D has an inherent problem with it, but the game does a very decent job explaining the combat encounter, how magic works, and dungeon crawling, and a decent job of explaining social encounters and how background characters tie the characters to the plot, but a really poor job explaining everything in-between, especially when it gets to large expanses of time and/or distance.

I think trying to load that pillar up onto the back of the Ranger was part of the problem (and why the Ranger is seen as a poorly-designed class, as written in the PHB, at least). I think a lot more heavy lifting could be done by the core rules themselves.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
The obvious starting point is with the basic assumptions of six encounters in a day. That's something which basically never occurs outside of a dungeon scenario.

Following up from that means addressing basically every aspect of resource management, especially Hit Dice and spell slots.
I don't understand why there's this assumption that a balanced day requires at least 6 encounters. Not only is that untrue, but it permeates a sense that a DM takes away from classes like warlocks or monks if they do not have the 6-8 encounters.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I almost never use dungeons, the game works just fine. I do use the alternate long rest rules because it suits the pace of the game better.

As far as rules for the non combat portion of the game I personally don't want it. I don't want people trying to game the system or even thinking of it in game terms. The stuff that happens outside of combat is the story we're telling as a group, not something based on charts, faction points or allegiances. It's the mayor giving aid to the PCs because they helped a cousin, a lawmaker secretly plotting against the group because they hurt his off the books business.

Yes it means a little more work for the DM, but for me that's half the fun.
 

Reynard

Legend
I almost never use dungeons, the game works just fine. I do use the alternate long rest rules because it suits the pace of the game better.

As far as rules for the non combat portion of the game I personally don't want it. I don't want people trying to game the system or even thinking of it in game terms. The stuff that happens outside of combat is the story we're telling as a group, not something based on charts, faction points or allegiances. It's the mayor giving aid to the PCs because they helped a cousin, a lawmaker secretly plotting against the group because they hurt his off the books business.

Yes it means a little more work for the DM, but for me that's half the fun.
I am of two minds on out of combat mechanics. I agree with you in many respects, but I also feel like when you have fewer mechanics for, say, "social combat" you end up punishing players who aren't necessarily good at that thing even when they want to play a character that is. No one has to prove they can really fight to play the heavy, why should a player have to be charming to play the face? That sort of thing.
 

erc1971

Explorer
I have never made liberal use of dungeons in my fantasy games. I use them in about a third of the time when I am GM'ing. While they can be fun now and then, having the character's isolated for so long from other non-hostile people limits role playing options. And, I love the epic feel of defending a town or village. Nothing says awesome as you fight off a horde of bandits or orcs as the helpless villagers look on, with you as the only thing standing between them and slaughter!
 

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