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General The Right Balance of Dungeon Fun?

Retreater

Legend
I'm mostly thinking of OSR systems, but the question can apply to all editions...

In a dungeon, what's the breakdown you think is best for encounters, traps, combats, general exploration (pure thematic rooms)?

Like if you purchased a mega-dungeon that had around a 33% split between encounters (split between hostile, possible friendly or neutral), 33% of exploration and theme (empty of traditional challenge), and about a 16%/16% split of traps and empty rooms, would that feel like a good split? Could you and your players be engaged with that?
 

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Rhenny

Adventurer
To me, I think variety and unpredictability is most important. Some areas in a dungeon should have different ratios, but overall, I’d go about 50 combat with or without traps, 30% exploration with or without traps or hazards, 20% interaction.
 

It depends on the purpose of the dungeon. For example, the lair of a creature or creatures should be far more populated than an ancient ruin. For my purposes I've kept to the 3 Pillars, with Combat meaning hostile creatures, Exploration meaning flavor (including empty rooms), and Social (neutral or non-combatant creatures). Social encounters are going to be rare in dungeons overall.

For a lair, I'd go with 50% Combat, 40% Exploration (Tricks/Traps 30%, Flavor 10%), and 10% Social. An ancient ruin with deep secrets would be more like 50% Exploration (Flavor 35%, 15% Tricks/Traps), 30% Combat, and 20% Social. An area with multiple tribes/creatures living in a close area (such as the Cave of Chaos) would have 40% Combat, 30% Exploration (Tricks/Trap 20%, Flavor 10%), and 30% Social.
 

EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
I'm mostly thinking of OSR systems, but the question can apply to all editions...

In a dungeon, what's the breakdown you think is best for encounters, traps, combats, general exploration (pure thematic rooms)?

Like if you purchased a mega-dungeon that had around a 33% split between encounters (split between hostile, possible friendly or neutral), 33% of exploration and theme (empty of traditional challenge), and about a 16%/16% split of traps and empty rooms, would that feel like a good split? Could you and your players be engaged with that?
INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

I mean that very sincerely, BTW. This is a bit like asking, "What's the breakdown you think is best between carbohydrates, fats, protein, and water in a well-cooked meal?" I don't think there's much you can say other than, "well you probably need most of those to show up." A well-crafted dungeon experience is about pacing and tone, which exist at a higher level of abstraction than the percentage mix of elements. You might be able to find some correlations between the presence of particular elements and the production of a desirable pacing and tone, but they'll lead you astray as like as not.

For example: if you're running an intentionally very short dungeon that's there to fill time between major chapters of a more narrative game, then going light on empty rooms and on exploration might be wise. That is, those are the most likely places for new story hooks to develop, and a "palate cleanser" dungeon is a bad place to have brand-new hooks appear. Conversely, if there's a major story beat ongoing and this dungeon is one expression thereof, expanding these sections lets the players sink their teeth in deeper, lets you develop mysteries or flesh out world-elements through description and player-driven choices rather than detached narration. And all of these considerations become moot if it's a 1e-style violence-vagrants game where there are no "story beats" other than what the party is choosing to do right at this moment.
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
If you are looting an ancient pyramid: mostly traps with pissed of mummy lord final encounter.
If it is a living space for a large group of intelligent creatures (kobolds, goblins, etc.), mostly combat/social with traps at strategic location. But features like murder holes and bridges that can be destroyed, portcullises, etc. would make more sense than traps.
If the hideout, lair of a big bad, who is hording great treasure or is paranoid, there would be more even mix of traps and encounters with minions.
If a mega dungeon, then it would change based on each section.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
@EzekielRaiden says much of what I'd say, three posts up from this, so I won't repeat it.

I'll add that the answer for any one dungeon is almost always going to be situationally dependent - each particular dungeon or adventure will (or should!) have its own theme or 'vibe'. One dungeon might be almost completely empty other than a few leftover traps and a lot of dust. The next might be crawling with ice trolls and the halls will run deep with their blood...or the party's. The next might be a cornucopia of various creatures, some in competition with each other with 'neutral' empty areas between, and others kinda just because; where diplomacy might win what bloodshed will not.

Add to that the rather wide variances in player/DM preferences from one table to the next and giving even a vague overall answer becomes something of a fool's errand. Sorry 'bout that... :)
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
throwing lots of traps at the party sounds like fun at first, but in practice, I always found it made them crawl through the dungeon super slow, checking everything (and I mean everything) for traps. Thus, I kept traps pretty minimal, often using a few in the finale of an adventure....

Running Rappan Athuk now and while what you say is true, it is part of our enjoyment of the mega-dungeon. A bigger issue for me is random encounters. This is about the only thing I'm willing to fudge. Mostly in terms of whether to bother rolling for a random encounter or skipping it in favor of moving things forward.
 




I was never fond of them inside the dungeon itself, but kept them for wilderness treks....
The last 'sandbox' I ran, I drew a map of the area, set up the important stuff I cared about, then pre-determined that about two-thirds of the hexes would have interesting stuff, with each hex being about 2 hours of travel.

My method was to use a little-publicized link on WotC's database of Magic cards, Gatherer, which lets you pull up a random card. Stomping Ground (Guildpact) - Gatherer - Magic: The Gathering

I'd use whatever card queued up as inspiration. Most 'encounters' would not be combats, just some interesting phenomenon. Like if I got a 'Swamp' that showed a subterranean city, I might have a pathway to the Underdark, but no one visibly there. It's a mystery.

Whereas if I got a 'Sky Swallower' flying leviathan, they might see this immense creature overhead, even see remnants of damage it has done, but it wouldn't be an immediate combat. Meanwhile a 'Living Hive' would probably show up with an early encounter with dog-sized insects trying to collect resources for the hive, which is itself an elemental that can move across the landscape.

Do this enough times, and I came up with a loose history of the area to explain why all this stuff was where it was.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
The last 'sandbox' I ran, I drew a map of the area, set up the important stuff I cared about, then pre-determined that about two-thirds of the hexes would have interesting stuff, with each hex being about 2 hours of travel.
I tended to use bigger scales back in my DM days, more like 10 miles/hex. I used a mix of random encounters appropriate for the terrain/climate and placed encounters as well. Back in 1E days, it was a lot easier to draw up random encounter tables... there weren't so many monsters. When 2E really got going, the monster lists started rapidly growing...
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
For me, I want the dungeon to make some kind of sense. Who's living there, what are they doing, how do they interact. There shouldn't be traps on frequently used pathways. Dungeon ecology.

As far as trap, I read some excellent advice on the topic by Coins and Scrolls (aka Skerples). From his latest version of the GLOG:

PCs can cautiously move 20 10’ squares (200’) in 10 minutes .
Round up to the nearest 10 minutes. PCs moving cautiously
spot signs of all traps. The fun part isn’t noticing the trap, it’s how
to disarm it. No skills. Use common sense and inventory items.

If they rush, then they stumbles onto traps the hard way. It changed how I design traps - as he said, the fun isn't about rolling a dice, it's about being clever (of course, a skilled thief can still use their skill to do it). I was very dissatisfied with the model for traps in 5e (passive perception, either you make it or your don't), but this is more fun.
 

Checking every stretch of hallway for traps will absolutely slow the game to a snail's pace. I generally prefer to telegraph my traps, making them more puzzles than gotchas. Stuff like putting a giant block of stone hanging from a thread over a treasure chest. They could pass it by, but surely there's some good treasure inside...

throwing lots of traps at the party sounds like fun at first, but in practice, I always found it made them crawl through the dungeon super slow, checking everything (and I mean everything) for traps. Thus, I kept traps pretty minimal, often using a few in the finale of an adventure....

A good OSR dungeon has a feel of death and danger around every turn, though it doesn't necessarily need to deliver on the threat every time. That just gets grindingly frustrating.

A room should never be empty, in my book. If there's nothing there, it's just running down the clock. The PCs are going to waste time making sure that there's nothing there. A room can lack monsters and treasure, but there should always be something to it, even if it's just a description to drive home the theme of the dungeon. Even if it's just a boot a goblin lost, a smear of ash on the wall, or a broken commemorative stein, it should say something about the locale.
 

Retreater

Legend
If they rush, then they stumbles onto traps the hard way. It changed how I design traps - as he said, the fun isn't about rolling a dice, it's about being clever (of course, a skilled thief can still use their skill to do it). I was very dissatisfied with the model for traps in 5e (passive perception, either you make it or your don't), but this is more fun.
Yes. I'm abandoning the way 5e handles traps. I'm putting them in as obstacles or hazards that are pretty easy to detect. Then with no skill rolls to disarm - you gotta figure out how to get past it. And the damage/dangerous effect is upped substantially as well. But again, I'm designing an OSR dungeon.
A room should never be empty, in my book. If there's nothing there, it's just running down the clock. The PCs are going to waste time making sure that there's nothing there. A room can lack monsters and treasure, but there should always be something to it, even if it's just a description to drive home the theme of the dungeon. Even if it's just a boot a goblin lost, a smear of ash on the wall, or a broken commemorative stein, it should say something about the locale.
Yeah. There aren't "empty" rooms in what I'm writing. They will give clues about other rooms, history, reinforce theme, etc. The group will expend resources searching and possibly trigger wandering monsters. So no room is entirely without risk/reward.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
For me, I want the dungeon to make some kind of sense. Who's living there, what are they doing, how do they interact. There shouldn't be traps on frequently used pathways. Dungeon ecology.

As far as trap, I read some excellent advice on the topic by Coins and Scrolls (aka Skerples). From his latest version of the GLOG:



If they rush, then they stumbles onto traps the hard way. It changed how I design traps - as he said, the fun isn't about rolling a dice, it's about being clever (of course, a skilled thief can still use their skill to do it). I was very dissatisfied with the model for traps in 5e (passive perception, either you make it or your don't), but this is more fun.

Hmm...the section you quoted doesn't show in my quote of your post, but I like this--a lot.

At a certain level, and with experienced, tactical, optimizing players, passive perception will become better than having to actively role, so might as well institute this for all but the most cleverly hidden traps and doors. I might use this rule but cap it at a certain DC. I don't like the idea of a DC20 perception check trap getting auto detected because you move slowly.

Also, if I do this, random encounters become more important. There should be some risk of moving slowly. Maybe more likely to have random encounter but also more likely to avoid it because you are moving slowly and more likely to hear an approaching monster and hide or otherwise avoid it.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . Exploration meaning flavor (including empty rooms), and Social (neutral or non-combatant creatures). Social encounters are going to be rare in dungeons overall.

For a lair, I'd go with 50% Combat, 40% Exploration (Tricks/Traps 30%, Flavor 10%), and 10% Social. An ancient ruin with deep secrets would be more like 50% Exploration (Flavor 35%, 15% Tricks/Traps), 30% Combat, and 20% Social. An area with multiple tribes/creatures living in a close area (such as the Cave of Chaos) would have 40% Combat, 30% Exploration (Tricks/Trap 20%, Flavor 10%), and 30% Social.
Sounds crowded. One thing about dungeons: healing isn't readily available. You can't safely walk back to the nearest chirurgeon, and if you try to heal in place, the locals try to eat you. I wouldn't put Combat over 25%.

Side note: I find it interesting that you define the Social pillar by its relation to the Combat pillar 🤓

Hmm...the section you quoted doesn't show in my quote of your post, but I like this--a lot.

Also, if I do this, random encounters become more important. There should be some risk of moving slowly. Maybe more likely to have random encounter but also more likely to avoid it because you are moving slowly and more likely to hear an approaching monster and hide or otherwise avoid it.
That happened to me. I think there's a forum feature that lets you highlight a portion of a post, and when you quote it, only that portion shows up. . . but there's also the old feature that automatically pulls quotes out of quotes.

A trap isn't very useful if it's not hidden or poorly hidden. Another doctrine is that an obstacle isn't an obstacle if it's not guarded. So if PCs want to auto-detect traps (by moving slowly), they can auto-detect the archers waiting to shoot them while they stop and disarm the trap.
 

aco175

Legend
"What's the breakdown you think is best between carbohydrates, fats, protein, and water in a well-cooked meal?"
In everything delicious- 60% fat is what companies use to make cookies and chips taste so good.

I tend to have 60% combat, or possible combat. Some can be avoided or negotiated. I like to throw in 10% traps or puzzles to keep things cool, but not slow things down and only some people like puzzles. I like 10% secret, maybe a hidden temple where the PCs can safely rest or find healing water or such. Exploration seems most of what happens out of combat.

I also tend to cluster rooms in larger dungeons. There may be a section where 4-5 rooms of monsters come to investigate fighting and it is considered one encounter. This may be made up of 3 rooms with monsters, 1 empty and 1 empty but has a secret room that is trapped.
 

Rhenny

Adventurer
Also remember, OSR, Gygaxian dungeons made no sense. One room could have goblins and another a dragon that couldn’t even fit through the door. (Maybe a slight exaggeration). In old school, dungeons were basically made to test and challenge the players (not necessarily the pcs). That’s one reason why strange magic, traps and hazards seemed more common.
 

Presents for Goblins

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