In my Shattered Star campaign, we are about three-quarters of the way through the second adventure—Curse of the Lady’s Light. With the exception of a couple of deaths and some close shaves, things seem to be generally going to plan.
Certainly, I’m pretty sure generally the chaps are having fun (which is the point of gaming after all). However, I’ve been growing a little bit dissatisfied with the design of the dungeon and how it relates to the party’s progress and the general flow of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, generally it’s a pretty good adventure and it has had some excellent encounters, but it highlights for me the changes in design philosophy between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (and earlier editions) and later versions (Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 and onwards).
The party have been in the dungeon now for the best part of a month—if you factor in time spent exploring the surrounding wilderness and trips back and forth to the nearest city for rest, resupply and reinforcements.
In that time, bugger all has changed in the dungeon. In the main, today’s designers are great at telling you what has happen prior to the party reaching an encounter area and they often provide a tremendous sense of the various NPCs’ motivations. However, we rarely get any information about what happens if the party attack and retreat or simply take a long time to reach certain areas. Thus—at least to me—the dungeon doesn’t seem a very dynamic place. Of course, I can decide what happens myself—I’m not a complete idiot—but it would be nice to have some guidance from the designer.
No Wandering Monsters
Gah! I love wandering monsters. I do, I do, I do (as long as they make sense in the overall context of the dungeon).
I find it baffling that none of the dungeon’s denizens ever seem to move around. Surely, the more organised groups occasionally move about, go foraging to food or whatever. Don’t they get bored just sitting around? Apparently not. This dungeon—and most of its inhabitants—are passive, which allows the party to dictate the pace of their exploration.
While I can understand this from a publisher’s point of view—wandering monsters take up valuable page space and don’t add much to the story—they do add a tremendous amount to the feeling of verisimilitude to the dungeon. They also make it feel so much more dynamic and “lived in.”
No Empty Space
Again, from a publisher’s point of view I understand the lack of empty space in the dungeons. By empty space, I mean unoccupied rooms that may—or may not—contain anything interesting. Describing empty space takes up space (how ironic is that?) which leaves less space and word count for challenges and the overall storyline.
That said, empty space is very important in a dungeon.
- It gives the various factions and groups breathing space and a way to move about without being constantly in conflict with one another.
- It increases the amount of ground the party covers between fights (and rests). This adds to their sense of accomplishment when they look at the map. That might sound really trivial, but it’s an important factor often overlooked
- It provides a good change of pace as it allows the party to use other skills, slow down and so on.
Basically, at this point in the dungeon, every time the party enter a new area they trigger a fight or walk into a trap. There’s not a lot of surprise or suspense to that formula. Door, fight, loot, door, fight, loot etc. It also means that on the map their process looks pitifully slow, which is a bit disheartening.
No Level Inappropriate Encounters
With very few exceptions, all the encounters in the dungeon are level appropriate. Of course, I’m not bemoaning the fact that I haven’t been able to slaughter the party out of hand, but sometimes its fun for the party to deal with very hard or very easy encounters.
Running away is always a useful skill to cultivate while crushing weak foes is fun! And again—of course—it builds a sense of verisimilitude into the dungeon. Finally, having level inappropriate encounters adds to the sense of tension. While as a GM, I would never just spring a CR+5 encounter on a group, clever groups can pick up on the “subtle” signs (perhaps scorched and splintered bodies, great gouges out of the walls and so on) that something rather tough lurks ahead. If, after that, they chose to rush ahead that’s their problem.
What Did I Miss?
These are certainly design facets I’ll be considering in my ongoing design of the megadungeon Gloamhold. But, did I miss anything? In your opinion, are modern dungeons missing other facets of older dungeons? Do you care? Are you delighted? Let me know in the comments below.