I hate dungeons that are a seemingly unending grind of combat. The party do two rooms, blow all their spells and retreat to rest overnight.
Sure they make progress but it is slow and frustrating progress. I’d rather the party explore 10-20 rooms, actually map some of the complex and have to cleverly manage their resources before resting. Such game play rids us of the much reviled 15-minute adventuring day and provides the party with a sense of actual progress and achievement.
Achieving this is, however, hard. “Optimisation” and “character build” have seemingly become the norm in the hobby. It’s hard to tell who started the optimisation race , but it’s inevitable result is that as the PCs get tougher, so do the monsters (or vice versa). In this scenario, most of the encounters have an CR equal or greater than the party’s average level (as most GM like to at least challenge their players) and the party rarely complete more than four or five encounters before resting.
One inevitable consequence of this is that combats take longer to run and feature more complex opponents. The party rarely have an easy fight and consequently every battle is a life and death struggle. Game play is a grind and the party spend a lot of time resting (or they often retreat from the dungeon). Weirdly, the other result of optimisation and the CR system is smaller dungeons as designers create dungeons the PCs can (theoretically) get through without resting.
For Gloamhold, I want something different. I want to embrace the feel of Old School exploration. I want the PCs to wander the gloomy, dusty halls for hours. I want them to poke about in empty or abandoned rooms and spend time actually experiencing Gloamhold instead of simply whacking a long succession of monsters.
To achieve that, I need a plan. I particularly need a plan if other people help me design Gloamhold, in the future.
The following thoughts on CR ranges and frequency of encounters come from several sources.
Obviously, the CR of encounters within Gloamhold will have a direct affect on the party’s ability to explore extensively between resting.
For encounter design, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook suggests the following CR categories:
- Easy: CR = APL -1
- Average: CR = APL
- Challenging: CR = APL +1
- Hard: 15% CR – APL +2
- Epic: 5% CR = APL +3
Similarly, 3rd edition breaks down the CR spread of encounters thusly:
- Easy: CR is lower than the party level. Easy encounters should comprise 10% of total encounters.
- Easy*: These encounters are easy if handled correctly; if not handled properly, this encounter becomes challenging or very difficult. Easy* encounters should comprise 20% of total encounters.
- Challenging: CR equals the party’s level. Challenging encounters should comprise 50% of total encounters.
- Very Difficult:CR is 1-4 higher than the party’s level. Very difficult encounters should comprise 15% of total encounters.
- Overwhelming: CR is 5 or more higher than the party’ s level. Overwhelming encounters should comprise 5% of total encounters.
Using 1st-level characters as an example, a group of four characters using the slow advancement track need 30 CR 1 encounters to reach 2nd-level (assuming no bonus XP for role-playing or story awards). We already know not all encounters will have a CR equal to the party’s level. This means, based on the breakdown of encounters 3rd edition gives us, the CR of any 30 encounters should roughly be:
- Easy: 3
- Easy*: 6
- Challenging: 15
- Very Difficult: 5
- Overwhelming: 1
Using this breakdown of CRs, 24 of the 30 encounters have a CR equal or lower than the party’s CR. This means they’ll be able to handle more encounters and explore more of the complex before they rest.
How Many Rooms Should Be “Empty”?
One of the features of Old School play, is unoccupied rooms. Unoccupied rooms mean larger dungeons, which promotes the exploration style of play.
If every room in the dungeon is stuffed full of opponents, it’s hard for the PCs to make meaningful progress during a delve. If opening every door results in a fight, the party quickly realise this and make their preparations accordingly. Adding empty rooms give the party room to breathe and manoeuvre. It breaks up the style of play by providing options for non-combat dice rolls and even (gasp) roleplaying
1st edition (Appendix A, Random Dungeon Generation) gives us the following frequencies for occupied and non-occupied rooms in a dungeon:
- 60% rooms empty
- 25% monster (with or without treasure)
- 5% special feature
- 5% trapped
- 5% hidden treasure
Assuming the PCs can potentially earn XP in any room that isn’t empty, 40% of the rooms they discover will hold some form of challenge (and be a potential source of XP).
This means, on average the party must explore 75 rooms before they reach 2nd-level. Thus, Gloamhold needs to be huge — with lots of empty or abandoned space — to support multi-level play.