Friday, February 20, 2009

Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines

Over at the always interesting -- except when they're arguing about politics, ugh -- Knights & Knaves Alehouse, there's a fun thread the offers up some excellent guidelines for designing dungeons à l'ancienne école. Most of them come from remarkable mind of the equally remarkable Trent Foster, with additions by many other fine individuals, including Matt Finch of Swords & Wizardry fame.

None of the elements mentioned below are part of a magic formula. You can include every single one of them and still fail to capture that elusive old school essence. Likewise, many adventures included none of these elements and yet their claim to the old school moniker is beyond dispute. As I say in the title of this entry, these are "guidelines," not requirements. Use them more as a tool for divining the nature of the old school mindset than as a checklist of things you must include in every adventure and you'll find them very useful indeed.

1. Environmental hazards -- slippery floors, rooms that flood, narrow ledges over steep drops, rooms that are excessively hot or cold, rooms or corridors filled with poison (or otherwise magical) gasses, etc.

2. Combat encounters should generally be with baseline (or near-baseline) monsters with difficulty enhanced by the circumstances of the encounter (i.e. monsters have set up ambushes, monsters forcing the PCs to fight in unfavorable surroundings, teams of similar (or dissimilar) monster-types working together, etc.) rather than through templates or class-leveling

3. At least one encounter that if played as a straight combat will totally overmatch the party, but which can be avoided or circumvented by some clever means

4. At least one puzzle, trick, or obstacle that requires the players to figure it out, rather than being solvable by a die-roll

5. At least one item, location, or creature that causes some kind of significant permanent effect (permanently raise/lower stats or hp, permanently change race, gender, or alignment, permanently grant or take away magic items, etc.) determined by a random roll on a table -- with possibilities for both good and bad effects, depending on the roll

6. At least one item of treasure that is cursed or has other detrimental side-effects on the owner/possessor

7. Some sort of "false climax" where inattentive players will think they've won the adventure and either let their guard down or go home, while clever players will realize this couldn't have really been the climax


8. At least one disorienting effect. teleporter, mirror trap, [swiveling] floor, or maze like monster. up is down too.

9. An area where resources are an issue. wet torches or wind blowing them out. oxygen low or having to hold your breath to swim [through] a tunnel.

10. An area that has items of value. but they are too large to transport. or cause someone to have his hands full at an ambush.


11. A creature that appears to be something it is not. Some examples: Lurker above, mimic, [cloaker], wolf in sheep's clothing, doppelganger, gas spore (perhaps my favorite), etc.

12. One encounter (no more, no less) that makes absolutely no logical sense, that the DM completely leaves up to the players' imagination to explain.

18 comments:

  1. >3. At least one encounter that if played as a straight combat will totally overmatch the party, but which can be avoided or circumvented by some clever means<

    Total Party Kill!!!

    >At least one item of treasure that is cursed or has other detrimental side-effects on the owner/possessor<

    I know this is old school, and very common in old D&D, but it just smacks too much of "DM v. Player" to me. It was always so weird to me that Gygax and Co. created something bad for all the things you were forced to do in game play: Listen at a door? Ear Worm! Walk down a corrider? Teleported? Pick up a treasure item? Cursed!

    Just another thing that isn't really a challenge of any kind, or really all the fun for the player (unless it is really really cleverly done - and I would like to actually see some examples of that).

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  2. Quick anecdote on #3 (one overmatched straight combat). Last week I'm playing B1 with my girlfriend and her group encounters an ochre jelly for the first time; basically they don't have any resources to knock it out whatsoever. But fortunately she's smart enough to recognize this and run, and the beautiful thing (for a novice player) is that the ochre jelly is so freakin' slow it's very easy to automatically run away from, once you've made the decision.

    Later on I know this won't be so easy, once opponents have speeds greater than or equal to the armored fighters, so hopefully they'll have to work up more sophisticated means (spikes, dropped food, hold portal, etc.) But as an initial lesson that "running is sometimes warranted" it couldn't have been better. And of course it was more-or-less accidental that it just happened to occur at this time.

    Yay for the slime crew.

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  3. I especially like number 12. The players will always surprise you with what they come up with, and your dungeon experience is enriched without you having to work that one out yourself.

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  4. 11. A creature that appears to be something it is not.

    My favorite example of this is "the bunny on a stump."

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  5. "Use them more as a tool for divining the nature of the old school mindset than as a checklist of things you must include in every adventure and you'll find them very useful indeed."

    Perhaps, but the fact that they so neatly fall into 12 numbered items just screams for them to be used in a d12-based table; perhaps in conjunction with "Appendix A" of the Dungeon Master's Guide? (I can't help it - like Jeff (of Jeff's Gameblog), I'm a big fan of using "Appendix A" as a foundational building block for my home-brew dungeons.

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  6. I think I will translate these 12 points in french soon. It will be furieusement ancienne école...

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  7. Just another thing that isn't really a challenge of any kind, or really all the fun for the player (unless it is really really cleverly done - and I would like to actually see some examples of that).

    I really must disagree here, from a perspective that I've been somewhat more aware of lately (thanks to my own work on "Castle of the Mad Archmage"). Specifically, the old-school game as at least partially an exercise in logistics and attrition (which, now that I write it that way, really speaks to its origins in miniatures wargaming).

    Ear seeker? Hope the cleric thought to memorize cure disease, and for that matter, why didn't you think to pack an ear horn?

    Teleporter? Yeah, it's an occupational hazard. Did you really expect to be able to make perfect maps without having to do a little brain-work to piece 'em together?

    Cursed item? See above re: the choices a 5th+ level cleric has to make when it comes to memorizing spells. Maybe if your party doesn't have a "remove curse" handy, you'll be less inclined to pick up magic items willy-nilly. And if you do, that just presents you with another choice; do we go on, even though the fighter is down his favorite "frost brand" sword, or do we press on anyway?

    Even level-draining undead and rust monsters (favorite whine-generators amongst newer gamers unfamiliar with this dungeoneering trope) fall into this category. "Oh, crap, now the thief is only 5th level. Do we go on, or try to hightail it out of here and pay for a restoration spell?" Or, if that's not an option, you're just faced with a different choice. "Do we stay here on level seven, or try to work on more of level five?"

    It's no more "DM vs. player" than any other element of the game. It's just a challenge that has an oblique element that is often not explored in modern games.

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  8. I don't want to sound like a naysayer - and I want to say up front that I really enjoy your blog (it's a daily stop for me!) and share many of your tastes in gaming - but this effort of late to codify, to find some Platonic ideal, of what "old school" is just seems counter-productive to me.

    I've always thought "old school" meant gaming without boundaries, putting trust in the players and the DM rather than the rules to create a great game, challenging players rather than characters, etc. Lists just seem to erect boundaries where none existed before. To me, the essence of "old school" gaming isn't found in any set formulae or list of essential elements, it's found in the gaming itself, which is why I like reading your Dwimmermount reports, or reading how someone put a classic module to use in their own games.

    I hope you don't think I'm just being negative or judgemental. I'm just puzzled by this impulse to distill something vital and complex and still very much alive to a set of lists or manifestos.

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  9. I hope you don't think I'm just being negative or judgemental.

    Not at all!

    I'm just puzzled by this impulse to distill something vital and complex and still very much alive to a set of lists or manifestos.

    I can speak only for myself on this question, but the reason why I often devote any energy to creating lists and manifestos is because there are lots of people out there for whom "old school" is this mysterious term devoid of meaning. For me, it's the "school" part that's significant, because I firmly believe that there is an animating philosophy that unites both the design and play of certain games, most of which happen to be "old." Many gamers simply don't get that or else deny it and these distillations are intended at least partially for them, as a way of showing just what old school gaming is about. Like all such lists, they're not intended to be exhaustive or even normative but they are meant to be demonstrative.

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  10. >Oh, crap, now the thief is only 5th level. Do we go on, or try to hightail it out of here and pay for a restoration spell?" Or, if that's not an option, you're just faced with a different choice. "Do we stay here on level seven, or try to work on more of level five?<

    Of course, you make a lot of sense for the "authentic" OD&D mindset. Hey, I consider myself old school - but in terms mostly of having been there for the original books through AD&D 1st e. I never got into 2nd edition onwards, but my gaming evolved from a lot of the old "tropes" at the same time the game I loved was doing (but them in a more extreme fashion).

    The worries old school players had to have, for me, started taking up time and energy that could be better spent on role play, things not necessarily having to do with having to have a 10-foot pole or making sure the cleric uses up a spell slot (or, for Christsake, carry an ear protector in his pack) because of some cheesy worm thing living in a door. And rust monsters? Maybe the DM should consider instead giving out less Monty Haul loads of treasure?

    Those tropes are great, and in my way cherish them, but my games starting becoming more fun and popular, especially with the chicks, when I got away from a lot of the annoying little things Gygax though were cute (and I did as well - when I was, like, 14 years old).

    >I've always thought "old school" meant gaming without boundaries, putting trust in the players and the DM rather than the rules to create a great game, challenging players rather than characters, etc. Lists just seem to erect boundaries where none existed before. To me, the essence of "old school" gaming isn't found in any set formulae or list of essential elements, it's found in the gaming itself<

    I agree very much with this. But James M. is making a study of the "tropes" of D&D, and God bless him! Do I want to run a game with most of them? Nope. Do my current players? I don't think so.

    Of course, besides inspiring me to do my own game blog, James is also inpiring me, with his Dwimmermount, to run a "pure" OD&D mini-campaign, with all that old cheese tossed in there (although I don't think I would have my orcs be mutated boars just because some figures based on Hildebrandt calendars came out 25 years ago - although they were superior to the orc figs that came out of the Bakshi LOTR film line. Ugh).

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  11. Hi, James,

    One day and I'm already two posts out of date. I wish I were as prolific! :)

    Thanks for taking the time to address my post. Maybe I'm being too hasty. I guess I'm afraid of such lists becoming prescriptive, marking boundaries and fostering an "us vs. them" mentality.

    In the end, I suppose I should be more like the best of the "old school" proponents (and you are most definitely among them) and put more of my stuff out there to share (I work at a slow pace, but we are producing some useful stuff over at the Citadel of Chaos boards and elsewhere!). Doing as opposed to saying. :)

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  12. I'm with Bruno. It's not that that sort of trickery isn't fun (for the DM at least). It's just that all the time spent preparing could be better spent having fun (or trying to anyway, fun in an RPG is anything but predictable).

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  13. I agree very much with this. But James M. is making a study of the "tropes" of D&D, and God bless him! Do I want to run a game with most of them? Nope. Do my current players? I don't think so.

    Then you, sir, are reading this blog in the spirit in which it's intended. Bonus XP for you!

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  14. Maybe I'm being too hasty. I guess I'm afraid of such lists becoming prescriptive, marking boundaries and fostering an "us vs. them" mentality.

    I don't think you're being hasty. I think you're coming at it from a different perspective than I am and that's cool. I personally like to create lists and make boundaries in order to better explain what I mean by old school play. If I didn't, I suspect I'd have even more people who come to me and say, "Old school is a meaningless term" than I already do. Granted, my approach will always have the danger of being prescriptive and exclusionary and I know I've been guilty of such things on several occasions, but I also think my approach has done more good than bad overall, since people at least know what I mean when I say "old school."

    At the same time, I firmly believe that philosophy must always take a back seat to actual play and it's here that the old school lives and breathes. That's why I make a point of talking about my ongoing OD&D game, including my failures, because I think they're even more important to understanding old school gaming than lists and marking boundaries.

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  15. It's just that all the time spent preparing could be better spent having fun

    For a lot of us, the preparing is part of the fun. Old school D&D is even more a game of logistics and strategy than it is of tactics.

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  16. I'm deeply skeptical of #2. I'm in the reading, running, and reacting to the OD&D manuals, and one thing I've been struck by is the number of template-like and level-like adjustments suggested for monsters.

    For example, any goblin tribe will have a goblin king and 5-30 bodyguards who all fight as hobgoblins.

    Kobolds are treated exactly like a template applied to goblins.

    There's even an arguable implication that orcish leaders are supposed to be statted up with class levels. And so forth.

    Similar rules can be found in the original Monster Manual.

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  17. Cursed items can be very interesting. I rolled up this the other day:

    Sword -2 Cursed, Neutral, Int 9 Ego 2, Detect Gems (number and size), Detect Evil and Detect Gold, Detect Sloping Passages, Empathic

    Now, it sure sucks in combat, but it has great informational use!

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  18. I'm running a 4e game right now, and I would actually really like to throw a rust monster or level drainer at the PCs. I think they'll revolt though. The horror on their faces when I try old school style situations is memorable.

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