Tuesday, March 2, 2021

General Rules for Dungeon Designers

Jon Salway recently pointed out Ken St. Andre's "general rules for dungeon designers" from the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls (1975), which I reproduce below.

For the benefit of those, like myself, whose eyesight isn't as good as it used to be, these general rules are, as follows:
  1. Let your imagination run wild. You can do anything you want to.
  2. Put in a lot of stuff. Nobody wants to mess around in a dull dungeon.
  3. Use as much humor as you can, but don’t be silly or juvenile.
  4. The deeper the dungeon, the more dangerous it should be.
  5. Every trap or spell should have some way of being avoided, nullified, or overcome. You need not tell people how to save themselves, but there should be a way. It is definitely not fair to teleport everybody who enters your solar room into the heart of the sun.
There's nothing here that I think is controversial, with the possible exception of point 3. Many people, myself included, are wary of overt humor in RPG material (with certain exceptions, obviously) and not unreasonably. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever participated in a game session that wasn't regularly punctuated by laughter, puns, in-game jokes, and other tomfoolery – nor would I wish to do so. At the same time, one of my longstanding objections to T&T is that it veers a little too close to the "silly or juvenile" that St. Andre wisely warns against (take a look at the spell names, for example). 

Point 2 is where I think St. Andre is really on to something. In a dungeon-centric campaign, it's vital that there be "a lot of stuff" in the dungeon in order to hold the players' attention and encourage them to spend more time in the place. Of course, "stuff" isn't just limited to monsters, treasures, and traps. I imagine things like factions and long-term mysteries. Frankly, those are two elements I'd consider important for any type of campaign, but they're especially important in dungeons, I believe, in order to avoid the inevitable boredom that might otherwise creep in after kicking open the doors of untold rooms on multiple levels over many weeks or months. 

Can anyone recall similar sorts of dungeon design rules from other RPGs? I enjoy reading advice like this, doubly so if it reflects the thoughts of someone who had a reputation for being a good referee (and Ken St. Andre is one such person).

14 comments:

  1. IMO, T&T 1E is a must read for any fan of the original days of our hobby, whether they intend to play the T&T game or not. It is a brilliant reaction to (O)D&D, and yet still has some good advice for the D&D player/referee.

    I do agree though about the "silly" nature of some things in T&T and his advice to the contrary.

    Not too many games back then that I recall gave much advice on being a D/GM or designing dungeons. In a similar casual manner as Ken, Hargrave's Arduin Trilogy was chock full of such advice scattered throughout the volumes (and often delivered with a bit of arrogance). The Arduin Adventure's rules for a dungeon/adventure "script" were quite good for a new DM, though it was a bit later on when that book was released.

    Even early RQ had very little advice on designing/running adventures/dungeons.

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    1. Well, you said pretty much everything I was going to say (I was even going to bring up Arduin, which was an eye-opener for me in some ways). So, um, agreed. :)

      The imp of the perverse in me makes me want to design a dungeon where the solar room does, in fact teleport the party into the heart of the sun - while warding them against the environment and giving them an opportunity to explore a truly alien environment and find a way back. :)

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  2. "Put in a lot of stuff. Nobody wants to mess around in a dull dungeon".
    Maybe I misunderstood the sentence but I see a criticism of the first edition of D&D and the dungeons with only a third of the rooms full of monsters and only a sixth of the empty rooms with a treasure. I've always liked empty dungeons and prefer the D&D design.

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    1. You might be right. If so, like you, I would disagree with St. Andre's assertion. I think empty rooms are very important.

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    2. Part of it might be different expectations of scale (since we didn't have a concrete example of what Gygax had in mind with those OD&D ratios). From what I remember, T&T dungeons tended to have a lot fewer rooms per level than Greyhawk Castle: there might be 12 rooms on a level, in which case it makes sense that 10 of them are occupied or otherwise interesting. By contrast, Greyhawk Castle (as we now know from having seen some of the maps) likely had more like 100 rooms per level, of which 20 are occupied or interesting. Still the same amount of total interesting stuff (twice as much, in fact) but in the D&D paradigm finding that interesting stuff was considered part of the challenge, whereas KSA seems to have been more eager to just cut to the chase. The irony is that the KSA paradigm ultimately won out and is closer to what even Gygax presented in the module era than his original sparsely-opulated dungeon mazes.

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    3. I like "fantastic realism", i.e. a beholder, an orc tribe and a dragon need a damn good reason for living next door in rooms 1, 2 and 3 without wasting each other, but why wading through empty spaces with "3 copper pieces", "a dead rat", or "2 copper pieces and a dead rat" constitutes realistic or mature play is beyond me.

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  3. Nice piece to write on. I, like others, agree with your comments on point #3. Your description about the ubiquitous use of humor also rings true in my experience as well. TabelleCasuali might be right regarding the implied criticism, but who knows. Although this might be a later anachronistic understanding of "empty rooms" in early D&D, I do not consider empty rooms necessarily empty of stuff to explore and examine, just empty of monsters and/or treasure.

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  4. 6. It's ok to let treasure go unfound.

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  5. I agree with KSA’s advice 100%. Like you, I have never participated in a session where puns and in-jokes and all kinds of humor were not encouraged. When I was younger, I was a little stuffier about playing “serious” D&D, but these days I embrace the humor wholeheartedly. I think it’s part of D&D’s DNA, and I don’t even care if it veers into the silly or juvenile. IMO T&T strikes a good balance. Also, unlike some of the other commenters,
    for the most part I dislike empty rooms, except in the sense someone mentioned above, where they are empty of monsters and treasure, but still contain an interesting detail or two to check out, even if it is very minor. But I do always put in a few truly empty rooms; I feel they’re even spookier when they are rare.

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    1. Sticking in a few rooms that are truly empty (in the sense of having no unusual features at all, not necessarily barren stone boxes) also keeps your players from building expectations about every single room being a puzzle or challenge of some kind. Kind of a bad habit to get into, that - they start getting obsessive about "not missing anything" IME.

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    2. Some of this depends on your players. some players want Serious Stuff, and other just want to talk in funny voices. For me tho, remember that the Dungeon is the original Killer App for RPGs, and he is telling you to get in there and get it moving.

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  6. One idea that has worked for me lately is to to not always pre-solved the scenario for the players. I call it "Locks without keys".

    I am surprised that, when I construct a tough (but logical within the setting) situation, my player's almost always come up with innovative solutions that cut the Gordian Knot.

    You don't have to bake #5 into each adn ever scenario if your players are moving through an extended campaign because they bring a lot with them.

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  7. I think Ken disliked the empty rooms common in early D&D. His take on fantasy rpg has always been very much the Marvel style Conan the Barbarian, with eerie locales, odd sorcerers, weird monsters and lots of action. Well, Marvel style.

    I kind of agree, as I find many of the empty rooms just to be time sinks. Players will want to search and prod them, and as there's nothing there you will just spend time doing boring stuff. That being said, rooms with out combat or traps might still be filled with something. A ruined hall within a temple with bloody marks of a body being dragged into that dark hole beneath the altar is not "empty".

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  8. I don't dislike empty rooms in dungeons, as long as they are not actually empty rooms, but rooms that have a purpose, a room PCs can use to heal wounds or sleep, mainly.

    But yeah, I like and follow Ken's advice, and I use a lot of humor, but the darker side of it. Ken's advice wounds weird considering T&T has a lot of silly and even juvenile humor, so maybe he means something different by the words silly and juvenile.

    What I don't like are 'factions'. I don't like people living in abandoned dungeons PCs go exploring, that doesn't make sense to me (and I adon't try to shoehorn sense into my dungeons, I just add what 'feels' natural. If by faction one mean the feral cats and by the other faction one means the mutated mice, both of whic are not people but monsters, one hunting the other, then sure, factions are fine. But if by faction one means the fascists and the tankies, then no, I don't like that in my dungeons. I like factions in the overland world.

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