Check out my Kickstarter project!
Link: Rumors of War Comic Relaunch

I unfortunately misused this post title for yesterday’s entry about a dungeon’s “Reputation” score. Though I removed it with an edit, I know it will show up incorrectly somewhere. This is the post about dungeons and level design.

So, I know I’ve written somewhere before about designing dungeons in a fashion similar to a video game level — there’s a lot of overlap really, and it isn’t a bad idea for a number of reasons. I’m going to see if I can make a list.

First of all, you want to create expectations for your players. I don’t know how I can explain this adequately, but it’s really important to the success of not only the first dungeon you run, but every dungeon after that. Why?

You can’t play with expectations that don’t exist.

I think a lot of game masters get ahead of themselves when they get an idea for the “next” campaign they want to run. I mean, there’s a reason You All Meet In An Inn is a trope — it’s hard to start a new campaign “properly.”

But this can get out of hand quickly if a game master is bent on subverting every expectation the players might have, because then what do they know? It’s hard enough to get players moving toward your prepared material, why complicate matters by messing around with their expectations?

No, to subvert their expectations you must first create expectations. Before-game banter doesn’t count. What you need are adventuring expectations. You have to show your players what “normal” is when it comes from adventuring before you can jerk their chain, or drop them into the middle of the unknown.

That’s part of the reason we use goblins and kobolds at level one.

So, this is why we create formulas and templates for adventure design, and why it’s a good idea to look to good video games for inspiration related to dungeon design. Make sure you have a “beginning, middle, and end” for your dungeons.

This isn’t to say a dungeon should be strictly linear like a level of Mario. No. It should contain the same basic elements however — obstacles and incentives. How will your players know to look for secrets they don’t know are there?

Let’s say that you use my method of rolling for dungeon ability scores, but you only use the “encounters” score — you’ll get between three and eighteen, and you divide that into equal parts monsters, traps, and blank space — after a few fights with no traps or loot, your players will know to look for hazards. Why?

Because you’ve taught them a dungeon has no more than X combat encounters, and that when there are no monsters, a room can be empty or trapped. That’s how you want players to look for traps. You don’t want them checking every hallway, every door. You want some to trigger, and some to be found.

When they’re checking about every third room, you’re doing it right. That’s when you spring your deathtrap dungeon. Or your meat-grinder. You can spring it once the players have some kind expectation that you can exploit.