Sunday, May 1, 2011

Shortcut for Making a Dungeon

To quote the Star Trek character Spock (who was himself borrowing a term from contract law): "Time is of the essence."

I'm running two adventures right now: one for my kids, and another for my grown-up friends. Both adventures involve cities: the former takes place in the ruins of an ancient city buried underground, while the latter takes place in an arboreal city where a terrible biological catastrophe has occurred. Now I don't know about you, but with the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life, it's just not feasible for me to map out a fictitious city, let alone two. A simple dungeon with a few dozen rooms is time-consuming enough; designing an urban landscape and everything that goes with that - landmarks, neighborhoods, subcultures, economies, religions, guilds, etc. - can be quite daunting.

Today I'm going to write about how I'm approaching this task with the kids' game. This is one of those cases where I want it to look to the kids like I've done a lot more preparation than I really have.

I start with a basic concept. No point in blowing valuable time on that, you can't force it anyway. The ideas will come to you when they come to you. If it happens when you're at the office, send yourself an email as a reminder. That's what I do. So in my case, the main idea is a city built within a turtle-shaped monster's carcass. That gives me the basic shape. The other ideas in play are that the ancient civilization was like the Aztecs, and that they had a queen who had a ton of treasure.

Because it's shaped like a turtle, the city is a dome. All that tells me is that the further down you go, the bigger around it gets. The first thing to decide is how many levels there will be, and draw a simple map showing a side view of the city. In the case of the carcass city, I've decided there are seven levels. That's fairly ambitious, and I have my reasons, but you'll see that doesn't really increase my workload too much.

Next step: generate the top level map. Here's where I cheated in a big way: I went to a web site and had it automatically generate the map for me. Not only that, but it also populated the rooms for me. Here is where I went to do that: Donjon. Go on over there and try it out. Just accept the defaults and click the "Construct" button. Not only does it give you a map, but it also populates the dungeon with critters and things. That's exactly what I did, except I changed the parameters before constructing the floor plan. For example, I went with a circular floor plan for obvious reasons.

Next: customize the dungeon. This involves reading what was generated and making sure it makes sense for your adventurers. My kids will be interacting with a race (RPG for "species," not to be confused with the term "race" as we use it in our society) known as the Dark Folk, who aren't dark at all, they just live in dark places. They are pale, smallish, secretive, and filthy. They never discard old clothing, which explains their awful stench, and they explode when killed. These are the guys I've decided are descendants of the ancient queen's subjects. That gives me a little direction on how to play them. So I put them into the constructed dungeon in place of some of the randomly generated fare. I also change up the traps because mine are better. Inventing devious traps is one of the great joys of being the game master. This is something I didn't understand when I was younger, and I'll go into more about traps in a future blog entry.

The skill check DCs were also a little high. For example, stuck doors with a DC 26 (i.e., difficulty challenge 26) to pry loose. That's means a roll of 1d20 + the strength modifier must meet or exceed 26 to unstick the door. It's not very likely the kids will succeed at that. In the old days you had henchmen walking around with you in the dungeons carrying all manner of useful equipment such as iron spikes, crowbars, and ten-foot poles. These would give you a better chance of breaking down doors. Today's kids, though, don't think like that. They can't be troubled with logistics. They just waltz into a dungeon with no helpers at all, carrying just their own weapons and bare necessities. The door is stuck? I whack at it with my sword! So I have to adjust accordingly or they won't even make it from room to room.

That's it! In truth, I don't even look at everything that was generated in advance. It's often better to wing the details on the fly. Sometimes the characters will choose to explore the dullest region of the map, walking down long corridors with dead ends. You'll know when the pace of the game is lagging and it's time to throw the players a challenge. Spice it up with random encounters, or throw a trap or two in there. I take my lead from what transpires when considering further encounters. In the best games, once you get started, the adventures start to write themselves.

The adventure for grown-ups is far more complicated. I'll go into how I'm approaching that one another time.

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