October 27, 2010

Living Dungeon-Part One

This is not a new idea, but it is a new idea for 4E. I’ve been rereading some older modules for a future article and one thing I’ve noticed is what some call the “living dungeon”. This is the notion that when a dungeon is the lair or home of something it should be non-static. It is not a place of numbered rooms waiting for the PCs to kick in the door and kill whatever is listed as being there. This article is about how to write a non-linear, non-static adventure for 4E and includes some new concepts and structures to allow for this.

A tribe of goblins doesn’t sit waiting in a room for the adventurers to come by. They are out raiding the countryside (which is often the catalyst for the players being there in the first place). They are sleeping in the barracks. They are eating what the hunters caught and the cook warmed up in the kitchen. They are on guard patrol, protecting their lair from foul adventurers. They are in the back closet playing a game of dice and hoping they don’t get caught.


I fully understand the concept that an inhabited dungeon is a snapshot in time. The assumption is that the locations of the denizens are coincidentally exactly as the module describes them. If the cook is listed as being in the barracks then that is where he is at exactly the time the adventures decide to invade. This relies on the knowledge that the players do not know where the monsters are located. There is a sort of existentialism involved wherein the monsters do not exist until the players discover them.

However, most modern day 4E modules make no room for what happens if the players leave the dungeon midway through, or sneak a rest in. Logically the monsters are not where they were when the players first entered and yet, the module assumes the monsters are coincidentally in the exact same places as written before. Again the support for this is that the monsters do not exist until the players kick in the door.

This set of base assumptions has lost some of the “old school” crowd. They have long sought to make a dungeon a living, breathing entity based in a form of realism. Long ago they broke off from the static dungeon. As written, 4E dungeons are places of static rooms. This has bred a form of linear dungeon building. After all, who cares if there is a kitchen if it is empty of something for the players to interact with? However, by not including the boring parts, a module can lose a sense of “realism”. An empty kitchen reinforces the concept that this place is full of living beings. It helps the players reconcile themselves with the concepts behind the dungeon, and gives the dungeon and the adventure more depth.

4E is a very structured system and that is one of its greatest strengths. How can we reconcile a living dungeon with the 4E model of structure? 4E sets up its encounter as balanced as possible; the number and level of the opposition is based on the set-up of the party. If we allow for random movement of a dungeon’s inhabitants the possibility exists that an encounter could become overpowered or the reverse becomes true, an encounter is underpowered and thus boring.

How do we build a living dungeon with the 4E system?

The first thing to do is divorce the layout of the dungeon from the inhabitants. When constructing the dungeon, start with the layout. Set up the dungeon as it would appear if it was inhabited by intelligent beings. Even if the dungeon is now a ruin, once upon a time it was built with a purpose and there was an intellect behind it. Rooms should have a purpose other than simply being a location for an encounter. Use your imagination and logic to determine what rooms should be included. There are numerous sources online and in print that deal with rooms that can be found in a dungeon.

Once the layout is done, you can go about adding the inhabitants. Don’t add them to rooms specifically. Create a list of the inhabitants without assigning them to any rooms yet. Here is where you add the main villain, his bodyguards, the shaman who leads them spiritually, the cook, the guards, etc. At this point, to build a true living dungeon, you would make up a list for each inhabitant and detail where they would be at certain times of the day. For example, the shaman may spend the mornings in prayer in the evil chapel, the afternoon visiting the other inhabitants making sure they all are diligent in their devotion, at dinner time he gives a small speech before they all eat, followed by more time in the chapel, with the day ending in his private quarters. Notes are now added detailing where he goes if word has been given that a party of adventurers has invaded and is trying to kill them all. Notice how the shaman is never waiting in a single room waiting for the adventurers to kick in his door and kill him.

This is where we diverge slightly from typical design. 4E is all about balanced encounters (as are all previous incarnations of D&D, but that’s a topic for another article). In order keep that balance we now put the inhabitants into balanced groups. Unlike previous design, where inhabitants are run as individuals, we will be setting up the inhabitants as groups. This is still organic since seldom do people work throughout their day as individuals.

To continue our previous example, the shaman would spend most of his day with a couple of his acolytes and perhaps some devout bodyguards. This would allow for a group of 5 standard monsters, the typical 4E encounter group. You could mix it up and make the shaman an elite and he only travels with his two standard acolytes. Other groups could consist of 5 standard patrol guards, the elite orc chief with his 6 bodyguards (2 standard and 8 minions), an elite overseer with 12 minion miners, etc. The key is to think of the inhabitants as groups instead of individuals.

To further the idea, what happens when the monsters end their day and their group breaks up? The shaman goes to his private room, but the acolytes share a room next door. While there is an illusion of individuality, in reality once an encounter starts, it will take 1 round for the group to balance the encounter. The presence of walls does not mean exclude monsters from being part of an encounter group.

To add some complexity we can use the example of the elite overseer and his 12 minion miners. At the end of their work day, the overseer would change his location and encounter grouping. The elite overseer would go hang out with his fellow elite overseer, forming a new encounter group. The minions would go to the barracks where they meet up with some other minions from another encounter group and they in turn would form a new encounter group consisting of 20 minions.

This all requires a bit more work in the design process than the typical 4E encounter. However, if you miss the concept of the living dungeon, or just want to add some more life and detail to your dungeons, this is a way to go about it.

Tomorrow I'll post a writeup of a dungeon complex that utilizes some of the ideas of this article.
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