Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Static Dungeon Is the Same, Is the Same, Is the Same . . .

In the beginning we all play with Static Dungeons where the orc in 5A is waiting for us with his treasure chest so that we can pick up 20,000 copper pieces and swim in them like the dungeon exploring Scrooge McDucks we all secretly want to be. Then we get a few dungeons under our belt and suddenly the Static Dungeon becomes a problem filled with Quantum Ogres and that derisive shake of the head from the veteran players as the new kids continue to wade in the shallow end of the pool.

We're shamed away from the simplicity of the Static Dungeon and what happens to so many of us is that we trade the simple pleasure of the Static Dungeon for the complexity and added difficulty of the Dynamic Dungeon. As Dungeon Masters we increase our workload by taking into account the way that sound reverberates in the dungeon or the restlessness of 30 orcs who haven't killed, eaten, or screwed anything in the last four hours. Yet this trade-off begs a question: in increasing the difficulty of the game have we increased the amount of fun we're having?

With the Static Dungeon a lot of the more complex problems that a Dungeon Master encounters are eliminated. The dungeon is stocked ahead of time with treasures, traps, and monsters; only unlike the Dynamic Dungeon, they all stay put. You don't have to pull out a compass and determine if the orcs in 6B can hear the players talking as the walk up hallway 6Q, and if so, how do they react. 6B will be a battle because that's where the orcs are.

Essentially the biggest benefit to running a Static Dungeon is that it allows the Dungeon Master to focus her attention on what the players are actually doing and not on trying to juggle the reactions of her monsters and the motivations of the various factions playing for power within the dungeon (which can be a lot of fun if done correctly). Instead her monsters react to the players in predictable patterns often ascribed in the modules she's running and all the Dungeon Master has to do is follow along. By simplifying the Dungeon Master's responsibilities it allows her to focus on the fun aspects of running and not on the bookkeeping and added complexity that often comes along with the Dynamic Dungeon.

I can't honestly tell you that running a Static Dungeon will be more fun than a Dynamic Dungeon, or attempting to run the Ideal Dungeon; but I can tell you that if adding complexity to the game takes you away from the fun aspects then simplifying your game is the answer. Yes being simpler does mean that running the game is easier, but that doesn't mean you aren't having a good time. 

Now if you'll excuse me, there's a ogre in next room guarding a big ass treasure chest and I forgot to take my money bath this morning. 

Feel like you're missing something?
Part 2: The Static Dungeon Is the Same, Is the Same, Is the Same . . .


  1. I don't know. I think the best dungeons are Static that become Dynamic as you make your way through them. The way I see it, the Static is a "snapshot" dungeon. It is set up how it is for that specific instance. Theoretically, if you were to enter at a different time, it would be set up differently. So, the Static is perfectly fine, and, as you say, less stressful for the DM. But as the players venture through, and interact with the dungeon, there should always be changes and adjustments made. Perhaps the Orc in 6B was guarding the treasure just for a shift. And when his relief comes and finds him dead, and the treasure gone, what happens then? Maybe he flees in fear, or maybe he raises an alarm. Or maybe he ventures off in a lonse quest for vengence on behalf of the closest thing to a friend an Orc ever has.

    These are the kinds of things that make dungeons fun (to me). Consequences. And they don't have to be the result of the butterfly effect. Also, the DM shouldn't look beyond what the PC's will encounter.

    As an aside, if you're going to ascribe the female pronouns to the DM, should she be the Dungeon Mistress? :)

    1. "As an aside, if you're going to ascribe the female pronouns to the DM, should she be the Dungeon Mistress?"

      My wife informed me that I'm not allowed to refer to strange women - especially imaginary ones - as Dungeon Mistress. That woman I married is such a prude!

    2. "Or maybe he ventures off in a lonse quest for vengence on behalf of the closest thing to a friend an Orc ever has."

      And now I have my next D&D character! U_U

  2. I can't use a Dungeon Mistress without paying a hefty price. New York is so expensive! Wait...are talking about...ahem. Nevermind.

    Now, the problem I have always had with Static Dungeons is that once you enter them, and do stuff, they are no longer Static. If they somehow remain static even after contact with a creative group of players and PCs, the game world feels unreal to me. It becomes less a place to find adventure and more an amusement park ride.

  3. "Static Dungeon"--sounds like a decent name for rock band. Or the reverse: "Dungeon Static."

  4. Stasis Dungeon: The dungeon, where everything is frozen till eternity until it is messed with by the players. How do you disern that chest is a mimic, when said chest/mimic is in stasis? How much of the gold can you pilfer, before it's shifting awakens that big as dragon standing posed to strike on it into full combat mode? How can you get to that chest through a room packed full with armed orcs? I like that... ;)

  5. A purely static dungeon will suffer from your "Blair Witch Effect". The inconsistencies will build up until sooner or later every player fails their "willing suspension of disbelief roll" and can't take it seriously anymore.

    You can avoid or at least postpone that by trying to keep the pace fast enough that players don't have time to think about the inconsistencies. Or by giving some thought to the "ecology" and only including traps & monsters that make sense in close proximity to one another. Adding some dynamic elements helps too, like having monsters from nearby areas react to noise (or other cues), or by adding a wandering monster table (preferably a sensibly designed one that draws from the fixed encounter populations, rather than adding random new monsters. But most of all, know your dungeon and be prepared to be flexible.

    Consider one of the best known (and in my opinion one of the best designed) modules of all time: It starts off fairly static, but it has random encounters, all drawn from various fixed encounters. everything fits and makes sense. And you are warned that it will most likely take more than one session and that you should make the surviving dungeon inhabitants regroup and adapt to what players did. All well and good...

    But what if your players object to the way they are railroaded at the start? They are supposed to sneak in a few hours after dark and find the guards passed out and many of the other inhabitants asleep or drunk. But what if they decide the best strategy is to wait till mid-morning then send an elf dressed like Bugs Bunny in drag out to bang on the front door of the Hill Giant Steading and ask to borrow a comically oversized cup of sugar? Are you ready to rewrite half of the module on the fly?


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