Friday, October 10, 2014

The Dynamic Dungeon, Burning Dungeon Masters Out Since 1977

For many Dungeon Masters the Dynamic Dungeon represents the best of both worlds. Monsters begin the dungeon's exploration in set positions like in the Static Dungeon but then they begin to react to the players' actions as in the Ideal Dungeon; only instead of having to account for each individual's actions the Dungeon Master only has to concern herself with the creatures in close proximity to the players. 

This type of dungeon exploration represents a vastly more complex style of play for the Dungeon Master than the Static Dungeon as the amount of things she must account for expands exponentially.  As a result a glut of materials have been produced, both officially and by enthusiasts, to help Dungeon Masters account for everything from crowd mechanics to guides for figuring out what sort of sculptures are in the dungeon. Without exaggeration there are products that have been produced for practically any possible situation you could encounter in the dungeon's exploration and that's where the trouble for this style of dungeon comes in to play.

Consider for a moment that as a Dungeon Master you invest a substantial amount of your free time into making your games better. You draw maps and work on situational responses to your players actions, filling countless spreadsheets and notebooks up with possible resolutions. You read blogs and articles that offer advice and then you come to the table having spent a significantly greater portion of your time preparing for the game than actually playing it. Then you begin run the game and you're flipping through your innumerable resources trying to apply the correct solution to your players' actions. Suddenly the game really isn't all that fun anymore because you've burnt yourself out. Dynamic Dungeons are incredibly fun to explore for players and Dungeon Masters alike as they offer a greater challenge for each; however, there is a real danger in preparing too much for the exploration of these dungeons. So how do you guard against over preparing and burning yourself out?

The simplest answer is that you have to know the difference between necessary information and the superfluous glut of information that can easily overwhelm you. Learning the difference between the two is often accomplished through the difficult process of actual play experiences and thankfully there are a lot of actual play reports floating about online (see Dyvers Actual Play Reports for some examples), but if you don't want to go reading through the vast swath of play reports circulation about then the best advice I can give you is be flexible and don't marry yourself to any guideline, rule, or chart when determining how to run a dungeon. Remember, you're playing this for fun too and if any of those makes it harder for you to enjoy the experience get rid of them.

Now if you'll excuse me I have to go take a Sharpie to the grapple rules in my 3.5 Player's Handbook.

Feel like you're missing something?
Part 3: The Dynamic Dungeon, Burning Dungeon Masters Out Since 1977


  1. Here's a middle ground solution: If you really want to make a dungeon dynamic--use a published dungeon but add your own favor, and cater to the tastes of your players. That way you don't have to build one completely from scratch, hence risking DM burn out.

    1. Definitely a good solution Stelios!

    2. If you use published modules, you still have significant prep time. You should at least read it thoroughly enough to know what is the purpose of every encounter & trap and what magic items and treasure you are introducing into your campaign. You need to put a bit of thought into what you will do when your players inevitably fail ot follow the author's expectations. I would also strongly suggest that you modify any published scenario to better suit your campaign and your play style. This not only ensures that your players don't get access to any items, spells or other stuff you don't want them to have, it also helps mitigate a major problem with published modules: cheating.

      But it's better to design your own scenarios. Given a bit of imagination (which I often wish I was given a bit more of), and a bit of experience you can often construct your own dungeons faster than you can prep to run someone else's.This has many advantages over 3rd party modules: you can design to your players' strengths & weaknesses, you can use it as part of a plot arc in the larger campaign, no one but you can know what's in it in advance unless they steal your notebook or hack your computer, and you'll be familiar enough with the material to easily adapt to anything the players do.

    3. I also think its better to design your own scenarios--yet if want to go for a completely "dynamic dungeon," just use what's already out there. Make it your own. Save yourself time generating all of those maps, NPCs, monsters, encounters, etc. and put that prep time into making the dungeon dynamic if you so choose.

      The goal is to avoid DM burn out--so you can keep DMing for your players. What's the point of catering to the tastes of your players with your own scenarios if you burn out before your run them?

      This is especially true for "rules heavy systems," like D&D 3.5e with its chunky stat blocks. Let somebody else do the work for you, add the details as you see fit.

    4. "Rules heavy" or not, you don't need full stat-blocks for 90+% of the stuff you run into in a dungeon. Most need only an ID (name or something like "Orc #7), whatever you use (Level/HD/...) to find the right row on the hit & save tables, AC, spec att/def, & hit points. you can mostly combine groups of monsters and just note differences. You only need to fully detail the remaining <10% that are "important".

  2. How many really good dynamic dungeon examples have most DMs actually seen or played in themselves?

    1. I think that is definitely a problem. Sometimes I think that the biggest problem for this hobby is that so often our first examples in how to play the game are from people learning how to play it themselves. So there's misinformation, false expectations established, and a terrible lack of a realistic understanding of what the game is actually capable of doing. People like Monte Cook and Chris Perkins have been going a long way towards changing that by posting some really great live play videos but it does beg the question: are they appealing to new players or are they only seen by people already well ensconced within the hobby?

    2. The Ruined Moathouse in the "Village of Hommlet" could be an example.

      I've played in it. The DM seemed to make it "dynamic" for us players. Years later, after buying the module and reading it for myself, I was amazed at its complexity. I was a little surprised we didn't all die (just my character).

      But now that I think about it: perhaps its more important for the DM to make the dungeon "seem "dynamic" to his or her players rather than have it "be dynamic."

      Isn't that one reason why you have random encounter tables?

  3. For managing a Dynamic Dungeon, I would think the easiest way would be to make it logical. What I mean is, in early adventures, there was a sense of illogical placement of monsters. Why on Faerun would there be an Otyugh in one room, and two orcs in the next?

    Say you're dungeon is actually the underground ruins of an abandoned temple complex that has been taken over by a tribe of orcs. Naturally, the majority of your encounters are going to be orcs, with possibly a few goblins, and maybe some "pets" (like Worgs). Starting from there, you can determine beforehand how the orcs will react to most given situations. That way, when your party encounters orcs, you already know what the orcs will do. And if the party unknowingly bypasses some orcs, you already know how those orcs will react (attack, or raise the alarm). In essence, once you know the general behavior of your resident monsters, determining how they will react to the party in any given situation becomes much easier. As for the mechanics, just recycle stat blocks. No need to stat out every single orc in the tribe.

    Just some basic ideas.

  4. Here is an interesting exercise in dungeon & campaign design, assuming that you have 144 hours to "waste" over the course of the next several weeks/months: Watch the entire tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer from beginning to end. During/After each episode, reverse engineer what you just saw into and adventure module for your hypothetical BtVS RPG. (There are several real ones, but that is irrelevant -- the goal isn't to get bogged down in rules, it is to practice creating interesting and exciting dungeons)

    Describe and/or map each setting. Note the encounter areas. Make a roster of major/minor monsters, treasure and information available to be discovered in each room. Buffy is pretty light on monetary treasure. Mostly they gain items or bits of information that will be useful later.

    Don't make the mistake of trying to railroad the players through the same script as the tv characters, just set up a multi-path dungeon with a few mandatory choke-point battles and a few must-find clues or items that will be needed to succeed in later adventures.

  5. OK, that's it. Look what you've gone and done. Now I need to do a post on this subject myself.

    Gonna quote a huge section outta the middle of this post, and title my entry, "Who does that?"

    Seriously, I love ya man, but you make the Dynamic Dungeon (or its genre equivalent) sound like so much work.

    I'll freely admit that I tend to think of the Static Dungeon (especially those from published, pre-fab adventures/modules) as kinda lazy GMing, so maybe that explains the difference in our perspectives. That said, it just isn't that difficult to create a Dynamic adventure environment.

    Now before anyone (or everyone) thinks I'm trolling, or hating, or some other internet catchphrase-ing, I will tell you that I am not calling anyone who uses a Static Dungeon lazy. I would personally, PERSONALLY, feel like I was being lazy if I designed a dungeon that way. I would feel like I wasn't being the best GM I could be. It would bother me because I would feel, IMO, that I was cheating my players out of the kind of experience they like, look forward to, and expect from me.

    If that is not your group and/or personal dynamic, your dungeons need not be Dynamic. All I am saying (in my somewhat snarky-humor way) is don't avoid the Dynamic Dungeon because you think it's hard, or takes too much time to prep. Avoid it because you and your players don't care for it, or about it. Avoid it because it's not your thing. Please don't wish you could do it, but then look at the remote on the other side of the couch and refuse to change the channel because the remote is 'so far away'.

  6. Who is to say the location of creatures in static dungeons is a snap shot of when the PCs entered the complex? I think each room is a snap shot of when the PCs enter that room, and I don't know what was in the room earlier. So when the PCs are making noise clearing out room 4, the ogre in the next room (5) is not standing around, the ogre is not in that room it is wandering down the hall way, when it heard the PCs, it went into the room 5, to remove the treasure chest, so that's why it's there. When the PCs enter room 5 the ogre is trying to hustle the treasure chest out. If the PCs don't go into room 5 right after 4, say they do some other stuff first then go into room 5. In that case the ogre is in room 5 for a different reason, maybe he is taking a nap. Use the key as written and decide why the creature is in the room based on what the PCs have done, rather than assume the ogre started in the room and then you figure out his response.
    If the PCs do something really strange, like walk around the entire dungeon banging a drum you may have to respond, but for average sorts of noise/activities, assume the key is correct and decide why the creatures are where they are, and it will look/be dynamic for the PCs


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