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Dungeons Part Two: What Players Want

July 17, 2014

One of the strengths of dungeon or map-based tabletop games is that it provides you with a nice set of prepared material to run play with.  The players go somewhere, and stuff happens based on that – you’re never having to consider issues like story pacing or scene cutting in the same way for games that are not location based.

As I said in Dungeons Part One, just because everyone wants a “dungeon crawl” still doesn’t mean they want the same kind of game.  The focus or balance of Exploration, Logistics and Tactics means you not only need to run a dungeon differently, but the kind of material you should prep vs. leave out is also very different.  And the answer is not just “prep as much as possible”, because you have to also make the information something you can navigate and use easily – plus the reality is why spend hours prepping material you’re not going to use?

Start from the goal: find out what your players want from this game, then figure out what information you’ll need in play based on that.

What the Players Want

Fighting

  • Fights should be: balanced to meet the player characters / might be unmatched to the party
  • Fights should be: avoided / sought out
  • Fights are: rare / regular

Threat

  • Threats are well balanced to the party
  • Threats might be too powerful for the party to deal with right away
  • Some threats may be too dangerous, overall

Logistics

  • Supplies are not really an issue, they’re background color to play
  • Supplies are a minor issue, as long as you bought enough food, that’s fine
  • Supplies are a significant issue – track food and torches, etc.

Exploration

  • Player characters should try to explore everything / prioritize and pick what to explore
  • Secret doors, treasure, and traps will be: obvious / depending on dice rolls/ require explicit declarations of inspecting/investigating/searching
  • Players are expected to draw a detailed map / the GM will provide/show a map as play goes on / players do not need to worry about making specific navigation choices during play

Searching/interacting

  • Assumed competence – the GM assumes the characters are cautious, searching, etc.
  • General narration – if the players say their searching a room, the GM assumes it is a good and relatively through job
  • Specific narration – the players must describe exactly how they’re searching/interacting with any object for it to be true.

Gotchas

  • There will/will not be anything that can kill/incapacitate you instantly, by surprise
  • There will/will not be any poisoned/cursed/trapped objects
  • Traps/hazards will be absent / rare / common and/or absolutely lethal
  • No mercy: the walls, floor, ceiling, doors and treasure chests all might want to eat you.

Social

  • Players should/should not try to negotiate with intelligent monsters, creatures, or NPCs.
  • The party of PCs should always work together/sometimes/might betray each other utterly.
  • Players are/are not expected to roleplay the lives of characters outside of adventuring

As a Group

Now, you could sit down with this full list and run your whole group through it, though I suspect unless they’re theory-heads and excited to do a long haul dungeon crawl, it’s not going to actually get them excited but rather kill some of their enthusiasm and not provide enough value for the amount of time it takes.  The important thing to do is to start by sussing out what excites people from the Exploration/Logistics/Tactics side and then try to narrow down with some of these ideas.

When it comes down to “Ok, everyone, let’s play a dungeon crawl” conversation as a commitment, then lay out some of these ideas as you plan on going with (with some room for modification) but primarily as a way of communicating the expectations of this to folks.

“Hey, talking to everyone, no one really likes traps in games, so in this game, they’re only going to show up as big puzzle ‘death traps’ to solve when they do.  I know Quinn likes tactical combat, and Jono likes the strategy of sneaking around, so we’ll have a bit of both – there’ll be fights but there’s also going to be fights to run from or avoid.” etc.

You may notice that some games or adventure modules are designed in certain ways or modules set up that hits specific combinations on that Exploration/Logistics/Tactics ratio, and these serve as ways to get players on the same page quickly and easily – “Tomb of Horrors” already preps everyone to be in a deathtrap dungeon mentality, while Torchbearer is a game about Logistics management.  You can also see people make manifestos or movements as ways to formalize these preferences – Fourthcore, E6, “Rulings not Rules” etc.

Wants -> Play Estimates -> Prep Needs

If you know what your players want in their game, you can start making good estimates on how much play will come from what kind of preparation.   A combat focused game might simply require 3 combat encounters to prep and then you’ve got a full session from that.  Another game might involve 2-4 traps spread across 8 rooms and some interesting descriptions and you know the players will spend t a lot of time searching, poking and prodding things.

Part of that will also be you figuring out how much of your prep work deals with mechanics (writing down monster stats, drawing maps for detailed positioning, etc.) and how much of the prep is more about creative spark and inspiration (memorable descriptions, personalities, etc.)

All of this means you can become very efficient with your prep – prepping just the right kind of material when you create a dungeon, knowing how much you need to prepare in advance vs. deal with later vs. improvise on the spot, and what kind of resources you can use as inspiration/places to steal ideas from.   This also means if your game falls apart or goes on hiatus, you lost 1 session of prep, and not a month of prep work languishing in a notebook to probably be forgotten when you next run the game.

You’re not just designing the dungeon for the players to play, you’re also designing the dungeon for you to run, and these are both important.

Next up: Running a Dungeon

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