I’m working on a sandbox adventure: lots of things in it, ways to deal with those things, and paths to travel between them. You could spend a lot of time ignoring the main dungeon or you could go straight to it.
How do you make the game interesting for players whether they encounter the Troll Bridge at level 1 or level 5? Another way someone might phrase that is, how do you balance the encounter and the loot? Here’s my take on this.
1: Not everything will be a combat encounter. If the creature is too tough or weak compared to the PCs it may turn into a chase or parley instead.
2a: If there is a fight: If the PCs are underleveled for the encounter, they will have a hard time with it. It might feel like a boss fight. They may turn away from the area, considering it too difficult right now, or may press ahead and use consumable, nonrenewable resources to overcome the encounter. When they eventually deal with it, they’ll get good XP and loot, perhaps beyond their normal expectations, and that will help boost them up to the level they should be in that area.
2b: If the PCs are overleveled for the fight, they’ll blow through the monsters quickly, get bad XP and loot which won’t change their power level much, and move on through to a higher-level area.
What if the higher level party doesn’t experience the area the same way because it’s too easy? But what if the underleveled party experiences a high level area as more harrowing and exciting than it would be at-level? I think the potential for the latter is worth the risk of the former.
Let’s say there’s a main dungeon, and to reach it you can go through a big nasty front door leading to Level 3, or go through an unguarded air vent to Level 1, or a very deadly pit leading all the way down to Level 6. Novice PCs will want to head in through the air vent because Level 3 is too tough for them. But once they’re higher level, even if they haven’t cleared out levels 1 and 2, they might just take the shortcut at the front door to save time and wandering monster rolls.
Now let’s say instead of just a different entrance, you have a pre-dungeon that leads into Level 3 and another that leads into Level 6. The PCs may not realize they lead to the main dungeon yet. When you enter the first pre-dungeon you find Level 1 difficulty, ramping up to Level 3 difficulty by the time you reach the main dungeon and pop into it at Level 3. Seamless! Same with the other pre-dungeon, where you enter at Level 2 difficulty and it ramps up to Level 6 difficulty just before it spills into the main dungeon. A faster increase, and more dangerous because player won’t as easily spot the higher level stuff in the pre-dungeon.
I love this method, and have used it in two adventures now.
In one, I had four 3-level pre-dungeons with a portal in the bottom of each, leading to the main dungeon, which started at difficulty Level 4 and didn’t have any direct connection to the surface. The idea was you could go through any of the four and get to the bottom, and then if you wanted to explore the other three, you could go in from the exterior top entrance as usual, or head across the portal room and enter another dungeon’s Level 3 portal room to get to the hardest part of it immediately. Each pre-dungeon was ruled by a high-level villain, and to protect himself from other villains each would fortify his portal room, making the fight very entertaining for the PCs. The players in my game explored two of the pre-dungeons but never took advantage of the portals to skip the upper levels of the second one, and never set foot into pre-dungeons 3 and 4. They just decided eventually to follow the clues back to the overworld where they gathered things they needed to banish and/or control the boss and reached the end of the adventure.
It worked well, but a party at level 7 or 8 entering a new dungeon and working their way down would have been tedious. Much quicker than a Level 3 party doing it, but it still takes time.
My second adventure using this method is the one I’m working on now. In it, there is a super dangerous and obvious entrance, a secret side entrance that’s actually pretty dangerous too, a pair of side entrances leading to a lower level that nobody will likely find except from the inside (meaning you probably have to reach the level and leave by the side exit to find the entrance), and – this is the important part – two pre-dungeon paths that don’t seem connected to the main dungeon.
I decided it might be cool to have the local awful human racist bandit/adventurer band discover the other pre-dungeon that the PCs don’t find, and explore it at roughly the same rate the players explore theirs. This gives me a reason to have these antagonists present themselves in the main dungeon rather than just being a camp in the woods and an entry on the random wilderness encounter lists.
Will the PCs fight them, considering them claimjumpers and unwilling to share loot that might be found in the dungeon? Will the PCs (some non-human in this case) overcome their revusion at the bandits’ attitudes and work together? Will they partition the dungeon somehow and try to avoid each other? And regardless of their political decision, what happens when they encounter each other in the dark, desperate corridors when one party of another may be injured or loaded with loot?
But you all may have an opinion on whether this is just annoying. Does it feel like having the NPCs explore the dungeon too is just taking away adventure opportunities from the players? Nobody wants to feel like someone else is eating his sandwich. But maybe this is a good spur to get them excited to get into the dungeon?
What do you think?