Posts Tagged ‘Dungeon’

Hirst Arts III: Design of Modular Dungeon v1

May 14, 2011

We finally decided to pick up two Hirst Arts molds and try building a dungeon.

First up we needed to gather our supplies. And then prepare for the eventual mad construction by casting a lot of blocks. We went to a builder supply and bought dental plaster. Our experience with plaster of paris is that it’s softer and takes longer to set, which offsets the small extra cost of the dental plaster. Ours was less than $50 for a 100 lb bag. If you go to the hardware store you pay about the same amount per pound for dental plaster.

The next step is to plan out what your dungeon will look like. A modular dungeon works best, since you can change the configuration to whatever you want at the time.

The Hirst Arts website has a tutorial on how to make the dungeon pieces. You should check it out, man. What they don’t tell you is that you’ll want a base that’s more rigid and durable than cereal box card. This is because you might pick up the dungeon block by a corner, which means all the weight is supported by a few weak glue joints between blocks. Better to have the weight supported by the base. For that base, we chose 1/8″ thick plywood. You can get it from the hardware store for a tiny fraction of the price of balsa tiles at a craft store. Ours cost $4 for 24 sq feet.

The next part is line-of-sight. For us, it was very important that people sitting next to the table be able to see their figurines in the dungeon without standing up. That meant the standard 1/2″ wall height (two standard bricks high) was too much. We’re doing just one brick high (1/4″). The floor bricks are 1/8″, walls are 1/4″, and lengths are all in 1″ and occasionally 3/4″ for special pieces. So everything fits together very well!

Next we need to actually set out the floorplan.

The website tutorial has three floor bricks across for a standard hallway. That’s 3″. But if you make a hallway piece, you’ll have a wall sitting on top the outside floor bricks. So you have a center row of floor, and a pair of half-inch floor spaces on either side of it. Effectively the hallway is 2″ across. But in reality, you can’t fit two figures in it side by side. So instead we’re counting any half-bricks as non-walkable space. So a dungeon block 3″ across actually only has 1″ of walkable space, and at 25mm scale is 5′ across. This will waste some table space, but it’ll be much easier to use.

We also need intersections. We’ll need a 90-degree corner, a T, and a four-way. We’re making the rooms modular as well. That is, instead of a whole room, we have room pieces. For that purpose we need tiles that have some number of open corners. Check out this diagram:

(Note: this is actually an old unposted post that I edited to reflect what we actually did. We have a second-generation tile configuration and I like it better, but we actually did make the set described here. I’ll update this post with pictures when I take them. I’ll take pictures of the Version 2 set at the same time and make a new post about it.)

Sandbox Within A Sandbox

May 13, 2011

I realized something when I despaired that my sandbox campaign was too far-flung and didn’t have enough cool adventure sites in it, and those adventure sites weren’t expansive enough, so you end up with scattered sites 2-4 (5-mile) hexes apart wherein each location has 1-6 sessions of adventure possibility.

I fixed the first problem by adding random site encounters and expanding random monster encounters on the fly when I roll that the creature was near its lair. These both end up becoming new sites that I add to the map.

I just realized the fix for the second problem. Before I thought of each adventure site as a little nugget based on one or two cool things that I wanted to place. But you have up to 5 miles to explore. Why not design the adventure site like a little sandbox? This follows the module design for Isle of Dread, Lost City, and Dwellers of the Forbidden City. And now that I type this, I realize that I have already dropped a bunch of these down without thinking, and didn’t remember them because I haven’t gone through any effort to develop them yet.

I made the connection when I thought, maybe I need to refine the sandbox arena to a more densely-detailed smaller locale, like a single mountain valley or something. I have some initial notes for a bunch of these campaigns. Why not just cram the valley sandbox into my big sandbox?

I don’t need to be careful about the adventurers getting sidetracked in an offbeat site that has a lot of depth. It happened accidentally with the Sunken Grove, which was the first dungeon explored on the very first game session, plumbed down to Level 3 but not completely explored (chased off by Mushroom Men). The party returned with a different composition later and scoured Level 1 and 2 again, not discovering the entrances to Level 3. Now they’re back.

Dungeon Ecology

November 19, 2009

Some DMs obsess over the ecology of their dungeons – making sure every monster makes sense. Unfortunately, unless you take some pains, you’ll have few large predators. And those are what make the dungeon interesting!

I have a short process by which I can populate a dungeon and have it usually make sense.

The monsters must be Underworld types, or else from the aboveground terrain.
Where else did they come from? Humanoids can travel great distances for their own reasons, but finding a deer in the upper level of a desert dungeon just seems weird.

Make sure they can move around
You want locked doors, because those are fun. And you want traps, for the same reason. But both of these impede the movement of your monsters through the dungeon. You have to assume that if two monsters pass in a narrow corridor they might want to attack each other.

So you need most paths through your dungeon to be open, and you want multiple paths among the same areas. It helps to include small tunnels and pipes that the PCs can use if they have shrinking magic or an expendable Wizard’s familiar, but mostly are used only by tiny monsters.

Start with the plants
The basic food your monsters will eat are plants. Plants can thrive off fertilizer in the form of slain monsters or dead plant material, or just magic and the foul Underworld vapors. Plants there for color include moss, lichen, mushrooms, slime, small ferns, etc. These can be luminescent, taste good, be nutritious for PCs, or maybe are just crummy plants with no good use.

Even if an area is closed off by doors there will be plants there.

Vermin live off the plants
Vermin include spiders, tiny lizards, roaches, snakes, flies, frogs, caterpillars, worms, centipedes, beetles, bats, moles, rats, etc. These eat plants or other vermin. You also don’t need to worry about where they come from unless

Even if an area is closed off by doors there may be many vermin there. But they need a larger space with plenty of plants and other vermin around.

Small monsters live off the vermin and plants
Small herbivorous monsters and small predators will eat plants or vermin, and the carnivores may eat other small monsters. These include the larger snakes, frogs, anything with 1-2 HD really.

These small monsters cannot slip under doors or through tiny cracks. They need small but visible pipes and tunnels to sneak around, or a quite large enclosed area with many plants and vermin, and possibly other small monsters.

Large predators live off small monsters
Large predators (the size of a wolf or bear) will eat small monsters and rarely vermin. Large herbivores don’t tend to survive dungeon life unless they have a way to escape (flight and ceiling space to hide in, or underwater).

Large predators can move through areas the PCs can move through. This is the main reason why you want open/broken doors or just open archways instead of closed and locked doors. Large predators also tend to eat an area clean if they’re trapped in there, and so need to be mobile.

Non-Eating Creatures
Some creatures don’t need to eat. These include Undead, Golems, and some others. It’s worthwhile to scatter these creature types around to pad out the monster density without increasing the large predator ecosystem burden.

Decide what large predators you want in the dungeon. Then add dungeon space and fill it out with small monsters of little consequence. Add to room descriptions information about plants and vermin that will likely be present. Flesh out your random encounter tables with these non-combat encounters.

When you stick a monster in a room, ask how it got there, where it can go next, and what happens when it sits around for a few weeks. For intelligent monsters, ask yourself why it’s there and what changes it will make.

Alternate Ideas
The Deepspawn was created strictly to feed the large predators in the dungeon. Whatever it eats, it will birth in the future. So if it eats a deer, it will spit out deer every few days. This, to me, seems a little too weird to use more than once ever.

In real life salmon swim from streams down to the ocean, eat a bunch of ocean food, then swim upstream again to spawn and die. Their babies live in the stream for a couple years and then swim out to the ocean. This cycle brings nutrients from the ocean back inland and enriches the ecosystem of the stream and areas around it. Consider using monsters that leave the dungeon to hunt. Predators moving from level to level will help move nutrients (and treasure) around.

A profusion of plant life sustained by magic or the Underworld can support a huge small vermin population. Small monsters hang around these “watering hole” areas. This basis should be present in any dungeon with an ecosystem. If you habitually include it, the presence of large predators becomes easy to explain. If the dungeon entrance is a great cave shaft or well covered in vegitation, and the floor of the entrance is teeming with life, it could support the whole first dungeon level’s predators.

Monsters that eat rocks give a reason for more dungeon spaces and also aren’t an ecosystem burden. They can also create environmental hazards (cave-ins, unstable floors) and pathways around the dungeon for small monsters.

Rooms, Planned Encounters, and Random Encounters

October 7, 2009

Let’s say you’re going to write up a dungeon. Or a mega-dungeon. Regardless, you should consider the following structure for how to describe the dungeon once you’ve drawn the map.

Anything static, not likely to change in a few months, should be written in a room description.

Good: Kitchen. Dirty, a few cobwebs, stone counters along the north and west walls, rough wooden table in the center. Against the south wall is a stone oven with an arched space underneath containing tinder, sticks, and some logs (very dry). There is a stone shelf above that where the fire would burn and a metal plate above that where food is cooked. There is a beaten metal chute built into the stove to vent the smoke from the shelf.

Bad: Kitchen. There are two bandits here arguing with the bandit cook. They want a double meat portion but the cook is having none of that, waving his cleaver around and shouting, red-faced. The cook-fire is lit and some potatoes are sizzling on the stove.

If you want to write a guard room, describe the guard room and then note that one encounter of guards will be here at any time. If you wanted to have a chance that the cook is in the kitchen, include a chance of just the cook, a chance that it’s empty, and a chance that it’s a more complex encounter.

Better: Kitchen. (Described as in Good). Roll 1d10. (1) Just assistant, (2) Cook, (3-5) Cook and assistant, (6) One lone bandit scrounging for leftovers, (7) Two bandits, cook, assistant, (8-10) Empty.


Kitchen. (Described as in Good). The cook works from 8-10 AM and from 2-6 PM. The assistant works from 6-10 AM and from 1-6 PM. There is a 1 in 6 chance that a bandit is here harassing the cook for food or just poking around. The assistant is often sent out on short errands (fetch water, more fuel, food from the larder, etc) and will be out for a few minutes on a roll of 1 in 8.

Anything that moves around or that you plan should be written in an encounter description. Encounters can happen anywhere within reason. Place encounters where you feel appropriate, or use one instead of a random encounter when you roll one.

It’s important that not every room be an encounter space. In fact you can get away with not detailing many rooms. Especially in a megadungeon, if you key a cool encounter to a specific room, the PCs may never find it. You can place planned encounters in rooms they pass through even though the room is blank and without description on your map.

Good: Six orc scouts. Equipped and stats as an orc in leather armor, using a short bow, hand axe, and knife. They get into a fight only if they have surprise and a 2:1 advantage. Otherwise they follow to figure out where the intruder is going and report back. They stay together. They’re currently wandering the countryside looking for an escaped Halfling prisoner.

Bad: There is a stone face in the wall with grotesquely carved ears. Anyone passing by who wears metal armor or who is not trying to be quiet will activate the face. It starts yammering and crying for help, spitting and biting anyone who gets too close. It quiets down if nobody is around it for three minutes.

The face should really be a room description – it doesn’t move at all. If you want to use these all over the place, define the alarm face with a map symbol. Keep a list of these “copy and paste” room descriptions separately.

Random Encounters
Some DMs don’t like random encounters. They seem arbitrary and a waste of time. But that’s the point! In earlier versions of D&D, you’d get some XP for slaying monsters but especially at high level you got most of your XP from acquiring treasure. Wandering monsters didn’t carry treasure, but they had treasure in their lairs. So it was beneficial to avoid wandering monsters, get to their lairs to steal the treasure, and get out. Fighting a wandering monster just sapped your resources and wasted your time.

Looked at this way, wandering monsters are essential to a well-functioning D&D game. If you don’t use them, players will waste time, rest constantly to regain just one spell or a couple Hit Points, and sit around making noise at intersections figuring out where to go next. A lack of these habits is a mark of an experienced player.

Your random encounters don’t need to be very complex. If you start to describe anything more than number and type of creature, it’s probably a planned encounter. And that’s fine – if you want to go through that much effort you can have nothing but wandering, randomly-rolled encounters from your planned encounter list.

Simple wandering monsters follow the form “2d6 Orcs” and are mainly to spur the players on and punish a waste of time, excess noise, setting off alarms, etc. As such you don’t need to make them interesting. They are the plain mortar filling in between the stones of your prepared material.

But there’s a problem with wandering monsters. Where do they come from? Some DMs don’t care about dungeon ecology, but you can have a little fun with it. Here’s what I do.

A Little Bit of Process
First, in your dungeon define where the lairs are. Define exactly how many monsters are in each lair. Now you can figure out how much treasure should be there. The lair should hold only half the total number of inhabitants at any one time. Make the lair population about six times the maximum from any wandering encounter.

Say you have lairs for Giant Rats, Zombies, Stirges, and vicious Gnomes. Now you populate your wandering monster chart based on that. Assume the monsters can wander just about anywhere in the level.

When the PCs kill some wandering Giant Rats, remove those numbers from the lair on this level. Eventually they will clear out the nest. You may want a chance that the lair has some leftover creatures anyway: roll the random encounter chance when they find the lair, even if it’s empty, and add in the 1d6 Giant Rats or whatever if an encounter comes up. There will of course be noncombatants there too: women, children, the weak, sick, and old.

In your wandering monster table, include an entry for a non-combat (scary noises, a draft, weird smells, etc), one for a monster from one level above, and one for a monster from one level below. In our previous example, the dungeon could look like this:

Level 1 Random Encounter Table (1 in 1d12, once per hour or per loud incident)
Roll 1d10
1 ) Roll on the table for the wilderness hex aboveground
2 ) 1d6 Giant Rats
3 ) 1d4-1 Zombies (Partial zombie crawling along if zero)
4 ) 1d8 Stirges
5 ) 1d2+4 Gnomes
6 ) Mobile, but harmless, moss or slime
7 ) Overpowering smell of mold
8 ) Sounds of splashing in water or footsteps
9 ) A few normal rats or spiders
10 ) Roll on the table for Level 2

101: The lair of the Giant Rats. (Population 36)
The door to this room has been damaged by water at the bottom and gnawed away by the rats. It’s full of crates that have also been gnawed at and filled with debris. There are sticks, papers, leaves, bones, bits and pieces covering the floor and mounded up around the crates. If any crate is disturbed any rats present will pour out and attack. The following round the rats from the other crates swarm out. The crates (A-F) each hold 1d4 Giant Rats.

One rat in Crate B will not come out. He has a silver armband around his midsection which he wriggled into when he was smaller. He cannot fight back unless you attack him unarmed. The armband is shaped like a coiled snake and is worth 8 GP. Each crate holds 3d6 SP and 6d4 CP.

102: The lair of the Zombies. (Population 18)
This was a prison, then used to just dump bodies into. Most of the room is taken up by a cubic pit 30′ across. Inside there are many bodies, and 1d6+6 zombies trying to claw their way out. A zombie will sometimes return to the room, totter at the edge inexplicably, and fall back in. He then gets up and struggles to the front to get out again for another jaunt.

There is some overlooked treasure, things that were once hidden in a hollow boot heel and the like. But to find it the PCs must search through mounds of rotting corpses, covered in flies and maggots and worse things. Anyone who searches has a 3% chance to contract a skin disease per turn. Every turn of searching there is a 1 in 6 chance of finding a treasure. The treasures include:

A set of lockpicks (30 GP), a silver and gold hip flask (9 GP), a skull with several gold teeth (1 GP total), and a wrought iron holy symbol to the Death God (15 GP).

103: The lair of the Stirges. (Population 48)
A rivulet of fresh water streams down from a crack in the ceiling and leaves the floor around here wet. Roots and vines hang down but no sunlight can be seen. The winding cave leads to the outside and the entire length is the home to a flock of stirges. If anything comes near the entrances above or below the entire flock swarms out at a rate of 1d6+1 per round.

The room also contains the bones and shriveled corpses of a few Giant Rats. In the twisting cave are the bones of a Gnome spelunker. His armor and weapons are horribly rusted out by the water but he has a sparkling gold medallion shaped like an Egyptian Eye of Horus. This is the artifact that the Gnomes are here searching for.

104: The lair of the Gnomes. (Population 12 plus Ephesus)
The upper gallery of this room is accessible by climbing or through the secret door hiding the steep and narrow steps. The Gnomes live up here with makeshift beds and their gear strewn about. They’re priests led by Ephesus Stonefield, a mystic. Ephesus was tasked by his king to find an artifact called the Eye of Argon, stolen by the king’s son. Ephesus used divinations to find this dungeon but hasn’t been able to find exactly where the artifact is.

The Gnomes are priests in a religious sense, but can’t cast spells. Ephesus casts spells as a 4th level Cleric. They’re all priests of the Harvest God. Their lack of combat training, combined with the danger of the dungeon, has led them to send out small patrols in the hopes they can avoid monsters. So far it’s worked alright, but they haven’t gotten much searching done. Ephesus cannot return to his king without the Eye, and he won’t find it for a long time with his current methods.

There will always be a minimum of 6 Gnomes plus Ephesus here. Only two patrols will be out at any time. Even if one doesn’t return, Ephesus will keep 6 Gnomes here. If he somehow gets below 6 Gnomes, he will pack up and leave, choosing exile over death in this dungeon.

Each gnome possesses scalemail, helmet, shield, hammer, dagger, a food ration, wineskin, a bronze holy symbol, flint and steel, a tinderbox, and 1d4 torches. They don’t need torches to see in the dark. Each also has 2d4 SP and 2d4 CP. One Gnome in the lair has a small ruby that he found and hid from Ephesus, worth 50 GP.

Ephesus has chainmail, helmet, shield, a silver hammer, dagger, a food ration, windeskin, a ring that creates small flames (a magical lighter), 2 torches, and a silver holy symbol. He has some treasure, but he hides it from the others in the secret compartment in Area 102b.

The lair contains 60 rations of food, two barrels of fresh water (30 gallons each), a cook pot and some cooking tools, two empty wooden tubs, a small tin bathtub, three buckets, two shovels, a pickaxe, a 10′ pole, a net, some plates and flatware, and some junk from the dungeon that seemed like treasure but turned out to be worthless.

In the wall of the upper gallery there is a stone face with a thrust-out lower jaw and lip. In the open mouth there is a flame that burns metal – the Gnomes feed it scrap metal and broken items. One coin weight lets it burn for several hours. It doesn’t consume air nor release smoke. If magical metal is placed within it will douse the flame, and the secret door behind it will swing open revealing the stairs down to area 104a. The Gnomes have not discovered this.