Taking the Dungeon Out of Dungeons and Dragons

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on April 7, 2009

Throughout the life-cycle of Dungeons & Dragons, dungeons have been evolving. Recent discussion around the RPG Bloggers Network has revolved around the Mega-Dungeon. The nostalgia brought up from this discussion is fantastic and brings to mind memories of exploring vast labyrinths. For that matter, it reminds me of playing The Bard’s Tale on my Commodore, but I digress.

Recently, Ameron has written about dungeons. He’s covered the topic through a skill challenge and as a DM aide on pacing the adventure. His articles got me thinking about dungeons and the place they hold in the game. First and foremost I’m not advocating that dungeons be removed from our great game and that we rename it Dragons. I do think there is a case to be made towards handling dungeons in a different manner and the mechanics of 4e lend themselves to it.

As D&D has evolved, so too have the dungeons that grace the adventures in various modules in supplements. In 4e, dungeons are little more than large rooms built for combat that are connected by corridors. The corridors only exist to connect the large rooms; they are no longer the setting for pit traps, random encounters or developing cartography skills. This brings me to Ameron’s article on pacing and begs the question, if the corridor’s only purpose is to connect two rooms containing combat encounters, is the corridor necessary? Why shouldn’t we skip the slow parts?

Next we look at Ameron’s skill challenge where the PCs are required to work their way deeper into a dungeon to find a lost treasure. Here Ameron uses the mechanics of the skill challenge to replace the party moving through the dungeon square by square.

Now, you might argue that removing the crawl from the dungeon takes the suspense and anticipation out of the adventure. I would respectfully argue that replacing the dungeon crawl with a skill challenge could yield just as much excitement and intrigue. The amount of prep work for the DM is about the same.

Imagine that the corridors in your dungeon have a pit trap, a dart trap and a swarm of rats that needs to be dealt with all outside of a combat encounter. A difficulty level is selected, in this instance a level 3 skill challenge might be appropriate (8 successes, before 3 failures). Then the appropriate skills are selected; Athletics, Dungeoneering, Perception and Thievery are likely candidates for this challenge.

Failed checks carry consequences beyond just a failure towards the overall challenge. Loss of healing surges, damage and conditions that can’t be ended until the PCs take an extended rest. This makes every skill check a risky proposition where the PCs wonder what the results will be. Suddenly crawling through the corridors has the PCs on the edge of their seats as they attempt to navigate the skill challenge. This is only one way of setting up the challenge; perhaps several smaller challenges would be more suitable.

Eliminating the square by square movement through dungeons won’t be for every group, but I believe that the mechanics of 4e allow for alternatives to moving through dungeons. What are your thoughts on dungeons crawls? Do you think that skill challenges can replace the physical dungeon crawl? Let us know your thoughts.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jonathan April 7, 2009 at 8:57 am

This is an interesting idea… “We search for the tomb of Arkanhotep”… skill challenge starts.. each failure is another room where the mummy is NOT. I like it – very doable. Dungeon maps could instead become a series of interconnected room, with the connections being nothing more than a flow chart.

On a somewhat unrelated note: you might be interested in Jonathan Drain’s The Invisible Dungeon. Food for thought.

2 Dungeon April 7, 2009 at 9:14 am

This is “mind breaking.” it is a good concept, however, with just skills used to explore a dungeon, it might not feel the same. the DM would (i would think) have a little less work to do then if they brought a minuture battle mat. This would involve the players imaginations more, but for old school players (me), this idea may scare them. the pace of the dungeon would more than likely be faster and get players to the action, but i don’t know.
I could see myself using skills to go through certain parts of a dungeon, but i cannot say i’d like using this method for all of it.
the article Don’t Skip the Slow Parts by Ameron could use this to speed up the pace for rooms that have little or no treasure, no monsters and no traps.
that would be one reason/way i would use this.
but guys… don’t get rid of the DUNGEON.

3 Wimwick April 7, 2009 at 9:37 am

@ Jonathan
Thanks for the link, I’ll be sure to give the article a read. Skill Challenges are an area of the game that Wizards hasn’t really developed in a formal way and I think that a good balance could be found by implementing them into dungeon crawls in a meaningful way.

@ Dungeon
I agree with you, it wouldn’t feel the same and I don’t think that the concept would work for every group. I do think the idea has merit and is worth exploring further. Don’t worry though the dungeon isn’t going anywhere, otherwise we’d all have to retire our PCs and where would the Dragon live?

4 The Recursion King April 7, 2009 at 9:43 am

I also remember The Bards Tale very fondly and I think that reducing a dungeon to a bunch of skill checks is going to kill your game. You see, part of the fun of dungeon crawling is *exploring* the unknown. By all means, include obstacles, traps, puzzles and skill checks as part of this; but to reduce it the experience to just one of these elements will make for a very poor experience in comparison, imho.

5 kaeosdad April 7, 2009 at 11:39 am

Now, you might argue that removing the crawl from the dungeon takes the suspense and anticipation out of the adventure. I would respectfully argue that replacing the dungeon crawl with a skill challenge could yield just as much excitement and intrigue. The amount of prep work for the DM is about the same.

I’ve tried this a bunch of times already and it turns it into a bored game. It felt like we were just fast forwarding to all the good parts. You might argue that we didn’t do it right but we’ve tried it a few different ways and even my DM tried it a couple of times. It turns the game into a story teller type of game, and if that’s the feel you want then that’s what you’re getting into.

I dropped skill checks with my new campaign. They should have designed skill challenges for crafting, professions, and entertain in my opinion.

6 Ameron April 7, 2009 at 2:21 pm

@The Recursion King
I think the point Wimwick is trying to make is that the boring parts of going from room to room can be made more exciting by turning it into a skill challenge. I agree that eliminating the crawl entirely from a dungeon crawl would indeed hurt the game.

We’re glad you found us. Thanks for your comment.

The group Wimwick and I play with has made great strides to increasing the amount of role-playing over the past few years. Our games used to be nothing more than glorified board games, just like you’ve describes.

I think the key is to find balance. Don’t slow down the game by making the PCs play out every square of every corridor. But at the same time don’t just jump from room to room. The use of battle maps and minis has minimized the number of encounters that take place in the hallways and passages. DMs shouldn’t forget that encounters don’t have to take place in large rooms with obstacles and terrain.

7 Ambrose April 8, 2009 at 12:34 am

Mechanistically, I think it’s fantastic that we can move through the dungeon using skill chalenges, but it misses a big part of the point, in a dungeon, that being the atmosphere. If I were exploring a dungeon, as a player, I would want to know my surroundings very well(You’d be amazed how many traps can be disabled with the aid of a wall-mounted torch). Kicking down the door without knowing what the room your in looks like is just sequential wargaming, in my opinion, which can be fun, but a good GM can make exploration as exciting as combat.

Wow, I sounded really douche-y and elitist there. I promise I didn’t mean it that way. Like I always remind myself, it’s just a game, having fun is the important thing.

8 Dungeon April 8, 2009 at 9:31 am

The skill checks to go through a dungeon should more than likely be used for, say “boring parts” or rooms with nothing in it. but the only problem? what may be boring to the DM could be exciting to the players.

DM: “umm… as you pass by the cobblestone corridor, you find an old bucket tipped over. let’s fast forward a bit… roll dungeoneering.”
Player: “wait! a bucket?”
DM: “um, yeah a bucket. now let’s move on…”
Player: “wait! the bucket must be awesomely powerful. let’s examine the bucket guys.”
Other party members: “yeah.”
Player: “I pick up the bucket and hurl it down the corridor.”
DM: “guys! let us fast forward to the next area. remember? you have to save the princess.”
Player: “who cares about the princess! there’s a bucket on the floor. it could be magical.”
DM: *sigh*

I know this is a bad example, but hopefully you get my point. it is okay to use the skill checks to fast forward things that may be boring, but keep in mind that the players might like going through that boring area.

9 Ameron April 8, 2009 at 10:30 am

You’ve raised a good point. I think it’s all about doing what the group thinks will be the most fun. I’d encourage groups to try a skill challenge in place of the dungeon crawl, but if they don’t like it then they should go back to what works.

And don’t worry; I understood your comment for what it was. But thanks for clarifying.

What’s sad (and funny) is that my group would do exactly what you’ve described if they came across a bucket in the hallway. In fact, someone would eventually wear it as a helmet, guaranteed.

But in all seriousness, I see your point. This is where the DM really needs to decide if he thinks the PCs will enjoy a traditional dungeon crawl or if they might get more value out of trying a skill challenge as a different approach.

In the example above, a Perception check would quickly reveal that it’s just an ordinary bucket. But a Dungeoneering check might reveal a clue that the subterranean race you’re expecting to meet in the dungeon often sets up traps to alert them of approaching PCs. So the bucket might be part of a very simple early warning system.

10 Chase Dagger April 9, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Boring parts? What boring parts?

The sections that connect my dungeons are about 6 squares, or a hole in the ground/ceiling with a latter. Maybe some think that’s unrealistic for a dungeon but that’s how entertainment works. A TV show doesn’t show every waking moment of the character’s lives (not even reality TV), it’s concentrated so the audience doesn’t get bored.

When the DM builds a dungeon they have complete control over the environment, this means the DM can and should customize settings of the area in a detailed way, it’s like the DM guide says don’t just make a maze with a bunch of dead ends. Take advantage of this control and have some fun at least one, trap, monster, puzzle, reward, or a piece of storyline.

Don’t get me wrong skill challenges are awesome and can be used very well to include a way of movement. Thing is I only use skill challenges as movement when the area of movement is very vast, repetitive, or boring in some way (remember my dungeons should not be falling into this category.) If the characters: Head out to sea, across a desert, corn field, in to a snow blizzard, up a mountain, into a dense fog, etc. This is when it’s skill challenge time. This way I have the control I need to keep the game running appropriately in an environment that is too hard and or boring to build with props.

One of my formulas is to include a skill challenge that leads to the dungeon.

So in conclusion I think skill challenges are lame to have in a dungeon (because there are too many other fun opportunities to take advantage of), however in much larger environments or sections leading up to the actual dungeon Skill Challenges are perfect way to speed up time, but add cool obstacles along the way.

That’s my 2 cents.

11 Ameron April 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

@Chase Dagger
I agree that when creating a dungeon it doesn’t have to be an architectural masterpiece. It should serve the purpose that you, the DM, have in store for your campaign. You have free license to do whatever it takes in order to make the game fun and exciting. However, if you’re using a pre-generated map (from a module of Dungeon magazine) you sometimes get stuck with long corridors or empty rooms. It’s these scenarios that we’re really taking about when we encourage the use of skill challenges in place of “boring” or “slow” parts.

Using skill challenges when the party needs to travel for long periods of time or cover vast distances is a great idea. I fact we have a skill challenge in our library called On the Road that you may find useful.

12 Chase Dagger April 10, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Thanks Ameron, I love the skill challenges on this site, it’s a great feature, I’ll be sure to use this one, as well as other ones I’ve seen on this site.

I wasn’t aware of these long corridors, and empty rooms in pre-generated maps (mind you I don’t like random dungeon building tools, and whenever I use a magazine or adventure books, I always end up manipulating it anyway.)

I don’t disagree that something should be done to eliminate or spice up a slow boring part, regardless of where it occurs. Skill challenges make a lot of sense. But like someone already mentioned best to look at the audience and pick what fits best.

13 Wimwick April 19, 2009 at 6:15 pm

My thanks to Ameron for handling the comments, I’m currently vacationing in the UK and finally have some time to look in on the site. I’m not going to address any individual comments as I feel that Ameron has done a great job of that.

The intention of the article was to raise a discussion on different ways we can view Dungeons and how the mechanics of 4e allow us to do this. A big part of why Dungeon’s Master was created was to foster this type of dialogue and get different view points from the community. Thanks for all the feedback!

14 Jared Spurbeck April 29, 2009 at 8:59 pm

I think Keith Baker covered his take on dungeons pretty well in this Eberron article! His advice boiled down to “Skip the slow parts,” “Have fewer encounters and make them more interesting,” and “Have the parts outside of the dungeon be just as interesting.”

I think Eberron should’ve been the default setting of 4th Edition. ^.^;

15 Elizabeth Barrette September 23, 2009 at 3:43 am

I’d say fast-forward past the parts that you and your players aren’t interested in. If you’re doing a dungeon at all, it’s probably because you LIKE dungeons. A fast-forward might be useful occasionally (“There are HOW many hundred flights of stairs?!”) but most of the time you’d want to enjoy the journey. Also, condensing the dungeon would undercut worldbuilding, because you’d lose a lot of the detail and navigation process. If you don’t care about worldbuilding, that’s no loss; but a lot of people consider it a key reason for playing.

Know what you like and what you don’t. Condense what your gang considers dull to get to the good stuff. Don’t skimp on the good stuff.
.-= Elizabeth Barrette´s last blog ..Weekend Meet-n-Greet 9-19-09 =-.

16 Mike September 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm

After reading many of the sample skill challenges, I’ve been wondering if a skill challenge or challenges could be imbedded into the adventure rather than always treated as a distinct group of actions. I think your article says “yes” to this ideal.

Why couldn’t the challenges be built into the dungeon setting.

Ex. ” The cleric’s uncanny observational skills found the secret door (perception-success), but the lock proved beyond the thief’s skill (thievery-failure).
That left it up to Thunk the barbarian. With a roar, he crashed through the door (Athletics-.success). And so on.

The dungeon is there but a planned out set of challenges defines the action. Success or failure helps direct the PC’s

Perhaps the barbarian’s crashing through the door was the last Success needed in a skill challenge leading to the Hidden Tomb they went into the stinky old dungeon for to begin with.

17 Wimwick September 29, 2009 at 8:10 pm

@ Jared Spurbeck
I’m a big fan of changes that Keith Baker brought to D&D in terms of making encounters more exciting and meaningful.

@ Elizabeth Barrette
I think you cut to the heart of the matter, do what is fun for you and your group. If crawling through a dungeon 5′ at a time works, then do it. If not change things up and do something that does work!

@ Mike
Bang on, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. We can dispense with physical maps and instead rely on PCs to be PCs. Creative DMs can then take these actions and create an on the fly skill challenge that rewards the PCs for moving from encounter to encounter. For DMs that want to be more elaborate they can flush out full skill challenges to cover these actions.

18 Will February 14, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I really like the ideas here. I’m not really a 4E player, but I think the principle can be applied to just about any game. I think it would also makes things more interesting for DMs like me who have difficulty creating cartographically interesting dungeons. Thanks for an insightful article.
.-= Will´s last blog ..Upcoming (Not Dead Yet!) =-.

19 Mike Karkabe-Olson March 5, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Here’s another technique I use to great effect that you may want to explore: using skill challenges in place of the old-school techniques of random encounter rolls used with random encounter tables. If they fail the challenge, they have a “random” encounter at some point along their travels that results from their failed checks. If they succeed, they avoid any “random” encounters along those same travels. A succession of such skill challenges can also be used to represent the possibility of numerous random encounters.

For instance, when a group of PCs spend X amount of time in a dungeon or environment, or they move through specific trigger points I’ve determined, or they travel a specific distance or are faced with a specific decision on where to go next (i.e. a fork in the road), I require them to make a skill check roll that may or may not influence their decision or decisions (a success gives them some useful information to act upon, a failure gives them useless or wrong information to act upon, or even harmful information, but I leave it up to them on how they wish to act to all this information/disinformation). Sometimes, these are specific checks that I require for that instance; other times, it is whatever skill they choose to use, as long as they can make a sensible case for using it (i.e. they might choose to make a perception check to see which passage has more tracks leading in and out of it, or a dungeoneering check to determine which path will likely provide the path of least resistance).

If they succeed in the skill challenge overall, the overall information I give them (no matter how they choose to act upon it) basically results in them taking the path of least resistance toward their goal (no “random encounter”). Perhaps they even see some evidence of how their wonderful decisions have helped them out (i.e. navigating into a side passage that overlooks the other tunnel you might have chosen, you now see a massive troop of 20 goblins tramping up the other passage toward where you had been before. Luckily, though, it looks like you have avoided this encounter as long as you remain still for a bit). You can even include a few narratives of the bad decisions (failed rolls) they made, like “in this passage you see a lot of goblin refuse, which leads you to believe your last decision to turn down this tunnel may be the wrong one and has lead you closer to their habitation.”

If they fail the skill challenge overall, though, the information conversely results in them making a major screw up (having a “random encounter”). I then take the opportunity to incorporate their bad decisions into a narrated outcome: i.e. the tunnel now appears to be heading deeper into a warmer area (if they failed a failed dungeoneering check), possibly a hotbed for goblins, and now you are wondering if you made a wrong turn. And, as they stealthily try to find a different route (if they also failed a perception check as part of that same challenge), “you are surprised by an attack while heading into the next tunnel” (give the goblins a surprise round). If they also failed a history check on some strange glyphs results in them getting a wrong translation as to what clan the goblins belong to, you might mention now that the insignia the goblins are wearing are actually from a known hostile clan mentioned in the glyphs and that you had thought the glyphs said that clan was an ancient one, and long ago destroyed–that now appears to have been wrong.

20 JEB March 8, 2010 at 3:04 am

Ahhh! Nostalgia!! Bard’s Tale and Dungeon crawls. I remember me and a couple of friends playing Bard’s Tale on the C64 on hot summer days until the floppy literary melted from the heat … I kid you not!! ;-)

@Mike I believe you have really hit upon how to use Skill challenges in a crawl … I recently played a modified Gangs of Wheloon game with my PC’s and for the first time I felt that skill challenges really worked … and the recipe was quite like the one you describe.
For the first time I felt that the Skil challenge engaged the players to come up with alternate skills to use instead of just rolling a dice and the rest calling out to aid the player …

For the first time DM’ing 4th ed I believe that Skill challenges really can work … I have felt that it has potential but haven’t been able to put it to good use until now …

So my advice to other DM’s who struggle is: don’t give up … keep on reading these great articles and find a way to make skill challenges interesting! :-)

It is often more rewarding than “just another” combat encounter …

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