Greatest Hits 2009: Taking The Dungeon Out Of Dungeons And Dragons

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on December 27, 2009

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2009. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

The concept of the dungeon crawl has had a great deal of debate since the release of 4e. The design of encounters in 4e, has changed the nature of the dungeon. Rather than a large, traditional-style dungeon that players explore five feet at a time, dungeons in 4e are more about large set piece encounters. The dungeon is little more than a series of hallways connecting the rooms that drive the plot or adventure forward.

The focus of this article was to debate whether the dungeon crawl could be removed in favour of a skill challenge. The article generated a great deal of discussion amongst the community. Looking back on those comments it’s apparent that the community has a great deal of interest in trying out new concepts. It was also apparent that there is a great deal of passion and debate about how this classic aspect of Dungeons & Dragons should be handled.

Without desiring to launch an edition war, we decided to bring this article out of the archives for a second look. There are a great many concepts presented that we at Dungeon’s Master will be following up on in the new year.

From April 7, 2009 Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Taking the Dungeon Out of Dungeons & Dragons.

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.

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