The Evolution of the Dungeon Encounter

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 5, 2010

“Hey what dat noise?”

“What noise dat you talk’n bout Oloorin?”

“Sounds like fight’n, maybe we go see?”

“Wha you talk’n bout? We have important job, we guard chest in 10 x 10 room. We stay put.”

“Uh… ok, if you say. What we do if someone come through dat door?”

“Probably we die. Dat da life of two orcs guarding chest in room.”

Sound familiar? Ok, maybe I’ve gone a bit too far with some stereotypes, but how many DMs have designed a dungeon that had a room with a few monster that just waited for the door to open?

Guilty as charged. Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve done something like that in a dungeon and there are a few reasons for it. Mainly it’s becasue dungeons are changing. In 4e there just aren’t enough rooms in the dungeons to support a room with two orcs and a chest. In fact you could argue that dungeons as they once existed are no longer present in the current edition of D&D. For more on this read our article on Taking the Dungeon Out of D&D.

In looking at how dungeons have evolved with editions we’ve gone from large complex dungeon systems with multiple rooms of different dimensions, connected by long winding corridors to dungeons with 3 large rooms connected only by a requiste corridor as seen in the Dungeon Delves. Where once that corridor was the site of pit traps and wandering monsters. All of that has changed with 4e where traps are now a part of set encounters and wandering monsters tables aren’t even in the DMG.

Now part of me misses the old school dungeon crawls. I miss taking the dungeon one square of the map at a time, killing orcs that guarded random rooms and wondering if the chest was really a mimic. However, as much as I might miss those days I recognize it’s nostalgia talking and I don’t really want to go back. I’m not interested in dungeons that respond like bad video games where the monsters in the next room don’t attack because they are out of the aggro range.

One of the aspects I like in 4e that I’ve seen more of recently is combat occurring in waves. The D&D Championships have used this format and Ameron has been adapting them to the encounters in our current campaign. The addition of minions in 4e lends itself to this, in that not every new combatant is going to take multiple hits to kill. Having new combatants enter combat in subsequent rounds also simulates the fact that the dungeon is alive. Monsters are aware of what’s occurring in the next room and react accordingly.

Now some argue that encounters in 4e take to long complete, combat is to complicated. However, when you consider set encounters that have higher meaning than 100 rooms that are filled with various monsters waiting to be discovered, advancing through a dungeon takes less time. So really what’s the difference?

Of course there is no reason why so called old school dungeons can’t be adapted and used in 4e. In fact, encounters could be set up in the same fashion. For me I enjoy the sense of mystery that new combatants entering the encounter provides.

Do you enjoy encounters as they are laid out in 4e or do you prefer the larger sprawling dungeons from older editions?

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1 Michael March 5, 2010 at 10:40 am

We’ve talked about this a lot in our home groups. It seems 4e has completely removed the idea of the trivial encounter. By trivial, I mean, an encounter like bumping into two guards in a hall, or one kobold at a watchpost. This includes monsters such as wandering monsters that are not part of “planned” encounters. As a player… I’ve found I’m accepting of the new style, but as a DM I find 4e much more frustrating to run because of it… and that’s been the experience of our other local DM as well.

2 Liam March 5, 2010 at 11:13 am

I’m glad that the dungeon has changed. In my experience the sprawling dungeon with random encounters only suits a particular kind of D&D player. Unless you have a table of people who just love to roll the dice and take pride in their attack scores, random Kolbolds #4-12 offer little more to the experience than #1-3 did. To be honest there’s a lot of people whose idea of a good time isn’t generating random numbers.

On the other hand I’ve found a lot of 4e dungeons and other settings quite lacking. I remeber preparing a LFR mod where the first encounter was in a 8X10 room with two squares of rubble, one set of doors, and no windows. The encounter was supposed to be in a theatre. How do they get the matrials for the sets in? Where does the audience sit? Why does this “theatre” lack all of the characteristics of a theatre?

I think the rules are in place in 4e to make good dungeon crawls. If you’re trying to create the feel of a winding crazy complex, fill these rooms with minions and have people hack through the encounter and make it cinimatic rather than tactical. Make some of them super minions, the kind that allways die on the second hit, no matter how hard they got hit the first time. Pre roll initiative so that you can get the fight on quickly, come up with one feature that makes the room cool to fight in and then let the PCs go at it for 15 minutes and move on to the next room. You would get the same feel in your play as an old school dungeon crawl without having to grate up 1,000 hit points of identical goblins.

3 greywulf March 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I love 4e’s new encounter system. It breaks away from the idea that encounter=room meaning I can build an encounter that’s spread over a much larger area than before. For one dungeon I had five internlinked rooms each each contained levers to operate doors in adjacent rooms. That kind of setup is easy to build in 4e as it all counts as one Encounter.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you putting a couple or orcs or a lone goblin in a corridor all alone in 4e – perhaps it’s a forward scout for a later encounter, or a lure into level-appropriate traps 😀 The lone goblin could also be a Skill Challenge – can you catch him before he alerts the rest of the dungeon?

And sometimes, a lone goblin is just a lone goblin. It’s all XP, right?

Then there’s this:

Level 1 Encounter (XP 500)
– 2 Orc Raiders
– Whirling Blades (triggered when chest is opened)

Tee hee.

4 Mike Karkabe-Olson March 5, 2010 at 7:11 pm

(this is reprinted from a response I also placed on “taking the dungeon out of D&D” post mentioned above)

Here’s another technique I use to great effect that you may want to explore that blends the two philosophies: 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 the same skill challenge regarding some strange glyphs they saw earlier that resulted 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 those glyphs and that they had thought those glyphs said that the clan was an ancient one, and long ago destroyed. But that now appears to have been wrong.

5 Wimwick March 5, 2010 at 10:00 pm

@ Michael
Agreed and good ridance. I don’t miss random encounters in the least. Every encounter should serve to assist in moving the plot forward in some way.

@ Liam
There is great potential within 4e to build large sprawling dungeons. As you said with the use of minions, rooms can empty and more monsters can join the encounter in subsequent rounds. As for encounter design, well that’s up to the individual DM to ensure that his maps are up to snuff.

@ greywulf
Great encounter, I may have to use that some time.

@ Mike Karkabe-Olson
My thoughts on dungeons are simply to create the encounters and not really worry about the passageways that connect them together. They are secondary to the experience and if required flavour text can take care of it.

6 Geek Ken March 6, 2010 at 8:47 am

Nice post. I’ve definitely had to rethink how I make my dungeons. At first I was laying them out much like I used to in AD&D. I realized I had to change that quite a bit as 4E seemed to trim down the encounters to larger, dynamic fights. I’ve really had to rethink away from the simple layouts I used before to making a fight tactically interesting. Is it better? I don’t know. But I will say an old school hackfest would make for boring encounters in 4E. I think combats now really thrive having hazards, terrain, and a lot more maneuvering over the previous editions.
.-= Geek Ken´s last blog ..DM TIp: Insight is not a lie detector. =-.

7 Syrsuro March 6, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Although I don’t necessarily wish for a return to the sprawling, meaningless dungeons of yesteryear, I regret the loss of a sense of exploration in 4E.

And yes, I blame it on the length of the encounters. Going back a decade or two, an adventure might have involved multiple battles – but those battles may well have only taken up half of the time spent “adventuring”. The remainder was spent exploring – sending the thief ahead to scout, looking for traps, deciding which way to go, etc (not to mention interacting with NPCs and the environment).

This sense of “What lies ahead and which way should we go?” has been largely lost in 4E (and entirely lost in the RPGA).

And yes – even the much maligned random encounter has a place here. Note – these ‘random’ encounters really ought to be anything but random. They ought to be closely tied to the inhabitants of the complex and encountering them should a) tell the players something about who lives there and b) possibly carry consequences, either good (the players can use what they learn to their advantage) or bad (the encounter weakens the characters and potentially makes their presence knowns).

And one major change to the game that has fed into this loss is the emerging focus on “encounter balance”. In the ‘old days’ the party had no real assurance that whatever lay ahead of them would a) reward them in proportion to the risk or b) even be a winnable fight. Because of this – it was well worth the parties time to find out what was in that room before opening the door, whether that meant carefully listening at the door, scouting ahead or even (at higher levels) using divination magic.

Nowadays, the presumption (if not the rule) is that every encounter is carefully balanced for the parties capabilities, as are the rewards. Whatever is behind that door will be neither too easy to be worth the time, nor too difficult to defeat. And when they are done they will find their bundles of loot, carefully apportioned to make sure that they are always property equipped for whatever is coming next. (And no matter what the creature type, you know that its level has been modified to bring it down to your level. Orcus standing outside of town? Must be a develed avatar. Kobolds ambushing your epic level character? Must be one of those special epic level kobolds.)

I am working on trying to break these preconceptions in the minds of my players, as well as modifying the math to keep encounters challenging while at the same time speeding them up enough to leave time for something besides hopping on the rails running from encounter to encounter. Whether this really can be done in a game system where a one hour encounter is a quick encounter remains to be seen.

And as for “My thoughts on dungeons are simply to create the encounters and not really worry about the passageways that connect them together. They are secondary to the experience and if required flavour text can take care of it.” – as you can imagine, I wholeheartedly disagree.

Might as well watch LoTR (or any other movie) with your hand on the Fast Forward button so you can skip from battle scene to battle scene.

Also: “I don’t know. But I will say an old school hackfest would make for boring encounters in 4E. I think combats now really thrive having hazards, terrain, and a lot more maneuvering over the previous editions.”

Those are two unrelated sentences. The idea of an ‘oldschool hackfest’ is perfectly compatible with hazards, terrain and manuevering. You can have one, the other, both or neither.


8 Lobe June 9, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I’ve been putting together a sandbox style world and been having problems with random encounters. I think Carl nailed one aspect of 4E that has been bothering me: The idea that the fight is always balanced to the party. Where’s the drama when you know that the fight has been carefully crafted to make sure you don’t lose?

I think with my world I’m going to throw in the odd encounter that is just too much for the party. If you see a black dragon, it’s not a de-leveled black dragon… it’s a f&^%$ Black Dragon! You had better learn to run.

Which brings me to my question: How to go about giving an indication to the group that the fight may be too tough for them? Maybe as part of monster knowledge? Maybe you don’t give them the exact encounter level/XP value, but some indication about the encounter’s level vs. party level? “This could be a tough group to fight.” “You know that black dragons are extremely powerful and deadly.”


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