Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Dungeon: Know the Warning Signs

The illustrative example from the Cook edition of D&D.
In the grand old OSR tradition, long stairways were a sign for the players that they were moving on to deeper, darker, and more dangerous depths of the dungeon.  The challenges became greater, and the rewards commensurately so, as you penetrated the mysteries of the deep.  The Dungeon* itself sprawls across two dimensions, and the variations in depth occur within levels, not between them.  This calls for alternative means of indicating when characters leave one level and enter another.

In The Dungeon, this is accomplished by varying the architecture and dungeon dressing. Most walls and floors in The Dungeon are manifestation of the malice and cruel imagination of the DungeonGod whose will created The Dungeon in the first place, but they area as chaotic as you'd expect from an entity of that nature.  Some walls are formed as natural caverns (Levels 1, 6, 8, and 9), and some are tunnels of smooth rock (Levels 2, 3, and most of 5), while others take the form of fitted stones or stone blocks mortared in place.

Despite these variations (detailed further in each level description), some general rules of thumb do apply.  Unless otherwise noted:
  • Hallways are generally ten feet wide and ten feet tall.   
  • Rooms (with doors) have ceilings 15 feet tall.
  • Chambers (any large room with a column, archway, statue, or any other feature that justifies more headspace) have ceilings at least 20 feet high, and possibly taller.
  • Caverns range in height, but generally the wider a cavern is, the taller it's roof will be.  Remember that the walls slope up at an angle with the highest point somewhere near the center, and that most large chambers will have ceilings higher than simple torch light can penetrate.  Flying creatures like wyverns and gargoyles know this, and they will take appropriate advantage.
Every time players (and their avatars) cross the threshold of a new level, there is another architectural clue present to indicate the change.  Every level is separated by a dramatic feature - a heavy locked door, a strong portcullis, a wide of water, to name a few examples.  In most cases, the denizens of The Dungeon have ways around or through these barriers that the characters do not, but this is a living dungeon, and the players may spark inter-level conflict when they crack open a seal between levels.  As always, suggestions are detailed in the respective sections, but use your head - there are others waiting for an intrepid DM to discover or create.

Since The Dungeon sprawls about with little rhyme or reason, it is possible for characters to wander into troubles greater than they can handle.  Most of the level breaks have built in safeties - you can't get directly from Level 1 to Level 4 without cracking a door wizard locked at the 2nd level (requiring a 4th level knock spell) or fighting a strong beast that can't leave the water (and thus can't pursue characters who know all about the better part of valor).  This isn't always the case, so smart players will expeditiously retreat to safer areas in the face of overwhelming force.

* This dungeon really does need a better name.  In my lazy moments I tell myself that naming the dungeon is a job for the players, or that it will arise organically during the design process.  For the sake of simplicity, this particular dungeon will have the boring but descriptive proper name The Dungeon, whereas a general hole in the ground with monsters and gold will use the lower-case 'dungeon'.

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