Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus

August 15, 2010

Zones

The basic building block of a D&D adventure is the encounter. An adventure is really just a series of connected encounters. The encounters themselves can be connected by a map (as in a dungeon), narrative (as in an event-driven game with a flowchart), or by a player actions (as in an adventure using a structure skill challenge).

Slaughterhouse adds an extra layer of design: the zone. In order to understand what a zone is and why it is useful, we must turn to intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran. See? I’m going somewhere with that title.

Samus Aran is the star of Nintendo’s Metroid video game series. In Metroid and in other games that are a part of the subgenre that has become known as Metroidvania games (TV Tropes link, click at your own risk), the player explores a single, large, open map. There is generally no single sequence that will get you through the game. Instead, you can explore the map in any order you wish barring certain barriers you can only overcome at specific points during the game. Does this sound familiar?

The Zones of Super Metroid

The Zones of Super Metroid, Roughly

In order to provide a logical order and sense of structure to the map, it is divided into several thematic regions. The alien planet Zebes in Super Metroid, for instance, is divided into a large jungle region called Brinstar, a series of lava-filled caves called Norfair, and a series of flooded tunnels called Maridia. There are several more regions. The zones themselves are self-contained but also have numerous connections to other zones. Each zone could be thought of as its own miniature dungeon with multiple entrances and exits.

As a side note, there are some other things that Metroidvania style games do extremely well that I am borrowing for my super dungeon and I am sure I will discuss them in more detail later. Right now, the important thing is to understand that you break the map of the game down into a bunch of interconnected blocks.

Slaughterhouse works the same way. The idea is to break your map down into several territories or zones. Each zone should be self-contained, but it should have several entrances and exits leading to other zones. Each zone should also be pretty contiguous in terms of terrain and flavor because the zones become useful tools for placing terrain and hazards.

In my super dungeon, for instance, I might have a zone called “The Sulphurous Pits,” a set of caves near a gate to the Nine Hells. I know that devils wander the region, along with their worshipers and thralls, and I might also create one or two terrain effects (noxious geysers that spout randomly or clouds of hellwasp larva ) that I can place throughout the region.

Your zone map will become an important tool for laying out your adventure. Because each zone has only a limited number of ways in and out, you can map each zone separately and simply make sure the entrances and exits line up. That’s if you are building a dungeon.

On the other hand, your zones map might just be the map. For instance, if you’re using the example of the city that has been overrun by gangs, you aren’t going to map it like a dungeon. Instead, the zones are the districts of the city (and a few key locations) and the players will travel within and between the zones using narrative description or skill challenges. In that case, instead of a big map of the zone, you would probably just prepare a few tactical maps for each zone that you can use as needed (a street in the slums, an alley in the temple district, a market, etc.).

Each zone needs space for four to five to encounters and, because of that, you need twice as many zones as experience levels you plan to cover. This means that each zone is about the right size that it could be covered in one adventuring day. It will probably not always work out that way in play because the party will be wandering from one zone to another. The idea is to make sure that when the party decides to make a dedicate push into a zone (to conquer it), they can do it.

Zone Map of Ur'Gunna Dy

A Zone Map of Ur'Gunna Dy

In my super dungeon, I have approximately sixty different zones. In fact, I have so many that I have grouped them together into regions. I had to do that to ensure the party couldn’t easily wander into a zone much higher than their own level. Again, this comes back to some of the other ideas stolen from Metroid involving traffic control and interconnectedness. For a more moderate adventure (one spanning up to five levels), you shouldn’t have to worry over these things too much.

I should also note that in my super dungeon, each of my zones contains room for more than five encounters. Most have room for eight to ten encounters. I did this because I wanted to leave empty areas on the map. For more information on why this is important, check out Greg Bilsland’s recent blog entry “My Dungeon Has Empty Rooms” (check out all of his articles, he’s a smart guy and, unlike me, an actual professional game designer). I also left white space because I wanted the opportunity to move encounters around so that, on a later visit, the party could be surprised when a formerly empty room was suddenly home to a clutch of Acid-Breathing Doom Drakes. Again, that gives the sense of the dungeon being a living place in which creatures wander.

Alternate Zone Map of Ur'Gunna Dy

An Alternate Zone Map of Ur'Gunna Dy

But let’s use a more modest example for the rest of this discussion. I am going to design a Slaughterhouse based on a ruined city that the party will explore. The ancient City of Ur’Gunna Dy was a part of the Empire of Bael Turath. I expect the party to start at level 5 and gain enough experience to reach about level 9.

The first step is to decide on my zones and to lay them out. Well, the first step is to come up with the story hook that brings them to the city and decide whether or not they will have any quests that drive them to do specific things or if they are simply exploring because it is there and filled with treasure and experience. But we’re going to assume I’ve already done that. They are simply trying to reclaim the city.

I begin by coming up with a list of eight zones (because the adventure spans four levels). Most of them will be districts in the city, but there are a few other sites they can explore as well. For example, I come up with The Noble Quarter, The Artisan Quarter, The Market Quarter, and The Slums. There is also an old Fortress, a Palace, an infernal Temple, and Sewers.

I sketch out a quick blocky map of the zones. If I am feeling really saucy, I can even try to make it look more like a city layout. It doesn’t matter.

When it comes time to map the adventure, I decide that the four quarters of the city don’t need dungeon maps. Instead, they are going to involve skill challenges in which the party explores while trying not to draw too much attention to themselves as in Adventure HS1: The Slaying Stone by Logan Bonner (an excellent example of non-linear adventure design with some very fun encounters).

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44 Responses to Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus

  1. Armchair DM on August 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Are you kidding me? Are you FREAKING kidding ?

    I’m totally loving this system… It’s elegant,it has a sandboxy feel, it’s awesome.

    It seems more WoW or “Gold Box” D&D to me.

  2. Mark on August 16, 2010 at 9:14 am

    This is so fantastic. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Mordheim, but this has a really similar style: the abandoned city with factions vying for control. I want to run a game like this now!

  3. Michael on August 16, 2010 at 9:52 am

    This utterly kicks ass for sandboxing. It will give my own free roaming campaign plot-lines a further brutal shove in the Angry DM direction ;)

  4. the Jester on August 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Wow, this is simply fantastic. I’m going to use it for my next megadungeon for sure, and probably for big wilderness sandbox areas as well. Thank you so much for this system- well done!

  5. Slimboy on August 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    You, sir, are a wizard! You’ve crystallized an idea that’s been pinging around in my skull for some time! Amazing. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to co-DM with a friend for some time, and this might just do the trick. You need to publish, sir. We need fresh voices in the Adventure-Building market! Good job!

  6. Giving Places Character | Geek Related on August 17, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    [...] Posted on August 17, 2010 by mxyzplk| Leave a comment I read a really great article called “Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus” by the Angry DM that is really good and describes his “Slaughterhouse” system [...]

  7. user@example.com on August 18, 2010 at 7:19 am

    I just put together a quick-and-lazy PDF of this so I can keep it handy as a single file and print a copy for reference. I love the zone stats.

    I think I’ll be reading your site from now on!

  8. Flacco on August 18, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    I really love this whole system, and I am developing my own version, where different fractions are fighting about a barony.

    I am also thinking about adding something else: Consequences that affect a whole faction, when having an Outpost somewhere, for example: If the orcs are holding the Mines near the City, they gain access to better weapons, making the faction stronger (maybe a bonus to AC or attack rolls)

    Or if the Human Freedom-Fighters gain power over the University-Distrit and its Alchemy-Labors, some of them start carrying alchemists fire, and so on, what do you think about this idea?

  9. The Angry DM on August 18, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Hey, everyone, thanks for showing up and commenting and stuff. I’d say it warms the cockles of my heart, but I haven’t got a heart and cockle sounds lewd. And none of you are warming any of my lewd bits, that’s for sure.

    Mr. User@Example – whom I shall call AFGNCAAP (look it up) – I’ve been encouraged by a couple of folks to do a PDF presentation and it might be in the future, but I’m also lazy, so we’ll see. Anyhow, I’m more than happy to see you thought it valuable enough to waste paper and printer ink on. Just please give me credit if you share it around. I’ve got a tremendous ego.

    Flacco – I think its a damned fine idea and you should run with it. Makes perfect sense and, again, brings the environment to life. That’s the most important part. When the PCs help the Freedom Fighters liberate Bobs Alchemical Emporium, they will be gratified to see a real in game effect.

    • Charles on May 3, 2013 at 6:19 pm

      Gravity is actually the weakest force.

      Just through I’d be a dick and point that out.

      • The Angry DM on May 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm

        Would it be dickish of me to point out “powerful” is not synonymous with “strongest?” One is a nice, vanilla adjective and one is a superlative. I sure hope so. Because dicks beget dicks.

        I am quite aware that gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces, but it is still extremely powerful, especially on a macroscopic scale, because gravity is always additive and because it operates over such long distances. Well, theoretically always additive, given the current hints that gravity may become repulsive at extremely long distances.

        Anyhoo, thanks for the constructive comments! Maybe work on that reading comprehension, though.

  10. Ms user@example.com on August 19, 2010 at 12:32 am

    I wasn’t planning on sharing it other than by linking people here, I just pasted the whole lot in word and spent five minutes tidying the formatting up. 14 pages, for the record.

    Thankfully I have to leave for work in a minute, so I was spared the usual hours of reading TV Tropes you tried to give me.

  11. The Angry DM on August 19, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    I see now I used a gendered prefix and I apoligize Ms. AFFCAAP. I was mainly just making an ego joke. Please share it around. I put it out here because I want people to enjoy it. Also, the ego thing.

    Yep, 14 pages seems right. I typed it up in Word first and I think I was at 13.

  12. [...] latest offering, “Giving Places Character“, inspired by the Angry DM’s article “Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus”, expands on the concept of city stat blocks originally introduced in D&D [...]

  13. 1of3 on August 24, 2010 at 3:34 am

    Very interesting. I’ll at least show it around.

    To make a suggestion, I’d lay down methods on how the players can learn the details of the zone cards. It’s one of the prime questions that I always miss in published adventures: When the PCs question this or that goon, what can they learn?

    With this set-up DCs for knowledge checks might also come in handy.

  14. [...] sent me the Angry DM’s slaughterhouse system of region/campaign building. The system is inspired by zoned video games like Metroid and provides [...]

  15. Carl on September 2, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    I absolutely admire your post…brilliant. I’m gonna use this on my next campaign.

    Sorry to ask here, but I don’t find anywhere else to: is there an RSS feed to catch all your updates on this blog? I’m following more than 50 D&D blogs on Google Reader and don’t want to have to use bookmarks on top of it. :)

    Thanks and keep up the good (great) work.

  16. The Angry DM on September 2, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Hey Carl, thanks for the compliments. As it happens, there is, in fact a Feed. Its: http://angrydm.com/feed/ . There is also a seperate Feed just for the comments. Its: http://angrydm.com/comments/feed/ .

  17. Gedanken über Dungeonsoziologie « Rorschachhamster on September 16, 2010 at 3:21 am

    [...] sogar das Layout des Dungeon. Irgendwie bin ich auf einen Artikel des Angry DMs gestoßen, der, LinkyLink, eine gewisse Struktur für die Bewohner und Zonen eines solchen großem Dungeons vorstellt – [...]

  18. William C. Pfaff on October 16, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Speaking completely without hyperbole or sarcasm, I can honestly say this is the most single useful piece of DM advice I’ve read in at least five years. You sir need to be nominated for something…an Ennie, a Nobel Prize for RPGing, something! Kudos and my players and I thank you for the incredible effort! I’m making wholesale use of this in my next campaign with very little modification…simply brilliant stuff!

  19. Ben on December 17, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Bravo. I’ll integrate this into my current campaign somehow, I vow it.

    Sorry for the necromantic commenting, but I was hoping for some AngryDM insight into adapting the system.

    I’m trying to conceptualize how this system could be modified to allow for coexistent zones at different levels. My meaning is a sort of vertical stratification, where from level 1 to 8 you might be most concerned about which street gang controls which block, but from level 5-13 you also care which noble claims suzerainty – but in exactly the same territory, and with overlap between the street gang threat and the noble threat. A zone with two (or more) owners.

    The simplest answer is writing up multiple zone stat blocks for the same territory, but that wouldn’t capture the possibility of running into the Count’s tax collectors right after a brush with the Fat Tony’s street toughs, unless you had both rosters represented in each zone. Which I guess isn’t such a bad thing, come to think of it, but it seems an inelegant solution.

    I’d love to hear it if you have a better take on how to implement this.

  20. Raddu on February 21, 2011 at 11:04 am

    @AngryDM Love this idea! I just stumbled up on it, good stuff maynard.

    @Ben, even more necromantic commenting (nice term!). I’d say just add another parameter to the stat block, at level 1-5 this happens at 5-10 this happens, etc, etc.

  21. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott, Robert Adducci. Robert Adducci said: @TheAngryDM Loved your Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus article! Wheels are turning about a city of Celik #DarkSun adventure http://me.lt/0zB6 [...]

  22. T.W.Wombat on February 22, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Schrodinger’s Gun. That’s the framework I’ve been trying to verbalize. THANK YOU.

    Awesome system. It’s nice to find something that really speaks to the way I want to GM. I’ve done this with more handwaving and improv, but the Slaughterhouse looks like it’ll take some of the drudge work out of the process.

    Bravo, sir!

  23. [...] They decided the Orc Warlord was important, and so he was, but he may as well not have been (see another excellent article by Angry about Schrödinger’s Gun in [...]

  24. Natespank on March 8, 2011 at 6:35 am

    How would you suggest using this system with time constraints and/or adventures? Is it primarily intended for player-driven games?

    The reason I ask is because I enjoyed the “winning D&D” article and without adding win conditions and adventures and time constraints to the sandbox game, it’s hard to allow the PCs to “win.”

    Do you know what I’m getting at?

  25. Chris McNeil (a.k.a. Gwarh) on April 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I’ll add another “me too” thank you.

    I’ve got a pile of notes for a lvl 1-30 sandbox campaign area thingamabob, but was feeling that it was to daunting a task to stat it out past the notes and maps I’ve already made.

    But with your “Slaughterhouse” system, I think it just map be the trick to getting it all down in a workable/playable format.

    P.S.
    Did this ever get put into a PDF format. Or more importantly have you placed your campaing notes into a PDF format for us all to paruse?

  26. [...] found on ENWorld through reference from an RPG.net post), was from a blog post by The Angry DM: Schrodinger, Chekhov, and Samus.  It’s a bit longer of a post than I think it needs to be (much like all of mine!), but it [...]

  27. Telarus, KSC on June 28, 2011 at 6:16 am

    Whoa! This is innovative and brilliant. I’m going to slam this together with the Company system from Reign (ORE) like chocolate and peanutbutter.

  28. [...] was working on a 4e conversion of Gary Gygax’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, using a set of quick-and-dirty stat blocks devised by The Angry DM to make an open, sandboxy dungeon very easy to manage.  It’s proven to be a fun experiment [...]

  29. Elibus on September 15, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Hey Angry DM,

    Really love this idea and I’m going to use it in my game to run most of the paragon tier. What do you use to make your zone stat blocks? Is it a file you can make available?

  30. The Angry DM on September 16, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Elibus. I did the zone stat blocks in MS Excel. Nothing fancy.

  31. [...] in his Schroedinger, Checkov, and Seamus article, this last campaign planning tool is something that I may or may not end up using.  [...]

  32. [...] is a different type of run site based entirely on the ideas of Angry DM’s Slaughterhouse concept.  In this case the run site is not a discrete location but a broad region that is [...]

  33. [...] Here are some links to further reading that will be of value in setting up your own dungeons: Angry Dm’s Project Slaughterhouse Alexandrian’s Jacquaying the Dungeon Simon C’s “How I draw [...]

  34. Drakonius on September 3, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Hello mister Angry DM,

    May I have a Core rules copy of this system in PDF format, if of course isn’t too much of a trouble?
    And also, I would like to know what have you used for the nice and clean stat blocks for Lairs and Outposts, again if it isn’t much trouble.

    Thank you very much.

  35. [...] I didn’t want to map out the whole darn city I used two of The Angry DM’s systems – Project Slaughterhouse and the Abstract Dungeon.  The city was currently contested between three factions – Minotaur [...]

  36. Iggwilv on August 4, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Since the stat blocks are kind of like monsters, there could be “elite” and “solo” zones. They would have more XP, and so have more monsters, and thus be tougher to take down. In order to not just have it be a grind, such zones would be reserved for changing/terraforming or especially large zones so that it would remain interesting. Just an idea!

  37. […] First, it is fun. I like the topic and I like writing thousands of words about things and I like ridiculous, hyperbolic names. Remember “Project Slaughterhouse?” […]

  38. Dragonbro on December 4, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    I wish you where my DM. Great stuff. Wright more please.

  39. SimonP on December 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I’ve been using groups (factions) and areas (zones) for about 15 years, as I wanted my sandbox campaign, Tovanion, to be dynamic. You, Angry, have just organized neatly what my disorganized brain wasn’t able to put together in a cohesive fashion.

    Thank you!

  40. Jeremy on April 17, 2014 at 9:13 am

    This is very similar to how I create a world… I do the same type of thing with countries and cities, mainly to describe how political factions interact with each other.

    It is simple and elegant, thanks for the writeup… Now I can just point to your explanation rather than use my own.

    Also I seem to have wandered here, I never knew about this blog until yesterday. It has become my favorite source for DM information.

    Thanks.

  41. The Allure of the Mega-Dungeon @ RPG MUSINGS on June 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    […] Schrodinger, Chekhov, and Samus, a multi-page article from The Angry DM blog, about how to create zones and factions in your mega-dungeon. His system uses a more modern approach to mega-dungeon design. […]

  42. Frank on October 29, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Totally stealing this especially as I have a big exploration ruined city adventure coming up in my game and I was putting in a lot more work then I needed so I could make sure the area felt like it lived and breathed apart from the PC’s. It gives me a good way to keep everything flowing without having to stop the game in order to restock and change things around.

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