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Schrödinger, Chekhov, Samus

August 15, 2010
Nostalgia is a powerful force.

For example, I have very fond memories of a television show from the mid-to-late eighties called ALF. If you’ve never heard of it, it was about a wisecracking alien puppet who crash landed on Earth and moved in with a dull, suburban family and repeatedly tried to eat their housecat. He also once tried to recreate Gilligan’s Island in their backyard. It made sense at the time.

I remember sitting in the living room on Monday nights with my family laughing away at the hilarious antics of ALF as he drove the Tanner family crazy. Recently, I sat down to watch some episodes through the magic of the internet to recapture the joy that ALF brought into my life.

Do you know what else is a powerful force? Gravity. Nostalgia and gravity actually have a lot in common. If you don’t stay grounded, you will end up in a great deal of pain. In fact, I probably would have been in less pain if I had thrown myself off of the roof than I was after watching ALF. Gravity and nostalgia, a pair of heartless bitches.

I told that story to tell this one. Recently, I got it into my head to go back to my classic Dungeons & Dragons roots and run a dungeon-based campaign in the vein of Undermountain or the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk. Basically, throughout the campaign, the party will be exploring a very large, sprawling, underground complex filled with monsters, traps, treasure, and all of those other wonderful things that D&D used to be about. I’m probably going to talk about this a bit more in The Angry Blog, but suffice to say, I’m going forward with the plan.

But RPGs have moved well beyond the dungeon filled with every creature in the monster manual, numerous deadly traps, and the occasional inexplicable logic-puzzle-based security system. Fortunately, after the ALF experience, I was prepared to look long and hard at the concept of the dungeon crawl campaign. Thus, I’ve found myself examining how the dungeon crawl has aged and what modern sensibilities can bring into the picture. This article isn’t about that either.

This is actually one of those useful articles that I churn out when I’m done trying to justify my mean-spirited sense of unfair play (Winning D&D) or telling players to get with the program (Put Away Your Skill List, Everyone’s A Leader in Their Own Way) or telling DMs they are doing it wrong (Setting the PCs Up to Fail). If you’ve ever considered running a large dungeon adventure (one that spans several experience levels) or a site-based sandbox adventure or expanding either into a full campaign, I’ve sort of accidentally built a useful tool out of sheer laziness.

Project Slaughterhouse

Project Slaughterhouse began with a much less interesting name. At first, I called it the Angry DM Dynamic Site-Based Adventure Planning and Management Tool, but that name was too long. Even the acronym (ADMDSBAP&M) was a bit much. Because I was planning a large dungeon in which to kill PCs, I nicknamed it slaughterhouse.

Slaughterhouse is a design and management tool. It exists to help the DM manage a large environment that the PCs can explore freely and to determine quickly how the environment will respond to the PC’s actions. When planning the adventure or campaign, Slaughterhouse helps the DM place encounters in the location. Between sessions, Slaughterhouse helps the DM quickly repopulate the dungeon based on what the players have done. In theory, a well-prepared DM using Slaughterhouse could repopulate the adventure site in the middle of a session while the PCs retreat to their home base, sell their gear, level their characters, and do whatever else they do when they aren’t adventuring.

Slaughterhouse is an overlay system. That is, it sits between encounter design and adventure/campaign design to help the two work together when you have a large environment and multiple enemy groups. However, you will still need to map your dungeon or plan your encounter areas and you will still need to come up with the stories. Slaughterhouse just helps you populate the encounter areas over the course of numerous game sessions and helps you manage how the environment responds to the players.

While Slaughterhouse grew out of an attempt to create a vast dungeon, there is no reason it can’t be used in any other site-based adventure or campaign arc that will span at least a few experience levels. It could be used for a large dungeon that the party will have to revisit several times, but it would work equally well for an exterior wilderness environment (like a valley, a large ruined city, or a domain in the Abyss). It could also work for any adventure in which multiple factions are vying for territory, such a city that has been divided up by several gangs and legitimate power centers.

While Slaughterhouse grew out of the assumption that the party would deal with the scenario primarily by being violent at it, that does not have to be the case. In fact, one of the reasons I developed Slaughterhouse was because I wanted to be prepared in case the party decided they wanted to make peace with one of the many, many factions in my super dungeon. In theory, they could ally themselves with a faction and help the faction push its borders out, thus creating safe areas in the dungeon. In my dungeon, the territory control aspect is fairly limited, but that could be easily expanded for dealing with a more civilized area.

Slaughterhouse is simply a versatile organizational tool and you are encouraged to try it out. Please, feel free to comment and let me know and everyone else know about your successes, failures, and modifications.

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