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Abstract Dungeoneering

January 31, 2013

A Simple Alternative to Mapping an Entire Big-Ass Dungeon

So, Twitter-friend @BrannonHutchins has been having some mapping troubles this week. His PCs are going to be exploring a big old library. But the space seems a bit too big and too empty to be worth going through the minutae of exploring (and mapping) every single room. Meanwhile, my PCs are going to be wandering through some dwarven ruins in which they are trapped. The space is too big and too empty to be worth going through the minutae of exploring (and mapping) every single room. But I still want a sense of the layout because my PCs will be returning to this place and trying to find some things later. More importantly, this is an RPG and if you abstract the exploration too much, you remove the decision points and the sense of control. Decision points are what put the R and the P in the RPG after all.

Exploration Behavior

When players explore or search a location, assuming there is nothing weighing heavily on their time (such as an imminent explosion), they tend to wander from section to section, poking into every room and checking out every hallway in a half-systematic and half-random way. All of the individual decision points don’t matter. Going left or right at an intersection doesn’t much matter because you know they are going to come back and check the other way anyway.

So, if you just assume that behavior, you can skip to the important decision points and interesting encounters. Assume the PCs will keep wandering randomly until they stop.

Now, some DMs try to abstract this out with a skill challenge ala 4th Edition D&D, but that really isn’t satisfying. Exploration, by its nature, is goalless, aimless wandering and looking for what’s interesting. Skill challenges, in order to be playable, need a goal so players can declare actions usefully. They just don’t fit well together.

Instead, the players are basically just going to wander one section of the dungeon until they reach an obvious transition to another section (like a set of stairs) or find something interesting to loot or kill. The interesting part of the game is how they handle the looting and the killing and when they decide they are done with one section and move on to the next.

To model that, I came up with the Zone Exploration Mechanic

Zone Exploration

First, you divide your dungeon into thematic, self-contained sections. These sections need to be identifiable in the game by their architecture, layout, or other clues so that the PCs in the game world would recognize them as a distinct location. They are kind of like the neighborhoods of your dungeon. Draw a flow chart showing how these sections are interconnected.

The Library of Brannon

The Library of Brannon

For example, I did a quick sketch of a library @BrannonHutchins might use for his PCs. Obviously, there are a few sections that are just one room (or one room and a few side chambers). This is fine. But most of the sections comprise several rooms, possibly spread out over two floors, or else an open space subdivided by labrynthine internal walls (like the shelves in the library bookstacks).

For each zone that isn’t a single room that can be explored by itself, you need to list all of the transitions to other zones as well as the fixed, unique, interesting things to be discovered in that zone. Anything the PCs need to interact with or make a decision about should be on that list. This can include monster lairs, treasure, secret doors, interesting or unusual objects, clues, corpses, anything.

Throw all of these items onto a list. If you want to use a random encounter table, put an entry on the list for ‘wandering monster’ too. Number all of the entries so you can roll a die and determine a thing at random.

Next, you need to prepare a tactical map for specific locations in the zone where the PCs will encounter enemies (or potential enemies), and one or two tactical maps of generic locations within that zone for wandering monsters.

Finally, if you like to have flavor text planned, you need flavor text that describes exploring that zone as well as flavor text for any of the things on the list of stuff in the zone. I like to improvise my flavor text, but you can do something. So, the entry for a zone will look like this:

Scribe’s Workrooms

“You find yourselves wandering narrow, cramped hallways, undecorated and utilitarian. Most of the small rooms you poke are empty, save for a stone shelf. Occasionally, you find the remains of a candle burned down to a stub. Here in these workrooms, bookbinders and scribes toiled by candlelight to preserve the knowledge of the ages.”

Event List (d8)

  1. Transition to Storage
  2. Transition to Servant’s Quarters
  3. Transition to Statuary
  4. Secret door in hallway (Perception DC 25) with magical book hidden away in secret room
  5. Smelly dire rat nest
  6. Scribe cell with locked door (Thievery DC 22). Dead scribe hung by noose from ceiling.
  7. A brass statuette of Iuon, forgotten on the floor of a cell
  8. Wandering Monster!

During the Game

When the players enter a zone and start to explore it, describe the zone in vague using the flavor text you wrote. Mention that they spend a few minutes wandering at random, and give them some sense of the character and flavor of the room. Then, roll the die for that zone’s Event List. That is what the PCs stumble upon.

If they stumble upon the exit to another zone, give them the opportunity to leave or continue exploring the current zone. If they stumble upon an encounter, determine surprise and run the encounter as normal. If they find a wandering monster, roll the wandering monster and use one of the generic tactical maps. If they pass something like a secret door or hidden object that requires a skill to discover, make the skill check in secret and, if they don’t spot it, roll a new event. The idea is the PCs will keep wandering until they come upon something interesting. If they don’t see something, they will wander past it and keep looking.

Once the PCs find something unique (a treasure to be collected, a monster to fight), cross it off. If they happen to stumble upon it again, they will just keep walking. If you roll that item again, roll again until you get something else. Once the party finds something new that isn’t unique (like a landmark or zone transition), put a check mark next to it to indicate it is discovered.

If the party wants to backtrack to a specific location, you can decide whether that warrants some sort of navigation check or whether they can just do it depending on how big and confusing the zone is. It usually shouldn’t be an issue. If the party has been explicitly mapping, using chalk marks, or leaving a trail of bread crumbs, you can forgo the check.

If the party uses some sort of navigational trick, let them know whether the zone is fully explored or not based on whether everything is checked off or not (obviously, wandering monsters don’t count). That way, they can move on when they reach a transition. If they are not navigating, let them figure it out when they keep finding the same things or have mercy after they spend a long time wandering and finding nothing.

Once you have the basics down, you can use this system to create some great alternate goals to simple exploration and dungeon wandering.

Time Constraint

You can use this simple system to add a time constraint to an adventure. Suppose the party needs to escape a coastal fortress before the tide comes in and floods the exit, trapping them inside (or drowning them). For each zone, based on its size and complexity, assign an amount of time that passes per exploration. You could also use this to set timed events (the lower levels are inaccessible due to tidal flooding at certain hours) or set activity cycles for certain monsters (the dragon is asleep between 18:00 and 11:00 the next day).

Tracking a Foe

If the PCs are tracking a specific foe to its lair, you can establish which locations its trail takes it through from the entrance to its lair. A tracking skill check allows the party to follow that trail. Otherwise they get lost and have to wander randomly, encountering random monsters and dealing with other dungeon obstacles.


You can also scatter traps through the dungeon, either specific traps to be encountered once or random booby traps such as the simple traps kobolds might litter around their lair. The latter might have an entry on the list called “Random Trap” after “Wandering Monster” and can be encountered multiple times.

Cat and Mouse

Similar to tracking a foe, you can also set up a game of cat and mouse with a powerful enemy or enemy force moving through the dungeon. Each time the PCs roll to end up at a new location, roll for each wandering enemy force to see where they are. If the PCs and the enemy end up at the same location, determine surprise and run the encounter.

You can even keep track of where the enemies have been. Perhaps they leave signs of their passage the PCs can use these signs to track (as tracking above) or avoid the foe. Perhaps the foe could track or avoid the PCs.

And, of course, either the PCs or the enemy might try to set an ambush for the other by guessing where they might go (or leaving a trail).

Race to the Thing

If the PCs aren’t the only force searching for something, you can set up a race to the thing. Roll for the location of the enemy just like under a Cat and Mouse, but if the enemy gets to the thing first, they get the thing and then try to backtrack through the dungeon. Or hunt down the party and use the thing to destroy the party.

The Treasure Map

The party could end up with a map of a specific zone or several zones or part of a zone that allows them to freely choose their destinations if they are marked on the map. The map might even show the location of some hidden thing the party might have overlooked otherwise and provide a clue about how to access a specific location. Normally, it is quite time consuming to prep such a map, but this system allows for a hastily sketched map calling out certain locations.

Fancy Combinations

You can combine various things. Such as tracking and a race to the thing to create an adventure in which two adventuring parties (the PCs and the NPCs) are competing to see who can find the legendary monster first and slay it to win the Adventuring Award for Best Adventurers. Or a cat and mouse adventurer where the party must find the thing in order to defeat the monster while the monster hunts them. These can really spice up dungeon crawls.

Keeping Decisions In

Remember if you decide to use any of the fancy alternatives to exploration I’ve listed, it is important to keep it from becoming a dice-rolling mini-game by allowing (and encouraging) the players to come up with plans to use the mechanics to their advantage. Researching the dungeon location and finding maps will make navigating easier, so cat and mouse games and object hunts allow the PCs control over their destination. The players can set traps or ambushes at particular locations, use navigation tricks, even split up. And there should be clues to follow. The purpose of this system is to focus on the interesting, key decisions the PCs make; not remove them in favor of random dice games.

That being said, we wouldn’t be playing D&D if we didn’t enjoy the thrill and tension of a luck-based mission. Just try to strike the same balance between luck and player choice as you do everywhere else in your game and you’ll be fine.

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