Time to make more Dungeons, friends. This week, we’re taking a look at what makes a dungeon dynamic, why you might want to do that, and how to make your dungeons feel a little more alive.
We’re back with more dungeon design this week–and today we’re all about dynamic duos. Er. Dungeons. What exactly is a dynamic dungeon? It’s basically a fancy way of saying a dungeon that doesn’t stay the same. The ideal version is a dungeon that reacts to the players’ presence and actions in the world, that reflects impact they’ve made in their exploration. It sounds tricky, but it’s something you can build for while you’re in the planning stages, and it’s a great way to help reinforce what players want out of any game. Because what they really want is to feel agency. They want to feel like their choices matter.
That’s the real dirty trick behind the power fantasy of any game. We want to feel like our actions, however small, make any kind of difference because it’s hard to feel that in the real world sometimes (oof). But one of the best ways to feel like your choices matter is to see the consequences of them. And that’s where making your dungeon a dynamic one can come in handy.
All you have to do is figure out different ways that it can change. You won’t be able to plan for everything your players will do–but you can suggest likely outcomes. If you’re building an arch-mage’s tower and there’s a chance your players might oust him, one of the big things you can do is plan for how the tower changes once the arch-mage isn’t there. What happens to the bound elementals, etc. The other thing this does is build immersion and verisimilitude.
When you have a place that feels like it belongs in a causal world, it should stay feeling that way. The dungeon you built should change as the characters explore it, and reflect their actions within it. Part of what makes the game feel great is that you could, if you wanted to, buy a pick and smash through every wall, break every object, etc. A lot of the fun comes from trying to find places where you can subvert expectations–or find something the designer didn’t think you’d try, or wouldn’t let you do–and in an RPG you can run with anything your players might try. There’s nothing that can’t be answered, even if the answer is no, you can’t just walk up to the king and take his crown off, his guards try to arrest you instead. That still acknowledges what the player tried to do, and that’s where RPGs shine–those moments of “I can’t believed that worked” are a kind of magic all their own, and they only work when the game feels that open.
A great example of this kind of reward/invitation loop can be seen in Half Life 2. It’s such a quick moment, but it’s a great example of the game inviting you to make choices. When the combine guard knocks over the can and you pick it up, you can put it in the trash can, sure. You can also throw the can at him, stand there and do nothing–all of it has a consequence. Of course in a game you’re limited by what got programmed in–you’ve got the freedom to adapt to whatever your players try and do.
So with all that in mind, let’s pull up our Lost Sanctum of the Vampire Knight and look at how our theoretical players will wreck it. If you’re just joining us, we’ve spent the last few weeks building out the Lost Sanctum of the Vampire Knight–a level 4-7 dungeon complex we built using a seed from the d20 SRD Fantasy name generator.
Going off of that name, we picked a theme, decided on some monsters and other features that fit the theme, figured out areas in the dungeon, then got those areas linked together and built our boss encounter, and finally designed some interconnected starting areas to reward players for exploring off the beaten path.
Now we’re going to look at a few things that might change as a result of the player’s actions. Right now, we’ve broken our dungeon up into four main areas and given ourselves room for as many sub-areas as we want. We have a castle, stables, a graveyward, and a dungeon. Last week we put a few pieces in motion–there’s a ghost that haunts the caverns near the dungeon, some explorers came to the graveyard hunting ghosts, there are guards to the castle out front. All of this is just a reminder to use what we’ve already created to inspire us. No need to make this harder than it has to be.
We can also find “moving parts” in our themes. This is a lost sanctum with a Dracula kind of mood. Lots of fog and darkness–so it wouldn’t be out of place to assume that there’s a curse or two in there somewhere. A good place to start is with memorable encounters. Looking at our list of “minibosses” we have:
- A minotaur skeleton
- A banshee/wraith
Both of these lend themselves well to showing off something that changes if the players should rest or come back to the dungeon. Killing or banishing the spirit in the Graveyard might well remove a curse around it–we could pick some effect to represent the curse. Maybe something like players who take a short rest while the curse is active only regain half the hit points rolled on their hit dice, and once it’s lifted by dealing with what’s in the graveyard, exploring the manor becomes easier. Now we can tie it to our dungeon more specifically.
Let’s say that our Wraith was once a corrupt noble who used to live in the castle–and now their tormented spirit has left a corrupting influence on the manor. Portraits of this noble exude an aura where this effect is in place–maybe we add in a “while in a cursed area, players are at disadvantage on certain ability checks” rider to this. Give our players something to deduce for themselves–and when the spirit is laid to rest, the portraits can change to reflect it. Boom, you’ve got a change players can see. These are regular paintings now, not Ghostbusters II ones.
Similarly the minotaur skeleton could be a guardian near the stables/grounds–maybe there’s a horse track where knights might have practiced jousting, and now a minotaur skeleton and band of undead knights make it their home. They maraud out from there, and if the players are exploring other parts of the house and make noise, they draw the attention of the patrolling knights. Or there’s a chance that they’ll encounter a band of undead knights as they approach–these knights might use hit and run tactics to make the party spend resources until they are tracked down.
But let’s get a little more esoteric and find clues that draw our players in to more action. Maybe once the players defeat the minotaur and its knights, they unlock a talisman to summon the Vampire Knight’s Nightmare if they can perform a particular ritual. Or to banish it. Or whatever. The point is we’re cooking up a way for the players to change their environment–which if you’re playing along at home, all of these are great Quests too.
So we’ve got a couple of combat encounter dynamic pieces, and can quickly give ourselves a couple more–a real easy one is to just have folks from the next room come in when they hear a fight happening, or to have different rooms/enemies appear whether it’s day or night. Let’s look for more opportunities for our players to change the place. Let’s look for consequences of player action.
We already know we want the party to spend multiple long rests exploring the place. When they take a long rest, there’s a chance to shake things up. Maybe as the castle or graveyard changes based on the players’ actions, new enemies are called up. Or emptied out. If the Vampire Knight suspects an attack, they might summon more wolves and other creatures–or if the players make the place a little safer, maybe a nearby band of goblins or kobolds moves in looking to loot whatever the players haven’t taken (which is everything that’s not nailed down. And then everything that is. And then the nails.)
If players return to the dungeon, it should feel like it wasn’t just waiting idly for them to go abotu the business of regaining their hit points and spell slots. Maybe the Vampire Knight called up reinforcements from the graveyard–or has sent undead marauding into town. Or more sinisterly–is using the Harpsichord in the music room to play a siren song to lure hapless wanderers to the Sanctum to be made into Vampire Knights. But only after the players make their initial assault.
Maybe the undead in the castle withdraw to more defensive positions, ceding ground to the players as they explore, but board themselves in and erect crude traps and defenses when the players press on. All of these could work, and hopefully you’ve got some inspiration all your own by now. Whatever you decide, just keep in mind how the dungeon and folks inside might change and react to the characters exploring it, and you’ll encourage your players to try things–to play just to see what happens. And once they start doing that, everyone wins.
Until next time folks, Happy Adventuring!