They’re Called Dungeon CRAWLS for a Reason

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Source: http://paratime.ca/cartography/bw_dungeons.html

This weekend, my drow bard Obsidian and her associates went through a scenario that was clearly a riff/parody on the classic old-school dungeon crawl– to the point where it was lampshaded by a plaque over the door that said, “Welcome to the funhouse!” 90% of the action took place on a sheet of graph paper and it involved going from room to room, attempting to bypass traps and searching for secret doors, with the occasional monster fight tossed in as a hazard.

Now for some context here, our party is very beefy, but not much in the way of finesse. Between six characters, there is one level of rogue– on the orc fighter. So, he has expertise with thieves’ tools, while Obsidian has proficiency with Investigation. Between the two of us, we make a functional rogue. >.>

However, against one locked door, we just plain got stuck; we both rolled absolute crap trying to get it open. At this point, Jamie (the DM) said something that was both brilliant, and pointed out a quirk in the game as it was being played: “The two of you eventually manage to get it open, but you waste ten minutes bickering about it.”

That’s a totally in-character thing for Obsidian and her orc bodyguard to do and it was a funny moment, but it also leads to the question, “If we were eventually going to get past the door either way, why even roll for it?”

Now this is a solved problem in the classic dungeon crawl: every ten minutes in the dungeon is another roll for wandering monsters– who have no treasure or valuables, they’re just there to eat your hit points and waste your spells. But this particular dungeon had no wandering monsters, as part of the story background. From a gameplay POV, there was no consequence to passing for failing the skill check other than how the description played out.

Ever since the session I’ve been thinking about how I would have handled that situation. The current prevailing wisdom is that if there is no consequence for failure and the PCs have a reasonable chance of succeeding (especially if they can just keep trying over and over), that the DM shouldn’t bother calling for a roll at all and just say “You pick the lock. In the room beyond you find…”

Which is expedient, yes, but boring. How could that be spiced up a bit?

I found some inspiration in a recent article about the Mouse Guard RPG, in which instead of a dead stop, a failed skill check may create a “twist.” The twist could be a wandering monster check as in the days of old, or it could be a condition imposed on one or more members of the group. This calls for a bit more thought on the DM’s part, but can be worked into the adventure with a little brainstorming during prep. Some example twists that jump to my mind around the task of picking a lock on a door include:

  • Wandering monster check
  • The Mouse Guard example: you have to hide from passing guards to avoid giving yourself away; Wisdom save (DC equal to the door check) or you become frightened by their cruel jokes about executing prisoners
  • You spend so long on the task that you must make a Constitution save to avoid a level of exhaustion
  • You damaged your lockpicks. Make a Dexterity save or suffer disadvantage with all of your future checks with them until you can get a new set.

Note that the assumption here is that, success or failure, the party does open the door. That part is assumed, similar to the way Gumshoe assumes that players always find the clues. The skill check isn’t “Do you succeed?” so much as “How tough is it to succeed?” You’d also have to figure out for each twist, what would be required to overcome the condition imposed, such as replacing damaged lockpicks, or possibly “until your next short rest.”

Of course, that leads to the question, “How do you keep the players from constantly taking short rests in a dungeon with no wandering monsters?” And I do have thoughts on that too, but that’s for another post. 😉

-The Gneech

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