Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Random Dungeon

I’m returning to my Oracle System-driven roleplaying game design for Basic Fantasy Heroes as an occasional break from work on the miniature wargame rules for Panzer Kids. The rules went through several rounds of playtesting earlier this year, with solid input and good insights on fine-tuning the system and improving the presentation. But aside from running a few test encounters myself to see how combat worked out within the overall Oracle System, I’d not have a chance to run a small band of heroes through a scenario. So I turned to a solitaire alternative using a random dungeon system to generate an adventure in which I, as player, truly could not anticipate what the characters would face from one room to the next. Beyond offering a taste of the Basic Fantasy Heroes game system mechanics in an actual play setting (albeit solitaire), the experience helped me come to some conclusions about what I expect in random dungeon solo play.


I wanted to adhere to certain conditions in undertaking this foray into solitaire random dungeon adventuring, primarily to provide a realistic experience using the character and combat rules I’d developed in a fully unexpected setting. To this end I created three beginning characters using my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules: a priest, elf, and dwarf, each with their own specialties that would affect gameplay (primarily combat).

My main concern was generating a dungeon layout with interesting results for solo gameplay. I’m no expert on the various options available today for solitaire dungeon generation. Giving in to my nostalgia, I initially turned to the original material created on this subject, the Gygaxian system in “Appendix A. Random Dungeon Generation” of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide.

To vary my approach I also polled some folks on Google+. Several offered good suggestions on alternate, more recently developed random dungeon generation systems available. Thanks to John Fiore, host extraordinaire of the Solo Nexus blog, I picked up the No Budget No Frills Pencil and Paper Dungeon Generator, Ver. 3.0 by John Yorio over at the Tabletop Diversions blog. (Though I’m also interested in eventually picking up the geomorph Dungeon Dice Clayton Rider suggested.) The discussion also covered TSR’s Cardmaster Adventure Design Deck, which I own but declined to use in this particular exercise.

In both cases I decided to create my own first-level dungeon monster encounter table based on the low-level creatures I’d devised for Basic Fantasy Heroes -- not all the creatures I’ve developed have corollaries in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide monster tables, and I didn’t want to outright translate that game directly to mine -- but they still ran the range from bandits and goblins to giant centipedes and slime. The presence of traps in both dungeon generation rules revealed to me that I’d not considered rules for traps in Basic Fantasy Heroes; so I quickly drafted some functional notes on how certain iconic traps worked within the Oracle System framework with an eye to developing them more fully later.

I intended to try two strategies in recording my solo dungeon-delving experience: creating an annotated map (somewhat of a necessity in these exercises) and writing an in-character chronicle describing events, encounters, and reactions (an idea John Fiore has featured over at Solo Nexus, though he recommends not writing in a player character’s voice). Experience with both random dungeon generating systems showed the map an obvious requirement and the primary focus of the game. In the course of rolling, mapping, and handling combat encounters, however, I regret the adventure diary chronicle fell by the wayside; I liked the character narrator, but it seemed a strain to catalog encounters in an engaging style, even in the most general sense (though I was quite happy with my introduction).

The Gygaxian Labyrinth

At first glance the byzantine tables in the Dungeon Masters Guide appendix seemed to lead one down the path to revealing a dungeon with all the complexities one expects: traps, monsters, treasure, secret doors. Slightly weighted tables favored some results over others, but not by much. The system seemed more attuned to taking into account every possibility within the dungeon layout and offering an unbiased result, giving almost every option the same chance of occurrence.

Amid all the twisting corridors and intersections my intrepid heroes came upon seven rooms, four empty ones and three containing monsters. For the solitaire play -- and in chronicling the adventure writing as one of the heroes -- empty rooms proved extremely boring. I found myself wishing I had some means of determining any descriptive features about the chambers just to liven things up and give some clue about their past use and the dungeon’s origins. Despite the tables for traps and treasure, the heroes didn’t encounter any. The random monsters they confronted had no theme to them other than “Level 1” and, typical for this kind of exercise, there seemed no rationale for them being there other than excuses I created for the adventure diary chronicle: obviously bandits were probably looting the dungeon like the heroes and the cave mantids made a nest in one of the chambers, but why kobolds were hiding behind an illusionary wall in one room is beyond me.

What also occurred to me as I tired of this exercise was the lack of any meaningful conclusion. My heroes simply reached a point where they’d had enough and back-tracked their way to the dungeon entrance. Assuming they returned to the nearest town to tend their wounds and cash in their treasure, they had little compelling reason to return to their subterranean explorations other than the promise of haphazard carnage and loot.

No-Frills Simplicity

The no-frills dungeon generator promised a far more simplified method than the Gygaxian model: roll 1d12 and consult the table. The 12 possible results included an even distribution for various corridor types and three kinds of rooms, those with monsters, traps, and the infamous ones with nothing at all. Asterisked notes included intuitive methods for determining corridor length, chamber size, and the number of doors in a room (though I modified these from 1d10 rolls to 1d6 rolls). .

My heroes began their delve and started exploring the catacombs with far more ease than navigating the numerous Gygaxian dungeon-generation tables. The results seemed more interesting, too; of four rooms they discovered, two held monsters and two traps…no empty rooms in this dungeon. That’s as far as they got because the presence of more traps wore down the party. Traps appear in locations (rooms or corridors) one time in six, with monsters appearing one time in twelve. The dungeon also remained void of any kind of thematic rationale aside from the fact that the bandits were probably looting the place, too, and the giant centipedes had nested in another chamber.

Between the two random dungeon generation systems, though, I liked the no-frills one over the more complex and time-consuming Gygaxian method. The no-frills system benefitted from both brevity and a better presentation, with each result illustrated by a mini-map geomorph depicting the dungeon feature. But it highlighted the need for separate tables for corridors and rooms as well as the variability of having even slightly weighted tables. Both systems -- one possibly the first in the adventure gaming hobby, the other a recent refinement -- left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Yes, they both certainly challenged me as a player to use character resources and specialties to overcome adversaries and survive traps, but they lacked even the most basic contextual story elements.

Themed & Skewed

Although I actually achieved my original mission of playtesting the rules and characters in the context of a solitaire random dungeon crawl, I can’t help but consider how to craft a more fulfilling solitaire play experience in a relatively random dungeon. I think adding both a basic theme and some skewed (or escalating) results might help add more intriguing narrative elements to elevate the experience beyond a completely random hack-and-slash delve. I’m envisioning a quick setting paragraph to put the dungeon entrance and its theme in context, followed by tables to generate corridors and chambers (favoring some results over others). I’d include a monster encounter table customized to the theme (vermin, goblins, magical creatures, etc.) incorporating an escalating mechanic to push future rolls up the spectrum toward a “boss” monster. It’s something I’ll think about as a possible solitaire random dungeon generation system when I next feel the need to explore some new game design territory.

My ultimate lesson learned concerns the nature of random dungeon generation as discovered by the necessity of gradually revealed solo play. Dungeon delves -- while the primal form of adventuring in the hobby -- remain a limited form, more so in the random dungeon generation style used for solitaire play. More involved campaign play, balancing wilderness, town, and dungeon encounters, offers more possibilities for a richer solitaire experience and hence more interesting narrative possibilities for chronicles recording adventures.

Next time I need a break and feel the need to test my Basic Fantasy Heroes rules in a more varied narrative setting, I’ll grab my sets of Rory’s Story Cubes (regular and Voyages) and send my characters through the paces of John Fiore’s The 9Qs Solo RPG Engine.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.