Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Multiple-Choice Dungeon Room Contents

I was almost out of junior high school when, while hanging out with some neighborhood kids, I watched them play Basic Dungeons & Dragons with module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands; it inspired me to create my own game along a similar vein (what eventually became Creatures & Caverns) before immersing myself into the officially published roleplaying game hobby. In the inaugural dungeon crawl for Creatures & Caverns I designed for the game I included several rooms with multiple possible contents. One sentence seemed to suffice for most entries. But a few descriptions looked something like this:
19) This room contains several cots, a table, and a bench.
a) The two Amazons here draw their swords and attack!
b) No sentries are present to guard a trunk sitting in the corner:
     1) The trunk is filled with 500 gold pieces.
     2) Six animated skeletons leap out and attack.*
* I have, of course, revised these somewhat so I don’t show off my extremely mediocre composition and spelling of the time.

The gamemaster could choose between given options, sometimes to reward or challenge players, or just to change the room contents from the last time they ventured into the dungeon.

This seemed a logical choice at the time for several reasons. In my limited exposure to a B/X D&D adventure I hadn’t really gotten a good look at the dungeon format; the neighborhood kids (player and gamemaster) were sitting around with the map spread out in front of them, with the player pointing to a room and asking “What’s in there?” presumably as his character barged in. The dungeon key seemed like a long list of numbered entries, but beyond that I wasn’t privy to their actual contents or format. In Creatures & Caverns I viewed my own dungeon map as a “board” players would explore multiple times; offering different choices for room contents seemed logical to maintain replay value and keep players interested over subsequent visits. The effort to draft an entirely new dungeon – replete with two-page map spreads and extensive location keys – seemed pretty daunting to a junior high kid, so I tried varying the challenges in my existing dungeon with these simple notations.

This method reflected the system of outlining one’s thoughts for projects such as research papers, a technique drummed into me throughout junior high school (and probably earlier). I employed it for two functions in this first adventure: to present multiple options for room contents; and to guide me in reacting to (or suggesting to players) possible options. For instance, when they discover a powerful wizard’s secret quarters, they have options to touch his crystal ball or open either of the two chests, each with its own ramifications. (While this style of notation bears further exploration, it’s more commonly used in some scenario styles today, particularly those for beginning gamemasters.)

I soon got my own copy of the Basic D&D boxed set, spent a weekend reading and absorbing the rules, and embarked on several years immersing myself in B/X D&D and AD&D, along with numerous other games released at that time (primarily from TSR but a few from other publishers). I wrote some setting material and adventures for these games but forgot about the concept of multiple choice contents for dungeon rooms. The established format didn’t offer gamemasters such choices, the room contained exactly what the entry text declared (often in far more detail than I’d done on my own). Players usually took one foray into an adventure and rarely returned, so I didn’t bother noting some rooms were cleared out or left in the wrecked state of a skirmish. Given the abundance of scenarios – both my own, official modules, and adventures in magazines like Dragon – replay value wasn’t as much of an issue.

I’m wondering if this multiple-choice approach to stocking dungeon chambers could work in traditional scenarios today. Not every room, obviously, but occasionally. Large subterranean complexes – and vast scenarios in general – rarely appeal to me, either as a gamemaster or designer. But I enjoy variety, especially in smaller dungeons with the potential for multiple visits from player characters. The multiple-choice technique could change existing, mapped adventure locations for repeat play. Two styles for devising variable room contents come to mind: completely random and those reflecting the cause and effect of past adventuring.

Completely Random Options: This obviously reflects the approach I took in my youth. Offer choices with no relation to each other, the specific dungeon location, or the overall adventure theme. Perhaps the choice offered includes a monster to fight, a trap to detect and disarm, or a treasure to discover (all of which, arguably, could occur in the same chamber in a normal scenario). The text gives the gamemaster control of which options he chooses. Perhaps he takes them in given order. He could assign numbers or ranges to roll randomly to determine contents. Or he might simply choose the most appropriate challenge based on the party’s ability to withstand any danger it presents.
Four pillars support this chamber’s vaulted ceiling. A small shrine dedicated to an evil demon stands on a low platform. A golden statue sitting upon it depicts a mass of writhing tentacles and is worth 250 gold pieces.
a) Anyone approaching the altar plunges into a pit trap.
b) A horde of giant rats emerges from behind the altar and attacks.
c) A shadowy image briefly hovers in the middle of the room and pronounces a curse upon the characters before fading away.
Cause & Effect Contents: Tie the multiple options for room contents to the location in some logical order that assumes the characters clear out the chamber during each encounter. Start with some adversaries that fit the setting, then describe how the room looks after the passage of some time, then offer a description of what might have moved in or adapted the place later. This requires a bit more thought than random contents. The challenge increases given additional rooms using this multiple content option. Rather than choosing or rolling randomly, it’s best-suited for taking options in the order in which they’re presented, checking or crossing off ones characters have overcome (though nothing precludes gamemasters from choosing an option randomly or otherwise).
This dank room contains several old crates and barrels, a pile of straw, and two stools.
a) Five bandits lurk here, rising to attack the characters.
b) Seven giant centipedes feed off rotting corpses amid this room’s debris.
c) Five zombies shuffle about looking for warm flesh to eat.
I’m not quite certain if this technique would work in other genres beyond the dungeon-delving model: explore the deserted space derelict in hard-core sci-fi; map the newly discovered Egyptian tomb in pulp; clear the abandoned mine to find some long-lost vein of gold in a western. Its usefulness varies, of course, depending on a gamemaster’s style and how often he runs the same dungeon.

I’ll admit aspects of this multiple-choice technique appeal to my increased enjoyment of random tables, whether for lone instances like the contents of a chest or complete scenarios comprised entirely of random tables (like the excellent, solitaire-suitable Ruins of the Undercity by Kabuki Kaiser or resources like Richard LeBlanc’s D30 Sandbox Companion). As a gamemaster I sometimes like having listed options from which to choose; random lists are one form of that, albeit more comprehensive and varied than two or three choices. Whether for changing room contents on subsequent dungeon delves or providing alternatives to best suit the adventuring party, multiple-choice room contents could offer gamemasters another technique to bring variety to their scenarios.

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