Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stairs in the dungeon

A while back I was running a dungeon crawl on G+, and at one point a set of stairs was reached. It wasn’t a tall stairway, maybe 10’. But one of the players was worried about moving to a different level of the dungeon.

This actually led to a short side conversation on player assumptions about dungeon levels. Personally I’m a big fan of staircases within dungeon levels. Unless we’re in an office tower (and even then…) a level isn’t necessarily a flat space. A level could easily span a 3 or 4 story volume, with numerous sets of stairs within. I always think about those great big rooms with balconies and windows into them. Sure, that could span a couple of levels, but it doesn’t have to.

Which brings up another thought… do you tell your players they’ve entered another level? Either explicitly (a big number on the wall, like in an underground garage?) or through other clues in the environment?

I don’t think I’ve ever said explicitly, though it would be interesting to do a dungeon that was built in a modern building with clearly numbered rooms and floors. I usually make levels in the dungeon separated by significantly longer stairs than would be found within a level, but that’s only generally, and even then there might be a small complex of rooms off the stairs between the levels that could be a part of either level, or something else entirely.

Other clues that I use are to show monster boundaries. They all control different territory, so the orc level will have a lot of spiked heads at their border while the mushroom forest… well, there’ll be mushrooms, and unworked stone. The goblin market may have actual signs in various languages. The crypt maybe a different style of worked stone from the surrounding areas. Given that my megadungeon is a part of the mythic underworld, it’s shaped by who exists in it.

How do you handle stairs and level breaks in your dungeons?

14 comments:

  1. The dungeons I create will vary in power levels depending whether if you go up or down, but more and more I try to use that preconception to tease the players. I try to keep the adventure/dungeon as organic as I can, that the big boss would just as likely be in other areas as he would hanging in the bottom or top room.

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    1. I know I much prefer monsters that roam around. Sure, everyone has their home territory, but that doesn't mean they don't get about. Especially if they're the big bad!

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  2. "... though it would be interesting to do a dungeon that was built in a modern building with clearly numbered rooms and floors."

    Didn't Arneson use turnstiles in his dungeons? If you needed a justification, this could be a post-apocolyptic or Dying Earth setting. It'd also give you an excuse to throw in some Toriyama-esque robots and tachyon transporters!

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    1. I think he did! And that's an excellent idea...

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  3. I don't always let on that the players are on a new level. One of my favorite featuures in a dungeon is a staircase going up.

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    1. Freaks them out almost as much as stairs going down.

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  4. I've always had a fair number of ramps and chutes. A chute would tell them they are really screwed, but a ramp might night be noticed unless there's a dwarf paying attention. That combined with mobile threats keeps it mixed up a bit. Had a party once not realize they went down 3 full levels (about 5 stories at the time) until they found a stair case up and came out back at the entrance. Wish I still had that map.

    I also like the big rooms and use level more as a grouping of spaces rather than a clear separator like floors in a modern building.

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    1. Big rooms are great for that. If you manage to find/recreate the map you need to share!

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    2. Oh, I wish I could. It's been more than 30 years now since I've seen it. I've tried in last couple of years to recreate it, but nothing turns out right. I can remember spending too much time in study hall and social studies drawing it. Wish it had even occurred to me to keep better track of it. A number of other things as well. One move a whole box of RPG stuff went missing. eBay and Cons have eventually replaced most of it. The homemade stuff though ....

      I suspect we've all had things like that happen though.

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  5. I recently played an abridged version of Temple of Elemental Evil (D&D 3.5) in which our party leader was paranoid about going to the lower levels until we'd cleared out the upper levels first.

    However, our DM had other plans and masterfully ran the NPCs and Monsters so that we were either on the run or hiding out between encounters to recharge spells and heal. We were constantly in fear for our character's lives and forced deeper into the unknown. Just plain awesome.

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  6. I'm torn. On the one hand letting the players when they are going deeper is the old-school way of managing "challenge levels"; on the other I like the uncertainty of slides, chutes, elevators, etc. as hazards. I suppose you could have it both ways with explicit level markers and occasional tricks/traps that lead you unexpectedly to lower/higher levels.

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    1. The best thing about making your own dungeon is getting it any way you want it!

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    2. I don't think there's a real conflict here. Players can't always control the pace of the game, hence the traps. The trick is to make choices meaningful when you do want them (like with level markers, which are probably best left to subtle conventions like long staircases, which don't have to preclude the use of smaller, intra-level ones)

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