Monday, February 1, 2016

Find the Path: Lazy Dungeon Craft

A recent game session, I devised a ad hoc way to handle generating encounters for a dungeon crawl.  So here it is, for free!  A clever way to get players to do part of the work for you.  Me, I use this as a way to surprise myself.  A neat bit of #gmadvice for your next game, system-agnostic-like.

I don't like gamemastering dungeon crawls.  Location-based encounters always have triggered my lazy impulse.  This goes for written dungeons as well as me crafting my own.  Part of it is laziness.  The other part is a component of my own gamemastering style: I dislike railroading my players.  Dungeons don't necessarily create railroaded adventures.  But I think too much specific planning ahead only leads to frustration or wasted work on my part.

So I normally dodge them.  My last few sessions have been driving toward dungeon crawl of some kind.  The narrative sort of needs it in order to move forward.  So I can't keep avoiding it.

My GM style learns on improvisation, so instead of crafting a dungeon, I cobbled together a random dungeon encounter generator.  I've decided to write down the trick here, hopefully it'll help someone else who doesn't want to script out a series of encounters and wants a nifty way to have random encounters thrust into their games.

Most random encounters are simple: roll dice for a table, use the result.  As much fun as that could be, I wanted to add a bit more.  Dungeon crawls are better if more minds are used to craft them.  As I am a singular mind, I had to expand my network of brains working on the problem.

Drawing the map would be easy, just using the classic five-room dungeon and rolling dice to assign doors as I went.  But what to find in each room?  If it was random, I could find a way to narrate it into the dungeon as needed.  For each encounter I recruited my players for the idea fodder.

Procedural Dungeon Creator

I call this procedural generation, although it's inaccurate to apply a video game term for it.  The idea is the same though.  Here's how you procedurally generate the encounters for a dungeon:

1. I gave everyone, myself included, a blank index card.

2. I told them to choose one of the following: barrier, monster, trap or puzzle.  They needed to write it down in secret.  If a player wanted to elaborate on the thing they wrote down, they were free to do so.  The more information the better.

It's fine if a player can't think of anything; they can just choose one of the options presented without having to elaborate.

3. I shuffled all the cards together.  They shouldn't get folded or anything like that.  One of players did do that and I had them re-do their card.  No marked cards.

4. As they entered a room, I'd draw a card.  The map already had been planned, but the contents of each room would be based on whatever I interpreted the card's contents to be.  If it said puzzle, I put a puzzle in the room.

5. Rinse and repeat until you run out of cards.

Alterations For Taste

For the sake of narrative, you can totally slip in your card to represent that sort of thing.  These can be triggering key events, as you need them.  I think you could also do other things with the cards, too.

Each player could also put down an aspect from their character, especially one that might cause trouble for them.  Or you could use the cards for social encounters at a big social gathering.  Then you might make the options more like: Negative, Romantic, Secretive, etc.

This assumes you also have decent grip on the basic mechanics of whatever system you're running.  Games like Apocalypse World or Fate Core provide great basic tools for steering through this sort of thing.  But other systems can be done ad hoc as well.  For Pathfinder or something similar, if you already know what flavors the dungeon is going to be, you can feel your way through whatever encounters players have put on the cards.  If you want to do something with trolls and a player describes a monster and nothing more, you've got a golden opportunity to do what you've been waiting to do.

The more details players use, though, require you to cause complications.  If a player is expecting a particular thing, complicate it bit away from what they've written down on the card.  Surprise them.  This is a mechanic that surprises you, but you can also use to alter player expectations.  That can be fun if handled the right way.