by Mike Shea on 28 October 2019
Dungeon crawls are a staple in Dungeons & Dragons games. Ever since the game's creation characters have traversed forgotten hallways accosted by beasts never touched by the sun. Even as D&D's focus has shifted for many of us from tactical combat to a more story-focused game, dungeon crawls still remain a common adventure theme.
And sometimes they can be a drag.
Almost by definition dungeon crawls press the characters. Throughout their crawl, the characters face monsters, traps, and hazards in the darkness of the tunnels. There's not a lot of joy in the forbidden depths and that lack of joy can drain not just the characters of their resources but the fun out of the players.
"Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses."
The above quote comes from Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. In this book, Robin talks about hopeful and fearful beats of roleplaying games, in the context of upward and downward beats in movies. Too many downward beats and a story can feel depressing and hopeless. People give up and their immersion breaks. Too many upward beats and things get boring and stale. The excitement wears off. Hamlet's Hit Points also offers definitions of the types of story beats including procedural, dramatic, commentary, anticipation, gratification, bringdown, pipe, question, and reveal. For this article, we're going to worry less about beat types and focus on beat resolution; how the beats feel to the players.
You can learn more about beats in my interview with Robin Laws on the DM's Deep Dive.
Oftentimes we don't have to worry about beats too much. We need not keep the model in mind because our game naturally hits the right mix hopeful and fearful beats as we run it. As we become more experienced game masters, we naturally fall into a pattern of storytelling that resonates well with our players.
Sometimes, though, the nature and direction of our game pushes us into an area where one type of beat resolution might be far more common than another, pushing us into the domains of hopelessness or boredom.
For example, if the characters travel to a peaceful and well-guarded town with few threats, they might enjoy shopping and meeting powerful people. They might enjoy their downtime, for a while at least. But without a threat, without a challenge, their time in the town can get boring. Waterdeep, the jewel of the north, still has a vast dungeon beneath it and a whole city full of smugglers, thieves, and assassins in a vast cave right near by. Conspiracies abound. Residing in peaceful towns is only interesting for so long. We love James Bond movies when he travels to exotic locations but the movie would be pretty boring if the whole movie consisted of Bond traveling by gondola between casinos like Anthony Bourdain in Parts Unknown.
Dungeon crawls are the opposite. Unlike safe and clean cities, dungeons are full of constant and continual danger. They are filled with terrible monsters, vicious traps, and deadly hazards. They are not nice places to visit and yet they are a common theme in many of our D&D games. Because of this, remembering the importance of adding hopeful beats to offset the many inherent fearful beats of a dungeon can be critical to the fun of the session.
Its important to note that beats are a blunt tool for a complicated situation. We might have a table where, for whatever reason, one player has had a series of bad rolls (down beats) while everyone else is doing fine. The same can go the other way; one player is having a great time while everyone else feels like they're being dragged through hell. Though not all players feel the same beats the same way, we can generally keep an eye on the beats of the overall adventure and how its affecting the players.
The following is a list of twenty hopeful dungeon beats we might drop into our game if our dungeon is becoming too hopeless. You can read through these or roll 1d20 to get some ideas for your own dungeon-based hopeful beats.
As constructs inherently designed for downward beats, some common themes emerge in dungeons that amplify the dungeon's fear, leading potentially into hopelessness, frustration, and eventually disengagement from our players. Here are some common downward-beat themes we should be aware of.
Too many hard battles. Our drive to bring a challenge to our characters can result in us dropping too many hard battles against the characters with little chance for a break. Sometimes battles with multiple waves bring great excitement and challenge. Too many in a row, though, can make players feel drained and bored instead of challenged and excited. Instead, throw in some easy encounters where the characters' power can shine.
Too many of the same type of monster. Getting attacked by a group of specters can feel dangerous and exciting as they phase through the walls and attack. Spreading out these specters into three or four scenes of hit-and-run ambushes can become a frustrating drag. In general, avoid encounters that look a lot like ones already faced. Add something new and interesting into each encounter so they don't all feel the same. Likewise, avoid using the same type of monster continually. Facing battle after battle with specters, shadows, ghosts, and bodaks can make players feel like they're just getting their hit points drained over and over. Mix in other monster types that still fit the theme of the story.
Too long without a rest. Limiting opportunities for short and long rests is a well-known and highly-recommended technique to ensure DMs can challenge characters, particularly at high levels. This can go too far. As we watch the characters' resources get drained in a dungeon, we need to be conscious of their current status as the challenges continue. The longer the characters go without a rest, the more fearful their players become. This is ok as long as we're aware of it and able to off-set it with upward beats. When possible and where it makes sense, an opportunity for a short or long rest can be its own powerful upward beat. Perhaps a host of specters has prevented the characters from resting in the dungeon until the necrotic sphere in the dungeon's center was destroyed. Now the specters have vanished and the characters can take a safe rest.
Boring environments. The walls of the dungeon tell a story. Murals, carvings, statues, corpses, torn pages from a journal; all of these details can tell the story of the dungeon. Strange decorations, huge statues in high-vaulted chambers, great rifts that fall into bottomless depths, gruesome altars; all of these details can change the environment and steer us away from endless stone walls, narrow passages, and 30-foot-square rooms. Add details and fantastic elements to catch the imagination of the players and show them the uniqueness of the area they explore.
No new information. Traveling from hallway to hallway, from room to room, fighting monsters and learning nothing can get boring and stale fast. Each room, hallway, challenge, and monster offers a new opportunity to learn something. They might learn the history of the dungeon. They might learn why it was built the way it was. They might learn a secret few know about. They might learn about their villain. Use every scene as an opportunity to reveal a piece of the story of the world.
No clear goal. "Why are we doing again?" Because of their dangerous nature, its important that the characters know why they are facing the dangers they face within a dungeon. Without a clear goal progress is unknown. Hopelessness and frustration soon follow. Keeping the goal clear and showing progress towards that goal gives the characters, and the players, something to hang onto while they face the deadly challenges of the dungeon.
No warning. If the players don't realize they're going to be headed into a resource-draining dungeon with few opportunities to rest, they can become frustrated quickly when it dawns upon them; often after they've spent a good deal of resources early on. Warning them of the coming trials can help them prepare and sets them up psychologically for the challenge they will face. Sometimes this can be a warning from a friendly NPC or information gleaned from an old explorer's notes. Other times we might warn them of something their characters would recognize that the players may not. "Seeing the threats in this dungeon, you do not think you'll able to rest safely for some time." When the players are prepared for the challenge, they can keep some of their hopelessness and frustration in check. It was, after all, expected.
Constant combat. Combat is likely the most common challenge in Dungeons & Dragons and it's easy to overuse it. Filling a dungeon with battle after battle can get stale fast. Just because our dungeon is an ancient vault untouched for centuries doesn't mean we can't fill it up with exploration and roleplaying as much as any other scene. Roleplaying can come from ghosts, other explorers, turncoat monsters, divine entities, or intelligent items. Exploration can bathe the walls of the dungeon, revealing all kinds of secrets and clues. We need to keep our drive to fill a dungeon with monsters in check by ensuring the characters have just as much opportunity to explore the dungeon and interact with its denizens as they are fighting foes.
Dungeons, by their nature, break away from our natural storytelling instincts to modulate emotional beats. The inherent danger and hopelessness of a dungeon pushes downward beats easily and requires extra effort on our part to offset them with suitable upward beats that make sense within the context of the story. While we all have fond memories of D&D's most popular dungeons such as the Tomb of Horrors, Castle Ravenloft, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and the Tomb of the Nine Gods we might also remember the frustration and hopelessness that drives players to think less about how their characters survive such challenges and more about how mechanical design screwed them over.
Bathe your dungeons in stories and lore, drop in interesting NPCs, and let the characters discover a hidden vault with a forgotten fountain of rejuvenating water. Watch the downward beats, drop in upward beats, and turn your dungeon crawl into an exciting tale fondly remembered.