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Dungeon Crawls Versus Situations

by Mike on 16 October 2023

Sometimes the line between running a dungeon crawl and running a larger situation – like a heist – isn't so clear. They both have locations. They both have goals. They both have inhabitants. But both styles of games run differently. Each type has a structure we follow when we're preparing them and running them.

It behooves us GMs to compare these two structures. What defines the difference between a dungeon crawl and a larger situation-based adventure?

The answer is: goals and circumstances.

Different Types of Dungeon Goals

Characters should always have a goal when delving into a dungeon – be it a series of caverns, an old temple, a ruined castle, an ancient crypt, or a mysterious manor. Maybe it's to find treasure. Maybe it's to find information. Maybe it's to kill a nasty boss. There are always reasons to go into a dangerous dungeon — otherwise, why go into such a horrible place?

Sometimes these goals require crawling from room to room, avoiding wandering monsters, checking for traps, worrying about lighting and visibility, and so on. Other times these goals mean finding the main room, getting in, doing your job, and leaving before something terrible happens.

A scenario in which the characters must light the four braziers of Set to open the obsidian door to the shadowed vault likely requires crawling through a dungeon to find said braziers and locate the door.

A scenario to rescue the king's nephew from the cultists of Set before they sacrifice him to their serpent god might not require so thorough a dungeon crawl. Find the chamber, free the prince, and escape.

Example Goals

Here are five examples of more dungeon-crawly goals. These goals lend themselves towards adventures in which the characters travel through a larger part of a dungeon seeking one or more things without a big time constraint.

And here are five examples of more situation / heist-style goals. These goals focus more on a single specific quest taking place in a larger location. These goals are more focused on getting in, accomplishing the goal, and getting out.

Different Types of Circumstances

Circumstances also dictate whether the characters approach a dungeon as a crawl or as a situation. Are there lots of wandering patrols? Is something important to the story happening soon? Would crawling through every room take the characters away from their goal? Are events changing while the characters might be exploring? Any of these circumstances might shift the characters away from crawling room to room and drive them towards the main goal instead.

Do the characters know the layout of the dungeon? If they know the layout, they know where to go to accomplish their goal. If they don't have a map, they'll have to crawl the dungeon and learn where to go. Sometimes the characters have a partial map devoid of secret hallways, hidden chambers, or underground tunnels. They know most of the location, but not all of it.

Know Your Adventure Structure

When building an adventure or running a published adventure, you may not know right away whether you're running a dungeon crawl or a more dynamic situation. In Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the Palace of Heart's Desire looks like a big place to explore with 51 areas to investigate. In reality, the characters may only visit a handful of rooms depending on how you run it and the choices the characters make.

When preparing a location for your game, ask yourself if the characters are going to treat it like a dungeon crawl or treat the whole thing as a situation. Then choose the approach that fits the structure.

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