When I had first started gaming, we used a style that we don’t
use anymore. The Dungeon Master would tell us very specific things about the
place that we were in, and another player would draw it on graph paper, mapping
our progress. The point behind this was not OCD, it was because we knew that we
were in a labyrinth, basically playing “find the flag”, the map that we had
told us where we had already been and gave us clues as to where to go.
We abandoned this style many years ago for something more
descriptive, it wasn’t intentional, it just happened. Underground complexes got
smaller, and easier to manage, I wanted the underground section to only last a
session or two. We all know that they call it a “Dungeon Crawl” for a reason,
it slows down the game. Most of my story would take place above ground, with
the dungeon typically being the climax. They weren’t ever all that long, it
wasn’t anything so advanced that the players really needed a map, they were
more or less cattle shoots, my monsters were finite, I knew exactly how many
beings were down there, they weren’t static, but it was possible for the
players to kill every last one of them and successfully clear a dungeon.
If I had a feeling that the dungeon was larger than what can
be accomplished in one session, I’d create rooms that could easily be made
safe, the players didn’t have to worry about this. Once they killed the big bad
boss, the scenario was over, they got their treasure, we calculated XP, and the
next scene would take place back at the inn or whatever. All of this is
incredibly lazy. It was instituted to make play faster, more story-like. Also,
now that I think about it, more video game-like.
A few years ago, one of my players wanted to DM, he had
bought the Forgotten Realms box set Undermountain and he never got a
chance to actually use it, so I rolled up a character and let him DM. We had a
great time until we found the entrance that we were looking for, then he
suddenly started telling us how long the hallways were, how big the rooms were,
boring colorless information. Once in a while he’d give us a real description,
but not to often. We all laughed and ribbed him about it for years, assuming
that he was just that rusty at game mastering. We had him convinced that the
error was his, but now that I think about it, the error was ours.
He was playing a different game, we were playing one of our
typical story driven games that we were used to, and he was playing that
classic style of old-school D&D. Instead of listening to what he was
telling us, turning around and grabbing the old fashioned graph paper, a ruler,
and some tape; we laughed at him. Here is the deal, as soon as we crawled down
into that hole, and failed to start mapping our progress, we were dead. Total
Party Kill. We just didn’t have the sense to know that we were dead. Our
characters are still down there, either dead from starvation, eaten by some hideous
beast, or enslaved by something even worse. It didn’t end well.
I used to cringe at the mere thought of such things, today
they are referred to as Underdark™ so technically they are still with
us, but for the most part and by most tables, ignored for whatever reason. I
think that the reason why we ignore it so much is that Dungeon Crawls as my
table uses them today are incredibly slow, I cringe about drawing them out even
further, and I kind of associate them with my early days of DMing, when I was
still learning and not very good at all, but here is the weird thing, I didn’t
hardly ever run this style of game. I quickly abandoned it and instead worked
on descriptions and ways to bring NPCs alive. I played that style WAY more than
I ran it. I associate it with our days of sitting down and actually drawing PC
Player Sheets because we couldn’t afford to buy them. I also am always going to
be in a state where I am unlearning, just when I think that I have all of the
Edition lies wiped from my mind, I find something like this that is still
there, and it is telling me that Mega-Dungeons aren’t fun. That they are
old-fashioned and were just something that people used to do. That they limit
games and hog the spotlight. I could go on and on, but none of it is really
As a DM I still prefer Graph Paper when doing my mapping. To
me it is a lot faster and easier than using a computer. I have also gotten lazy
about the size of my maps, esthetically, a one sheet map is pleasing, but what
is esthetically pleasing isn’t always what is best for the game. I have also
gotten in the habit of cheating with my maps. Instead of charting them
accurately, I’ll make notations, like ‘This passage really extends 4 miles’
when the players hit it during play, I roll for 1 encounter and skip all the
way to the end of the passage, which is horrible!
I digress, when we took away Graph Paper as a player tool, I
feel that we dumbed down the game, there are things that this style allows that
you can’t achieve when you don’t use it. While initially it is slow, and the DM
will have to refigure how to accomplish his descriptions, we can do something
that we can’t normally do, which is change the map. Advanced users enjoy making
sure that their monsters aren’t static, but we do it in a very static
environment, when the players draw their own map, we can bring the dungeons
truly alive. We can damage the environment and cause the players to rethink
things because they can detect them, they have their own map right there!
It also provides a game which your players won’t expect,
typically, in your modern game once you find the flag (the boss), the game is
over, but with this method, you now have the added challenge of navigating and
fighting your way back out, while you are injured from your initial target. Actually
escaping this thing successfully becomes a reward all unto itself.
Drawing a map is a skill, DMs have it but players may not,
so just handing them a sheet of graph paper and leaving them to it will
probably just lead to frustration. Even if they had played this way in the
past, they’ll need a little bit of time to re-acquire the old skill set, and we
DMs will have to acquire it too, as it is really up to us to give them
descriptions accurately so that they can draw the map. It is best to start
Create a Novice Dungeon, which will probably be bigger than
what you had done in the past. You want lots of passages, but mind the doors!
You are going to find things in this Novice Dungeon that you did wrong and only
serve to make accurately describing the dungeons too difficult. During regular
play, we can put 3 doors on the side of a passageway, but how are you going to describe
these doors to your players in a way that they can map? Our design has to
factor this in. It is fine to add detail, but pay attention to what is
Perhaps it would be best to have the players find a map,
which you hand them partially completed. The map itself is old and is now
inaccurate, but they won’t know this. This map should have your basic symbols
on them, Doors, secret doors, traps, ambushes, stuff like that, but it is only
a partial map. At some point they will encounter a blockage, one that they can’t
bypass and are forced to leave the safety of this map and start charting their
own progress. Since this is a novice scenario, create the map with them. If
they make errors, correct them right away so that they can fix it. This helps
the DM too, you cannot allow yourself to give them bad descriptions.
Now we’ll play a similar scenario, roughly the same size,
but have them go in blind. They will be creating the map, and if we were
satisfied with our progress from the novice play-test, we’ll let them make this
map independently.We won’t help with
the process, and not check it ourselves until the players have found the flag.
Once the goal has been completed, we’ll ask to see the map that they created
and check it. If it is inaccurate then they had failed the scenario and must
find their way back out, but if they succeeded, you can start using the more
NOTES ON PLAY-TESTING
The focus need not be on play-testing, I’d suggest keeping
it core to your campaign.
If you need to, light the dungeon the first couple of times.
Once you are comfortable with this style, then you can start limiting the
descriptions to just the field of view, which allows more of a complex dungeon
to be designed.The light will also
clearly show the boundaries of our gaming scenario. Leaving the map should not
be allowed until the basic skills have been mastered.
Traditionally, the deeper that you go, the harder the
monsters, sometimes there are stairs, but sometimes there isn’t, it is a ramp
that may not be detectable unless there is a dwarf, gnome, or Halfling in the
party.If you want to be nice, you can
show them how to draw one-dimensional maps, a hall that extends under or over a
room and doesn’t dead end is a clue that you’ve changed levels and it is time
to start a new map.
Stocking a big map like this is exactly like stocking a
large city map, you’ll have your triggered events, but mostly it will be
randomly generated, so put some care into creating your tables. It helps to
break the dungeon down into sections, with each section having its own random
encounters lists. It doesn’t hurt to have
non-combat events either, but make sure that these are temporary, if they aren’t,
you’ll have to add them to the map.
Drawing always aids my creativity, I think about ecology and
what is happening in this place. The dungeon itself tells me a story, for the
most part, the halls are made of either rough or worked stone, if this changes,
if they enter a section of hall that has something different than that, then I
will tell them.I don’t make a complete
key, as we don’t know what rooms the players will and won’t explore, and I hate
doing too much work. Much of the fine details can be established during play. I
might mark a trap, and then if the players stumble into it I’ll iron out the
fine details. The most important thing is the maze itself, this should be
logical, as we’ll be using the structure to give clues.If the players fully map around a small
section of map, that may indicate a secret room. It is okay for halls to
dead-end, this place is old and has been modified for centuries to fit the
needs of different occupants.
This style is very easy to master, and its benefits are to
be explored. We’ll be able to do things that we couldn’t normally do if the
players didn’t make a map; Things that normally would present problems, or have
to be rehashed over and over again. They shouldn’t be mapping just to map,
there should be a benefit of some kind, it will allow them to avoid traps, and
ambushes, tell them where they had been so they don’t run around in circles.
You can make weird effects happen, like all of their metal equipment turns to
wood when they walk through a pillar, when they walk back through it, the
effect reverses. You can get really creative and wild here!
If you had never done this before, then there are probably
some things in the handbooks which may not had made sense to you before, that
could be because it is assuming that you are playing this style, it’s built
into the system. In this environment it is safe to really cut loose, make it as
deadly as you want, all of those unfair monsters that newbies bitch about, this
is where you use them. They don’t have to walk through a section that is
trapped, it is faster, but they’ll pay with damage, they can take a different
route if they want to, or this was planned and they have to walk through it on
their way in, weakening them some, softening them up for the enemy, or maybe it
will work in their favor, perhaps the enemy thinks that since that section is
trapped, then they won’t expect an attack from that direction?
This system is meant to make tracking the passage of time
easier, 1 session typically = 1 day. Spell casters should prepare their spell
lists, and it makes it easier to calculate expendable equipment, such as
torches, lantern fuel, and food/water. Resources can play an important part in
this game. 1 hour of real time, can equal 1 hour of game time.
This map is also equipment, and subject to the laws of
physics, if the player who is drawing the map is blinded, he can’t draw his
map, nor can he see it. If the party irritates a fire-breathing something or
other, the map must make a saving throw or burn.You can be as mean or as nice as you want. If
the map is destroyed, then take it away.It is best to spend money on some nice paper, and figure out a good
method of drawing, as well as a case of some kind because everybody’s lives
depends on keeping this map safe! Especially in the lowest pits of the earth
where light isn’t welcome.
I don’t know about you, but I am a much better Dungeon
Master than I was in the 90’s, and I think that if I apply all that I had
learned over the years, and put it into this concept that I can really rock this
out! What I refer to as “stories” actually has been reduced considerably, and
my underground sections have gotten admittedly stale compared to my wilderness
How about you? Have you ever played this style of game before?
Are you still playing it now, or did you abandon it as well? As a player, would
you be interested in this style or not? Let me know in the comments below!