Stocking the Dungeon

This morning while reading other blog posts I became aware of Dizzy Dragon’s Adventure Generator, a nice online random dungeon generator that uses Dyson‘s geomorphs as its basis.  I happen to really like his geomorphs, and this generator is unique in that it incorporates random stocking of the dungeon using B/X and AD&D charts.

I am home for Thanksgiving, and have offered to run an adventure today for my brothers.  I was briefly tempted to run one of these random dungeons, even though I have Palace of the Vampire Queen on me and am eager to give that a try.  However, despite Dyson’s very cool art in these maps, after reading through one of the random dungeons I find it pretty lacking.  Like any of these random dungeon generators, it’s simply too random.  There’s no feeling of purpose behind anything in the dungeon, or anything that connects one room to the next.

Some may argue that this is “by the book” old school dungeon creation.  However, I think anyone who doggedly follows the dungeon stocking charts in the back of any of the old texts is missing something important.  I happened to be re-reading the LBBs yesterday, and landed on this part in volume 3:

The determination of just where monsters should be placed, and whether or not they will be guarding treasure, and how much of the latter if they are guarding something, can be burdensome when faced with several levels to do at one time.  It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monsterous guardians, and then switch to random determination for the balance of the level.

OD&D, Volume III, p. 6

I think all of the texts include some statement along this lines, that the expectation is that you place the important stuff first, and then use the random charts to fill in the rest.  Random charts are great, they can certainly spark your imagination when you’ve got nothing to go one, but I think this first pass at intentional placement is extremely important.  This is what gives your dungeon that feeling of purpose, and usually what drives the hook that brings the players into its depths.

Players will rarely enter a dungeon without some kind of foreknowledge of its contents.  Rumors of a hidden treasure, maps of some particular section, or just knowledge that one of the inhabitants is terrorizing the nearby village is enough.  I think this concept is one that’s often overlooked simply because it’s not codified strongly in the books.  But how could it be?  This is the part where you imagine your setting, to give the dungeons the context in which they can exist.  How do you right rules for how to imagine?

I am rambling.  My point is this: random charts, geomorphs, and online generators are all excellent tools for sparking the imagination, but by themselves they are not enough.  It’s that “thoughtful placement” of the “most important” elements that sells the dungeon.  At some point, the DM simply must apply some creative thought to his world, even if it is just a one-shot dungeon crawl on lazy afternoon.

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3 Comments

  1. Agreed. Very much.

    Other addendum I’ve written on before is how the Vol-3 charts are themselves specific to one dungeon, i.e. Greyhawk. When you try to full genericize them (DMG) they don’t work as well. Then in MM2 EGG tried to fix that with a make-your-own tables approach.

  2. As a further note on that dungeon generator and stuff like it: No one ever uses the “dungeon dressing” stuff correctly, and it really rubs me the wrong way. I’ll avoid detailing it here, but in short the comments with the dressing tables about how much to use and when are ignored to an even greater degree.

  3. Good points and good post. Just to bolster your point, there’s this quote from Dave Arneson in his First Fantasy Campaign that says much the same thing: “Additional variations were added by organizing Home Bases for the Orc Tribes, and special treasure troves. These were simply arrived at by drawing up some lists of these events and using the dice to determine which level they were located on. Thus the upper levels would occasionally have quite powerful encounters. I also would simply examine the level on which these items were located to find, whet I felt to be, the best level on which to locate the treasure.” 1980:30

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