Building the dungeon on the fly

Building the dungeon on the fly

Building the dungeon on the fly

“Dungeon Moves are a special subset that are used to make or alter a dungeon on the fly.” (168)

Do you successfully use the dungeon moves listed to create dungeons on the fly as the players explore?

I haven’t done that. In my last campaign we successfully used dungeon modules, like Keep on the Borderlands, Death Frost Doom, and others. And my current campaign has focused on world travel—I keep some Dyson-drawn dungeon maps handy just in case, but we have only used map-based locations a few times.

But part of the appeal of dungeon exploration for me, as a GM and as a player, is having a convincing and internally-consistent alien (or at least hostile) environment. As a player, I like knowing that pulling a lever in room A has a designated effect in room C, even if I have to figure out what it was. As the GM, I feel clumsy presenting a convincing and internally-consistent environment for exploration without some prior investment in thinking through its terrain, hazards, resources, and puzzles.

I don’t need a detailed location key, and I’m a lot more comfortable working with Fronts than before. But having a map on the detail-gradient of a one-page dungeon is just about perfect: The broad strokes of how everything fits together are established, but there is also enough ambiguity and blankness for the player-facing questions and a few grim portents to add dynamism and suspense. But even the one-page dungeon is a bit much to ask my brain for on the fly.

I remember once playing in a game where it was obvious the GM was making up the dungeon on the fly, and it felt like nothing we did mattered. We explored his maze, but we were going to find the same encounters whether we turned left or right. That was very unsatisfying, and I prefer to avoid it.

If you use DW’s dungeon moves to successfully create convincing dungeoncrawls, I’d love to hear what I’m missing, and how. I know there is a Perilous supplement that addresses “dungeoneering on the fly” directly, but I’d like to focus first on Dungeon World core.

What is your experience?

16 thoughts on “Building the dungeon on the fly”

  1. I love improv dungeons, but I don’t have any sort of method. I’ve just been winging it long enough…

    I think the method in the Planarch Codex best fits with what I do – create 2-3 dangerous categories of things (say primitive skinkmen, wooden traps, and fungus & moss) and then I throw them at the players from room to room, using the players ideas about what they think the place is or what they expect to find to shape what is there.

  2. Deep Six Delver I think you’re maybe assuming too much from that one sentence? In particular, you seem to be ignoring the sentence that comes immediately after it: “Use these if your players are exploring a hostile area that you don’t already have planned completely.”

    Together (along with the instruction to Exploit Your Prep and the principle of Draw Maps, Leave Blanks), I think the book is telling you “hey, prep as much or as little for a location as you have time for and as you think you need, and here are the GM moves you’ll lean on when the PCs are exploring that place.”

    (I do think the DW text could have been a lot more helpful in this regards… there’s almost 0 specific guidance on how to prep a location as opposed to a Front.)

    My personal sweet spot for prep is:

    * A map with very little keying or description, like a a Dyson or Monkeyblood map, maybe with some words or details noted in the margins.

    * What the dungeon is or was: a crypt, a prison, a keep, a vault, the sewers beneath the city, etc. The map (if I’m using someone else’s) will almost always imply this.

    * Some sense of history: who built it, how long ago, what was their shtick, and what (if anything) has caused it to fall into ruin or disuse. The level of detail here depends entirely on where we are in the campaign and the world building. For the first session, I might have absolutely nothing except some questions to ask.

    * Some ideas about who’s currently occupying it and/or active within it… old spirits long ago imprisoned, bandits or goblins infesting the ruins, dire bats hanging out in the entrance, etc. Again, at the beginning of the game, I might not have anything other than questions for this.

    * Some grim portents/impending doom, though I’ll often be much looser with this than how the book describes it. For example: “Flora (the artificer’s rival cousin, with a “real” party of adventurers) will arrive in 2 days.” “One-Tusk (the baboon chief that the druid awakened and taught magic) is getting more and more powerful, tapping into the dark power bound in the caves and making deals with the river spirit.” Enough to give the PCs some time pressure and/or a trajectory for the NPCs and threats.

    In a pinch, I can get by without some or all of this, but when I’ve got all of this, things hum for me. I don’t feel the need to plot out traps or treasures, or which monsters are necessarily where, or to stat up monsters, or so forth. That’s where the Dungeon Moves (and my ability to improvise) come into play.

    I’m sure others have different “sweet spots” for prep, though! I’d love to hear what they are.

  3. See I have interesting sessions with no prep, but I don’t think they fit the concept of a traditional dungron crawl. I have a dislike for a lot of those things (10′ increments, checking for traps, nonsense secret doors, etc). My last improv dungeon had a lot of “you pass by maybe 30-40 rooms, all holding a small cot and empty foot locker” sort of things that doesn’t require entering every room, checking for traps, checking for secret doors, searching under the bed and the foot locker, etc.

    I handwave common areas and distance, and give them unique rooms or encounters as the pace permits.

  4. Aaron Griffin, would be willing to talk about the thought process that gets you to “30-40 small rooms, each with a cot and an empty foot locker?”

    Like: I totally get the scene framing aspect of saying that they pass through a large area of mostly undifferentiated space.

    But where does the detail come from, for you? What was already established in your mind before before you sat down to play? What did you ask the players/characters to establish that detail?

    How would you handle it differently in a small dungeon, like a Lycian tomb or the Jovitos temple at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark?

    I can imagine how I’d do it, and how I’d get there, but I’m really interested in what process looks like.

  5. Jeremy Strandberg​​​​ a bit of both. It was “discovered” in play based on what the players said. The specific process went like this:

    – internal gm: it’s a research facility where they experiment on humans, this was a known that they were going towards.

    – I have no plan, so I ask them what sort of prep they’re making

    – someone said they expected an army so we’re gonna get some troops

    – internal gm: cool, ok, it’s got a barracks then

    – another player says they’d have heard of the facility before if the experiments were successful, so something might not have worked out

    – internal gm: ok now it’s abandoned. Abandoned barracks with something creeeeeepy, cool

    – external gm: ok so the outside of the facility is dark, covered in vines…

    (Edits for clarity)

  6. Jeremy Strandberg, I didn’t interpret it to say creating dungeons on the fly was the default way or only way to play, but I did take it to mean that it was a possibility.

    And as you noted, for a game called Dungeon World, the text offers sparse instruction on creating dungeons. “Draw maps, leave blanks” is just about it!

    When I first got into Dungeon World, I was under the impression that creating dungeons on the fly was the widely accepted default way to play. My own close reading of the rules didn’t absolutely support that view, and your sweet spot for dungeon prep sounds pretty sweet to me too.

    Now that I’m more comfortable using Fronts than I was then, I want to better understand the tools Dungeon World does offer for creating dungeon environments. Since the dungeon moves are there, I was curious how people use those.

    Better yet, in my mind, would be having a procedural dungeon generator similar to the monster-creation questionnaire, to spur the prep. Hmmmm…

    I do have Vince Baker’s Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, which lets you define a wizardly dungeon location by making choices similar to those you make in creating a character in DW. But in my usage of it, it’s somewhat ineffectual when it comes to creating a map of the location.

    I want my dungeons like this! – The Alexandrian » Jaquaying the Dungeon – Part 2: The Jaquays Techniques

    Alas, there is no substitute for premeditation and skill.

  7. If my players are looking for a detailed dungeon crawl, I use the Perilous Wilds dungeon creation tools, but do all the random rolling in advance, make some minor structure tweaks if the pacing feels off (e.g. too many combat encounters in a row or empty common rooms), and then put a handful of descriptive details on the side about the rooms and the discoveries and/or dangers within. I do some visualization, but I don’t draw a map yet. I like to do so during AP as the players progress so I’m not locked into the framework generated prior to play. I can just drop in interesting rooms or portions of the dungeon from my notes when I think they make the most sense. It’s worked really well for me when players are looking for this sort of crawl.

    However, I’ve found that it can take a few sessions to get through dungeons this way, so it is not by go to for one-shots. For one-shots I prefer to save prep for the 15 minute break after character creation. I get my thoughts in order and establish a basic frame work of scenes instead. If some of these scenes take place in a dungeon I get pretty “zoomed out” with the players moving through the dungeon until we get to that important room. Think more the traveling montage as the Fellowship moves through the Mines of Moria until they get to the tomb.

    As I’ve gotten more and more experience with the game, I’ve found myself moving more and more to the latter with my campaigns as well. I think it better aligns with the “theatre of the mind” style of play DW seems to push you towards. However, I do get excited when my players ask for a dungeon crawl. It’s really fun going through the Perilous Wilds rules to develop the framework of a dungeon (just not necessarily needed for DW to shine).

    Hope it helps!

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