Friday, June 10, 2016

Dungeon Mastery

No, not dungeon mastering.  That's the shit with the rulebooks and the rulings and using a Mountain Dew can like a judge's gavel.

I'm talking about dungeon mastery: players improving by learning about the dungeon (or at least acquiring the perfect set of tools for it).

There's an analogue here with system mastery, which is where you get better at the game by learning more about the game system.  I hate that shit (except for the days when I pine for Pathfinder).

The simplest type of dungeon mastery is simply learning the layout.  This allows the party to (a) retreat to safer, known areas, (b) choose preferential paths to a single goal, and (c) frequently gain some insight into the dungeon's tertiary structure--a blank spot on the map might be a hidden room, for example.

But the knowledge advantage can extend to learning how the dungeon functions.  The party finally realizes that the small, strange rooms are actually elevators.  Or they learn the derro languange that allows them to (sort of) translate the derro graffiti in every room.  Or they observe a goblin sentry and learn that the trio of shriekers can be bypassed with an offering of crab steak.

All of these things improve access, useful warnings, and safety (respectively).  They also give the party new tools to exploit to their advantage.  The party could craft a graffito that leads a derro tongue-eater squad into danger, for example.

And dungeon-specific tools are part of dungeon mastery, too.  Keys to use the elevator.  Dictionaries to learn written derro.  A sack of disgusting crab steaks.

Dungeon mastery can also come from making alliances with inter-dungeon groups.  Convincing the ratmen to fight the catmen, for example, or hiring a guide from the batmen to navigate the Caverns of Khotep-atmen.

So, there we have three types of dungeon mastery.

  1. Knowledge (especially of the map).
  2. Material
  3. Social

This is how you tame a dungeon.

You are effectively making the dungeon easier (or at least, getting better at exploiting it, which amounts to the same thing).  And you will need that advantage, because the dungeon is only going to get harder as you go on.

It is a very real form of character progression, fully analogous to leveling up.  You get more powerful, and you have more options.  Compared to character class progression, dungeon mastery is (a) more organic and less codified, (b) localized to a single location, and (c) usually knowledge-based, which multiplies itself from player skill rather than character skill.

Most forms of dungeon mastery are well-suited for non-linear dungeons.  In fact, when people say that non-linear dungeons are great, I usually assume that they are lauding the opportunities for dungeon mastery.

Linear dungeons have a lot to recommend them.  But dungeons with complex topology do lend themselves to dungeon mastery, mostly since dungeon mastery involves gaining some new advantage against a prior obstacle, and in linear dungeons the players will progress in only one direction.

(I should write a post on linear vs non-linear dungeons.)

by Richie Cyngler
More Examples

- All of a dungeon's traps are clearly labeled by Morlocks, who have already explored much of the dungeon.  By paying close attention to how the untranslated words correspond to the traps, a smart party can figure out the Morlock words for "floor", "wall", "stairs", "poison", "spear", "dart", etc.

- The east door is opened by a small lever set into the ground at the east end of the hallway.  The west door opens the same way, but the entire west end of the hallway is covered in collapsed rubble, which would take a long time to clear.  If the party thinks to search under the rubber in the mirrored location of the east lever, they'll find the west lever in just a few minutes.

- The copper key opened the door between two parts of the dungeon that the party had already explored, so it wasn't immediately exciting.  But when they ran into the black pudding, they were easily able to lure it through the copper door, into the flame trap hallway where it failed all its Reflex saves and produced some truly unforgettable smells as it burned.

- Towards the end of the dungeon, the party comes across another mural where the the blue tiles of a fish have been smashed in to reveal a small compartment containing a sleeping viper lurking in the shadows.  Not much of a treasure hall, but acute players will remember that there was another mural near the beginning of the dungeon, with another blue-tiled fish, which conceals a tiny chamber containing a single sapphire earring shaped like a fish, worth 400gp.

Notice that in all of these examples, a stupid-but-determined party could still clear the obstacle (albeit more painfully).  Traps can still be eluded.  Rubble can still be cleared.  Oozes can be killed the hard way.  And if the party misses out on a single earring, they'll get over it.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about this very same thing in the context of setting mastery the last few days. If you have a setting that is reasonably compact, any piece of dungeon mastery you pick up in one place can also be applied in some other dungeons that are being explored later. If you don't have completely different inhabitants in each place then your derro knowledge will become useful again.
    I think this could be a quite interesting approach to worldbuilding that gets you a setting with depth and complexity, but without having lots of historic lore the players don't care about. Dungeon mastery knowledge is things that players would be much more interested in learning and remembering.