Just Because a Dungeon Numbers Every Room Doesn’t Mean Players Have To Explore Room-by-Room

If I had run Expedition to the Barrier Peaks when it reached me in 1980, the first session might have ended in frustration. Barrier Peaks includes lots of empty rooms. Of the 100 or so rooms on the first level, fewer than 20 contain anything of interest. I would have dutifully let the players poke through 80 rooms of “jumbled furniture and rotting goods,” gaining “only bits of rag or odd pieces of junk.” Two hours into that grind, my players would suddenly remember that their moms wanted them home.

Level 1 of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

In 1980, we ran every dungeon room at the same speed: The pace where players describe their movement and actions in careful detail because if they fail to look under the bed, they might overlook the coins, and if they never mention checking the door, they die in its trap.

Some dungeon masters then and a few now would say that dutifully running level 1 as a room-by-room crawl builds tension. Besides, Barrier Peaks includes wandering monsters to add excitement. Then as now, the pacing of dungeon exploration depends on players. Some enjoy a more methodical pace while others grow impatient for action. But even players who favor careful play will appreciate skipping the slow parts. After the players poke through three or four rooms full of rubbish, dungeon masters can summarize groups of similar rooms by saying they hold nothing of interest.

Even though modern adventures seldom contain sprawls of empty rooms, they often include locations best summarized. For example, Dragon of Icespire peak includes Butterskull Ranch, a 10 location manor occupied by orcs. Once my players defeated the orcs and nothing threatened them, I summarized their characters’ search of the house instead of forcing a room-by-room waste of play time. When players defeat the main threat in a dungeon and erase most of the peril, they lose patience for careful exploration. You can just summarize the loot and discoveries that remain.

Any site that merits numbered locations can mix areas that deserve different paces of play from square-by-square attention to cutting to the next scene.

As you pace the game at such a site, choose between methodical exploration and a summary based on the novelty, peril, and choices ahead of the players. When players first enter a dungeon, they face all three elements. A new dungeon starts with novelty because players know little about the threats and discoveries ahead. Even with all those empty rooms, the crashed spaceship at Barrier Peaks starts with unprecedented novelty. If a dungeon lacks peril, then its just an archaeological site; summarize the discoveries. Dungeons tend to start with key choices over marching order, light, and strategy. Does the party plan to explore carefully or rush ahead to stop the midnight ritual? Will they listen at doors or check for traps? Does someone scout?

Once these choices set a pattern and the dungeon starts to seem familiar, DMs can summarize the exploration until the situation changes.

Especially when you run a big dungeon like Barrier Peaks, you can switch your pace between methodical exploration and summary many times during a session. In the areas with nothing new to discover and no threats to face, take the shortcut of summarizing. Then when the players encounter something new, slow to a pace that lets them account for every action. “What do you want to do?”

6 thoughts on “Just Because a Dungeon Numbers Every Room Doesn’t Mean Players Have To Explore Room-by-Room

  1. Archimedes

    I appreciate the thoughts on this. It makes me think about running an archeological dig, where the players are provided with a basic map of the area with notes about key things to look at – stuff like a wall full of inscriptions, a mosaic floor, a statue hall, etc. Then, they can decide which sections they want to explore further, and we can have some skill check scenarios using Perception, Investigation, Athletics, Sleight of Hand, and Insight. Once they figure out a statue can be moved, disarm the trap and move it, we can have some immediate peril.

    Also, if I were to run Expedition to the Barrier Peaks again, I would use Dyson Logos’ redrawn maps. They give me more of an alien vibe. https://dysonlogos.blog/maps/multi-page-dungeons/return-to-the-barrier-peaks/

  2. Duncan Idaho

    Have you found a good way to summarize traps? Something like “You clear the rest of this wing of the dungeon. Along the way, you disarm 6 traps. Unfortunately the 7th does 5hp damage to The rogue.”

  3. thekarmikbob

    Agreed, in general. However “When players defeat the main threat in a dungeon and erase most of the peril, they lose patience for careful exploration. You can just summarize the loot and discoveries that remain.” omits cases where changing to summarization is not warranted. Duncan Idaho pointed 1 out relating to traps, above. I would add key clues and/or treasures. With the main threat neutralized, I would still want the PC’s to choose to explore to find the Golden key of Nak they needed, and along the way had to diffuse a pretty nasty trap. Of course, sometimes I would just put that certain object in with the final threat they defeated – unless story bound it in such a way that that didn’t make sense.

    1. Frederick Coen

      thekarmikbob, one might say that nasty trap guarding the Golden Key is still an important threat / bit of peril. If the trap does no more than “some hp of damage” though… and all foes – and all time constraints – are gone… who cares? If the trap is potentially lethal, then it still needs to be run. If you have home rules that make *any* given injury potentially long-lasting or life-threatening, then it still needs to be run. My paladin recently suffered three long-term injuries from fricking *penguins* because of such rules – not upset about the rules, but to demonstrate that in such a case, such an insignificant threat still mattered, even though the *hp* damage was gone the next day.

      But if the final trap does 30 fire damage at most, and the level 7 rogue has 42hp, and Evasion, and Uncanny Dodge… make a quick roll, and narrate the acquisition of the Key.

      Ultimately, I trend more to this style now simply because I’m older. Getting my group of 40- and 50-somethings together happens at best once every couple weeks, on a work night, for just 3-4 hours. I don’t want to waste half a session while they carefully search each room for clues and secrets. On the other hand, I have multiple time-based stories occuring with and without the PCs’ involvement, so while *Session* time is save with a quick summary, *Game World* time fast-forwards according to their stated actions in the summary! A careful search of the remaining rooms yields the most treasure and clues; a quick search uses far less time, which might be more valuable later!

  4. Larry W.

    Such good advice. Why are simple ideas like this so often not obvious? I recently ran Ghosts of Saltmarsh and had a similar experience while the party explored the haunted house. It felt like a bit of a drag going room by room. After the first couple of rooms, which would have set the tone for the adventure, why didn’t I just ask the players if they wanted to explore a whole floor, wing or hallway of rooms, ask what precautions they were taking, and let them know when they found something interesting? The pace of the adventure would have been much improved. Next time I will.

  5. Pingback: What Choose-Your-Adventure Books Can Teach Game Masters About Pacing and Decisions | DMDavid

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