In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappear. Players gain time for painstaking caution. After every 5-minute adventuring day, characters can recuperate. As locked doors fall to axes and walls fall to picks, dungeon obstacles disappear.
Every adventure needs a source of time pressure. In the original D&D game, time pressure came from the threat of wandering monsters. But wandering monsters suffer drawbacks. The threat of wandering monsters speeds the game, but a random fight against 1d4 basilisks just stalls the narrative. See Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract.
As D&D matured, characters found bigger goals than “loot the dungeon.” Dungeon masters gained another source of time pressure: A race against time or against enemies. Escape the Hidden Shrine before poison gas chokes you. Retrieve the Rod of Seven Parts before rivals. Chase a crazed Derro through tunnels. Slay a giant lord before reinforcements arrive.
In the best adventures, whenever players consider whether they can rest, they must weigh the cost of stopping. But when a goal takes days or weeks to achieve, little of that urgency drives the characters in the dungeon. When characters face months campaigning against evil, a little extra time in the dungeon hardly matters.
How can a dungeon master make dungeon adventures feel tense and active? In this post, I share 4 classic techniques. Then I tell a secret: the lazy way to make stopping in a dungeon feel like a risk.
Make random encounters better
Not every dungeon brings the urgency of poison gas or a midnight summoning. Sometimes players just need to feel that every moment they delay brings a risk of attack.
For random encounters to shape behavior, the players need to understand the danger of standing still. In You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (And So Do I), I recommend explaining the risk of random encounters, and then making the rolls in plain sight. If you track time, keep the tally in view too. Check off the hours, 10 minutes at a time, on the squares of your battle mat. Seeing the time advance will inspire players to keep a steady advance.
Gary Gygax’s first adventure in print, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978) hints at some other ways to improve wandering monsters.
- Reduce the frequency. In original D&D, monsters had a 1 in 6 chance of appearing every 10 minutes, but Gary’s published adventured kept lowering the frequency. The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests rolling every hour and starting an encounter on a d20 roll of 18 or higher.
- Make the monsters fit the location. Bigger dungeons tend to feature areas ruled by factions and areas that fit a theme. Random encounters should fit the neighborhood.
- Give monsters a reason to wander. Gary said that good modules should have a reason for everything. When monsters have a purpose, you can imagine how they react, what they carry, and other things that make them more interesting than 4d4 orcs. Most importantly, the dungeon stops feeling random and starts feeling like a place where things happen even when no adventurers see.
Prepare random encounters in advance
Random encounters work better when you prepare them in advance because you gain time to embellish them. At the table, roll to see whether an encounter occurs, but then use a prepared encounter.
When you run a published adventure with encounter tables, you can roll in advance or just pick your favorite to prepare. Then decide why the monsters wander and think what they carry and how they will act. See Create better encounters by considering what your monsters want. Consider taking treasure, a clue, or a story element from another part of the dungeon and assigning it to the wanderer.
If you create your own adventure, skip random encounter tables. Prepare one wandering encounter per area. If your hourly roll prompts a random encounter, use the one you prepared.
Real time pressure
In 1975, GaryGygax brought Tomb of Horrors to the Origins convention to serve as a tournament adventure. Teams of 15 players (!) competed to thwart Acererak’s deathtrap. Despite the tomb’s lack of wandering monsters, a 4-hour time slot turned the adventure into a race against time. Since then, real time limits provide the most exciting source of time pressure. Players need to do more than press ahead; they must play quickly. Real time pressure makes the D&D Open so thrilling. Real time limits fuel the best multi-table Epic adventures. I love these games, but they feature players racing for high scores or for glory against other tables. Can a real time limit work when a table plays alone? Today’s players would expect their DM to adjust an adventure to fit the time. I doubt one table could match the urgency of a competition.
Beyond wandering monsters
DMs tend to run dungeons as static places where nothing happens until the characters reach a keyed location. I’m as guilty as anyone. The players deserve most of our attention, leaving little thought for the monsters lurking in other rooms.
Despite our tendencies, dungeons play best when players feel at risk even when they stand still. Not every dungeon relies on wandering monsters to create this feeling.
Some dungeons feature organized resistance. When adventurers arrive, factions of monsters can sound an alert and organize a defense. Parties that stand still come under siege.
While exciting, such dungeons challenge DMs. To manage the resistance, we must remember the monsters in a faction, their locations, and figure their responses to the players. I run these adventures by marking the monsters and locations on the dungeon map. Without such a reference, my evil pets wouldn’t stand a chance.
In dungeons like the Sacred Stone Monastery in Princes of the Apocalypse, the monks eat meals, perform training, and so on according to a daily schedule described in the key. In theory, a DM should somehow account for the time of day and the denizens’ movements. (All creatures in dungeons are denizens. Only Gary knew why.) I admire the ambition of such dungeons, but never bother paying much attention to the schedule. In practice, the monks could gather in the shrine at dusk, or they could just happen to be in the shrine when characters arrive. No player will notice the difference.
The lazy way to pressure dungeon explorers
Let me share a secret: Even if your dungeon lacks organized resistance, and you skip wandering monsters, and you never track scheduled movements, you can still make stopping feel perilous.
To make players feel at risk even when they stop, attack them sometimes when they stop.
Players grow accustomed to dungeons where nothing happens until characters enter a new location. An occasional attack that breaks this pattern makes players realize the dungeon isn’t a safe place to linger. Plus the dungeon and it’s denizens will seem active—a place where things happen beyond the characters’ current location. These sorts of encounters contribute to immersion.
When you devise a dungeon, plan an unkeyed encounter or two that fits the theme.
Sometime as the characters stop to search, investigate, or collect treasure, start the encounter. Have monsters enter from a direction that fits the logic of the place. Perhaps the monsters sneak in for a surprise attack. Perhaps the monsters stumble on the characters.
I find the notion of monsters busting in on the heroes for a change appealing. With the characters scattered around the room, such reversals create unusual, and fun, tactical situations.
In published adventures, you can create similar encounters by just pulling the monsters from a location until after the characters arrive. Pick a room with monsters and some interesting features that might occupy the players’ time. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with the fountain or the bookcase, the monsters return.
Suddenly nothing in the dungeon feels safe. That’s how I like my underground deathtraps.