Well, two weeks in, and OSRIC is going great. Okay, I suppose anything can go great for just two weeks, but it has thus far gone much better than our previous early campaigns.
OSRIC is meant to be played quickly, if the afterword at the back of the rules is to be believed, and boy does it. In less than six hours of game time, the party has encountered nearly a dozen combats, two small dungeons, and several NPC conversations. For our group, that is lightning fast. I’m hoping the days of 45-minute combats are behind us for good, but we’ll see.
For the scope of this post, however, I’d like to talk about my dungeon design, which was the bulk of last week’s session.
Now, let’s get some terms defined first, for the uninitiated. By “dungeon,” I don’t mean just a place to stick criminals, as it is defined in the vernacular. Rather, I mean any series of passages, rooms, and floors which comprise a structure filled primarily with enemies and obstacles working against the party. This can be anything from a traditional underground prison to a fanciful floating library as long as the underlying antagonism against the party is intact.
For our party’s first adventure, I constructed what I’ve called the “Dilapidated Abbey.” The story hook was simple enough: if they want a map of the area, they have to do a favor for the mage’s guild. That favor is to go collect a specific ingredient from a centuries-old abandoned abbey a few days outside of town. They sent a guy to do it before the party showed up, but he hasn’t returned yet. An easy step-and-fetch task.
When I build locations, I like things to make sense and be as realistic as possible, within the scope of the world around it. The ingredient the party needs is found in outdoor cemeteries, especially ancient ones. The tricky part was I wanted this to be a several-room dungeon, which is a tough fit for anything outside. So, I used a bit of creative architecture and some careful obfuscation.
The chapel of the abbey served as the entrance to the catacombs, to which there is a staircase behind the main alter. How do I necessitate passage through here? I built the chapel into a hill, and placed the cemetery on the other side. Thus, the ceremonial passage to the cemetery is located inside the chapel. A conveniently timed cave-in later, the players were forced to travel through the catacombs if they wanted to achieve their goal. Perfect, and not too contrived.
It seems to be a common practice to design a dungeon in terms of gameplay value and, if an attempt is made at all, jam functionality into the finished product. This is how we get castle dungeons with impractically long hallways, entirely too many torture chambers, and not nearly enough jail cells. Where are the manacles made and maintained? How about the bars? How is food stored and delivered? Where does the water come from? Where does the waste go? These are the questions which are generally overlooked, and, in my opinion, the dungeon suffers for it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think gameplay value should ever be sacrificed for realism. The fun and spirit of the game should always trump all other concerns, which is why the improbability of the random-generated levels in Diablo is totally excusable. However, in a pen-and-paper setting like OSRIC, realism is part of the game experience. It contributes heavily to the immersion. So, with this in consideration, I approached my design of the Dilapidated Abbey with both form and function firmly in mind.
Every room has a specific purpose, and each was originally conceived with that idea. The builders of an abbey and the diggers of a catacomb are not going to dig chambers simply to do so. They must have a reason to have been constructed. Why would a dungeon need two torture chambers? Was one not enough for the population? Or do each provide different kinds of torture? This may seem like a nit-picky detail, but it is crucial for giving players something to explore. When each room has purpose, its contents become important and tell an overall story. Why does this room have a few tables and some wicked looking tools? Well, this is where the embalming was done for preservation in the catacombs. Why are there three different catacomb halls? Well, each was used for a different class of devout. Why does the lowest level culminate in a large room? Well, that’s where a very important high priest was buried after a long and beloved rein as head of the church.
It may seem counter intuitive, but designing a dungeon this way actually means less work for the DM. Instead of randomly furnishing a dozen rooms in accordance with inspiration or random tables, the DM just needs to know the purpose of a room to know, immediately, what’s inside it. I know that the offering room is filled with a small altar and scattered offerings to the deceased. I didn’t have to write that down because that’s just what an offering room has in it. I don’t have to write down that a pre-burial chamber has a small lectern and an area for a priest to read a blessing on a body because that’s exactly what it is and what it will always be. When the players reach that room, I just describe it. Easy peasy.
Of course, a good DM still wants to maximize the excitement and adventure of the dungeon. The entering and clearing of the catacombs wasn’t the party’s goal, so I had to make it necessary in some other way. Obviously, the cemetery is easily accessible from the main Chapel, so I closed off that passage with a cave-in. This forces the party to find a secondary route, which happens to go through the catacombs. How convenient. After that, it’s just a matter of enticing the party with little tidbits. There’s no reason they had to go into the High Anton’s burial chamber, but there was light coming from around the door in an otherwise pitch-dark set of rooms, and no party can resist that. Was there an encounter in every room? No, but the apparent scarcity of populated rooms makes the exploration that much more tense.
The take home message is this: when constructing a dungeon, approach it the same way as a world. Give the players something to explore. Give it a backstory, even if it’s only implied. Give it life.