The Dungeon 2: Comparing GURPS and D&D on Dungeon Design

My very first view of a dungeon via Dr. Holmes' edition of Dungeons & Dragons
I have been working my way through the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy material and I have also been following Peter D's Dungeon Fantastic and Patrick's Renovating the Temple. While I cannot speak from personal experience, it is clear to me that running a GURPS fantasy dungeon campaign is not only doable, it could be very groovy. That being said, it is also clear to me that Dungeons & Dragons is a hand-to-glove fit for dungeoneering while GURPS requires a few tweaks. Despite the need for tweaking, GURPS offers up an approach to dungeon adventuring that Dungeons & Dragons cannot readily duplicate as it allows the GM to set aside the most fundamental controlling element of dungeon adventuring in D&D.

Using GURPS Dungeon Fantasy and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e as my points of comparison, I have made the following observations:
  • GURPS DF characters start out tough (250 points) compared to AD&D 1e characters (1st level). 250 points is considerably tougher than the average low-skill militia guard whereas a 1st level character in AD&D 1e has only the slightest edge against a similarly armed 0-level human.
  • GURPS characters do advance and gain in strength but this is nothing like the huge power increase that AD&D 1e characters experience.
  • GURPS character advancement is gained per session for good play whereas character advancement in AD&D 1e is based on experience points gained through slaying monsters and bringing home treasure.
  • Encounter planning for AD&D 1e is simple as hit dice are an accurate measure of power. In GURPS, the ability to move and attack is maybe the best reflection of power but it is much more difficult to assess and compare (at least it is a challenge for me as a GURPS newbie). While old schoolers often mock the concept of encounter balance, the basic design of an AD&D 1e dungeon is built around it. It is a basic necessity.
I have summed up this comparison as a visual (very much a handwaving exercise):

Hidden in plain sight is the fact that the design of a traditional megadungeon and the most fundamental aspect of AD&D 1e, character advancement, are mirror images of each other. Monte Cook made "Things get more dangerous as you go deeper" is #1 Assumption when creating his Dungeon-A-Day project a few years ago. That is not merely a dungeon design convention, it a reflection of the most intrinsic element of the D&D  game system (regardless of edition). It is really a necessity. 1st level characters have no chance against even the wussiest of creatures on the 10th Level Wandering Monster Table.

AD&D 1e character level advancement (the reflection of power) generally matches the encounter difficulties as one goes deeper in the dungeon because it has to. It is the way the developed and it is the way the game works. 1st level characters may survive an encounter with an angry elder titan, their survival is based on running and avoiding (not that this is a bad thing). My point is that the most basic element of dungeon design, Things get more dangerous as you go deeper, is not just an adventure design approach, it is a reflection of how the game system works.

A dungeon that is actually designed around GURPS can start with different assumptions. To be sure, GURPS characters do advance in ability, but it is their starting point that is the primary determinant to their toughness.  A 250 point character and the GURPS system provides the GM (and the players) with a lot more freedom for encounters than is really possible with AD&D 1e. As a consequence, there can be a lot more variety (and surprises) to dungeon design. GMs do not have to adhere so closely to Things get more dangerous as you deeper.

This is a very elementary conclusion; one that is, in the words of my old physics textbook, "intuitively obvious to the casual observer." There are a lot of the observations that could be made and implications drawn. I am interested to gain a deeper understand and also have the opportunity to actually play GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. I have the thought of tweaking GURPS DF along the lines of my first dungeon experience with the Holmes version of Dungeons & Dragons, at least in terms of class and race, but I am not ready to be a GURPS GM quite yet but I am getting there.


  1. So the GURPs characters can handle the more difficult monsters at the start? This actually fits with the assumptions of the basic Holmes monster list that starting characters may encounter Purple Worms or Vampires.

    In D&D, you could perhaps achieve a character power line similar to GURPs by having characters start at 5th level and then advance more slowly, perhaps by giving XP only for monsters and not treasure?

  2. I'm really looking forward to what you come up Ken. GURPS is not very friendly towards doing an old dungeon crawl...a megadungeon...even less likely. What makes GURPS great is when you run into an orc you have no idea what your getting into. While in D&D you pretty much know the stats verbatim.

  3. Another thing that GURPS DF does that AD&D starts out with, but quickly loses track of as power level increases, is the notion that the goal is not necessarily to kill everything you see. If you can figure out a way to sneak, trick or otherwise counter your way past the encounters, and get away with the treasure horde, you've succeeded in your task. Are there rooms full of surly orcs and that one place where there's a beholder waiting for you, impatiently? Sure, but you didn't have to fight them if you got what you came for.

    The reason I say this is supported well in G:DF is that combat starts out, and remains, singularly deadly. Yes, at 250 points your skill level is sufficient to potentially carve your way through five times your numbers in orcs. But one orc with a lucky critical hit, obviating any active defense, can leave you with a character on the brink of death in the middle of the melee.

    It almost demands smarter play, in my opinion.

  4. @Zenopus: I think what you award experience points for can address some of what I pointed out. It is not an easy comparison to make because the systems are so different, particularly in terms of what makes a character "tough." I was trying to compare systems "as is" so I could address it one post.

    @Jason: You put your finger on what makes GURPS DF intriguing for me. I am probably not quite ready to run a GURPS DF campaign, mainly because the tactical side of GURPS takes a bit of gaming chops and I am just getting a handle on that aspect (but it is what I enjoy about GURPS).

  5. @Tim: I am mining DF for ideas to use in Onyx (my medieval urban fantasy campaign). I think AD&D 1e (and related versions) are not very good at supporting an urban setting. The result is either something that looks and feels remarkably like a smash and grab dungeon campaign or there has to be a lot of tweaking classes, skills, etc. Why do that work when GURPS provides the tools to do all that?

  6. @Ken: I highly recommend the elementary combat examples that The Mook has posted on his website. It's how I learned how to handle combat in GURPS, though it is strictly Basic Rules, if I recall correctly. If you're keen to add in items from Low Tech (the more realistic armor rules, for example) or Martial Arts (for advanced maneuvers like Ripostes, Defensive Attacks, Counterattacks and Committed Attacks), you'll need to plunge in and run your own sample combats.


  7. @Jason: Thanks for the link. Despite my tendency to start with every option and bolt-on, I will be running my first GURPS campaign (hopefully a medieval urban fantasy campaign) with just the Basic Rules and Magic. I can feel the tug of Low-Tech and Martial Arts, but I want to get a handle on the Basic combat rules and skills resolution first. I've been playing GURPS but my character, a dwarf, started at 75 points and is mainly good with a battle axe. The challenge for me is developing an intuitive feel for the game but I am getting there. Thanks, again.

  8. If you want a peek at some worked examples in play, I run a pbp game here http://rpol.net/game.cgi?gi=56335&date=1438881006, and one of the threads is focused on lower level characters, 125pt range.