The Dungeon 3: Creating Meaningful Choices in a Dungeon-Centered Campaign

Tabletop RPGs can be thought of in many different ways. Simulation, Theater of the Mind, and Improvisational Fiction are just a few examples that come to mind. Besides thinking of it as a game and entertainment (mainly so I don't take it too seriously), I tend to thinking of role-playing games as cooperative decision making Making cooperative decisions implies having meaningful choices or options. In running a dungeon-centered campaign as a GM, I have found creating meaningful choices for players to be my biggest challenge.

"Meaningful" is the key word in meaningful choices. In a dungeon, options, choices and decisions abound as the players make decisions about doors, stairs, and corridors. Every section of map is a "Let's Make a Deal" of decisions to be made by the players ("Are you going to take Door #2 or what's behind the curtain?"). Player movement in a dungeon often reminds me of Brownian Motion (here is the cartoon version)...or for those with a more statistical bent, the Monte Carlo Method (here is the cartoon version). Or, to put it simply, movement and exploration is often a random exercise. It may be fun for a few sessions, but most players and GMs will tire of that kind of play.

The GM Side of Things
As I said, the my biggest challenge as a GM in running a dungeon campaign is creating meaningful choices for the players. I try to meet this challenge in a couple of ways:
  • Design: I try to design the dungeon so that the physical layout invites thoughtful decision-making. I confess to having little expertise in how to do that, but I try anyway. I found Justin Alexander's (The Alexandrian) series, Jaquaying the Dungeon, to be particularly helpful.
  • Information: The players need information about the dungeon...enough to engage them in exploration but not so much as ruin the suspense. I do this through role-playing (not every encounter is with an enemy), written documents, bits of architectural detail, and encounters. I have not been using random encounters, although a lot of encounters are improvised. I treat every encounter as a clue to the nature of the dungeon. Rob Conley (Bat in the Attic) has a neat blog post that I found helpful in this regard, Other Knobs to Play With
  • "Campaign Mindset:" In running the Montporte Dungeon campaign, I have been thinking of it in terms of a regular campaign, not a traditional smash and grab dungeon of yore. There is a complex history, factions, geography, and an economy. Because the dungeon had been sealed, the players had almost no information going in so the campaign does include the usual dungeon exploration. But I am really trying to work in opportunities for role-playing and for getting involved in a more complex relationship with the dungeon denizens than I have had in the past with my other dungeon-centered campaigns.
The Player Side of Things
In a dungeon campaign, the GM has a lot to do and they are key to its success. However, players can make or break a dungeon campaign. The Montporte Dungeon campaign is my third dungeon-centered campaign and I found that dungeons can create ADHD in even the most focused players. Players can do their part in making a dungeon campaign a success by:
  • Staying Focused: Whether it is a goal(s), a direction, a plan, or something else, players can keep things interesting for themselves by identifying a focus or purpose and attempting to stick to it. It is helpful for both the GM and players when the party has a purpose, even if it is short-term.
  • Regular Review: Given the myriad of choices that the average dungeon level provides, players can help themselves by regularly reviewing what has happened and where they want to go. Given the time off between sessions, regular review is a must to staying focused.
  • Organizing: Lots of things fall into this category...having a regular marching order, posting a guard while searching for secret doors,  and keeping information organized.
  • Investigating: This includes geographic exploration, capturing foes and interrogating them, and questioning the friendly folk (if they can be found).
  • "Campaign Mindset:" Think beyond killing stuff and taking the treasure. Not that this is a bad thing, but expand your character's motivation as you would do in a non-dungeon campaign.
If you have run a successful dungeon-centered campaign, what has worked for you?