Sunday, 29 November 2020

Adrenaline and Spark Tables; dungeon generation during play.

You’re running a session and the players stumble into a dungeon that you haven’t created yet. 

What are you going to do?

Recently, I was a player in a session where this happened to the DM. We went off map, found a monastery and decided to sneak in. The DM did a good job for a very improv heavy session and to be honest, sneaking in to the monastery was my idea. It got me thinking about what I would do if I was ever caught in that situation. So I made this method.


Most importantly, this is not a method for generating particularly good dungeons. It’s a method for making it through a session you are not prepared for, while keeping it interesting and not awkward. Like improvisation the method requires quick thinking and imagination and should honestly be combined with the sparing use of typical DM stalling tactics like having chatty NPC’s or long (but interesting) combats. The method won’t generate the greatest dungeon, the layout is especially simple, more like a corridor with shortcuts and rooms might not be arranged in a logical, naturalistic sense. However, it might just get you/me through the session and it still be fun. You should probably also be clear with your players that you are making it up as you go.

There’s a TLDR at the end of this big messy blog post. 

For this method I break a dungeon down into these constituent parts:

A dungeon is made from:
- Rooms
- A Theme
- Dressings

A dungeon room is made three 3 elements:
- Room Type
- Active Element
- Passive Element

The Method

Spark Tables

You will need pencil, paper, d4, d6, d8.

Quickly, write the theme of the dungeon. This is your touchstone and ultimate unifying concept for the dungeon.

Then jot notes for the dressings. What might be found in the dungeon, more than actual dressings like furniture and objects, but smells and textures – what the floor and walls are made from (unless obvious or you don’t have the time). These are the things you’ll glance to and sprinkle in when describing the rooms - like a word mood board. Through this explanation I will be talking through a generic fantasy dungeon – an Orcish Temple. The dressings for which will be dirt, blood, splintered wood, mold and black stone idols.

Then write 3 spark tables. That sounds like a lot but it’s not, it’s 14 words. Write words that are evocative of the dungeon milieu. Don't pick prescriptive words especially for locations. Your dungeon will only generate better and easier if your words are good. For a alchemist's laboratory dungeon, rather than have an active element word 'laboratory' have 'cauldron' and 'chemical' and 'device'. For a decadent swords and sorcery dungeon have 'pleasure' rather than 'banquet hall' or 'harem'. Words that can be interpreted in different ways are good, overly specific words are bad.      

I cannot stress the importance of using random tables to generate the rooms for your dungeon. I don't deny your creativity, using tables will force your creative brain to dream up far more interesting rooms than the stock situations and room-fills you might fall back on given the pressure of creating a dungeon during play. 

There are two example dungeons with tables I have provided later in this post. Don’t be precious - be quick, write the first words that come to your mind. The most obvious ones first, if you run out of obvious words write 1-2 generic or weird words (a good dungeon should have both of these things). As you write the words you should already be thinking of fun things to happen in the dungeon. Again, you have to write quickly.


These tables are:

D4 Room type. This table does not change and the 4 results are always the same regardless of the dungeon. (change them if you really want to) The results are as follows;

1. Encounter, something or someone is in this room. Something is happening right now, right here.
2. Hazard, a dangerous thing in the environment, potentially hidden as a trap but not always.
3. Travel, all rooms have a way of getting to one other room. Travel rooms have two ways and one of them is hidden. A travel result means there is a way of getting to another room of the dungeon via another egress than normal. Usually a secret door with attached corridor but the means of travel could be anything from a river to a teleportation circle. The simplest and easiest method of generating secret doors is this; secret doors will always lead to the room after the next one and bypass 1 room. A secret door in the 2nd room will lead to the 4th room of the dungeon. When getting to the end of what you feel is the right size for this dungeon have the travel result’s secret corridor loop back to the dungeon entrance or become a hidden dungeon exit/entrance.   
4. Treasure, something valuable that the PC’s would want. Not easy, quick or safe to acquire.

These results can phase into one another as you imagine the room. Don’t feel to constrained by the result but don’t stray from the result too much either. Do what feels natural and fast.


D6 Active element. What’s the important thing going on in this room? At least one of the six words should be whatever owns, made or is in control of the dungeon. For the Orcish Temple I will have the most obvious words;

1. Orc
2. Ritual
3. Cruelty
4. Totem (Not all results need to be things that are happening. They can just be things. Try to not have too many of these results or the dungeon will feel empty)
5. Foul creatures (Have something more pointed and/or strange)
6. Engine (Then if you can’t think of anything else, anything you find evocative will do, what have you been thinking about recently?  – add it in quickly)

D8 Passive element. Whatever modifies the room/active element and makes it unique and interesting. These words should be primarily descriptive words, some objects or events are actually ok. These words can be more generic, but should be in keeping with the dungeon’s theme. The Orcish Temple will have the words…

1. Rotten
2. Corrupt
3. Cage
4. Spirit
5. Fight
6. Sick
7. Sacrificial
8. Night


Rolling the Dungeon:

I found it easiest to draw the dungeon as I describe it. It doesn’t need to look pretty.

For each room roll a d4, d6 and d8 at the same time for the room type, active and passive elements. Read the dice in ascending size order, combine the results in your head and start drawing and talking. Don’t stop to plan it out (you don’t have the time), talk and draw as you imagine the room not afterwards. You have to imagine out loud. Think and describe the biggest and most prominent details first then hone in on the smaller details to build a good picture. Resist the urge to add things/details to a room after it has been described to the players even if you had thought of something better as this will disorient them.

All standard rooms have an obvious way of getting to one new room. Rooms generated by the ‘Travel’ result have paths to two rooms. Travel results create tiny loops in the map by bypassing the next room to be generated. Secret doors are only secret in the room they have been generated in. For mental ease the other end of a secret corridor is not secret, just a normal entrance that enters back into the just generated Travel room. Do not forget to describe this door when that further room is described.       

All rooms are connected via corridors. These corridors are liminal spaces between rooms. Corridors don't contain anything important. Corridors can go up, down, north, south, east, west, be straight or crooked – it doesn’t matter. They give you time to generate the next room and for the players to listen to/smell the next room before deciding on if they want to go in or not and what their approach will be.

Keep generating rooms until the dungeon is big enough for you to stop (at which point you either add an exit in the next generated room, have a dead end or do the Skyrim method and have a corridor loop round to a hidden door in the starting room) or the session ends and you can complete the rest of the dungeon properly before the next session.    

Traditional Encounters

If you need encounters – things to enter the room because PC’s are doing something loud, taking a long time to do something etc; roll the active and passive tables and combine with the most obvious monster or being to be found in the dungeon. For the Orcish Temple I would combine the word with Orcs.     



Here are two dungeons I made with this method, each dungeon was generated start-to-finish in about ten minutes. This time frame includes the writing of the spark tables, drawing and pretending to describe the rooms aloud as if I were DM’ing them. Unfortunately, because I was going quickly, I was unable to write notes or record my rolls as you might during actual play. It goes without saying the drawings are not beautiful, the point is speed and something I can read. 

 Ancient Theocratic Monastery:

Also included is the true layout of the dungeon. An element I'm still unsure how to improve without increasing complexity.

Rooms from left to right, summed up briefly without the usual DM descriptive spiel;

Entrance. A monk meditates beneath a huge scimitar wielding statue – the statue straddles a huge door. The eyes of the statue are hollow and lead to a room deeper in the monastery (this eye detail was generated after the entrance had been generated)

A large chamber lit by hundreds of candles. A man-sized candle has a picture of a door on it. If blown out a secret door opens, if the candle is lit the door locks. In the middle of the room is a lever. At the other end of the room, embedded in a wall is a huge keyhole above a large metal door, from the keyhole a large chain extends across the length of the ceiling. If the lever is pulled the statue’s scimitar detaches from the entrance, swings down and is pulled into the keyhole by the chain. This is a slow and loud process – provoking encounter checks. After 10 minutes the door can be opened. The lock can be picked by climbing inside of it.      

The smell of incense. The growls of the panther. Several monks sit in a circle deep in meditation. Around them prowls an exotic slinking feline beast. It will maul and eat anyone who isn’t calm.

A heavy gilded door opens to a triangular room. Up some sandstone steps, at the northern corner of the room, atop a golden throne sits an ancient, imperious monk half asleep wearing golden armour and headdress. The room is filled with mummified, prostrate monk adherents who will begin to animate if the enthroned monk is threatened. At the southern most side of the room is another large candle with a picture of a door on it, it functions as the candle in the second room.   

A large feasting chamber. Portly servants ferry trays of expensive foods back and forth to groggy monks. Beneath the feasting table is a hidden walkway to another room.

The room is filled with chanting and sacred vapours. A monk chants as he writes calligraphy in a giant filigree book with a gold-plated man-sized brush. There are two doors. The southern door leads to the hollow head and eyes of the scimitar statue at the monastery entrance.  

In the centre of this room is a huge island-pile of coins and gems wreathed in noxious gases emanating from a chasm that surrounds the pile. Atop the pile is the mummified corpse of an ancient Lama. The walls of this room are lined with contorted mummified monks. Should the Lama fall from the treasure pile, countless mummies will begin to animate and seek their vengeance.

 

Dressing: candles, incense, sandstone, sleep


Active Element:

1. Ritual
2. Strange creatures
3. Statue
4. Servant
5. Monk
6. Knife

Passive Element:

1. Weird
2. Prison
3. Ancient
4. Feast
5. Ornate
6. Sacred
7. Martial
8. Splendid
 

A Castle taken over by Neanderthals:

A stranger concept to test if the method can work on thoroughly new ideas quickly.


A huge cleft in a stone castle wall littered with ox skulls leads to a large ruined hall. Several huge stone columns have fallen precariously against each other and the walls. Each column is festooned with dangling skulls and bones hanging from cords tied around the columns. If disturbed the columns will collapse on whatever is beneath them. A door on the far side of the room is draped with two tattered tapestries. One column has broken through the brickwork slightly, if the rest of the wall is broken through there is a secret passage.

A skeletal bull-mammoth lays sprayed out on the dirty stone floor hanging from one wall is the mammoth’s hide (behind the hide is a secret corridor). The mammoth’s rib cage is stuffed with worthless offerings and valuable treasure, from it’s side juts a jewel encrusted sword – probably magical. If the skeleton is disturbed the ghost of the bull-mammoth will emerge and defend it’s remains. (the bull-mammoth’s herd can be found in the castle’s throne room, they were generated later)

A collection of huts gathered around a large fire in the middle of the room. Neanderthals break furniture and throw it onto the fire. Neanderthal warriors armed with metal weapons try to discover the secrets of metallurgy. One Neanderthal is wearing a great helm and is armed with an iron battle-axe.     

A neanderthal graveyard. The stone floor has been broken up into piles and graves have been dug in the earth. A shaman performs funerary rites on the body of the hulking neanderthal chief. The chief’s body is surrounded by gem offerings and holds a magical rod.

The sound of heavy footprints and mammoth trumpeting. The throne room. A huge hall. Mammoth manure. A half dozen mammoths and several calves are corralled in the throne room. Their tusks are banded with gold rings. A small door leads to the loose brickwork of the entrance room.

 

Dressing; mud, torn tapestry, broken furniture, skulls

 

Active Element:

1. Cavemen
2. Prehistoric Beast
3. Shaman
4. Ghost
5. Craft
6. Stone
 

Passive Element:

1. Dirt
2. Scavenge
3. Ruin
4. Repurpose
5. Tomb
6. Ancestral
7. Fossil
8. Survival
 

Summary:

  • Name the dungeon
  • Write dungeon theme
  • Write typical dressings that would be found in the dungeon.
  • Write 3 tables – d4 room type, d6 active element and d8 passive element.
  • D4 room type table is always 1. Encounter, 2. Hazard, 3. Travel, 4. Treasure
  • Active elements are moving, doing words.
  • Passive element words are more descriptive, tonal, scene-setting or modifying.
  • To generate a room, roll d4, d6 and d8, combine the results and draw them while describing them to the players. Add a door leading out of this room to the next with a corridor in between.
  • Repeat until dungeon is 'complete' or the session ends. 
  • If a room is a ‘travel’ room it has two ways forward into the dungeon, one standard and one secret. The secret door that bypasses a room i.e. a secret door in the 2nd room will lead to the 4th room of the dungeon.