On Meaningful Choice in the Dungeon

A dungeon is a sterile environment of corridors. Any choice made between north, south, east, or
west is an arbitrary choice. How can that choice be made meaningful?

The above statement isn't true, but in order to examine it we'll have to talk about what is of value.

Good Faith and Why Bother?

We are talking about design. That's when we take things and make them work well for a specific purpose.

My purpose is utilitarian. I wish to maximize fun for everyone sitting at the table.

For any choice I make, I think "What would be most fun for the players?" I do not mean that I'm laboring under the tyranny of fun. Sometimes what is most fun is the imminent threat of death, because our choices are meaningful. Sometimes what is most fun is a negadungeon, because seeing a Jenga tower of a campaign collapse is cathartic. It doesn't mean the players get what they want. It means that giving them a satisfying meaningful experience (i.e. "Fun") is my top priority.

It's important to take that statement in good faith. A good example of how this can be complex is verisimilitude. Designing an adventuring environment so that it is completely realistic architecturally that results in dull tableplay and meaningless choices is a bad idea, but the idea of suspending disbelief cannot be discarded. The dragon has to be able to make it in and out of those doors, otherwise how the hell could he be down here?

It is a balance, and the choices are weighed against your players idea of fun (for adventures you create for your home group) or situations that create meaningful and engaging experiences for the players that are easily used by Dungeon Masters (for products meant for purchase).

If that isn't your highest priority, then I don't want your adventure and it probably sucks.

Meaningful Choice in "Sterile" Environments 

Sterile is in scare quotes because the assumption is wrong. No environment is sterile. The challenge comes in communicating that to your players.

This doesn't mean that player responsibility stops. In traditional play, the information is there but must be requested. More modern play techniques (Read a Stitch *World moves or even "Sense Motive" from 3.X) allow you to fail at acquiring information. Sometimes the difficulty is that the players stop asking questions.

Communication is the solution, but it takes work. There are two broad categories of information: open information and hidden information. This process is two way. The Dungeon Master is tasked with providing obvious information:

"There's a warm salty draft coming up this hallway, a dented helm lies on the cobblestones in some rubble, and you see doors on either side of the hall near the end of your torchlight."

and players to ask questions about their environment:

Do they look up to see the deadfall over the dented helmet? Do they ask if the air is dry, meaning the salty draft isn't coming from a water source, but instead a grey ooze that lurks up ahead? 

The examples above are about the immediate environment. But that's just a single facet of an adventure location. The location of the dungeon, rumors, interrogations and actions of NPC's, sages, scouting, architectural design, and treasure can all provide both open and hidden information to players about a closed adventuring environment.

Is this a lot of work?

Not necessarily.

The Dungeon Secret

On of the reasons Dungeons & Dragons (Pathfinder, et. al.)  is the king of all role playing games, having the most players, money, market share, etc, far outselling it's nearest competitor for the entire history of tabletop gaming is that the basic, natural, structure of play provides things that players find fun (q.v. "What would be most fun for the players").

Even if you you presume a completely sterile dungeon environment, where the party comes to an intersection and has no information about what is down either side, the natural result of play ends up providing agency.

They may make a single random choice, but they will discover an encounter and this grants them information. Now when they enter these caves, they find kobolds. They now can say "Do we go further into the kobold cave or check out another unknown cave?" When they draw a map of the environment, areas that are revealed provide information to the players about areas that are not. The arch-typical example is the secret room discovered because there is 'dead space' on the map.

That completely sterile environment does a pretty good job all on it's own in providing agency to the players, assuming of course, that it was designed with the players experience in mind.

Taking it a Step Further

But we can do better than that. Doing better is a lot of work.

There's a saying here about things worth doing and how they should be done. Whether or not you're a lazy punk or not isn't any of my business. I'll tell you I'm not, and how I go about doing this extra work.

  • Encounter information: I not only roll for wandering encounters, I always have a table for what the encounters are doing. Are they fleeing? Hauling treasure? Escorting a prisoner? (You can find the tables I use in my book "On the Non-Player Character", Code: JFS20 will save you 20% till midnight tonight over the already reduced price.)
  • Random encounters aren't always creatures, but are sometimes signs of nearby creatures
  • I think about the environment and note descriptions that provide both red herrings and useful information about the contents of the environment. 
  • I use a format that allows me to make sure I'm always presenting obvious information to the players. 
  • I create sandbox environments that are interrelated, whether that in the dungeon or out, meaning progress acquired is information acquired, making choices more meaningful.
  • I make sure my maps are dynamic, multi-level, engaging environments that provide information and choice to the players (Jaquaying the Dungeon, et. al.)
  • I communicate with my players ahead of time about their goals and desires and what they should expect from the various broad decisions they make while playing the game. 
That is the bulk of the work done to make the campaign come to life, no matter what environment the players are in. 

Hack & Slash 
FollowGoogle +NewsletterSupport


  1. Tracks, dust,scratches, spoor, wear marks, soot over doorways and in corridors should all be things that make seemingly arbitrary choices more meaningful.
    If you are in a mostly abandoned necropolis looking for the secret den of cultists and have two doors to consider which is better one covered in cobwebs with a moss covered stoop or one clear of dust with traces of soot over the doorway? If you are instead looking for treasures not yet looted by other grave robbers, which way would you go?

  2. This post is going to my dungeon creation folder.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...