Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mentzer Basic Cover to Cover: Creating Dungeons

Alright folks, I'm gonna power through the final sections of the Basic Set to wrap up the series in this post. About time, I know, right?

Creating Dungeons
Frank starts out this section of the book by defining a dungeon as "any place where monsters and treasures may be found. A dungeon is usually a group of rooms, connected by corridors. It could be a castle (new or ruined), some caves, or anything else you can imagine" (p. 46). I do like this definition, as it frees up the DM to go crazy and not worry too much about needing to stick to subterranean mazes (although those can be really fun). This is followed up with a reminder of the basic risk-reward scheme of the dungeon, the "level" where higher levels mean tougher monsters but greater rewards. It's a bit brief, but described in more detail below.

Types of Dungeons
This section is more about dungeon level orientation than type of location that could be used as a dungeon. Levels increase in number as you go down, or up, or farther from the entrance. Multiple entrances, especially entrances straight to higher levels, is a good thing. Frank closes the section suggesting to stick to traditional vertical dungeons at first, and gradually experiment, possibly after looking at a few modules.

Good and Bad Dungeons
Here, Frank is defining a "good" dungeon as a logically constructed one, and a "bad" one as a random mismash of rooms, monsters, traps, etc. "A good dungeon is reasonable. Its design is carefully thought out, and the monsters and treasures are placed for a reason" (p. 46). Of course, he does admit in the next paragraph that a randomly generated dungeon could still be a good dungeon if it has some sort of theme tying the otherwise random encounters together, and monsters that should logically be found in that sort of location. He admits that the Solo Adventure isn't really a "good" dungeon, since it was designed to help new players experience a variety of game mechanics and situations, but with a few changes could be made better.

I'm not sure that I agree with Frank 100%. The random, nonsensical dungeon can still be a lot of fun. And since people have a natural desire to see patterns when none exist, players will often construct a more logical narrative from a random experience. Frank does mention that dungeons shouldn't just be places to fight monsters -- it should have other forms of entertainment like puzzles and RP situations as well. And on that I fully agree. If I just want to grind through some random monster battles, I'll go fire up Dragon Warrior on my NES emulator.

Step By Step
This is the heart of the section, as Frank gives a six step process to create a dungeon. Of course, the above description of dungeons and levels seems to assume a "mega-dungeon" setting, this step-by-step section assumes dungeons as one-shot type deals, made specifically for that adventure (like in many modules). This did color my early dungeon crafting. I stared out with fairly random multi-level caves, then moved on to smaller, mission-specific dungeons as I grew as a DM.

1. Choose a Scenario
By scenario, Frank means both a theme for the dungeon, and a hook to get the PCs to explore it. He lists several good rationales for adventure. The only flaw with the presentation is that it left me assuming that the DM would just provide the players with their motivation, rather than letting players dictate their motives and me as DM creating the dungeon in response. I think this must have been fairly common (maybe it still is) due to the number of "You've been captured by..." adventures DMs love to spring on players. Yes, I've been guilty of this in the past as well.

The scenarios listed are: Exploring the Unknown, Investigating an Enemy Outpost, Recovering Ruins, Destroying an Ancient Evil, Visiting a Lost Shrine, Fulfilling a Quest, Escaping from Enemies, Rescuing Prisoners, Using a Magic Portal, Finding a Lost Race.

I do like how a lot of these don't require the PCs to go in guns blazing to complete the objective. I really think something like this, slightly modified, presented as a "Reasons to Adventure" advice section in the Players Manual would have been useful. As I mentioned above, this section seems to assume the impetus for adventure is on the DM. "Hey players, I wrote up a dungeon. Wanna run through it?" rather than "Hey DM, we want to do this next time..."

2. Decide on a Setting
This gives us a short list of potential dungeons (expanded in the Expert Set to include wildernesses, but for here it's fairly traditional): Castle or Tower, Crypt or Tomb, Caves or Cavern, Ancient Temple, Abandoned Mine, Stronghold or Town.

That covers a good amount of adventuring locations, and provided me with enough fodder for dungeon creation for years.

3. Select Special Monsters
Before making the dungeon map, you should have a few ideas about what monsters live there. In other words, make sure there's some thematic monsters to face that are appropriate to the scenario and setting selected.

4. Draw the Map
There's some general advice on dungeon map drawing, starting with setting the scale, defining the general shape/style, and finally filling in the details. It references the dungeon symbols on the inside front cover of the book, and again these did help inspire me to create more interesting dungeon maps than simply a connected series of rectangular rooms and 10' wide corridors.

5. Stock the Dungeon
Fill up the map key! First place the Special Monsters and their treasures, then select or randomly roll for monsters and what not in the rest of the dungeon.

6. Fill in the Final Details
Now that you know what monsters are where, you can add details about dungeon dressing, sounds, smells, etc. Frank gives some good advice to keep it simple, as players get bored by excessive descriptions. Just give them the feel of the dungeon. This is one area I could improve on, personally, as I'm often a bit too sparse in my dungeon keys, and rely on improvising such things in play, which means I sometimes for get to give enough description, or useful clues for players to work with.

Frank also suggests making Wandering Monster charts for each dungeon to fit the scenario. I used to do this often, but more recently I've gotten lazy (with the exception of my Megadungeon). I need to make wandering monsters a more important part of the games I run, especially Chanbara. It (and Flying Swordsmen before it), lacks that in the rules.

Random Stocking
This section (and the original version in Moldvay's Basic Set which developed a very simple system in OD&D) has rightly received much praise from various old school bloggers over the years. It's a simple system of rolling two six-siders, one of which determines room contents, the other treasure. The OD&D version simply said roll a d6, with a 1-2 being a monster, anything else is an empty room. Another d6 roll then determines treasure (1-3 for monster rooms, 1 for empty rooms IIRC). The same basic system is presented here, but fleshed out (by Moldvay) so that:
1-2 Empty Room (1/d6 treasure)
3 Trap (1-2/d6 treasure)
4-5 Monster (1-3/d6 treasure)
6 Special (usually no treasure)

This means that, aside from intentionally placed monsters (and treasures), about one third of all rooms are inhabited, one third have dangers or oddities, and one third are empty. Approximately one third of all rooms will also have some treasure.

We get a Random Treasures Table for use with this system as well. In my early days, and even up until more recent years, I tended to ignore this table, and just use the Treasure Types tables. That meant that sometimes fairly small groups of monsters would be guarding fairly large treasures. Sometimes that's not a problem, but it does make monster encounters more of a lotto style. Using this Random Treasures table, small amounts of treasure will be found more often, and every now and then there will be a jackpot. From what I've read about modern game design, that's a winning method. When I revamp my Megadungeon, or if I go ahead and prepare the 5E Dragonlance game I'm thinking of trying to run, I'll probably use this table more often.

Room Contents
This section gives advice and suggestions for Traps and Specials indicated by the random stocking method described above.

We tend to think of D&D traps as killers (Tomb of Horrors casts a long shadow), but Frank is explicit that traps should not usually be deadly, or at least not always. He defines traps as "anything that could cause damage, delay or a magical effect to occur" (p. 47). He mentions that Thieves are good at finding and removing traps (failing to mention Dwarves' special detection ability), and that while an area may have a combination of traps, they shouldn't be too dangerous. "Deadly traps are not recommended until the 2nd level of a dungeon (or deeper) is reached" (p. 47).

He then gives us a list of types of traps, and some possible variations, and while many do result in damage, poison, etc. there are quite a few non-lethal traps as well. He lists out:
Blade (damage), Creature (attacks with surprise), Darts (damage, paralysis, poison, curse, etc.), Explosion (damage), Falling Item (damage), Fog (strange but non-damaging effects), Illusion (as phantasmal force), Light (temporary blindness), Pit (damage, or chute to lower level), Poison Gas (damage or instant death), Poison Needle (unspecified).

A lot of the fun of D&D, and many memorable encounters, are with specials, which Frank defines as "anything you place which is not normal, but is not a trap, monster or treasure" (p. 48). He provides a list of these as well:
Alarm (summons a monster, opens a door, or just makes noise), Illusion (a dungeon feature or creature is not really there), Map Change (shifting walls), Movements (shifting rooms), Pool (lots of strange potential effects), Sounds (moaning, screaming, talking, etc.), Statue (may be treasure, magical, alive, etc.), Transportation (hidden doors or stairs, elevators, magical portals, etc.), Trick Monster (examples are either variant normal monsters, or pun monsters), Weird Things (flying weapons, reverse gravity zones, shrinking/growing zones, etc.).

Basically, specials are there to add complications, mysteries, unexpected twists, or just plain old color.

Wandering Monsters
The final textual section of the book explains what wandering monster encounters are and what they are for, and how to run them. Having some monsters on the move makes the dungeon feel more alive. They also serve as a subtle reminder to players to keep things moving, although the book doesn't lay that out explicitly here.

Frank gives some advice on deciding when to have wandering monsters appear. Check once every two turns by rolling a d6. On a 1, wandering monsters appear. Noises, curses, or special areas may increase the frequency or probability of monsters appearing. Wandering monster numbers are typically less than a full room encounter, but the monsters rarely have treasure with them.

The inside back cover has wandering monster tables for dungeon levels 1 to 3, along with some Dungeon Master Reference charts (all saving throws, including for Fighters up to level 12 for use with monsters, and Monster Hit Charts up to 17+ hit dice).

For the Wandering Monster tables, there isn't much rhyme or reason to them. There are of course plenty of normal animals/giant insects, humanoids, some undead, and a few oddities on each level. While there are a few tough encounters on the first two levels, the third level chart does up the danger a fair amount with medusa, wererats and shadows making appearances. One handy thing about these charts is that it lists the page number on which each monster can be found in the book.

The back cover of the Dungeon Masters Rulebook gives us an index of both volumes, with entries listed as P# for Players Manual entries, and D# for Dungeon Masters Rulebook entries. It's pretty useful to have, but I don't remember using it that often. I read through these books so often that first year I had them that I was able to find anything I needed so easily for years afterwards. But it is nice to have a good index in the book.


And there you have it, folks! Mentzer Basic D&D, cover to cover. fin


  1. It's been interesting comparing these rulebooks to Moldvay's version (with which I'm much more familiar). Thanks for sticking through this!