This article was originally found on the Grinning Rat Publications Medium account. It has been brought over and made free for viewers. Note: Some ideas and considerations may be out of date.
There is a certain mindset that goes into the planning, writing, and running of a dungeon in the OSR style.
In it, the dungeon is not just a historical place with bad tenants and worse furniture — its a mythic place. A place of unspeakable evil, malice, and hatred towards anything that could deigned as good and moral. It is a place pervaded by despair — a veritable underworld of things that are out to kill the party.
In short, the boss monster in the dungeon isn’t the antagonist of the party. The dungeon itself is.
And for good reason — many different systems in the OSR style discuss things like exploration turns, x-in-6 chances at discovering and setting off traps, and monsters that threaten to roam around every corner. Every door that is successfully opened — if it isn’t stuck shut by some infernal source — threatens to swing shut and lock itself. Every secret entrance tantalizes the party; do we move on or do we investigate? And if we are investigating, why is the DM picking up dice?
Dungeons in Opulent
In Opulent, dungeons are occasionally ruins and remnants of prior civilizations. More often than not, however, dungeons harbor portals and thoroughfares into other worlds — places of shadow, darkness, trickery, and strange happenings.
These places are often malicious — intending to trap or disorient the adventurers while they travel through them. The adventurers will never be alone in these places, as many monsters and beings of terror exist within their darkened halls.
The creatures they face will be inspired by myth, such as the Lavellan — a large water-rat that lives deep beneath pools of water; its very presence causing water to turn to poison. The halls are roamed by Kishi (demonic hyena-men) and other forms of beastfolk that share the malevolent opinion of the adventurers with the dungeon. These creatures — and many more — wander the upper levels of dungeons, usually mired in refuse and the stink of death. While these creatures can occasionally be reasoned with, the best course of action is to avoid them when possible. Who knows what methods are to their madness?
Worse still, the deeper one travels in Opulent the greater the risk and terror. Deep in the forgotten places of the world walk immense skeletons, gargantuan leviathans, Faerie Princes, and Things That Should Not Be. These creatures exist merely to dominate and consume — their very presence striking fear into the hearts of all manner of folk.
How This Plays Out at the Table
For Opulent, I plan on mixing a few different mechanics to utilize the best options for exploration in dungeons and make sure that the dungeon itself is a significant force to be reckoned with.
Since I’ll be using Old School Essentials to run the game, the majority of the process is dictated in that book. The game assumes that you are utilizing what are called “exploration turns”, where the actual progression through the dungeon is mapped in the same way combat is in modern editions of DND. Each turn is 10 in-game minutes and boils down to the following:
1. Roll for wandering monsters.
2. The party decides which actions to take.
3. The DM describes what happens based on those actions.
4. The DM updates the time records and the turn ends.
However, there are some additions to the process I find fascinating and think I’ll be running as well. Over at the Meandering Banter blog, the process of “overloading” the encounter die is discussed. In it, the process above is further dilineated by assuming the following is done every three rooms of the dungeon:
1. Encounter (see below)
2. Glint (see below)
3. Terrain Effect
5. Torch decreases (1/2)
6. Torch and lantern (1/3) decreases
The blog explains further:
If you roll an encounter, the general format for each zone is:
1. Recurring Characters;
2. Primary Faction in area;
3. Primary Faction in area, but Worse (more powerful, knowledgeable about you etc.);
4. Secondary Faction in area, or from a nearby area;
5. Solitary entity/oddity;
If you roll a Glint then Something Will Happen if the PCs continue on the same path. If you rolled a Glint during a rest or while not moving for some other reason, then Something Happens if they don’t travel elsewhere:
1. Encounter surprises Party
2. Party surprises Encounter
3. Just something reflected/echoes down here etc.
4. Just your mind playing tricks on you…
If you leave someone behind in the dungeon, whether a wandering ally, neutral party, fleeing/pursuing enemies, add them to the list of Recurring Characters. Keep in note that Wandering Monsters should really be called Mobile Enemy Forces.
If an enemy would be found in a particular room, then it’s stuck there for some reason — maybe it only lives in that area, it’s asleep, it’s guarding a very particular location etc. If it’s not stuck, then it’s hardly Wandering: whether scouting, hunting or patrolling, a Mobile Encounter should be ready to fuck up your day, or retreat/get reinforcements.
This is a concrete, simple, and evocative way to make the dungeons truly feel alive. If you’d like to take a look at the blog yourself, please take a look below:
As the players delve into dungeons, they of course will come across all manner of nasties and loot. This process outlined above can easily be converted to wilderness hexes (where each hex represents 6 miles of countryside) or even traversing through cities. Both are outlined on the Meandering Banter blog or could be detailed manually from the rules provided in the Old School Essentials Rules Tome.
In the future then, we should discuss how in Opulent I plan on customizing the tables that encounters are rolled on for a given area. For next time, however, I want to discuss some of the specifics of the setting — namely, the starting town that the players will begin their adventures in.