Exploring a dungeon – whether it’s an actual cave filled with goblins, an abandoned space station, or a defunct arcology filled with deathtraps – is a staple of TTRPG games. The usual presentation is a map you can describe to your players, which offers choice but not much in the way of a narrative arc.
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But are there other ways to cover dungeon crawling? Well, yes, with varying degrees of narrative freedom. Once you start to mush up location- and encounter-based play, you end up with plenty of options to make interesting and engaging one-shot structures. Here are three of them.
Instead of thinking of your dungeon as a rigidly- defined series of rooms, think of it as set pieces separated by an assortment of corridors and interstitial areas. The Five-Room Dungeon is a good model for this, and it means the place doesn’t literally have five rooms, too. Or, for an even tighter design, draw up Three Places building to a climax.
Make the linking sections interesting by throwing in some optional, but interesting, flavour encounters that supply background or foreshadowing – carvings on the walls showing former inhabitants, wandering monsters or ghosts that can dispense clues, hidden stashes of treasure trapped. For a one-shot this also means you can choose which of these optional bits to include, helping with pacing.
Sometimes, we go into a dungeon with a clear goal and set piece to work towards – to disrupt the ritual, to slay the dragon, to rescue the princess. Having half-way set pieces doesn’t really work, and skipping straight to the end doesn’t make the location exciting or allow for any foreshadowing.
So, structure your dungeon like a skill challenge – use some of the variant rules here or here, or work out your own for the system you’re using. It pays to have definitive consequences for failure mapped out in advance, so there are some stakes for the skill rolls – and in a fantasy setting, think about what spells can do (auto-success? Require an Arcana roll? Grant permission to use an alternate skill?). Pace the journey through the dungeon using the skill challenge, and then finish with your big set-piece encounter.
Sometimes, the journey through the dungeon is even less important, or you want to hand over more narrative control to the players. A 13th Age-style montage is a great way to cover this – you decide on an obstacle facing the players, and the first player describes how it’s overcome and the next obstacle, until everyone has had their turn. This can lead to some truly epic explorations, and it works well with dungeons that have a really clear theme and concept that players can share and develop.
Some groups are less keen on this player-led narration – although this is my default when I’m running 13th Age. You can build up their comfort level, if you want to, using some of the techniques listed here.
So, three ways to free dungeons from the restrictions of location-based play. Of course, these work just as well for space stations, or steampunk-era cities, or haunted forests – let me know if you use one or more of these techniques in the comments!