Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Dungeon Design

I have been busying myself with the prospect of creating a dungeon in homage to the Chateau des Faussesflammes, one of the ruined castles mentioned by CAS in his stories of Averoigne. Being in a Holmesian kind of mood, I have been trying to tackle this particular project by reverse engineering the Sample Dungeon in the Holmes Edition. In some of my initial forays into the project, I have found an interesting curiosity.

As a life-long hobbyist, I cannot remember a time more exciting than the period we are living through right now. We have a plethora of resources at our finger tips that demonstrate an amazing amount of creative output. Being a bit of a map-geek, one such resource that I have taken particular joy in is the rebirth of the geomorph. I was fully planning on taking advantage of this revival for the purposes of creating maps for my version of the Chateau; however, go on over to Dave's Mapper and compare the (marvelous) results that you get there with the Sample Dungeon from Holmes:

The average room size in the Sample Dungeon is 60 x 60, which easily takes up more than half the space on the popular 100 x 100 geomorph used by the good folks who draw them for Dave's Mapper. The largest rooms in the Sample Dungeon wouldn't even fit on a single geomorph. Even more interesting is that the Keyed rooms are on average almost twice as big as the Empty (E) rooms (75 x 65 compared to 35 x 35).

This got me thinking about the necessity of designing a dungeon with such large rooms and, in particular, encounter areas. I think this largely has to do with the way combat works in Holmes. Missile (and Magic) combat is largely distinct from Melee combat. Once Melee combat is engaged, Missile (and Magic) combat effectively ends, due to the fact that missile fire and spells have a chance of hitting the wrong target.

Given this style of combat, movement and closing into melee and/or maneuvering to avoid melee becomes a vital element of the game. If combat were confined to small spaces (such as the majority of the rooms found in 100 x 100 geomorphs) this ability to move would be severely limited. Most combats would engage in melee almost immediately, reducing the usefulness and effectiveness of characters interested in using bows and spells. Therefore, Holmes provides encounter areas with plenty of room to maneuver.

Besides offering more evidence that the Dungeon is an ever-changing underground spawning new rooms, passageways and even monsters, the size of Empty rooms also implies an attempt by Holmes to make them dangerous.

The only monsters a party of adventurers would encounter in an Empty room are Wondering Monsters, which are meant to be a major part of the Holmesian dungeon-delving experience. Outside of evidence of an ever-changing semi-intelligent dungeon, they seem rather innocuous. Their significantly smaller size, however, limits any combat that does happen within them. Like the rooms on a typical 100 x 100 geomorph, the smaller Empty rooms limit tactical choice in combat. They are therefore a more dangerous place to encounter wandering monsters than a normal encounter area.

The long and the short — I (unfortunately) won't be using geomorphs to do my version of the Chateau des Fammesflammes because Holmesian dungeons need significantly larger rooms than we modern gamers are used to. I shall also be endeavoring to have my dungeon create a sense of claustrophobia with players despite these larger room sizes. Hopefully, they will come to fear the smaller Empty rooms, where wandering monster encounters are truly dangerous.


  1. Good observation!

    I was beginning to think no thought whatsoever went into designing the basic map, except making nice doodles. You're pointing out the opposite,


  2. Plus huge cyclopean structures underground deserve big rooms.

    I have to increase the scale of my own dungeons...

  3. Do you see the pronounced lethality of small rooms only in Holmes or is it something you've noticed in other editions?

  4. Thanks for the kind word, guys.


    Frankly, I haven't seen any correlation between room size and lethality in any other edition (other than narrow hallways). To my knowledge, Holmes is the only edition that explicitly discourages missile fire into melee without providing a mechanical way around it...

  5. If anything, editions that don't have strong limitations on missile fire into melee have the reverse behavior in effect. With PCs often outnumbered, being able to have one or two characters act as a complete blockade in a smaller space lets the missile-and-magic folks act as artillery unimpeded, while large spaces are harder to lock down.

    (And in the more recent versions of the game, the shift from treasure to combat as source of experience means that avoiding combat altogether - which is also easier given larger spaces to move around in - is made much less of a priority.)

  6. @FrDave, those are astute observation about the correlation between larger room sizes and keyed encounters versus smaller rooms and wandering monsters. I'm not sure anyone ever noticed this before, despite thousands of pairs of eyes having passed this way before you. Your Holmes series continues to impress us all with the insights you wring from this material. Keep up the good work!