Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Stocking a Dungeon

When I started my Erimia campaign, I reread Moldvay's Basic D&D and I came across the following advice for stocking a dungeon:

To "stock" a dungeon means to fill in general details, such as monsters, treasure, and traps. Special monsters should be first placed in the appropriate rooms along with special treasures. The remaining rooms can be stocked as the DM wishes. If there is no preference as to how certain rooms are stocked, the following system may be used.

He then provides a pair of tables where contents maybe determined by a d6:

1-2 Montser
3 Trap
4 Special
5-6 Empty

Is There Treasure?
Monster Yes on 1-3
Trap Yes on 1-2
Empty Yes on 1

There is an elegance here that belies the image of random tables being random and chaotic. Using this system, and a couple of sub-tables utilizing a d6, one can create a unique feel for any dungeon map.

For example: I use this system to stock the Dungeon Beneath the Ruins in my Erimia campaign. Each level or sub-level has "special monsters" — the main or climactic encounters on each level. I place some special features, some treasure and leave the rest to the random table. However, the random table is tightly controlled. I use a template with the following pattern:

1-2 Humanoid
3 Animal
4 Undead
5 Vermin
6 Chaos Beast

These numbers can be altered to change frequency, depending on the feel for each level. Each of these results then goes to a sub-table which give a specific result. This is where every level gets its true character. If you have a sub-level occupied by goblinoids next to a sub-level full of lizard-folk, the humanoid sub-table for each could look like this:

1-3 Goblins
4 Hobgoblins
5 Bugbears
6 Lizardmen

1-3 Lizardmen
4-5 Troglodytes
6 Goblins

Keeping each small table within a theme creates the sense of an ecosystem. Since each table has a maximum of six entries, it takes very little effort to create.

There are several advantages to this:

1. It saves time. As a Referee I don't have to worry about stocking everything in a huge mega-dungeon.
2. It makes the dungeon extremely portable and recyclable. I can use the same dungeon several times and have it be different each time. When players clear out a level, restocking is not much of an issue.
3. It is as much an adventure for the Referee as it is for the player. I get to have the fun of seeing my dungeon develop in an organic way through the interaction of my concept, the players and some dice.

The lesson here is that random tables are only as crazy and chaotic as you allow them to be. When tightly controlled, they are an invaluable tool.


Anonymous said...

So do you roll up the random contents as you play? Or beforehand?

Kevin Mac said...

As an old schooler I loved charts, but I use them less than my love would indicate. For dungeons I prefer to hand-stock everything. It's not a question of time, because I don't think that outside of special monsters that it's a big decision making process. Sometimes what treasure to put stumps me for a bit, but I'm not always happy with what a random chart will choose for me. Which means more rolls and finally taking more time than just yanking the contents out of my head, or at least choosing from examples in charts for treasure.

FrDave said...

To varying degrees, I do both. It is one of the reasons I love this system — it is so versatile. When doing things on the fly, you have to realize that the story behind what is going on in each level is derived from the already placed the "special" encounters. Thus, random encounters will behave accordingly.

Your concerns are the reason I do all the "set-piece" encounters and all the special treasures I want on the level by hand. For all the encounters by random table, I simply have a set range of treasure that is similar across the board. This reduces re-rolls to a minimum. Remember, these tables are tightly controlled — the times I don't like a roll is rare.

I have stocked similar sized dungeons using both this random table method, and placing everything by hand. For me, the random method takes much less time.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Yeah, "random" tables when rolled on many times such as for encounters or stocking a dungeon are (assuming fair dice) the opposite of random. They are in fact a uniform distribution of probabilities.

Random generation gets such an undeserved, bad rap.

Random tables aren't randomly created. They are (hopefully) very carefully hand crafted, like yours, to produce specific results. btw keeping tables simple (d6 to d20, non bellcurved) really helps.

All random tables produce a patterns. It's just you have to zoom out a bit to see them. This is how/why using random table creates the tone/ecology you're looking for. This is very unintuitive for many people.