Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Pre-Mapped Dungeon

The pre-mapped dungeon has come up a few times in conversations on this blog.  I think one place was regarding heists and the other was involving tactile maps.  I thought of it again in regards to hobo signs and cadger maps (more on those later).  I thought it might be good to think a little about what qualities a pre-mapped dungeon would have that are different than the normal unknown dungeon.  What I'm talking about here is when players receive a map of a dungeon with rooms, traps, and creatures marked on it.

The pre-mapped dungeon is more about strategy than exploration.  Knowing what is in a dungeon means players can plan a course through it and decide which spots they most want to visit.  Or, more likely, which spot might hold the item they seek.  In this sense assaulting the pre-mapped dungeon is very heist-like.

Dealing with dangers you expect lends more of a fairy tale quality to this kind of dungeon.  Knowing there is a roper in a cave you must pass through means you can try to plan for how to neutralize it.  You have to decide what items to bring.  You might perform several side-quests to acquire items and people you'll need to succeed.  Maybe the Flute of Resting will put the roper to sleep, but it's in the Grove of Sighs . . .

Because the point is planning, I think it would be very frustrating for the map of a dungeon to be deceptive.  If, for example, it says "no traps here" on a corridor and you, as DM, decide a new kobold tribe has filled that corridor with traps.  Well, that kinda sucks.  Because you've taken away both the fun of discovering a new place and undermined the player's ability to strategize.  (Also, anything that would make the players want to ignore their map seems counterproductive if you're going to got to the trouble of giving them one)

It could be interesting if players knew that the map they'd been given of a particular dungeon was intentionally false.  They would still be able to strategize, just everything becomes more complicated.  Is the falseness of the map in saying there are traps in corridor 1 because there are none actually, or that the type of traps is incorrect (not pits but darts)?  I don't know that this added complexity is worth it.  It might be based on the context of who gives the players the map and why.

While giving players a map of a dungeon just to screw with what they expect doesn't seem worth it to me, the difference between expectation and reality in a pre-mapped dungeon can lead to surprise, which is one of the joys of exploration.  So, what are some differences that might be more interesting than frustrating?

I think changes that are not due to deception:
  • The dungeon has aged
  • the environment has changed (wetter, drier)
  • a new culture has moved in (elves, social insects)
  • the mapper misunderstood (he couldn't read the native language)
  • the map is from memory (and some things are slightly distorted)
I also think changes that allow for additional, on-the-spot strategizing could work.  So, if you know where traps are, maybe you can try to lead the ants into them.  If you know water has filled the Southern portion of the dungeon, you can revise your plans.  Was there anything down there worth retrieving?  If so how will you maneuver through the submerged halls?  Does this require leaving the dungeon altogether and returning with more supplies?

Change of function could be a quality to focus on, too.  I'm learning as a DM that a key aspect of exploratory dungeon delving is player recognition of what a place was for.  And there really aren't too many possibilities (probably less than 100 clear functions we humans use places for in a lower technology setting).  One way to change a dungeon that could be interesting is to juxtapose these.  Have what your map says is a shrine be the orcs' jacks now.  The jail is now a menagerie.  The old kitchen is now a crude alchemical lab, etc.  Discovering and interpreting this repurposing adds back some of the exploration element to the pre-mapped delve.

I think you can give players a sense of this repurposing in a dungeon without them having a map of the dungeon but, it's more complicated.  They have to discern both "This looks like their throne room" and "But I think it used to be a chapel."  With a map that has functions like "chapel" written on it, the players can have a sort of narrative of a place-- how a fortification is set up, how creatures lived day to day-- and the differences they discover will emphasize how things have changed, perhaps giving a sense of time passing and verisimilitude. 

Another way to make a dungeon feel real and have a sense of history is to give the map a history.  Where has the map been kept all these years?  Who know about it?  Has anyone used it before?  But most importantly: who made the map?  Were they famous?  Might there be other maps out there made by the same person?  What marginalia or quirks of drawing does this person have?  Did they leave markings or carvings in a dungeon that correspond to the map.  Maybe the map is more than a map-- a whole narrative, a journal, a diary.  Maybe there is no map but a narrative.  This could lead to players having to interpret metaphors "First, fly down the hall of the fire worms"  What the heck does that mean?  This seems like it would be more puzzle-like than allowing for strategy.  The payoff becomes less the sense of surprise than that of understanding.  Not "the altar is  being used as a bed!" but "Oh, the Plate of the God is an altar."

A few ideas to leave you with:
  • a map made in stages by generation of monks
  • a map recovered from a corpse by their adult child
  • a found map that relates the tragic failure of an expedition
  • multiple maps of the same dungeon with slight differences
  • a metaphorical map: images of serpents indicate halls, birds chambers
  • map as a cultural artifact:  like the polynesian maps of currents around islands (maybe dwarven maps focus on veins of ore, not chambers)
  • Odd maps: the tattoo, the map woven into beautiful clothing, the map etched in the metal of a sword or shield


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  2. In my experience, accurate maps make the dungeon less satisfying. As a player and a DM, I prefer any maps the party finds to be vague, incomplete, and enigmatic. The information on the map should be essentially correct, but with enough uncertainty and gaps of information that the players are forced to draw their own conclusions. That way you get the fun of poring over the map trying to figure stuff out, and the fun of exploration.

    My favourite would be the maps made by previous expeditions, filled with brief jottings and cryptic clues from some poor doomed saps just like the PCs. "Bert got et", "ware the watchers" and so on.

    One of the best examples I've seen of this is actually from a video game, Thief. Check out these dungeon maps, all for more-or-less traditional non-linear D&D-style dungeons: a crypt complex, a buried city, a cave complex, and a mythic underworld.

  3. lots to chew on here. Maps by entities with completely different priorities (not necessarily Cthuluvian-different, although maps by aquatic or earth-dwelling creatures could be interesting, especially if the treasure hasn't been mined yet) - in the dragonriders' castle, be careful in the "stables:" in the trolls' caves steer clear of both the larder and the baths. Map-narrators who are inexplicably obsessed with what's growing on the walls, or the smells of different regions (rooms 10-16: metallic. 17: spring meadow. 18-20: hint of tannery. 21: madeleines). Maps transcribed by mediums, or doctors trying to interpret fever dreams. Maps that are self-evidently false - like they contain spatial loops or are narrated out of order so that they rhyme.

    Maps by Spike Milligan. "Kilburn High Road runs for three miles, which explains why it looks shagged out."

    Have I ranted at you about geniza documents? Each page torn in half and thrown into a massive oubliette, to further decay over centuries, yielding a jigsaw puzzle of fragmentary documents, often palimpsests with multiple authors, so you can never be totally sure if those 2 bits that seem to go together actually do for all the texts they contain...

  4. I actually had a head full of "Thief" as I read the post too. Consider the different qualities of the maps; the Lost City map was almost useless, and in Thief 2 they get some intensely detailed maps (and something changes when the map automatically tells you where you are; in the first game, you could make your own notes!)

  5. @fictive: Indeed. As a rule, the heists had much more detailed and accurate maps, while the levels spent wandering dungeons and dodging monsters had maps that were abstract or vague. The sequel dropped the dungeon exploration aspect of the game, so the maps became more detailed in general.

  6. Thanks, all.

    @John: I think I'm pretty much in agreement, just trying to explore that boundary between knowing and finding out with a map and a location.

    Thief is one game I missed out totally on and have heard so many good things about that I'm sorry for it. As I understand it it was a game about stealth? So that's interesting in that it makes it more heisty; you might know where every room is from a map but you really want to know where the guards are.

    @Richard: Teaching me as usual; never heard of the geniza documents. The idea that the writing is God's words and thus can't be destroyed but buried somewhere is an adventure all on its own! The scrollgrave, the librarycrypts. So many weird things in our real world why are adventure modules so samey?

    All the ideas for maps are good. You could probably make a blog post about each. Here's an idea for an OSR product: Book of Maps, every dungeon comes with a player map that is interesting in its own right or because of the backstory of its creation.

    @fictive: Reminds me a little of Assassin's Creed-- I'd go to all this trouble to find the maps of a location an assassination was to take place, where the guards were but the game would do something to make them all worthless. I'll never forgive the designers for putting the mentally handicapped beggar in one scene that bumps you and turns the stealth game instantly into a street brawl.

  7. An important category of pre-made maps are ones that are pushed in that direction by the medium. If you've got the dungeon laid out in Dwarven Forge Master Maze dioramas or drawn on a detailed large-scale battlemap or projected via a digital projector, the easiest thing is to show the players the whole thing at once; fog-of-war gradual reveals are more difficult. Sometimes I run with this tendency and justify doing the easy thing by giving the characters a perfect map: the players see the whole dungeon because both they and their PCs are looking at a depiction of it.
    - Tavis

  8. Thanks, Tavis, I hadn't thought of that since I don't use a lot of gear. Do you find yourself designing the dungeons differently because of this?

    Does that mean a game using Dwarven Forge isn't about exploration? I love the look of those things (and if I had more room/money I'd probably own a bunch, or more likely be pouring my own like Paladin in Citadel), but for me exploration is the purest rush. I'd hate to lose it.

  9. I did this a while back with the ToEE in my Greyhawk campaign.

    Link with the actual player maps -

    The main reason for the player maps was that no one in the party was willing/able/practiced enough to be able to do these in a timely manner. Since time seemed to be ever lacking actually taking the time out during gameplay to painstakingly map out the dungeon was put on the back burner. The rationale for giving the players these maps was that the forces of good came in and sacked the temple three years ago and these were the maps made after the fact. [A note to anyone actually planning on playing/running these modules the maps have been edited from the original TSR module maps.] The maps do not contain secret/concealed doors/rooms or many of the traps illustrated on the original maps. The conquering forces of good didn't discover all the hidden byways down in the temple. Its one thing not to make the players actually map because of time/willingness constraints it's quite another to totally give away everything on the map. They still have to explore and find out the many surprises of the temple the good old fashioned way. This was explained to the players ahead of time, so they weren't too surprised when they came across something not on the map given them.

  10. Thanks, Alfons. Yeah, sometimes with newer players I draw the dungeon out with dry erase marker on a paizo game may as we play. It slows me down a bit though. I wonder, did having the full maps before hand change how they strategized?