Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Procedural Dungeon

Take the idea of index card geomorphs, geomorphs that are stencils, dungeons built by certain cultures, and I think you've got a recipe for quick, DIY dungeons with a sense of logic and history.

First, think of a culture that's left structures peppered around your game world.  Let's pick Dwarves.  Second, decide on some features their strongholds/outposts almost always have.  Let's say:
  • cave fish pond
  • barracks
  • smithy
  • ore storage
  • smelting room with chimney
  • throne room
  • hidden gem storage
  • secret emergency exit/bolt route
Now, decide on the most common design for each of these features-- and they can be tetronimo shaped as long as each fits on a single index card-- and cut them into stencils. I realize that step might be trickier than it sounds but am confident the gross features can be caught even if you have to hand draw in finer details.

Then you should be set for the next time players go off map or an encounter roll calls for creatures to be in lair.  You pull out your stack of stencils for Dwarven Outpost (you can keep different types bundled with rubberbands) roll dice, or shuffle and draw the cards, then trace them on your graph paper.  It might take a few minutes but you'll have a consistent dungeon with a map for your campaign folder.

If it works as I imagine players could learn things about these dungeons that would add a sense of verisimilitude to the imagined world:  "Wait, this looks to be a Dwarven outpost, they almost always have a secret gem room."  Or "These Dwarven outposts tend to have smelting rooms with chimneys, so we might find a small but definite exit to the surface there."

If the stencils work as I hope, the next design challenge would be to make sure all of your recurring dungeons have features that players would find interesting, like the examples above.  maybe cultists have libraries, outposts of the old magic-rich empire always have a brass head mounted somewhere, and tombs of the old empire tend to have map rooms with a diorama display of the surrounding countryside (and the location of more tombs).

(I plan to try to actually produce some of these but I'm currently house sitting for friends so it may be a while.)

Update: I had a hard time titling this, Procedural isn't right.  I think I probably should have called it Template dungeon (but that sounded kind of boring) . Oh, well. That makes me wonder what a true DIY procdeural dungeon would look like, too.


  1. "Modular"?

    Real procedural generation would take something like Abulafia or the mother of all table books.

  2. Acch, I'm an idiot, modular's the word I should have used. Thanks, sir.

    For procedural, tables would certainly be used but I'm thinking more emphasis on rules. "If a water source is within 5 inches then x," etc. Noisms post commenting on randomly determining stuff in wilderness hexes is getting close to this: "If mountains then x chance of 3 features, if plains than only 1."

    Also, still don't own How to Host a Dungeon, but the passage of time and the historical events in it would be cool procedural things to bring to normal D&D dungeon generation.

  3. I was picturing a dungeon that played out like a police procedural. Not sure how that would work.

  4. I like this idea a lot. It builds player and character knowledge at the same time, without turning it into a bunch of knowledge rolls.

  5. I concur with John. I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with this.

  6. @John & Christopher: Thanks. I think one of the real tricky things about reducing the DMs generating burden is not losing that consistency and plausibility that players can learn from. Hopefully this can be a way to do it.

    @Spawn: If there is any justice in the world someone wanting to make a police procedural game will stumble on this post and say "Aha, I can use index cards!" haha.

  7. I've been really struck by the procedural nature of OSR DnD - for myself I've never wanted dungeon-making formulae, but then before reading the OSR blogs I simply hadn't considered the possibilities of random generation as a players-and-DM-surprising tool, and I'm getting more and more interested in the whole thing as a creative strategy.

    Of course CRPGs are where you see a lot of this actually in play: the Bethesda/Elder Scrolls games of course did/do it all over the map. Ken Rolston worked up a method for Dwarven Stronghold generation similar to what you're talking about, where the Hold has entrances, then a traps and tricks gauntlet, and finally access to the Dwarfhome and cheese. I think he had a similar wizard's tower generator which produced lighthouse-like results: audience chambers and a gauntlet in a low-lying complex, then the lab/observatory up the tower.

    I especially like what you're thinking about making certain kinds of locales learnable/anticipate-able. It sounds to me like this could be a useful adjunct to Vornheim for instance. How is a random bazaar different from a random temple? (and rules for building types is close to my architectural historian's heart) How does the specific character of your city configure its neighbourhoods?

    of course, for anyone to get to the point where they say "oh another flying githyanki hive - I bet there's a communication centre up in the central dome-cluster" my games would have to go on much, much longer than they have done historically...

  8. I was going to mention the Elder Scrolls games as well - reading this post made me jump immediately to the Dwemer and Ayleid ruins in Morrowind, Cyrodil, and Skyrim.

    Convergent RPG design at its best. :)

  9. The concept I see here is actually not module, which has to do with being able separate and re-use something (that is, being independent and self-contained), but actually "constraint," perhaps with probability. Examples:

    - All dwarven holds have secret gem rooms
    - If there is a smithy, there must be ore storage
    - There is a 90% chance that dwarven holds will have a smithy


    There is obviously a way to make these properties more parsimonious too if one desired.

    So, "constraint-driven dungeon" maybe?

  10. Thanks for the comments.

    @Richard, RMDC: Yeah, any video game should be doing this stuff. I think some of the big players actually unlearned this lesson. The fractal generation of Minecraft maps in a true sandbox is one of the things that made me actually forget all about Skyrim, even with its artfully sculpted landscapes.

    @Brenden: Well, I think modular in the fact that you can move them around and choose to leave out some or not. This outpost doesn't have a fish pond because the area is too dry etc. And I suppose once you had a library built up you could mix and match: This dwarven outpost was built next to an ancient cultist site, but was never finished because they must have unleashed some horrible evil.

    But I really dig where you're going with the "IF there is a smithy Then there is ore storage." That kind of rule could make it really procedural. I think if it gets too complicated that it really becomes the realm of computers though.

  11. I quite like this ideas as well; may have to give it a try. Though part of that is probably a combination of your example and the fact that I've been playing far too much Dwarf Fortress recently...

  12. Thanks, John. Haha, as for video game influences, an astute reader might find certain Minecraftian strains in my posts lately :)