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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Breaking Creative Barriers

I promised to come back to the topic of dungeon creation using the Chamber Generator. Friday's "random door" walk-thru approach is all about improvising a dungeon during play*, with just enough details to get through the current session and work out the rest later. That's not the approach I'd use for getting past a creative block when I'm designing a dungeon outside of play. Instead of starting at the "bottom", describing rooms in order one at a time, I'd start at the "top", with the general feel and purpose of the dungeon.

* Although it also works for treasure maps.

It's the three concepts I talked about when I was doing the improvised megadungeon training series: Sum Up, Zoom In, Set Apart. First, make two or three broad statements about the component you're working on (the dungeon, a particular level, or a room.) These statements will be true about most individual details in the component as well. Second, list the individual details (levels or sections of the dungeon, subsections or rooms of a level,) which become subcomponents. Then, describe these subcomponents only in terms of their differences from the broader descriptive statements.

If you describe a dungeon first as a series of volcanic caverns, most of its levels and rooms will just be "volcanic caverns"; what you want to describe are the parts of the dungeon that aren't volcanic caverns, or those volcanic caverns that have something unique about them. Similarly, if you describe a dungeon as funeral crypts, most of the rooms will be crypt chambers; what you want to describe is those crypt chambers that are different (this one has animated skeletons, this one has an ancient mural depicting the face of the man you saw in town yesterday,) or those chambers that aren't crypt chambers (a shrine to the ancestors, the lair of ghouls.)

The first step, just like the room-by-room walk-thru, is to think about what you can assume as the basics. Are you planning a dungeon in the mountains, the swamp, the desert? Do you already know the general culture of the area? Did you drop rumors about a lost city of the giants? Details like this can help decide what the dungeon looks like, what the walls and floors are made of, what the general layout might be.

Next, you need your top-level details about the dungeon. For a random approach, use a reaction roll on the dice map to determine how the dungeon "feels" (Hostile = dangerous, Friendly = valuable) and why the dungeon was built (using the letter locations as clue.) If you don't know yet what the general terrain is like, you can use a reaction roll for this, too.

Then, you need the general structure of the dungeon. You can use the standard 3d6 roll (one die a different color,) for chamber layout, but you're determining the layout of the dungeon as a whole; dice that land in the Doors and Exits region indicate the major exits from the dungeon (besides the main entrance,) dice that indicate Features apply to most of the dungeon architecture. Objects indicate known special features of the dungeon; if a container is indicated, for example, there's a legendary container, not just an ordinary box or barrel, but a fancy sarcophagus with the history of a fallen hero inscribed on its side, or a huge lead chest with brass serpents binding it shut, or the Ark of the Covenant... something special.

The 1d6 that's a distinctive color indicates the number of sections of the dungeon; this may be either groups of levels or sections on the first level. The 2d6 roll can be taken as a rough size indicator (Very Low equals small, Very High equals huge and sprawling.) Alternatively, you can use the 2d6 roll as the number of levels, if you haven't planned this already.

As desired, make a 2d6 reaction map roll for each level or each section, to determine its purpose in contrast to the dungeon as a whole, and a 3d6 chamber roll to determine its approximate layout. Keep zooming in with more random details until you have enough ideas to take off on your own with.

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