In my continuing design of Gloamhold I’ve begun to think deeply about monster placement. On the face of it, this isn’t the massive of a deal—just stuff the dungeon full of monsters and treasure, and unleash a pack of blood-thirsty, treasure-seekers into the dungeon!
However, sadly, it’s more complicated than that.
Obviously, a dungeon can have too many monsters. For example, a dungeon with monsters in every room will quickly become a grind of unending combat—particularly if the rooms are so close together monsters allied to those the PCs are fighting “march to the sound of the guns”. Similarly, if the dungeon has too few monsters, the delve could get boring.
There is clearly a middle ground—a Goldilocks dungeon, if you will—in which the number of monsters is just right.
I think the frequency of monster encounters is important. If monsters lurk behind every door, the question, “I wonder what’s in here?” Instead becomes “I wonder what will attack us in here?” which is nowhere near as exciting. Dungeons with a high density of monsters also promote the much reviled 15-minute adventuring day style of play (which I hate).
A couple of years ago, I was running the Shattered Star adventure path. The last dungeon we got to (book four I think) featured a dungeon which effectively had a monster in every room. It was a high-level dungeon and things quickly slowed to a crawl. After four hours of game play we would have added an entire corridor and room to the dungeon map. It was demoralising.
Contrast this with the playtest I recently ran for Forsaken Demesne of the Demon’s Cultists in which over three sessions (or so) the party explored three floors of the ruined manor house, bravely decided to not explore the attic after seeing all the bats roosting in it and dared much of the place’s cellars. That style of game-play for me is much more satisfying. The party managed the above “delve” without resting. It was all done in a single game day.
(If you at interested in reading about their experiences in the manor house, check out the session summaries of their exploits:
In retrospect, I think the main parts of the manor house could have more challenge to it as large swaths of it were effectively empty. (That’s not to say empty space isn’t good—I think it’s a vital part of dungeon design, but sadly it seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent editions). Certain sections of the house felt a bit “samey” to me.
Given I’m shooting for an old-school feel to Gloamhold, it makes sense to return to the font of all knowledge—and the greatest gaming book of all time—the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. I love this book with the burning intensity of the sun’s fiery heart. It might be gloriously disorganised, but this book—probably more than any other—has influenced my GMing style for the last three decades. True, I might be viewing the book through +5 goggles of Gygax appreciation, but I think it has answers to so many GM conundrums.
The answer to my problem of how many monsters are too much lies in Gary’s classic random dungeon generator (Appendix A).
As you can see, in the photo above:
60% of dungeon chambers are empty.
10% of dungeon chambers feature a monster and no treasure.
15% of dungeon chambers feature a monster and treasure.
5% of dungeon chambers feature a special feature of some sort.
5% of dungeon chambers feature a trick or trap.
5% of dungeon chambers feature an unguarded treasure.
So 60% of rooms are “empty”, while 40% hold a monster, treasure or something else “interesting”. Empty rooms aren’t necessarily boring and featureless chambers—far from it; the GM can use them to build atmosphere and tension as well as for scene setting. They serve as handy places for the PCs to rest (or hide), enable interesting tactical movement, reward good mapping, and provide buffers between encounters—so the allies of the monsters the PCs are fighting “do not march to the sound of the guns.” They also add verisimilitude. Most monsters require, after all, kitchens, food storage rooms, a water source, somewhere to sleep and so on. Not all these rooms will be occupied all the time, but a dungeon without might stretch the players’ suspension of disbelief (which is a bad thing).
I’m not suggesting I’ll stick slavishly to the ratios above—to do so would be madness (and somewhat predictable). However, the table is a handy guide in determining Gloamhold’s general “monster density”. Some places will be busier and fuller than others, and the style and themes of the various levels and sub-levels will reflect that.
And—of course—the table was designed for 1st edition AD&D not Pathfinder and its ilk. The frequency and value of monster gear and treasure have changed beyond all recognition since the heady early days of the hobby. For monsters with class levels, gear—often magical—is a necessity and Pathfinder’s economy and wealth (and gear) assumptions for characters are wildly different to those for 1st edition.
A final thought: this table was designed to facilitate a different kind of dungeon to those extant today. In the “good old days” dungeons were often huge, rambling affairs ranging over several levels. Most dungeon these days seem to be small affairs with fewer than 20 rooms—I assume so they fit on a battle matt and provide just enough XP to level up. Gloamhold is much for the former than the latter when it comes to size and scope, and thus—to me—it makes sense to follow Gary’s general recommendations.
What Do You Think?
Is this kind of design thinking too deep and nerdy? Is this stuff not important? Alternatively, did you find it useful? Let me know, in the comments below.