The Random Dungeon Generator!
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Over the past several weeks, we have published a lot of essays about "favorite adventures." So far, the designers of How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck have contributed their thoughts on all of these adventures:
- The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
- Secret of the Slavers Stockade
- Castle Amber
- Desert of Desolation
- Against the Giants
- The sample dungeon in the back of the DMG
- Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
- The Caverns of Thracia
- The first campaign
- An unknown solitaire adventure
- Playtesting a Legend, including Isle of the Ape
Today we continue this series with a bit on random dungeon generation. Sometimes the best dungeon is the one you never saw coming!
The Random Dungeon Generator
By Jon Hook
When I was a kid, my favorite AD&D module was S2: White Plume Mountain, by Lawrence Schick. This is a module that I read and re-read multiple times, and I so wanted to run my friends through it, but for one reason or another it just never happened. As an “art kid,” I drooled over this module because of all of the amazing art. I’m not sure what printing it is, but my copy has the Jeff Dee front cover with a group of adventurers battling a manticore, and the Bill Willingham back cover with a white-haired adventurer wielding Blackrazor. In addition to Dee and Willingham, the whole module is filled with amazing art by the likes of Dave Sutherland, Darlene Pekul, Diesel LaForce, Jim Roslof, and a stunning region map of White Plume Mountain and the surrounding areas by Erol Otus.
Someday… Someday I will find the time for me and a group of friends to generate a party of adventurers who are up to the task to delve into White Plume Mountain. But, the intent of this essay is to share with you my favorite memory of playing D&D, and for that, we must forego the published modules, and instead turn our eyes to the Dungeon Masters Guide; specifically to Appendix A: Random Dungeon Generation.
One of my best friends in high school was Robert Heitkamp, and between the two of us, we had just about every popular role-playing game published in the early ‘80s. Certainly, we had every TSR product produced. And Robert’s dad was just as enthusiastic about the games as we were. I’ll never forget one Friday night at Robert’s house when his dad announced that he was going to create and run a D&D adventure for us, (Robert, me, and a couple of other guys who were all over at Robert’s for a sleep-over). He then told us how he was going to use the appendices in the back of the DMG to create a dungeon full of random monsters for us to battle our way through. No motivational narrative to hook us into the dungeon; it was just good ‘ol “Kill the monsters and take their stuff” kind of play.
It was a fantastic experience! He really drew us in, because we helped roll the dice and consult the book as we built the dungeon. As it is suggested in Appendix A, we began mapping this dungeon in the center of our graph paper with one of the random start rooms. And with each room, Robert’s dad would secretly roll on Appendix A: Table V. F: Chamber or Room Contents to let us know if there was anyone or anything in the room.
My memory has gotten foggy with age, but if I recall correctly, we didn’t get very far into this random dungeon. While it was fun to roll for each element of the dungeon (your current passage, side passages, special passages, turns, doors, rooms, etc.), it was time consuming. We made sure to place every door right where the tables instructed us to do so, we shaped each room as the roll of the dice willed it, stocked with the creatures rolled on Appendix C: Random Monster Encounters. I know we played as first level adventurers, so the creatures we faced weren’t too difficult.
I think about this night sometimes, and it makes me nostalgic to try it out with my friends. If you haven’t checked it out for yourself (or if it’s been awhile since you have), you owe it to yourself to review the Appendices in the back of the DMG again. As noted above, Appendix A lets you create a random dungeon. Appendix B is the random wilderness terrain outside of the dungeon. Appendix C, the random monster generator, is huge; it has a table for ten levels of monsters, undersea monsters, astral monsters, monsters with psionics, and wilderness monsters! No stone is left unturned.
Based on my experiences with the random dungeon generator tables, my advice to judges would be to embrace chaos; don’t feel obligated to have every paragraph of the adventure memorized; don’t limit the dungeon to what has already been defined. Sometimes your players will want to go “off-roading,” and if you occasionally practice using tools like an old Dungeon Masters Guide (or your own imagination), you can become quite skilled at providing a rich and entertaining experience for your players with little to no preparation. While not impossible, this would be a challenging way to run a campaign, but certainly an occasional side quest is quite doable. The reward for you, the judge, is once you have practiced the art of improvisational dungeoneering, your players will provide opportunities for you to flex those skills when they want to investigate the suspicious innkeeper, for example, even though he’s an unnamed NPC in the adventure module. You’ll be ready to indulge your players as they pursue this red herring, until you’re able to seed in a clue or encounter that points the characters back toward the Thieves’ Guild, where the rest of the published adventure is focused. And when you’re good enough, you can provide on-the-fly encounters for your players, and they won’t even realize that they have gone “off script” as far as the adventure module is concerned.
Jon Hook suspects that most of today’s game authors, like himself, have been creating fantasy, sci-fi, and horror adventures since they were a kid. The only difference now is the paycheck. Jon is very passionate about the people who comprise the role-playing and tabletop game community, and they have been very kind and supportive of the work he has created. Jon is by far a Call of Cthulhu guy, and has been fortunate enough to have work published by a variety of Call of Cthulhu publishers, including Goodman Games. His most recent Cthulhu adventure is Age of Cthulhu 9: The Lost Expedition.