Why can't I leave random dungeon generation alone?
Since I first saw those frustrating and yet tantilizing tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide all those years ago, I have pursued the idea like a Holy Grail, with about as much success. I have rebuilt the original tables, I have tried versions of my own, I have spent hundreds of hours conjecturing and rethinking the premise, and in all this time I have concocted exactly nothing of use.
I have tried giving up the idea, too. But here I am, this past weekend, thinking about it again.
There is an inherent promise in random generation. It suggests a crutch that a DM can lean upon from time to time, near the end of a session when the party has moved through planned things a little faster than expected, and something is needed on the fly. The habit of human thought is to give the same things over and over, and a random table will sometimes break that habit - which makes it a good thing.
There's also something about random dungeon generation that promises, well, that I might be able to play a bit, 'against the house' as it were. My partner Tamara has said she'd like to play with me instead of my being the DM all the time. Just her and I, you understand; and it seems like 'RDG' would be a good way of accomplishing that. Just a bit of dungeon crawling, nothing too deep, a light game without much depth but with fighting and treasure.
But every generator seems to be, well, shit.
The problem with the one in the DMG, and the problem with most every generator I've ever seen, is that it seems bent on creating 'white space.' Just a lot of useless, boring, empty hallways and rooms. What is the value in a room being 'empty'?
Oh, I know. The argument has been, forever, that empty rooms provide 'tension.' The party gets all worked up, they open the door and - nothing! OMG, we were so worried there for a moment. Okay, no problem, search the room, move forward to the door and get worked up - and nothing! Again! Wow, feel the tension. Okay, no problem, search the room, move forward ... look, it's a door. Oh, fuck it, why bother getting worked up. Just open the door. Oh no! Orcs!
I have heard this scheme pitched for about ten thousand years now and guess what - my parties are not a) so stupid that they can't just make up a checklist that they hold up whenever the come to a door; and b) so stupid that they think this is clever. It isn't clever. It is BAD serial-writing from the 1930s, reprocessed as role-gaming by guys who thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea. Here we are, decades later, and this is still a thing? No it's not. White space in a dungeon is BORING. It is never anything except BORING.
The other problem, however, is that if you remove the white space from a dungeon generator, you get ... well, a bunch of absurdly connected rooms without sense or logic occupied by a strictly random set of monsters.
My personal experience is that dungeons work best when each 'level' or spreading section has one to three monsters in it. Typically, the main creature plus a supporting creature (goblins with wolves, a wizard with thirty pet owlbears, that sort of thing), and then some sort of vermin for the quiet corners, like spiders, rats, snakes, oozes, etc. This is then separated from the next section by a secret door, a cavern chimney that's difficult to navigate (thus logically keeping the sections separate from one another) or some sort of installed block/barrier where the upper creatures are trying to keep the lower creatures from invading them. This the party can then destroy, break through, move through ten minutes of white space thereafter and get back into the juicy death zone that's actually interesting.
And random generators NEVER, ever, make dungeons this way.
I've never seen one that does, anyway. And while I have recognized for years that a generator would have to create this sort of thing, I haven't ever figured out how to do it.
But ... I probably will go on wasting my time trying. Because, well, it still sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately.