Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to Tackle a Dungeon I - First Steps

This is the beginning of a series I mean to last three posts (if I get new ideas, it will go longer).  If I had thought of this before writing the Dungeon's Front Door I would have included the content there - but then, we're always thinking of new things.

In scope, it supposes that the dungeon to be tackled is somewhat traditional: a hole in a mountain wall, leading into a series of rooms and levels that go down and down, with monster lair after monster lair to be destroyed and the treasure grabbed.  The suggestions presented in this series would in fact work better for a megadungeon than any other type, because of the ways megadungeons work.
It is also supposed that the players have located the dungeon by chance and have time to investigate it, perhaps learning of it from a local bartender or through some other rumor, perhaps stumbling upon it in the wilderness.  If time is a factor in the campaign, some of the suggestions below may not work.  It would depend how much time the Players' have.  It should be noted, however, that if it is expected that the players would return to town several times in plundering the dungeon and searching for the McGuffin, the following would probably save time.

Finally, this probably won't work for the player's first dungeon.  What's asked for is a little capital to start.  Players in the middle campaign often already have a lot of coin and are off to plunder their next dungeon not for the money but for the adventure.  These players will have the wherewithal to act as I suggest.

The content here is intended for Players, not DMs.  These posts are written to suggest a tactical approach to plundering a dungeon, working in ways that are historically time-tested but which do not ordinarily occur to players.  In more than 30 years of running different sorts of dungeons, I have never had a group of players act in the ways I am about to suggest.

Some DMs will not like these tactics.

Most dungeons begin with the players having an opportunity to equip themselves and prepare.  This usually means buying food, ensuring a good supply of oil, holy water, weapons, extra tools, enough iron spikes, rope and torches . . . all the usual things.  Many parties will consider hiring a few men at arms to hold lanterns, carry booty or manage the horses while the party handles the dungeon proper.

Let's accept that these are all good things, along with whatever else you might bring along to deal with all the obstacles we've met before and that we're bound to meet again.  But I propose that it's not enough.

Suppose we start by gearing up light and heading out just to find where the dungeon is.  We'll say it's in a group of uninhabited mountains, probably near a river (dungeons often have underground rivers that must emerge somewhere and most monsters do need water to live), far from anywhere.  An environment something like this:

Middle of Nowhere
A party can spend a long time hiking over what's shown on the map trying to find a little hole that's only five feet wide, particularly when something like the above is surrounded by plenty of other rivers flowing from out between plenty of other mountains that all look fairly alike.  Months, even.  But DMs usually ache to let us know where the dungeons are so there will probably be clues that let us find the dungeon entrance with a day trip.  So let's say we hike out, find a few pre-made orc trails and learn that the dungeon is here:

That dark patch, a few hundred feet above the river.

So while the DM is pulling out maps and books and organizing dice and getting ready for the first encounter, we say, "Um, we'd like to explore the next valley over."  This valley:

In the ballpark, as it were.

DM:  "Wha -?"

Us:  "We'd like to explore a valley that's nearby, separated from the dungeon by a mountain spur, downstream, about half a mile up from the main river but next to a good stream, on a flat place that has a good supply of trees and brush and is fairly defensible.  A place that's hard to get to from above and from which the access to the river below is narrow.  These are mountains.  Shouldn't be too hard a place to find."

As the DM works this out head-wise we can further outline things we'd like to know.  Are there fish, is there local game, has the dungeon denuded the countryside of these things?  Are there places where the denizens of the dungeon have deforested the area, telling us where they like to go for supplies when not actually in the dungeon?  We'd like to explore a valley that the dungeon inhabitants have left largely untouched.  If there are hatch marks on the trees, it would be nice if these were several months or perhaps a year old.

The DM is bound to hem and haw about these things, attempting to claim there are no such areas near the dungeon.  To this sort of thing we shouldn't even offer an argument.  We should just sit and stare at the DM, together, wordlessly, our eyes conveying our awareness that the DM is being a total dick and that the position is not fooling anyone.  If the DM continues with this sort of reasoning, we should quietly begin packing up our books (not rushing, now), making it perfectly clear that we're not going to let ourselves get pushed around just because the DM doesn't like our perfectly reasonable approach to preparing ourselves for the future.  If we do this very slowly and make no attempt to offer any argument, and the DM does not stop us and recant before we reach the door, then fuck, why are we running in that world anyway?

To move forward, let's assume the DM has ever been in the mountains before and realizes that such places are bound to exist, even if it means exploring three or four valleys to find one.

Very well, let's go back to town.

Yep, that's right.  We will not be taking the dungeon today.

Having settled on the location, let's start gathering the materials to make a base camp.

Everyone does this!  In modern times, big mountains like K2 and Everest have several base camps and rally drivers in various long distance races (the Paris-Dakar, for example, which has moved to South America) establish depot points where supplies of gas and other supplies are bound to be needed.  In the recent past, explorers like Elisha Kent Kane (explored northern Canada and Greenland), Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and others all set up food and supply dumps that they expected to fall back on in times of need.  Why should we, as dungeon explorers, head all the way back to town for rest and resupply when we can establish a base camp a mile or so away, that we can retreat to or send a runner towards if we need something critical as soon as possible.  It's just smart.

We want a crew of hirelings and soldiers, explaining that they'll be paid well, we don't expect them to have to fight at all and that they're there to establish a solid fortification in the wild in case we're attacked by a raiding party of orcs or other creatures that want our supplies.  It's cutting trees and clearing land, building palisades and brush fortifications, collecting water, fixing strong-points and being on guard in dangerous country.  If someone comes, we'll be ready for them.

Later on, there will be other work to be done, but just now we need about forty or fifty woodsmen, fighters, perhaps a prospector (in case there's something valuable in the valley), a cleric for the men's morale and for healing and maybe a bard as well.  We want the camp to be a friendly, pleasant retreat for ourselves as well as for the men, so long as things don't get raucous - unlikely, if we ensure that a strong Boss is running the camp in a no-nonsense fashion.  In any case, we've chosen the next valley over because the mountain spur and the distance will mask our presence - sound won't carry up and over that mountain no matter how goddamn loud we are.  We could be blasting and the dungeon wouldn't hear us, even if they were sitting on their front porch (which they won't be, because its a gawddamned dungeon).

When the camp is fixed up and properly garrisoned, when the men have had a month in the bush to settle in and get comfortable, when we've sent exploring parties all over every valley within five miles and made maps, then we'll be ready for the DM and the dungeon.

Until then, the DM can wait.


  1. Ha! This is the sort of thing my players like to do (though maybe with a smaller group of slugs running their camp). I let them run with it - they're being smart (or using their long experience) and I like it. Doesn't mean it always work out for them, though. The wilderness is a dangerous place...

    Looking forward to the rest of the series. I just started reading Dungeon's Front Door. So far a good read.

  2. What you described here in terms of the establishment of a base camp as the precursor to an adventure is actually what broke one of my groups and laid the foundation for the end of that campaign. Our GM was actually very much on board with this kind of preparation but the the entire group at the table, who considered it to be a waste of their time. They wanted to be the lone heroes camping out in despoiled rooms within the dungeon as heroes in the past have done, from years of playing traditional dungeon crawls and games have taught them.

    They had a strong mindset towards the 'elite' heroes, that you only needed a few strong hands and able minds to surmount any obstacle. In short, they had been deluded into their own superiority. So the GM, being actually unbias, actually let the two positions develop their proposals simultaneously. We had already been separated from each other and were allowed to work with similar starting resources in a race to crack the tomb first.

    One went the route of self empowerment; heavy investment in gear and material, a few stout followers and cohorts to make up for missing players. The other went for heavy followers and works, brought on investors to help add more resources in exchange for the return of cultural artifacts of historical significance... it took awhile to find the right backers but the added wealth was worth it, and went in with a camp similar to what was detailed in the post as well as a rather nice nest egg to work with in providing more.

    The subsequent adventures were... interesting and lead to a rift between the various members of the group... the elite heroes verse what they called the 'managerial' group... who were supposedly not heroes but more oversees and managers for what should have been an exciting adventure... not a methodical deconstruction of the ruins in mechanical fashion.

    Especially when the heroes bit off more than they could chew and had to be rescued by the managerial group who had established safe zones with heavy security in the upper works of the dungeon.

    That experiment still lingers actually in some of the members not trusting other members of the group.

  3. I love this ! Definitely a behavior I would be thrilled to see in my players.

    Ah, they're looking for a place to start building a fortress in the mountains closest to the base city, I should provide clues to old dungeons there and see...

    More, please! :-)

  4. Aha, you anticipate me Blaine - but perhaps I still have original things to add.

  5. Bravo! More of this series, please.

  6. Like this. The Alexis as player perspective is inspiring.

  7. I really enjoy this style of post keep up the good work.

  8. Depending on the nature of the dungeon and/or the nature of the valley, I see a lot of death shares being payed out to widows...

    Kimbo said: "The Alexis as player perspective is inspiring. "

    Oh goodness, I'd love to run for some ruthlessly clever players (mine are pretty casual and they miss a lot of clues which could help them. They are smart but not thorough).

  9. The skill of tracking might help people find these dungeon entrances. Provided there are tracks to follow. If the denizens are undead where they don't need to forage for food, then it won't be so easy to "follow the trail to the dungeon entrance."

  10. Awesome post, but I feel like most dungeons have intelligent humanoids (i.e. orcs of one stripe or another) who are going to want to patrol their territory. Things like dungeon entrances and maybe a day or two march from the dungeon entrance would be regularly patrolled. The amount of fortification needed for such a camp to survive amidst such near-constant attack would be considerable.

  11. True, but if you build the camp well, any military commander will tell you it is easier to fight a defensive war against an enemy than an offensive one. If the orcs rush out and attack you, while you fight in your fortifications, you will sap their numbers even if you are forced to retreat (and a good camp will include means for retreat). They you can return again and mop up.


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