GM Tips

Don’t Map Everything.

I know, sacrilege, no? And coming from someone who has spent hundreds of dollars on graph paper over the years and filled much of it with detailed maps of entire dungeon complexes it may sound a little hypocritical, but really, don’t map more than you need. Treat your dungeons like your cities (And if you feel the need to obsessively map your cities, now is the time to seek help. And no, I don’t have any entirely mapped cities that I plan on letting you see.) where you only define the interesting bits. Instead of mapping out the entire kobold warren, map the set pieces: A meeting den, the corridor of traps with scorpions, the ledge over the deep gap into the darkness, the chief’s den, that sort of thing. You will want to also map out two or three set pieces to use for when the exploration goes south. (More on that in a minute) One thing you can do is draw a relational map, one that shows the connections between points of interest without explicitly mapping them. This works well in mine shaft and cavern settings, but it can also work in things like large buildings.

In this case, you have to use something akin to 4th edition’s skill challenges, except without the failure cap. Successes bring the party to the encounters that advance their goals with a decent chance of surprise or some tactical advantage. Failures bring them away from where they want to be, or put them in tactically difficult situations. You ask the players where and whatthey do, and that sets the relevant skills. Successes give them things going well, the players setting up an ambush or evading a patroll or finding an out of the way area to take an extended rest, while failures become unwanted encounters with a chance to make later rolls harder, or getting disoriented and turned around, or finding a trap.

No matter how you construct your adventures, here’s a tip: don’t make dungeons or encounter areas linear, and if you are using this system where you only map the interesting stuff, don’t start your players in door ways. Doorways make for either boring fights as unimaginative players try to fort up behind them, or they lead to dead parties because unimaginative players tried to fort up behind them and the inhabitants aren’t idiots. Static defenses are a losing proposition every time. If your party tends to huddle around doors, give your encounters flankers or artillery, occasionally have the bad guys collapse the roof on people who are trying to hide where it is “safe”, have their opponents wander off and warn the rest of the complex, making things much much harder for timid players. (There is a reason that SWAT teams throw flash-bangs into a room, and follow them in. They don’t hold a strong point and then wait because that doesn’t work.) Especially in games like 4th edition D&D, where ability sets are intended for kick in the door and flood the room situations.
Every room should have at least two exits, and they should eventually circle around so that a door way hiding place is also an exposed flank. Encounter areas should be large, the terrain shoud be complex and interesting and most of all it should encourage movement and dynamic approaches to the fight.

Leave a comment


  1. Eva

     /  May 24, 2010

    It is all well and good to say “don’t put them in a doorway”, but when they have to open a door to get to an encounter, that becomes a bit of a problem. I can’t stop them from falling back to a doorway, and if I beat them up for doing it they might just conclude that the fight was so hard that hiding was the right answer. I can try to make the environment more interesting and rich, but I need ways to positively reinforce the behaviors I want.

    I’m not trying to be defeatist here, I’m just saying that I think more direction is needed for dealing with problem parties than “don’t do that” and beat them up if they behave bad. Designing all my encounters to take place in hermetically sealed spheres will get old after a while. 😛

  2. roninkakuhito

     /  May 24, 2010

    I fully intend to put together an example of what I’m talking about as soon as possible. (The tough thing is that some times? You want them to take the slow cautious approach. The kobold adventure they used to demonstrate the system? If the party kicks down the door and rushes in? Probably dead. If they are careful and deal with small groups quickly? Not as much of an assurance of tpk.)


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