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Thoughts on dungeons and choices in RPGs

The other day I was on ENWorld (an rpg community site) and was posting a reply to a thread where someone was asking about dungeon design, specifically how to go about it (link). He was a new GM, and he said that published material hadn’t been especially helpful. The whole topic got me thinking about dungeons in RPGs.

Dungeons are helpful because they structure player interaction with the world. The options for movement between rooms are fairly limited. This is good for two reasons: it makes the GM’s job easier by lessening his need to improvise on a large scale, and it gives players a built-in way of understanding and interacting with the game world.

A way to think about decisions in games is that they derive meaning from context. If you are offered a choice between heads or tails on a coin flip, it is a meaningless choice because there is no context to separate them from each other. Similarly, in an rpg you can give people limitless options, but without some context, they don’t really matter. I once played in a superhero-themed game where an otherwise excellent GM made the mistake of starting the session by giving us a map of an industrial complex and asking us where around it we were meeting each other. This led to a long period of awkwardness, since there was nothing presented to us that gave that decision any sort of meaning – we didn’t have any information beyond some vague labels on a map and the general shape of the complex. The lesson is: any time you ask the players to make a choice, make sure they have enough context to make that choice meaningful. Meaningless choices are confusing, awkward, and slow down a session for no reason.

Anyway, dungeons can help provide context to decisions. There is sometimes much more freedom in being offered two clearly distinguished paths than being offered a large number of poorly distinguished paths. If the players don’t have any criteria for deciding between paths, then it’s not really a choice at all. The GM may as well roll a die and tell the players what they do next. Of course, the pitfall of dungeon design is when the GM fails to provide necessary context. Offering two identical paths leading in different directions isn’t a choice, it’s just a coin flip. So my first tip for dungeon design is this: make choices meaningful.

This isn’t the same as making choices matter. A meaningless choice can matter, and a meaningful choice may not matter. Some examples:

Death has offered to flip a coin for a PCs soul. The GM flips the coin and catches it, slamming it against the table and hiding it with his hand. He asks the player, “heads or tails?”

Death offers to allow a PC to live if he swears to kill a particular target in three days time. He agrees, but Death just laughs and takes his soul anyway.

The first choice, between heads and tails, isn’t meaningful, but it definitely matters. There will be opposite results based on which option the player chooses, but the player has no ability to distinguish one choice from the other.

The second choice is meaningful. There is enough information presented to make the choices distinct. In the end, it doesn’t matter which they choose, but the choices are still clearly distinguished. Which option they pick says something about the player/character.

Ideally, you want most choices to both matter and be meaningful. The player should have enough information for the choices to be distinct, and the result of the action should follow reasonably from the choice the player made. However, I think that it is more important to focus on making choices meaningful than it is to focus on making choices matter. Especially in an rpg, choices are expressive: they are how the player expresses their character in the context of the game. In order to express their character’s traits, they need meaningful decisions. Even if things don’t go as expected, the decision itself is the key act of expression. Presenting meaningless choices deprives players of that.

Next time, I’m going to talk about some other more direct tips for making interesting, engaging dungeons.

Tom Goldthwait (@Authw8)
Tom is a furry woodland creature. At times, he emerges from the enchanted forest to make a new blog post.

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