Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Going Underground With No Maps

Is it possible to run a dungeon game without a map?

I suppose it ought to be since I've always managed to run above-ground games without maps.

If the party is trekking across woodland on their way from the town of Blasthof to the village of Splashdaun then I've never felt the need to draw a map showing the intervening terrain. I've always been quite happy to know that there is dense pine forests between the two and then introduce an encounter with flavour text such as;

"OK, you've been trekking a few miles through thick pine forest, traversing a series of parallel ridges cut by ice-cold streams. Suddenly ahead of in a small hollow you see the tumbled ruins of a domed stone shrine, collapsed and toppled in on top of itself."

Because I never use figures I don't even feel the need to map the shrine out. If needed (i.e. combat is getting confusing) I'll sketch something off the top of my head.

Mostly this works well because there is realistically only one route for the PCs to take. There is a rough footpath through the woods between Blasthof and Splashdaun and the PCs can either follow this or just get hideously lost and then the sole survivor can stagger back into civilization weeks later having eaten all the others.

If exploration within the forests is the aim of the scenario then I never feel the need to draw a map to scale. I simply might draw out a rough flowchart (akin to a rough sketch map of street plans to tell somebody how to find your house from the nearest motorway exit) and the distances between points are either flexible (as long or as short as needed) or completely glossed over and ignored.

I'd love for this to work underground because then it would remove the chore of intricate and tedious mapping from dungeon creation. I could simply declare an area of the mythic underworld as being "The Warpstone Mines" and dream up a couple of encounter areas. The rest of the PCs travel through this area is glossed over. For example, and as a direct parallel to the forest example above...

"OK, you've been trekking a few miles through rough mine galleries, checking your lodestone to try and keep yourself heading roughly northwards. The galleries appear worked out but the props look sturdy and the area doesn't appear immediately hazardous. Suddenly in a huge excavated space ahead of you you see a line of about a dozen skeletons in tattered miners clothes holding pickaxes. They are standing absolutely still."

There are a couple of problems with this though. They assume that all the underground areas are effectively traversable in all directions and if something does block passage, well that can be skirted around. Imagine the exchange when the players try to bluff their way across The Black Maze of Infinite Hunger by just saying "We keep heading North. Do we see anything interesting?".

This potentially changes the nature of the whole game as regards dungeon-bashing. No longer are the PCs limited to routes and passages they can find, instead the local environment of the dungeon just becomes a backdrop to travels and treks somewhere else. We run the risk of losing the whole claustrophobic feel of the dungeon where the adventurers tread very carefully and the environment is no longer the main hazard and the players are just waiting for the next encounter to be sprung.

We've effectively turned the underground into a version of the wilderness except with a stone roof.

This is why I struggle to do something with a super-loose mapping method that effectively only marks out relative position of encounters and surrounding scenery. One day though, I will crack this problem and come up with a good way of dungeonbashing without bothering with proper maps.

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