Hey guys, got a year to clear one floor of a dungeon? | Made with tools at donjon.bin.sh

The new D&D campaign I’m running has wiped out all the DM burnout I was feeling, and it’s incredibly refreshing. In addition to taking some pressure off me by setting it in the historical Viking Age and populating it with Norse mythology – all of which requires basically no modification from 5th edition rules where things like monsters or magic is concerned – I’m also using this as an opportunity to try running the game in a way that is faster and gets to the fun stuff more quickly. One of the things I’ve found as a player in recent campaigns is that sessions just take too damn long. Time commitment, more and more, is what stands between players and having some fun. What I’ve found, in the last two sessions, is that I can encourage the game to move more quickly while still keeping player choice and exploration central to the experience, and we can get an adventure done in two sessions of two hours. Rather than a dungeon crawl, we’ll call it a “dungeon jog.”

Why I hate the crawl

Saying that an experience in a computer game or in a campaign is a “dungeon crawl” is usually meant to get you excited. It’s meant to signal to you that this is going to be an experience that requires knowledge of and use of the underlying mechanics of the game system, that it is crunchy, that it will reward you for being sharp and on the ball. The problem with all of this is right in the name of course – that it’s a CRAWL, a slow, interminable trudge through similar rooms in service of getting to the end of the dungeon and fighting the boss. Candidly, I am playing in a campaign which is basically 100% dungeon crawl right now, and it’s not what I enjoy about the game, normally.

One of the least-discussed aspects of How To Run A Fun Campaign, I find, is the subsection of What It Is Reasonable To Hide From Your Players And What It Is Just Bothersome To Hide From Them. The dungeon crawl forces the player to question whether any particular tile of the dungeon floor, any chest or door, is trapped. Whether a seemingly innocuous room is going to be filled with drider wizards wielding necklaces of fireballs and four pairs each of boots of striding and springing. Whether some mysterious object is just a piece of treasure, just a piece of scenery, or the solution to some puzzle designed by an AI constructed from the brain patterns of the hypothetical child of Gary Gygax and Roberta Williams.

This feeling of paranoia is ridiculous. It should really only accompany high-level play in the sorts of dungeons where some mad wizard has said “I’m making a dungeon dungeon because I’m a mad wizard and that’s what we do.” Ultimately, what this level of paranoia serves to do, more than anything, is slow your game down. Your players will become annoyed and bored, will spend more time on their phones than looking up their next spell, will lose the thread of what’s even happening. This is what happens to me when a dungeon crawl is in its third hour and we’ve cleared one room.

Step 1 – Just fudge movement already

D&D features a deeply involving movement system, assigning characters movement speeds, giving spells areas of effect, and giving ranged weapons precise ranges. This in turn encourages the dungeon master to design devious maps which take advantage of movement range, cover, difficult terrain, and visibility, and encourages players to be smart about how they move.

It also makes everything take fucking forever, and you should just throw it all out. A whole section of my Twilight of the Gods 5e mod explains exactly how you can.

While that link shows you some precise ways to account for the abilities and ranges provided by the game while removing the need for a battle mat or map software, the most important instruction I can impart to you is that the only person who needs to know roughly where everybody is in a fight is you, the DM. Here are a few things I make sure of:

  • Number all enemies and then keep track of with whom they are engaged in melee. (Writing out or typing this into whatever initiative tracker you have works fine.)
  • Use common sense to determine whether attacks of opportunity are necessary.
  • If you have a complicated room layout, make a sketch of it to show your players. It doesn’t need to be to scale or be super detailed – it should just clarify where players are standing in relation to everything else.

Most rooms are nothing more complicated than their dimensions and what enemies are in them, so you’ll need to sketch out a room maybe twice or thrice a dungeon floor. With everybody focused on what their next gambit is going to be, you eliminate a ton of placement and movement bullshit and the game moves faster.

Step 2 – Simplify dungeon design

Dungeons can be as ludicrously elaborate as the image at the head of this article, but like, why? A hallway is a conduit between two rooms – or possibly more if it forks off. There may be a trap in it, or a wandering monster, but that’s it. You can certainly describe that hallway in granular detail, but do you need to map out every 5-foot increment of it?

An example of a dungeon map with preliminary details and numbering for reference. | By the author. ca. May 2016

I’ll use this image once again as an example. This is a dungeon I mapped out every 5-foot increment of. I just as easily could have made a sketch with the general size and shape of each room and those little artistic details so that I could describe everything to the players. What I find to be more important is taking the time to write some description about each room – just enough that you won’t be forgetful or confused when it’s time for you to describe it to players.

I wrote this about a room in the dungeon I ran last night:

Room I

The party enters from the south staircase leading back up to the surface. It’s a 10 by 20 room dominated by a strange altar of sacrifices, mostly of the type that seem to be food or wealth. Behind the altar, the roots of the great tree above have completely overgrown a passageway, and no amount of hacking or slashing will cause the mighty wood to yield. There is an offering bowl there, but no offering appears to appease the altar. There is a secret door to the east leading to Room II, activated by placing a weapon in the offering bowl. To the west is a low passage leading to a hallway that opens into Room III and Room IV.

If the party possesses the dane axe from the specter in Room IV, they may offer it to the altar, causing the roots to recede and open a passage to Room VI and the boss. The party may keep the axe.

As the party enters the room, a ferocious swarm of valravn (corpse ravens) burst from the walls and ceilings, equivalent to three swarms of ravens.

That may seem like quite a bit of description, written all in a jumble. One way to organize the info for any room is to break it down to these facts:

  1. Layout (How big, what shape, is it dark or well-lit?)
  2. Exits (What walls they’re in and where they lead)
  3. Description (Make this what you read to players when they enter the room.)
  4. Enemies/Traps/Puzzles/NPCs
  5. Treasure

If you break things down like that and have just a general sketch of the dungeon that looks like a flow chart with just lines between the rooms to represent hallways, you’d be surprised how well it works. And this just allows you to ask “Which way do you move?” and have the group tell you. This cuts out sometimes ten minutes of indecision.

Step 3 – Think in terms of short and long rests and plan accordingly

Celeste Conowitch of The Venture Maidens podcast, which you should listen to because it’s delightful, professed to not being a “food-and-drink DM,” meaning that she doesn’t sweat details like how many rations the party has or when the last time they’ve slept is. I’m not that kind of DM, either. 5th edition splits rests into short rests and long rests, with certain abilities replenishing during them. Another video on this is very illuminating, talking about how it can be used to make your game more grittily realistic or how you can make it a tactical consideration.

If you think a dungeon will have one or two long rests during it, plan those as a potential stopping point, and plan a potential random encounter for them. Roll initiative for the monsters so it’ll be ready to go and require zero setup.


Step 4 – Stop being a gotcha DM

This is the last one because it’s the most important. Your party members are grown-ups. They are in a potentially deadly situation. Their players may forget this, but the characters would not. Call for rolls to detect traps or secret doors. If something is hidden in a room and it’s the key to advancing in the dungeon, call for a perception check or if somebody has a high enough passive perception to beat the check, just say they notice it.

Some DMs will yell at me about this, saying that it railroads players and removes an element of challenge. It kinda does. But it’s gently pushing the players to the more interesting and challenging parts of the damn game. It ensures they have the pieces to the puzzle and can spend more time solving it. It ensures they spend less time getting to a fight than engaging in it. DMs who insist on letting players make dumb mistakes about search checks or movement rules are really just showing their players that they like killing characters.

A sub-rule of this is to tell players when they’ve cleared a room or beaten the dungeon and there’s nothing left to find. It’s not spoiling the mystique, it’s making sure your player can get back to tucking in his kid in time for bed time.

That’s ultimately what this all boils down to: Respect your players’ time. It is, for most players, the biggest expenditure they make in order to play with your group. See if you can’t get that four-hour session down to a three- or even a two-hour one. It will make your adventures seem to move more quickly and be more exciting.