Raphael Lacoste is a environment concept artist and matte painter currently working as Senior Art Director for Ubisoft. His list of projects include video game titles like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Assassin’s Creed Revelations. Raphael has also worked on feature films like Terminator Salvation, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Death Race and Repo Men.
Bit of a change in format, all the same great content with none of the clutter. If you’re interested in finding more tips, please check my HTBAD tag for more.
Art is Return of the Knight by Raphael Lacoste
When people talk about a dungeon crawl, they tend to be thinking about a high pressure adventure involving the navigating of a controlled environment with limited resources, often underground, usually involving some kind of monster. The crawl however invariably refers to how slow and arduous the whole event seems to be. The party plods about from one empty room to the next overcoming soft challenges like traps or riddles and being generally lost. In between, they get to participate in combat encounters that exchange the frustration of not knowing where you’re going for the tedium of spending an hour waiting for your turn in yet ANOTHER meaningless fight.
The IDEA of dungeon combat and the IDEA of exploration are present in these scenarios, but without any technique or structure both of these ideas end up as boring time sinks. I know I’m guilty of it, and I’ve played in my share of games where it’s happened. The point of this whole series of posts however is to have a framework in which I can work out some guidelines and then share them with you. As such I’m going to be spending my next few HTBAD posts describing ways you can make your delving more efficient.
First up: encounter design and choosing the right sort of challenges for your party to face.
Brainstorming a dungeon:
Before you start anything else, start filling pages with ideas. Literally every monster, item encounter and scenery idea you can think of should go onto one page. Don’t worry about splitting it up into encounters just yet. Next, figure out your setpieces, the things you want to spend the most time on/build towards. Depending on the size of your dungeon, there might only be one of these, or you might split them up into multiple dungeon zones. This will help keep you focused and give you a skeleton upon which to build the rest of your dungeon. While much of a crawl can be improved, if you know certain things are coming up ahead of time it helps to maintain a sense of progression and theming.
Once you’ve figured out the major scenes you want to occur within this dungeon, you can start building scenery and encounters outwards, using your earlier brainstorming to supply props and events leading up to the big, flashy moments.
Before I go any farther, I’d like to get one thing out of the way: truly threatening, mandatory combat encounters should be in the minority. Most of the others should be optional ( able to be bypassed by stealth, persuasion, or simply not being a jerk), or against far weaker foes, as these will not eat up time that should be spent on more important/interesting threats.
At the same time, different sorts of challenges can be a great way to foreshadow the eventual encounter with the dungeon’s resident bruser, highlighting the monster’s habitat and abilities. if you have a monster that the party will be fighting in a pool, be sure to have them encounter a swimming challenge earlier in the zone. Have walls of rubble that are near impossible to clear, only for your monster to bash right through them ( creating a convenient shortcut between two previously unconnected rooms), Flying creatures can take advantage of scaling cliffs or sudden drops, ambush monsters often attack from the dark or hidden places, so force the players to think about their lighting.
Art is Old Castle Corridor by Silentfield
Finding our way:
By and large the majority of your encounters should be some kind of navigation challenge, meaning that they revolve around exploring the dungeon as their primary method of progress. After all, what’s the point of setting your adventure in isolated, dangerous location if you’re not going to ahve your players plunge face first into that danger at every opportunity? Using this philosophy, we can keep combat as something dangerous and risky, a looming threat to ratchet up the tension when needed, rather than expending its shock value early.
A navigation challenge can be anything from requiring your players to search other sections of the dungeon ( looking for a lost key), to providing an optional dangerous shortcut towards the player’s goals ( leaping down a pit to get to the next level as opposed to looking for the stairs later on).
The simplest way to structure navigation challenges ( and your dungeon at large) is to decide what it is your party is attempting to do, and then throw up a few roadblocks between them and the easy path to it. Just how many roadblocks will determine the length of your dungeon, so it’s all a matter of preference.
A lot of a dungeon’s navigation puzzles can be created by answering some of the following questions:
What does the party most need in this instance? What could stand between them and it?
What outlandish or little used abilities does your party have at their disposal? Do you want to encourage or discourage them to use it?
Are we trying to avoid combat ( infiltrating a manor at night to steal important documents) or are we seeking combat ? ( confronting a great beast in its lair)
In summation, skill challenges are a bit of cooperative problem solving that lets each character show off what they can do creatively. If you have an overly large puzzle or chase sequence, I can’t recommend using this sort of thing enough.
Art is Black Dragon by Nordhimer
Failure and consequences.
For a game built on chance, D&D seems to have no idea what to do when it’s players fail. Oh sure, a natural 1 during a simple check can be good for a few laughs, but I’ve never seen any DM or game guide really address the fact that failure is an inevitability and an important dramatic tool
There’s a little used scale when it comes to failure in RPGS: On one end of the spectrum you have the infamous Tomb of Horrors, which has well earned it’s reputation as a meatgrinder of would be delvers, and on the other end of the scale, you have waterslide dungeons like in Skyrim, which lead the player by the nose through their winding corridors and patiently wait for them to reload if ever they manage to die.
For our purposes, both of these extremes are unacceptable: A good adventure is built upon a multitude of recovered failures.
A party who opens a tomb without translating the inscription required to bypass it’s guardian spirits is going to get into a fight. A party that misses the hidden passage by not investigating that odd bit of statuary is just going to have to take the long way round. If the party fails in combat encounter against sapient foes? Have them wake up in an actual dungeon later on without their gear, now it’s a stealth and escape mission. Presume that your party can fail every encounter you throw at them and have backups prepared accordingly. It’ll add dimensions to your dungeon that could never be there if the party could only succeed.
Art is Daily Sketch 21 by Maximum Laptev
I think that covers a good chunk of what I wanted to talk about for now. Next time I’ll talk about ways to make the most out of your time running the game, and later how to make cinematic monster fights.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Syn Studios “Gathering of Masters” in Montreal. Five days of talks, workshops, and hanging out with like-minded artists from all kinds of backgrounds. It was hugely inspiring to listen to James Gurney, Terryl Whitlach, Samantha Youssef, Raphael Lacoste, and many others. I’ve been home for two days and I can’t stop drawing.
Right now I’m frantically running around drawing everything. Eventually i’ll calm down and start focusing, but for now I’m like a humming bird with a pencil.
There are life drawings, animal drawings, anatomy studies, and even some airplanes (picking a subject I have little to no interest in and trying to lean into it).