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Four Simple Questions for Dungeon Crawls

Written by John Wick - Published on November 9, 2014

65fc027bf483dfae4241474fac075241_largeFour Simple Questions

(A Play Dirty Look at Dungeon Crawls)

Hello Dungeon Masters! My name’s John and I design games. Lots of ‘em. But more importantly, like you, I’m the guy who usually ends up running them. Ever since I bought my first RPG (Call of Cthulhu, by the way), I’ve been the guy on the lonely side of the screen.  But today I’m opening up with a short essay giving all of you some advice on running what we professionals like to call, “the dungeon crawl.”

What? You guys call it that, too? Well, professional secrets aren’t what they used to be.

I wrote a book of unorthodox GM advice called Play Dirty a few years back. It caused a bit of a raucus. But a lot of folks said, “John, this kind of stuff works in a lot of games, but it doesn’t work in dungeon crawls.”

Well, I took that to heart and actually kicked up a dungeon crawl game myself, just to see what I could and couldn’t get away with. And it all comes down to Four Simple Questions.

Simple Question #1: “Why Are We Doing This?”

So, you’re sitting in front of your computer reading this essay and you get an email. The email tells you that there’s an opportunity to earn a whole lot of money if you quit your job, leave your family, move to a country you’ve never heard of, pick up a gun and murder people you’ve never met.

Big money. Like hundreds of thousands of dollars. All you have to do is leave your life behind, pick up a gun and kill people.

Interested? Well, why not?

Now, I’m not going to insult your intelligence. You know the metaphor I’m using here. But let’s be honest. The thought of being “an adventurer” is not glamorous at all. In the novella I wrote for Wicked Fantasy, The Courage of Tamyn Taval, our titular character tries talking an old friend, Valera, into becoming an adventurer again.

Valera refuses. She’s become a courtesan since retiring from adventuring. Now, she has wealthy admirers who pour money on her for just the illusion of love. She has a beautiful home, jewelry, expensive food delivered to her door every day. She drinks wine, eats grapes and lives in luxury.

She asks, “Tell me why I would leave all of this for mud and rain and broken bones and orks shooting arrows at my head?” 

The question, “Why are we doing this?” is an important one. In fact, I’d argue its just as important as strength, dexterity and hit points. It’s something your players should consider, and it’s something for which they should have a good answer. Here’s an example.

I once played a thief (not a rogue; rogues are wanna be thieves) who was the son of a tavern keeper. His name was Tal Tevish. Little Tal was a thief because he was the son of a tavern keeper. He learned how to pick pockets because he was always on the look out for it. He learned how to “backstab” because he had to take out drunks. He learned how to move in shadows because it’s easier to get through a tavern without being seen.

Now, Tal’s dad got himself in trouble with the local thieves guild. He loved to gamble and one day, he gambled too much. Now, the guild wants his tavern house.

Tal became an adventurer to get his dad out of debt. He needs the money and he needs it fast. The best way to make fast money–without attracting legal attention–is by joining a group of adventurers. Yes, it means he’s putting his life in danger, but it’s his dad. His dad worked his whole life for that tavern. Tal can’t let him lose it over a few stupid card hands and a few bad dice rolls.

So, Tal joins up with a crew heading out to take care of some mess with a necromancer and his goons.

After the first encounter, Tal nearly gets himself killed, but when the fighting is over, he’s looking at a pile of coins. A pile of gold coins.

Remember: a gold piece is enough to keep a family fed for a year. And here’s two hundred of them. The party divides the shares up equally and that means Tal gets forty gold. A good start.

By the end of the adventure, Tal not only had a few hundred gold, he also had a magic sword the fighter didn’t want (it didn’t have enough plusses or something) which turned out to be worth a few thousand gold.

A few thousand gold. Enough money to feed an entire city for a year.

So, at the end of that adventure, Tal retired. After selling the sword, he had enough coin to get his dad out of debt. He took over the tavern, became a local hero and that was that.

Of course, a clever DM can figure out a way to get Tal out of the tavern and back into the adventuring business, but that’s a different story.

The moral of all this is: if your players give their characters good reasons to be adventurers, those reasons carry through the adventure and influence the choices they make. Plus, we have a word for someone who goes on a killing spree for no reason at all.


Simple Question #2: “Where Is This Place?”

This is an old trick I’m gonna share with you called “The Dirty Dungeon.” You may have heard about it or seen it on my Youtube channel, but these days, whenever I run a dungeon crawl (or just about any kind of “mission” adventure), I use it. Here’s how it works.

Before our heroes get to the dungeon, they have to find the dungeon. How do they do that?

Well, they’ll do research in libraries, ask older adventurers who may have been there, check with the bard for some handy information…

Sure. That’s all well and good, but why not make a mechanic out of it.

Get yourself a bowl. Then, get yourself a bunch of counters, beads or even small candies like Hershey kisses. Then, tell the players:

I want you to tell me what you find out about the dungeon. Yes, I mean, I want you to make stuff up. Like, where it is, hold old it is, what kind of monsters and traps are in it. Anything you can think of. I can veto stuff, but if it’s cool, I’ll probably accept it.

For every cool or dangerous part you add to the dungeon, I’ll throw a candy in the bowl.  You keep adding stuff, I throw more candy in the bowl. I’ll write everything down and it will be part of your “research” for the dungeon.

Each candy is a bonus d4 on any roll while you are on the adventure. Go ahead and take the candy out. You can eat it if you want. When you make a roll, add a d4 to your roll. The candy represents the benefit of research.

If you do something really cool, like hand me a hand-drawn map of the dungeon, I’ll put two and maybe three pieces in the pot. The more dangerous and/or cool you make it, the more pieces you get.

However, for every five pieces of candy, I get a piece, too. My piece is called a “complication point.” Which means, I can use it any time during the adventure to counter a piece of research you’ve done. For example, you can be looking at your map as you try to escape and you see there’s a secret passage leading out. You get there and…

… I use one of my complication candies to say, “There’s no secret passage there. It’s been walled up.”

I can use complication candies to cancel or thwart your plans.

* * *

And that’s really how it all works. There are a couple of advantages to this plan.

First, the players tell you what kind of stuff they want in the dungeon. This is always a good thing. Players communicating what they want to you makes your job easier. You don’t have to guess and you don’t have to hope. They say it. You give it to them. Everybody is happy.

Second, you’ve done no prep!

I mean, think about it. They’ve done all the work for you. They’ve drawn a map, they’ve listed the monsters, they’ve devised the traps. They’ve done everything for you. You don’t have to spend a week coming up with this stuff, it’s already done.

Finally, they’ve done it in character. It’s part of the adventure. If they stay in character, they can talk about how they interviewed the bard who told them about the rhyming trap. They can talk about the old adventurer who lost his leg fighting the giant rat monster. They’re doing all of this in character. And that’s more than awesome.

Of course, a common question arises whenever I detail this little trick. “What about the jerk who doesn’t play fair and screws it up for everybody else?”

I always have the same answer.

“Why are you playing with that guy?”

Simple Question # 3: “What’s That Smell?”

With the players sitting comfortably, I stand up on the other side of the DM screen and say…

You approach the place the legends and maps hinted at. The side of the mountain. The twisted tree. The black rock. You step closer…

… and you see a hole in the side of the mountain. Carved stone floor. But you also see a rotting corpse trapped under three iron spikes. One of the spikes has split his skull open, brains spilling out onto the carved stone floor. You see small animals and bugs scatter as you approach and interrupt their feast.

And you smell… you smell what can only be the rotting flesh of the corpse. Fetid and awful. A sweet, rotten smell. You can see that his death unlocked his bowels and left a mess in his trousers. His evicerated guts have been quite the meal for local fauna.

As you come closer to inspect the trap this unfortunate soul tripped, a mouse emerges from his open mouth and skitters down the corridor into the darkness. You hear a metal snap!

More traps waiting. But first, you have to deal with this one.

* * *

We’re talking about a hole in the ground, right? You know what lives in holes in the ground? A whole lot of really scary and deadly stuff.

When your players go down into a dungeon, remember that this is a place that’s been exposed to the elements for hundreds of years. There are entire colonies of bugs waiting for them. Spider webs they have to walk through. Not giant spiders, just regular old eight-legged, eight-eyed freaks that skitter down your armor and bite your backside. And there’s probably worms and maggots and tons of flies. And mosquitos. I come from Minnesota, man. Don’t you ever underestimate the power of mosquitos.

And the stones are wet and covered in black mold. The air is thick and wet. It gets hard to breathe down here. Adventurers start coughing. Ever have a coughing fit? You know when it’s the worst? When you’re stressed out and exerting yourself. You know, like when you have to fight those damn orks.

(The preferred spelling, by the way, is “ork.” Not “orc.” That’s the elven spelling. We’re racially sensitive here. Oh, and you don’t want to know what the elven word for “human” is. Trust me.)

You start coughing so hard, you can’t breathe. Coughing so hard, you throw up. As someone with asthma (raises hand) can attest: it ain’t pretty. And it can be damn scary.

And the place stinks. It stinks with corpses of past adventurers (that your party can stumble across and deal with as they wish), corpses of monsters, mold, mildew, fungus… you name it.

Don’t be bashful or shy about this. You are the players’ senses, remember? You tell them what they hear and see. And smell. A stink so bad they can taste it on their tongues.


Don’t skimp on the sensations. Give them all cannons blazing.

And speaking of senses, let’s spend a moment talking about the most important one…

Simple Question #4: “Who’s Holding the Light?”

GM: So, you turn the corner and you see a dozen orks going over the bodies of another group of adventurers!

PLAYERS: Charge!

GM: Who’s holding the light?


GM: The orks can see in the dark. They don’t need lights. You do. Who’s holding the light so you can see?

WIZARD: I need my hands to use magic.

FIGHTER: I need one hand for my sword and the other for my shield.

THIEF: Don’t look at me! I can’t sneak around while holding a torch.

CLERIC: I need both hands for my shield and hammer.

GM: So, who is holding the light?


GM: Okay, while you figure that out, the orks get initiative…

* * *

It’s a simple question. But those kinds of questions can stop everything.

My grandmother used to say, “It’s the little things that make the soup.”

Light is such a little thing. We take it for granted. Whenever we walk in a dark room, we instinctively reach beside the door for the light switch.

Think about the little things.

I remember a friend of mine talking about playing Tomb of Horrors. He said, “One of us, the wizard, got teleported naked at the beginning of the dungeon.”

“I remember that,” I said.

He said, “Yeah. Then ten minutes later, we were crawling down one of those little tunnels. Remember that?”

“Yeah,” I told him.

He said, “And I was behind the wizard. And I remembered that he was naked. And he was bent over and I was right behind him, looking straight up his…”

I stopped him there. The visual was enough.

The little things. Keep them in mind.


So, that’s just a brief glimpse at a few little things I take into consideration when running a dungeon crawl. I’ve got a few more, but I’ve run out of words and I don’t like taking up too much of a stranger’s time.

But, if you’d like to see more, give me a ring.  Or better yet, join me on Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2006204732/play-dirty-2-even-dirtier

Written by John Wick

John Wick

I make games.

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5 Responses to “Four Simple Questions for Dungeon Crawls”
  1. MythicParty says:

    We have it on good authority that the Elvish word for ‘Human’ is ‘Edan,’ which doesn’t seem too bad until you learn how it’s most often used:

    “Lle holma ve’ edan”

    Translation, “You smell like a human.” And pretty sure that’s not meant in a complimentary sort of way.

  2. Christopher Mathieu says:

    I always bring up the light-source issue, every time a group is entering a dark area. EVERY time. I’m picky about it — who has it, what kind, how far it lights. If the only light anyone fires up is a lowly torch, and they hand it to the guy in the back of the line, the guys up front can’t see more than five, maybe ten feet.

    Parties in games I run quickly learn to find workarounds. They invest in the expensive stuff (sunrods, everburning torches, even the thing where they get the little floaty ‘ioun stone’ that is nothing but the holder for a permanent Light spell). They go to great pains to have multiple sources, preferably held in ways that keep their hands free.

    As long as they go through the trouble, I relax about it afterwards. But the moment they go to a new, dark place, I again ask, “Who’s got the light?”

  3. MythicParty says:

    “Fog of War” is an aspect of VTT’s (Virtual Table Tops) that really shines reality back into fantasy gaming. Here’s a video showing how it works:


  4. FullovStars says:

    Light is always an admin issue that parties often hate to deal with and sometimes it is hard for players to really imagine the oppression of total dark. After some of my players went through some real cave systems, they soon were loading their players with candles, torches and oils. Innovative historical solutions were, candles on hats and lanterns on gan sticks (attached to your back like a spear samurai). Fearful players often would leave a trail of lit torches and candles behind them and venturing into dungeons for only as long as the light lasted, then heading back out. Realistically, adventurers may take days of in and outs to complete a simple dungeon that gamers complete in one sweep. But all of the light problems fade away as soon as a magic user can cast continual light on a disc attached to the front of your helm. (or pay someone to do it for you in town). One problem with admin is – that the more you tighten what the group can carry, the more they want to hire porters to carry the extra baggage…..


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  1. […] John Wick’s “Four Simple Questions” was gonzo blast of refreshing ideas, a non-descript van inviting unsuspecting gamers in with his promise of candy and player involvement. He asks the simple questions, commands the whole damn table to answer, and makes no excuses in getting rid of the “me versus you” aspect of the RPG table. Taste the flavor the players actually add to the adventures own creation. […]

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