Saturday, July 2, 2022

Forebodings and Fancies: Dungeon Feelings for Dungeon Crawls

No, this isn't a post about introducing dating rules to your game. Let's talk about the most important feelings: the ones in your gut. 

After gold (and maybe silver), information is the thing players are most ravenously hungry for in a dungeon crawl. If you know where the treasure is, how to get to it, and exactly what's going to be in your way, you're gonna get there sooner, more safely and with fewer resources spent. So, getting info is one of the main goals of the traditional dungeoneer, one that feeds very directly and satisfyingly into the rest of the gameplay loop. I've talked more at length about that elsewhere, but if you've been running subterranean hallway expeditions for a while, you probably already know to sprinkle rumors, maps, letters and information merchants in and around your particular prize-filled pit of peril. 

At the same time, there are some types of information that are difficult to convey to players via in-setting clues, things you want the players to know but can't really justify having palpable evidence of. And while dungeon crawling games place player problem-solving is at a premium, some information is really easy to misinterpret or dismiss as unimportant when we try to cram it into said physical proof. So what we want here is a way to more directly tell players what's up.

"So are you telling me we should replace diegetic information gathering with less immersive, non-diegetic handouts?", you might ask incredulously. No, dear hypothetical voice in my head, I am suggesting that we supplement in-game information, by expanding PC perception to cover the oft-ignored element of intuition the little instincts and presentiments that you might develop if you spend enough time on high alert in torchlit tombs. 

But first a brief, seemingly unrelated tangent. 

Dungeon Levels

A Dungeon Level is a set of rooms and areas within a larger complex, connected to each other via "direct" hallways and passages, and separated from other levels via longer staircases, elevators, or other more "indirect" connections. The contents of a Level are usually unified in theme and content, but that's not a hard rule. Typically, we put each level on its own map, with its own room key, encounter table and unique features. Making a distinction between Dungeon Levels is most practical for larger dungeons, and especially megadungeons, which is convenient since that's apparently the only kind I know how to write about. 

One of those terms that has been mildly annoying roleplayers since Earth's 1970's, individual dungeon floors being called "Levels" was briefly addressed in the off-center footnotes of a slightly obscene cookbook codenamed "AD&D PHB", where notorious Crit-Critical Disappointing-Son-Haver Gary Gygax wrote:

While we still suffer the consequences of decisions made in Advanced Shits & Giggles today, this particular term has become less common in today's parlance. But in our tradition of reopening old wounds, I'm bringing it back for this transmission! You're welcome.

You might be thinking that this is kind of obvious - clearly you're gonna split your dungeon into levels, it's what basically every video game ever has taught us, and these days many published dungeons will be clearly split into a few different height-separated levels. And while you'd be right in most cases, I've seen entirely too many megadungeons that flex their ludicrous size by providing individual levels with hundreds of rooms apiece, these horrendous sprawling things made to look impressive rather than be practical to play. Make no mistake: Your party's mapper will stab you with a pencil if you try and run Undermountain for them, especially when they reach the caves. 

This map is such a nightmare, it inspired me to write another post about how to make your mapper not hate you.

So, there are many good reasons to split up your megadungeon into levels, including creating harder borders that make encounter tables and "level-wide" features easier to track, and a handy way to make the dungeon more manageable both for yourself and your players. And there's another benefit to having a conveniently sliced up dungeon that'll be apparent in just a moment.

Delving Into Feelings

Players use info to make decisions and help them explore, and while exploring they will find new info. This cycle is classic, but it can become vicious easily. Players entering a completely new location will often have no idea where to start or what to be ready for; conversely, players already somewhat familiar with an area are going to be less inclined to look out for new threats and opportunities. Information is by far the easiest to deliver on the initial exploration of any given area, and it gets tougher the further out from that you get.

This is where Level Feelings come in. Feelings allow us to immediately give players that little nudge, to prime them for what to expect without needing to give them specifics. They let us pre-shape the players' perception of their surroundings, or to slightly reshape existing preconceptions. The information given by Feelings is the initial spark for informed player action, which they can pursue, further examine or ignore at their leisure. 

But what are they, though? 

For me, Feelings are the gut instincts that a delver develops, the time-trained ability to absorb otherwise imperceptible clues - the change in the dance of the torch flame, the odorless scent of monster hair, the metallic tingle of coin rubbing against coin - and then convert these subconscious sensory inputs into uncanny guesses about their surroundings. They can't really be measured or quantified, they're just the natural result of constant mortal peril in the underworld.  

An experienced adventurer would have had the gut instinct to know that they were screwed even before the monster appeared.

You should make your source of Feelings fit your own game's tone and setting. You might decide to make them the perception of magical auras, narrative abstraction of rumors heard and books previously read, some nudge-and-wink help from their deity of choice, or just brief omens and visions granted by the dungeon's own beating heart. As long as they serve the same function and make the game more interesting, do whatever you want. 

 How to Feel

Feelings have 3 characteristics: they are always clearly stated, they're always true, usable information, and they are never too specific. The first part there is critical: If your players don't understand that your Feeling is a very intentional clue to the contents of the level, then you might as well not have said it. This is one of those times where it's a good idea to openly state to your players that they're being given a hint if they don't immediately pick up on it - it's fine, they'll forgive you for breaking the fourth wall to make this clear. 

The second part is pretty straight forward. The Feeling should never be a lie (other sources might lie, but Feelings are already vague enough; adding deception to the mix is just cruel), and they should provide information that could significantly alter the players' plans. Note that not every Feeling will be useful to every party. Clues about the presence of magic-draining creatures might not be of immediate use to an entirely wizardless group, but learning it now might be useful later; you never know what players might end up doing with the Feeling, so don't hold back. 

As the final rule says, Feelings should never indicate specific location or direction, exact numbers, names or titles, or anything else that gives you exact data. Feelings are no more than just that: vague, hard to pin down, impossible to expand upon or further interrogate. If your players ask you for more details on the feeling, your response should be, at most, an empathetic shrug. Just make sure that it's not too vague, otherwise the previous requirement is not fulfilled. They can further investigate based on what the Feeling tells them, and that's great if they do, but at that point we've gone beyond Feelings and have landed in downright gameplay territory, so resolve that as you normally would in your game. 

So, using the following rules, something like "A chill runs down your spine - you sense the presence of an ancient beast!" would be a great feeling: Players will unambiguously understand what you're telling them, they know that there is a scary monster on this level and that it falls under the category of "beast" which helps narrow it down, but it's still not giving them more than a hint; the ball is now in their court, and it's up to them whether they want to use spells and materials to try and identify the threat, leave and come back when they're more ready to deal with it, or decide that they will press on and hope for the best. 

If you would like more examples, the bottom of this overlong post features a similarly overlong list.

You feel like you don't have enough string for this.

When and Where to Feel

Now, writing a Feeling is easy enough, but when should they come up? And why are they always accompanied by the word "Level"? 

The main problem with giving players premonitions is figuring out when to give them and how precise they should be; if they're too rare and broad in range they're not really going to create interesting decisions, if they're too common and specific then players get bogged down and "railroaded" in a way. While there are existing systems that could be used to time Feelings, such as the highly-regarded Hazard Dice, they tend to only cover timing. I personally enjoy a more direct and predictable approach.

This is where that earlier explanation of what a Dungeon Level is suddenly becomes justified: They give us the very practical Where and When for Dungeon Feelings (as soon as they enter the level for the first time in an adventure), and it conveys to players what part of the dungeon the Feeling covers while still being broad enough that they'll need time, effort and/or resources if they want to narrow it down. 

Are you worried that this way of handing out info is too helpful or too unhelpful? Then your dungeon levels might be too small/big, and this is something for you to fine-tune in your game to fit your needs and pacing. If you've got a dungeon level consisting of 5 rooms, and you tell your players "You sense the presence of a great treasure here!", you better believe that the party will search every square inch of surface on the level until they find it... and this might actually be exactly what you want, if you have an exceptionally well-hidden secret or want to make them deal with many wandering monster rolls. Use your tools to create the gameplay you want! 

What to Feel

Level Feelings can cover basically any piece of information about a dungeon level, but to avoid wearing them out, try and stick to the most important and interesting features the level has. Some good options for Feelings include:

  • The major threat of the level (a very scary monster or group of monsters, a particularly lethal or annoying trap, a deadly environmental feature)
  • The constant obstacle of the level (pesky monster factions, traps everywhere, terrain that requires specific equipment)
  • A reason to explore the level (A massive treasure hoard, a powerful magical item, a very useful prisoner, a particularly handy portal)
  • Reasons to hurry (constant wandering monster checks, a timed portal that will disappear soon, a source of water flooding the level)
  • Signs of change on already-explored level (Layout changed, new monsters wandering, newly introduced treasure)
Of course, you don't tell them about everything - you still want to be able to surprise them.

Again, with Feeling! 

As previously mentioned, one of the best uses of Feelings is to give players some new info about an already-explored dungeon level. Have your PCs missed a large treasure cache on a level several times while traveling through it? Have you restocked a place thought to be cleared and want to let your PCs know that it's worth a revisit? Have your players missed something that only happens once in a while, and are about to miss it again? Feelings can help! 

You can absolutely group Feelings into "First Visit" clues (major threats, clues to level theme), "Repeat Visit" clues (missed treasure/secrets/whatnot, repopulated levels), and "Good whenever" clues (temporary events, timed portals). Try to not give the same group the same Feeling multiple times if they've got other stuff they haven't heard yet - life's too short to be told what you already know. 

Complicated Feelings 

What's that? You think just giving out free tips is too simple? You want the free information to be as convoluted as the rest of the game? Let's talk about fun options for making things messier! 

Roll For Feelings!

Want to make your Feeling delivery dice-based rather than whim-based? You could introduce a roll to see if the PCs will receive Feeling(s) on a given level, and/or roll to see which one(s) they'll get. This turns Feelings into a semi-reliable rumor table, and while it does require preparing and sorting your Feelings ahead of time, it'd also make them more mechanical, and thus interactive: perhaps your players can then get tools to increase the quantity or quality of the Feelings they receive, or maybe you could more directly tie Feelings to things like the passage of time (STRANK!) or some other exploration mechanic you already employ. 

Level-Restricted Feelings 

If you're using the same reasoning I am for feelings - that they're mostly intuition developed with experience - then tying them to experience level isn't much of a stretch. This way, revisiting explored dungeon levels later become more interesting, because it becomes likelier that you'll hear something you've missed before. 

You might make a list of feelings for each level, and then give the PCs the highest-level Level Feelings for that level (hate me yet?). Alternatively, you might just make a generic table for each character level, and just pick the most appropriate feeling for the party. The latter might look something like this: 

  • Lv 1 Feelings: Great Danger, Empty Level
  • Lv 2 Feelings: Specific Danger Category (ex. common monster type, common elemental hazard), Timed Features (portals, flood, etc) 
  • Lv 3 Feelings: Missed Treasure Cache, Repopulated Level
  • Lv 4 Feelings: Presence of (known) Friendly NPCs, Unexplored Secret Passages 
  • Lv 5+ Feelings: Powerful Enemy, Great Magic Item

Class-Based Feelings

To further differentiate PCs in your game, you could make it so that each class has its own associated Feeling types, either as the only source of Feelings or in addition to having a "general" pool of Feelings. So for example, you might make it so that: 

  • Fighters sense Monsters and Monster Population Changes 
  • Thieves sense Traps and Secret Passages
  • Magic Users sense Spellbooks and Magic Items
  • Clerics sense Treasure and Undead

If you want to make things real messy, you could tie Class-Based feelings in with Level-Restricted feelings, making it so that only a Cleric of a certain level might detect the presence of the golden idol hidden in the temple. You could even take it further and tie it in with rolls, increasing the odds of having any given Feeling based on the level of the PCs. While I personally wouldn't go that far, who am I to tell you how to over-complicate your fun?  

If there's one thing we support here at the Orbital Crypt, it's overcomplicating. 

Examples of Feelings, Good & Bad 

 To unnecessarily bloat the post, here's a big ol' list of Feelings, and why I like/dislike them. Keep in mind, though, that all the following opinions are just mine; you might very well decide that my most hated Feelings are actually great - and while this decreases the odds of you being invited to my next dungeon crawl, I fully support you in doing whatever the hell you like with this silly little mechanic for nudging your players in the direction of adventure.

This place makes your skin crawl! - Thematic, but too vague. The only thing it does is frighten your players (admittedly a fun way to pass the time), without giving them anything to work with. 

This place is crawling with undeath! - This is better, since it's presenting a particular category of threat (undeath) without really getting too specific (traps? monsters? magic?). "Crawling with the undead!" is pretty close and also good, although that one only implies a monster type rather than a wider level theme.

You feel the foul presence of Broundlux, Lord of Unlife! - Much too specific. The only time your players should get information this direct would be through a magic item or a spell effect - which goes beyond the purview of Level Feelings.

Trog wants the blood of the powerful mage that resides here! - If you're using Small Gods, some of them would absolutely be a source of level feelings, specifically ones tied to those gods' conducts. You might also just give players Feelings that you would have anyway, but slightly reword or even improve them through the lens of a specific Small God. 

You sense that there is still a cache of treasure hidden in this place. - This is a classic Feeling for a Megadungeon, especially levels that have been mostly explored in the past, and especially if it's part of an open table game where different groups might have already swept through a Level. 

You sense a new presence - monsters have repopulated this level. - Another timeless megadungeon Feeling. New creatures are always drawn to empty spaces in megadungeons, and will doubtless bring new encounters, challenges, and most importantly treasures to the previously-explored floor. And since the PCs likely already know the layout of the floor, it's a great opportunity to introduce new tricks and traps to keep your players on their toes. 

There is an air of lightness - A powerful foe has been vanquished from this level. - This is not a bad Feeling to have in your back pocket for multi-party campaigns, if there's a level that was known for having a particularly scary monster on it. It might be the inspiration a more cautious party needs to go deeper into an area they've previously avoided. It could also be a clue that the main loot from this area has probably been grabbed - but lower-level parties might still want to go in and see if they can find any scraps. 

Something clicks in a nearby wall - this place is full of traps. - Letting your players know about an overwhelming presence of traps is a very kind move, but be careful with terms like "something clicks" or they might think they've already activated a trap. 

You sense great treasures - and great danger protecting it! - Great way to tell players that they've entered a scary sub-level or such, but it might not gel if "high risk, high reward" is a general theme throughout the dungeon instead of something you save for little scary places. A good Feeling to pair with another one that implies a danger type, so that your players might have a good idea how to prepare for this level. 

You feel unprepared for the dangers here. - I personally am not a fan of this one, because I feel like it crosses the line from "implications of content" and goes right to "just telling the players where they should or shouldn't go". Basically just a worse version of the last one. 

You feel like your time is limited - hurry up! - Garbage, nonsense, absolutely terrible Feeling. What are they supposed to do with this? Is something chasing them? Is there a ticking bomb on the level? Is there an extremely valuable piece of treasure that's only here for a few hours? If your players can't even tell if your Feeling is a warning or a call to press on, you need to seriously reconsider it. 

You hear the fading shouting of merchants and ringing of tills - Hurry up, there's a timed portal to a Bazaar on this level! - This is the polar opposite of the previous one. While it's much better, since it gives usable information and informs players that they have an opportunity and what they should do about it, it might also be a little too direct. While it's a matter of preference, I feel that this comes too close to "directly instructing players" again. 

You hear the clattering of coin and rustle of tents - There is a timed portal on this level! - This would be my preferred way to handle the previous two examples: You're telling the players what's going on, you're giving them a hint as to what they might see while still giving them a chance to explore their imagination, and you give them enough information to consider whether they want to invest the time and effort in trying to hunt this portal down - Do they even have the coin to make a trip to a Bazaar worth it, and if so, do they have the resources to afford rushing through a level? 

The Full Moon will soon shine down upon this area. - This type of Feeling is quite fun, if your players are good at sussing out slightly more cryptic clues. Depending on their current knowledge of the level they're on, they're either going to figure that something around here interacts with the phases of the moon, or that a previously-abandoned mysterious mechanism might become active. In either case, giving Feelings about hard-to-figure-out timed features is a good move if your players struggle with them.

You sense the presence of a shortcut to the surface nearby.- This one really borders on the edge of being too much, but for a certain game situation it might be just right. If you've got an exhausted party of players that ended up extremely deep in the dungeon, lost and with resources dwindling, and game-end time is just around the corner, this is the Feeling to throw them a bone and tell them that they still have a chance if they focus their search on this level. 

You feel an air of safety in this place. - If you have a decidedly safe for PCs to rest in or interact with friendly-ish NPCs, but your players have been conditioned to fear everything and everyone they encounter, a feeling along these lines might be a big help in putting them at ease. Of course, the players might still be fearful and paranoid even after hearing this Feeling - something that's happened to me, which might be a sign that I'm doing my job too well.

You feel like this blog post took way too long to come out. - Yeah, well...


  1. You feel the presence of a comment left behind by something foul in this place...