Tweaked Encounter Dice In The Living Dungeon
I’m a fan of the ‘overloaded encounter die’ introduced by Necropraxis, fine-tuned into the beautiful, integrated Hazard System, and extended in other directions by Jones Smith, Meandering Banter, Ten Foot Polemic, and many others.
Every OSR rule is a homebrew of someone else’s homebrew, so here’s the encounter die tweaked to my own sensibilities. The D&D dungeon is not just another location, but a living thing, a liminal space slunk down between the rational aboveground world of fealty, farmland, and feudalism, and the inhuman, alien chaos of the worlds below and beyond. To descend into the dungeon is to brave darkness, madness, and fear; it is to bring order, reason, and fixity to the everchanging body of the dungeon-beast through map, ten-foot pole, torch and shining blade. Once mapped and described, each room numbered, each square studied for treasure and traps, the dungeon becomes just another waypoint in the violent march of civilisation through the hidden spaces of the world. It loses its mystery and its magic. So why shouldn’t it put up a fight?
When the party moves into a new area of the dungeon or spends some tens of minutes on “exploration at architectural scale … assuming careful advance into hostile places”,1 one of the players must roll the Encounter Die. The DM should interpret the result as follows:
|1||Encounter or catastrophe|
|2||The dungeon takes away… (x2)|
|3||The dungeon takes away…|
|4||The dungeon is changing|
|5||Clues, signs, warnings, or omens|
|6||The dungeon provides…|
Dungeon exploration actions are those which take a significant amount of time or resource investment when either are scarce and the shadows are moving in. These include picking locks, dismantling traps, breaking down stuck doors, climbing, loading the treasure into sacks, and searching an area meticulously for hidden treasure and secret passages. Free actions, which don’t incur an encouter die roll, include swinging open doors, looking around corners, pocketing a ring you spotted on the ground, and calling out to a friend.
Encounter or catastrophe: An encounter with a wandering monster, or a terrible unravelling in the fabric of the dungeon - a landslide, tunnel collapse, flood, or fire. Prepare a small table of encounters and catastrophes keyed to each dungeon, and roll on it when this outcome shows up. This roll is the apex of the Encounter Die, but the system’s real heart - what makes this outcome feel dangerous - lies in the other outcomes.
The dungeon takes away…: Torches sputter and die. Lamps flicker out. Spells which your wizard assured you would last all day fizzle up, leaving an acrid, oily smell. The morale of hired retainers wavers; the pressures of pushing on through the cold and dark begin to sink their teeth in. On a 3, the dungeon takes away one thing; on a 2, the dungeon takes away two different things, or permanently destroys one. You can use this table for guidance:
|1||Exhaustion (spend the next turn resting or suffer -1 to all rolls)|
|2||Fear (roll retainer morale)|
|3||Spell effect ends or target makes check|
|4||Lamp goes out|
|5||Torch goes out|
|6||Torch goes out|
The purpose of this outcome is to impress upon the players that they are in a different, alien place now. This is a world which will kill them simply through inaction, stupidity, or bad luck. Their job is to manage limited resources to transform it into something safe and sane before their time runs out.
The dungeon is changing: A general, non-encounter event which reminds the party that they are in the maw of a living thing: all their lights flicker in a sudden wind; a wave of cold mist flows down the corridor, the walls seem to breathe in and out; doors close and lock behind them; the locations of rooms shift. Alternatively, the GM marks a countdown clock hidden from the players: the shades two levels below slot another crystal into the iron portal; the giant breaks another shackle; the goblins and the svirfneblin agree to a truce. The purpose of this outcome is to keep the dungeon feeling dynamic and dangerous, and to help the GM move their story forward.
Clues, signs, warnings, or omens: While ‘The dungeon is changing’ gives a sense of the general life of the dungeon, this is the discovery of a specific clue which prepares the players for what comes next: a book scribbled with desparate warnings; matted clumps of fur; a howl in the deep; a dying orc spy; mutilated corpses; a trail of slick blood. Whatever the warning points to, note it down and supply it on the next roll of 1 on the Encounter Die, or if they keep following the same path. The purpose of these clues and warnings is to provide the players with information and give them an opportunity to prepare, if they choose to take it.
The dungeon provides…: The dungeon is not malicious or evil; it simply is. Sometimes, it offers respite or a boon at the most unexpected moment. Treasure, fresh water, a room lit by a feeble yet welcome ray of sunlight - all these offer cheer and succour. If the players choose to rest here, they gain +1 to all rolls in the next area. Impress upon your players that a roll of a 6 on the Encounter Die is not a trick or a trap, but simple good fortune.
Dealing with unlikely rolls
If the players have just entered the dungeon, it doesn’t make sense for their torches or spells to immediately go out or for the wandering monster to burst in on them. There are three ways to get around this:
- Fudge the die outcomes to suit the fiction: if you roll a 1-3, note that nothing happens yet, but that these rolls are cause for concern; the great clocks in the dark have already started to tick.
- Start with a buffer: at the beginning of the dungeon, roll 1d6+3. On a 7+, nothing unusual happens. For the time being, the party have barely entered the real dungeon. On a 1-6, reduce the buffer by 1. In this way, earlier rolls are less dangerous, and become more dangerous even as seemingly innocuous things start to happen.
- Manage inventory clocks: torches have 2 boxes; lamps have 4; retainers have [retainer morale / 2] rounded down; spells have their level worth of boxes; party exhaustion has 6. When you deplete one of these resources, mark a box. When you mark the last box, the resource is depleted, or retainers check for morale. If the retainers hold firm, the party rests, or a new torch is lit, clear the appropriate boxes. This loses the unexpectedness and variability of suddenly rolling a 2, but does provide the players with a visual, anxiety-inducing set of clocks to keep an eye on.
I haven’t playtested option 2, but I like two things about it in particular: it keeps the unexpected nature of the dungeon firmly in centre stage, and it can be adjusted to suit the kind of dungeon your players are in and the way their characters act. Perhaps the buffer starts at 5. Perhaps it only decreases every time the players take a staircase going down, or only on a 4, or only if they make a loud noise…