Monday, September 8, 2014

Taking Spelunking Seriously since 2013

Ever since I went down into a real dungeon in the beginning of 2013 I'm trying to figure out how such a random chaos of tunnels, slopes and rooms might be expressed in a game of D&D. Basic geology, where do natural caverns develop and how, what entrances occur naturally, what vegetation, how much water, all that stuff. And it's a lot. Here are some of my findings:
  • Here is a nice pdf that summarizes the topic in a way that's easy to access (it's teaching material).
  • This is an interesting page about the various classifications of caves and caverns. 
  • And here is even more information about the science called speleology.
But the most inspiring thing is a map drawn by somebody that actually went down into a huge underground cave. Check this out:

It's basically ready to be used in a game ... [source]
Ain't she a beauty? And it gives a fair impression of what spelunking is really about (heights and depths, slopes, areas to climb), adding a variety of features that would upgrade most rpg-material I know. This is how it's done, in my opinion.

What else to use in a game?

How to get into those caves and caverns is another interesting topic. If you got a classic solution cave (that means, it's a cave where chemical reactions dissolved whole streaks of soluble rocks ...). There are several ways possible to get into caves like this:
  • Small fissures (might be big enough for a kobold, but the human fighter in full plate might get stuck ...).
  • Wherever a spring erupts (lots of water, sure way to get an encounter).
  • Cave-ins (might be an easy way in, but it might also require some climbing ...).
  • Man-made (might be because of some mining, or just an extension of a fissure; will be well hidden, if still active).

And they are most of the time difficult to find and/or to reach.

Sentient creatures living at such places should have huge advantages: they know fragile passages and places to hide (there should be thousands of those), they know where a little diving could get you to safety and where it might lead to certain doom. 

Resources are really important for wild passages, I get that now. Use lights and climbing gear, have enough food with you. If you enter it's not guarantied that you come out again (at least not the same way) or how long it will take (camping in the Underdark should not be fun, either).

It might rain in  caverns and there might be floods at times. Huge bodies of water blocking the way are no uncommon thing. How to get across those is a whole new problem (and there might be predators in the water ...).

Sound will carry far in caverns and warn those living there about intruders.

Everything is much more complicated than one would like it to have. No tunnels 10 feet wide and ten feet high. Footing is a problem almost everywhere. It's also full of small tunnels and grottos on every height level: perfect for ambushes, almost impossible to map.

Magic and Monsters make this a much more crowded space and allow for much more complex environments (huge mushroom forests, unique predators and unique prey,etc.). But that's no new insight.

Anyway, I need to make underground expeditions way more more difficult to access and to navigate than I did before.

But enough for now. Next up are some ideas how to implement this into the Goblin-Tribe Simulator ... 


  1. This brings my mind to making travel , man vs environments more interesting in rpg's and just how do we do that?
    The map you posted has allot of verticality, how do we make climbing exciting? How do we make an encounter with a slippery mud and scree slide just as tense and dangerous as a cave of ropers? Can these kind of things be more than just a dex check? How do we make the cavern as interesting as what lives in the cavern. It's an old question for D&D gamer and a really hard one.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. I believe it boils down to three big problems (I can think of) that are inherent in D&D: (1) ability scores are static (which will keep those challenges at the same level without any improvement), (2) using skills won't help either (because if skills rise with level, you'll get the kind of nonsensical bloat associated with 3E skills and solving everything with skill checks might be too abstract to make it more than just something that can be solved with a role of the dice) and (3) movement is too much the result of the 2-dimensional board game heritage of the game.

      I couldn't even offer an individual solution for my games, because I have none. As far as loose ideas go, it's not as dark. One thing I use in my games is Endurance. The twist is that a character can sacrifice Endurance to fill the gap between a difficulty and a roll on a skill- or ability-check (basically the same, as per the Rules Cyclopedia). This way they manage tasks if need be, but deplete a resource they might need later. To some extent it makes navigating a complex environment as meaningful as a fight and adds exhaustion to the fold.

      Movement is a huge problem, though, the main problem being that there are only two ways of movement, the quasi real-time movement and the overland movement (as far as I'm aware of). There is nothing in between, so you either go with a step-by-step exploration or you hand-wave it. The way I figure it, it would go a long way to have a system where a group can cover a whole lot of ground with the results that go with it and something like a save (to use something that works well with all levels) would indicate where a problem arises that needs immediate attention (a character unaware of a sinkhole, etc.). How much a character failed with his save could indicate where exactly he struggled. Going with this idea would mean to divide an adventure location in areas with an array of connected difficulties that show what happens, which would lead to a conclusive description and an active environment, I guess. But this is as far as I did get so far and it's not unproblematic (maybe it'd need a group to decide a mode of movement in which they avoid closer examination of interesting environments as long as possible to make this work?) ...

      What are your ideas about this?

      What I love about the map above, though, is that it gives a DM a whole lot of information he can work with and I believe that's a good way to start when thinking about creating meaningful environments.

    2. Damn, there is a point where it could have been a post on it's own :)

      That being said, I'd like to add one idea to my proposal: if something like a threat level is included in an exploration mode as described above (the more they move and make noise, etc., the more likely an encounter gets ...), a DM could see pretty fast at what point a group will have an encounter and where!

  2. Good finds. REal-world checks and comparisons are excellent for atmosphere-building. I wrote up a short series on 'dungeon geology' recently, as well - mostly taking a look at how the 'mine-as-dungeon' manifests with respect to geology and historic mining techniques (and also 'found dungeons' - real worlds maps and features that can be rough-hewn into an adventure locale, similar to your cave map, above.)

    Part 1:

  3. Thanks, Leicester! Right now I'm on the road (we're hiking and I'm not even supposed to have a connection right now ...), but I will check this out as soon as I'm back.

  4. Sweet, gotta turn in because suddenly we're hiking tomorrow too.