So rather than the traditional method of having the players pull out graph paper and meticulously draw a map based upon the DM’s description, in this dungeon, I tested out an alternate. The weaknesses of the traditional way are well-known, if generally ignored. It’s unrealistic to give good, accurate measurements and frustrating to the players to not have these things (doubly so since they are likely expecting them). Not to mention the eternal question of whether the PCs are actually drawing a map as they go, and the extremely unrealistic grid-patterned cave complexes which usually result.
What’s he alternative? Well, skip all that. Roll some dice to see how long they wander before the next encounter, roll some more dice to determine which encounter happens next, and roll yet again to see if they can find their way back to someplace they’ve been before. This allows players to get some use out of the Dungeoneering skill, and replaces player exploring ability with character ability (which is almost always preferable). It also allows the DM to make sure the players don’t meet the “boss” right away and have little reason to deal with the other encounters so carefully planned and designed in the dungeon, and allows the DM tighter control over which items they will have when they finally do get to the end fight. No more worrying what happens if they turn right instead of left and don’t find the magic sword before fighting the monster that can only be wounded by it (because everyone knows the odds of the players running from a fight are about the same as the odds of being struck by lightning while winning the lottery at the exact moment a meteor falls from the sky and lands in your dinner).
Do all those charts take time? Sure. About half the time it takes to plan a traditional dungeon, taking into account that I’ve been designing traditional dungeons for about twenty years and this was the first time I’ve tried this alternate method. I imagine as tie goes on, this will get even faster.
So how did it go? Extremely well. No problems on any front. In play is where you see he real difference, as what would have been thirty minutes of tedious “do we turn or go straight?” “How long is this hallway?” and “shouldn’t this line up one square over?” with two simple dice rolls. One for how long they wander, and one for which encounter happens next.
Will this completely replace the traditional method? In my games, it will not. Mainly because I kind of like designing a dungeon complex, and sometimes the layout really does matter. However, I’d say that the old twisty, grid patterned, annoyingly tedious series of caves will be completely replaced by this method from now on in my games. Unless, of course, the players just really want to break out the graph paper and see how well they replicate my sheet of graph paper using only verbal descriptions.