Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Adventure Aids from Dungeontown

So much of the adventure writing advice out there is for dungeons. Some people love dungeons. I get a GM advice thing and really, it’s a D&D/Pathfinder thing. It’s three-quarters full of “this is how to construct a dungeon fast” and “twenty-seven encounter types for the wilderness” and “six enchanted items.”

I prefer superheroes. But almost nobody is going to make a subsistence wage from selling to superhero GMs.

So let’s look at the dungeon advice and see how we can port things over. At worst, what can we steal?

But before I even start that, I gotta ask: why are you playing superheroes?


While there are many reasons to play any genre of roleplaying game, games with dungeons tend to be focused on different satisfactions than games with superheroes. If the itch you’re scratching is largely the same, hey, this might work for you. If it’s not, you’re going to be unsatisfied.

So if you want to satisfy your tactical ambitions, dungeon advice is going to work. If your interest is the encounters and you’re going to sift story out of it, dungeon advice is going to work. If you’re playing because friends are playing, dungeon advice is going to work. If you want to be fundamentally awesome from minute one in a way that the zero-to-hero fantasy progression doesn’t provide, then porting over dungeon advice might not work, but it might. If you want to tell morality tales with modern dressing, dungeon advice might not work. If you want soap opera with a genre dressing, dungeon advice will definitely not work.

Understand, I’m not saying that games with dungeons can’t satisfy these urges. They can. But what I’m saying is that the five-room dungeon and lists of encounters and drawing a dungeon map before any other planning, all of them presuppose a kind of narrative that isn't the superhero narrative.

But maybe it can satisfy you. Maybe the various dungeon things can help or inspire, though.


I forget who pointed it out, but dungeons are a kind of plot. Each room is a scene, and doors are a way to get from one scene to another. Things start off easy and get harder. Sometimes they just get harder relative to the characters’ current abilities, sometimes they expect the characters to get better as the dungeon progresses, but there is a kind of progression.

A five-room dungeon is an adventure. I don’t know if it was the original 5-room dungeon model, but this article over at strolen.com  suggests five rooms that map darned well to five stages of a story and different player satisfactions:

  1. Room 1: Entrance and Guardian
  2. Room 2: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
  3. Room 3: Trick or Setback
  4. Room 4: Climax or Big Battle
  5. Room 5: Reward or Revelation

If you allow the fact that superhero games don’t have “reward” in a treasure sense, the first four rooms fit with some wiggling into the four stages that Steve Kenson suggests in ICONS: Threat, Investigation, Challenge, Comeback.

In that sense, great. And in fact, if you’re coming from a fantasy or F20 background, maybe that’s a useful way for you to think of superhero adventures. You grab a theme or central concept, have the players encounter the concept somehow, do a thematically-related puzzle or roleplaying challenge, plan a setback, and then have a fight. Here, let’s compare two. In a dungeon, the Entrance needs to explain why no one else has ever looted this dungeon before, while in a superhero story, “it’s new” is usually the reason.

Stage5 Room DungeonSuperheroes
The Threat
A giant spiderweb that hid a particular cave is now torn away and loathsome spiders are spilling out into the countryside. But don't worry: there are still plenty of spiders in the cave to fight, even in this room.We'll assume (because the season opener of Supergirl is on my mind) one of the characters is vulnerable to Neonite.

The players intercept the latest in a series of drone attacks on scientific R&D locations
Puzzle / The InvestigationThe entrance to the next chamber is blocked by the dead body of a horrendous giant wasp. Gotta move it to find out.Investigation shows that from this site, unlike all others, something was stolen: a solar power device unique in its range of radiations to absorb, and the more radiation it absorbs, the better. (It might turn out that the other attacks got rid of other places that might produce it with the plans.)
Setback / The ChallengeInside the next chamber is a big mother of a spider, and after a battle that was tough but not as tough as they thought it would be, they win...The next attack is easily stopped...but turns out to be a diversion because the bad guys have stolen a fist-sized sample of Neonite, the dangerously radioactive mineral that totally doesn't affect normals.

The cyborg powered by the Neonite shows up on cue and kicks their butts by first defeating the character vulnerable to Neonite
The Big Battle / The ComebackWhich is when they discover that the giant wasp planted its young in the spider, and by killing the spider, they've hurried the hatching process. The big battle is against some number of newly-hatched deadly giant wasps.With a daring plan, the heroes fight the cyborg again, this time winning
RewardThe spider has gold, gems and scrolls from the travellers it brought back to feed its children.Technically, superheroes don't get rewards, but maybe they learn more about the creators of the cyborg

Now, aside from the fact that neither of these adventures is particularly good, they do have the same high points. The puzzle in the case of the supers adventure is a bit more investigation than figuring out how to move a dead bug, but I was making this up in both cases and we’re all just lucky that I managed not to make the supers one about cloning or the food of the gods, and therefore essentially the same adventure.

But articles like “How to make your next dungeon a Hallowe'en experience!” might be useful as a source of inspiration, rather than things you can take directly.


Something I see often in my perambulation around the web is the list of encounters or ways to make encounters interesting. Something like “12 Tavern Encounters” or “Six Slippery Traveling Salemen” generally.

Tough to make them relevant. Again, there’s certainly nothing you can take directly, because the idea of the F20 encounter is baked right in, but sometimes you can steal attitudes or motivations. Heck, if you really want to, you can put these stolen attitudes in your own table. A table can certainly help when your players back you into a corner and you have no ideas.

Eleven Reasons to Pick a Fight With the Hero
Roll (2d6)Reason
2If I can get him to beat me up, then I'm in no shape to answer questions from him/the police/my spouse/go to work tomorrow.
3Keep your attention on me, okay, so we can lift something—anything—from the only member of the Super Six with pockets.
4If I can get video of him throwing just one punch I can sell it and pay for the operation that the kid needs.
5My significant other just broke up with me, and it'll just show them if I get beaten to a bloody pulp.
6Everyone knows that hero name doesn't randomly attack innocents, so I won't get hurt, and I'll look cool in front of that person I want to impress over there.
7I am sooo drunk that I don't realize he's obviously more powerful, and he's blocking my way to the pinball machine. He's not so tough.
8This hero always talks people down, right? I'll gain serious cred and not get hurt. Or am I thinking about the other guy?
9I've been paid to do this, and I'm willing to do it because I am in desperate financial straits. (You as GM will have to figure out what the plan is for paying. Humiliation? Fact gathering?)
10Hit me. Tricia at the nail place/the psychic/Dr. Seven says that will give me powers/cure my leukaemia/cancer.
11Go ahead. Kill me. I can't do it myself.
12Pain is kinda thrilling.

And you notice that for one of them, I had to pretty much say, “Hey, here’s a hook but you gotta figure out the rest.”

Sometimes the random encounter table is locations. You can make that work by transferring the attributes of the place to a modern or comic book location. Still, it’s one of those things where you should probably do it yourself ahead of time and have a handy table yourself.

Six Ways to Describe the Warehouse (Instead of Abandoned or Deserted) (roll 1d6)

Roll (1d6)Description
1Dilapidated, run-down, untended, rat-infested, broken skylights
2Clean but stained, smelling heavily of bleach, windowless, industrial, many forklifts
3Wooden, surprisingly large, sheet-metal-clad, double-sashed windows high up
4New, concrete, equipped with floor drains, access to sewers, security system
5Future tech, roboticized, computerized, automated, not obeying shutdown instructions
6Dirty, busy, well-used, crowded, with a sign that says 4 Days Since An Accident and the 0 right beside it and numbers past 5 are missing.

And here, have one more:

Themes for a themed super (probably villain)
Roll (2d6)Theme groupSpecific examples
HolidaysPresident's Day, Memorial Day, Remembrance Day, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, Labor Day
Emotions or states of mindLove, Hate, Fear, Madness, Ennui, Like, Prejudice, Greed, Jingoism, Lust, Unrequited love, Duty, Paranoia, Shock, Awe
Elements, modern or classicalEarth, air, fire, water, wood, metal, diamond, gold, silver, platinum, uranium, phosphorus, sodium, neon, radium
Elemental concepts or forcesfire, light, heat, shadow, magnetism, sleep, darkness, gravity, electricity, nuclear force, transmutation, cosmic radiation, X-rays
Classic monsters or old monster namesVampires, werewolves, Frankenstein's monster or golem, ghost, cannibal spirit, Springheel Jack, revenant, Djinn or genie, kraken, ogre, giant, medusa, sphinx, cyclops
Animals, usually huntersLion, puma, jaguar, wolf, wolverine, honey badger, weasel, myrmidon, ant lion, termite, cricket, grasshopper, wasp, hornet, stinger, crab, shark, hammerhead, mako, grizzly, cheetah
Evocative thingsBlood, sand, bone, hair, blob, rust, grass-roots, thunderstrike
Things or acts of powerGenocide, slaughter, sniper, wrecking crew, demolition, groundswell, blitzkrieg
Games or game piecesChess, Gammon, pawn, knight, rook, castle, king, queen, bishop, quarterback, draughtsman

No, Seriously, Like Dungeons

You can make the adventure take place in a dungeon-like environment. (I mean a place with restricted movement, not some BDSM club.)

Most superhero adventures are a bit more like a wilderness hexcrawl thing, but there are a couple of superhero tropes that can be treated like a dungeon.

The most common is the base. Most comics with a base have done an us-against-the-base issue. The Danger Room (Wreck Room, The Kitchen, whatever you want to call it) is a limited version of it. Another is the enemy base, often combined with the heroes-have-lost-their powers idea.

Dimension-hopping can provide something similar: each dimension is an encounter.

Something I’ve never tried is using some other fantasy system to represent the dream dimension and run an adventure on two parallel tracks.