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July 30, 2006, 7:10 pm

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The Crawl, Doing It the Cinematic Way


I am not a normal fantasy GM. If a player is delving through a dark tomb searching for loot in my campaign, he is probably on a fruitless quest. I dislike the dungeon crawl. I have since the earliest years of DnD. I mean where in Tolkein did they really crawl through a dungeon or other tomb/ place of mystery?

I am not a normal fantasy GM. If a player is delving through a dark tomb searching for loot in my campaign, he is probably on a fruitless quest. I dislike the dungeon crawl. I have since the earliest years of DnD. I mean where in Tolkein did they really crawl through a dungeon or other tomb/ place of mystery?

It is amusing that I ended up running “dungeons” in another genre. In Cyberpunkish games, you are constantly breaking into corporate buildings to get information or help employees escape. The Corporate Building is the cyberpunk equivalent of a dungeon. You use your skills to look at the outside (or make a run against someone who has the plans), try to ferret out what is there, then throw yourself at the place in an attempt to achieve your goal (information or person removal, i.e. get your treasure). 

In the fiction (book or movie), most of these events are resolved in narration. Only certain key/ dramatic events of the creeping and crawling ever get any “air time”. You never get the boring play by play, of creeping down the given corridor. Pausing. Creeping down the corridor. Pausing. Checking for lasers. Checking for IR sensors. Creeping down the corridor. ... Repeat until your hands bleed from rolling all those check dice.

In cyberpunkish games, gamers often resort to the SquadLeader/ Dungeon approach. This is where you move your characters about on the chess board of the building… doing every tactical action.  (Creeping down the corridor. Pausing. Checking for lasers. Checking for IR sensors. Creeping down the corridor. Repeat until….) You map the building (limitedly), take out all the monsters/ guards, get your treasure (data or person) and get out.

This is not how the source material does it. Why should we game it out this way? Yet this is how it is done most of the time. This approach comes from the fantasy game trained gamers and the way they think you need to resolve such things. You break it down into a total tactical crawl, sucking up hours of play time doing very little but carefully moving minatures.

How SO NOT the source material! However, this is how fantasy trained gamers think you need to resolve it. It is the traditional gamer way of doing it. However, to quote an number Indian Chiefs(*1), “Sometimes the Old Traditional Ways are Symbolic and Traditional (i.e. Important), and somtimes they are just Old.”

So how about dramatic resolution? So why can’t we resolve the crawl the way they do it in books and movies. I mean even dungeon crawls in Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones Movies are centered around key events, not the all the time of crawling, climbing, maping, etc. So sometimes the way is important and sometimes it is old. So lets do it the Dramatic Way.

The Dramatic Way takes some explaining.  Each “Crawl” will be made up of a number of “Events” that need to be resolved. The larger, more important Crawl the more Events that will be involved. A little narration links the events.

Some of these are required, they must be met before you can advance to the next one or take any other option. Players will anticipate some of the required events (breaking through the fence, stopping the patrol drones). While others will flow logically from the previous events. Some will be unforseen, which are the plot complications, much like the unforseen turn of events found in EVERY Mission Impossible episode. Usually these scenes are associated with a required scene. Some will be improv. These are the scenes that occur when the players “do something not associated with the mission”, like search a computer for information related to a seemingly unrelated occurance three game sessions ago, or stopping at the pharmacy lab for a quick score, or tagging the men’s room. Other Improv events occur when the players exhibit that extreme cunning that always suprises the GM and they find ways to circumvent required events or have such an odd plan that things need to be reworked.

It should be noted that Dramatic Resolution requires the GM to have a reasonable good understanding of the setting/ location and some ability to adapt and improvise. So when the players decide to zig again instead of zagging, you will know what new events will need to be performed.

So various skills and resources (maps and stories about the crawl’s location for instance) will allow the players to forsee possible required events and they can prepare for them. They will then proceed through the crawl with their prepared things, until unforseen events occur (What? That wall was not on the map!)

So they will do the 1) Negate the Fence scene, a touch of narration “you run across the parking lot avoiding the spot lights”, 2) do the negate the door scene, 3) the unforseen guard in the hallway scene, then some narration as you creep down halls, down the stairs (though making a roll to avoid the cameras there and avoiding the improv “guards rolling out scene”) to the negate the palm lock/ door scene… you get the drift…

Security of buildings is based upon dramatic events to be resolved. There will be interesting scenes for you to put together. The characters will use their skills and their cunning to resolve those events. Of course the unexpected (for the players hopefully) will occur… that is what makes it intersting. Thus you get a game that is a lot closer to the source material… and game time is not sucked up with a ton of “you move forward five feet to the next cubicle. ”

So what does this mean for a fantasy player? Well,  the dungeon is just the fantasy equivalent of a corporate building.  Why not figure out the dramatic events for each dungeon (or section of the dungeon). Use the character’s basic operating plan (standing orders of what we do every time we encounter X) and their skills… then just narrate through most of the boring moving, moving, mapping, etc… and cut right to the interesting parts. Action is just picked up In Media Res… in the middle of the action… “You are just about to open the door when….”, or “you come upon the largest chamber you have discovered. In it, on a pedistal, is something that could be the object of your quest…”

This process is faster easier, and more interesting. It will keep you game moving at all time. (The process will disappoint any tactical hard asses, so your milage may very). And it takes less time to do a detailed GM map, as you only have to map out the specific “event” locations. Faster, easier, more interesting, AND less work, the dramatic way is a best way.

(*1) This quote has been attributed to sooo many Indian chiefs that I don’t know who to attribute it any more.

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Comments ( 13 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted RuthieA
November 26, 2005, 10:56
Good approach to something that seems a touch uninteresting, the cinematic approach is a good one.
Voted Pariah
February 19, 2006, 22:29
Thanks Moon.
Voted Chaosmark
June 22, 2007, 2:27
Nifty. A good way of doing things for writers as well.
Voted valadaar
June 22, 2007, 9:04
Agreed - this is excellent advice!
February 23, 2008, 14:39
Ran an adventure just last night that (unconsciously) used this post. The players were in a sewer, chasing a thief, but I didn't have it mapped out at all, so I just improvised the important stuff and skimmed over the in-between. It worked great! Try it next time you absolutely HAVE to do some sort of 'crawl' like this. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
April 24, 2008, 18:07
Article Application

One advantage of the computer era is that the art of flow charting has advanced to an incredible degree. Now you get to reap the benefits of it.

Now how does this apply to the above article?

Create a rough flowchart of the crawl. Each scene of note is going to be a box. (This includes the planned "complications", ala any Mission Impossible episode). Each scene leads to another scene, so connect those scene boxes with lines (and possibly with arrows). If a scene could lead to a couple of scenes, use branches. You can put ovals on some of those lines. The ovals are filled with flavor text, and things you will need to narrate - information like "There are some smaller sewer pipes that outlet into this tunnel along here" that the players might want to use or need later.

This allows you to keep track of things easily. By doing this bit of preplanning, you will also note any "flags" for the crawl. Flags would be things that you will need to run the crawl. This could be a particular monster's stats, the rules for running on ice, a reminder that you will need to introduce a certain NPC or organization before the players go on the crawl, and so on. If you meet all the flagged conditions, you are ready to run the game without an issue.

Of course players will often go off the flowchart. It is in their nature, and usually for only a little bit. If the players (and characters) are actually motivated to complete the goal, they should not stray too much or very often. Usually it is to complete some cool little goal they have created for themselves. If they do stray, don't panic. You can easily draw new boxes as they go. If you understand what their new mini goal is, you can build new boxes that work with it. You can easily hook them back into the existing flow of boxes. After all, many of those boxes have to do with "the setting/ environment" and they are still there.
Voted Ramhir
January 25, 2011, 13:04

I have some programming experience and I *really* liked the flowcharting aspect. Thanks, MoonHunter.

July 17, 2011, 16:34

Hmm, I think this idea blends well with the five room dungeon.

December 27, 2011, 1:24

I keep coming back to this article as a solid way to organize and run plots of all kinds, not just dungeon crawls. You want to map out the important plot points, and then connect them with in-between material. This keeps things fast paced and engaging for the players.

December 27, 2011, 15:57

In response to what Chaosmark said...
A flow chart is roughly how I plan out scenes (and events) in my campaign.   I choose which boxes in which plotlines are going to be used in a given session.  I then sort them out and make them fit.. often changing some tiny things to make the session work. 

Each box (important scene) is connected by a line (with a transitional scene).  Sometimes I want to stick more between the important scenes for some reason (so I put a couple of boxes along that transitional line).  This could spread out the action some or allow me to have another subplot resolved "on their way" to the next big plot point.

Each box has a scene title and purpose (the thing that is supposed to come out of the players going through the scene).  Possible exits are listed.  Each exit often leads to a line, but you would be suprised on how many exits from a scene lead to the same place (for different reasons). 

So If one box is   The Icehouse fight.   Players are to find The Clue after fighting minions that will lead them to St. Peter's Cathedral (or area around it).    Usually I would include important bits about the fight in the scene card.  but I would have various exits.  Find the original ledger (to cathederal), find mystic vibration they have discovered before and the active link to the cathederal area, or discover reciepts on Minions about places around the St. Peter's cathedral.  (The crew will stumble over any one of those clues and the three exits lead to the same box).  Since that is the point of things, they won't seem to leave the area (of if they do they will come back) until they get a clue... (or are on their way there anyways).

However, the player I need to be here is not here.  So I need to delay the group so they have something to do for the rest of the session and they won't get to the cathedral until next session with the needed player will be here.  So I leaf through some plot cards and add a box or two between the Icehouse and Cathedral.  Now we have either a minor mystic encounter suitable for anywhere in the city (if they follow magic clue line) or some street crime that will have one of the known minions involved (thus telling them they are in the right area). I could of pulled one of the character's subplots, but how were they going to encounter their family rushing to the cathedral late at night?  

The players will have another encounter that will suck up most of remaining time for tonight's session. The right player will be here next time for the big showdown.  And I can use the minor mystic event as a lead in to another plotline.  Good planning can help you pull off impromptu changes as you need them and make it seem seamless and just like you planned it that way.

So we move from point of drama to a point of drama with usually either a transition scene (a line) or a character development scene in between (something to do along the way) or a filler action scene.  


Voted Dossta
December 28, 2011, 16:42

This seems very useful, and I am eager to try it if my game ever gets started back up in the new year.  Thanks for the food for thought.

December 5, 2012, 11:18
Reference Aliens...great dungeon crawl when the Space Marines explore the planet atmosphere station and find the aline life forms on lower levels. it is also summed up with narration after scenes it is plausible to, as a DM, put characters in scenes of a Dungeon Crawl and then morph them to deeper levels without playing all the down the hallway stuff. I also like Hellboy scenes that go through great adventure scenes and then back to the research lab for some intense healing. Like Moon Hunter I also use a layout of the game I intend to run and use 4 x 6 cards that have notes, triggers and dialouge that needs to be unveiled to move the story/adventure along. It really helps to "plot" your course as the main storyteller and to give the players fuel to create their portion of the tale. One thing I notice, especially this new era of gamers (I'm old school) is that they expect the game to be fed to them...this style of play forces them to be they have to write some of the segways' themselves... on the spot and I usually get them to role-play it.
April 12, 2013, 16:18
Bump for a useful article.

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       By: CaptainPenguin

The heroes have destroyed the minions, plunged through the catacombs and defeated the guardians. They slowly enter the chamber to find the dark mastermind behind the scheme. The mastermind has a request for them, however:
"You must destroy me. To destroy me is to rid the world of a great evil, that is to say, me. But before you can destroy me, you must understand what evil is, what evil must be, why evil must exist."

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