Dungeon Crawls in 7th Sea: The Rebuttal

So I started a third RPG table. Reawakening family RPG time. And I picked 7th Sea, because of course I would. I decided to do a dungeon crawl, which is not something 7th Sea is designed for, in part because the nice people on the 7th Sea Subreddit said it would be handy for me to take a shot and compare notes after. So I did and I wrote those notes up here.

I think some big strides are being made towards figuring this out, which is neat to be a part of. And another blogger active on /r/7thSea wrote up his own blogpost, which, while it has a loft of nifty things in it, it does call me out a few times. I ain’t mad, sometimes I need that. But I’m not going to take it lying down! Allow me, Mr BluSponge aka BraceofPistols if that is your name, to defend myself! (okay, okay, its really just more thoughts…)

How (Not??) To Run a Dungeon

I learned a lot in my first dungeon excursion. A lot of how NOT to do it. Which, while a little disheartening, is how SCIENCE! works. I have yet to figure out how I would run it again, although I know for a fact I would use Ian_W’s Dungeon wrapper stuff to make it more amazing. That part is a given and a great way to actually play 7th Sea. Up until the dungeon, that is.

But I’m not worried about the wrapper or all the stuff “Above Ground” (depends where your dungeon is located.) I’m worried about the design of the dungeon itself and the players interaction with the dungeon itself.

BluSponge’s proposed approach is to discard the carefully drawn out map of the dungeon, replacing it with a vague soup of a “Dungeon Zones” that is intentionally vague for the player to interact and improv with, then have specific “Set Pieces” that are more important. Zones can be used with a Dramatic Sequence, while Set Pieces are more likely to be used with an Action Sequence.

This is an extremely valid way to run a dungeon. Honestly, I’m probably disagreeing with it more in a devil’s advocate, pushing the boundaries, provoking discussion and discourse, than actually thinking its wrong.

But it MUST BE wrong, because I don’t want to throw away the map I spent hours creating!

Nothing More Dangerous Than A Map

Seriously, if you’re writing a new 7th Sea dungeon, using Zones and Sets is a great way to go. But there is something about having a map that makes the dungeon REAL. When you point at a room, you can say “I remember that room! There was a skull and a demon and a trap and Phil almost died!” A map lets your dungeon tell a story of the people who created it. A map lets you keep things organized and not have to make things up on the spot when your player says “I kick down the door!”

Of course, there are some things dungeons are TERRIBLE at doing. Mazes. Mazes in any form or function should not be mapped. A Zone is the way to go there. Or use Hazards, which are more similar to Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel’s Resolutions than you’d think at first glance.

There are, of course, wrong ways to present a map. Worrying the players about every five feet of movement. Forcing many trap rolls. Once upon a time, I was in a D&D game where we need to roll perception EVERY TIME WE TOOK A STEP. (That was not a session that had few things wrong with it…)

So hand waving and pressing forward can make an area of the map act Zoneish. Not a bad thing. Faster. But I sticking champion over my map for 2 reasons.

First, I did spend time on it, carefully coming up with lore, reasons behind things, ways rooms interconnected and joined. The players (ideally and allegedly) were seeing a wondrous place with unknown marvels. While it’s possible for players to be able to ad lib that kind of thing, I believe you really have to trust your players. Trusting the players to do what I think of as “MY work” is part of my GM hubris. I really ought to let it go, but I can’t. Especially with new players. Especially when I have a story I want to tell, with translation hand outs and everything.

Second, if I can make mapped dungeons as a general concept work for 7th Sea, I can port over some D&D adventures without having to reforge the thing in its entirety. Which means the amount of resources that are available for a GM to run 7th Sea increases by several orders of magnitude. Not that I expect all maps and adventures to be useful, but it would be nice to have that in my arsenal.

Basically, I think the difference between the two styles is that my maps are comprised entirely of small set pieces and some of them matter more than others. But a lot of the process is the same. When drafting up my dungeon, I designed set pieces first, then went back along the corridors and added verisimilitude and transitions. However you want to create your dungeon is alright by me.

The Most Useful Tool In A Dungeon

The thing about dungeons is they all have a secret fatal weakness: People who take their time. If you have all the time in the world, then there isn’t a threat. You can spend hours probing the floor for traps, deciphering runes and hieroglyphs, making precise measured maps that indicate there should be a secret room on the other side of that beautiful tapestry we haven’t looked behind yet- with enough time, a dungeon turns from being a game and into a 1000 piece puzzle. Some people can find the grind fun, but its not really what you want to do with your Saturday night, is it? (I am totally not judging you if it is. You do you, man!)

So, how do you put the time crunch on your players for your dungeon? This is something you should be figuring out when you’re doing your design. Why do the heroes not have forever?

Some of the early dungeons of D&D provide some interesting answers. Tomb of Horrors and The Hidden Shrine were used occasionally as convention games. Tournaments. Your characters had all the time in the world, but the players did not. They had to make imperfect choices if they wanted to progress and get points.

More recently, the D&D5e Adventure “The Tomb of Annihilation” had a time limit built into the world. The characters had something like 77 in-game days to beat the final boss. If they did it in the allotted time, their patron would still be alive and they could reap the sweet sweet magic item rewards.

Matt Side Note “If I ran ToA again, I would do things a little differently. I would hire the players the same way, but not give them the time limit right away. I would let them muck about in the stuff to the morth, learning about the land, the people, the lore, taking it slow and getting their characters up a bit, then the Wizard Patron would use a Sending spell to say, ‘oh, my bad, it wasn’t a cough, turns out it was Annihilation Leukemia. The clerics say I have XX days to live. Can you go do this quest even faster?’

I saw too many groups that got the quest and plunged headlong into the dangerous jungles of Chult, cartoony eyes in the shape of the magic item of their choice, only to slow down when they got to the dungeon. I think it would have been better served doing it the other way.

So, how do we build a timer into our dungeon? Many ways! More ways than I can count! A new and unique way for your table, based on motivations of characters, villains, and reasons to do the dungeon delve!

Here’s 3 samples.

First: A in-game clock counts down.

Maybe the boat leaves in 15 minutes, like what happened to Nedry in Jurassic Park which I can’t find a clip of. Maybe we have until the full moon or the eclipse to place the crystal in the doo-dad. Maybe the Crown Prince grows weaker every passing day (or the villain gets stronger).

Time should constantly be in their minds. Reaching a dead end in a maze should frustrate not because of the lack of progress, but because it ate all that time to do the thing. Doc Brown ziplines off a building because he is out of time to do it safely, not because he thinks it’ll be fun.

Second: We need to get there first.

Villains are a major driving force in 7th Sea. And what a villain wants, a hero wants to keep away. So it becomes a race. Not against time, but against the forces of evil who are trying to beat us there. (I tried to find a TV Trope page for this, but didn’t. Not dure if it doesn’t exist, or if I just need to spend more time there. Hard to tell.)

For this, you need to be showing the villain getting closer. More brute squads to fight or block your path. Maybe some sort of indicator that villain figured out the solution to a puzzle or figured out some way to get ahead. Really depends on the dungeon, but you don’t want to cut to the center of the maze and find the bad guy. Sometimes its good for the heroes to win the race.

An interesting opportunity for this style is that the Heroes might be able to muck with the bad guy plans. Maybe a hero can stand in a doorway and say “I will not die here.” “You shall not pass.” “I’ll buy you time.” That type of awesome hero moment all GMs secretly hope could happen in our games.

Third: Increasing Difficulty

The dungeon itself can be your clock. In the Hidden Shrine, the air was poisonous. Not enough to kill you outright, but every hour, you took a tick of damage. If you weren’t fast enough, you’d be dead.

Maybe our dungeon is a desert and we dehydrate. Maybe the water is slowly rising and we need to get out while there is still air. Maybe the dungeon is gradually waking up, so each new time period, it sends more Brutes in the squad, more wounds, more trouble.

What The Clock??

Of course, if time matters, we need to know how it’s passing. 7th Sea has an advantage over D&D here, with Dramatic Sequences. Fire up one of those suckers and use it to mark the passage of time. When everyone is out of Raises, the clock ticks forward. Estimate the time spent, have the bad guys move forward, increase the difficulty by a notch.

It doesn’t have to be a big time jump every tick of the Out-of-Raises clock. Maybe the difficulty ramps up every third tick. But use the moment to describe to the players how their time crunch has moved forward.

If you’re in a city, keep an eye on the hour and toll them bells, counting out the peals.

If you’re in a collapsing cave zone, collapse the cave in front, causing the party to need to clear the path, find an alternate route, or go back the way they came.

If you’re racing the villain, you…. i dunno. That’s a very dungeon/adventure specific way of doing things that I can’t figure out for you. That’s a time challenge you’re going to be jumping in and out of Action Scenes, which the rules don’t tell you how to do.

And… Scenes!

Dramatic Scenes look like they’re a big part of 7th Sea, but I haven’t been able to get them to work in my head. But I just came up with 3 way to think about them that makes me excited to use them.

First, as we mentioned above, hitting Raise Count 0 means the Danger Clock moves forward. Whatever the point of the scene is, something needs to happen at RC0 to keep pressure on the party. The second round of a Dramatic Scene should probably be very different than the first. If they didn’t rescue the Queen in time, they now have to deal with the fact that Count Ratigan’s blimp is taking her into the sky. Take THAT, Heroes!

Second, you should transition into an action sequence only when you think it would be cooler than the party being awesome outside of direct combat. Let players knock out minor villains with a simple bop of their Brawn + Athletics Approach. Sure, a real fight would have been cool (like the beginning of that last clip) but getting on to the story is more 7th Sea than a slugfest “we have to know how much damage you take” that D&D uses.

But, if it is worth it to go to an Action Sequence, I would probably keep the number of Raises and Approaches written down, run the Action, then resume the Dramatic right where you left off.

Third, and this is a big thing!! I don’t think I’ll ask Heroes what their approach is to a dramatic scene. The don’t have raises until they state their approach, but I think it’s fair for a player to not know what he wants to do until later in the scene, especially if Heroes are tagging along with each other.

No idea how well this will work, but it’s what I’ll try in my next experiment.

It’s a Trap! Or maybe a Hazard!

I thought about adding a Hazard to my dungeon, but didn’t because it didn’t quite fit when I first wrote it. I’ve thought about it a bit more now and i have a Hazard I can add to a yet unexplored area. So I’ll be able to play with that next time.

Traps, however, I did include. And like BluSponge indicated, they were very D&D, not 7th Sea.

Part of that reason was because I didn’t have people in a Scene, so they had no raises to interact with and make choices with. They will next time.

There is also a book that is yet to be released that has stuff on traps. I obviously, haven’;t read it. Blu has the PDF, tho, it sounds like, so he can tap that source of knoweldge and I can’t.

Conclusion

Go read BluSponges stuff on Treasure and Motivation/.Story Hooks. Some good useful stuff that I can’t really add too ATM. Ian_W mentioned that the Secret Societies have weird takes on raiding a Syrneth  ruin, so include that in your game planning. As for me, I’m going to pretty up the paths my party didn’t take and see if I can’t apply what I learned in part 2 of my yet unnamed dungeon.

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