What is this madness? Another post this month?! Yeah, that kind of happened. It actually wrote itself after those posts the other day about how rpgs are media and how the DM, too, should get a chance to immerse himself in a scenario before he, in turn, generates an immersive experience for his players. This is an example of that. And you can use it without the theory to stock your dungeons, too. Have at it ...
About putting the cart before the horse
The biggest beef I have with Monster Manuals is that they (usually) just create individual entities without a real sense of what their impact is in a gaming world. In other words, I don't care that much about how many attacks a dragon might have or what his breath attack looks like and way more about what a dragon steak would taste like and what a cook would demand for a delicacy like that. Or the cultural impact of having cheap slaves available, with all those weak ass demi-humans. Or how magic is a lot like toxic waste and what impact magic would have on a society in general (the usual suspects: industrialization, & war). The list goes on.
My thinking is that there is the established way of taking a random dungeon and filling it with the monsters you like or want to test or think fitting. Everything else usually comes as an after-thought. This is true to a degree where monsters become staples. There is a widely shared understanding what a goblin could be, in terms of stats, at least, and that understanding, then, (in)forms the playing experience.
I'm not against the meta-gaming part of the game. On the contrary, I think it's crucial for player skill to know the parameters that make a game tick. But if it's the only information the game runs on, it means missing out on the great opportunity to elevate the game from a tactical meta-gaming level to an engaging narrative. In other words: it's the difference between "Hey, it's just a couple of low level goblins, not even worth the xp, but let's get rid of them ..." and "Woah, their colors mean they are of the Stinky Feet clan, they are famous for their mean Blutschnaps, let's see if they know something about the strange orcs we encountered earlier ...".
|Not saying it doesn't work, but ... [source]|
I'm exaggerating. A bit. Or in as far as both variants are bound to happen in role playing games and a DM can emphasize either to taste. If he has the control, that is. The amount of control, now, is connected to the the information policy at the table. The DM shares information, the players decode it and give feedback with their actions which generates feedback from the DM and so on.
A prepared DM will usually bring some color to encounters. But as soon as we are winging it, like we would with sandbox games or when the players do something unexpected or we actually aren't prepared, well, as soon as we have to improvise and start to construct an encounter going by a monster entry or by a random encounter, we are bound to put the cart before the horse.
Immersion is ...
Immersion is when the brain connects the information it gets in a meaningful way, flow is when that happens over and over again. So it's a succession of events, if you will. You get input, interpret it and produce a result. There are also hierarchies that make it easy to stack information. When used in a role playing game, those hierarchies are connected to what is happening at that specific moment in the game.
|Information hierarchy is important ... [source]|
I think one of the biggest challenges in encounter and monster design is that it mostly happens without those specific connectors in mind. One of the biggest mistakes is when that connection is ignored, though. Now, in my opinion, good encounters don't start with a monster, but with how it manifests at the table. There isn't a DM with a brain out there who isn't aware of the great tool that is obscurity. Players engage and get immersed when informations are revealed layer by layer (again, hierarchy of information ... piecing something together isn't that different). It's how you produce tension, too.
This being about connectors between a specific scene in some established frame of sorts (campaign area, story arc, established threats, mood at the table and so on), it's worth asking which input will help a DM effectively to produce results in a manner (=hierarchy) that is directly useful in that situation.
In short: the DM needs to be immersed himself to conclude a complete impression of the potential the situation at hand has before he can communicate it to the players in a meaningful way.
Example: Dungeon Factions
The procedure I'm about to present is mainly meant for the preparation of a dungeon setting. But once that is done, it also can be used as described above. And the principles used for that generation process are the same: they are meant to immerse the DM when filling his dungeon. Here is it:
|Open in new tab for more detail ...|
So the idea is, you take a random empty dungeon you want to stock. With huge dungeon complexes, I'd go from level to level. Make yourself familiar with the area you populate. Now you roll 6d6 (or you change the die-range if you want to put an emphasize on certain results ...) and read the results A to F from left to right.
Example A (4, 6, 1, 5, 4, 6): Some greedy humanoids with an overwhelming attitude that want to expand, are newcomers to the area and are the main theme right now in the dungeon. So this dungeon (or dungeon level) could be hosting an army of Hobgoblins getting ready for war!
You repeat this first step until F turns up to be a 6 (happened here with the first roll). This is your main theme for the dungeon (or dungeon level). You keep generating factions like that until F turns up being a 4 or higher. Your dungeon (or dungeon level) is stocked now.
Example B (2, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1): Some strong magical beasts are in here to protect themselves, they'd rather use scare tactics, have been in this ruin for a long time and live in between spaces ... Maybe some sort of magical experiment that has gone wrong as this place fell to ruin. I'll settle for intelligent displacer rats. Rat infested catacombs with Hobgoblin military camps, so far.
Example C (1, 2, 4, 3, 4, 4): Some cautious natural beasts, also having self-preservation as the main motive and use scare tactics, are also new to the dungeon, but established a small presence in one part of the dungeon (or dungeon level). Giant spider would be the classic here. They'd control an area with their scary webs and catch only what they need (self-preservation).
Your results will tell you a story about the factions, why they are there, what motivates them, how strong they are and how many of them there are. Even if there are conflicts between factions. It'll resonate differently from dungeon to dungeon, even from DM to DM. But that's the point.
Once you have a result, you'll be able to come up with a monster/encounter that fits the description. In the examples above it has always groups of them, but individuals are possible, too. Some weak and weird human, living between spaces, could be anything from a crazy and left behind wizard hiding in the passages of the dungeon to a weird cult processing through the halls, singing and dancing. If it fits the description, it'll find a way into the dungeon.
Using this as a Random Encounter Table?
And here we go full circle. You could use all this as a Random Encounter Table of sorts. As I said above, it's all about how an encounter manifests. Assuming that a DM already has a vague sense of the place the characters are exploring, he should be able to apply the results above in a way that has an immediate value in the situation by answering the questions what the result could be and what kind of signs it would leave behind.
If we now take, for instance, Example A and use it in a totally different context. Say, this comes up while the characters are in a human controlled metropolis. A overwhelming and expanding humanoid faction could mean some sort of humanoid crime-syndicate spreading in the shadows. Encountering something like that could be anything from a robbing, because the characters are in a dark corner of the city at night or maybe some strange signs on the wall or meeting one of the victims ... as you see fit.
|All a matter of perspective. [source]|
Rather than being specific it lets the specific arise as a narrative from whatever is at hand, while being entirely random at the same time. It's also immersive and that will, hopefully, help a DM getting an understanding of the place, which I deem far more important than knowing how much hp one hobgoblin might have.
That being said ...
Of course you'll have some of the same results with just using your good old and true Random Encounter Table and monster entries. I also think that the ideas and concepts at work here are nothing new but more likely something every DM uses on way or another. Doesn't even matter if they are aware of it or not. It's just something we do when we DM: we take what is there and make it sing.
What I'm trying to show here, though, is that there might be other ways of producing content, be it for preparing the game or when we are winging it at the table. Some of those ways are about how we actually experience books or movies or other kinds of media by generating content from something vague. The specific makes us lazy, while the vague activates us and lets us explore the possibilities.
Alright, I'll leave it at that. I hope you guys find the Dungeon Faction Generator useful and take something away from my ramblings here. We are just scratching the surface of the possibilities our hobby offers and how much there still is to explore regarding module design or rules, to name but two examples. It's part of the fun, right :)
Please feel free to add your thoughts, impressions or comments about this ...
If this somehow resonated with you and you want to see my take on it in something bigger than the Dungeon Factions Generator, you should take a look at the module I published the other day: Monkey Business (and thanks for the support if you've already done so!).