Grappling With Re-Stocking The Dungeon

by mshrm

It’s less than a week ’til the next session of the Dungeon Fantasy game, and so the lazy GM’s thoughts turn toward re-stocking the dungeon after the damage wrought last time around.

As I tried to explain a while back, I’ve got a system that I’m comfortable with for randomizing the contents of rooms and hallways in the dungeon. I’ve considered complicating things, but so far, I’m satisfied enough with the results that I don’t want to fiddle with it. The question remains, though: What about re-stocking, after the murder hobos have come through like the plague of locusts that they are? (And I mean all that in the fondest of ways, of course. I love the characters. I just wouldn’t invite them back to my house.)

The first part of the question, of course, is “Why bother?” Why not let the PCs clear the dungeon?  The best answer I can think of, is because it’ll increase the challenge. It puts pressure on the PCs to keep going, when they might otherwise withdraw to recharge and regroup. There’s a pull towards taking it slow — the proverbial “ten minute adventuring day”, in which the adventurer’s life is going into the dungeon, blowing out all the stops and going nova on the first monster you meet, then going home for a good night’s sleep. One of the things that helps counterbalance that pull is the realization that if you withdraw after a successful battle, something else will move in, and you’ll be fighting over that same group again next week.

(Another force at work here is the much-maligned wandering monster, but that’s a story for another time.)

This psychological pull isn’t just theory, either. One of the bits of player-to-player conversation that I overheard, last time (maybe time before last?), was a discussion over withdrawing or pressing on before a power vacuum was filled.

So, there you go. I’ve got vacuum. Can’t have that!

Thus far, I’ve used a couple of different approaches to re-stocking.

At first, when the PCs were just beginning to engage with Ghorbash’s goblins, I just eyeballed it. I put myself in the place of Ghorbash and his advisers, and asked myself, “If I had these forces arrayed like this, and suddenly I got word that those guard posts had been wiped out, and eye-witness reports like thus-and-so, what would I do?” When you’re dealing with an organized faction, with intelligent leadership, I think this is really the best way. The dice are great for giving a direction, but they aren’t going to come up with a reasoned plan of response.

At the time, I looked at how many members of the tribe were still standing. I gave them a few additional recruits, proportional to the size of the surviving group.  My thinking is that the bands of humanoids that we’ve met so far aren’t actually native to the area. They’re raiding groups, under the leadership of one or more warlords. There’s a trickle of goblins, orcs, and such who travel from the barren wastes of Goblinistan to seek their fortunes in the ruins. Some of those goblinoids end up joining with existing, successful bands.

In short, they’re parties of adventurers, with their hirelings, henchmen, and hangers-on… just like the PCs’ party.  Perhaps with slightly inferior hygiene, in some cases. The way I see it, if the Delving Band With No Name can lose Rho and then return with Jed, then it’s just as fair for the goblins to put Foo and Bar in the still-warm seats of the late Argle and Bargle.

And that worked well enough, until the PCs broke the back of the goblins’ power in that part of the dwarven ruins. Since they killed Ghorbash and routed the shaman’s vengeful counter-attack, the party hasn’t heard much from the goblins. I figure two defeats like that are enough to force the goblins to fall back. Their recruiting ability is damaged, just when they need to fill empty slots in their lineup.

This left me with a section of the dungeon, once held by the goblins, that they could no longer control. Since logic could no longer answer, I turned back to the dice.

Of course, this led to extended dithering and the wringing of hands. If I just re-stocked the area, as if it were fresh, never-explored dungeon, I would be putting the party on a bit of a never-ending treadmill, where every week, the dungeon denizens spring back to full strength. I’m not sure I care for that result. What I’m thinking is more… Whack-a-Mole. Critters aren’t going to set up shop right in the middle of a highly-traveled area. They’ll get a foothold somewhere out of the way. It’s in the dark corners, after all, where evil breeds.

If the PCs make an effort to keep an area clear, they should be able to do so. This might mean nothing more than tromping down the same hallway every trip, disabling traps, or it might mean barricading a room and going native. If they don’t check out an area after they clear it, over time, the usual dungeon dwellers will come trickling in, bringing their traps and locks and poison needles.

What I finally, in fact, did, was re-roll as if I were stocking the area for the first time. 😉  I’ll admit it, I used the system that I knew wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. It was something far more magical than “perfect”:  it was right there and it would work. The number of rooms in play was small enough, I don’t think one could tell one random-roll system apart from another. If all you know is, it came up “heads”, you don’t know if you’re flipping a coin or rolling a d1000 against a really thorough hit location chart for an ettin. (“781 – Left throat. 782 – Right throat. 783 – Throats. 784 – Left chin….”)

When I interpreted the results, I looked at it from the point of view of what had gone before. It’s less of a stretch to find vermin infesting previously-cleared lairs, than it would be to find an army of crazed cultists.  (If I was headed towards cultists, I would start off with just a couple. The roadies, you might say, with the advance luggage. You think the high priest is going to want to rough it in the dungeon? Oh, no, that’s not how evil temples work. You know the evil management will come oozing in after all the hard work is done, pressing the demon-flesh and taking all the credit, when it’s really the minions that do the back-breaking work. Do you have any idea how much a ten-foot tall demon idol with bronze brazier and fist-sized jeweled eyes weighs? And when they ship evil altars, it’s always “some assembly required” and then they leave out the instructions….)

As I worked through the re-stocking process, I pondered on the situation, and I think I’ve got a better system to try next time.

Every area in the dungeon has a chance of wandering monsters, which is loosely based on the amount of “action” that area receives.* I’m thinking, I’ll take that same roll and apply it once a week, as a chance of something passing by that might make a change to the room’s status quo. If that check comes up, then I’ll roll a stocking roll. If not, I’ll continue rolling for that room on the following week, and so on until that room gets its roll. This will take a certain amount of bookkeeping between sessions, but I don’t think maintaining one more list is going to overwhelm me.

Of course, when deciding what the rolls mean, I’ll have to keep an eye towards the logic of the dungeon. If the rolls say a monster moves in next to a group that has already been placed, it’s likely that the group has expanded into new territory.

My hope is that the end result will be a lag between when an area is cleared, and when it is repopulated. The more dangerous an area is, the more quickly it will fill with dangerous things. If the PCs regularly patrol an area, they can keep the infestations down, defeating newcomers while they’re still establishing themselves. The flip side of that coin is, if the PCs ignore an area, those infestations will take root and grow stronger, more consolidated, and harder to remove.

* While watching Walking Dead a while back, I realized that one of the keys to surviving a zombie apocalypse was to reduce one’s wandering monster roll as much as possible. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure a way to quantify the wandering monster chance and the ways PC could affect it, one way or the other. Clearly, barring the door behind you has an effect.