The Balance Of Terror In The Dwarven Ruins
I’ve gone on record as saying that generally, the deeper one goes in the dungeon in my campaign, the worse it gets. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that everything near the entrance is easy pickings, though.
There might be a dragon lurking just a few doors down from the front door*, but if it’s all mellow and laid-back if treated with respect, if it wants to talk more than eat knights, it’s not going to be an unreasonable threat. If there’s plenty of warning of what’s up ahead, then the players have to choose to put their characters in danger. If it’s clear that the fight is beyond them, it’s their own fault if they pick it anyway.
One example that the PCs have already bumped into was the pair of fiery guys near the stairs up to the Great Bridge. One look, and the PCs knew that was one fight they weren’t equipped for. They wisely backed off.
Another thing that makes the areas near the entrance less lethal than those farther in is access to escape. More than once, the party has sent one or more runners back along the path they had traveled on the way in, figuring that the way was clear. Many of the monsters in the dungeon like it there precisely because it’s proof against sunlight. If the party can take to their heels and make it to the light of day, many pursuers will let them go. Even if they’re not that lucky, they’re still better off fighting in the light, without darkness penalties. Once they’re deeper than a quick sprint, though, they won’t have a (relatively) safe place to run to.
A lot of the creatures on the first level aren’t much for the chase, anyway. Zombies, oozes, and reeks aren’t known for their speed. The areas near the entrance have a lot of lurkers and scavengers. I was just noticing this morning that some of the higher forms of undead can be fast. The party wasn’t impressed with zombies the first time around, because they had an experienced cleric. They haven’t been impressed since because zombies are dumb and slow. I wonder how they’ll react when they get deeper in and find “zombies” that can outrun half the party.
Things are pretty simple towards the entrance. If there’s a monster, there’s usually just one kind; if there’s a trap, it’s the only threat.** Deeper in, things get more complex. In the depths, you’ll find boss monsters with minions and intelligent enemies with organized defenses.
Finally, the dungeon scales. One of the great effects of GURPS’ point-based system is that you can always throw another 50 points of “ninja training” on any critter… or another template or three. (“It’s a Carnivorous Mutated Giant Space Hamster. From Hell.”) Near the entrance, the goblins you find are sad, cringing types. Deeper in, the goblins get more competent, like Gort the artillery wizard. I like to think one of the baddest of the boss monsters on the very deepest level is a 1200 point goblin Barbarian-Druid-Ninja with a Gelatinous Cube for a mount…
* There isn’t. But there could be!
** Usually. Remember, there was something lurking at the bottom of the infamous pit. Trap and monster. But, still, that was only after the party had encountered the trap alone.