Instant Dungeon Crawling, The Formula and the Setup

Earlier last fall I was at the New York Comic Con as a volunteer DM for Wizards of the Coast. I asked to be assigned to the “Learn D&D” activity. The organizers asked me to provide an improvised adventure using the material available in the D&D Red Box (the 2010 version) rather than play the adventure found in the box.

I played 3 such games and they each were incredibly entertaining. I recounted one of them here.

In the last game I played, I wanted to create a dungeon crawling experience with absolute minimal prepping in advance. More importantly however, I wanted to be able to play without floundering for ideas whilst in the middle of running the game. As I pondered my options, I came up with a formula for running a quick 2 hour game. I’m sharing this with you because I think you might find it useful.

I started with the Red Box , including the dungeon battlemap packaged with the game. I then took a fistfull of glass beads (which I dubbed “treasure tokens”) and wrote the following table:

Roll a d10
1-2 Empty Room, Treasure out in open
3-4 Trap
5-6 Puzzle
7-0 Monster

The idea was to have the treasure beads distributed in various rooms of the dungeon and roll on the table whenever the party entered one such room. I’d make up an encounter based on the result using nothing but the list of monsters in the Red Box’s DM’s booklet and the mini-Rule 42 found on the booklet’s last page (the DC for level 1 adventurers and a damage chart for hazards). If I rolled “monster” I’d make a level 1 encounter on the spot based on what made most sense or was cool.

With only a 40% chance to face monsters (combat not being the only outcome even then), I thought this distribution to be ideal for fostering exploration and creating the classic “poke with a stick” experimentation that I fondly remembered of my early D&D games as a tweenager.

Turns out I was right…

Armed with these, I got a group of 4 players and we created the setting for the game by having them answer these questions:

You are adventurers that banded together recently. Tell me what your last adventure was about. More specifically, tell me one good thing that happened to you and one bad thing that requires you to return adventuring in dungeons.

The wizard player (sensing an exploit) said “I found a very powerful staff”

I answered “Ha! Sure, no problem… But since this is a one shot level 1 game, please work in your ‘bad’ stuff how you lost that staff… even if only temporarily.”

The Dwarven Slayer piped in: “I know! I spent all of the party’s loot from our last adventure on ale and whores… I even pawned the wizard’s staff!  I’m so sorry guys, I’ll make it up to you!”

Everybody was laughing their heads off, the game was already a great success.

Chatty: Okay then, well the dwarf knows this Goblin “Bookie” called Groo that specializes in booking high risk, high paying, no-questions-asked forays into vaults, catacombs and other subterranean locales in exchange for a very fair share of the spoils.

Dwarf: Oh yeah, he’s the one who spotted me the money for the staff.

Drow Ranger: You are so not leaving our eyesight, ever again!

Dwarf: Oh come on, I told you I’d waive my part of the treasure until I paid you all off!

(The guy was so funny…)

Chatty: Okay so Groo tells you that the thieve’s guild has had one of its minor vaults run over by monsters from the Underdark and were ready to sign off the valuables stored as a “business loss”. Groo bought back the “content” of the vault at 1 silver piece to the gold crown and wants you to recover as much from it as you can… he promises to let you keep 50% of whatever you recover.

I pulled out the Red Box’s Dungeon map and handed out a pair of glass beads to every player.

Chatty: Okay each of these beads represents a small generic treasure pile whose worth you’ll evaluate once you leave the dungeon. You’ll alternate turns placing these tokens onto the dungeon map, representing in what room treasure can be found. Whenever you enter a room with one of those beads, I’ll play on my little table here to see what you meet, it won’t necessarily be monsters.

The players started placing the beads commenting on some of the features appearing on the map, like braziers, pools and ominous runes on the floor. It reminded me that these were all new players or players who hadn’t played in decades. It dawned on me that I had a very important job here: present one of my favourite games to these players so they could taste how awesome playing D&D is.

Chatty: Okay, before we start, here’s one last thing about the beads. Since they are generic treasure, it’s possible that they could be useful for you in a given situation. So at anytime that you need a particular tool or object, you can “spend” a token and tell me “Oh but I have this doohickey that’s great for disarming traps” or “Oh look, here’s the key to that locked door” or better yet “Hey guys, what does a “healing potion” do?”

They loved it.

In hindsight, they mostly used them as healing potions as things got HARD, but I love this mechanic and will use it for all the “unattributed treasure parcel” I keep struggling with to this day.

The game was a huge success, Up next, I’ll share the  highlights of the game. It turned out to be among my great D&D games and certainly one of my most successful convention games ever.


  1. That’s very cool! I’ve been trying to come up with a way to run a game by improvising.
    I like this way 🙂

  2. @Clayton: Hey, I’m glad you liked it. I can’t wait to share the story of that game I played.

  3. This is great! I particularly like the “generic treasure” tokens.

    Jason Morningstar ran Dungeon World for us at DragonCon and had prepared a deck of story-appropriate random treasure cards. He’d slide them to us, and it was up to the individual whether to share the nature of the loot with the rest of the group.

    It’s good to know that WotC is encouraging improv at official events.

  4. @Brennen: I liked the challenge of designing a mini-game that facilitated the creation of such a game. The players loved it and so did I. At low level, coming up with challenging encounters out of thin air is easy as there’s a lot less to think about. That’s why I’ve always prefered playing in the level 1-5 range of D&D.

  5. One thing I forgot to mention in that post is that given the less than direct character generation engine of the Red Box, I heartily suggest that you ask your local gamestore for a set of D&D encounter starter PC or better yet, go to a convention attended by WotC and get your hands on the lavishly illustrated character cards over there. I have collected several sets over these last few years,

  6. Excellent! I look forward to hearing more. Carry on, old chap.

  7. Jay in Oregon says:

    Geez, between this and the level 0 rules in D&DI, you’re making planning for impromptu/single-session games really easy, and fun.

    And many of those D&D Encounters PCs are available as PDFs off of the Wizards website (but they are not organized all in one place, sadly).

  8. @Greywulf: Thanks. The rest should be up early next week.

    @Jay: Aww shucks. Low level D&D remains my favourite tier of that game so it explains why a lot of my design efforts go there. Plus I love con games. I hope this comes in handy for you.

    Thanks for the PDF hint!

  9. Jay in Oregon says:

    My mistake; several of them can be found at the bottom of this page:

    Micro-plug: If you get the Starter Set Supplemental Character Cards (on the “goldenrod” backgrounds), the one for Lucan the elf wizard uses a playtest version of Magic Missile that can target two enemies; I tweaked it to fit the Essentials books and made it available here:

  10. @Jay: I recall Lucan very well! I ran several games with him at last year’s NYCC. Thanks for the rework! I posted a link to your comment on my Twitter account. 🙂

  11. moela (@Trabant) says:

    I enjoyed this. I see a trend forming with some resources being abstractized, like in Wyatt’s Expedition RPG. I also commend you on the full improv challenge you made for yourself, improv is basically the most broadly appliable skill a GM can learn.

  12. @Trabant: It is a trend that I like more and more. Apocalypse World rules with those. Money comes in packages that represent chuncks of ‘enough to scratch a comfortable living for one month”

    And yes, all improv challenges are good for me as they used to be me Achilles Heel… I got better with time.

  13. Pekka Pekuri says:

    I used a mechanic similar to the tokens in a con game. To speed up char gen in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, everyone had 5 item points which could be used at any point to have the mundane item you wanted. Three of the points could also be exchanged to one of the two minor magical items.

    I ran The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (70s version, not the new one) and there’s a lot of exploration which the point system complemented since it enforced creativity. I’d actually use less points if I ever ran it again since the dwindling resources support the “stranded in a dungeon” feel.

    From now on in my games I’ll actually let the players decide what items they find if they ever search a storage room. No one ever brings a hand drill to a dungeon but they might want to find and use one – even if they didn’t think so earlier.

  14. I recently devoted a large chunk of my time, having realized I never had before, to reading the “Ask Gary” threads at ENWorld. Boy, does this ever remind me of all those reminiscings in those threads about first edition D&D! Clean, simple, game elements, roleplaying elements, and focused very heavily on improvisation, not only on the part of the players, but also on the part of the DM!

    Very cool and I look forward to the promised highlights!


  1. […] week,  I posted about a formula I devised at the New York Comic Con to  play an improv randomly generated dungeon […]

  2. […] with this. Something that might be of interest to you: Chatty DM over at critical hits has a different, but similar method. It involves showing the players the map, and asking them to place a gem per […]