This started out as a response to Matt Wandcow’s post on the 7th Sea Reddit where he was gracious enough to convey his experience with running a “dungeon adventure” in 7th Sea 2nd edition. The most I wrote, the more I realized that this really belonged on the blog. So hang on tight! It’s going to be a bumpy, slightly disjointed ride. I’m sure someone is going to disagree with me. I may disagree with me in a couple of months. But as of right now, this very moment, here are my (barely coherent) thoughts on how to run a satisfying dungeon adventure with the 7th Sea game system.
Let’s be clear—all of this is just theory. I haven’t run a 7th Sea styled dungeon crawl, though I have outlined one. So treat this like everything else you read on the internet: with extreme skepticism! Be prepared to discard or modify things that don’t work. And when you do, don’t hesitate to post about it in the comments section.
First, let’s make sure we define what a “dungeon” is. A “dungeon” is a closed (or self-contained) adventure environment with limited entrance/exit points.
Traditional D&D-style dungeons do not work well in 7th Sea. 7th Sea really shines as a “scene-driven” game, where the players jump from scene to scene as opposed to moving methodically through a pre-planned labyrinth. In fact, much as was stated in that oft-derided passage from the Vatican City sourcebook, a 7th Sea dungeon may work better WITHOUT a map. (::gasp::shock:: swoon::)
Instead, a 7th Sea dungeon is built on the follow two foundations: zones and set pieces.
- A zone is an area of a dungeon tied together by a theme of some sort. In old school dungeon design terms, a zone is kind of like a dungeon “level”. The theme could be a monster, a feature, or a hazard. The haunted mines could be a zone, as could the lava vents, or the eldritch machines. Likewise, the kobold warrens or the troll lair could also be a zone.
- A set piece is a big ticket feature, room, encounter, risk, or challenge in the zone. The Throne Room of Asmodeus could be a set piece.
Set Pieces exist within zones, but not all zones need to have a set piece. A zone without a set piece is a good candidate for a Dramatic Sequence or a Hazard, as it is likely meant as an obstacle that must be passed through to get from one Zone to another.
Note: if you have been using Fate-style zones in play already, the use of zones here may lead to confusion. In that case, simply substitute a similar word (sector, region, node, etc) and run with it.
The 5 Room Dungeon
A good resource for set pieces is to have a look at the 5-Room Dungeon model. The five room dungeon is made up of combinations of the same five components:
- entrance (guardian)
- puzzle/roleplaying challenge
- trick or setback
Each of these components make ideal set piece models. In fact, each zone could be considered a single 5-Room Dungeon, with each “room” being a standout scene that can occur within. This shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast rule, there are always exceptions. But if you are desperate for a model to hang these concepts on, you can do a lot worse.
It it helps, it might be worth thinking in terms of the Encounters outlined in Green Ronin’s AGE books — there are three types of encounters: combat, roleplaying, and exploration (or combinations of the three).
One of Matt’s initial concerns was which skills interact with dungeon exploration. This is faulty thinking in my opinion. The real question is not “how do the players use skills to navigate the dungeon,” but “how do the players use skills to circumvent the Risks they encounter while navigating the dungeon.” After all, O/A/BXD&D had only a handful of inferred skills (open doors, find secret door, etc.) for exploring dungeons. The characters were assumed to have a certain level of competency for such things, as are 7th Sea heroes.
Players get to decide how they want to apply their skills and traits (their Approach), so the GM really doesn’t have to concern himself with such things.
In D&D and similar FRPGs, the players would carefully explore the twisting labyrinth between set piece encounters. In 7th Sea, I would suggest letting the players give shape to this connective tissue. This is where Hazards come in.
Hazards share a lot in common with Dungeon World’s dungeon moves, so let’s treat them that way. A zone can be a Hazard and thus work to thwart the heroes. It can spend raises to activate elements or to pressure the group to go astray. If Dark Things lurk in the zone, you should set a clock to forecast their arrival. And when they arrive, it should trigger a set piece encounter. In many cases, it should be the players’ goal to reach the set piece before time runs out—if they don’t, the set piece becomes considerably more challenging. This gives them an incentive to keep moving.
All of this could be handled as an action sequence (a running fight against those lurking things, or running a gauntlet of traps), a dramatic sequence (a countdown before something terrible happens), or even a chase sequence (if time is of paramount essence). The Dramatic Sequence is probably most accurately replicates that “old school dungeon” feel, but each method has its advantages.
The Mountains of Madness
This HP Lovecraft story involves the protagonists making their way through a vast, primordial “dungeon” beneath the frozen surface of Antarctica. The ruins of Moria in Fellowship of the Ring also feels like this. It’s really just a big travel montage when you break it down. Nothing really happens beyond bucket loads of descriptive text thrown at the reader. This will probably be less satisfying for the players, but may feel appropriate to set the tone for particularly alien environments. If you want to replicate this “mountains of madness” fee, there are three ways to do it:
- establish the scene, then ask each of the players to describe one strange sight or occurrence. This gives the players some agency and keeps the scene from becoming one massive scene of boxed text.
- establish the scene and just let the players wander. Embrace your inner boxed text writer. Own it. Throw in an occasional Risk to keep things interesting for the players.
- Establish the scene and set a clock (at least 1 for each player—4 or 5 steps should do). Let the players wander around. Each time they ask a question or establish a detail, tick one step off the clock. When the clock runs out, it triggers a set piece.
Use this approach sparingly. If you are using a dungeon with multiple zones, for instance, you might just use this method on the entrance zone.
As gamers, many of us have become conditioned to think of traps in terms of D&D. A concealed pit trap here, a poisoned dart trap there, a falling portcullis, you get the idea. In D&D, these isolated traps are meant to slowly drain the party’s resources (HP, spells, hirelings, equipment). These sorts of traps do not work in 7th Sea. So don’t even bother with it.
Traps in 7th Sea should come in three forms: obstacles (risks), grand death traps (hazards as villains), and complications (the room is on fire!).
- Obstacles: obstacles are simply a risk that must be circumvented or navigated to get from one location to the next. These should be treated as a simple Group Risk. They should cause enough wounds to give them teeth (2-5 per hero) and a few related consequences and opportunities to keep the choices interesting.
- Grand Death Traps: unleash your inner James Bond villain here. A death trap should always be a hazard, but the encounter should be played out as an action sequence. Think the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Death Trap is triggered when the idol is stolen, followed by an action sequence where Indy has to run a gauntlet of smaller traps to avoid being crushed by a giant boulder. Death traps are intricate, multi-part devices that fill entire rooms, halls, even zones. A death trap is ALWAYS a set piece.
- Complications: These traps work in tandem with another adversary in an action sequence. A good example of this is the conveyor belt seen in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, where the heroes are fighting flying adversaries while dealing with the pitfalls of traveling on a moving conveyor belt. While these traps can be treated as hazards, they can also simply be a collection of consequences (or group consequences).
Another fallacy that has come from modern incarnations of D&D is that all traps may be disarmed somehow. This is simply wrong. In fact, there is evidence that in the earliest form of the D&D game, the only traps that were meant to be disarmed were treasure traps (there is a poison needle in the lock). Other traps (pits, snares, etc.) could be avoided but not disarmed. In 7th Sea, disarming a trap should ALWAYS be a group opportunity, and available only where it makes sense or if you are feeling particularly generous. As the GM, you have the option of saying “no, but…”
But Aren’t Traps Hazards?
The answer is no. 7th Sea actually distinguishes between Hazards (The New World) and Traps (Vaticine City). Of course, both of them work almost the same way. But you can choose between them in terms of what is a better fit for the scene. Traps make for better Obstacles and simple Risks while Hazards make better Death Traps. Either one can be used to generate Complications in a scene. It really depends on how much flexibility you want as a GM.
Another complaint of Matt’s is that Théah is a 99% human world, which makes it difficult to set up a Keep on the Borderlands-style dungeon adventure. I would argue this couldn’t be further from the truth. Granted, D&D is full of tiered monsters designed to challenge PCs from level 1-14/20/36/??, which 7th Sea doesn’t need. But monsters (and we’re talking weird Clarke Aston Smith-style monsters) have always been part of the setting. And not just weird folklore monsters (faeries, djinn, oni) but weird science fantasy ones too (Thalusi, et al.). Here’s the thing, don’t follow the eco-diversity model of D&D when making your weird dungeons. Get weird, subvert tropes, add color and surprises.
In 7th Sea, the Caves of Chaos could potentially be found pretty much anywhere in Théah. The themes of the region simply add color. In Avalon, you have to deal with the politics of the sidhe, who might not take kindly to you wiping out an enclave of the unseelie host. In Eisen, this ravaging horde takes on a more horrific quality. In the Commonwealth, the cult of chaos could be a cabal of rogue Losejai and the monsters a sort of weird, sub-demonic host. Truth is, almost every region of europe has its own folklore about goblins, kobolds, and dangerous fey. A half hour of research online should net you plenty of redressing possibilities.
A word of warning: 7th Sea isn’t meant to be D&D. So if you start littering the countryside with dungeon crawls, don’t come complaining to me when your game goes off the rails.
Monetary treasure can be helpful in 7th Sea, but it’s not a focus of play. So the purpose of your dungeon adventure shouldn’t hinge on it (unless your heroes are all pirates!). So here again, we need to unlearn what we have learned from generations of D&D play and go back to the pulps that inspired it. In the pulps, these sorts of adventures usually culminate in a single, massive horde, or the search for a particular treasure (the crown jewels, or a chest of cursed aztec gold). So think big. Tie the players stories into these treasures. Send them on recovery missions for patrons and secret societies, not as rogue freebooters who are out for themselves (unless, again, they are pirates!).
Here’s a thought: borrow a page from Barbarians of Lemuria. In that RPG, treasure is simply a means to earn experience. After an adventure, the players take turns explaining how they spent their share of the treasure, and that nets them experience for advancing their characters. You could easily do the same thing with 7th Sea. If treasure hunting IS the point of the adventure, require each player to describe how she spends her share as the final step in their Story. OR offer up a handful of strange, exotic treasures as keystones for new, short stories (1-2 Steps only unless a player has something bigger in mind for a reward). Earthdawn is another good source of inspiration here: where each treasure has new powers that need to be studied and explored to be unlocked.
The real magic to running a successful dungeon in 7th Sea are stories. Tie the factions, villains, and treasures into the players’ character stories. Give them a reason to be there, to find someone or something, to prevent an event, or stop a villain for completing a scheme. Don’t just drop a bunch of goblins in the middle of the forest and expect greatness. Stories (and Story Steps) are the real currency of the real when it comes to 7th Sea, so give your players a reason to invest in the adventure.
For good examples of tying your dungeon environment into your players stories, look to the Vaticine City sourcebook. The lists on page 3-5 are pure gold and easily repurposed to this effort.
So there you have it, my recipe for running successful “dungeon” adventures with the 7th Sea rules. Perfect for syrneth dig sites, Montaigne catacombs, extensive Sarmatian cave systems, and lost cities in Aztlan. Be flexible, and be prepared to experiment and improvise—not everything I’ve recommended is going to work, and some of it is going to require fine tuning. As of this writing, there are very few published models of what can be considered dungeon crawls in the 7th Sea sense. Until we get a few of those, its really hard to say what works and what doesn’t. But don’t let that stand in your way!
And be sure to report in the comments what works and what doesn’t. I’m eager to hear about it.
Resources and Inspiration
6 Methods for Making Dungeons More Interesting (Roleplaying Tips)
The Nine Forms of the Five Room Dungeon (Gnome Stew)
How Making Up A Dungeon On The Fly Is As Simple As Counting To 5 (Nerds on Earth)
Crawling without Hexes (Hill Cantons)
Pointcrawl Series Index (Hill Cantons)
Encounters vs Scenes (What’s He On About Now?)
Dungeons in FATE: Scenes and Scenarios (RPG Stuff)
Node-based Dungeon Design (The Alexandrian)