I know the title of this post sounds like it should be the name of my high school metal band‘s album but I’m writing about one my favorite formats for dungeon crawls.
The History of the Dungeon Brawl
Dungeon brawls were first incorporated into my game when I was DMing a campaign using the D&D Next Playtest rules and The Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle published adventure. The adventure itself isn’t awesome (it’s a little too railroady for my taste), but there are a lot of interesting ideas, NPCs, dungeons, and encounters one can easily adapt.
I was running Part Three of the adventure, “Ironaxe Halls,” the majority of which is a three-level dungeon crawl. The first level of the dungeon has 48 baddies… and absolutely no doors between any of the rooms. No doors on the first floor of the dungeon?!? Why?!? Check out the excerpt from the adventure below.
So the party of 5 PCs backed by some allied elf NPCs went in swords swinging and magic blazing. All out chaos ensued. Fireballs were hurled, greataxes were swung, and healing spells were depleted. It was glorious. Instead of several small fights in tiny rooms, waves of enemies came out of different hallways at different times as the PCs constantly shifted and repositioned themselves to meet their foes. At the end the PCs were exhausted, but accomplished.
I’ve since adopted this style of gameplay for other encounters which I (oh so cleverly) refer to as dungeon brawls.
What Makes A Dungeon Brawl?
So do dungeon brawls only happen in mines without doors? No! The fact that a door can dampen the clash of steel on steel or the explosion of magic thunder so much that it could never be heard is frankly ridiculous.
Dungeon brawls don’t always have to be in dark, dank areas. They could take place in a necromancer’s tower, the mansion of a tyrannical noble, or the castle grounds of an evil warlord. I draw inspiration for dungeon brawls from action movies like Commando or Dredd. In a nutshell a dungeon brawl consists of a few heroes teaming up against a whole compound full of baddies. Here’s how I go about creating mine.
- Create a 5 – 12 room dungeon, complex, or level of a structure.
- Prepare 3 – 5 encounters that average medium difficulty. If you build a hard encounter, that’s ok, but make one of your other encounters easy to balance it out. Even if your dungeon is mostly populated by one type of monster, mix things up a little. Goblins, for instance, might have warriors, assassins, shamans, and worg riders in their ranks. You’ll also want to be sure to have at least one oh shit monster, that is to say a monster that is larger, smarter, or has some special attack (like a beholder’s eye rays) that players aren’t expecting. Ya know, the kind of monster that makes your players say…
- Place one encounter’s worth of monsters in the room you think players are most likely to enter first, or at least the first room they’ll enter which has some baddies.
- Spread the rest of your monsters throughout the dungeon as you see fit. They might be on guard duty, sleeping, eating, gambling, training, etc. Whatever makes the most sense.
Running A Dungeon Brawl
Your dungeon brawl begins when the first loud, all-out battle is going down. The rest of the complex is alerted by the noise and know it’s time to throw down. Quick note: remember a dungeon brawl is multiple encounters tied together so they work best if your PCs are at full strength.
Take these steps to run a successful dungeon brawl.
- As part of your prep, separate your monsters into waves. Waves are usually an encounter’s worth of monsters who will all appear on the battlefield at one time. Mark your minis or make note of which creatures are in which wave. To keep things simple you could have each wave made up of one create type, but if you have the time, mix it up and spread out creatures of one type across various waves.
- Roll initiative for each wave involved in the brawl, even the ones which cannot be seen.
- On its turn decide if a wave enters the fray. Unless you’re using an online game table that has a fog of war function like roll20.net, you probably won’t be able to keep track of precise monster movement. So how do you know when it’s time to add another wave? As a general rule, if there are less enemy combatants than there are active PCs, add a new wave. Use your best judgement. If the PCs are struggling, don’t add another wave of its a hard encounter. Wait for an ray or medium to roll around.
- Be prepared to adjust. I admit this method is pretty swingy. Be prepared to hold a few monsters back if the PCs are really getting their butts handed to them or add a few creatures if you feel the combat is too easy or going too fast.
Encourage PCs to Move
Dungeon brawls can be great fun in one room, but they’re even better if the PCs have a reason to move. Each new room can changes the dynamics of combat with varying hazards, choke points, terrain, sizes, and opportunities to gain cover and hide. A new room can break up the monotony of a long combat.
The only problem is that many players have a dungeon crawl mentality of clearing one room at a time. You’ll need to adjust that if you want them running through rooms battling it out. There’s a few ways to tackle this.
The first is to simply talk to your players before the dungeon brawl and let them know they’ll need to make a mental shift in order to get the most out of the encounter. While this method is simplest it’s the least interesting and takes away player agency. Plus if you have a PC die during the dungeon brawl because he ran off into another room and got stabbed, now you’re partly to blame.
A more enticing way of getting your players to move their characters around the dungeon is to have monsters use ranged attacks from other rooms. There’s only one way the great weapon fighter can hit the goblin mage who keeps ducking behind full cover after blasting everyone with a fireball.
Another method you could use makes for the most daring and exciting of dungeon brawls, and only requires a little more planning on your part. Give the players a timed objective. For instance a devastating ritual to crash a flying city nears completion or the Brotherhood of the Moon plans to turn the dean of The Arcane College into a werewolf at midnight tonight are great objectives for the PCs to stop. Remember a round of combat is only six seconds long. Unless your dungeon is huge the timed objectives should have limits of five minutes or less. Alternatively the PCs could not know their exact time limit but be given the impression that if they don’t keep moving a massive army of devil-aberrant hybrids is going to rise out of the ground.
The Oh Shit Monster
This oh shit monster is inspired by every action movie ever. The heroes think they’ve won the day, and are catching their breath when a creature unlike anything they’ve ever faced suddenly shows up. In dungeon brawls, one of your waves should include an oh shit monster. Savor the moment this creature shows up and revel in your description of its power. Get the players good and scared when this baddy shows up, preferably at a moment the PCs are close to thinking their job is almost done. Think cave troll in The Fellowship of the Ring movie.
Because a dungeon brawl is actually multiple encounters strung together the combat has the potential to drag on and feel like a tiresome slog. In order to keep things fresh you should have a bunch of different monsters and a reason for PCs to travel through different rooms in the dungeon. Finally, adding some fun environmental props will really take things to the next level.
When building a complex for a dungeon brawl, I like to think about the environmental props that populate some of my favorite video games. Video games high on action are most fun when you can shoot barrels full of oil to make them explode, throw baddies off ledges to their doom, and stealth attack an enemy below by jumping down on them from a gargoyle. Stock dungeon rooms with interesting objects, even if you don’t have ideas on how they could be used as weapons. I promise your players will find a way to turn anything into an instrument of destruction. When they ask if they can tip the deranged wizard’s tank of piranhas onto the flesh golem, for the love of all that is holy say yes. Let the effects be just as devastating if not better than the PC using its action to attack. Even if damage isn’t dealt by an improvised attack, think about conditions it might impose on a target, like dumping a barrel of glue onto a kobold shaman. If your PCs see their ingenuity pays off and soon they’ll be trying all kinds of high action antics!
Why Dungeon Brawls?
Dungeon brawls are a fun way to clear out a level of a dungeon without the traditional time sucks of listening at every door and searching every 10 feet for a trap. It’s not meant to replace every good, old-fashioned dungeon crawl, but it’s a nice change of pace, especially when you need to save some time. They’re a challenge, but done well they’re also extremely rewarding. If you give it a shot, please let me know what you think in the comments below.
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Andrew "That One GM" Y.
March 26, 2015 @ 1:03 pm
I was thinking of Arkham City about halfway through this article, so I was glad to see you refer to it as well. I think this is a really cool idea, and it sounds like a fun way to spice up a dungeon-crawling campaign or even as a standalone encounter in other campaign types.
How do you find that players react to the area once the bad guys are all slain? Do they still move slowly, or do they quickly narrate themselves looting the corpses and moving from room to room to gather loot and clues?
March 26, 2015 @ 4:29 pm
Thanks! Great minds think Batman alike.
It honestly depends on the group. Some are slower if they have the time to be, but I can leave a monster or two in reserve, or some unsprung traps in the mix to keep them on their toes. For the most part it seems to be a quick narration wrap-up, especially if it’s the end of the session.
Joshua Thomas MacAran
March 26, 2015 @ 3:31 pm
This sounds so fantastic – definitely going to try it!
March 26, 2015 @ 4:30 pm
Let me know how it goes if you do! Thanks for the compliment.
March 26, 2015 @ 6:38 pm
I had used this very idea when running my kids through The Keep on the Borderlands. Most of the individual caves turned into a brawl.
March 26, 2015 @ 9:10 pm
Yeah, especially those rooms with 20+ monsters to begin with. That’s already a brawl waiting to happen!