Category Archives: Dungeon Design

Flux Space in Dungeons

Nonspecific Dungeon SpaceBefore there was On a Red World Alone, there was Dungeon Moon. I spent hundreds of hours working on on that game, and to this day I love it as much as anything I’ve ever done. For years, friends have been gently pestering me to get it written up and published, which I would like to do someday. The only problem is that Dungeon Moon was an unplayable mess.

My whole approach was based around striving towards this false ideal of a fully realized megadungeon. Even the least important bits of space beneath the flagstone surface of the moon had multi-paragraphs long descriptions. “It’s a kitchen” was never good enough for me. I had to figure out if there was something special about the pots and pans, or if maybe there was a secret passage that led to a trapped treasure vault.

Likewise, the map was as much a labyrinth for the referee as it was for the players. I spread it across a stack of graph paper a quarter in thick, with alphanumeric codes written on the corner of each page to identify which “column” and “level” it depicted. More than once, a single room had to be spread across two pages just to maintain the geometry of the thing.

All for what? Despite my extensive prep work, a group of adventurers could walk off the edge of the map within an hour if they made the right choices. And as bad as that sounds, it would probably make the game better. If the players are off the map, the referee would have to improvise, and whatever they come up with in the moment has gotta be better than pausing for 5 minutes at every door to cross-reference maps and read room descriptions.

I certainly seem to have made it work back in the day. (People don’t show up every week to play in a game that they hate). But it could have been better, and if nothing else, the excessive notes killed my own enjoyment. It was murder, trying to keep up with the pace I had set for myself. If I’m ever going to run it again, Dungeon Moon needs to go easier on the referee.

Dungeon Moon Mk1 MapIt’s not just a matter of drawing simpler maps and writing shorter room descriptions, though. The problem of scale is inherent to the setting: its a dungeon which literally fills the entire internal structure of a moon. Constantly branching pathways and infinite expandability are built into the premise. A more manageable size would ruin the setting just as surely as my bad notes did.

Yes, dungeon moon needs shorter, table-ready notes, and a map that doesn’t have to be laid out across the kitchen floor to be viewed properly. But it also needs to feel huge and interconnected.

Recently, I was puzzling over this problem, and recalled a conversation from years ago. I must have been complaining about the issue, because  Gus L. told me I should try running Dungeon Moon as a point crawl. At the time, I kinda blew the idea off, because I didn’t want to waste all the work I’d already done on my maps, but with a few years of distance, the idea is way more appealing. Sorry for blowing you off, Gus. You were right.

In a point crawl, the referee maps a wilderness environment as a series of locations, and paths between them. The players don’t just wander straight towards their objectives, instead following roads, or deer paths, or whatever else they can find. At intersections, (the titular “points,”) they come upon something interesting. They can choose to engage with what they found, or continue on past it to the next path.

Flux Space is a way of doing the same thing for dungeons. Megadungeon feel without megadungeon effort. The big difference, though, is that the paths aren’t just direct connections between points. They’re a series of corridors and rooms just like everywhere else, but they’ve been abstracted to keep the game moving and to make the referee’s job easier.

Like a point crawl, there are two basic building blocks here: Locations, and Flux Space. The locations work the same as any dungeon: there’s a map, and there are notes which describe the map’s locations.

To keep things manageable, a single location should be able to fit on a single sheet of graph paper. Locations also should not directly connect to other locations. Some exceptions can be made for areas that play with vertical space, or for secret shortcuts to other locations. But, for the most part, players should need to go through some Flux to reach a new location.

So what is Flux Space? It’s an abstracted section of the dungeon that exists to connect locations together. It’s mostly hallways and empty rooms, without any specific layout. Each section of Flux has three elements: a description, a size, and an encounter table.

The description is a vague idea of appearance, which remains consistent throughout. Something like “Worked stone,” “Oozing walls,” or “filled with garbage.” This gives each section of Flux a distinct personality, which the referee can use anytime they need to improvise some specifics for it.

The size of a section of Flux Space is just a number. In order to pass through to the next location, players will need to roll that number of encounter checks. Once they have, the referee randomly determines which of the connected locations the players emerge out into. Usually, there shouldn’t be any chance for players to wind up back at the location they started from. Optionally, though, that could happen if the players roll a “lost” result on their encounter die.

The encounter table for a Flux is like any encounter table. It has some locations on it, some wandering monsters, and probably some creatures from its connected locations. (If the Hall of the Gnomes is connected to a Flux, that flux will have some gnomes wandering around in it).

Once a group has encountered everything on the encounter table, that space is considered “mapped.” Players can move through mapped fluxes with only a single encounter roll, and may choose which of the attached locations they emerge into.

The overall dungeon is depicted as a sort of spiderwebbing flowchart, showing how all the locations and fluxes connect with each other. Hopefully you can do a better job of coming up with reference codes than I did in the example above.

As a final note, I want to make clear that when I say Flux Space is ‘mostly empty,’ I do not mean that literally. What I mean is that it’s mostly devoid of tricks, traps, monsters, or treasure. There may be bedrooms, or gymnasiums, or warehouses, but none of it is valuable, or interesting, or trying to kill the players. (Unless it’s on the encounter table, of course).

So if your players ask about where they are and what they see, don’t tell them it’s empty. It’s not empty. It’s just boring compared to moving on to other locations.

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