Dungeon Crawling in 4th Ed

Please note, this is a repost from my short lived blog at EmbraDM.blogspot.co.uk

My problem

I love playing and running D&D 4th edition, but one thing that’s never quite felt right for me is a lengthy, ongoing dungeon.  Explore a corridor, or a room or two, avoid/disable a couple of traps, then have a fight. Rinse/repeat as needed until you get to the bottom, top, far end, centre as desired.

If those fights are a standard, on level encounter they’ll last about 5 or 6 rounds most of the time. That’s only 30 seconds of real world time, but as anyone who’s played 4e knows, it can grind to a halt at a table for up to an hour.  Generally after an on level encounter, the inevitable short rest is needed so that players can spend some surges and get their encounter powers back. That means that after a 30 second fight, they’re stopping for 5 minutes. To keep things working as presented in the core books, that’s 5 minutes of undisturbed rest – an occasional interrupted rest of probably fine if they’re taking them in dangerous territory, but for the sake of player/DM trust, I don’t feel you want to be doing that too much.  Usually, running standard encounters, parties will manage maybe 5 or 6 encounters in a good day before they need their extended rest.

That leaves you with an age old problem – during that 5 minute rest, what are the other monsters in the dungeon doing?  Didn’t anyone else hear 30 seconds of weapon clashes, screaming and grunting?  How do you balance the common sense approach that things would come and investigate what was happening, or come ambush the party?  Assuming there are more than 5 or 6 groups of monsters in your dungeon, where are the party going to sleep? If it’s inside the dungeon, why are there no patrols? If it’s outside, why are the early dungeon rooms still empty the next day?

The plan

So, what do you change?  I set up a dungeon over the last few sessions for my players, and wanted to get a more flowing feel, more reminiscent of Pathfinder dungeons I’ve played through.  The dungeon was set up as a few floors of an ancient Dragonborn temple, each floor being reasonably compact –  2 or 3 large rooms, half a dozen smaller rooms and the corridors between – and I wanted the players to be able to clear a floor between each short rest if that’s what they wanted to do.  Planning a bit in advance, I figured I could make it feel like they were fighting through groups of enemies all the way through, but spread the threat enough to  reduce the need for lots of healing (figuring that running out of ways to trigger healing surges would probably be the sign of when the party wanted to rest up).

This formed into a rough plan:

  • Many fights, with less threat in each – give the party lots of small encounters, rather than a couple of big ones. These fights are really designed to not challenge the party individually; the aim is that they’ll use their normal encounter resources gradually over the course of a few small fights.
  • The same number of monsters, but less HP each – to make a fight seem even remotely threatening, the group needs to be fighting at least 3-4 enemies at a time.  Two enemies are easy to lock down, more starts to feel like they’ve got something to manage.  The difference between a quick fight like what we’re looking for and a standard 4th Ed fight is hit points – I gave the enemies enough hit points to take roughly 3 average hits from the heroes.  I found about 30 hit points to be a good number at level 4-5.  A good solid damage roll does enough to bloody the enemy, and they can be one shotted with a critical hit (especially on an encounter power).  I didn’t want to go with minions all the way through, but threw a few in here and there to keep the variety up.
  • 1 standard enemy makes a decent little sergeant to go with 2 or 3 lower hit point mooks.  2 mook soldiers or brutes along with 1 standard artillery mage made an interesting fight for a few rounds.  Otherwise 4 fairly straight forward brute or soldier mooks makes for a straight up brawl in a corridor.
  • Each little group like this might make up about 1/2 the XP budget of a standard encounter, but you can probably throw 3-4 of these groups at them before the party will feel like they’re really pushing it.  Spreading out the threat means they should manage to get through more between rests.


Putting this into practice, the first session contained 2 groups of 4 enemies of 30 hit points each, then a more standard 4E fight in one of the larger rooms.  The party got through the whole floor, blasting through the small groups in 3-4 rounds, and only taking a rest at the end of the final group, but they started the final fight a bit down on resources which made for a different feel.  It was interesting seeing how they managed their resources, especially on the first floor – players went back to hoarding encounter powers, thinking “We might need this more later on” (probably a good decision in this case, as they still had most of their bit hitters when the came to the final fight of the floor against the full strength monsters).  That was pretty much as I expected, and I was happy that things ran mostly as planned.  The whole floor felt like one ongoing exporation, rather than a few seperated encounters, which was great – exactly the feel I was hoping for.

One thing I hadn’t banked on was a difference in player perception on how much they had done – in a 3 hour session, we’re used to getting 2 standard combat encounters plus a bit of background RP, exposition and background exploration, or maybe 3 fights if they’re pretty much back to back.  The players felt like they had got more done in exploring this floor than they normally did in their few hours of play.  That was a pleasant surprise, and definitely something I hadn’t thought of in advance.

With the first floor out of the way, and the experience under my belt, I went on to planning the next level and refined my design a little.  More on that later.

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