NOTE: There will be mild spoilers for the Curse of Strahd adventure contained below. If you don't want to be spoiled, don't read any further.
Today I'd like to talk about a topic that reared its ugly head in the most recent sessions of my Ravenloft game. It's mostly just me kvetching and being annoyed with myself for not trusting my instincts. But first, a couple bits to know about how the game is structured.
- The party is comprised of coworkers and meatspace friends, and we gather in my living room every Tuesday evening (at least when work and life do not suplex us with responsibilities).
- I am using Curse of Strahd's chassis, but have some significant changes particularly as they relate to where certain places are located, what populates them, and what the rewards are.
- Exploration and combat are run via Roll20, Chromecasted to my TV screen so that everyone can see. This is extremely handy, as an aside, and I can't recommend it enough even though it adds time to my session prep.
So the game has been running very well so far. The party is diverse and interested in their characters, though they lack much in the way of healing (the paladin is the only healer-type). The paladin is acting as their meat shield as well, since he is running Oath of Blood from this DM's Guild piece. It's overpowered in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there and it works for the game due to the party's composition.
The group is exploring the Amber Temple, where (at least in my campaign) the Tome of Strahd is being kept by a secretive cult of Vecna-worshipping lesser liches. It is the first big dungeon from the module that they have experienced, and despite my preparations, I lacked the foresight to consider the following absurdity.
|Note the preponderance of secret doors in close proximity.|
This section of the temple became the source of excessive scene-breaking and disbelief from this pack of 20+ year veteran gamers.
Whether or not the situation was a "realistic" portrayal of hidden doors and sliding panels to protect an incredibly secret section of the dungeon, the scene-breaking and dice-rolling that occurred to find and trigger the mechanisms for each door turned the session from a tense prowl through undead-infested corridors (a lesser lich is still a lich) into a laugh riot as the party stood in disbelief as they found yet another secret door, ten feet in front of the last secret door.
Sure, there are things that the DM can do to gloss over or otherwise minimize the number of absurdities, but it shocks me how this particular dungeon was designed so poorly. Along with the hodgepodge of random enemies (an arcanaloth in the statue head?) that may or may not have made into into my version, it really struck me how the Amber Temple fell extremely flat with my group.
Particularly because we used a virtual tabletop in the form of Roll20, and the six or seven hours it took me to reconstruct the Amber Temple with its passages and dynamic lighting volumes, this dungeon veers towards being too messy for actual play. There is a complicated-to-display split level in the largest main chamber, hilariously improbable number of secret doors in close proximity, and many more elements that make this dungeon very difficult to use.
I work on video games for a living, so it's a very important part of my job to ensure that experiences we create for players are challenging and enriching, but not overburdened with excessively gratuitous elements that are ripe for mockery. Level design is a very important and valued skill in that field.
Those skills translate directly to dungeon design in tabletop games, but the pace of progression through tabletop game's dungeon is far slower and possesses a greater number of variables. The Amber Temple here would probably belong reasonably well in a video game dungeon; you get through the challenges more quickly and the act of looking for secret door triggers is (generally) less annoying and rolled into the experience.
Around the gaming table, it's just a mess.
Once the players laughed off the fourth secret door they found, an expectation was created that all of the rooms would be like this from here on out. As you can imagine, that slowed down exploration to a crawl, and the mood went from one of creeping dread to abject mockery of the liches for installing so many secret doors ("Do you think they installed a secret door leading to the privy? That has to be annoying late at night when you come home drunk and can't find the bathroom.").
I don't have many answers for why this particular dungeon ended up like that. Maybe it wasn't adequately playtested. Maybe I missed some crucial bit of information in the revealing and activating of the secret doors that would make it less silly. Even Castle Ravenloft itself doesn't have that degree of secret door absurdity, with an almost unchanged layout from the original incarnation as an old school dungeon with all of the weird crap that goes with that. I'm going to trust a bit less in the module's dungeon design from now on and trust my gut on changing it around for use at my table.
Again though, maybe I missed something? Could I have done something differently? I've been doing this DMing thing for a while, but it's very possible I made a terrible mistake somewhere that allowed the mood-breaking. Of course, moving forward, we all know to bring it back to home base and return to our well-roleplayed party on its quest to defeat Strahd, so the diversion was only temporary.
Okay, kvetching over!