Dungeon Space: Introduction & Torches

Dungeon Space: Why does it matter?

     Space, and the clever use of it, is one of the most important aspects of what makes a Dungeon successful. This is the first of several articles on Dungeon Space, and why it matters. Today's article was intended to be all encompassing on the matter of Dungeon Space, but it turns out I had a lot to say just on the matter of tracking time and torches.  So this is the torch one.

    But first, why does space matter? The dungeon is a place where tension is at its absolute highest. It is in the dungeon, and nowhere else, that careless resource management can lead to backtracking through monster-laden catacombs in utter darkness. It is in the dungeon, and nowhere else, that breaking down the door is an invitation to be surprised by savage beasts. It is in the dungeon, and nowhere else, that you have such a high concentration of life-or-death moments, whether by trap, by steel, or by claw.

    Clever use of space, and of course the tracking of time, is what allows us to maximize this tension.

    I'm going to start with a bold, possibly controversial statement: There is no great dungeon that is under ten rooms. Your five room dungeon may have some of the most clever design that has ever graced the hobby, but while it may be entertaining or dramatic, it does not use the medium meaningfully. The number one job of a dungeon is to make as many choices matter as possible. 

    In a five room dungeon, are you going to run out of torches? Probably not?  Spells?  Maybe at 1st level. HP? Occasionally. Could you likely get lost?  Almost never.  Will it hurt you to take your time?  Probably not. Will it hurt you to rush?  Probably not. In a well designed dungeon, the answer to all of these questions is an emphatic "yes." Hell yes.

    How do we make that happen? We’ll start with torches.

Torches and Tension

    The only way to make it where torches could feasibly run out would be for the dungeon to be dark, to have many rooms, and for us to keep track of time. A torch typically casts 30' of light and burns out in an hour.  Since we break up everything into turns of ten minutes each, an hour can go by pretty quickly. Cautiously walking the lowest party member's speed rate in feet through the dungeon takes a turn.  Casually examining a room takes a turn.  Resolving a combat takes a turn. Searching an area takes a turn. Getting a breather every 6th turn takes a turn. (Admittedly I always forget about that rule). Without even considering attempts to pick locks, disarm traps, kick down doors, or engage in other actions that take up minutes of dungeon time, we're easily chewing through torches. Most likely, every sixty feet of movement while mapping is eating up a turn.  That means after 300' of movement, you need to take a breather and light a new torch.

You walk sixty feet down the corridor.  The Magic User takes pains to mark down the features and dimensions.  The Thief stops at the first door on the left and takes a moment to listen at the keyhole.

The unmistakable shambling of living corpses can be heard.

After hushed conferring, blades are drawn, arrows are nocked.  The Fighter steps forward and the door crashes against the wall on the interior of the room due to the force of the mighty boot.

As the party charges the figures fumbling in the dim light, the wet-behind-the-ears Priest speaks holy words in hopes to bring the rotting predators to heel.  His uncertainty clouds his tone.

Arrows and blades find flesh, teeth and claws sink harmlessly into metal and wood.  With luck and skill, the foes are given their final rest.  After licking their wounds, the party searches the chamber.

    This collectively, from my perspective, took up at least 3.5 - 4 turns.  One turn of movement, a partial turn of listening/kicking open the door, a turn of combat, and a turn of searching. We have nearly exhausted at least one torch, but potentially as many as three due to the fact that unless people wish to fight in darkness or in a tight formation, several should be carrying torches.

    Torches are cheap and not that heavy, so parties are certain to have more than a dozen at the minimum.  But even if the party goes through four empty rooms, they have already used up a torch due to movement, mapping, and rest.

    Going with the recommended stocking popularized by Moldvay Basic, 33% of dungeon rooms should be empty.  33% should have monsters.  The remainder should have traps, tricks, or treasure. This means that with a twelve room dungeon following this guideline, without even counting movement or random encounters, it should take a minimum of two hours to map every room.

    Another forty minutes to fight all of the monsters (assuming you decide to do so).  Another hour or two spent checking for traps, collecting treasure, listening at doors, picking locks. We throw in some random encounters, since a twelve room or more dungeon is much more likely to have wandering monsters.  We can expect at least two of those, adding in another twenty minutes.

    With the assumption that we moved at least 300' through this dungeon at one point or another, we can add another fifty minutes. Adding in the required breaks, this means that our twelve room dungeon exploration is likely to take a minimum of five hours in game time.  That's five torch durations bare minimum.

    In a cautious group, we'd be looking more likely at seven to ten.  Just to cover a single 30' radius with light.

    This is where the larger dungeon thrives.  The sheer size of the place guarantees that you may very well need dozens of torches on a single expedition. And while YOU need light, THEY rarely do.

    Should the lights run out, the chances to get lost increase.  You cannot reference your map in darkness.  You're likely to be surprised.  You suffer AC and attack roll penalties. Traps are nearly impossible to notice.  Changes in elevation can prove fatal.  Lack of light is a death sentence for humans.

    All of this creates tension.  Do we keep going?  Do we turn back?  How many torches should we bring?  Can we carry all of these torches?  Who’s going to carry them?  Can we afford to take our time?  This is tension that is built over entire sessions, requires tracking on part of the players and the DM, and can have potentially disastrous results.  These are the reasons why I believe it has fallen out of favor in modern play.

    People don’t want to have tension built up over an entire session based on resource management.  The only resources they want to track are spells, hit points, and class features.  They don’t want their entire party to die in the middle of a lair of ghouls because they ran out of light.

    For those of us who do want to make this matter, having a good-sized dungeon is a must.  And there are a litany of other benefits I’ll be detailing in future articles.


  1. Totally agree. Using mostly versions of OD&D, I find the sweet spot for a small dungeon to be 12-20 rooms.


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