Home > Dungeon Crawls, Foes & Fortunes > All GMs Must See This

All GMs Must See This

What a dungeon is really like...

My wife has an uncanny ability to make staggeringly good Netflix choices. I've learned to trust her judgement in this. I mean, I'm responsible for bringing Knowing into our home, so my credibility is highly suspect.

The Descent

The Descent (2005)

Last week's pick was The Descent (2005). Never heard of it. It's about 6 chicks in a cave. It's dark and they freak out. Sounds iffy, but there's a cave, so that's cool.

About 40 minutes in, the movie turns into a dungeon crawl. Very cool, and I'm now watching with my Chimera Goggles. My wife triumphs again.

All GMs must see this because it shows you what scampering about in a cave is really like. It's dark. It's cramped. It's wet and slimy. Did I mention that it's dark? There are cliffs, pits, deadfalls, pools of stagnant disgusting water. There are bones. Not one gold piece. Just an old rusted helmet left behind by some poor sod who presumably never made it back to the surface.

Ever run a group of characters through a cavern? They're swinging swords, have all the rope in the world, and probably didn't bother to mention that they're lighting like 20 torches because otherwise they can't see a damn thing. Plus, if they're wounded, they don't worry about stuff like climbing, crouching, irregular floors, and bones protruding out of their shins.

But in terms of cave geography, The Descent does a good job of conveying the claustrophobic conditions. There are a few large caverns, but most of the shots are narrow and very irregular passages where walking upright is not an option. Check this to see what I mean:

Oh, yeah. Did you see that creepy dude at 1:20? Just your bog-standard caveman adapted to living two miles underground. They're called crawlers, and they do awful things to the party. If you were playing Chimera, they'd look something like this:


descent crawler


Crawler (Lvl 1)
Movement Rate: 12±1d6
Wound Limit: 3
Defence: 0 (+2)
Abilities: Athletics +2, Fight +1, Observe +2, Sneak +4, Spelunking +4
Attacks: 1 bite +1 (IM +1, Dmg 1d6); 2 claws +1 (IM +1, Dmg 1d6)
Special: Hypersensitive, Imp. Nimble, Quick Draw, Wallwalker
Resistance: +1
Surprised: 9
Morale: 15
Alignment: Chaotic
Frequency: Rare (1d10+10)

Crawlers are a race of caveman fully adapted to life underground. They possess animal intelligence and communicate to each other via throat clicks and grunts; these convey only rudimentary messages (e.g., attack, food, danger, time to mate, etc.). Hairless and devoid of pigmentation, crawlers are entirely blind and have a poor sense of smell, though they can "see" via echolocation, much like a bat; they are highly sensitive to sound and are surprised only if an opponent's Sneak roll is a Critical Success.

Crawlers live in small clans within labyrinthine cavern networks, occasionally venturing to the surface at night to hunt. In their element, crawlers are able trackers (via Spelunking Ability) and will attempt to split up intruders and "herd" individuals into ambush sites. For this purpose, crawlers can traverse vertical or inverted surfaces at their full movement rate. All clan members fight, and there is always one dominant male who leads by force (stats as above, save WL 4, DF 1 (+2), and Fight +2).

The race is rare and found only in isolated wilderness areas. It's supposed that they are remnants of early humans whose development lead them deep underground, where they evolved into degenerate animals. Crawlers neither use nor fashion tools of any sort—no armour, no weapons, no simple machines, not even fire. They possess nothing of value save for what might lie discarded among the bones in their refuse pits.

Some Other Cave Notes

When your character is in a cave, the GM will tell you if you have room to stand or not. If not, then movement is limited to your creeping rate. Movement is further restricted by armour bulk: Medium armour is MR -1 and Heavy armour is MR -2. In combat, any shield or weapon-based parry bonus is negated and attacks are limited to unarmed or Small weapons only.

Narrow passages are difficult to traverse, and at the GM's option, you may need an Athletics roll to get through them (at best, consider them Difficult (TN 12) for such purposes, penalized by armour bulk as above). Failure indicates that you can't proceed; a Critical Failure means you're stuck and require the aid of comrades to get free (or perhaps another Athletics roll with a Critical Success if you're on your own). A Spelunking roll may be substituted for characters who are good at caving.

Visibility is severely limited. In a narrow passage, any light source penetrates no more than 1" in any direction (a successful Observe roll doubles this, while a Spelunking roll quadruples it, though the twisting nature of a given passage might block line of sight). Unless you're checking the route ahead, you run the risk of falling in any pit, chasm, or pool that may be in your path. Avoiding these almost always requires gear (rope, pitons, spikes, etc.), so the GM must enforce gear checks for both light sources and caving equipment (qualified characters may make gear checks with the Spelunking Ability).

(Visited 72 times, 2 visits today)

  1. November 22nd, 2011 at 19:45 | #1

    Another great one is squeezing through a narrow space into a larger one. You say “halflings and gnomes can make it through wearing armor, but must take off backpacks. Anyone else must remove armor. In any case it takes 3 rounds to get through.”

    Thing is, if there’s a monster on the other side, or a trap on the other side that when triggered begins to flood the place, the party will be split up because of the squeeze and will either fight unarmored or leave behind gear.

  2. November 22nd, 2011 at 22:19 | #2

    @1d30 : Yeah, that’s a good one. ;)

    This kind of thing can occur “automatically” in Chimera since shedding gear/armour improves one’s creeping rate. There’s been many situations where characters want to be stealthy and have to make a choice between fast stealth and minimal gear or plodding along with their full kit. If you’ve ever seen Episode 2 of Band of Brothers, there’s a bit where a platoon sets off to take out a German gun position–the lieutenant calls out, “Weapons and ammo only!” Fast and stealthy, but you’re hard up if you need rations or a torch or that extra bit of rope…

    You bring up an interesting point: splitting the party is a very real concern in caverns (and it happens frequently in The Descent). I like the realism, but as a GM, I hate running “separate” scenes for each split-up group. How do you handle this?

  3. November 23rd, 2011 at 07:00 | #3

    Way better is the book that came out long before the movie:

    Absolutely worth it. I think the movie is crap.

  4. November 23rd, 2011 at 21:34 | #4

    @Norbert : The write-up for the book looks very cool – much different from the movie. Thanks for the link!

  5. Greg Mackenzie
    November 24th, 2011 at 15:24 | #5

    Erin D. Smale :
    I like the realism, but as a GM, I hate running “separate” scenes for each split-up group. How do you handle this?

    When this happened I separated the players into different rooms. I then hoped they wouldn’t be apart long… Sometimes I passed notes. Sometimes I just made them sit and not comment on what happened to the other group. Sometimes I made both groups write down what they were doing and then did a reveal.

    Haven’t seen that movie but areas like that I did build in to parts of the dungeons such as the Tomb of Gnasher III where you have to get across a chasm to the Goblin Level to gain access. For the most part its difficult to do that all the time, so practicality prevails.

  6. November 24th, 2011 at 15:46 | #6

    @Greg Mackenzie : I’d have “off-stage” players wait in the kitchen while I ran the rest of the group in the dining room…then we’d switch. Realistic, but not fun for anyone in “kitchen stasis.” After a few sessions of this, everyone would just stay at the table and honour the Your-character-doesn’t-know-that-yet rule…

    Interesting side point to your comment: many modules would introduce special rules for handling specific situations in a dungeon. For example, swimming rules in White Plume Mountain (IIRC). Meaning, the mechanics were specific to the dungeon, not the core rulebook, and GMs could take the module rules and use them elsewhere as needed. Literally “modular,” but not codified–if the GM didn’t have White Plume Mountain, for example, they’d have to come up with their own swimming rules when the need arose.

    So, question 2: is it better to have “core” rules to handle special situations, or are these things best placed only in modules where they apply?

  7. Greg MacKenzie
    November 25th, 2011 at 13:08 | #7

    @Erin D. Smale
    Personal example, the way I took things back in the day was if you liked something it would get adopted as “the rule” until something else was proved better. Those old I and J booklets from the Judges Guild got used a lot as they filled gaps not in the rules. That was JGs strong point, filling the need. I think now people do expect a lot of the basics to be covered, so swimming should be covered in movement rules. It wasn’t the same back in the late 70s, we were entrhralled just to have the game but criticism grew of its incompleteness grew as time went by and rivals appeared. Its better to have core rules now.

    I still make up crap all the time whether there’s a rule or not. Who says I can’t have a magic dwarf mining lamp?

  8. Greg MacKenzie
    November 25th, 2011 at 18:30 | #8

    Erin D. Smale :
    @Greg Mackenzie : I’d have “off-stage” players wait in the kitchen while I ran the rest of the group in the dining room…then we’d switch. Realistic, but not fun for anyone in “kitchen stasis.” After a few sessions of this, everyone would just stay at the table and honour the Your-character-doesn’t-know-that-yet rule…

    Hah! I remember a good many of those. The players always had a hard time keeping things bottled up if they listened in. Well, it couldn’t be helped really. If I had taken someone aside, the rest were always pretty curious by the time they got back. The information given wasn’t always conveyed to the party well with some hilarious results. :)

  9. November 26th, 2011 at 10:41 | #9

    @Greg MacKenzie :The information given wasn’t always conveyed to the party well with some hilarious results.

    Which actually makes more and better sense. If players get the info wrong, it’s the same as characters who speculate, assume, and misinterpret the few facts they have. It’s like the GM can just sit back while the PCs create their own chaos.

    Reminds me of “whisper down the alley” we used to play in grade school: First player whispers something to the player next to him, and so on down the line, until the last player, who repeats what he heard. It’s never what the first player said.

  1. No trackbacks yet.