Crafting a Compelling D&D Delve

I can’t think of many better ways to ring in the New Year than DMing a dungeon delve. Especially when Jesse is one of the players that I can terrorize entertain and the party decided to venture to Athas and the frankly underutilized world of Dark Sun. (Editor’s Note: LEGOs make FANTASTIC minis for use in live games.)

I crafted my delve by adapting a full campaign that I had been developing, but never had the chance to execute. In doing so it led me to consider some of the essential principles of creating an engaging and fun delve that fits into a set play time. In this case, we were going to be delving for about 4 to 5 hours.

Some of the elements of a traditional campaign just don’t fit into a delve. Have you ever had a poor delve experience? If I had to guess, the reasons may have included poor time management and the game feeling less like D&D and more like miniatures combat.So, here are some tips for successfully crafting an engaging and fun dungeon delve.

No Vanilla Encounters – In a standard delve you can probably expect to get through two decent encounters with some other material sprinkled in. If you’re eschewing role playing and skill challenges you might be able to stretch that to three. Either way, the balance of your delve is going to be encounters, which means the success or failure of the whole experience lies on the combat.

What does that mean? That means you can’t just have players walk into an empty room and fight some orcs. As a DM you need to get creative and provide memorable and interesting encounters that require more engagement than simply whacking enemies down to zero HP.

Take advantage of things like changes in elevation, traps and hazards, as well as enemies that use strange tactics and aren’t just trying to stab your players. In one encounter I had the party in a room with ladders going up to a wrap around walk-way. The enemies spent rounds knocking over torches of arcane fire onto the floor, which spread around forcing players to climb ladders and avoid getting burned. The creatures on the walk-way tried to grapple players and leap into the fire.

In the next encounter I took advantage of the gladiatorial combat feature of Dark Sun and had the party take on a pyramid challenge in the arena in Balic. Think Global Guts with the party dashing up a violent version of the Aggro-Crag all while fending off enemies and trying to drag a treasure chest back to their base. Both encounters were different and forced the party to plan and act in some unusual ways.

LEGO minis, acrane fire, and Harley Quinn as the villainess? Sounds like a successful delve to me.

Find Time to Role Play – Even though you don’t have a ton of time to devote to character development and social interactions there are still chances for role-playing to be part of your delve. If your party ventures out into the world, give them something to respond to rather than waiting for them to create action. The party is chilling in the tavern after looting a dungeon? Fine, what do they do when the captain of the guard comes in looking for looters? Or how do they react when some gamblers in the tavern realize they’re loaded with loot? This can be a great addition to the game especially if you encourage each player to react individually.

Another way to integrate it is to make it part of the encounters. Instead of faceless enemies, give your party adversaries with personalities, who give out information or try and engage in diplomacy right in the midst of battle. Or again, change up the stakes and have your players take on a group of enemies forced into servitude by a greater evil, forcing the party to decide to attack or try and deal with the situation in another way.

Make the Train Run on Time – All games are constantly fighting against getting bogged down or delayed, but in a delve setting that concern is heightened. With only a few hours to play a complete and succinct mini-adventure it’s up to you as the DM to keep the game moving. Most DMs are afraid of railroading their players, but in this case a few little pushes in the right direction can help keep you from wasting valuable time. In combat, prompt players in advance that their turn is coming up so that they can plan their actions in advance. That might also let people coordinate actions and give a greater sense of teamwork to the encounter in general.

Be sure to include a few encounter outs as well. Encounter outs are specific measures that the DM puts in place to end an encounter early rather than force players to hack away until the last orc drops to zero hp. Maybe if the majority of the enemies are slain the last couple will drop their weapons and flee, or perhaps the timely arrival of reinforcements or a environmental element ends things.

Regardless of whatever tactics you decide to use, don’t let the game get off track. As much as maximizing time is the name of the game, don’t be afraid to throw a few five minute breaks in there. Everyone can take a moment to chat, handle their social networking responsibilities, or plan their next move while you reset and get ready for the next encounter.

Keep the Levels in Check – Games can run faster at lower levels. This is especially true for fourth edition which famously gets very complicated at higher levels, with players searching through dozens of powers and abilities on every turn. I suggest somewhere between levels 5-7 for a good delve, maybe 3-7 if you plan on having players level up during the game.

The reason? Having high level characters can give your players too many choices which slows the game down. In a delve setting you want to do everything you can to keep the game moving. Restricting the number of powers is a way to do that, but good character construction can give your players plenty of options in battle regardless of level.

This tip might be less applicable if your players are running characters that they’ve played before (perhaps run through a series of delves) and are more familiar using. You can also create more powerful characters if your players will have a day or two to look them over and think about how they might act in battle. If you’re just going to sit down and game better to keep it simple.

There are other ways to creating a great delve, and when you boil it all down, delves are about fun – pure and simple. Figure out what your players want, throw in a few surprises, and keep the game manageable. If you do all that, well into the future you’ll find yourself sitting around a table telling stories about the time your party danced around a library dodging arcane fire, or scaled a trapped and deadly pyramid engaging in epic gladiatorial combat.