Hi everyone. I’m back again with something that came up in one of the discussions spawned by my Puzzle Game series. I figured I’d cover it while I finalise my series on using puzzle game design to help build campaigns and narrative arcs (yes that’s still in the works).
This post is going to discuss what I’m calling the ‘active’ dungeon and the ‘passive’ dungeon, how they differ, how to approach designing them and why you might want to use one or the other.
On with the show.
Defining Active and Passive
First I think it is important to lay out what I mean when I talk about active and passive dungeons. This concept as a whole came up when someone was asking about how to turn a dungeon they were working on into a Holistic Dungeon. The dungeon was a large multi-floor attrition-style dungeon that was seeking to clear out an evil mastermind and the small society they had built to support them.
I told them that I didn’t think my puzzle game approach would work, because their dungeon was meant to be one actively hostile to players rather than one of passive exploration and interaction with obstacles.
With that in mind, let’s define these terms.
The passive dungeon is what I’d say the majority of dungeons are. They are locations in the world that the players can explore and engage with, fighting enemies, avoiding obstacles, disarming traps, all that sort of stuff. ‘Passive’ here doesn’t mean that the dungeon is peaceful and devoid of combat, it means that the dungeon largely exists in a state agnostic of the party’s presence there.
The active dungeon is, by comparison, a dungeon that is actively responding to the players as they traverse it. A great example of this is raiding a necromancer’s castle in a multi-day military-style operation. The party is trying to slog through each room, clearing it out and securing vital objectives, while at the same time the necromancer is trying to actively oppose the party by throwing enemies at them and creating obstacles to impede or entirely prevent the party’s progress.
I don’t want to talk too much about the passive dungeon as it’s the one we’re generally most familiar with. Instead I want to break down exactly what sorts of things go on in active dungeons before we look at the pros and cons of each.
In general, the challenges of an active dungeon all spring from the underlying fact that something elsewhere in the dungeon (probably the thing the party is trying to get to and destroy) is actively and continuously trying to counteract the party’s actions.
Most monster lairs fall into this category, as in theory there is an occupant that is actively trying to kill the party just as the party is actively trying to kill it.
In the example given of clearing a castle occupied by a necromancer combats will naturally be against their hordes of undead. Then once a room is cleared out the necromancer may try to actively take it back by sending more undead at the party.
As the party progresses they may come across booby traps that have been specifically built to stop the party from getting further. This plays out less like the classic ‘swinging blades in a corridor’ and more like a siege with the defenders taking countermeasures. Doors may be rigged to explode, water sources may be poisoned, staircases may have been intentionally destroyed.
Then there are factors like the party having to securely find ways to rest. There’s always the general wisdom of ‘the monsters won’t just wait around while the party rests’, but this goes a step beyond that. The monsters may actively wait for the party to need to rest and try to ambush them in their sleep. This creates an arms race of the party needing to create secure locations to rest, with the denizens of the dungeon trying to make such places impossible to create or counter whatever measures the party puts in place to enable their rest.
The active dungeon is almost more like a tactical game between the party and the dungeon’s occupants, full of moves and countermoves. In clearing out the dungeon, the party has won a great protracted battle.
Passive In Brief
Where the active dungeon might be storming a necromancer’s castle, the passive dungeon is raiding the long-dead necromancer’s crypt. Booby traps may have been built to dissuade graverobbers, skeletons animated in centuries long past may be standing ready in rooms to guard the tomb, there may even be riddles that must be solved to prove the intruder is worthy of the deceased’s treasures.
This dungeon has obstacles and it has things the party is actively engaging with, but the dungeon itself does very little in the ways of actively responding to the party aside from a few instances of enemies now aware of the party’s presence readying themselves for the party’s eventual arrival to their chamber.
The Pros and Cons of Each
I think it’s easy to read this and feel active dungeons are probably better than passive dungeons since they’re more ‘alive’, and having a dungeon actively responding to the party’s actions can make it feel more bespoke, but there’s a lot to be said in favour of passive dungeons. Let’s look at them both now.
– Provide out-of-combat strategic opportunities a layer above in-combat tactics
– The gameplay loop of moves and countermoves is generally satisfying
– Can have a strong sense of progression as earlier parts of the dungeon are made safer
– Generate satisfying conclusions as the party wins a war of attrition
– Can become a slog
– Leave little room for things like puzzles and riddles, which many players enjoy
– Combat-heavy and may have little variety as a result
– Require contrivances of intelligent enemies being holed-up in a location in order to function
– Can help create a sense of ‘deep history’ through forgotten ruins and ancient structures
– Extremely flexible in terms of accommodating a variety of challenges
– Can exist agnostic of faction politics
– Familiar (and by extension comfortable) to many players
– Often require contrivances to justify puzzles
– Seldom change the political landscape of a campaign once cleared (compared to something like clearing a town of an occupying army)
– Goals can become repetitive (i.e. an endless string of ‘go here, retrieve this treasure’)
Conclusions in the Middle Ground
As we can see, both require contrivances of some sort. Active dungeons provide a fundamentally different gameplay experience to the one we’re often most familiar with when it comes to dungeons. It’s one that rewards thinking about the dungeon more like a grand chessboard rather than an environment to move through and clear. Passive dungeons on the other hand provide opportunities for things like complex puzzles and more ‘paced’ experiences of completing objectives on a room-to-room, challenge-to-challenge basis.
In essence, we should strive to use both where best applicable. This is, I think, something most DMs already do. However I think it pays to be aware of these different categories so that we are more aware of what we are building when we build a dungeon. Being able to say ‘I want to build an active dungeon for my players to conquer as the culmination of this current arc’ gives us a more concrete idea of what we’re setting out to achieve when we make content for our players. It’s important to tailor what we make to who we make it for, and the more aware we are of what it is we’re making, the easier it is for us to do that.
So thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve picked up some useful frameworks from this write-up that you can use in your own games.