This is going to be a bit of a strange one. It’s a part-rant, part-ruleset about dungeon crawling, because a few months ago I noticed something was horribly wrong with 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Where The F*** Are The Dungeon Crawl Rules?
Back in the day the D&D core books included very clear rules for how to proceed through a dungeon, as well as the rules for what might be in a dungeon and how to interact with it (think traps, puzzles, monsters, etc).
Let me ask you a question. How do you run a dungeon crawl? No not just ‘have the party clear traps and fight monsters’ I mean specifically how do you have them do that?
Here’s another question, and one you can answer fully: Mechanically speaking, how do you run a combat?
We all know how. Everyone rolls initiative and takes turns in order based on their initiative roll. On your turn you have movement, an action and potentially a bonus action. There’s more detail to each of those things, but it’s very clearly laid out what a combat is and how one works.
So how does a dungeon crawl work? Do you have turns? Are there actions you can take? Do traps roll initiative?
Put simply, those rules aren’t there. It’s this bizarre glaring hole in D&D 5th Edition, and indeed a few editions prior, that once noticed cannot be unnoticed. The weird thing about this is there’s still rules pointing toward this nonexistent dungeon crawl system. There’s rules for disarming traps. There’s rules for detecting hazards. There’s even entire class features that directly interact with common dungeon mechanics. But the rules for the actual dungeon crawl are completely nonexistent.
It seems as time has gone by D&D has kept the rules for traps, obstacles, hazards, dungeon structures and all things related to dungeon crawls but have slowly phased out the actual nitty-gritty rules of how to traverse the dungeon itself.
As much as I’m a little peeved that I should have to do this in the first place, it’s not too difficult to come up with some robust yet simple rules to help keep our dungeon crawls orderly. First of all, let’s tacitly accept that we’re going to need a ‘Dungeon Crawl Mode’ much as we have a ‘Combat Mode’. For reference, combat Mode for the most part starts when initiative is rolled and ends when the DM drops the players out of initiative order.
Let’s set the most fundamental piece of our Dungeon Crawl Rules: In what order does play proceed? Combat uses Initiative, and personally I think the most intuitive format for the Dungeon Crawl is Marching Order.
So our Dungeon Crawl Mode begins with the DM calling for the players to select a Marching Order for the next corridor. Dungeon Crawl Mode will end either when Initiative is rolled or the DM stops calling for actions in your Marching Order. Also, as Combat Mode ends we may go either into our normal adventuring state of play or directly into Dungeon Crawl Mode with the DM again calling for the players to set a Marching Order.
Each turn, the next player in the Marching Order takes their turn, performing a limited set of actions.
First of all let’s set some movement options. Let’s say there are 3 different moves you can make: cautious move, standard move, hasty move.
A Cautious Move lets you proceed 10 ft forward, maintains your passive perception, and lets you perform 1 action.
A Normal Move lets you proceed 20 ft forward, incurs a -5 penalty to passive perception and lets you perform 1 action.
A Hasty Move lets you proceed 30 ft forward (or up to your maximum speed, whichever is smaller), incurs a -10 penalty to passive perception and lets you perform 2 actions.
Now we have laid out the sort of speed we expect players to proceed down corridors at. Let’s take a look at those actions. I’m going to base this mostly on the sorts of things the PHB and DMG clearly expect you to be doing in dungeons. For all intents and purposes, a ‘marching order round’ takes the same length of time as a combat round (6 seconds).
Detect Hazards – Make a Perception check to attempt to perceive a trap or hazard within your character’s field of view.
Disarm a Trap – Make a skill check to disarm an adjacent trap that you have perceived.
Attack – Perform a single attack targeting a creature or object.
Cast a Spell – Self-explanatory.
Scout Ahead – Make a Perception check at a -5 penalty to attempt to perceive traps, hazards or enemies in an adjoining room or corridor to the one you are currently in.
Sneak – Make a Stealth check to move undetected.
Interact – Interact with a mechanism, trap component or other object within your reach.
It’s not much, but it’s functional. We now have clearly defined actions that a player can perform on a given turn. It also allows us to design traps and hazards with more specific responses, such as ‘as an action, a player may choose to do x’ (such as go prone to avoid a swinging blade trap). The Interact action there also allows us to have a proper weight to things like pulling switches, disrupting trap components, and so on. It’s no longer a case of a player saying ‘I pull the switch’. Now they have to wait for their turn in Marching Order and spend their action to pull the switch.
Alter As Necessary
This entire ruleset is more of a proof-of-concept and a demonstration of how Dungeon Crawl rules might actually operate. Come up with your own, or alter what is here, to best suit your playstyle. At the end of the day we are simply identifying a lack of these rules and attempting to fill in that void with a system of our own. With that in mind, let’s examine some alternate systems.
Dungeon Crawl Activities
Let’s borrow some ideas from Pathfinder 2nd Edition. The system uses something called ‘Exploration Activities’ which can be performed while in ‘Exploration Mode’ (which is predominantly moving overland, but can extend into dungeon crawl-like gameplay). These cover things like scouting ahead, moving stealthily, repeatedly casting a spell (like detect magic), and so on. While doing an exploration activity, you move at half speed.
Let’s marry this up now with our Marching Order system. At the beginning of each Room or Corridor the players set a Marching Order then declare which activity they will do while they are in that Room or Corridor. Activities are then resolved in Marching Order. Players will on their turn move half their speed and perform their activity. Let’s now lay out some Activities. These will cover much the same things as our Actions in the previous system, only in a different way. A ‘round’ here has a variable length of time, as some rooms or corridors will be larger than others, so for specific things like casting spells that have a casting time of more than 1 combat round determine how long the player actually gets to spend performing that activity (i.e. for a spell with a 1 minute casting time they may be able to complete 30 seconds of that casting time during that room’s ’round’)
Detect Hazards – Make a Perception check to perceive traps in the area
Maintain a Spell – Cast a spell once or repeatedly, or maintain the casting a spell with a casting time of more than 1 round, or continually cast a Cantrip.
Sneak – Make a Stealth check to move undetected.
Scout – Make a Perception check to gain a +1 bonus to Initiative if there is a combat in the adjoining Room or Corridor.
Follow the Expert – Perform an activity being performed by someone before you in the Marching Order, adding their skill modifier to your roll (if applicable).
The advantage of this system is it’s much more loose. If the first player in Marching Order discovers a trap, then we can hold our Marching Order for a moment while players deal with the trap, then resume resolving our Activities in Marching Order once the trap is dealt with. It also allows us to more easily integrate things like puzzle rooms into our Dungeon Crawl rules. If the players arrive in a room with a puzzle then we ignore Marching Order and simply resolve the challenge in the free-form way we normally would.
I’ve also stolen ‘Follow the Expert’ from Pathfinder 2e because it’s brilliant and helps us avoid the issue of ‘everyone rolled great on Stealth except the clumsy Fighter, so now none of us are Stealthy’. The party might decide ‘We want to move down this corridor stealthily’, so the Rogue goes first and uses ‘Sneak’, then the Fighter goes sometime after the Rogue and uses ‘Follow the Expert’ to also Sneak, benefitting from the Rogue’s high Stealth modifier. In-universe think of this as the Fighter paying close attention to how the Rogue places their feet, and the Rogue giving the Fighter pointers on how to move quietly (‘Don’t put your foot there, the stone tile is loose and will make noise.’).
Once again this is just an example. Alter it as necessary. This particular method has the advantage of moving more flexibly into and out of ‘Dungeon Crawl Mode’ and lets us move through dungeons on a room-by-room basis rather than a tile-by-tile basis.
This alternative system does away with our Marching Order rules entirely. Where our first ruleset was tile-by-tile and our second was room-by-room, this one applies to the dungeon wholesale.
At the start of the Dungeon Crawl, have players nominate a role for themselves. Each role will define what that character is attempting to do at any given time during the Dungeon Crawl, and helps us loosely define where they might be in marching order (call for a more specific marching order if required). We can also allow players opportunities to change their role at certain points throughout the dungeon if we deem it necessary.
Here’s some roles and the sorts of things they are doing in any given room or corridor and the skills associated with each.
Wayfinder – Scouting out rooms (Perception), making perception checks in rooms and corridors to learn about upcoming rooms and corridors (Perception), preventing the party from getting lost (Survival), providing early warning about upcoming combats (Perception)
Investigator – Checking for traps (Perception), checking for hidden doors and other secrets (Investigation), seeking details relating to puzzles or riddles (Investigation), disarming traps and hazards and unlocking doors (Sleight-of-Hand or Thieves’ Tools)
Warder – Checking for magical effects or hazards (Arcana), protecting from magical threats and attacks (Perception), Investigating magical components of puzzles, riddles and hazards (Investigation or Arcana), maintaining ongoing spell effects (Arcana)
Point Man – Keeping prepared for combats (Initiative bonus), protecting party members from physical attacks or effects (Athletics or Acrobatics), providing cover from ranged threats (Athletics or Acrobatics)
In any given room or corridor, have the players make a batch of checks each to see how well they perform each of their role’s duties, then provide outcomes accordingly. Low roll to notice that arrow trap? Good thing the Point Man rolled well on his Acrobatics check and put himself in the path of the arrow with his shield up. Roll well on scouting ahead? You now know there’s something lurking in the next corridor.
Alternatively, when you need to call for certain checks to be made (such as a perception check to spot a trap) you can turn to whoever is fulfilling that role and ask them specifically to make the check.
You can see how more roles can easily emerge from the sorts of things we envision each class doing. Rogues, Rangers, Druids and Monks make obvious Wayfinders. Bards and Rogues make obvious Investigators. Just about any full-caster makes for an obvious Warder. Just about any martial class makes for an obvious Point Man. But there’s still gaps in that framework.
Again this is a very rudimentary set of roles, and I would definitely expand on them with a few more before rolling this system out at your table. One could easily see a need for, say, a cartographer-type role wherein a character with high Intelligence and cartographer’s tools is making a map of the dungeon as they go, making backtracking easier. You could even come up with a set of bespoke roles to suit the various skillsets of the characters in your party.
The main advantage of this system is that it requires the least learning on the player’s part, which is a real plus when we’re introducing additional rulesets to new players. Pretty much everything here is handled on the DM side of things rather than adding overhead for the players.
There’s Your F***ing Dungeon Crawl Rules
Again, all of these concepts are rudimentary and are meant purely as a proof-of-concept as well as a jumping off point for you to develop and flesh out your own Dungeon Crawling rules. Unfortunately the game gives us none so we have to provide our own. I could go on about that until the cows come home, but I think this has been enough grousing for one day. I do not in any way mean to point a finger at anyone here or suggest that the designers of D&D are incompetent. The truth is this is something that has happened over a long period of time. Other DMs have gone more into the reasons behind this, and in light of those reasons it’s easy to see how something like Dungeon Crawl Rules have kind of been left out and forgotten over time.
Crawl To The Conclusion
With this we’re now well equipped to handle dungeon crawls. Take whichever approach best suits your table and what sort of play your players like to engage with, or come up with your own ruleset entirely. In either case I hope you have some idea of what a DM should want to achieve when making rules for dungeon crawls. Or you know what? Maybe don’t make any rules at all. The truth is many DMs, myself included, have still managed to run fun, functional dungeons without having extra rules underpinning them. Could they be better if we had rules in place? Maybe. I personally like to think so. But at the same time no matter how you slice it you’re asking players to learn more rules, and for some people that’s not why they play D&D 5th Edition. There’s something to be said for 5e’s approachability and relatively streamlined nature. We can fill in blanks where we see fit, but we always have the option of playing other systems if 5e doesn’t have rules for something that we would like to do.