For those who want context on the old-school tradition of dungeon procedure, I'd point you to threads like this one, this one, and this one. But of course, the main point of contrast is going to be the codified procedure from B/X D&D, as re-packaged by Old School Essentials (courtesy of Necrotic Gnome), which is far and away the most popular option these days. Here is the 2-page spread included in OSE:
Let's talk about what they have in common before talking about the differences. 1) There is a play sequence up front, which is there for both the referee and the player to see and understand. 2) They both cover movement, traps, random encounters, and at least a little bit about miscellaneous common activities. So what's my problem with the original?
Quibble 1: the Play Sequence
First, I tweaked this because I felt like it makes sense for the party to decide their action first. From the players' point of view, this is the true beginning of the turn, as they understand it. More importantly though, whether or not they have an encounter is largely something that I, the referee, will only know after I know what they plan on doing. If, as their action, they declare that they are going to jump around banging pots and pans while singing songs about how orcs are a bunch of cowardly dipshits, then I will treat the "referee checks for an encounter" step a little differently. Hell, it doesn't even need to be that extreme. If the party's action is "open the trapdoor and climb down to see what's below" then I can say "oh cool, I don't need to roll for a wandering monster. I know there's a giant snake down there, so that'll be what they encounter."
Say you're using an adventure without a random encounter die, but instead have a perfectly static dungeon. Just going off your key, you'd be able to tell, every single turn, if the party would have an encounter during/after their action. Are they entering a room with a creature? Are they inspecting a statue with a trap? Are they entering the room with the dead adventurers' corpses? The random encounter die is just something that can be rolled on top of all that, or perhaps only for those turns where they don't have a guaranteed encounter from their actions.
I merge the "describe what happens" and "have the encounter" into one step for a similar reason. I usually don't treat them as two separate steps within one turn. If the party's action was to go into the room to the south, and the room to the south has a cyclops in it, then the encounter with the cyclops is what happens as a result of their action. Of course, in the final version of OSE (rather than this free, art-less sample spread) they made the same change.
Lastly, I explicitly state that the players have a small role in the upkeep of time records. This is to take a bit of work off the referee's hands and also keep the players involved in a step that would otherwise just be something they'd have to sit through. Plus, to be honest, as a referee I don't really pay much attention to what time-based resources my players are using. They know their spells better than I do.
Quibble 2: Encounters
I mostly wrote this section as "advice for the referee in dungeon prep" rather than "rules for everyone on how encounters will always work." This is important because the game itself should not preclude interesting and valuable options the referee could try, such as the adversary roster (as a pseudo-alternative to the traditional random encounter table) or the overloaded encounter die. I tried to briefly explain a few common options and how they ought to be used, in broad enough strokes that the players reading this page will gain a general understanding of how to expect dangers in the dungeon space to manifest. That is to say, a player reading this will understand that 1) there are likely consequences to the passage of time, 2) monsters aren't necessarily confined to one space. I also didn't want to prescribe too specific of a method because some dungeons are just plain different. I like the term "random encounter" more than "wandering monster" because monsters are not the only relevant consequence for time spent in the dungeon. I could run a whole dungeon without a single living inhabitant, but which still has meaningful consequences for spending time just through things like possible cave-ins and falling stalactites, flooding, poison gas accumulation, growing anxiety and exhaustion levels, and other "encounters" that could happen randomly.
I still end it with a few hard rules about surprised status, encounter distance, and reaction rolls. I just made sure that 1) my advanced darkness rules aren't forgotten in the one place they'll be most important, and 2) I establish a sensible standard modifier to the most common place reaction rolls will be used.
Quibble 3: Doors
You know what sticks out to me the most about the OSE procedure? It has such detailed ideas about doors. Look, none of that material is bad. But it does strike me as incredibly similar to the ethos behind AD&D: codify specific rulings for specific situations rather than trusting the referee to make firm judgments about a gameplay element as common and flexible as a door. Like, why does it need to be written in the rules that "undead probably won't make noise," you know? I don't want to try accounting for every possible variable that can be attached to doors in dungeons, since that's something that referees should be encouraged to play around with.
In particular, the whole "doors are always stuck by default and then swing back shut right after you go through" thing is one of the few historical artifacts of D&D I can't get behind. I love it as a gimmick, but to treat it as a standard assumption of all dungeons is so ridiculous to me that I refuse to codify it in my own rules. It makes sense pretty much only in dungeons engineered by mad wizard-dwarves, and, like, nowhere else. The fact that the rules themselves have to clarify that "there's an exception for monsters because otherwise this place wouldn't be even remotely functional" is hilarious. Yeah, because that makes sense. How the fuck does inanimate architecture know when someone walking through its doors is a monster or not? Or just, like, an NPC? If my player gets bitten by a vampire and I take control of them as a new villain, do they also suddenly gain the ability to automatically open all stuck doors in a dungeon? That kind of thing makes sense in the Mythic Underworld, where the dungeon itself has a dark intelligence to it and hates the adventurers... but some of the dungeons I run take place in, like, abandoned libraries and Elven gardens and whatnot. Places where the players can and should expect things to follow normal rules, for Pete's sake.
Most importantly, I don't feel like the referee needs to be told that "locked doors need to be opened with a key or a lockpick," and "secret doors are found if people look hard for them," and even the basics of listening behind a door.
Quibble 4: Resting
I love the idea of the dungeon inflicting intangible damage to the players over time. I think it's one of the coolest features of Darkest Dungeon. So I'm all for the gradual accumulation of exhaustion and paranoia and anxiety and depression and fear and whatever else as a consequence for time spent down there. I just feel like this is the wrong way to go about it.
My players would hate if I told them "you have to rest now. You don't get a say in the matter, it's turn 6 of the hour, that means it's naptime." They should get to dictate when they feel like they need to rest. They need to be able to calculate their own risk and measure if it's worth it. They need to judge if they're in the best circumstances to take a rest or if they need to push a little longer to find a safer room to rest in.
Even D&D 5E gets this better than Basic D&D: eventually you'll start to need a short rest to replenish some health and class features. How often can you take one? Whenever you feel like it, so long as you can go an hour without interruption. How often do you need to take one? I don't know... that's for you to figure out, buddy.
So yeah, I think that gradual "dungeon fatigue" effects should just be built into the random encounter die. That's already what it's there for, anyway. It makes a lot more sense to me.
Quibble 5: Searching
Similar to doors, I think the game is codifying way too much stuff here that ought to be treated as flexible and context-dependent. There has been way too much debate and disagreement over the years about "searching stuff" in old-school D&D, mostly revolving around the distinction between a "general search" (e.g. 10 × 10 feet, as a common, arbitrary unit) and a "specific search" (e.g. pretty much anything smaller within a room). And a lot of this controversy can be traced back to the introduction of the Thief class and the ambiguities it introduced into things.
I can do away with all of that by just simplifying it to "if a player has their eyes peeled, they have a chance to find stuff. The more narrowly they're looking, the more likely they are to see something they're on the right track to find." How much area does that cover? As much as the player describes and can fit within 10 minutes. If they say they're scanning the whole room just in general, then I'll let them cover about 10 × 10 feet and make a WIS check. Or if the room is 30 × 30 feet large and they ask to inspect the whole thing, I'll still let them cover that much ground in 10 minutes. They're just going to make a really difficult check. If they say they're only inspecting/giving extra attention to a specific bookcase, then hey, guess what: they're spending a greater portion of that 10 minutes on one item, thus covering less ground overall but much more likely to find something notable within that one item. If they happen to specify the exact right thing to look for ("reach behind the air vent for anything") then they automatically find the thing, no check required. This really isn't that hard.
And because Knave 1) isn't antiquated like B/X D&D, and 2) doesn't have skills like modern D&D, I don't have to distinguish between "perception" or "investigation" or "noticing secret doors" or "inspecting for traps" or "listening for monsters" or whatever. You know what all of these are? Wisdom checks. They're just wisdom checks, maybe intelligence if the player can rationalize it. But you know how they always work?
[Referee prepares to give a general description of the area and then asks the players what they do] "While we walk, we're going to keep our eyes peeled..." [referee makes note to describe the area in more detail than they otherwise would have, including a few subtle clues] "...with special attention to hook horror tracks on the ground and ceiling." [referee makes note to reveal tracks. Include the number that passed through and the general direction of where the hook horrors must have gone]
Quibble 6: Miscellaneous
I'd rather have one section explaining referee rolls as a general principle rather than bringing it up in every specific instance it'll be important. I feel like if it's worth explaining doors, searching, and resting, then it's also worth giving some explicit attention to mapping and sneaking. And let me just say that switching to "flowchart / pointcrawl" mapping away from "dictating precise room dimensions" mapping is one of the best choices you will ever make for yourself and your party. It's also the only real way to properly simulate the chance of getting lost due to mapping inaccuracies.
I also feel like bringing back the party caller is something we should all consider. So many GMs are tempted to include a hard rule that "X can only be attempted once/by one person" just because of the meta-frustration of having to sit there while all your players ask to attempt the same "listen at the door" check as each other. It's not just tedious, it also nearly always trivializes the check, since only one person needs to succeed in order for the whole party to benefit. Well guess what? I think it's fine to just say group checks are the caller's job, every time. They still get a +2 bonus on everything because I acknowledge that they're getting help from their friends, and it's a little unfair to completely shut out everyone else's contributions. But now you have to think carefully about who you think will be the most cut out for passing common checks (WIS for noticing, DEX for sneaking, INT for some traps, etc.). Pick who you think would be able to reliably pass those checks the best. To me, that's a more interesting decision that's made once at the beginning of the dungeon than the dozens of times players "decide" to suddenly attempt the check their ally just failed, so they can always succeed at everything.
I especially like the caller for session flow reasons. I hate adjudicating for an entire group at once. One of my most common habits as a DM is to throw my party into a complex situation and then say "discuss your plan. If you have any questions or need clarification, let me know. Otherwise, I'm going to be reading ahead in my notes and doing a refresher. Get back to me when you have a final decision on what to do next." Then I tune the fuck out. I do not listen to that conversation very closely. Sometimes I leave and grab a drink, or use the bathroom. When the time comes, I tell them to designate one person to explain to me what everyone wants to do and how. They understand that just because someone voiced an intention while brainstorming the plan does not mean I can be blamed for not including it in the final result of how things play out.
Oh, and I remembered to mention marching formation, which OSE doesn't in their dungeoncrawl rules. It's somewhere in the core rulebook, along with the suggestion of a party caller. Come on, y'all.
Big Difference Number 1: Movement
This is a weird one but I want to explain. So the standard old-school rule was that you could always move 120 feet in a 10-minute turn. This is useful for a lot of reasons. However, it's... um... ridiculous? Like, this is beyond unrealistic. It's fucking bananas. There are many attempts to justify it and none of them measure up to the task.
Here's the deal: standard walking speed is 3 mph, or 4.6 ft./second (1.4 m/second). This lines up with the "30 feet per round" combat speed. 3 miles is 15,840 feet, so a person going 3 mph would cover 26.4 feet of that distance in 6 seconds. Round up to 30 ft. The variability in people of different heights, weights, and energy is mostly negligible. Where it's significant, the game does a pretty good job of accounting for it. If you're a dwarf or you have a limp or you're over-encumbered, then you go a bit less. If you want your character to run then you either go double speed or triple speed, depending on the game you're playing. That's an acceptable compromise on accuracy, to me. So in a 10-minute dungeon turn, a person should be able to walk 3,000 feet. The game rounds down to 120. Is that also an acceptable compromise on accuracy? I don't think so.
People often justify it by saying that this speed assumes the party is being careful and keeping an eye out for traps and mapping their surroundings and trying not to step in icky stuff and waiting for slow people to catch up and trying to carefully observe the furthest edges of their lantern's light range and whatever else. I have a couple problems with this.
- Some hardcore old-schoolers claim that they always operate on the assumption that all these things are happening, but then they totally don't actually do them at all. If the reduced speed is based off the assumption that the party is being careful to search for traps and secret doors, then they should never miss a trap or secret door. The only way they could be slowed down that much is if they were being thorough beyond the possibility of missing something. In which case, there basically are no secret doors, because there's a 0% chance that the party will miss them. The fact is that most DMs will deny to players the benefits of these things unless the players specifically declare them. They don't get stealth benefits unless they say they want to sneak. They don't get to find stuff unless they say they're looking for it, especially stuff in obscure hiding spaces where they need to elaborate that they were specifically looking behind the painting. Many DMs claim that the party is implicitly doing all this stuff but then punishes the party for not explicitly saying they are.
- For those who actually do make good on their claims (e.g. DMs who never bother with hidden traps), the result is tedious to adjudicate as needed. You'd have to account for all of those things every turn. Every possibly notable detail of their surroundings, their stealth roll, the monsters' perception against that, their search methods/rolls, their search results, the dimensions for the mapper, trap stuff, whatever else I'm forgetting, and on and on. Now, that's still possible to do. But that's so much to track that I know that I wouldn't want to do that without the use of a procedure that organizes it for me. But if that's the case... why are none of these steps mentioned in the procedure?? If the game really expects the referee to account for all these things, every single turn... could they at least be listed as steps in the Play Sequence?
- Even if you were doing all of those things, that still shouldn't slow you down this much. I mean come on. 4% of your normal walking speed? Jesus, that's 2.4 inches per second. Inches.
So yeah, the 120 ft. standard is and always has been silly. I'm fairly certain it can only be justified for game-y reasons, like that it's a conveniently short and discreet chunk to work with. After all, most dungeons don't even have 3000 ft. of hallway to cover. And like I said, going a slow speed has gameplay advantages. For example, let's say you have a length of the dungeon that's a good 300 ft. of empty corridor, because this is the Mines of Moria or something. Well with a 120 ft. standard, you know that'll take 3 turns to cover, which means 3 random encounter rolls, which means "fuck, this is a really long hallway!" for the players. The referee can also meaningfully reduce their speed with difficult terrain and encumbrance and heavy armor and whatnot. If the speed were a more realistic 3000 ft./10 minutes, then what difference are those modifiers going to make? So I can only go 1500 ft., boo hoo. Hell, let's say each factor cuts the speed in half. Our party is 1) sneaking, 2) going through difficult terrain, 3) mapping, 4) searching for stuff, and 5) overladen with treasure. All those divisions of 3000 just barely get your speed below 95 ft., which isn't that much reduced from the 120 ft. you would have gone in an unaffected turn in Basic D&D. Meanwhile, in Basic D&D, encumbrance levels alone can reduce your 10-minute speed to 90 ft., 60 ft., or even as slow as 30 ft. only. That's a meaningful consequence that's only possible if your speed is unrealistically slow to begin with.
5E D&D actually went ahead and tried to change this, even though no one noticed. DMG pg. 242, there's a table called "Map Travel Pace" that gives slow, normal, and fast paces of movement for different scales of play. For dungeons, they want you to assume 300 ft/minute, which lines up with the combat speed and the hourly speed.
So where did I get my solution from? This'll take me a bit to explain. And I did make some compromises. First of all, in normal D&D, you are entitled to one movement and one action per Exploration Turn, kind of like combat. I changed it so characters are entitled to two actions, where movement is a type of action. Why? Because if you plan on spending a full 10 minutes not leaving the room, you should be able to get a lot more work done on inspecting and mapping and whatnot. You aren't moving, after all, so go ahead and pick a second action. And if you are going through hallways and don't care about all the cautious dungeoneering stuff, but instead just want to walk a normal, realistic speed? Use both actions to move.
Notice that this is able to account for the "120 ft./turn justification" pretty nicely, too. So you're both sneaking and moving? You should go slower, right? Alright, you'll only go the length of one movement action because you're using your other action to do the other, careful dungeoneering thing. Speed gets cut in half while multi-tasking. If you want to really hustle, you can dash as an action, going 4 times the speed of a single move action (to roughly represent running, even though I acknowledge that running is actually more than twice the speed of walking. It should really be like 5 times more. If you're Usain Bolt, around 9 times more). Unlike B/X D&D, which dictates that characters will be going slower because they are doing all those dungeoneering activities, I have created a small action economy that lets the players control exactly how much each of these variables weighs on their own terms.
But how did I get to these numbers? They still don't line up cleanly like the 5E travel paces do across different scales. After all, shouldn't someone spending both actions to move get to go 3000 ft. in a turn? Hear me out: while a person who is just walking should go 3000 ft. in 10 minutes, I still think it's fair to reduce that to only 2000 ft. (2 move actions of 1000 ft. each) because of the various "scary, icky dungeon" elements that are unchanging now matter how much you dilly-dally. You gotta be generally careful, you don't know your way around so you're constantly processing new information about your surroundings, you don't know what's around the corner, you're working within a small pool of light, you're waiting for slow people to catch up, etc. So most turns, you'll be going 1/3 of standard walking speed and getting to do one major action. That's the pace of a party that's dungeoneering on the go.
But then why is it that, in combat, you can go full walking speed and one major action on top of that? I guess there's just a standard assumption that, in combat, you're always hustling. It's life or death in that moment.
Another thing I like about this is that my players can decide exactly how reckless or careful they want to be. B/X D&D says that you can go faster if you're in a familiar area. Fuck that. My players are crazy. Some days they say "we have no idea what horrors may lurk ahead... but let's charge through anyway" and will ask to just fucking bolt through every chamber, full tilt, rushing past every surprised monster and probably setting off, like, 10 traps. Or you know what? What if you're Samus Aran and you've just beaten Mother Brain? The time bomb countdown begins and you have to get to your ship pronto. You ain't got time to go slow just because you've never seen the next stretch of caverns before. You book it.
The traditional solution to that course of action is to list out what kinds of actions you can't do at the same time as each other because of this circumstance or that one. "A party that's sneaking goes 1/3rd speed" or "if you run, you get a -2 on checks to notice traps" or whatever. My system is simpler. You get two actions. Decide how to spend them. You get the benefits of the ones you do and you don't get the benefits of the ones you don't do.
Okay, but what about the party that does want to do all the fiddly dungeoneering things? They want to map and search and scout ahead all sneaky-like and blablabla. Well, everyone can choose to take one different action from the 2 default party actions the caller is declaring. Assuming that you usually choose to keep "move" as one of your actions (so you don't split the party), you switch out the other one. How do you effectively keep the party from using this versatility to steamroll the whole dungeon and methodically squeeze out all benefits possible? Because you're still limited by numbers and time. One person is mapping, one person is scouting ahead, and one guy is in the front with a 10-foot pole probing for traps. That leaves... one person to look for those secret doors. If they fail their check, then sorry. Everyone else will be too busy doing their own thing to try it themselves. Do you want to make sure you definitely don't miss a secret door? Alright, assign two people to look for them instead. That'll double your chances of finding it. Just understand that now you don't have anyone working the 10-foot pole. Does the party want to be especially thorough and make sure all these things are being done for sure? Alright... sacrifice that move action and hunker down for 10 minutes.
But still... 1000 feet? As the standard movement? You could probably route a full expedition of most dungeons using less than 1000 feet. How do you deal with that much ground being covered? Well just remember (and this is kinda brilliant): you'll be stopping them every time they reach something interesting, just like in regular old-school D&D. Remember how you give them 120 ft. of movement through hallways, but just 40 ft. into the hallway they reach an intersection and you suddenly have to give them a choice? Or they run into a lost adventurer and they have the chance to stop their movement and talk? Well, this is the same thing. Just with a maximum of 1000 feet. Chances are, they'll have plenty of opportunities to stop before they ever reach that limit. In fact, pretty much the only two circumstances under which they'd actually cover all 1000 feet in a single turn is if 1) they are absolutely determined to make as much progress as possible and deliberately ignore everything they come across, or 2) your dungeon is fucking huge and covers a really wide area of land. Guess what? In the first instance, I think it's completely acceptable if they really want to do that. If they want to be reckless, then they should be able to go 1000+ ft. and not be limited by a 120 ft. cap. In the second instance, you should take this as an opportunity to have more huge dungeons. Dungeons that are more like a sparse network of key chambers across a mile of Underworld. Again, think about the Mines of Moria. It's the most iconic dungeon from Lord of the Rings, but it's really more like a whole dwarven kingdom that the fellowship spent a couple days traveling through. You could use this procedure to run a cavecrawl pretty well. And if you don't have a huge dungeon? Alright, then just accept that speed of movement probably wasn't going to be a meaningful factor. It was unrealistic to ever treat it like one.
So in reality, nearly every turn's two actions will be 1) useful action, and 2) movement + inevitable useful action once the party finds something notable and stops moving. One is a bit more planned while the other is a reaction to what they encounter. I like that a lot. It both rewards foresight while also allows the party to adapt to new information. After all, 10 minutes is a long time to go without the possibility of a change of plans. I think this system is not only more realistic, but may even be a bit more gracefully designed.
Big Difference Number 2: Traps
Much like with encounters, I mostly wrote this section as "advice for the referee in dungeon prep" rather than "rules for everyone on how traps will always work." That said, any player reading this section will get helpful expectations for some key qualities about how traps are run. I also felt like the B/X version was too strict in codifying rules that universally apply to traps, when traps could, instead, be treated as pretty flexible. I have no need for the distinction between treasure traps and room traps. Your trap might be a magic waterfall coming through the ceiling. It could be a series of small statues ("treasure traps") spread throughout the room. How do you classify either of these cases in the traditional treasure-room binary? I don't see an advantage to setting such arbitrary categories in place.
I'd rather explain that a trap could have a random trigger chance than prescribing an absolute chance for it, because the more valuable knowledge to be gained is that "you can have some traps with definite triggers and others with variable triggers". And again with the "monster exception" thing! Instead of just declaring that "the rules say monsters can magically avoid traps," I'd rather explain why they'd be likely to bypass traps, because that very reason can be quite informative to the trap's design and how the party might interact with a series of them (e.g. if there's a built-in clue that monsters are relying on to bypass it, then players can pick up on the same clue and start using it the same way). And the ability to notice a trap? Even a small trap? It still uses the same basic wisdom-check rules I described before. The player describes what they're looking at and then makes a wisdom check, modified by how many relevant details they mentioned.
I also feel like several philosophies on running traps should be included and treated as compatible. I explain the tradeoffs of using obvious, unhidden traps. But I also explain the key variables to making traps still fun should you choose to keep them hidden. I explained how they could either be located based on logic or based on randomness, and if so, how to do that. I even included an extremely abbreviated version of the Angry GM's "CLICK!" rule. And you know what? You can have both player skill and character skill. That is, player skill by default (tell me how you try to disable this weird swinging sawblade trap), but abstracted to some character skill when things get too unwieldy for player skill (this is a huge, complicated, clockwork mechanism built into the door. Listen, there's like a million gears under the hood. Just make an intelligence check to see if you remove the right ones, or else the trap gets triggered).
I'll need to playtest this, but I'm pretty sure all my arguments are pretty sensible and my solutions are sound. I'm sure plenty of people play B/X / OSE and get by just fine with the old procedure. But there are so many things that kept nagging me, I felt some modernization was in order. I also think I did a decent job at condensing it, such that I could both include all the relevant dungeoncrawling rules and the referee advice for dungeon prep in the same space it took OSE to write its own rules. It even covers all the most valuable pieces of general advice I've ever heard on dungeoncraft, so I feel like a brand new DM reading this page before anything else on the subject will be set up pretty dang well.