Why do I get bored during dungeon crawls?

Dungeon crawls. Creeping step by step through a dangerous maze, never knowing whether the next monster is lurking in ambush just around the corner. The bubbling pit of anxiety and paranoia simmering in my guts, asking, “Are we being careful enough? Are we being too careful? Do we need to push forward faster now?”

Sounds exciting, right? An invigorating gamble, as the delvers push their luck to its limits. Or maybe it sounds like a challenging adventure full of both risk and reward.

Or maybe it sounds exhausting. Grueling. A long, undifferentiated grind of tension gradually giving way to player-fatigue as you weary of the prolonged stress and lethal stakes.

I’ve experienced all those things while playing dungeon crawls, often within the same game. And after talking with my sib about the experience, I have some better-structured observations to share. So, how can I make dungeon crawls more fun for myself? What parallels exist, what narrative structures can storytellers build on?

First up, let’s talk about stress.

This article on PsychCentral doesn’t talk about any of this from a gaming perspective but it has a relevant model and vocabulary. The article focuses on stress as a fundamentally negative experience. But in a game context, that alarm stage and the completion of the stress cycle are the sweet spots. The alarm stage is engaged excitement, and can be built up to slowly over time via anticipation, fear, or unease—whatever builds (enjoyable!) tension for the players. Meanwhile, the completion of the stress cycle gives time to experience the reward of dissipating that prior stress. In its aftermath, that excitement can ebb and people can rest, relax, and laugh with each other. That rest period is doubly useful: it gives players time to recover, and it gives a clear contrast with the next stage of rising tension.

I put a lot of time into managing player and PC stress when running horror games. Stress goes hand in hand with excitement, with fear, with perceived threat. No one can sustain a high state of stress or excitement for an indefinitely long period of time: eventually, it will become exhausting. Whatever the source of stimulation is will lose its power and become the norm—but without space to breathe and relax, to be in a less agitated state and complete the stress cycle, there’s no way for players or their PCs to reset. Stress from that source of stimulation (perceived threat, ominous foreshadowing, danger, etc.) will linger until time can be taken to release it. And while it lingers, players will often become more jaded, less invested, and more fatigued or bored.

When I ran lots of Call of Cthulhu, I planned for both building stress *and* for releasing it. After building up a layer of scary moments, spooky clues, or anything that got my players inching forward to the edge of their seats, I would ease back. I’d turn up the lights again, I’d give them peaceful moments in their characters’ homes or in some place that felt comfy and less threatening. I’d switch the background music to the more contemplative and peaceful tracks, away from Lustmord’s unnerving drones. And I’d help them feel rewarded for their venture into danger as they pieced together whatever puzzle or story they were trying to uncover.

That took a lot of practice to do well.

What I hadn’t realized until today is that dungeon crawls operate on the same stress cycle. I feel a bit silly, when I think about it, because I’ve had all the parts in front of me for so long: most OSR and dungeon crawls can be tied to the horror genre, after all. I’ve known that for a while. But that means that dungeon crawls thrive on the same pattern of excitement and rising tension, climax, resolution, and rest… and can be run on that pattern. 

Or, more negatively, they can suffer when they *aren’t* run as such. No one can maintain peak excitement, peak tension, indefinitely. That first frisson of diving into the unknown, of staying constantly alert for danger, will eventually run down and give way. With enough exposure, the frightening will become the familiar. Players may be inclined to give up their caution in pursuit of something new and exciting, or they might be unwilling to risk their PCs and thus settle into a more boring and unrewarding routine.

As mentioned above, a repeated stimulus will eventually lose its novelty. A given threat will need to be introduced in new contexts or with new stakes in order to hold players’ interest, or removed from play until it feels new again. After all, there are only so many times your party can round the corner into a group of hostile goblins before the players say, “hey, we’ve done all this before, why should we care?”

On the same note, retracing one’s path step-by-step through the same locale time and again robs that place of its novelty and makes fighting through it more chore than pleasure. This is especially true when there isn’t time for fictional context to shift, for the underlying environment or rationale for conflict to change.


If we want to run dungeon crawls with more focus on that stress cycle, what can we do?

Fortunately, the basic structure of the cycle is built into the dungeon delve already. Any time the PCs fall back and make camp, they’re trying to some degree to complete the stress cycle. Any time they push further into the dungeon, they’re pursuing excitement and tension. And there are smaller cycles within the larger one as well: the start of an encounter, its climax, and the moment to breathe again at the end. 

In fact, reducing tension at that rest-point in the cycle is a rewarding experience! You might not want to go all the way back to zero every time. As long as the party is in the dungeon, the fiction probably won’t let you. But letting the level of tension oscillate while gradually increasing is perfect for horror. Dungeon crawls can do the same, and may work well going even further towards that return to relaxation and reward.

The first step, then, is to give weight to all sections of the stress cycle. Most dungeon crawls emphasize the rising tension and the climax. But by giving fictional and descriptive weight to those breathers, taking a quick moment to recreate the game’s atmosphere for the players *without* trying to add more tension, we can create more variation within the game and heighten players’ experience of both the crescendoes and the quiet moments.

But what about raising the tension again?

We know that repeated stimuli lose their power. Retreading one’s steps, re-entering the same dungeon, will be a very different experience than entering it for the first time. I want encounters on a repeat visit to have a markedly different tone than an encounter from the first visit. Everything should build on the prior fiction. At the basic level, maybe this time the goblins around the corner will flee and try to warn others instead of attacking the PCs.

As storyteller, I think the goal should be to rebuild tension gradually. Surprise escalations should be relatively rare: after all, if surprises are frequent they aren’t surprising. Therefore, I’ll use any tools I can to handwave past obstacles that I as the storyteller *know* aren’t part of the planned excitement and stress cycle. If the PCs have found a shortcut, they should be able to use it. If I’m using random encounters, I should check for that quietly and then skip over any travel that doesn’t play into that encounter. Unless you’re aiming for a more grinding game feel, retracing one’s past steps should feel fast or novel or both.

Thus, we’re trying to abstract away from the granular step-by-step level of exploration that is so much a part of a first visit to a dungeon. Evocative descriptions of the space, of the evidence of their prior visit, let the PCs bypass old territory with a montage. As the first step of rebuilding tension, this is also the perfect time to announce future badness with little hints of what might be in store for the PCs later.

If that bypassing isn’t possible there should be PC-accessible reasoning as to why, clued in the fiction, ideally with novel situations for the PCs to explore. But doing that makes the old space the backdrop for whatever new tension you’re creating, and I think that’s harder to do well. If nothing else, it gives you fewer new tools to work with and requires you to reimagine contexts for what you’ve already presented.

But the real secret is to pay close attention to how the players are doing. If you don’t already know them so well that you can read them at a glance, ask them directly. Heck, ask them directly even if you do know them that well. Do it whenever you take a break—humans need to stretch and eat and drink and use the toilet, so take advantage of those natural pauses to check in.

Then, recalibrate to wherever they currently are on the stress cycle and get back to it.

Now then… I’ve written this in a rush and feel like I’ve lost track of things. Please let me know if it makes any sense, if you see any glaring holes, or if it inspires anything new for you!


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