Looking for a change of pace in your D&D game? Switch sides!

The “Reverse Dungeon” module was a breath of fresh air for the writer’s game 10 years ago. Adventures like it can do the same for your game today.

In this writer’s estimation, one of the high points of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons history was the publication of Reverse Dungeon module in 2000. As the title implied, the module reversed the roles of players and Dungeon Master (DM). The players assumed the roles of monsters living in a vast, subterranean complex; the DM assumed the role of invading heroes in three scenarios, each taking place at levels below, and against monsters more powerful, than the last.

Players were provided with complete maps of the complex, combat statistics for their monstrous “heroes,” a list of tools, weapons and material resources, along with some guidelines for how long certain tasks (such as weaponmaking, trap-setting or excavation) would take. That last consideration became important, because after the players were given this information, they were given a limited amount of real time to decide how they would modify their defenses within a longer, but still very limited, amount of game time.

The players loved it, and during play, they were speaking over each other to be the first to tell me when one of my DM-run heroes was surprised, ambushed or caught in a trap. The proverbial shoe was on the other foot, and they weren’t giving up a moment of it. They even argued about who initially suggested particularly effective defenses. And they still talk about those three “reverse” sessions ten years later.

Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper 2 explored the reverse dungeon concept, but added real-time strategy, recruitment of monsters and management of resources.

Shortly before the release of Reverse Dungeon, a similar concept was explored for computer gaming in the form of Dungeon Keeper 2 from Bullfrog. In it, the player, or Dungeon Keeper, had an overhead view of the center of his dungeon (the dungeon heart) and unexcavated land that could contain resources like gold or gems. The keeper could direct worker imps to excavate areas for rooms including lairs for sleeping, hatcheries for food, and workshops to build traps and doors, all the way up to guardrooms, prisons, torture chambers, and casinos. The rooms constructed dictated the sort of monster(s) that migrated to the dungeon. The screenshot image above, for example, shows clockwise from left a lair, hatchery, library and training room.

Periodically, the dungeon would be invaded by goodly heroes from the surface, or by the forces of a rival keeper who was competing for space or resources.

While this writer is unaware of any published reverse-dungeon type adventures for fourth edition D&D, that sort of game could be recreated easily enough, by following these steps:

  • Begin with a map of a dungeon complex, either created by the players or DM, or selected from the WotC Map Archive. Expand upon the map to identify conditions that make the location liveable for monsters, such as sources of air, food, water, and materials for making weapons and tools, along with how the complex connects to the surface. If the complex is to be populated with undead monsters that do not need many of these things, this step won’t be very involved.
  • Select an experience level for the heroes the DM is to control, and set the (former) DM to work on making up his heroes.
  • The players need to pick monsters of appropriate level. It’s also important to have sufficient numbers of those monsters, so that the accepted per-encounter experience totals for the heroes’ level can be met – although a poor choice by the DM or exceptional planning from the players could bring more than one encounter’s worth of monsters to the fight at once.
  • The DM and players can then cooperate on determining the tools and resources the monsters have, how long modifications to the complex would take, and how much game time the players should  have to make those modifications.
  • After those determinations are made, the players have until the DM is done creating the heroic invaders to finalize their defenses, including making traps, setting up sentries and alarms, feeding guard monsters and so forth.
  • Then the reverse dungeon begins.

While drafting this post, it occurred to this writer that there isn’t any reason why the reverse dungeon concept couldn’t be expanded into a short campaign. Doing so would require more collaboration beween DM and player, like deciding what subterranean features exist if the monsters undertake major renovations, what other monsters they would meet during expansion, whether or not those meetings would result in alliances or hostilities, and what resources heroic forces from the surface could realistically bring to bear against the ever-expanding dungeon. Taking a page from the Dungeon Keeper playbook, it may even be necessary for the player-run monsters to become involved in active recruitment of allies to replace losses, engage in surface raiding to feed and otherwise supply their growing horde, or otherwise employ resource management to keep the game going.

While this sort of gaming is the opposite of what the designers of 4e D&D had in mind – the game is very hero-centric and mathmatically weighted in favor of heroes, after all – it does provide both the players and DM with a refreshing break from the standard game, making the experiment well worth the effort.

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8 comments on “Looking for a change of pace in your D&D game? Switch sides!

  1. Dyson Logos says:

    Way back in 1988, TSR released “The Orcs of Thar”, a full supplement for D&D for playing humanoid races from kobolds to trolls, along with a pile of adventure ideas and hooks.

    My problem with Reverse Dungeon is the amount of hand-waving away of player preparation in the adventures. Heroes sneak past the guards no matter how they plan, and so on. It bugged me.

    That said, this style of play is awesome, from either the adventuring humanoids perspective of the Orcs of Thar or the dungeon denizens perspective of Reverse Dungeon.

  2. Alric says:

    Hi Dyson,

    I have the Orcs of Thar also; never had the chance to play it, but I still read it from time to time for the sheer fun of it – especially the Orc legion Drill manual! That’s just hilarious.

    And I look forward to trying this sort of game in a 4e setting when my schedule settles down enough to find time for regular gaming again.

    And thank you for your visit.

  3. The Red DM says:

    In the mid-90s I set a whole campaign in Undermountain with the players as monsters. Mostly it was just fighting for turf with other monsters, but some of the most fun we has was when adventuring parties would come along.

  4. Rodney says:

    I prepped Reverse Dungeon this weekend, and although we didn’t play yet I felt the whole exercise was useful. Thinking about things from a new perspective is great and adds so much to your game.

    It’s important to note though, that as GM you have to act out the heroes not having knowledge of traps and so forth, so they may take a wrong turn, follow red herrings and so forth.

  5. […] how, for example, the orcs exterminated a young dragon to gain possession of their current lair. Another Athenaeum posting describes ways that players can take the roles of […]

  6. I’d like to see how a reverse dungeon would work in 4th. We had the concept ourselves to do one, but dropped it.
    We’ve also dropped our conversion of Rappan Athuk for 4th and reverted to Pathfinder. We found some of the central balance and 15-minute day design issues to hard to overcome.

    I would like to see a discussion on that amongst like minded adventure writers

    • Alric says:

      I think the concept would translate even more easily to 4th edition, since all monster stats – right down to hit point totals – are formulaic. One of the more fluid areas of prior editions involved how to establish relative “toughness” of monsters to heroes; the comparably more involved mechanics to determine a challenge rating in 3e is a good example. A 4e writer has those formulae to rely on to ensure that the monsters-turned-PCs are mathmatically matched to heroes of a given level, who are also formula-based. While some could legitimately argue that some of the art of dungeon mastering is lost through that mechanic, it certainly would help an adventure designer in a case like this.

      Thank you for reading my blog, by the way.

      Alric

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