The Alexandrian

Escaping the Dungeon!

February 17th, 2009

I’m in the early stages of prepping a new fantasy campaign. One of the specific design goals is that the campaign needs to be able to handle a variable group of players. That means, for the sake of verisimilitude, it’s important that — at the end of any gaming session — the PCs are no longer in the dungeon. (In other words, they need to be in a position where it’s easy to explain why — since player X can’t attend the session — character X isn’t part of the adventure next week.)

Towards that end, I am instituting a simple rule of table etiquette. There are three ways in which a gaming session can end:

(1) The players can, at any time of their choosing, make their way out of the dungeon and end the session for the evening.

(2) As the GM I can, at any time of my choosing, announce that we will stop playing in 1 hour. If, by the end of the hour, the PCs have made their way out of the dungeon, the session ends normalyly.

(3) But if they have not made their way out of the dungeon (for whatever reason), then either (a) everyone in the session can immediately commit to another session within 7 days; or (b) the Escaping the Dungeon! tables will be used to determine their fate.

The Escaping the Dungeon! tables were designed, with a tip of the hat to Jeff Reints for the inspiration, to be used determine the fate of PCs left in the dungeon at the end of the session. At the GM’s discretion they may also be used for some wilderness situations. (For most wilderness situations, I anticipate being able to use PBeM to resolve the journey back to the home base of the PCs.)


You don't know where you are.
You know where you are.
You have a clear and unhindered path of escape.

CHALLENGE ADJUSTMENT: Adjust the chance of escape by +/- 10% multipled by the difference between the average CR of the local opposition and the level of the character. (For example, a 5th-level character facing CR 7 opponents would suffer a -20% adjustment on their chance of escape. In a classic dungeon scenario, you can make this adjustment using the dungeon level — a 5th-level character on the 3rd level of the dungeon would enjoy a +20% adjustment on their chance of escape, for example.)

SMALL COMPLEX: If the characters are attempting to escape from a lair or other small complex, increase the chance of success by 10% to 20%.

MAKING THE CHECK: An escape check is made for each character separately. There is always a minimum 1% chance of escape or failure. On a failed escape check, roll 1d10 on the Failed Escape table below.


You escape unharmed.
You escape but have been permanently altered (maimed, permanently polymorphed, replaced with a double, etc.).
You escape but have been injured. You suffer 1d6 x 1d6 points of damage. (If this kills you, see result #8.)
You have lost 1d6 pieces of equipment. Determine randomly between slots and bags. If a bag is lost, all of its contents are lost with it.
You have been captured, petrified, or otherwise trapped. Roll the escape percentile again to see if your comrades know where you are. If they do not, roll the escape percentile again to see if your comrades have a clue of some sort.
You have become lost.
You have been transformed into a monster (undead, lycanthrope, mind controlled, etc.).
You have died. Roll the escape percentile again to see if your comrades were able to retrieve your body. (Instead of retrieving your body, your comrades may choose to loot it and/or leave it.) If they did not, roll the escape percentile again to see if your comrades know where your body is. If they do not, there is a 50% chance that your body has been utterly destroyed.
Opportunity for betrayal. You can choose to either reroll on this table or betray a comrade who would otherwise escape. If you choose to betray a comrade roll 1d6 -- on a roll of 1-4, you escape and they must roll on this table; on a roll of 5-6, both you and your victim suffer the fate they roll.


The primary goal of this little sub-system is not to punish the players. However, it is designed to provide them with a meaningful motivation to leave the dungeon in a timely fashion. Failing that, it is designed to provide interesting consequences that (frequently) can be followed up on subsequent forays into the dungeon — whether that’s recovering lost equipment, ransoming a lost comrade, or the like.

The actual chance of outright dying, you’ll note is quite slim. If the escape check is the standard value of 50% (and it will usually be higher), then your chance of dying is only about 10% vs. a 55%

The results of the Failed Escapes table, it should be noted, are meant to be flexibly interpreted by the GM given the exigencies of the specific situation in which the PCs find themselves at the end of the session. The creation of a short fable explaining the events leading to their escape (or lack thereof) — perhaps even one garnering them with some bit of lore or insight into the dungeon complex — would not be out of place.

And, of course, the table is specifically designed to be used in a very specific type of old school inspired campaigning. In most of my campaigns I have no problem hanging out the reliable “To Be Continued” placard.

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6 Responses to “Escaping the Dungeon!”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    I’ve been a big fan of your blog ever since someone sent me “Calibrating your expectations” a long time ago.

    I’m also one of the admins of Red Box Vancouver (, an old school sandbox that we’ve been doing for about a year-and-a-half.

    I’m wondering if this sandbox of yours got off the ground, and which system you’re using. I’m very fond of third edition d&d and have thought about trying to “port” the Basic D&D classes over to 3e, but haven’t had the time or expertise.

    Anyway, just saying I’d like to hear how the game is going.
    Thursday, July 01, 2010, 3:55:37 PM

    my group of 4 players has about a 50% chance so far of having *someone* missing, usually just one.

    When the players are not there, they go to the “green room”. I needed somewhere to put the characters when the players were missing, and it occurred to me I had placed a jade pendant in the first adventure.

    This idea was stolen from one of my co-workers, who described using this tactic when he had a group at a military base, so there was always someone missing.
    Sunday, March 22, 2009, 12:34:47 AM

  2. d47 says:

    I think I have read most of your posts on the Caverns of Thracia and the open gaming table.
    I am curious about whether your open group continued and whether you had to start using this table often given the depth and complexity of CoT.
    Did people get tired of delving without clear purposes or did clear purposes develop (beyond get to a new area) as the exploration advanced?
    Was there much roleplaying interaction with the denizens beyond the obvious allies?
    Anyway, I am quite curious about whether it continued to be as fulfilling as the initial sessions seem to have been.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @d47: The campaign went really strong for about 2-3 years. Ended up with 50+ sessions being played in total and more than 40 different players participating.

    It got pretty severely disrupted by mother’s illness last year and over the last 8-12 months I have run only a handful of sessions. I’m hoping to either start playing it more regularly in the near future or (more likely) start a new open table campaign, because the open table really is amazing at increasing the frequency of play and the number of people who can participate.

    In terms of how play developed: Goals developed organically over the course of play and revolved around a number of motivations (greed, revenge, friendship, etc.). The roleplaying dynamics within the group often dominated NPC interactions (the fact that the mix of PCs was constantly shifting seemed to heighten this), but there was also a lot of NPC interactions over the course of the game.

    Ultimately, I found the campaign very fulfilling. And I really do recommend that anyone who truly enjoys roleplaying should have an open table campaign in their pocket. Even now that the frequency of sessions has dropped to something like “once every three or four months”, it’s still nice to be able to pull the campaign out when somebody says “I really want to play some D&D”.

  4. d47 says:

    Thanks for the reply on this, Justin. Glad to know that it was such a success. I bet using OD&D helped. I cannot imagine trying to do something like this with 4e where it seems that even experienced players get option paralysis with their powers.
    The story about the flaming oil and the skeletons was classic. I’m not sure if it would have happened if players had been looking at their lists of “encounter” powers instead of thinking spontaneously.

    Thanks again for the many other very interesting posts.

  5. Oren says:

    I’ve been GMing for about two years now, and I discovered your site only a few months ago. Since then, I’ve given a lot of thought into incorporating your suggestions (such as the three clue rule and the inverted three clue rule) into my games. Because of you, I plan on starting an open table game in a mega-dungeon sometime in the coming week and I plan on using this table. Thank you for your help in improving my GMing ability!

  6. Here’s How the Sessions End | The Coin of the World says:

    […] here’s how each session will end, stolen blatantly from The Alexandrian and modified slightly to better suit this […]

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