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For non-heroic I mean that players have no quality beyond any other human (in a fantasy world):

  • If players have access to magic, it's scarce and more utility than power
  • Players can easily die (as any human would)
  • Players heal their injuries slowly (as any human would)
  • Players have standard physical and mental abilities
  • Players have standard equipment with them

With that in mind, I found out it becomes really hard to work out a dungeon in the standard RPG sense of it (a series of rooms filled with puzzles, monsters and treasures).

As I see it, in such a dungeon players would need to rest and be able to withstand or deal great amounts of damage, if they expect to fight interesting creatures (nobody wants to fight for hours only with goblins, rats or similar).

How could a dungeon be designed so a non-heroic party could have fun with it?

To avoid being too broad here's what I expect from a Dungeon in this non-heroic setting:

  • A challenge for players
  • The possibility to include interesting monsters
  • Ensuring the players might be able to go "deep" in the dungeon (no need for it to be easy), facing more challenging encounters every time

This should be independent of the system, but if you feel it isn't, I'd take FATE 2, which lets the player be non-heroic.

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While still being "kind of" heroic, The Dark Eye has a different approach to dungeons than most other high-fantasy systems I know. It's generally more leaning to realism than to fantasy and challenges are very easily adapted by either changing the generation points (GP) which are used to create the character and its abilities and attributes, or by using the same rules which govern PC creation for NPC generation.

Now, in TDE there are only a hand full of different dungeons, which is either mines, sewers or some large building, for example a castle. There is very little in terms of mundane or magic traps and is generally discouraged unless the trap could be realistically built with little more than medieval knowledge and a proper justification for the trap to be there. This is simply because paying engineers to build contraptions like that is really expensive.

At the same time, while combat can sometimes drag out a bit, as soon as a hit has been scored, it really hurts, depending on the additional rules used. A single hit from a sword can seriously impair a characters ability to act. Magic, while powerful, is a scarce resource, and casters can be quite vulnerable, especially since magic is impaired by wearing anything made of iron, and casting can take quite some time ( or is difficult).

This means that most, or many, dungeons in TDE tend to be more of the exploration side, gathering intel, interacting with each other.

In the short time I had the opportunity to GM a TDE4.1 game for my players, my players always acted very careful and, discouraged by lack of military grade equipment and the advantages granted by the system to the outnumbering faction, tried to talk it out rather than risk getting stabbed.

TDE also has integrated "support" for non-heroic characters from the beginning. Why not play a Hunter that is on adventure with his friends, the smith, the farmer and the maid. These characters still are "heroic". It is a game about heroes after all. But not in the same sense as them being heroes in a more comic-y way.

What I learnt from TDE for this kind of playstile is this:

  1. Use what makes sense in your world
  2. Make combat meaningful - Don't throw enemy after enemy at them
  3. Use traps only where it's actually useful, possibly making the act to disarm it a puzzle
  4. Use planning as a game mechanic. If your players are going to explore some cave system, let them plan it out first. What do you want to take with you? No food, no water? No medicine? Who is carrying all that stuff?
  5. Where did they get that equipment from? Why would a weapons smith sell a sword to a commoner? (In TDE, commoners don't exactly have the right to carry a weapon in many regions)
  6. Make time a factor, if applicable. Is the owner coming back soon? Do you really want to be there when he arrives?
  7. Is it really a good idea to go into that icy-cold water, when you dont have a way to dry afterwards? Use the environment as a challenge.
  8. Show the players, or better, let them experience, how superior their enemy is, and present them with opportunities to create advantages that help them achieve victory. Or in other words (as always): Make it meaningful.
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If the PCs are "normal humans", then the opponents and situations they face shouldn't be any more difficult than the things humans face in the real world. Exploring a cave system is hazardous in itself, especially without specialized equipment. Meeting up with certain animals (bear, wolf, mountain lion, tiger) that one might find in the outer regions of a cave is potentially fatal or permanently crippling.

Things to remember are that, in the real world, surface animals won't be found far into the "total darkness" zone of a cave. If a bear can't navigate out by hearing and feel, he won't go in. The deeper parts of a natural cave are unlikely to be populated by anything larger than a bat (effectively, in the real world, a mouse with wings) and I'm unaware of any venomous creature that dwells full time in caves (of course, one might find a snake fairly close to the entrance).

If the dungeon is artificial, then it was likely designed to be deadly, in order to protect or imprison something -- and if that's the case, PCs likely aren't going in blind, and should be prepared for the likelihood they won't all leave alive.

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I would assume a game with non-heroic characters would be more like Call of Cthulhu and similar games. Not the setting, but what the players do. As in Cthulhu, 'normal' people cannot hope to defeat more then one or two real monsters in combat. Even if the have some weapons, a group of peasants is no match for a band of battle-hardened Orcs. Normal animals like bears or wolves seem like the limit of what regular people can handle in terms of fighting.

So, fun needs to be found in the exploration of the dungeon itself. In Call of Cthulhu, the players generally investigate some kind of mystery, maybe this could work in a dungeon setting as well? Maybe they are trying to figure out why these deserted halls that used to belong to the Dwarves were suddenly deserted by its residents decades ago. Or maybe they're following a prophesy that promises great riches at the heart of the mountain.

Challenges can be more mundane as well. Getting to the other side of a deep pit is suddenly much more dangerous without magical healing at your side. Animals can roam the hallways. Maybe mechanical traps that split the party apart, or maze-like tunnels with a Minotaur roaming around in them. Or doorways that can only be opened by solving some kind of puzzle.

It feels like, with normal people as characters, the game would naturally gravitate towards something horror-y (for me at least). Normal people are simply not as fearless and bold as heroic adventurers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this approach very much, I think playing up the survival horror style is an excellent idea and was going to suggest that myself. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Aug 2 '16 at 14:19
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The main problem with non-heroic people in the dungeon seems to come from the combat part of the dungeon. Puzzle solving doesn't really depend on the special abilities of the characters and neither does exploration. Traps might count, but the lack of fast healing only means that the traps should be easier to spot and the party more careful. So your main problem with non-heroic dungeon crawling is: "How do I make combat interesting?".

1. Less is more

There is no reason to have a dozen combat encounters in a dungeon. Any halfway sane person would decide to leave if half of the party nearly dies and they have no way of getting them on their feet. You can skip combat to focus on investigation and exploration, and simply have a single interesting combat encounter at some point, be it the ancient monster or a rival group of treasure hunters. A few, meaningful fights mean much more and have a greater impact than running into random monsters. You can also spice up the investigation where your players have clues and hints about the eventual fights and they can prepare accordingly (or misunderstand the clearest clues and pack holy water and stakes to fight a dragon). Humanity is a race of tool users, with enough time and resources normal humans can kill a great many things. Downside is if your players don't like making intricate plans and figure out clues, than this approach can quickly lead to rolling new characters.

2. Fear is good

Use fear on both sides of combat. Give your players ways to retreat, and make sure the enemies can and will retreat if they feel like it. Why would an ambush predator fight to death, if the prey noticed it and injured it? Why would a group of people try to kill a monster right away if they have a chance to retreat and try again? Make it very clear, that real fights are deadly, and humans are not always on the top of the food chain. On the other hand in most cases there should be ways to end combat without killing everything in sight, because most things value their lives, and humans can be pretty high up on aforementioned chain. There are usually easier prey around or a better opportunity to attack in the future.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good stuff. Re: #2: imagine a dungeon where the same creature is stalking you through a dozen rooms, probing your defenses and trying to whittle you down through attrition. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex P Aug 3 '16 at 13:30
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The dungeon you describe works best when the non-heroic party is able to explore it in a non-heroic manner. Generally, this means at least the following:

  1. They can explore it at their own pace, fully able to stop / run away any time they are not satisfied with perceived or actual level of danger.
  2. They can, at least often enough, guesstimate the level of danger to be low enough to proceed.

The challenge then mostly shifts from direct confrontation with whatever level-appropriate opposition is behind the door you've just kicked in, to:

  1. Correct assessment of the surroundings and their inhabitants.
  2. Planning, and executing, a reasonably safe way of getting some of stuff that is to be gotten from this dungeon.

Namely, this includes determining if, and when, to leave the rest of the dungeon alone, unplundered, and turn to other dungeons. You generally don't expect a large challenging non-heroic dungeon to be completely cleared, at least not in one go.

As an example of this, take an old abandoned dwarven mine. It includes:

  1. A vertical shaft with a rusted lift in questionable condition.
  2. A sloped narrow railway with a rusty cart on it, with the brakes that have mostly rusted away.
  3. Wooden beams supporting the ceiling that are better not be hit with anything, let alone a derailing cart.
  4. A huge storage room with lage crates, large spider webs, and, presumably, large spiders. From the look at them, it is unclear what is in the crates.
  5. A smithy and a repair shop, with tools and materials.
  6. An office with a locked safe with a log of all things coming in and out of the mine, that, if you can read dwarven and do some thinking, could point out the things that were received from the surface just before the log ends (a lot of canned food) and things that were scheduled for shipping out, but not shipped (a lot of mithril ore, possibly including a listed quantity of nuddets of listed weights).
  7. A considerable number of assorted skeletons, most of them dwarven or kobold, doing the mining in a side track. A kobold shaman necromancer leading a small tribe struggling to get enough food, but having a steady supply of the metal.
  8. Large metal doors, obviously of dwarwen construction, cold and wet, with a screw that apparently allows to open them. Everything to the other side of the doors is completely flooded.
  9. A demonic altar, misuse of which has caused the demise of the dwarves.
  10. Levels below, with long-time lack of sufficient ventilation. The party did bring a canary with them, didn't they?

Now, it could be seen from this short description, even without giving any specifics, that there are courses of action that would certainly get the party killed. What is impartant is that most of them could be reasonably expected and, one way or another, dealt with. There are lesser rewards, greater rewards, and greater dangers (or ingenuity requirements) associated with greater rewards, so your players can have as much challenge as they can deal with.

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