Dungeon delvers often get bogged down because they try to hit every room or because smash-n-grab tactics rarely get them the most sought-after prizes.
Delvers aren’t exterminators. They aren’t archaeologists. They aren’t maids. Make the delve move by not requiring the players to have their characters clean out every room on every level.
(If the players were that keen on housecleaning, they’d be doing that instead of attending the game.)
This is because players don’t fully avail themselves of characters in the roles of scout or the game master doesn’t realize how scouts (and practicing diviners) are excellent means of providing a guiding hand without undermining the exploration aspects of a delve.
Here is where the game master can show what’s in their hand without unduly tipping it in the players’ favor — and more importantly — speed the characters’ way through the dungeon.
Here is what characters using divination magic should be able to realistically provide:
— Provided they have an accurate description and understanding of the level’s big treasure, the diviner should, at least, provide directional guidance, pointing to what corner of the dungeon it resides.
— If the big treasure is a magic item of power, then an indication that it requires another object or person that acts as a trigger to activate it. “Yes, we know where the thing is, but we need the thing that actually makes it work! Well, it’s down this way.”
— If an NPC baddie has a strong association with the desired object. “I see it cradled in the hands of a one-eyed necromancer!” Find the necromancer, you find the object. You may also snag a tricked out eyepatch, too.
Scouts should be good at listening and observation (Perception), but also intuiting what the information they’ve gleaned really means (Intelligence, Wisdom). A scout placed in a strategic position dedicates a sizable amount of game time (but not table time) learning about the terrain, people and monsters ahead.
Using Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage as source material, I’ll build an example of what a scout can learn. I’m supposing that a scout is on Level 3, in the webbed tunnels, watching the comings and goings in areas 5, 6 and 7 on the map. Areas within the scout’s vision range will have low DCs on the three skill checks, while those just beyond have a medium DC and the area farthest from the observation point will have the highest DC. Perception matters more on the nearby checks, but Intelligence and Wisdom on the farthest ones, because the scout must infer the activity beyond based on expertise and educated guesses based on activity and other conversations overheard.
With confidence the scout reports the following:
>There are four quaggoth guards at the entrance, and a male drow mage they address as “Mage Telenna” who checks in on them.
>There are four troglodyte slaves mining a vein of what looks like gold. There is a thick web overhead, clearly something spidery is guarding them.
> A drow priestess who her four attendants reverently refer to as Priestess Auvryndar uses a gemstone to open a great door and gain access to a temple beyond. Her retinue includes the four attendants – two male, two female – three giant spiders and sometimes the drow mage.
With less confidence, the scout can report:
> There is a prison cell block farther in, overseen by four to seven grimlock guards. One prisoner they tease, saying “Lamplighter, you will be sacrificed to Lolth. Baby spiders in the belly!” and then laugh heartily about it. They have two other high-value prisoners being interrogated. One is being asked questions about “Warlord Azrok” and the other they treat with deference, getting good meals and regular checks, whom they call Marda, Martha or Marta, the scout can’t be sure.
With least confidence, the scout can report:
> There seems to be a drow residence for the priestess and loyal followers. Based on the number of female drow carrying whips, there must be some sort of torture chamber down there, too.
That is a lot of solid information — not perfect by any standard — but certainly reliable enough the PCs can plan their next move. They can bypass the drow stronghold or try to raid it — the choice still rests with them — yet thanks to a scout they can make it an informed choice.
Of course, there’s another revelation to consider. The diviner is still telling them they shouldn’t even be on this level — the dagger’s somewhere in Skullport; he’s sure of it. On the other hand, the dagger is strongly associated with a hobgoblin warlord, whom he senses in a warren somewhere to the west of their location. But how to get there?
Get a scout, get a diviner, and dive in.