Predatory video games love their pay to win mechanics, but what if we want to put those mechanics into DnD in the form of a pay to win dungeon? This dungeon concept has a simple design that can be used as either a fun one-off mechanic or as course correction when you end up giving your players too much gold.
The idea is simple: A long and complex dungeon with a unique and challenging danger in each room that can be bypassed with money or treasure. The whole concept may seem cheesy, but actually can work surprisingly well in all sorts sorts of settings! So let’s put on our triple A video game executive suits and juice our players for every cent they have!
Why You Would Use a Pay To Win Dungeon
The idea of a pay to win dungeon works because of a simple principle: it gives your players more choices.
As a general rule of thumb, the more choices your players get to make, the more fun they will have with your game. This both lets them feel like they have more agency in the game and it tones down the negative feelings from performing poorly in tasks that are up to random dice rolls. Even if players end up with negative outcomes, the players made choices that put them in that situation; they largely feel that they crafted the story a bit more themselves.
Each room in the pay to win dungeon should have a central choice: do players want to face the challenge or pay to bypass it? Your players will get to consider the challenge, their resources, hypothesize the size of the dungeon, and discuss possible decisions with the group. A simple choice done regularly and with good structure adds a lot of value to your game by standardizing a whole collection ideas around a central point. This also helps your players think about their resources as keys, which is another concept we’ve discussed before that considers a similar choice style for dungeon progression.
So that’s our elevator pitch on why you might want to make a pay to win dungeon for gameplay reasons, but there are other advantages. Most notably, pay to win dungeons are a really good way to drain money and treasure from an overly wealthy party without taking it away. Each time your party gives up money in this dungeon, they have made a choice. Because it is their choice they don’t feel like you are unjustly taking their cash. While it would be nice to say we never accidentally make our parties too rich, it actually happens all the time. So this can be a fun way to clean up our mistakes as DMs.
Lastly, pay to win dungeons are great for storytelling. A dungeon built to fill its own vault by taking money from greedy adventurers looking to dive deeper is a very fun treasure dungeon concept. Best of all, even if players make it to the end, the dungeon architect may have designed the whole dungeon to make it so you can’t take out more treasure than you used to get to the end, thus breaking even at worst and profiting at best. Kind of like a casino.
This is just one story possibility too. You could have the dungeon going up a mountainside path with demons guarding the way up. Each is easily bribed of course, but it is always the players’ choice to pay or fight. The concept ends up being remarkably flexible and is only limited by your imagination.
Structure of a Pay to Win Dungeon
A pay to win dungeon should have a few key concepts built into it. First and foremost, you will need to design your pay to win mechanic. This can be a magical altar outside of each room with two doors – one a path to safety and another a path to danger. It could also be an NPC who collects a toll or presents the challenge. It might be a coin slot in the wall.
No matter how you setup the payment gateway, you want to make sure it is consistent, understandable, and explained to your players in some fashion. You can be cryptic about it if you want, but the players need to understand how the mechanic works at a bare minimum so that they can make meaningful decisions as they go forward.
Discreet Challenges and Rooms
Next, each challenge needs to be discreet. You can’t have rooms and challenges that bleed into each other. This is because players need time to make a decision at each step and their past decisions should only effect the resources they have on hand for their next decision. You should not force them to make certain choices because of continuing actions from previous challenges. So no boulders rolling after them into the next room. The pay to win choice has to exist on its own.
A Linear Dungeon Path
In addition to each challenge being discreet, you should also make the path linear. This might sound boring, but a pay to win dungeon in conjunction with a maze would be exceptionally brutal on your party’s pocket books. It is also hard to make decisions about moving forward when you aren’t sure that you actually are moving forward. Branching paths in this style of dungeon really do make the whole affair much tougher to conceptualize for your players.
Unique Challenges with Known Components
Unique but known challenges are also a must. Players have to know what they are paying to skip. This can be as simple as knowing if a room is a combat encounter, trap, or a puzzle. By giving them this information the party has a reason to decide to skip a room. If they’re low on HP they might start skipping traps or combat and take every puzzle they can get.
The Right Amount of Challenge and Length
And finally, a pay to win dungeon has to be sufficiently long and challenging. If the challenges are too easy, the players will never choose to skip a room. If the dungeon is too short, they can just pay through every gate and your session is over in 15 minutes.
You’ll need to scale your challenge to your players and adjust the length of the dungeon to fit their coin purse. The nice thing about this is that since each room is discrete and your players don’t know how long the dungeon is, you can make a lot of extra rooms and end the dungeon at any time.
If the first couple of sections are too hard then the dungeon ends quicker. If the first sections are too easy, no problem, you’ve got 100 more rooms ready to go. Also, every time your players skip a room, they’ve never seen it, so it can just go back in rotation!
An Exercise in Encounter Design
Building a good pay to win dungeon relies on creating many individual encounters for your players. Having a unique and different challenge in each room is what gives your players choices to decide on what they will and will not want to face. So the more types of encounters you can create, the better that decision process becomes.
Filling in the three major categories for traps, combat, and puzzles allows you to flex your design muscles and see what you can build. If possible, you should also vary the difficulty of these encounters to give yourself flexibility in what you put in front of your players. This can really help you string together an amazing dungeon with very little work on the dungeon layout itself since it is by necessity linear.
For more on designing encounters check out some of our past articles here!
Variations on the Pay to Win Dungeon
This concept is so straightforward that it’s easy to twist. We’ll look at just a few of our favorites, but you can easily make twists of your own that can add a ton of value to the concept!
What if the pay to win mechanic was not gold and treasure, but instead tokens? At the start of the dungeon the players get a certain number of skip tokens that they can spend freely. Instead of draining your players’ finances, you are giving them a set and limited resource that they may quickly give them “too good to use” syndrome. You could also vary this by giving your players each their own pool of skip tokens so that each player gets to decide on their own when they use them or when they don’t.
But if you want to cause more tension, you can award them to just one player and force them to make each decision no matter what the rest of the team decides. There are more variations here, but this twist on the idea allows you to run the dungeon more as play what you want to style rather than a pay to win style one.
Another twist we found particularly enjoyable is the idea that rooms award treasure and there is no vault at the end. In this scenario the players have to decide if each room is worth it and if they will gain more resources than they would have to spend to progress. It’s a surprisingly simple change to the format, but it really amps up the push your luck style game play.
Since players are rewarded for completing rooms, you’re incentivizing doing as many as possible. But at the same time the rooms could get progressively harder and become more and more dangerous. This really changes how your players think about their choices and can lead to some fun group discussions.
A final twist is the easily available exit strategy. In this twist players need to get to the end of the dungeon for some special reason that fits into the plot. The pay to win mechanic is the same, but after each room there are exits that players can take to leave the dungeon and they are exclusively one way. When the players come back after exiting, they’ve lost all their progress!
This is interesting because while they have lost their progress the order of the rooms doesn’t change. Puzzles they have already solved are still solvable and combat encounters can be better strategized for. The downside is that if they want to skip more things this time around they’re going to be decidedly short on coin to do so. Do they ask NPCs for help to fund their dive? Do they go do some jobs before coming back? All of these questions and more pop up when your players need to come up with a strategy that effectively moves them towards their goal.
Perhaps the Only Good Use of Pay to Win Mechanics
In real life, pay to win mechanics are gross, unfair, and unfun. However, building a dungeon in Dungeons and Dragons around the concept of pay to win highlights their absurd nature in a way that can be mechanically interesting while still poking fun at the awful source of inspiration. With a pay to win dungeon for DnD you get lots of practice at encounter design, linear pathing, story tie-ins, and player choice design. These might just be the only good pay to win mechanics out there.