How to Build a Better Dungeon or Die Trying

Hello Dear Reader, and welcome back. I’m Jim, your DM/GM/semi-professional Party-Splitter. Today, I’ll be talking about the classic icon of any fantasy roleplaying game: the dungeon. The dungeon is the seat of many of the greatest stories and adventures, from the Mines of Moria, to the great dark of Undermountain. Dungeons have been with fantasy since its beginning, and I suspect dungeons will be around until the last character sheet has been thrown away and the last dice has been rolled.

One would be inclined to think, since dungeons are so important to fantasy roleplaying, that most DMs would have a pretty good idea of how to make a good one. Yeah…about that…

Now I’m not saying that I know better than most DMs. Well, not exactly that. I’m saying that despite knowing better, many DMs lose control when designing dungeons. I mean, after all, who can say no to the massive dungeon crawls of 1st edition or even advanced D&D? Weren’t they awesome? No. In some ways yes. But mostly no.

This might cause wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst some, but hear me out, you wailers and gnashers. What is the purpose of a dungeon? Is it to show off you engineering genius to your players? No. Is it to confuse and mesmerize your players with an endless maze of tunnels and chambers? No. Is it to slowly pick your players off one by one as they die from endless traps, hideous beasts, and nefarious puzzles? Not even a little. Dungeons have one purpose: to be the set of a fun adventure. That’s it.

Most DMs know this, in the abstract. They would never intentionally design a boring adventure. Unfortunately, that is what many DMs do when faced with the prospect of dungeon building. Why do they do this? I blame three things: RPG video games (always gotta blame those), The Tomb of Horrors, and human nature.

First: video games. In many RPG video games, the endless dungeon makes sense; the point of video games is to get loot, kill things, and level up, all while mashing buttons and pounding energy drinks to keep those bloodshot eyes open for just five more minutes. Now if I just described your D&D sessions (replace mashing buttons with rolling dice), then this blog is not for you. I am not talking to those kinds of tables.

This idea of the “endless dungeon” has crept into the tabletop world, and has caused many DMs to subconsciously hold to it as the ideal. This makes sense. Most DMs play video games, and most probably play video games more than actual D&D sessions. (Most.) Thus their exposure to dungeons is mostly of the video game variety. These dungeons are often one long hack and slash, and so that is what “dungeon” comes to mean.

Second: The Tomb of Horrors. If you have never heard of the Tomb of Horrors, look it up. It is essentially the deadliest dungeon ever created (the deadliest that players actually have a chance of beating. It’s easy to create an unbeatable dungeon). The point of the dungeon is to challenge the best of the best. All but the highest echelon of parties and characters die horribly. A favorite of DMs whose players are getting a little to full of themselves.

I use the Tomb of Horrors as a prime example of a particular kind of dungeon. The problem with this kind of dungeon stems from the fact that the point of the dungeon is to slaughter the party. This means that the actual fun comes in surviving, not in playing. Being able to claim to have survived the Tomb of Horrors is the prize and point of running through it. It is not the adventure itself which is designed to be fun. As a matter of fact, it is designed to punish players and so is not a “fun” activity (at least for them).

Dungeons ought to be fun! This is an obvious point, but one that needs to be kept in mind. DMs often come up with a clever trap or a death dealing monster, and fail to ask the simple question, “Will this be more fun for everyone at the table?” If the answer is “No, but it is a really cool trap/puzzle/monster and I really want to include it,” don’t include it. It’s as simple as that. The Tomb of Horrors inspired DMs to be clever. That’s good. However, it also inspired them to be too clever. That’s not. A DM should always strive to be a tiny bit more clever than most clever player at his table.

Third and finally: human nature. Nothing we can do about this one except recognize it and move on. It is an element of human nature to assume that bigger always equals better. (There is a decided lack of tiny CR20 creatures in D&D.) This is never more true than in dungeons. Bigger and bigger, more rooms, more traps, more creatures. It’s got to be better that way, right? Wrong!

Fortunately, there has been something of a recognition of this fact in the community in past few years, and the monstrous dungeons of yore are slowly fading. Replacing this is a new structure called The Five Room Structure. Check out this video by Matt Click at A Fistful of Dice: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hunw_AQDG94.

Now I’m not saying that every dungeon has to be relatively small, nor am I saying that it has to be beatable in one session. What it has to be is dynamic, engaging and fresh. There are two examples that I like to think of here. First is Moria, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Moria is a huge, sprawling complex of caves, tunnels, chambers, and the like. A mine, a city, and a labyrinth of caverns all in one.

The Fellowship, aka, the “party” travel from one side to the other in three days. Rather than detailing each and every room the party goes to, Tolkien, aka the “dungeon master”, focuses on a few places and events, the Riddle and the Watcher, the three way fork, the Tomb of Balin, the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. At each of these, something important happens, and so is worth detailing. Build dungeons the same way. Make them as big as you like, just don’t detail every room, passageway, and chamber in which the party finds itself. Choose a few important locations and build exciting encounters in each. I guarantee it will be more fun for your players than an endless expanse of encounter rooms.

The second example I like to use is actually from a video game. Well, a video game series. I’m talking about The Legend of Zelda. I know what I said earlier about video games, and that still holds. I just want to draw one thing from this game: variation. Something that LoZ does very well is mix up dungeons with exciting variations. In this room, the enemies are high on a platform. How are you gonna kill them from down here? In the next room, the enemies are right in front of you, but in order to see, you have to keep the torches lit. In a third room, there are no enemies, but to get through you have to figure out how to burn the vines which cover the door.

Each room in a Zelda dungeon has a unique feel to it, something that makes it different from every other room in the dungeon. Maybe it has one strong monster, or maybe it has a ton of weak monsters. Maybe you have to fire arrows at a dragon while flying through the air with your hook shot, all while the platform beneath your feet is falling away, or maybe it’s a simple task of pushing statues around so the mirrors on each reflect light onto a switch.

The point I’m making is that every encounter in a dungeon needs to feel unique. If you just used a bunch of little enemies in the last room, use a strong guy in this one. If you’ve been sending a lot of enemies at the party, mix things up with a puzzle, or someone or something with which to roleplaying (Magic Mouth, anyone?). No two encounters in an adventure should feel the same to your party.

I hope this helps you construct better dungeons in the future. Let me know how you construct dungeons: what works, what to use, and what to avoid!

That’s it for today! Talk to you next time!

Happy gaming, and remember to Always Split the Party!

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2 thoughts on “How to Build a Better Dungeon or Die Trying

  1. Thanks for this article! My one weakness as a DM has always been my dungeon creation. This has at least given me another lens to view my dungeon creation. The video was also really good. I do appreciate these articles.

    Like

    • Thanks! I’m glad that it helped! Dungeon design has always been a struggle for me as well. Once I started thinking in terms of the Five Room Structure and the Zelda Variation, my dungeons became way more fun, both for me to run and for my players to go through.

      Like

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