Making Awesome Dungeons

by Mike Shea on 11 October 2010

Note, this article has been updated in December 2016 from the original written in October 2010.

Dungeons are one of the staples of Dungeons & Dragons. Hell, the term makes up 50% of the title of the game (not including the ampersand). When we talk about "dungeons", we're using the term to cover a wide range of locations. Crypts, cellars, prisons, decaying temples, ancient catacombs, castle ruins; any and all of these can be considered "dungeons" from our roleplaying game standpoint. When we talk about dungeons, we're really talking about a series of rooms or chambers connected by halls or passages of some sort.

So we have an idea what dungeons are, but what makes them awesome? Let's dig in.

Familiar, Functional, and Fantastic

Many moons ago, D&D developer Rodney Thompson described three key criteria for good locations called the three "Fs". These included keeping locations familiar, functional, and fantastic. A good dungeon meets these as well as any location.

First, players have to understand the dungeon's function. What does it resemble? What metaphor can we use from real-life that helps to describe it? Is it a series of tunnels similar to an underground train station? Is it a set of crypts like those found in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? What makes this dungeon familiar enough that players can relate to it?

Second, who made it and why? What purpose does the dungeon serve? How exactly does it work? What keeps it still working over the years? Even in Tomb of Horrors Gary Gygax had little demons and devils that ran around the tomb resetting traps. What keeps your traps in good working order over the years? Sure, magic can always do the trick, but what about waterwheels and huge counterweights? Continually flowing water can work as a powerful source of kinetic energy to keep ancient dungeons continually moving. Heat and fire is another one, creating gas that moves huge stone pistons if the heat is great enough. How does your dungeon work?

Third, every dungeon should be fantastic. Ancient scripture painfully etched into the walls over tens of thousands of years. Massive underground waterfalls that fall thousands of feet below. An ancient prison hanging suspended over the center of a volcano for only the worst offenders of the Elemental Chaos. Size is the easiest way to make something feel fantastic. Big things, cyclopean things, are awe inspiring. What makes your dungeon fantastic?

Wrap It in a Strong Story

Every dungeon needs a good story, or maybe more than one. First, the dungeon needs an origin. Whether it came from the path of the God that Crawls or was built as a tomb to an ancient stone giant lich, there needs to be a tale for it's creation. Second, it needs to support the current story. Why are your PCs there? What happened to bring them there? What happened here before? Why do they give a shit? Are they rescuing someone? Are they looking for a vital piece of information? Are they recovering a powerful artifact before someone else does it? Like the layers of a dungeon, our story might too have multiple layers overlapping it.

Every room can tell a story. Each room might have a secret to share. Life is too short for empty chambers. Each chamber might tell what it used to be, what it is now, and why the characters should care.

Layers of History

Dungeons and the chambers within can be wrapped in layers of history. Different groups could have used them for different things over the years. What was it when it was created? What did it become? What is it used for now? These layers can appear like layers of wallpaper in an old house, each one telling a different story about those who once called it home. What three layers does your dungeon have?

Fill Out Dungeons with Monuments, Traps, Relics, and Secrets

Good dungeons are filled with ancient monuments and complicated traps. They are littered with forgotten relics. All of these are wrapped with secrets relevant to the character's interests and goals.

The monsters we choose to fill out a dungeon should likely fit the context of the story. You likely don't want to use pure random encounters. Contextually appropriate random encounters, like those found in published adventures, can work well. If you're at a loss for which monsters to pick, take a look at the Monsters by Environment table in the Dungeon Master's Guide page 302.

From Cellars to the Underdark

Dungeons can appear in just about any shape or size but there are some sweet spots for dungeons. The Underdark, as portrayed in Out of the Abyss or the massive dungeon complex underneath Waterdeep known as Undermountain are massive in scale. These are campaign-sized dungeons and they're not typical. A lot of times, our dungeons will be small. They might be a single room beneath a church that happens to have a vampire spawn trapped within it.

For a typical single-session adventure, a dungeon is a series of three to nine rooms—most often five rooms. As DMs, we can pick and choose the size of dungeons that best fit the context of the story, the interest of the players, and the length of the dungeon exploration we want. Sometimes this length might just be a scene, sometimes it might be the length of a whole campaign.

The Depths of Adventure

Dungeons are the great pillars of exploration. Whether they're the cellars under a bar or a massive dark cathedral buried under rock for fifty thousand years, dungeons are the pockets of wonder that keep our players on the edge of their seats. Keep a few tools on hand to bring your dungeons to life and fill their eyes with wonder and adventure.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.

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Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.