Making Awesome Dungeons

by Mike Shea on 11 October 2010

So twitter is all a twitter (cough) with conversations for and against dungeons. I fall on the pro-dungeon side myself. I see dungeons as a staple in fantasy roleplaying games and Dungeons and Dragons in particular. Rather than dig deep into the debate itself, I'd rather focus on ways to make dungeons awesome so today that's exactly what we're going to do. But first, what do we mean when we say dungeon?

What is a dungeon?

A dungeon can be a variety of things, mostly underground rooms connected by tunnels or hallways. It might be a vast underground network of caverns like the Underdark. Dungeons might be ancient crypts beneath an old temple. Dungeons might be the sewer network below the city or the passages below an old well. In some circumstances, dungeons might actually be dungeons, where creatures older than nightmare are entombed for all time.

Familiar, functional, and fantastic

In a recent Dungeons and Dragons podcast, the hosts described the three Fs of good locations; familiar, functional, and fantastic. A good dungeon meets these as well as any location.

First, players have to understand the dungeon. What is it for? What is its scope? Is it natural or consciously made? About how big is it? When players understand the scope, they won't feel like it's a never ending series of corridors.

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 Gygax had little demons and devils that ran around the Tomb of Horrors resetting traps. What keeps your traps in good working order over the years?

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. Dungeons should be far more than ten foot rooms. Make every dungeon fantastic.

A good 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 necromancer king, there needs to be a tale for it's creation. Second, it needs to tell a story right now. Why are your PCs there, what happened to bring them there, and what happened just before. Like the dungeon layout itself, the dungeon might have multiple layers of stories overlapping it.

For example, some kobolds might have taken a local farm maiden to sacrifice to their dark god Tiamat. To do so, they took her to the depths of an ancient tomb to one of the dragon god's priests. The tomb itself has an origin story but so do the kobolds who took her there. When the party enters, they find the leavings of both the kobolds and the tomb's original creators. Layer your stories on top of the dungeon to make it feel rich and deep.

You might even go so far as to have every room tell a story. Each room might have a purpose and a history unique to the rest of the dungeon. Use some careful perception, history, and insight checks even in the middle of combat to give players a sense of the history of the room in which they battle.

A unique setting

Dungeons become tiresome if they all start to feel the same. Ensure every dungeon is a unique entity all of its own. You can accomplish this by changing out the variables in new and interesting ways or combining origins to make something new. Is it a crypt, cellar, catacombs, sewer, or cavern or possibly even a mix of these? Is it old or relatively new? Who else owned it and what did they do with it? What purpose did it originally serve and what purpose does it serve now? Mix and match these to come up with totally unique ideas for your dungeons.

Environments that make sense

Whatever you decide on the dungeon's unique characteristics and background, the dungeon itself has to make sense. Its ecology needs to work or you'll end up with a series of monster closets. Why would a gelatinous cube sit for ten thousand years next to a room with four orcs? How can that dragon survive in a room with no exit except the small hallway the heroes entered? Ask yourself how the dungeon and its inhabitants work.

Here's a little hint for traps. Big things work better than small things. Tiny springs that activate when a thief presses some lock picks into a lock are a lot more likely to fail over a few years than huge chained weights behind the walls that threaten to squeeze the walls in. Make the mechanics of traps big and they'll be a lot more likely to last the centuries. Also, how do those traps reset? Maybe the dungeon uses the power of a running underground river to reset its mechanics or maybe massive clockwork gears push traps back into position one tick at a time.

A series of three to nine rooms

To the more practical matter of dungeon design, I point you to the idea of three to nine rooms rather than the typical large maze. There are many ways to design a dungeon but this one has, so far, been my favorite for 4th edition D&D games. Every dungeon is a series of three to nine rooms interconnected with hallways or smaller puzzle, trap, or challenge rooms. Every evening your party travels through three of these rooms with one or two challenge rooms in between. If it's a particularly large dungeon, it might be broken up into wings with your group deciding on a new path at the end of every game. This gives you the information you need to focus on your next night of adventure.

Each of your main rooms might actually be a series of chambers linked together into a single encounter or it might be an actual large room. Either way, the design works well for both the dungeon and the nature of 4e encounter design. Just remember, each room should have its own story and each battle should be important enough for your group to spend the time.

The three room adventure is the primary design behind the book Dungeon Delve, my favorite book of adventures published so far, and it works very well. Each delve represents one night of adventure based on three encounters, each taking up one room of the small dungeon. It's the perfect size for an evening of D&D.

The staple environment of Dungeons and Dragons

As you can tell, I am a big fan of dungeons. Every time I think about a party of adventurers lighting up a sunrod and delving deep into unknown horrors, my imagination runs wild. Not all dungeons are good ones, however. Spend the time to make sure your dungeon is fantastic, functional, familiar, unique, has a good story, and makes sense.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips. Want some excellent dungeon-focused sourcebooks? Pick up the Dungeon Delve, the Underdark, or the Tomb of Horrors books or bookmark this link to buy anything from Amazon.com. Looking to fill out your dungeon? Try the miniatures selection at Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

Good hunting!

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