by Mike Shea on 2 January 2018
Note, this article has been updated from the original written in October 2010.
Dungeons are one of the staples of Dungeons & Dragons. They even make up 50% of the title of the game. Today we're going to look at how best to make our dungeons awesome.
For the sake of this article, we're going to use the term "dungeon" widely. Decrepit crypts, moldering cellars, sinister 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 a dungeon awesome?
Long ago in a lost D&D podcast, D&D developer Rodney Thompson described three key criteria for good locations called the three "Fs". These included making locations familiar, functional, and fantastic. We can, of course, apply these to our fantastic dungeons.
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? 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, we can always fall back to "magic", but what about huge waterwheels and massive counterweights? Continually flowing water works as a powerful source of kinetic energy to keep ancient dungeons continually moving. Heat and fire also work, creating gas that moves huge stone pistons if the heat is great enough.
Third, every dungeon should be fantastic. Ancient frescoes painfully etched into the walls over tens of thousands of years. Massive underground waterfalls that fall hundreds of feet below. A black iron 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?
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 Worm God or was built as a tomb to an ancient stone giant lich, there needs to be a tale for the dungeon'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.
Dungeons and the chambers 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?
One secret gleaned during the development of Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations is the idea of defining three "area aspects" to each area within a location. For any given dungeon we might have five to ten rooms or chambers. Each of these rooms and chambers might have three "area aspects" that help make it fantastic and functional. Here are ten example features we might have in any given room:
These tags need be little more than a phrase to let our imaginations and the imaginations of our players run wild during the game. Keep it simple and stay lazy.
The monsters we choose to fill out a dungeon fit the context. We likely don't want to use pure random encounters. Contextually appropriate random encounters, like those found in published adventures or Xanathar's Guide, 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.
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 campaign-sized dungeons are not typical. Many 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.
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.