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Prepping a Dungeon

by Mike on 27 November 2023

Dungeons are probably my favorite structure for fantasy RPG adventures. There's a fixed location, interesting options, clear goals, and a nice flow for the game.

In the context of focusing on the minimum prep we need for a night of adventure, we're going to look at a simple way to prepare specifically for dungeon adventures.

Here's a quick summary for preparing a dungeon adventure:

Keeping Things Simple

It's easy to get overwhelmed when thinking about your next game. This game is so vast, how can we not get lost in the deepest reaches of our imaginations? But what if we focus down on simply running a fun dungeon delve? How can we refine the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master around this focus?

Here's an example of that refined list. For our dungeon delve, we need

An NPC Offers a Job

An NPC offering a job to the characters is an easy strong start. There's lots of different potential jobs. Page 12 of the sample chapters of the Lazy DM's Companion has a list of potential goals from NPCs. When considering your dungeon delve, pages 12 and 13 of the sample (pages 6 and 7 of the Lazy DM's Companion itself) have lots of tables to inspire you.

But the easiest way to get started is for an NPC to give the characters a job to do at a location. Fill in those blanks and you're ready to go.

Alternatively, you can skip this part and jump straight outside of the dungeon and describe the job the characters already accepted. This pre-assigned mission works great for single-session and short-session games. Skip the process of receiving and accepting the job and jump right to the dungeon with quest in hand. Just tell them what their quest is and you're off to the races.

Prep the Dungeon Map

Now we need a location. Personally, I grab the first Dyson Logos map that fits the concept of the location. Dyson has over a thousand maps with just about every type of dungeon location you can imagine. Scroll through until you find the first map that suits your needs both from the style of location (worked stone versus natural caverns) and the general number of rooms you need. Don't be picky. Grab the first one that works.

Now fill in room descriptions with one or two words. One easy way is to print the map on a piece of paper, grab a pen or sharpie, and write in one or two words to describe each chamber. Don't use long descriptions. A couple of evocative words does the trick. If you need a digital version, take a picture of your hand-annotated map and put it back in your digital notes.

Handwritten labels on a Dyson map

Alternatively, write down location descriptions in a list with a vague idea about where they might go on the map. Creating this list is easier than trying to digitally edit the map to add your own annotations.

Choose Inhabitants

Now create a list of potential inhabitants. These inhabitants might be monsters. These monsters might be intelligent bad guys, mindless minions, or hungry beasts. They might be good guys or potential NPCs to talk to. If you're using a monster book of some sort, write down the page number of the stat block for the monster on your list.

If you want to go really light, write down their CRs and use the Forge of Foes monster stats by CR and monster powers to build monsters as you need them.

You don't have to decide where these monsters reside in the location. You can decide encounter locations during play. Some monsters may make sense for specific locations while others might wander about.

Include friendly NPCs as well as monsters. Offer opportunities for roleplaying. Remember your story beats.

Write Down Ten Secrets and Clues

This tip is a direct lift from the eight steps of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The characters need to learn things as they explore the dungeon. Maybe it's knowledge about the location's history. Maybe it's the villain's secret plans. Maybe it's the history of the gods. The characters should gain knowledge as they explore the dungeon and interact with its inhabitants. Secrets and clues are the treasure of exploration.

Write Down some Treasure

While secrets and clues may be the treasure of exploration, it won't buy you a hot bowl of stew and a tasty beverage at the local pub. Players love loot, so give it to them. Roll up random loot from your favorite GM's guide or use one of the many online treasure generators (Sly Flourish Patrons have access to the Lazy GM's Generator with some awesome random loot options).

Include coins, interesting jewels and art objects, consumable magic items, single-use magical relics, and one or two permanent magic items suited to the characters. Like inhabitants, you can decide later where to drop this loot – often after fighting a big boss or discovering a hidden treasure vault.

What We Skip

This outline skips a few of the eight steps including:

Sometimes you can skip the steps above. Other times they make sense even for a dungeon delve.

A Simple Checklist for Limitless Options

Dungeon delves give us a solid adventure structure with lots of variability. Who gave the party the job? What does the job entail? What larger purpose does the job serve? What makes the location and its inhabitants unique? Like the Seven Samurai adventure model, the dungeon delve is a fantastic framework around which to build a fun and unique session.

Hopefully, with the steps above, we can get past the nervousness we all feel and prep an awesome night of high adventure.

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