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Running a Dungeon Crawl

by Mike on 22 August 2022

I love dungeons. Whenever I find the story of my campaigns leading to a dungeon, I feel a great sense of relief. Not everyone feels this way. Some DMs dread running dungeons.

Different DMs approach dungeons differently. Some prefer a procedural turn-driven approach focusing on resource management such as food, lighting, encumbrance, and rests. Some see running dungeons as a fundamentally different experience than running other parts of the game like wilderness exploration, city investigations, or other types of scenes. I don't.

To me, dungeon adventures are location-based situations like any other in D&D. They're not that different from infiltrating a lord's manor to steal a relic or tracking down a murderer in a city. The in-fiction situation drives the gameplay.

That said, there are some common traits when running a dungeon worth considering. They include:

These differentiate a dungeon from walking through a city or traveling through safe woods.

Define Your Dungeon

When preparing a dungeon, we can ask ourselves a few questions:

Design Your Dungeon

I love using pre-made maps from established cartographers like Dyson Logos but if you're interested in designing your own dungeon maps, check out Justin Alexander's articles on Jaquaying the Dungeon. The second article in particular gets into the juicy details of what makes great map design. These include:

Justin goes into more features of these fun dungeon designs in the articles linked above.

Fill Out Your Dungeon

Now it's time to fill in the details of the various rooms. This might be a list of interesting features we can drop into rooms while the characters explore, or we might key features to particular rooms. The overall purpose (both past and present) often define the individual rooms we drop in.

When stuck for ideas, use Appendix A: Random Dungeons in the Dungeon Master's Guide for inspiration. It has tables of rooms tied to many dungeon types. You can also generate monuments when you're stuck for ideas or use the tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook and Lazy DM's Companion to fill things out.

Ensure your dungeon has a number of secret doors, secret tunnels, and secret rooms to discover. Finding a secret door and a hallway that bypasses the main halls is always fun. Finding secrets are powerful upward beats in dungeon adventures.

We don't have to tie individual creatures to each chamber. Instead, improvise which creatures inhabit which rooms based on the evolving situation in the dungeon and the pacing of the game.

Run easy encounters when the characters have had a hard go of it.

Add Discoverable Traps

Fun traps are discovered traps. While certainly characters might trigger traps, it's more fun to find, understand, and disarm traps than it is to get shot in the eye with a poison dart.

Add traps that make sense for the situation but don't be afraid to have the characters find, disarm, and avoid many of these. Justin Alexander recommends that, for every ten single-fire traps, the characters should discover nine of them.

For some fun trap ideas, see the traps page in the Lazy DM's Workbook.

For more on finding, investigating, and disarming traps, see the Flow of Trap Detection.

Running the Dungeon Crawl

When it comes time to actually run a dungeon, a few steps help define how characters approach the dungeon. These include:

With those choices clarified, it's time to delve into the dark. And how do we run that dungeon? The same way we run the rest of D&D:

See Our Ability Check Toolbox for more information on how to run all the different types of ability checks that can happen in a dungeon (and everywhere else).

Mapping the Dungeon

How do you show the characters' progress through a dungeon? If you're running online, sharing screenshots of your dungeon map or using a virtual tabletop like Owlbear Rodeo works well even if combat isn't the focus.

For in-person play there's no perfect solution but many different options. Here are some in-person options for drawing or displaying dungeon maps:

Timing, Turns, and Resources

Some DMs, when they run dungeon crawls, want to focus more on timing, turns, and resources. Time should be carefully tracked. Moving through a dungeon should require turns. Resources should be spent as the characters travel through the dungeon. That's a fine way to play if you and your players want to play that way. This style isn't for me, though. I prefer to focus on the bigger story taking place in the dungeon.

For timing, consider flexing the time in and out as the story demands. Focus on timing when it matters and skip over it when it doesn't.

Cantrips like light and the many class features and spells producing food and water mean we don't typically need to track such resources. D&D 5e does support weight and encumbrance but I argue this isn't the most exciting part of the story we share. In games like Out of the Abyss tracking resource and encumbrance might be fun for the initial survival-aspect of the campaign but soon, when it becomes trivial for the characters to manage resources like this, we can widen our focus to the bigger problems surround the characters.

You may disagree, of course. If you have a style of grittier turn-based dungeon crawling that you and your players prefer, go with the gods. If you're looking for such systems, consider looking at Old School Essentials or Five Torches Deep. Both have systems you can modify and bring into your D&D 5e games if you desire.

Managing Rests

Managing rests in a dungeon is a resource worth paying attention to. Rests, both short and long, are big deals. Where can characters make these rests? Can they make them at all?

I suggest that the characters can rest when it makes sense for the story and situation (as in everything else in D&D). If they find a room they can safely secure, staying out of the eyes of the monsters wandering around, they can likely rest. If they try to take a rest in a four-way intersection in the middle of a well-populated dungeon, some villain is going to notice. Consider reinforcing the following general principal of dungeon delving to players before they enter the dungeon:

Rests are difficult in this dungeon. Short rests are easier than long rests. Be careful with your resources, you don't know where you'll be able to find a long rest in this place. Plan accordingly.

This leaves me the option to determine when and where rests can occur safely. As a DM, I don't want to be handcuffed by hard rules about resting in dungeons. If it improves the fun of the game to give the characters an option for a long rest, I want the freedom to add it.

How can we improvise safe locations to rest? Here are some examples.

Short and long rests are part of the pacing and upward and downward beats of our game. Don't limit yourself out of these tools.

For more on this topic see Upward and Downward Beats of a Dungeon Crawl.

Principles of the Dungeon Crawl

With these details out of the way, let's consider some opinionated principles for running dungeon crawls. Many of these are in response to replies to a Tweet asking for the hardest parts of running dungeons.

Focus on the fun parts. Choose what parts of a dungeon crawl work for you and your group. Focus on the parts that bring the most fun to the game. Agree on these things with your players. If some part of the process stops being interesting, skip it and move on.

Avoid "gotchas". Avoid unpleasant surprises the characters would have seen but players did not. The players are not their characters. They don't see the situation in front of them the same way their characters would. Work with your players to help them understand the challenges in front of the characters. If a player makes a mistake they'd have avoided in the world, let them roll it back.

Plan some upward beats. Dungeons in particular seem like a hard place to add upward beats. Plan out some potential upward beats and add them when they're useful. Here are ten example upward beats for dungeon exploration:

Add friendly encounters. The most obvious upward beat is to meet friendly NPCs. Even if you happen to be trudging through an ancient dungeon there are opportunities to meet NPCs. Here are ten ways to introduce a friendly NPC in a dungeon:

Mix easy and hard encounters. Oscillate between upward and downward beats by adding or removing monsters from encounters. An encounter with only one or two monsters is far easier than one with six to eight (depending on the monsters of course). The number of monsters in an encounter is an easy dial for upward or downward beats, even in published adventures. You are never bound to run the exact monsters you planned or found written in a published adventure.

Don't Worry About Puzzles. If you're a fan of puzzles, find them easy to incorporate, and your players love them — enjoy. If you struggle with puzzles, don't worry about them. Think of the whole dungeon as a puzzle. The overall situation in the dungeon is it's own puzzle.

Let Checks Fail Incrementally. Don't let a single failed skill check blow a whole dungeon delve. Just because the characters blow a stealth check doesn't mean everything in the dungeon heard them. Give the characters degrees of failure before the dungeon's inhabitants become aware of them. Perhaps it takes four failures before the guards become fully aware of the characters' infiltration.

On Megadungeons

I have little advice to offer for running megadungeons. For many, dungeon crawls themselves are megadungeons — big multi-floor dungeons with hundreds to thousands of rooms.

My only advice is to clarify the goals, change up the environments, and shift the inhabitants to make each level or section of the dungeon unique and interesting enough. At some point, a mega-dungeon becomes its own world in the campaign of your adventure. Give characters a home base from which they explore and to which they return. Let them travel through familiar sections to reach the un-familiar. Let them enter and exit the dungeon as they need. Keep the drives and directions clear.

Enjoying Dungeon Adventures

Whether it's two rooms connected by an overt and secret hall or a sprawling multi-leveled megadungeon buried beneath the city, dungeons offer DMs a fixed focused setting and yet still provides options and agency to the characters exploring them. Find your favorite system and tools for building and running dungeons and enjoy the stories they bring to the table.

Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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