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Seven Tips for Better Dungeons

by Mike on 27 June 2022

Though built into the title of the game, not every DM enjoys the process of running dungeons. For some, dungeons can be tedious slogs — inching along old corridors, poking the floor with ten foot poles, while the DM stares narrow-eyed over the edge of the screen waiting for a "gotcha".

Today, I offer seven tips for running better dungeons. As always, quoting George Orwell, take those you find useful and omit those you find outright barbarous.

Prep Dungeons Like a Lazy DM

Preparing a dungeon delve need not be difficult. We can prepare dungeon adventures in much the same way we prepare any other adventure. If you're into the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the steps work just as well for dungeon adventures as any adventure. Here are a few steps to consider:

Offer Meaningful Choices

As the characters explore the dungeon, ensure you're giving them enough information to make meaningful choices. Give them risks and rewards. Maybe they can battle through the front doors but will clearly make their presence known or crawl in through the forgotten sewers below where rumors whisper of the ghoulish crocodiles.

Give the characters enough information to make meaningful choices even if they don't have the full picture. One passageway feels hot while in the other they here whispers in an ancient language.

Add Upward Beats

Dungeons are notoriously easy to run as a series of downward beats: hard battles, tricky traps, dangerous hazards, difficult doors. Sprinkle in upward beats. During your prep, write down such a list and keep it on hand. Be prepared to improvise upward beats when running the dungeon to off-set downward beats. Here are ten potential upward beats for dungeons.

  1. Escaping NPC
  2. Corpse grasping magic scroll
  3. Unaware enemies
  4. Cracked wall leading to healing fountain
  5. Dead monster inside triggered trap
  6. Mosaic revealing a useful secret
  7. Defecting soldier
  8. Absurdly weak and egotistical enemy
  9. Fallen adventurer with healing potions
  10. Dungeon map

Run Easy Battles

Too often DMs run only hard or deadly battles. Easy battles, they justify, are a waste of time. Easy battles are the ultimate upward beat. Players can choose how to they want to approach easy battles. They can clearly wipe out their opposition but what about coercion or intimidation instead? What about just letting them be? Give players situations in which they control how they're going to interact with their weaker opponents.

In published adventures, you are under no obligation to run encounters as is. If you've run a series of hard or long battles already, feel free to change, or even eliminate, upcoming battles to avoid the one-hard-battle-after-another slog. One great way to do that is to make battles easier.

Bathe Dungeons in Secrets and Clues

Dungeons beg to be slathered with old mosaics, crumbling statues, ancient dusty tomes, and all sorts of vehicles for secrets and clues. Bathe your dungeon in tons of little pieces of lore the characters can pick up and learn from. Like all secrets, ensure these are interesting and relevant to the characters. Maybe they're even about the characters. Let them learn things. These revealed secrets are the core reward of exploration. Revealing secrets is like discovering loot.

Include Roleplaying Opportunities

It's easy to think of a dungeon as a dead static place full of monsters and traps but there's plenty of ways to drop in opportunities for roleplaying. It's easy to forget to do so, however, so make sure to add it to your dungeon-building checklist. Here are ten ways to add interesting roleplay opportunities into your dungeon:

  1. A shady vendor.
  2. A petrified statue with a stone-to-flesh scroll clutched in its hand.
  3. Spies of warring factions who hate each other more than the characters.
  4. A confused ghost or spirit.
  5. An awakened animal.
  6. An intelligent magic item.
  7. A dream or portent.
  8. A caller over a scrying mirror.
  9. Neutral intelligent humanoids.
  10. A lost explorer.

Include NPCs for roleplaying into your dungeons.

Ignore Fiddly Mechanics and Micromanagement

Some DMs find running dungeons frustrating because they want a system. They want rules as well defined as combat when exploring dungeons. They want dungeon exploration turns. They want to count squares. They want to worry about rations and light-sources and the number of arrows and obsess about the number of battles between rests. If you're tracking all that sort of thing and having fun, go with the gods.

But if you find a lot of that to be tedious, you don't need it. Run dungeons like you run any other part of D&D:

Think about your dungeon as a real place with real creatures and real things going on. Paint that picture for the players as their characters explore it. Ignore fiddly details that get in the way. Focus on the parts that make the whole adventure more interesting. Play Dungeons & Dragons.

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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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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