GM Advice: Designing The Perfect Dungeon (Part 1 of 2)

Since the first incarnation of the tabletop role-playing game, the dungeon has existed in one form or another. It is a staple of the genre. Classic. Some would say cliché, but things don't become cliché without a damn good reason.

I'm a big fan of dungeons and dungeon crawls in general. A dungeon is the single most versatile environment you can place your players in.The rules change as soon as you enter one, the Game Master can vary the landscape as much as they want, add any tweaks, and stock it with any monsters if they are inventive enough.

But while they are fun, they can be grueling. Not just for the players stalking their through, either. For the GM, the dungeon is one of the things they spend the most time crafting. It is a high-concept creation that requires a great deal of preparation, but even then... is it enough?

Dungeon creation is as much art as it is science. Modeling the perfect dungeon requires an intimate knowledge of what they are, what they're for, and what they can do. Luckily have spent many long hours pouring over and running many dungeons. I will relate what I know, and with that knowledge we can make a dungeon your players will be talking about for eons... should they, in fact, live eons.

(Note: If your players live for eons, there is a good chance they are either intelligent undead, Gods, or Great Old Ones. Cautiously test their knowledge about sunlight, prayer, and shoggoths. If they have any adverse reaction, consider offering your services to your new dark overlord. They may spare you when the seas are as blood, and the skies are as slates of obsidian, and the many-headed terror surrounds the Earth and devours it with its many mouths.)

The 5 Room Dungeon
If you are a Game Master with a crunched schedule and a serious lack of the time needed to craft a long and detailed dungeons, then the 5 Room Dungeon method is perfect for you. Even if you do have the time, sometimes it is nice to have a quick crawl that you don't spend too much time in. In this case, you may well love the simple, straightforward design of the 5 Room Dungeon, and its ability to be played in a single game session.

The dungeon is broken up into (gasp) five different rooms, each with their own challenge, giving the entire complex that full dungeon feel with only half the calories. The best part is that there is a little something in here for everyone to do. Your rogue, wizard, fighter, and cleric, of just about any archetype or path, should be able to find something in here to make them feel useful.

  • Entrance With A Guardian: Right from the get-go, your players will get that this will be no cakewalk. The entrance of the dungeon sets the tone for the rest of it. There is a reason why this place has remained protected from every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the area. After all, dungeons are great places to make quick coin,  but the mortality rate tends to make folks hesitant. The face of that impending death? The guardian.
    The Guardian can take many forms; a monster placed there deliberately, a trap, a puzzle, something barring the entrance, or just a good o'le fashioned ambush. It is nice t start off a dungeon with a little action. It gets the players excited, interested, and attentive.

  • 1. Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge: Room 2 and room 1 can be interchangeable, depending on the kind of dungeons you want to run. While The Guardian is often for the hack and slash crowd, the Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge is for the skill monkies of the group. This room is designed to think one's way across, be it with a silver tongue, a sharp eye, or deft fingers.
    This room can be anything that challenges the players skills-wise. Remember the chessboard puzzle from Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone, if you are the rest of the world)? That is an example of what a good challenge looks like. It could be a floor full of pressure plates, with only certain ones activating poison darts. It could be a trip wire that collapses the ceiling. Hell, it doesn't even have to be trap related. It could be a river with a skeletal ferryman who will usher the players across if they answer a riddle, or if they can persuade him.
    This could be the room that takes the longest to get through, so make the challenge memorable. If you are aiming for a puzzle, do yourself a favor and make one that is either easy(ish) to pick up on, or one that has multiple right answers.

"This is a cinch, guys! Wait... time limit?"
  • 2. Tricks, Setbacks, or A Red Herring: This is where you knock the players for a loop. You come at them sideways. You pull the rug out from under them. This room introduces a heaping dose of "I didn't see that coming."
    While the characters may have had a good go of things so far, this room reminds them that a dungeon is an unpredictable place. It exists solely to tax the PCs' resources, and therefore should hold a decent challenge. Maybe not as much of one as the Big Climax, but still something worthy of your players' full attention, even if the challenge doesn't necessarily translate to combat or skill checks.
    One example is our heroes find a hostage or hostages who beg to be taken back their village/town/demi-plane before the party can confront the big baddie, meaning they will have to backtrack through what they've already gone through, and deal with any issue along they way they had not yet resolved. Another could be a piece of the McGuffin they were sent into the dungeon to find, but the other piece is deeper in the complex, maybe with the boss. Or how about confronting a false boss? The guy they think is running the show isn't really the head honcho, or moreover, this could be a someone masquerading as the real boss (i.e. "The Mandarin" from Iron Man 3). Maybe a dangerous creature, like an ogre or dragon, that the villain had his minions capture is now on the loose and in the middle of a rampage.

  • 3. Big Climax: This is it. The big encounter. You've finally come to the big bad. The leader. The mastermind. The boss. This is the culmination of the characters' efforts in this dungeon (or in the game up until now), and what happens next should feel as such.
    The room should have a detailed map, an interesting villain, and the encounter should feel different and more unique than any encounter they have faced yet. I have written some material on this subject, which I feel is worth a read, as it is applicable to the subject matter.
"Pro Tip: The more bosses, the more epic the fight."

  • 4. Reward Or Revelation (What A Twist!): This is less a room than an idea, but it can be a room if you have an unhealthy attachment to rooms (hey, no one is judging). This is the celebratory moment when the characters slap each other on the behind, say "good game", and revel in the fruits of their labors. It is in this moment of high spirits and higher fives that I find it is best to RAIN RUIN AND DAMNATION UPON THEIR MEAK FRAMES AND CAST THEM INTO A LAKE OF ETERNAL HELLFIRE, WHERE THEIR PLEASE FALL ON THE DEF EARS OF THE DAMNED!
    Sorry, I get a little worked up sometimes. But honestly, there is no better place for a plot twist than when your payers are riding high on their victory. Maybe they went through all this to rescue a princess, only to find out from a mycenoid that she is in another castle.

    The revelation or plot twist can take a lot of forms. It could be a physical challenge like the boss magically resurrecting in a new and powerful form. It could be a moral sucker punch, like discovering that the "bad guys" the party just trounced were actually goods guys and that they had been duped by the real bad guys to take out their enemies for them. It could take the form of a sudden shock, like realizing that the "kidnapped" princess was really the evil mastermind all along, and then she opens a dimensional door and escapes to plague the characters another day.

    These twists need all be negative, though. They can end up being a boon for the characters. Defeating the boss, their characters discover a letter from the boss's boss detailing a plot that the characters can foil if they move quickly, or discovering the McGuffin they had been searching for comes with a second part, like a treasure map or a portal to a far off land.
    Let us not forget the reward, either. After all, the characters just endured a whole lot. There should be some kind of incentive walking through hell. It could be as simple as gold or a new piece of equipment or exotic, like a magic item or ancient text with all manner of secrets. Depending on the kind of game you are running, they could be given titles and tracts of land, or even given the dungeon to use as their home base. The sky is the limit. 
 "Now that's a spicy meatball!"

There is a lot to love about the 5 Room Dungeon. It is compact, engaging, and will hold even the most distractible player's attention span, but it isn't for everyone. Some folks might really get into the dungeon, really enjoying everything you are throwing at them when suddenly it's over before they know it. The 5 Room Dungeon is great in a pinch, but it is short. Really short.

The Mega Dungeon:
Ah, the majesty and awe of the Mega Dungeon. Where the 5 Room Dungeon is short and sweet, the Mega Dungeon is a massive, sprawling complex that seemingly goes on forever. Its sheer size lends it to multiple trips. These are often found near a settlement like a city, town, or village where the characters can retreat to in order to heal, rest, and resupply.

"Note how it says level 1. Meaning there are more levels beyond. Meditate on that for a moment."

The dungeon often has quite the history attached to it, a history that is rich and can be uncovered in its depths. Multiple traps and challenges await within, with a plethora of monsters, and quite possibly a few factions (some of whom or undoubtedly warring). The environments and design of a Mega Dungeon can vary dramatically from section to section, especially depending who the original creator or creators were.

Mega Dungeons have been a staple of the game since the 1970's and have taken countless forms, from the mysterious Castle Greyhawk to the sprawling madness that was Undermountain, to the classic Temple of Elemental Evil and the technological marvel of The Emerald Spire. Mega Dungeons represent perhaps the noblest aspect of any player; the commitment to see something through to the end.

"Just a stone's throw away from scenic Homlet. Paid for by the Homlet Tourism Association."

Over the course of a Mega Dungeon, the players are expected to level up many times. This will help them meet the challenges found deeper in the complex, and grant them access to other parts of the dungeon that were otherwise out of their reach, be it because of a powerful enemy or trap, or the requirement of a higher level spell to press forward.

The chief complaint about the Mega Dungeon is its primary principle; it's big. Really big. Some might say too big. If your players spend between three and ten levels skulking through the same dungeon, they may become bored or restless. After all, there is an entire, interesting world out there, and they are focusing on a fraction of a fraction of it. Even some of the most unique and varied Mega Dungeons can suffer from this dungeon fatigue. It can be too much of a good thing, and like shoveling in too much chocolate ice cream, they could eventually get sick of it.

Also brain freeze.

The Perfect Dungeon
So what is the perfect dungeon, anyway? If the first two options had so many good things going for them, why aren't they perfect? Why do I insist on asking so many questions when I intend to explain my thoughts?

Recently I wrote an article about my philosophy as a Game Master, wherein I described the importance of moderation in all things related to the running and preparation of games. That moderation is crucial, giving my players just enough to keep them vested without overloading them with too much of everything.

Let's take a look ay the picture below to see what I mean.

"I got a bad feeling about this..."

Now, some of you make look at this picture and your blood might run cold, and you may experience a relapse into post traumatic stress syndrome. That's because this beauty is the legendary and infamous Tomb of Horrors, perhaps one of the single most sadistic creations devised by a human brain. It is also a classic, and I encourage anyone to play it or run it at least once, just for the experience.

You will notice that there are only 22 areas in The Tomb of Horrors. That is including hallways and false entrances. If we went with just a simple room count, we'd have a mere eight rooms. Eight. Hardly a daunting task. Most of the adventure happens in the hallways, and there is hardly any monsters to speak of, save for a select few.

And while it may not be a perfect dungeon, what with its insidious desire to not only end characters and players alike, it has everything you need to make a perfect dungeon. To better understand, let's take a gander at what I consider to be the most perfect dungeon ever written.

"Whole lotta Homlet up in here..."

The Village of Homlet is a fun module, a great village, and an excellent starting area, but hidden in the pages of Homlet is a simple, fun, multifaceted dungeon that challenges players and characters, and gives them enough variety to keep things interesting from start to finish without feeling too short or two long.

The Ruins of The Moathouse is the baby bear of dungeon crawls. It's just right.

"Moathouse, in the middle of our street."

Its easy to use, has a reason for being, a history, it connects to the overall story of the area, it is located just a short hike from a village, the monsters shift from humanoid to something more fantastical the lower the characters go, and most of all there is a villain at the end that ties it all together.

This is a great dungeon. I think we can bottle this lightning. All we need to do is ask a few question.

  • The Point Of The Dungeon?
    Before we get into the swinging scythe traps and fire breathing reptiles, let us first ponder the single most important part of the dungeon; its point. This isn't what it was before it was the mad necromancer's layer, nor is it what purpose the dungeon itself serves. This is what the dungeon's point is in your game. Why is it there? Why a dungeon and not an open field? How does this dungeon impact the overall picture of your game?

    This is perhaps the toughest question to ask yourself during the dungeon crafting process, and with good reason. It's a question that warrants a deserving answer.
  • What's The History Of The Dungeon?
    History gives a dungeon depth and believability, despite this being a game of fantasy and fantastical ideas. A dungeon is like any character or NPC, it has a stats, it has a look, and it has a backstory. Who built it? For what purpose? Did anything important happen there? What happened to the creator? Did anything else move in?

    If you have a dungeon full of ancient portals, why are they there? Was this once the extraplanar equivalent of a greyhound station, where creatures from other planes arrived before moving on to the next one? If half the dungeon is made of well-crafted stone bricks, and half of it looks like it was carved out of rock, or looks suspiciously like a cave system, ask yourself why that is.

    In my DM's Guild offering, The Mines of Dhol Kudhir, the aforementioned mine had once been inhabited by a clan of dwarves who were lead to this particular mountain by a vision, and in their short time plundering the depths, they made a rediculous amount of money before they ran afoul of some drow. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • Why Is The Dungeon Important Now?
    There is a reason why Darke McBadEvil is moving into the Ruins of Castle VanderHuge. Is it to call forth the army of demons that built the place, or is there an ancient artifact hidden somewhere inside that allows its owner to reshape reality to their whim? Maybe it just sits on a nexus point, where two lay lines meet, and he can toss around some serious magic mojo.

    The dungeon serves a purpose. It contains a reason for the villain to be there; be it for items, special abilities the dungeon possesses, or something as simple as shelter. Why is this dungeon important to the boss, and why is it important to the story now. This question and the dungeon's history go hand and hand, and answering one may reveal the answer to another.
  • Where is The Location Of The Dungeon?
    Dungeon locations can be just as memorable as the dungeon itself. If the entire complex is suspended from titanic chains over an active volcano, your players are going to remember it for awhile. If it is a castle on a hill, you may be met with a series of yawns and mesh. Don't let that discourage you. Innocuous locations can hide a truely deadly and terrifying dungeon. That door on the side of the hill could be a gateway to hell for all we know.

    The location of a dungeon allows you, the Game Master, to have some fun and invent some challenges based on the surroundings. If you go with a dungeon suspended over a volcano, heat may be a factor, especially if some of the floors are made of steel. If you go the other way with it and set your dungeon in the frozen north, the entire thing could be made of ice, lending itself to slippery floors, slopes, and chutes, falling icicles, and the ever-present danger of hypothermia. Dungeons underground could play off of the dark and long, endless chasms to navigate over.

    The location is just another fact the overall character that is your dungeon.

Make It Different

We have all seen it before; stone walls, 5-10 foot wide hallways, 10-foot tall ceilings (sometimes vaulted), stuck wooden doors, and bad lighting. This is the typical dungeon, but not the perfect dungeon. Sure, you can incorporate a lot of these things into its design, but never feel like you must be beholden to make you dungeon look this way the whole way through.

Like I've said, everything in moderation. Too much of the same becomes tedious. Switch that stonework up with cavern walls, or a sudden shift to wooden walls, despite being deep underground, without any trees nearby. Why use wooden doors, or stone, or iron? Why not bone, or colored glass, or even a thick sheet of spider webs?

Think outside the box. But a spin on your design that no one will see coming. Maybe halfway through the complex the gravity reverses or whole sections of the dungeon rotate or rearrange themselves. Hell, the entire thing could be some massive clockwork device which the purpose of has yet to be discovered. I am currently writing a module set in the decaying body a dead God.  Set your game apart from any you've played in before.

Play To The PCs Strengths And Weaknesses
The dungeon, more than any other environment in the game, is designed to allow your players show off their character's abilities, to make them feel valuable. When designing your dungeon, make sure that you place opportunities in the design itself that allow the PCs to show off a bit. Rogues and traps go together like peanut butter and jelly, but what of the fighter, wizard, cleric, etc.? Give the fighter something to hit or something they can use a favorite feat on (or even a feat they rarely to use). Give the wizard some mystery to solve, or arcane puzzle to figure out that makes use of some of their regularly prepared spells. Give the cleric some undead to turn, someone to heal, or something that requires one to commune with their God or Goddess.

On the flip side, dungeons are meant to be a challenge, and the PCs can't do everything. A hydra is a nightmare for those without raged or reaches weapons or the improved sunder feat. Undead or evil clerics can be a pain in the ass without a divine caster of some sort with the party. Traps are exercises in agony without someone that can disable or disarm them. Play into what your players are lacking as much as you do what they have, and you will have a good mix of hard and easy.

 "Hey, guys. Little help here?"

Again, just right.

Now that you have the basics down, it is time to populate this perfect dungeon with traps, monsters, and challenges of every shape and size.. next time.

Until then...

Roll Well, my friends
+Ed The Bard 

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