GM Advice: Stocking The Perfect Dungeon (Part 2 of 2)

Last time the major concern was designing the perfect dungeon, but that was only half the battle. The other half is making the actual dungeon as compelling as the idea for it. You could have a Tomb of Horrors, but without any traps, it is going to feel a little flat.

I don't know about you, but I like my dungeons teaming with life, death, and just a scoop of mystery. This time around we are going to take the perfect dungeon design and stock it full of danger, strangeness, and very little negative space.


 "Is there a Doctor in the house?"

No Empty Rooms. None.
The fighter kicks in the door, the light of her torch spills into, casting a flickering amber light on the stone walls within, revealing... nothing. Because the damned room is empty. Why is it empty? Becuase, there are empty rooms in the world or some other nonsensical crap.

 "This... is fun?"

When you go to the trouble of building a dungeon from the ground up, it seems silly to make a room that has nothing in it. Why would you do that? I'm not saying stock it with monsters or traps, or even treasure, just something. There could be moldy bedrolls, a recently doused cookfire, or even a dead body with no valuable items on it.

The room needn't serve a purpose, just throw a little dressing in there. think of it like dungeon interior design. This room was once used for something. One thing I like to do is figure out what that something was and leave some semblance of it behind. It was a library, leave some busted up bookshelves and some torn, illegible pages strewn about the ground. Maybe the creatures dwelling here used the books for kindling, and now they are busting up the shelves for firewood. These "empty" rooms can serve a present purpose in the dungeon if you let them.

In Defense Of Traps

"Come on. It's completely safe. I promise."

 Now, I know there is a very vocal contingent that feels that traps are superfluous. That they only serve a purpose to annoy the players. Well let me tell you something Sunny Jim, they purpose they serve is vastly important.

To keep people out.

Simple right? A trap in a dungeon should be designed to two things; to trap or to kill. No in between. No maiming with hopes that people penetrating the depths of the dungeon will think twice about any further. Trap or kill. That is all there is to it, otherwise, there wouldn't be any traps at all.

 "I don't mean to be a bother, but could you keep it down back there. I'm trying to work here."

Traps designed to capture creatures are usually done so because the dungeon denizens either want to question their captives, look into the eyes of their captives, or eat a fresh meal. The traps that were designed to kill foolish enough to run afoul of them show the creatures attempting to bypass them that the folks that set them don't mince words, they don't like visitors, and they have no problem taking a life, either directly or indirectly.

 "A simple 'No Soliciting' sign would have been easier, but not nearly as fun."

The types of traps you stock the dungeon with can speak volumes about who built the place or who is currently in control of the place. A pit trap shows a semblance of mercy, if for no other reason than to interrogate the captured creature later. A pit trap with spikes shows a desire to  kill whoever fell in, meaning that they're probably not the taking prisoners sort. A pit trap with punji sticks doesn't necessarily show an outright desire to kill, but definitely, a want to slow the creature down or weaken it so something considerably weaker has a fighting chance. Finally, a pit trap with walls closing in on each other slowly is the design of a sick, sadistic creature that delights in the slow and painful death of others.

 "Someone didn't get an abundance of hugs growing up."

All that information from just a hole in the ground. Traps serve many purposes, my friends, and are characters all their own. To that end, they should likewise possess some quirks, much like other characters. Things that make them unique and stand out. The more interesting the trap, the more memorable it becomes.

"Hello, darkness my old friend."

If you have played D&D or similar games for a good length of time, you are probably familiar with he above face, and odds are it doesn't fill you with warm and fuzzy feelings (unless if does, you masochist). This trap is legendary. So much so that it is instantly recognizable, even to people who haven't played the Tomb of Horrors. It has become synonymous with the dungeon itself and acts as a sort of mascot. Moreso than the actual final boss of the Tomb. 

That devil face has taken on a life of its own and has become a character in its own right, and your traps could too.

Make them interesting. Make them unique. Slap a new skin on them and make them look like something else. Like swinging scythe traps? Make a hall  lined on either side with grim reaper statues that spring to life when triggered. Want to cleverly disguise a pit trap? Make a hallway or room where every surface is a mirror, with the only fragile section being the area over the pit, and replace the usual metal, wooden, or stone spikes with giant shards of broken glass.

Whatever you can do to infuse your traps with some personality, do it. 

Puzzles, Riddles, And Other Annoyances
Ah, the part of the game that annoys so many, but we Game Master just love 'em... somewhat. A puzzle or riddle is most often used as a means of barring the players' progress. This could be as simple as attempting to beat Gollum at a riddle-off, or finding the hex crank in any resident evil game (No, seriously, there is always a hex crank).

But if you are intent on sticking a riddle or puzzle in your game, ask yourself this one question; why is it there to begin with?

We can claim the "Mad Wizard" angle a puzzle and riddle-rich dungeon all we want, but the fact of the matter is that all dungeons weren't made by mad wizards, and if they were than stonemasons must have been in love with eccentric spellcasters. In every other dungeon that wasn't built by a by a mentally ill warper of reality, one is left to wonder what the point of these annoyances are.

Some puzzles are understandable. Small enough puzzles can act as a combination lock of sorts, barring passage to all who don't know the sequence (the right combination of doo-dads, levers, etc.). However, the large, cumbersome full-room puzzles are a bit more complex, and frankly unnecessary in this capacity. Pushing heavy stone blocks along the floor into the right position is not the sort of thing a frail creature would create, or utilize. Giants, perhaps, but I get annoyed when I have to unplug my microwave to plug in my griddle. I can only imagine what it is like to shift 500 lbs. worth of stone pillar into an opening fifteen feet away.

Not to sound like Jerry Seinfeld, but what's the deal with riddles? Who uses riddles? I get the Gollum thing, he was crazy, and crazy lonely, and pretty full of himself, but the rest of the world does not buy and in riddles. Some may argue that riddles can act as a sort of password to get from one area to the next. But do you know what works better? Passwords! Anyone can figure out a riddle, but figuring out a password requires a more intimate knowledge of the person that set the password in the first place.

Having said all this, I am a notorious user of riddles and puzzles in my game. However, I do not just throw them in all willy-nilly.

Dungeon Denizens (Squatters In The Dark).
Awful and sinister things dwell in the dark places of the world, and they don't get much darker than your typical dungeon. Dungeons attract monsters the way a bard attracts a tavern wench with low self-esteem and a burning desire to anger their her/his parents. Just like a magnet.

"When in doubt; magic."

It's no wonder why. Dungeons are living, breathing, really messed up ecosystems that offer an abundance commodities most intelligent (and semi-intelligent) creatures can appreciate. Things like...

  • Food: Many dungeons are usually located near some manner of food source, be it wildlife, people, or other monsters. If food is scarce they either hibernate (if they are capable of such a thing) or strike out to areas where food can be found, be that the nearby wilderness, communities, or points underground, like nearby cave systems. This also gives the Game Master an opportunity to make an otherwise hidden dungeon known through the creatures' need to hunt.

  • Shelter: Since a lot of dungeons are enclosed and/or subterranean, they provide a great deal of shelter from the elements, and natural (or unnatural) preditors. Likewise, it provides a safe environment to nest and raises young. Whole sections of dungeon can act as different habitats for different creatures, providing varying degrees of shelter and comfort, be it flooded areas or pools for aquatic lifeforms, or tall ceilings for flying creatures to perch.

  • Safety: If there is one thing a dungeon isn't, it's safe unless you just happen to be a monster.  The traps that are meant to injure and.or kill any intruders act as a security device, keeping monsters protected from interlopers or the advances of predators.
Also, random monster encounters. You need random encounters!

The Dungeon Master (No, Not You)
Someone or something is running the show in your dungeon, or at least commands enough fear or respect to keep the other critters off its back. This is the master of the Dungeon, and it is often the scariest, strongest, smartest (or a combination of the three) creature in the complex. This is a boss, and you know how I feel about bosses.

"Stop attacking me! I'm just looking for the exit!"

This boss should pose the greatest theoretical threat to the player characters, but moreover, the creature being there should make sense. If the party comes to the final room to find an ancient red dragon there, and the room is only large enough to house an ancient red dragon, how the hell did it get in there? Was it born in this room? Did it get stuck ages ago, because it's only a five-foot door? How does it eat? Where does it sleep? Does it ever plan on leaving the room?

Verisimilitude is important. It is okay to get a little believability in your fantasy. As "A Song of Ice and Fire" has taught us, the two flavors go together very well. Your villain, your boss should fit into the design of your dungeon in a way that not only makes sense but compliments the dungeon.

Know When To Cut The Fat, And When To Improvise
Having a good deal of material prepped is a good idea. It's a great idea. The more you know about your dungeon, the easier it is to change things and change things you should. Most folks running a game  RPG designers. They're not game developers or play testers creating a new game. They're gamers. And as gamers, you have the unlimited capacity to change things on a whim.

If you can read people, you can figure out ways to interact with them to keep them engaged. When things seem to be slumping a bit, I keep a list of random encounters and random traps nearby. Yes, I have preplanned encounters and traps set and ready to unleash, but very few things in a dungeon should be status quo. It is not all level appropriate, carefully calculated to level up at certain sections, or tailored to the abilities of the party.

That is what game designers do. Game Masters should approach all facets of their game with an organic approach. Snake hill has snakes. The troll moors probably have trolls. If you are level 1 and decided to take a brisk jaunt through the troll moors, you probably aren't coming back. Dungeons operate in the same manner. There are some challenges your players are not ready to face yet, and shouldn't face yet. This just gives them the motivation to get more powerful so that they can tackle those challenges, and reap the rewards that go with them. Hell, that is the very basis or a role-playing game.

As a Game Master, know when to add material, but also know when to take it away. If the party is hanging to life by a thread, it is a bad time to send the beholder after them. If you planned on building a two-part trap, and the first part nearly kills half the party, stay your hand. You're not trying to kill them out right. I have removed entire room from dungeons before in order to postpone a potential TPK. There is no shame in it, and your players will never know the difference.

Dungeons can be pretty or miss. It takes time, patience, and a whole lot of playthroughs before you can get your formula right, but when you do find that sweet spot, with the right mix of challenges and lore, they friend, have built the perfect dungeon.

Roll well, my friends,

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