Anthony's Advice on Dungeon Design

Writing a dungeon can be a daunting task, especially if it’s particularly large and complex. Thankfully, there is no better place to learn the elements of dungeon design than here in the DungeonScape! I have assembled here some advice for those GM’s who want to make their own dungeons and adventures, but aren’t exactly sure where they ought to start. I hope you find this helpful!

Start off Small
It can be tempting to create a massive mega dungeon with dozens of factions and hundreds of secret doors, but the effort needed to craft a good dungeon increases exponentially in relation to size and complexity. When you first begin, I highly recommend your dungeon be very small. You should probably aim for 3-5 areas, with 2-4 encounters (monsters, traps, puzzles or roleplaying). If it goes well, then you can always add a secret door to another level which the party conveniently “missed” on their first run-through. If it doesn’t go well, then you learned an important lesson without wasting too much effort.

Put Tools in Your Toolbox
Good ideas rarely pop into our heads from nowhere Ala Inception. If you want to come up with consistent and creative content for your dungeons, you need to assemble as many tools as you possibly can.

So what do I mean by “tools”? As a GM, your tools are simply a set of rules or ideas that you can apply to a situation. An example of a tool you would use in dungeon design might be the rule for difficult terrain. Is one of your encounters missing something? just lay down some difficult terrain to make it more interesting. A more conceptual example of a tool might be the idea of inanimate objects that talk. Maybe the brazier the players have to light speaks when they approach it, or maybe they can talk a statue guardian down from attacking them.

So if you want to be a good GM, you’ve got to pack your toolbox full of every tool you can. And how do you do that? Well, it depends.

  • Reading through rulebooks and supplements is the most obvious way to get the rules tools you need.
  • Magazines often contain really polished content submitted by the smartest folks in the industry. Tracking down a Kobold or an old copy of Dragon can give you a lot of ideas for your game.
  • Listening to podcasts, trawling forums and reading articles can all give you valuable tools for your own game. For example, I’ve been heavily influenced by Justin Alexander’s essays on the Paul Jacquay principles of dungeon design, which you can find here.
  • Reading through published adventures not only gives you ideas, it can give you whole chunks of content that you can copy wholesale into your game.
  • Analyze other GMs’ dungeons while you’re crawling at them. Try to figure out why they made the decisions they did.
  • Run games! Draw dungeons! Like everything else, you can learn how to make good dungeons through practice, practice, practice!

Choose a Focus
Whenever I start designing a dungeon, I always choose one or two high-level concepts that I’m not very good at that I want to improve. For example, the DungeonScape is built around two concepts that I felt I was pretty weak on: Multiple dungeon levels and naturally occurring environments. All of the decisions I make in the dungeon are centered around furthering one or both of those concepts. If you ever find yourself stumped on what to put in a certain room, or how to end a hallway, refer back to the things you’re focusing on. They may help you make a decision.

Example: You’re building a dungeon where you want to focus primarily on elevation changes, and you realize that you have an empty room. You may want to have a pit with a treasure chest, or a couple of orcs on a stone dias, or even just a floor that slopes up towards the roof. No room should ever be completely featureless, and having a focus can give you plenty of ideas on what to put in your otherwise-empty area.

Note: This is not to say you shouldn’t use other things in your dungeon. I don’t make dungeons where I focus specifically on elevation changes anymore, but I always try to keep the things I learned from doing those dungeons in mind when I’m working on other projects.

Build Fun Dungeons
When you’re building a dungeon, it should not be tedious to get through. It shouldn’t be a straight line of similar encounters which gradually increase in difficulty… nor should it be a winding maze which contains absolutely nothing but takes hours upon hours to traverse. A good rubric to use is this: Would I enjoy playing this dungeon? If the answer is no, you probably need to re-examine your design. If the answer is yes, you should then ask “Do I think such and such a player will enjoy the dungeon? Do I think this other player will enjoy the dungeon? Which players will be most likely to play in the dungeon?” If your dungeon is going to be frustrating or boring for a certain player, you may want to make an extra effort to put in something that player will enjoy. The most important thing to remember is that this is a game, and if your game isn’t engaging to the players, it has failed in its purpose.

Remember the Roles
If you’re going to have rogues crawling through your dungeon on a regular basis, you probably shouldn’t create a combat-monster dungeon with no traps or skill-checks. If wizards will be a frequent visitor, not every monster should be immune to magic.

Of course, the opposite also holds true. If you’re expecting a lot of a rogues, you should throw in a problem which only a wizard can solve. If you’ve got a wizard who tends to dominate combat, you may want to consider throwing in a monster with high spell resistance. Your ultimate goal should be to give EVERY class something to do in your dungeon. If one player feels left out for an entire session, then chances are you did something wrong.

Think Outside the Box
“Dungeon” doesn’t always mean “Dungeon”. It could mean any number of things. It could be an abandoned warehouse, the town hall after an orc raid, a pirate ship, a thick jungle, or any number of things. When we use the term dungeon in RPG theory, it usually just means an area that is mapped out with an extensive level of detail.

The DungeonScape has seen a number of dungeons that don’t fit into the “ancient underground ruin” type. My dungeon is a naturally occurring cave system. We’ve also see a dungeon that was actually a corral reef, a camp full of undead, and a recently re-discovered ancient city. So if you have an idea for a dungeon that’s a little out of the ordinary, run with it! Just remember, the party has to be able to return to the town at the end of the session, no matter what.

Anthony's Advice on Dungeon Design

DungeonScape Valarian Valarian